23 February 2014

La Chinesca, Latin America's northernmost Chinatown

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Turista Libre's inaugural trek to La Chinesca in Mexicali -- the Baja California capital, a place that's said to be home to the highest per capita population of Chinese immigrants in all of Mexico -- finally happened. 

Ever since learning of this hidden kingdom on the border in the middle of the desert years ago, Mexicali has fascinated me. And not because it boasts a Chinatown like those of San Francisco, New York or Los Angeles, places on par with Disneyworld when it comes to their ability to ump up the exotic vibe via an excess of paper lanterns and the occasional parade of dragon dancers, in exchange for a steady flow of tourists in search of an "authentic" but nevertheless cheap cultural experience and even cheaper souvenirs.

To experience Mexicali's Chinatown -- better known as "La Chinesca" -- is to walk the downtown blocks immediately adjacent to the Calexico border crossing, a stroll that must be done ever so observantly otherwise you won't see past the trash, haggard prostitutes and stares of locals dumbfounded by the presence of outsiders who haven't come solely to book it to the nearest pharmacy. Beneath all that is a history so unique yet so unassuming that it goes quietly unnoticed by most.

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Mexicali's first Chinese immigrants arrived in the late 19th century, laborers contracted by the Colorado River Company to dig the city's irrigation system. Despite low wages and anti-Chinese sentiment many wound up staying afterward, opening bars, restaurants and casinos that later caterered to Americans who flooded across the border during Prohibition, and by the early 1920s Mexicali's Chinese residents outnumbered Mexicans 10,000 to 700. According to Wikipedia: "The percentage of Chinese was so high here that in the 1940s the town had only two cinemas, both of which played Chinese movies almost exclusively."

The city later became the headquarters for the Nationalist Chinese Party in Mexico, and even more Chinese refugees arrived after the communist revolution in 1949. Over the latter half of the 20th century, beginning in the 1960s, the flow of immigrants diminished, much in part to Mexico later refusing to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

La Chinesca today is nothing compared to what it once was, but much like downtown Tijuana, the lingering glory of a bygone era is an indispensable part of its bizarre charm, right down to the supposedly (according to the Leons) true rumors of La Chinesca's secret tunnels and subterranean casinos, which were essentially just a sensible manner of escaping the scorching Mexicali heat.

Today's excursion wouldn't have been possible without the hospitality of the Asociacion China de Mexicali, our home base and stop numero uno on this trip. Many thanks to president Esteban Leon (below) and his wife Alicia for being such considerate, attentive hosts.

Since its foundation in 1919, the association has served as a would-be United Nations for the more than two dozen family-based Chinese associations in Mexicali, of which about half are currently active. On the grounds are a banquet hall (complete with a ping-pong table, of course), museum, library, shrine, an expansive collection of photos and on Saturdays a Mandarin language school for children of Mexicali's Chinese families, nearly all of whom trace their roots to southern China.

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An impromptu Mandarin lesson that got as far as numbers and the days of the week, followed by a Q&A session regarding the ins and outs of Chinese-Mexican fronterizo life, and the Leons sent us on our way, off to explore La Chinesca on our own. Up first were the twin pagodas nearby, just south of the Calexico border crossing, a gift from Mexicali's sister city Nanjing in the early 1990s. Nanjing actually sent three architects to supervise its assembly, who, according to Esteban, later booked it to Vegas before heading back home. Because, you know, yolo and all.

Next came Nuevo Cafe Azteca, a traditional "cafe chino" around the corner from the cathedral on Avenida de la Reforma. These establishments supposedly first began popping up around Mexico City and while they have little to do with Chinese cuisine, people began referring to them as Chinese cafes because the majority of the kitchen staff was Chinese. They're best known for their butter-smothered biscuits and heavy-on-the cream coffee, a perfect midday snack.

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From there we piled back into the van and headed 15 minutes south along Boulevard Madero toward San Felipe to pay our respects at Jardin de Descanso, a cemetery that serves as the resting place for hundreds of Chinese Mexicalenses. It's no small graveyard but just ask any of the keepers where to find the chinos and they'll point you toward the center of the grounds, where an entire section is filled with Chinese graves. Most date to back to the 1950s and '60s, but many were severely damaged in a major earthquake that struck Mexicali in 2010.

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And last, but anything but least: dinner. Mexicali-style Chinese food is famous throughout the Mexican republic, even in places as random as the food court at the Culiacan bus station (which is the most random place I've seen it thus far).

More important, in Mexicali, it's a Sunday staple among locals. Families pile into restaurants both miniscule and massive -- some with capacities of 1,200 -- for what's evolved to be a spicier, saucier take on its American counterpart, which is obviously skewed from what you'd find yourself actually eating in China to begin with. But I've personally never had fresher than that of Mexicali.

Ours happened at Restaurant China Town, one of the smaller but staple establishments, just a block south of the border fence at Avenida Madero and Calle J.

Fun fact: Mexicali is slightly farther north of Tijuana by mere minutes of a degree, which makes it not just the northernmost city in Mexico, but all of Latin America. And that presumably makes Restaurant China Town, just a block south of the border, not only most likely the northernmost Chinese restaurant in Mexico (maybe there's another one that actually backs up against the fence but probably not) but the northernmost Chinese restaurant in all of Latin America.

That said, provecho! Or, as they say around here, 慢慢吃! (Please eat slowly!)

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