The plan to build Latin America’s biggest Chinatown in São Paulo

and . Jan 25, 2020
chinatown Chinese New Year celebrations in São Paulo. Photo: N. Antoine Chinese New Year celebrations in São Paulo. Photo: N. Antoine

On January 25, São Paulo honors the anniversary of its foundation. In 2020, however, another celebration will take place in several parts of the city: Chinese New Year. Commemorations will be spread in areas across the city center, in neighborhoods such as the wealthy area of Pinheiros, and the East Asian—predominantly Japanese—district of Liberdade. In a few years, however, some Chinese entrepreneurs are hoping the festivities will take place in São Paulo’s very own Chinatown.

The project is led by the Brazil-China Socio-Cultural Institute (Ibrachina). Its initial phase—estimated to cost some BRL 150 million—would consist of installing Chinese-themed lamp posts, trash cans, and 9-meter-high porticos. A second phase would include a suspended walkway, a park, a theater, and a museum—among other cultural attractions.

</p> <p>According to lawyer Thomas Law, Ibrachina&#8217;s chairman, the Brazilian Chinatown would be a way to revitalize one of the most degraded areas of <a href="">São Paulo&#8217;s city center</a>—a portion close to the iconic Municipal Market and Rua 25 de Março, the biggest commercial street in Brazil. Home to a huge concentration of Chinese immigrants, the area is bordered by the historic center to one side, and São Paulo&#8217;s infamous Crackland on the other.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;About 90 percent of the 300,000 Chinese people living in Brazil are in the city of São Paulo,&#8221; Mr. Law told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. &#8220;The idea is to build the largest Chinatown in Latin America, in the molds of what we see in London, Buenos Aires, or San Francisco. In 2018, businesses in the region [Ibrachina is aiming for] raised BRL 29 billion and attracted 1.2 million people on a daily basis.&#8221;</p> <h2>The project of a Brazilian Chinatown</h2> <p>Ibrachina submitted its urban project to the São Paulo city council in September 2019. Among the many proposed interventions in the region&#8217;s landscape is the creation of a 650-meter-long park over the Tamanduateí River, the <a href="">channeled river that passes the Municipal Market</a> and often has the appearance—and smell—of an open sewer. There is also a proposal for a Chinese Technology and Entrepreneurship Center, a Chinese History Museum—charting the country&#8217;s story from the dynasty period until today—and a 1,000-seat theater inside a new mall.</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="" alt="chinatown 1" class="wp-image-30771" srcset=" 605w, 300w" sizes="(max-width: 605px) 100vw, 605px" /><figcaption>Image from the Chinatown project.</figcaption></figure></div> <p>The plan also foresees many structural works to avoid floods, which are a not-uncommon occurrence in the neighborhood and could be mitigated by de-polluting the Tamanduateí River.</p> <p>Mr. Law explains that Chinese entrepreneurs are set to be the main financial backers of the project. &#8220;Funds will come from the São Paulo Association of the Shopping Circuit Entrepreneurs as well as from Chinese corporations, both private and public. They are shop and property owners who want to improve their business environment. But we want to go beyond shopping-driven tourism. We want to foster the development of gastronomic and cultural ventures. The area that [could] house Chinatown is home to 50,000 firms generating more than 300,000 direct and indirect jobs.&#8221;</p> <p>If the council approves the project in time, the idea is to lay the foundation stone of São Paulo&#8217;s Chinatown in 2024—a year that marks the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Brazil and China.</p> <p>There is one caveat on the horizon, however. The region in which Ibrachina plans to build Chinatown is also heavily characterized by the presence of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants—which could be, from an identity standpoint, problematic if the goal is to transform it into a &#8220;Chinese neighborhood.&#8221; As a matter of fact, the region has so many Chinese immigrants <em>precisely</em> because it is a place of diversity.</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="" alt="chinatown Projection of what the park over the Tamanduateí River would look like " class="wp-image-30770" srcset=" 647w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 647px) 100vw, 647px" /><figcaption>Projection of what the park over the Tamanduateí River would look like </figcaption></figure></div> <h2>Chinese presence in São Paulo</h2> <p>If you punch &#8220;Chinatown São Paulo&#8221; into Google, you will probably be directed to a post about Liberdade, the city&#8217;s traditionally East Asian neighborhood. Historically, in fact, the roots of Liberdade are based on African immigrants, though the area later became associated with the Japanese presence in the city.&nbsp;</p> <p>Chinese immigrants, on the other hand, are heavily concentrated around shopping galleries filled with electronics stores in the region of Rua 25 de Março, as well as the nearby districts of Brás and Pari, as University of São Paulo sociologist Carlos Freire da Silva pointed out in his post-doctoral research entitled &#8220;<a href="">Brazil-China connections: Chinese migration to São Paulo&#8217;s city center</a>.&#8221;</p> <p>The Chinese presence in Brazil dates back to more than 200 years ago—with the first wave of immigration coming in 1812. They initially came to grow tea in Rio de Janeiro, aiming to supply the British market—but Rio&#8217;s warm climate didn&#8217;t allow the plan to prosper. The second wave would only come a century later—but their numbers were not yet expressive.</p> <p>Only after the 1980s did Chinese immigration pick up in Brazil. At the same time, the China-Paraguay-Brazil contraband route became popular, as &#8220;thousands of <em>sacoleiros </em>[a term referring to people making a living from buying and selling cheap goods] made frequent excursions to Paraguay&#8217;s Ciudad del Leste to sell made-in-China merchandise on Brazilian streets,&#8221; writes Mr. Silva. As trade barriers began being lifted in the early 1990s, <a href="">Brazil-China connections</a> got stronger, and Chinese importers began settling in São Paulo.</p> <p>To this day, you can hear up to four Chinese dialects in the galleries of Rua 25 de Março: Mandarin, Cantonese, Wenzhounese, and Qingtianese.

Brenno Grillo

The Brazilian Report's correspondent in Brasília, Brenno has worked as a journalist since 2012, specializing in coverage related to law and the justice system. He has worked for O Estado de S. Paulo, Portal Brasil, ConJur, and has experience in political campaigns.

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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