Mandarin Brazil
Race, Representation, and Memory
Ana Paulina Lee



Circumoceanic Memory

Chinese Racialization in Brazilian Perspective

Walking through Macau’s main Senate Square today, one can see the vast remnants of Portuguese history in China. Middle-class Chinese consumers stroll along streets lined with Portuguese colonial architecture, whose bright pastel-colored building exteriors seem to have been freshly painted. Ocean wave-inspired Portuguese pavement recreates the exotic feel of shopping in Lisbon or Rio de Janeiro’s haute bourgeois neighborhoods such as Copacabana or Ipanema, even though storefronts advertise Chinese retail chains. Macau’s dual Portuguese and Cantonese heritage can be found everywhere on the small peninsula. The Loyal Senate Building bears a name bestowed on it in 1809 by Dom João VI to proclaim colonial Macau’s loyalty to Portugal. In 1999, following the handover of Macau to China, the PRC quickly changed the name of the building to the “Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau.” However, the building is still widely called by Dom João VI’s loyal title. On a quiet side street, facing the back of the Loyal Senate Building, is a street sign with the Portuguese words Rua dos Cules (Coolie Street) secured to the concrete walls of an old building (Figure I. 1). Curious as to why this street was named after a racial slur used against Chinese laborers in the nineteenth century, I decided to enter the old building to learn the origins of the placard secured to its wall. At the gunmetal-gray doors, I found a man seated, surrounded by newspapers, boxes, hardware, and other items that contributed to the mildewy smell that had settled in those walls over the centuries. “May I come in?” I asked him. The man barely looked at me from behind his newspaper but nodded permission. I expected to find clues about the coolie trade, the Chinese labor migration activities wherein Chinese migrants signed deceptive contracts that sent hundreds of thousands of men into indentured servitude and slave labor throughout the world during the nineteenth century. However, nothing in the room supported the claims of the placard posted outside. Probed about Coolie Street’s history, the man disinterestedly responded, “That is from a long time ago.”

Coolie Street has two names that have nothing to do with each other, but they have everything to do with the conflicting memories that may exist about a place. In Macau, streets have two names: one is Portuguese and the other is Chinese. These bicultural and bilingual street names symbolize the current political and economic alliance between China and Portugal. While they imply a harmonious and long history of Portuguese settlement in China, they also do the important imaginative work of portraying China as a vast, multicultural geographical territory where even Portuguese is among the official languages. In this sense, the bilingual signs are more symbolic than practical, since the Portuguese names have nothing in common with the Chinese ones. Indeed, less than 1 percent of Macau’s population speaks Portuguese, and most people, including taxi drivers, know only the Chinese names of streets. Portuguese speakers must learn the Chinese street names to get around.

Rather than providing a direct translation of Coolie Street (Rua dos Cules), the Chinese characters instead state Tian tong jie, meaning “heaven through street.” Since the character “Tian” can mean heaven, day, and sky depending on the context, another translation might render the phrase as “passage to the heavenly skies” or “passage to heaven.” The street is widely referred to by the Chinese name, which elides the history of the coolie trade, even if it explicitly marks a coolie trade logistics history in Portuguese.1 The placard on Coolie Street may at first seem that it makes for linguistic cacophony, but the convergence of Rua dos Cules and Tian tong jie demonstrates the layers of memory that gather in a place where the promise of heaven and the trade routes of coolie labor occupy the same memoryscape.2 The Passage to Heaven does not erase the coolie trade, but transforms it into another thing, showing the collision of competing Portuguese and Chinese cultural memories that converge in a place.3

On the front of the old building that sits on the corner of Coolie Street are Portuguese words and Chinese characters that declare that this building had once been the Siyi Association of Macau, a benevolent society that provided social services for people from Guangdong province’s “Four Counties” (Siyi in Mandarin or Szeyup in Cantonese): Taishan, Kaiping, Xinhui, and Enping. The majority of the first “Overseas Chinese” were from Taishan. By 1901, Madeline Hsu observes, Taishan had become dependent on the “export of labor,” and roughly 25 percent of the county’s population lived abroad.4 Following the end of African slavery, the turn to Asian laborers funneled thousands of (mainly) Chinese and Indian people into indentured servitude or slavelike labor in European colonies, in the Americas, and around the rest of the world.5 These laborers toiled alongside enslaved and free people of color and thus were suddenly labeled with racial categories that had emerged out of hemispheric American histories of colonialism and enslavement. In the Americas, they became racialized through derogatory names like coolie. This expression ran parallel to precedents set within the rhetoric of the transatlantic African slave trade history. Asian immigrant labor and productivity would likewise support the networks of global capitalism and build the wealth of nations going forward.

FIGURE I.1. Front view of Rua dos Cules, Macau, June 10, 2013. Source: Photograph by the author.

The coolie trade transformed southern Chinese port towns like Macau, Hong Kong, and Shanghai into sites of kidnapped and coerced labor. By 1871, the verb to shanghai had emerged and meant “to put aboard a ship by force often with the help of liquor or a drug,” and “to put by trickery into an undesirable position.”6 In China, internal wars and desperate economic conditions motivated young men to sign the labor contracts, usually presented by deceptive means, that would take them to unknown lands whether seeking riches and adventure. Most of the men would never return to their villages, leaving behind family and neighbors who would never know what had happened to those who had departed on ships that disappeared on the sea’s horizon. Many died on the oceanic voyages, and those who survived the wretched journey learned that their contracts bonded them to indentured servitude. Evelyn Hu-Dehart’s pioneering studies of the Chinese diaspora to the Americas, including of the coolie trade to Peru and Cuba, discovered that only 1,887 of 100,000 contracted laborers ultimately returned to China.7 By 1874, when the coolie trade officially ended, 275,511 people had already left for Latin America.8 The vast majority of them had departed from Macau.9 To be sure, not all Chinese laborers were indentured servants; however, regardless of their financial and contractual situations, upon arrival in the Americas, they were steadily homogenized, lumped together as “yellow laborers” or a “coolie race.”10

Until recently, it was widely thought that the word coolie originated from Tamil to indicate “menial laborers from Madras.”11 But Mae Ngai traces coolie to a Portuguese neologism first used in the sixteenth century to describe a common laborer.12 In 1510, Portuguese conquistador Afonso de Albuquerque, known for his piety and long beard, took possession of Goa and established Portuguese rule in India. By the end of the sixteenth century, Goa had become the thriving capital of the Portuguese empire in Asia. Portuguese merchants engaged in the lucrative trade in spices, ivory, and common (coolie) labor. Their prosperous commerce led to the expansion of trade routes and connected once-distant places like India, China, Portugal, and Brazil. Global trade propelled the worldwide movement of people, goods, and concepts like coolie. In the Mandarin dialect, coolie sounds like the characters for “bitter strength.” While laborers to the Americas never self-identified as coolies, it became a homogenizing moniker for all unskilled and indentured laborers from India and China.13 The label coolie marked racial difference onto the division of labor. The term never referred to the historical or cultural significance of actual people. It was always a product of the colonial imagination, which powered new rubrics of nationalism and racialized national identities in the modern state-building projects that developed alongside the formation of a global system of nation-states.

Similar to other societies transitioning out of slave labor, the conceptualization of the coolie played a complex role in Brazil’s shift to wage labor.14 Moon-Ho Jung shows that discourses about coolies (coolieism) formed an integral part in US congressional debates over nation, race, and citizenship during Reconstruction. Those who were lumped together as coolies were neither free nor enslaved; rather, they “bridged [a] legal and cultural gap” during and after gradual emancipation.15 In Cuba, Lisa Yun observes, the institution of slavery influenced that of contractual labor. Coolies became a figuration of transition—as physical, social, and economic intermediaries—through which to negotiate the passage from slavery to wage labor.16 The boundaries between one system and the other were not always clear; indeed, upon arrival in the Americas, Asian contract laborers faced slave codes that influenced the terms of contract labor.17 In Brazil, Chinese labor was a critical topic in discussions about the turn to wage labor and republicanism. Advocates for and opponents of Chinese laborers considered them to be either “paragons of virtue” or “demons of depravity.”18 The racialization of Chinese laborers contained these contradictory views because the Chinese were not considered free or enslaved; rather, they were considered “unfree,” and they would join Brazil’s already too big unfree labor class.

The actual lives of Chinese laborers upon arrival and settlement in Brazil generated few historical records, and, according to the evidence we have, Chinese labor migration to Brazil occurred on a much smaller scale than the efforts in Cuba and Peru. However, Chinese slaves were sent to Brazil in a small but steady stream throughout the colonial period.19 Efforts at introducing Chinese laborers to Brazil increased during the nineteenth century when Dom João VI wanted a foothold in the international tea market. In 1810, one year after he named the Loyal Senate Building, he began an experiment in tea farming in Rio de Janeiro’s botanical garden, which led to the arrival of 750 Chinese tea cultivators between 1810 and 1812.20 In 1835, German artist Johann Rugendas (1802–1858) depicted the earliest known visual representation of Chinese settlers in Brazil (Figure I.2). The Cantonese agriculturalists, who had arrived from the Portuguese colony in Macau, confronted exploitative labor conditions in Brazil. They were confined to the botanical gardens, and those who attempted to escape the grounds were hunted down with horses and dogs.21 Rio de Janeiro’s black tea variety did not suit the taste of the international tea market, and after a few decades, the tea experiment was abandoned.22 The costly price of the voyage back to China made the return trip prohibitive for the men. Those who stayed became cooks and peddlers, and they also sought political representation.23 In 1819, a group of more than fifty Chinese men signed a petition to formally request that one of the workers, who used the Brazilian name Domingos Manuel Antônio, act as interpreter and representative of their interests.24 The document was written in Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro, dated September 6, 1819, and signed by the organizers in Chinese characters and Portuguese sobriquets.

FIGURE I.2. Johann Moritz Rugendas. “Plantation chinoise de thé dans le Jardin Botanique de Rio-Janeiro” (Chinese Tea Plantation in the Royal Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro). Malerische Reise in Brasilein von Moritz Rugendas. Illustration. Paris: Engelmann, 1835. Source: Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In 1855, the Brazilian government began negotiations with Edward Price, an engineer from England, to begin a railroad project, Companhia de Estrada de Ferro Dom Pedro II, that was to connect Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo and Minas Gerais.25 The 30 mile stretch would directly enable the expansion of the coffee economy.26 On February 9, 1855, 303 Chinese laborers arrived in Rio aboard the US bark the Elisa Anna. During this year, the government also contracted 2,000 laborers from the Boston Company Sampson and Tappan.27 The men were assigned to build the railroads that would invigorate the coffee industry. Their labor would connect downtown Rio de Janeiro Estação do Campos to the municipality known today as Queimados. During the construction of the railroad, malaria and cholera plagued the entire region, and hundreds of Chinese laborers died as a result. Their bodies were burned in such numbers that people began to refer to the route as estrada dos queimados (road of the burning people). Eventually the municipality became known as Queimados.28 This origin story of the municipality’s name, whether mythical or historical, is a lasting memorial for the people made to serve as the necessary and normal collateral for Brazil’s project of modernization and economic growth based on slave labor.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, gradual emancipation laws began Brazil’s transition out of being a slave-based economy. The Free Womb Law, a gradual emancipation law that liberated the children born to enslaved women, passed in 1871. Debates over the law generated much concern over the labor shortage anticipated by the inevitable end of slavery. Racial theories influenced political and economic policies once abolition was deemed certain.29 Politicians and seigneurs once again began looking to China as a solution. In July 1870, the government established the Sociedade Importadora de Trabalhadores Asiáticos to implement long-term Chinese agricultural contract labor.30 Within two years, the Brazilian census of 1872 included Chinese immigrants and listed 436 Chinese in the country.31 Advocates for Chinese laborers saw them as a temporary solution to the labor problem. The Chinese would provide a transition to free labor.32 However, abolitionists like Joaquim Nabuco claimed they could never be permanent settlers since they threatened to “yellow” or “mongolize” the racial and cultural make-up of Brazil.33 He created a commonality between Chinese labor and African slavery, stating that the Chinese would monogolize Brazil in the way it was “Africanized when Salvador Correa de Sá brought over the first slaves.”34

This story begins at Coolie Street, an important logistics site for Chinese labor migration activities, but I am deliberately not looking at a migration history, which is predominantly a Japanese story in Brazil. I am interested in a minor story, an Other history that surfaces in brief encounters in institutional archives; in narratives that include fiction, poetry, and short stories; in performances of yellowface; in images; and in places such as Coolie Street. This is a story about how Chinese migrants became seen as a “yellow race” or a “coolie race” and the ways in which cultural constructions of Chineseness structured a symbolic national coherence.

Discourses of Chineseness, as Andrea Louie observes, are insufficiently understood within frameworks that seek a continuum between homeland and diasporic populations. State-sponsored projects of cultural citizenship naturalize “racial, national, and territorial” notions of Chineseness, but these concepts come apart in the face of transnational migration, severed state ties, and conflicting national projects that often result in “unfamiliar ways of being Chinese.”35 Using Louie’s dynamic and relational concept of Chineseness as a point of departure, this book explores interdependent relations, global circuits, and a network of cultural expressions that defined Chineseness as a critical discourse within debates about Brazilian national identity. Brazilian cultural production about Chineseness fabricated a form of yellowness within a relational history of race, labor, and nationality.

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, Chinese migrants were increasingly recognized around the world as a coolie race or a yellow race. So what caused these associations to transfer from the idea of race to the figure of a person? The more I tried to pin down what this relationship might mean, the more these forms and matters began to unravel, in the same way as when I say my name too many times and cannot recognize it anymore. I found myself chasing these elusive ideas across many national borders. Race-related ideas, images, and words about Chineseness took different turns across the uneven economic landscapes trodden by imperialist and capitalist expansion. My obsessive chase led me on a journey into subways, streetcars, monorails, planes, bullet trains, automobiles, junk ships, auto rickshaws, and sampans. These transportation lines took me down dead ends but also on infinite-seeming paths. Some lines reconstructed a global trade history that linked Macau to Lisbon; Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro; Rio de Janeiro to Havana; and Havana to San Francisco.

I started compiling an archive composed of fragments and scattered representations of Chineseness. I kept seeing repeating images that depicted the Chinese as primates, ants, shrimp peddlers, Qing dynasty officials (mandarins), and other intriguing but dehumanizing stereotypes. My collection began as a strange hobby at first—it made me into both the insect collector and the insect. Eventually I had a collection that spanned over a century. What to make of this archive that included the writings of celebrated authors, prominent politicians, and beloved artists and musicians? The same stereotypes of the Chinese persisted regardless of the creator. There were slight variations, but they were not random; they had a design that followed a formula. These representations, words, and concepts pointed to a common language that circulated and acquired new uses, much in the way regional vocabularies develop. For example, in parts of southern Brazil, the word china refers to a young prostitute, while in other areas, it references the country China.36 Different individuals over the course of one hundred years repeated the same race-related ideas about the Chinese. Concepts, images, and words appeared often enough that a detectable pattern emerged and pointed to a shared language that was bound to a collective memory about slavery’s racial regimes.37

In the late nineteenth century, social Darwinist thought developed the concept that human physiology naturally divided human beings into hierarchically ranked races. Racist twentieth-century Nazi and Ku Klux Klan ideologies are representative models of this kind of thinking.38 My main concern is not with the science-fiction notion of “human races”; I am interested in the semantic structures and embodied acts that caused the Chinese, and anyone else, to be interpreted as a race and in the persistence of these ongoing ideas.39 Paul Taylor offers a useful way to think about race as analogous to language, suggesting that race-related concepts, words, and images are systematic.40 Once I began detecting patterns in the rhetoric of these repeating representations, words, and images, they all began to fit together like puzzle pieces, but it was like putting together a puzzle without the picture—and whose pieces were scattered across the globe. Eventually a world map of emerging national imaginaries started to appear, but to interpret it, I had to turn to the global history of slavery and, specifically, the transitional period to abolition. That connecting piece showed me that the symbols and tropes of Chineseness that constitute this book’s archive belong to the racial project that developed out of slavery’s racial regimes. The transatlantic slave trade made slavery synonymous with blackness.41 The logic of slavery’s racial regimes continues to shape the modern idea of race. With abolition in 1888 and Brazil’s transition to a republican state in 1889, racial ideologies intertwined with liberal ideals of liberty and wage labor. Their entanglements shaped an emerging Brazilian national consciousness as an aspect of a globally racialized national consciousness.


1. Beatriz Basto da Silva’s (1994, 45) study of coolie emigration from Macau observes that the city’s toponyms provide material evidence of the coolie trade’s logistics. Toponyms are spatial mnemonics that help us imagine human activities that occurred at a specific location. Along these lines, Jeremy Tambling and Louis Lo’s (2009, 4) beautifully written Walking Macao, Reading the Baroque takes readers on a walk through Macau’s obscure and forgotten places to explore baroque and colonial elements in its architectural forms.

2. Macarena Gómez-Barris (2008, 7–8) offers a valuable way to conceive of memoryscapes and what she calls “memory symbolics,” the spatial and material dimensions of cultural memory. A region’s physical features, including the architectural and material remnants of authoritarian pasts, are productive sites for representing, contesting, and struggling over memory.

3. I thank Brent Edwards for pushing me to consider the complex memory fields that exist beyond erasure, remembrance, and disremembrance.

4. Hsu 2004.

5. For an excellent study about the history of coolie women, sexuality, and labor, see Bahadur (2014).

6. “Shanghai” ( Unabridged 2017).

7. Hu-Dehart 1993a, 258.

8. Meagher 2008, 99.

9. Meagher 2008, 99.

10. Yun 2008; Jung 2009; Young 2014; Ngai 2015; Lowe 2015.

11. Tinker 1974; Meagher 2008, 25.

12. Ngai 2015, 1084; Chang, K. 2015, 37.

13. Hu-DeHart 1992; Lai 1993; Yun 2008; Young 2014; Lowe 2015.

14. Costa 1996; Conrad 1974; Skidmore 1993; Lesser 1995, 1999; Dezem 2005.

15. Jung 2006, 38.

16. Yun 2008, 5.

17. Yun 2008, 5; Young 2014, 28.

18. Conrad 1975, 48.

19. Conrad 1975; Leite 1999. See chapter 1 for more on this topic.

20. Conrad 1975; Lesser 2013, 20.

21. Lesser 1999.

22. “História Nosso Jardim.” Jardim Botánico do Rio de Janeiro.

23. Lesser 1999.

24. Lesser 1995.

25. After the founding of the First Republic, it was renamed the Estrada de Ferro Central do Brasil.

26. Rodriguez 2004, 21.

27. Elias 1973, 698; Meagher 2008, 263–266.

28. The Origin of the Name Queimados (A origem do nome Queimados),

29. Schwarcz 2006, 306.

30. Conrad 1975, 43–44.

31. Conrad 1975, 42.

32. Skidmore 1993, 25.

33. Skidmore 1993, 26.

34. Skidmore 1993, 26.

35. Louie 2004, 7–8.

36. Artist Beatrice Glow has a satirical performance piece, Spanish Lesson on How to Speak Chino, in which she teaches audiences about the various uses of the word chino in different Spanish-speaking countries.

37. Individual memory is an aspect of collective memory, since it must pass through symbolic systems like language that is socially bound (Halbwachs 1992, 53).

38. Taylor 2013, 10.

39. Paul Taylor, in his elaboration of Omi and Winant’s work on racial formation, argues that racial projects are “binary constructions with parallel semantic and structural aspects. When we decide on or debate which meanings to assign to human bodies and bloodlines—which, as Omi and Winant put it, is to interpret the concept of race—we occupy the semantic side of a racial project. And when we distribute social goods along racial lines—which is to say, when we offer a racialized proposal for organizing our practical affairs—we occupy the structural side of a racial project” (Taylor 2013, 24). I thank Robert Gooding-Williams for suggesting this connection to Taylor’s work.

40. Taylor 2013, 5.

41. Mignolo and Ennis 2001, 28.