Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Panama : Chinese Panamanians

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date January 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Panama : Chinese Panamanians, January 2009, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated January 2009


Compared to other Central American countries Panama has a substantial population of Chinese origin numbering some 150,000, making it the largest Chinese community in the region.

Chinese have been in Panama since the mid 19th century, however with the opening up of Mainland China and the easing of travel restrictions under that country's post-Maoist reforms, Chinese immigration to Panama experienced a notable increase after the 1980s. Most of the population of Chinese descent is concentrated in Panama City and the provincial urban centres and work primarily in commerce. Many recent Taiwanese and Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong and Guangdong province who constitute 99 percent of the new arrivals, have also settled in the capital.

Historical context

The first Chinese immigrants came to Panama in 1850 as contract laborers to work on the trans-Panama railroad. They numbered only 1,000 and increasing deaths from disease caused the contractors to move the majority to Jamaica. In the 1880s, a few hundred more Chinese arrived to work on the ill-fated French effort to construct the transoceanic canal. Many of these laborers remained in Panama after their 'contracts' expired. Other immigrants came later.

In 1903, after Panamanian independence, a law was passed prohibiting Chinese immigration. However despite these government constraints, Chinese immigration continued throughout most of the 20th century helped by those already in the country.

Many Chinese immigrants became involved in commerce, specializing in small retail businesses. This became a significant part of the local culture to the point where the Panamanian Spanish term for retail or 'corner store' is 'el chino'.

After 1940 a reform government led by the nationalist president Arnulfo Arias took control of Panama and passed a new constitution that revoked the citizenship of non-Hispanic immigrants.

For Chinese Panamanians these drastic state actions were coupled with rising resentment against Chinese control of the Panamanian grocery trade. This peaked in 1941 when approximately 1,000 Chinese were forced to leave Panama and Chinese immigration was entirely cut off.

Chinese Panamanian citizenship was restored in 1946 under a new constitution which gave citizenship rights to all people born in Panama.

Most persons of Chinese origin including admixtures are now generally integrated into mainstream Panamanian society however, there is some discrimination against the country's newer Chinese immigrants. This is primarily because of cultural and language difficulties since second and third generation Chinese are seen as distinct from recent immigrants and generally are accepted into Panamanian society if they choose to assimilate. A notable major league baseball pitcher in the USA, Bruce Chen, is a native Chinese Panamanian.

Since the mid-1980s Chinese Panamanians have been organized in 'Overseas Chinese' associations. These socio-cultural advocacy groups have been mainly concerned with complaining about discriminatory laws, general social discrimination and efforts to improve the image of the Chinese in Panamanian society. They have frequently raised money for Panamanian charities and donated the money in the name of the president and first lady. Nevertheless memories of the rise of nationalism in the 1940s have left a legacy of insecurity.

The Panamanian Chinese community has also become the focus of both the government of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan in those countries' efforts to influence the process of formal diplomatic recognition from the Panamanian government.

The community has frequently raised money for Panamanian charities and donated the proceeds in the name of the president and first lady. Nevertheless memories of the rise of nationalism and Chinese expulsion in the 1940s have left a legacy of insecurity.

Current issues

Anti-Chinese sentiments are still prevalent in Panama. Like Afro-Panamanians Middle Eastern, and Indian residents, Chinese in Panama also experience racially motivated discriminatory treatment. Racial slurs directed at Asians are used openly among the general population.. Legal as well as illegal Chinese immigrants are accorded fewer legal protections for their trade activities than Panamanian citizens. New Chinese immigrants are forbidden from owning retail businesses, while Chinese-Panamanian citizens are free to do so. Chinese immigrants also sometimes encounter bureaucratic difficulties in practicing professions.

Although the Panamanian constitution forbids any non-Panamanian from owning a retail business, this practice is not strictly enforced. Chinese immigrants who cannot hold sole proprietorships to their businesses legally can seek out a local partner. However in general the established Chinese Panamanians prefer not to be associated with recent arrivals from China.

In the past, the possibility of eventually migrating to the United States was a strong attraction for many Chinese immigrants to Panama. However with the handover of the canal this option no longer exists. Nevertheless because of its location Panama remains a key transit point for illegal economic migrants on their way to the US, some of whom are trafficked for debt bondage.

Many aliens who are being smuggled through Panama are Chinese nationals arriving from Asia and South America in route to the United States. Human rights monitors have indicated that some Chinese migrants are being trafficked for debt bondage but these reports are mainly of an anecdotal nature.

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