- Gypsy Jan Jul 3, 2009 08:13 PM
Mexicali has a large population of Chinese immigrants who were imported to work on the fields and the railroad construction during the 1800's. Many stayed and adapted to/changed the culture.
Any comments, recommendations for places to look for more info and history?
Little Known Facts Department:
When the United States brought male Chinese from Canton to build the railroads, there was, of course, a quota system. Women and children--the workers' families--were not allowed to come into the USA. The men, yearning to see their families, told them to come to the USA through Mexico and enter by crossing the Mexico/USA land border. Most came through Mexico's western ports and attempted to cross at the border with Arizona and California.
To prevent the Chinese women and children from circumventing the quota system and entering the United States via Mexico, the USA set up border checkpoints. Those checkpoints, originally built to keep out the Chinese, became what we know now as the immigration checkpoints along the Mexico/US border--currently preventing illegal entry to the USA not of Chinese, but of Mexicans.
Many of the Cantonese Chinese who settled along the border because they were unable to cross into the USA resorted to opening restaurants to make a living. For that reason, the huge majority of Chinese restaurants in all of Mexico are Cantonese. I know of only one Szechuan restaurant in the República.
Actually, the first Chinese to arrive in the Mexicali area came as laborers hired by the Colorado River Land Company to build the massive irrigation system in the Valle de Mexicali around the turn of the 20th century. Some came from the US fleeing anti-Chinese policies of the US government, most came directly from China to work on the project. The history of the Chinese in Mexicali has virtually nothing to do with railroad construction in the US in the 1800s. Currently, the percentage of the city's residents who are of Chinese descent is arount 6%. An excellent discussion of Mexicali and its Chinos can be found in a good travel book: the Moon Baja Handbook.
This topic comes up frequently on the Mexico Branch of the Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Travel Forum. I suggest you search there (and look at my lengthy post made within the last six months or so).
If you're interested in Chinesca (Mexicali's Chinatown) as it exists today and/or want food or sightseeing recommendations, please let me know.
BTW: Why are you posting Mexico history questions on Chowhound (not that I mind)?
Passionate Chowhounds often have an interest, sometimes equally passionate, in the history and evolution of particular subsets of different cuisines, and, I don't know, in my own strange logic, I thought that asking Chowhounders for info and guidance would be the perfect place to start.
Thanks dglidden (and Cristina) for correcting my misinformation and expanding my knowledge.
Here's one for you - There is a place in San Felipe where legend has it that several Chinese died trying to hike through the desert to Mexicali. The locals refer to it as "El Chinero". A seasoned Baja traveler told me that you can judge just how long a person has been coming to San Felipe when the name is mentioned and the only reaction is a blank stare.
re: Gypsy Jan
I've only glanced at it, but the book "Baja Legends" by Greg Niemann discusses El Chinero (30+ miles north of San Felipe).
Jan, as I said, your non-food post was perfectly OK with me. But I would have expected it to begin with something like "I've been to Mexicali and seen all these Chinese/Mexican restaurants and have heard about the large Chinese community in Mexicali. What's that all about?"
Have you been to Mexicali and have you eaten at any of the Chinese restaurants there? What did you think of the rather odd hybrid dishes? If you haven't been there and eaten the food then would you like more info such as streetgourmetla provided? Would you like to know, in general, how the two cuisines (Mexican and Chinese) are conjoined in the typical dishes you'll find in the restaurants, etc?
To answer your question, a few days ago a friend was talking about going to Mexicali and wondering about the city - what to do, what to eat. This conversation sparked my memory of a visit to it last year, where, I noticed the very large large (and bewildering to a new visitor) number of Chinese restaurants. Unfortunately, time and business obligations did not let us try any of them and I have always regretted the lost opportunity.
So, my post was supposed to ask for restaurant recommendations, but my hopscotch train of thought led my fingers to typing about what I had been told about the history of the Chinese-to-Mexico immigration (Chinese food, Mexican food, Chinese history, Mexican, all good and interesting.)
Now I am hungry.
For more information: a paperback, China en las Californias (Hu-DeHart, Preciado Llamas, González Félix, and Velázquez Morales, authors), Colección Divulgación, Conaculta/CECUT, Tijuana, 2002, 128pp. ISBN 970-18-8303-9. Four papers in Spanish presented at the symposium of 26 October 2001.
Therein we learn that the Chinese in Mexico did indeed concentrate around the railroad lines throughout Mexico -- because their shops received both goods and customers that way. Also that many of our Chinese landed in San Francisco and were conducted under guard to Mexicali.
The first Chinese in Baja landed in Ensenada as part of a wave of immigration that began in the 1880s and which made landfall also in La Paz and Guaymas. (I'm going to try to attach a photo circa 1945 of the Yun Kui general store of Ensenada, which received the third business license to be issued by the federal territory, circa 1890.) The Chinese population of Mexicali began in the 1910s, when Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler thought they'd make some money sharecropping cotton: they pulled strings to bring Chinese down from San Francisco but, at the same time, many of their tenant-farmers were Chinese and they imported their own workforce in directly, through Ensenada.
The Chinese food here in Baja is not a Sino-Mex fusion, it is garden-variety Cantonese because that is where our Chinese emigrated from. To this day I find new arrivals from Kwantung Province working in these restaurants. Their immigration papers are being sponsored by the owners, distant family members.
The reason for the large number of Chinese restaurants in Mexicali dates back to the nationalist movement of the 1930s. Chinese throughout the country were being lynched or run out of town; the federal territory of Baja California was the one part of the country they were being tolerated. (And that only as a matter of degree, since Mexicali had its own nationalist "hate" groups.) It was easier for the Chinese fleeing the interior of Mexico to hop a train and get off in Mexicali than it was to take a ferry from Guaymas or Mazatlán to La Paz.
The "comida china estilo Mexicali" that I've had in Mexicali, Tijuana, and Ensenada has all been much of a muchness -- almost identical stir-frys heavy on the vegetables and sauced with cornstarch -- so it's hard to recommend one place over another. I have been told by people who know Mexicali far better than I do that it does have a few places better than the rest ... and yet ... no one has ever offered me the name of any of those places...
Rincon de Panchito is one of the better places in Mexicali. Yes it is Cantonese, question is, is it Cantonese or American-Cantonese with a Mexican fusion?
Certainly there are Mexican elements that have been fused. Chiles gueros covered with star anise, instead of pico de gallo? The use of chipotle chiles in a stir fry is definitely not Cantonese.Mexican chiles are used in many dishes, and I feel this is different from the Americanized Cantonese we grew up on here in the US.
Thanks for the book recommendation.