Identification. The Chinese of Costa Rica constitute a small ethnic community of immigrants from southern China (Guangdong Province) and their descendants. The migrants, who began to arrive in the second half of the nineteenth century, worked as indentured servants in farm labor, domestic service, and the construction of the railroad to the Atlantic coast. Since then, other immigrants from the same districts in southern China, who are directly and indirectly related to the first groups, have continued to migrate in small numbers to Costa Rica.
The immigrants and their descendants rapidly turned to commercial activities for subsistence, coming to dominate the economy of some communities throughout the country. At present, they constitute an important part of Costa Rican society, with a strong presence in the commercial sector and increasing participation in professional fields and politics.
Location. The first and second generations of immigrants settled mostly in and around the country's two main ports on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. From 1883 through 1973, (except the year 1892) the largest numbers were found in towns and villages throughout the Atlantic coast, where immigrants who had arrived in 1873 had been engaged in the construction of the railroad.
The Pacific port of Pantarenas was the port of entry for most immigrants, and thus became another focus of settlement. From that port, immigrants moved into the northwestern region of the country, the dry, tropical Pacific province of Guanacaste, following agricultural settlement of that area. By the time of the 1892 census, their presence was common in the main cities of the Central Valley: San José, Cartago, Heredia, and Alajuela. In 1927 the largest immigrant populations were found on the Atlantic coast and in the provinces of Pantarenas and Guanacaste, in that order.
A significant settlement pattern emerged in the first stages of migration, when immigrants clearly chose to settle away from the centers of power, accepting small-volume commercial opportunities provided by towns and villages in rural areas, possibly in exchange for limited competition and a low profile. Another pattern is that settlement radiated out from the two main ports: Pantarenas on the Pacific coast and Limón on the Atlantic side.
Demography. In 1864 only 3 Chinese immigrants were reported by the less-than-adequate census, despite the fact that nine years earlier, 73 Chinese had entered the country legally, albeit under unknown terms. The following census, that of 1883, reports 219 Chinese, only ten years after 653 had entered the country under contract to the railroad company. In both instances, the census probably failed to register all Chinese; immigrants, in turn, were probably not eager to be recorded in the census because they were subject to repatriation when their contracts expired or were canceled. Underreporting and unorthodox means of entry and registration have since affected the quality of information on the immigrants.
The largest number of immigrants from southern China living in Costa Rica at any point in time is the 933 (0.001 percent of the population) reported in 1950. In 1963 the census reported 666 China-born residents, but only 271 (41 percent) claimed Chinese nationality, an important shift toward greater assimilation, which began after the Communist Revolution of 1949 in China and is clearly recorded over the next two decades after 1963. Another significant trend is that by 1984 the southern Chinese represented only 6 percent of the Chinese in Costa Rica. Others are from Taiwan and Hong Kong, with the Taiwanese representing 83.4 percent of those who are Chinese by birth. At present, the numbers of Taiwanese continue to increase, whereas the immigration of southern Chinese has virtually stopped. The largest concentrations of Asian immigrants are found in the cities of the Central Valley and in the ports, much as in the past. No data are available on the number of individuals of mixed Costa Rican-Chinese culture.
linguistic Affiliation. Two main Cantonese dialects were spoken by the immigrants, depending on their place of origin: the dialect spoken in the area of Zhong shan, place of origin of those who settled in the Pacific and northwestern region, and the dialect, and variants thereof, spoken in the district of En ping, where most settlers of the Atlantic region originated. A very small number of immigrants spoke the Haaka dialect and other dialects of southern China. Presently, only the eldest and the most recent immigrants speak Chinese dialects. Among the descendants, both pure and mixed, little value is attached to knowing the Chinese language, although other cultural values are held in high regard. In fact, Chinese cultural values related to family structure, roles and traditions, and social values and ethics persist among immigrants and descendants.