The late-afternoon rush has begun at Domie Cake Shop in Sai Wan Ho, where customers flood in for an end-of-day snack or a pastry for the next morning’s breakfast. Most of the buns are gone — pineapple buns, sausage buns, tuna buns, cocktail buns — but there are still two Mexico buns left, golden and crisp. A sweet aroma emanating from their shortcrust dome.
It’s a scene that is replicated at countless Hong Kong bakeries, where the Mexico bun is a much-loved staple. But where do they come from, anyway? The cashier at Domie gives an embarrassed smile. “I have absolutely no idea how the Mexico bun originated,” she says. “Our bakers simply bake the buns according to the formula every day.”
There’s a big hint in the bun’s name. Mexico buns really do come from Mexico – in a sense. Like the Russians who gave Hong Kong borscht and the fluffy sponge cakes that are also a local staple, the Mexico bun traces its roots to a wave of migrants that passed through Hong Kong in the middle of the 20th century. And like many of these groups of people, the story of the Chinese Mexicans is little known in this part of the world.
“The numbers were always really small,” says Julia María Schiavone Camacho, the author of Chinese Mexicans and an assistant professor of Latin American history at Antioch College in the United States. The number of Chinese Mexicans in Hong Kong and Macau was never more than a few hundred, with several hundred more on the mainland. “There are people who just blended in.” But there were many others whose feeling of belonging to Mexico only grew stronger with every year they spent in China, Hong Kong and Macau.
The story begins in Taishan, a struggling region of southeastern Guangdong province that produced most of the Chinese migrants — the vast majority of them being men — who sought better fortunes overseas in the 19th century. Mexico was one of many countries to which they journeyed, but it greeted them with remarkably different circumstances than English-speaking countries like the United States, Canada and Australia.
As those countries began to crack down on Chinese immigration in the late 19th century, Mexico’s government actually encouraged it as a way to make up for low numbers of European immigrants. And the society that Chinese men encountered in Mexico was in many ways more familiar than that of countries with Anglo-Saxon roots. “Mexican and Chinese norms had some common threads,” writes Schiavone Camacho. “Ideas of family, marriage, honour, and death and the interconnections among these concepts coincided. Extended families were key to social organisation, and people honoured the dead in homes and public spaces, often with food.”
Whereas Chinese men were prohibited by law from marrying white women in the United States, there were no such restrictions on marriage in Mexico, and many migrants married local women. Chinese men earned the reputation of being hard workers and good providers, which appealed to poor and working-class Mexican women from the countryside. They created families whose cultures and languages spanned the Pacific, sometimes sending their sons to China for education and to learn Cantonese and Taishanese.
Although Mexico’s Chinese population was much smaller than that of its northern neighbours, numbering 24,218 at its peak in 1927, it was highly visible in the states of Sonora and Sinaloa, where Chinese immigrants opened shops and hawker stalls, sometimes travelling door to door to sell goods. They soon dominated the economic life of a number of small towns, mastering the languages of their customers — Spanish and indigenous tongues like Yaqui — and winning them over with the typically Chinese custom of giving away little gifts or extra products with every purchase. This came to be known in Mexico as un detalle or el pilón, and children were especially smitten with the practice, since their pilón usually consisted of sweets.
It was through the long tail of Chinese influence on Sonora that Schiavone Camacho became interested in the topic of Chinese Mexicans. “My family on my mother’s side is from Sonora,” she explains. “Sonora is distinct from other places in Mexico in that you will have a bowl of soy sauce on the table with chopped jalapeños.”
It was when Schiavone Camacho was pursuing her graduate studies in El Paso that she learned the full history of Mexico’s Chinese population. In the 1930s, a wave of anti-Chinese hysteria swept the country. It crashed particularly hard on Sonora and Sinaloa, where millions of Mexican workers had returned after being forced out of the United States. They were angry and jobless, and politicians saw the highly visible, prosperous Chinese as a scapegoat at which they could channel those frustrations.
Chinese men were ordered deported and their Mexican wives and children were arbitrarily stripped of their citizenship. Some fled from Sonora and Sinaloa to other parts of Mexico, but most were chased from their towns, ending up as penniless refugees in the United States. They couldn’t stay there, because the United States had banned Chinese immigration, so they were shipped off to Guangdong, where they were left to eke out new lives in the villages of Taishan.
It was a shock. Bigamy was still a common practice at the time, and many of the men who had immigrated to Mexico had wives back home. Their Mexican wives found themselves put in the intolerable position of being demoted to second wife, forced to live among hostile in-laws who regarded them with suspicion. To make matters worse, these women were stateless, since neither China nor Mexico recognised them as citizens. Previously successful marriages fell apart under the strain.
Back in Mexico, the Chinese left an economic hole in their wake. “My aunt remembers that all of a sudden the Chinese businesses were gone,” says Schiavone Camacho. But few people discussed the expulsions until recently. “I thought, ‘Why haven’t I heard about this expulsion?’” She began to look into it, tracking down Chinese Mexican families to interview. Her research eventually look her to Hong Kong and Macau, where many of the Chinese Mexicans ended up after life in their ancestral villages proved too difficult to endure.
Macau, which had been administered by Portugal since the mid-16th century, was a particularly attractive destination. “A lot of people were drawn to Macau because of the Portuguese, the Iberian culture, the churches and plazas,” says Schiavone Camacho. Even those who went to Hong Kong found themselves closely associated with the large and influential Portuguese community, and the Portuguese-built St. Teresa’s Church on Prince Edward Road became a hub for the community.
“The church was really important in getting people together,” says Schiavone Camacho. In 1958, a Chinese Mexican parishioner named Antonio Pun Valez donated an image of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the Virgin Mary, who is said to have appeared four times on a hill near Mexico City in 1531, speaking to a young Aztec peasant in his native language of Nahuatl. The Virgin of Guadalupe is widely worshipped in Mexico, and on her feast day of 12 December, Chinese Mexican pilgrims from around Hong Kong and Macau made their way to St. Teresa’s to pay their respects. Her image still sits in the church today.
Some Chinese Mexicans tried hard to blend into local Cantonese-speaking society, especially if they had more Chinese features that made it easier to pass. But for many others, their time in exile only affirmed the sense that they were Mexican above all. In Macau, a church worker named Ramón Lay Mazo lobbied tirelessly for Chinese Mexicans to be allowed back into Mexico. Some 400 women and children had been allowed to return in the late 1930s, but only if they abandoned their Chinese husbands and fathers. Then World War II struck, forcing the remaining Chinese Mexican families into even more extreme hardship.
The war ended and the years dragged on. After the Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Lay shrewdly played to the Cold War sensibility of the era by asking Mexico to “rescue” Chinese Mexicans from Communism, which could strike down on Hong Kong and Macau at any time. As many influential Mexicans took up the cause of their compatriots exiled to China, the Mexican government finally acquiesced and allowed a group of 300 Chinese-Mexicans back.
Among them was Juan Chiu Trujillo. He was just five years old when his family was forced to abandon their home in the city of Tapachula, along with the hotel and restaurant they owned. They moved to his father’s village in China, but when the Japanese invaded on the eve of World War II, they fled to Macau. Chiu eventually learned Cantonese, married a Chinese woman and had four children. A fifth was on in 1960 when, thanks to Lay’s campaign, Chiu was finally granted the right to return to Mexico. He and his brood boarded a flight — all expenses paid by the Mexican government — and returned to the country he had been forced to abandon 30 years earlier.
In a 2012 interview with the Associated Press, Chiu recalled his time in his father’s Taishan village, where his Mexican mother would sing ranchera songs at the top of her lungs as she washed the family’s laundry in a stream. “We would recite the rosary in Spanish, she would teach us,” he said at his flat in Mexico City. His walls were decorated with Chinese calendars, family photos and images of Jesus and Our Lady of Guadalupe. “She would tell us, don’t forget you are Catholics, don’t lose your religion.”
Chiu said the repatriation allowed his family to thrive. “I was able to give my sons an education. The boys all graduated from college,” he said. “The oldest is an accountant, the second is a chemist, the third is a mathematician, and the young one is a musician.”
But what about those who stayed? “I found very little in Hong Kong,” says Schiavone Camacho. Her book focused on the Chinese Mexicans who were repatriated, but her latest research is looking into those who decided to remain. One thing she hasn’t yet discovered is the origin of the Mexico bun. According to a number of sources, the pastry was created by the Ng family, who were expelled from Mexico. In 1946, they opened a bing sutt on Shanghai Street, where they created the Mexico bun as a tribute to the concha, a traditional Mexican bun with a sweet cookie crust.
Mexico buns have since become a mainstay of any Hong Kong bakery, but nobody seems to know much about the Ng family or what happened to them. They may have planted roots in Hong Kong – or they may have gone back to Mexico. “People returned as late as 1980,” says Schiavone Camacho. Either way, their creation remains, sweet and satisfying, a testament to yet another little known chapter in Hong Kong’s history.
Additional reporting by Zabrina Lo.