Brazil celebrates 200 years of Chinese Immigration

Published on Tip News’s website, November 28, 2012.

In 1812, Portugal’s regent prince, Dom João, promoted the immigration to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, of some 300 Chinese peasants specialized in the plantation of tea, with a view to introducing this crop to the country. The Portuguese court had been relocated to Rio de Janeiro since 1808, in view of the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal.

Once in Brazil, Dom João introduced many alterations in the previous harsh colonial policies. Those included the foundation of the Banco do Brasil, the liberalization of the press, the starting of two medical schools and one military academy, the setting up of the National Library and the creation of a botanical garden in 1811, where the new Chinese immigrants were supposed to start the envisioned tea plantation.

This initial group was brought from Macau, the then Portuguese colony in China, with which there had been plenty of points of contact on the part of Brazil, because this country was on the shipping route to Asia. The degree of these influences was well reported by Gilberto Freire in China Tropical. However, they were originally farmers from Hubei and probably spoke Pingju. They arrived as indenture labor, servants rather than slaves, and known as coolies.

The tea plants arrived with the group, in the ship Vulcano. Four of the group of 300 workers were tea masters, regarded as of a superior educational category. During his trip to Brazil in 1821, the famous German painter, Johann Moritz Rugendas, documented some bucolic scenes of the Chinese group at work in the plantation at the Botanical Garden in Rio de Janeiro, in the company of some Brazilians.

As the tea plantation at the botanical garden did not prosper, for reasons that are not entirely clear today, the original Chinese immigrants became tradesmen in Rio. In 1882, a group of about 1,000 Chinese was brought to work in English mine in Minas Gerais. Most ran away and again became tradesmen.

In the 20th Century, Chinese immigration from southern China increased, particularly from Guangzhou and Zhejiang, and still directed to Rio de Janeiro. With the proclamation of the Republic of China, in 1912, and the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, in 1949, immigration increased. Some religious groups sent their faithful to Brazil and some important Chinese families from southern China also came, many of whom to São Paulo. Cantonese became the most important Chinese language spoken in Brazil.

With Deng Xiao Ping’s economic and political springtime as a background, after the accession of China to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December of 2001, China’s economy became substantially more internationalized and trade with Brazil increased exponentially, to the extent that China became Brazil’s main trade partner in 2008 and Brazil’s top foreign investor in 2010.

With the increased economic ties, a different type of movement of Chinese people started to take place: managers, bankers and technical staff. With these, some contingents of low educational immigrants also found their way in to Brazil, a vast multicultural and multi-ethnical country.

Nowadays, most of the newly arrived Chinese establish themselves in São Paulo, Brazil’s economic and financial hub, where there is an estimated population of some 400,000, but are also to be found all over Brazil, from Rio Grande do Sul, in the south, to the Amazon region in the north. In view of the cordial and prosperous bilateral Sino-Brazilian relations, this tendency is expected to increase in the years to come.

In spite of the many cultural and linguistic barriers, Chinese immigrants have, over these past two centuries, adapted themselves well to life in Brazil and have worked very hard with Brazilians of all ethnic origins towards the economic progress and social development of the country and its people.