Friday, November 23, 2007

A Sinologist Visits Mexico: Some Casual Observations

A Sinologist Visits Mexico: Some Casual Observations

Lothar von Falkenhausen

On a square in Mexico City¡¦s former Chinatown, a clock erected in 1927 commemorates the Chinese Nationalist government¡¦s gratitude for the local Chinese community¡¦s support of Sun Yat-sen¡¦s revolutionary cause. The immediate origins of this community go back to the mid-nineteenth century, when, as elsewhere in the Western hemisphere, Chinese immigrants were brought in to fulfill the country¡¦s labor needs. A reliable estimate of the number of Chinese in Mexico today does not seem to be available; it would probably be difficult to obtain, due partly to a substantial proportion of illegal immigrants (some of whom eventually move on to the United States), and partly because of issues of definition ¡X for many descendants of the early immigrants have blended into the mainstream of Mexican society and no longer identify themselves as Chinese (Hu-DeHart 1998: 256¡V258). Even so, it seems safe to assume that the Chinese in Mexico now number several times the (possibly inaccurate) figure of 10,000 reported for 1967 (ibid., citing He Mingzhong 1967): a recent news story gives the current Chinese population of just the northern border town of Mexicali as 35,000 (Associated Press 2005). Consequently, a Sinologist visiting Mexico may feel a Chinese cultural presence in many places. In spite of Mexicans¡¦ justified pride in their own cuisine, Chinese restaurants are popular; following cues from their peers in the US, many young males adorn their bodies, clothes, and belongings with the emblems of Chinese martial arts (including dragon tattoos and fantasy ¡§Chinese¡¨ characters); and the presence of ¡§Fengshui stores¡¨ even in provincial locations such as Oaxaca is evidence to a popular fascination with the magical potency of the mysterious East.

This fascination, in Mexico, has a long history, and it takes unique and often surprising forms that, in turn, constitute a fascinating facet of Mexican culture. For instance, in the magnificent eighteenth-century church of La Profesa, two blocks west of the Zócalo in downtown Mexico City, a pair of huge Late Qing export-porcelain vases are displayed on both sides of the main altar. Their painted decoration of warrior figures from popular opera strikes one as being more than mildly incongruous with the sanctuary¡¦s dignified (albeit at times slightly morbid) Christian iconography. An esthetically sensitive Sinologist might, furthermore, be tempted to comment disparagingly on the clash between the (by Chinese standards) poor and hideously kitschy execution of the vases and the fine artistic quality of the Mexican-made church furnishings. But such pedantry would miss the point: undoubtedly, those who placed the Chinese vases near the altar of La Profesa valued them not as works of art, but because they stand out. Perhaps, these vases were perceived as embodiments of Mexican connections to far-away places, their placement in the church symbolically appropriating the resources of those exotic locales to the purposes of Roman Catholic worship.

A cup of Kangxi period (early 18th century) excavated from Templo Mayor, Mexico City. Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City.

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This blog is a continuation of one started by the proprietor of The Mex Files. With not enough time he offered to pass it along and here we are. If anyone has info to contribute, please leave it in the form of a comment

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