Questioning the ‘monolith of Chinese identity’: Taller Puertorriqueño exhibit highlights unseen history of Chinese immigrants in Costa Rica

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Photographer Dorcas Tang has a soft spot for nostalgia, particularly for photographs.

The fascination began when she was 5 or 6 years old. As early as she can remember, Tang  was transfixed by her grandmother’s family photo albums and would study each face in the black-and-white photos tucked beneath the cellophane cover. The Tang family history played across each crackling page.

“[I] would just pore over them,” Tang said.

Dorcas Tang and family, c. 2000s, collection of Dorcas Tang, 2023. (Courtesy of Dorcas Tang)

Yet she never felt like she belonged. When the family gathered to celebrate the Lunar New Year each year, she recalled a disconnect between her and her family,

“Everyone’s having a great time, but me I’m just in the corner, flipping through these old, dusty photo albums,” she reminisced.

Tang, who is third generation Chinese-Malaysian, said this experience drew her to research the diaspora and document people’s personal accounts being Chinese Costa Ricans. Those oral histories, research efforts, and photographs are now part of her exhibition at Taller Puertorriqueño, entitled “Paisanos del Puerto.”

“The word paisano refers to countryman, a term of endearment used between the Chinese community in Costa Rica to refer to one another, and el Puerto refers to the port town of Puntarenas,” according to the press release.

The exhibit displays 70 intimate portraits and photographs as recordings of Tang’s interviews with Puntarenas locals play in the background. Their voices combined with the images on the wall bring viewers into lively, intimate slivers of time where the subjects and their narratives are front and center.

Scenes of every day life for Puntarenas residents include the unfurling of the Costa Rican flag ahead of a cultural celebration, or spending time outdoors. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho/WHYY)

‘Idea of citizenship’

That is just how Rafael Demast, curator at Taller Puertorriqueño, wanted the gallery to feel.

Demast said the photos are in conversation with one another. Throughout the exhibition, the Chinese immigrant identity is underscored through photos that capture the subtleties of assimilation and cultural evolution.

Subtleties such as neighborhood grocers who sell ingredients common in the Chinese diet alongside ingredients for Costa Rican foods. Or the combination of cultures displayed in religious iconography and altarpieces on display in their homes.

“This again echoes to what’s happened [in Costa Rica], even in Philadelphia,” Demast said. “Also [it has me] thinking about the idea of citizenship.”

Dorcas Tang took portraits of the people and their family albums to showcase their family’s roots in Costa Rica. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho/WHYY)

He was reminded of his own experiences as a Venezuelan who moved to the U.S.

His diet altered slightly, too, and the culture he became a part of was different from his family’s homeland. His community also looked different in the U.S. Damast said these stories are throughlines across various communities who emigrated to different parts of the world.

He was particularly taken by the history of Chinese migration patterns in the late 19th century, which collided with anti-Chinese sentiments in the Caribbean and South and Central America.

A photo of two pages out of Costa Rica’s second volume of the Chinese Registry. Each Chinese immigrant had an entry like this, with descriptions of their features or physique. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho/WHYY)

A study for the Latin American Studies Associations Forum explained these tensions:

“Following the United States’ 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which imposed a wholesale ban on Chinese immigration, many Latin American nations imposed their own exclusionary, anti-Asian immigration laws that restricted entry, required registration processes, or outright expelled existing communities.”

  • December 26, 2023
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