San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Shaky start for mayor’s Chinatown

The jackhammer thudded into the pavement. The tat-tat-tat passed through the walls into a drugstore where Karina Porras and Gabriela Gamboa waited behind a counter. 

By noon, the two had attended to four customers. The combination of noise and boredom left them looking shell-shocked inside the dimly lit pharmacy.

“Well, we can talk with each other,” Porras said, “but there are times when we can’t hear each other’s answers.”

The pharmacy resides in the middle of San José’s soon-to-be Chinatown. On Feb. 16, the San José Municipality dug up the roads to begin work on the boulevard, located in the capital’s center on Calle 9, in a stretch known as Paseo de los Estudiantes.  Bus routes changed, causing confusion and traffic jams. The protests began. The church got involved. At one point, a water main burst, leaving 130,000 residents in the area without water. Later, San José Mayor Johnny Araya had to clarify the project’s purpose. 

Throughout the week, the streets of Chinatown pulse with the sounds of heavy machinery tearing up concrete and asphalt. Chinese and Costa Rican business owners dawdle outside, wondering when the racket will end.

 The city proposed a luxurious vision for Chinatown, funded by $1 million from the Chinese government and $300,000 from the municipality. The completed project, highlighted by two Chinese-style arches, remains several months away.  

The current picture shows turmoil. Pedestrians navigate the clamor and dirt heaps, while shielding their eyes from the specks of sand the wind sprays into the air. Trenches built into the construction site fill with empty bottles of alcohol, Styrofoam containers and cardboard. The project seems to be fomenting resentment among Costa Ricans worried about losing a celebrated neighborhood full of history.

On Tuesday, a couple hundred students from Liceo de Costa Rica, a prestigious nearby high school famous for graduating future presidents, assembled where the construction work began in front of La Soledad Church. They chanted “No to Chinatown” before marching to the Legislative Assembly to try to attract lawmakers’ attention. 

 Almost a century ago, the school’s students played a role in a historic protest in the  same spot. On June 13, 1919, a protest organized by Costa Rican writer Carmen Lyra burned down the headquarters of the official newspaper of dictator Federico Tinoco.

The movement sparked the overthrow of Tinoco, and resulted in the location being christened Paseo de los Estudiantes.

Flora Fernández, who helped organize this week’s demonstration, feels that history has been tossed aside for a pet project of Mayor Araya. She hopes Liceo de Costa Rica alumni, other students and Costa Rican business owners will join future protests.

“Chinatown doesn’t exist, that’s a Chinese myth,” Fernández said. “Here what exists are Barrio La Soledad and Paseo de los Estudiantes. And then there are four Chinese markets, [and] three or four Chinese restaurants. That is not enough reason to erase the country’s history.”

The protest received enough attention that Araya stated to the daily La Nación his desire to preserve Costa Rican culture in Chinatown.

“There is misinformation,” he said.  “Paseo de los Estudiantes will continue being  Paseo de los Estudiantes. Furthermore, the two blocks north of Liceo de Costa Rica will stay intact. Every corner will be given the name Paseo de los Estudiantes.”

Araya believes the project could benefit tourism. Chinatowns in other major cities – the most famous are in New York City and San Francisco in the United States – have turned into top tourist draws. 

The development represents another step in the strengthening ties between China and Costa Rica. The countries established ties in 2007, after Costa Rica cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Since then, the two governments have developed a free trade agreement, and China has built Costa Rica a $100 million National Stadium and decided to contribute millions of dollars to upgrade the Caribbean port of Moín.

 Nevertheless, the ongoing construction still feels like a blight on the community to San José residents.

 Mayela Molina and her husband hopscotch onto manhole covers and concrete fragments on their way to a corner store, disgusted by the ordeal.

“I have to walk on my heels,” Molina, 64, said. “All the sand is getting in my shoes.”

She blames the ordeal on Araya for “thinking he is the owner of Costa Rica,” and giving the area to the Chinese without forethought into how to do it right or fairly. Additionally, the Archdiocese of San José has requested a meeting with the mayor for fear that construction will damage the church. 

The Chinese have a long history in Costa Rica, with hundreds of families immigrating to the country in the late 19th century. In the book “The Chinese Immigrants of the Costa Rican Community (1870-1910),” by Marlen Loría and Alonso Rodríguez, the authors cite Chinese immigrants working on railroad projects on both coasts and facing widespread discrimination. Families from China soon moved inland and began to influence the country’s customs and cuisine. One of the country’s most popular celebrities, Costa Rica-born astronaut Franklin Chang, is of Chinese descent.

While the Chinese-run businesses in the area under development are not overwhelming, the concentration of Chinese residents is high. The Chinatown area includes the Chinese Cultural Center, Cathay Bank (a Chinese bank started in Los Angeles) and several Chinese eateries. However, other businesses have no cultural affiliation, such as the pharmacy and the sunshiny yellow hardware store called La Casa del Tornillo (House of Screws). The name also could work for the anonymous X-rated movie theater on the opposite side of the street.

Alejandro Wo Chin helps manage one of Chinatown’s Asian goods stores. His store looks popular with Ticos who come in and observe the store’s cultural items like traditional red lanterns, Chinese vases and clothing, and kitchenware like woks and steamers.

“The majority of the articles that we sell are typical Chinese folklore articles of feng shui,” said Wo Chin, a Costa Rican whose parents emigrated from China and opened the store in the mid-1990s.

Wo Chin is unsure about what precisely will arise in eight months from the construction project occurring outside the store. He hopes the process will run smoother than it has thus far. Wo Chin’s boutique was one of thousands of downtown establishments to lose water when workers busted a pipe in Chinatown. 

Nuria Villalobos suffered perhaps the worst loss since the construction began. For five years, the silver-haired 62-year-old sold snacks from a rectangular green stand in the middle of Paseo de los Estudiantes. She owns a permit as a street vendor, but the municipality told her she couldn’t sell there anymore. 

“They said I have to move to another place at the bus stop for León XIII,” Villalobos said. “A location with a lot of riffraff.” 

She acknowledged sales could pick up in a new spot, since this “street has been dead” due to the Chinatown works. 

On Tuesday, Villalobos contributed to the bedlam. A laborer she hired drove a pickax into the stand’s foundation.

The following afternoon her stand was gone, vanishing into the rubble that will one day grow into Chinatown. A jackhammer nearby pounded away.

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