Notes from the Mexicali Chinese Underground

MEXICALI.-The Chinese shop owner stepped out from behind the 1970s era cash register. She raised the trapdoor behind her glass display counter, revealing a set of wooden stairs covered with ancient, flaking green paint. The musty smell wafted up from the red-lit basement below, as our group descended into the subterranean world of Mexicali's early 20th century Chinese population.

It's a little known fact of Mexico's history that Mexicali's first Chinese immigrants chose to settle beneath the city's streets. And that they built a complex system of basements and tunnels to form an autonomous subterranean community, with its own infrastructure, institutions and laws. At its peak, the underground system spanned the entire width and length of Mexicali's Chinatown, commonly referred to as 'La Chinesca'.

In 2015, the Committee for the Historic Center of Mexicali and Project Origins opened the Chinesca's then abandoned tunnels for tours. I was in Mexicali to unearth the story of the immigrants' submersion with culinary professional Ana Laura Holguin, chef Esteban Lluis of Mexicali's Ambar Cocina Urbana, and Mexico City-based food writer Nicholas Gilman.

Mexico City food writer Nicholas Gilman descends into the Chinese underground. Photo AGringoInMexico.com

"At first, the immigrants lived down here to avoid the heat of the summer," our tour guide Claudia began in Spanish as we clambered into the first of about ten subterranean spaces we'd visit that day. Indeed, temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in this unforgiving desert region. Digging a deep hole in the cool earth to escape the oppressive heat would have seemed like a viable idea at the time.

Steps leading down to one of Mexicali's many basements. Photo AGringoInMexico.com

Claudia continued, "The Chinese began to arrive around 1900, when Mexican president Porfirio Díaz granted permission to the Colorado River Land Company in the U.S. to build a canal in the Imperial Valley. The plan was to connect the region's dry basin to the Colorado River for agricultural irrigation."

Such a massive undertaking required a lot of manpower. In an ironic twist of history, it was more affordable to hire Chinese laborers than local Mexican workers in the early 1900s. So landowners with a stake in the project imported men from the U.S. and China to help with the digging, along with their families. Mexicali's 1902 population of 80 quickly swelled to include thousands of Chinese.

"Once the irrigation system was finished, many of the immigrants stayed and settled in Mexicali," Claudia paused to show us a set of black and white photos taped to the basement wall of the city's first restaurants, bars and businesses. "The Chinese also used the city as a base for finding jobs working on the railroad system in the western U.S. and Mexico. Some of them never left. They lived in, as well as beneath, the town center and established the Chinesca in 1918."

Images of the early Chinesca in one of Mexicali's basements. Photo AGringoInMexico.com

The Chinesca grew as Chinese entrepreneurs arrived during U.S. prohibition in the 1920s — building bars, restaurants, casinos and hotels to serve a thirsty north-of-the-border clientele. Bootleggers from the U.S. utilized and expanded upon the Chinese tunnel system to move product across the border and provide access to underground bordellos and opium dens to visiting gringos.

One basement we visited staged what one of those "dens of iniquity" might have looked like. There's a daybed for the lethargic opium smoker with a nightstand containing several long-stemmed pipes. Still roulette wheels and empty card tables sit, recalling jollier times in the now dank room's perimeter. And since the opiate-inclined came here to "chase the dragon", there are a couple of the swirling mythological creatures painted on the wall for good measure.

A former underground "den of iniquity" in Mexicali. Photo AGringoInMexico.com

Our next stop was at an old cinema, where we viewed a short film on the history of the Chinese in Mexicali. We learned that the Chinese continued to live underground as a means to avoid persecution during the second Mexican Revolution. In 1911, Revolutionary leaders demanded that the Chinese in Mexico – around 13,000 at the time – be sent back to China, as there was a popular belief that they were competing with Mexicans for business and the affections of Mexican women.

A child's bedroom beneath the basement steps. Photo AGringoInMexico.com

Mexican resentment came to a head when revolutionary forces loyal to Francisco I. Madero massacred over 300 Chinese residents of the city of Torreón, in the state of Coahuila. Fortunately, Mexicali avoided any serious threat of violence against its population due to their numbers and the immigrants' formation of a strong union. That union, the Asociación China de Mexicali, continues today and is influential in the city's decision-making process.

Having escaped the horrors of persecution, the Chinese redoubled their development efforts and the Chinesca flourished in the mid century. After World War II, Mexicali welcomed a wave of Chinese refugees fleeing communism, and the city's population expanded once more. It was during this era when most of the Chinesca's buildings were constructed.

Mexicali's Chinesca today. Photo AGringoInMexico.com

Mexicali's Chinese eventually abandoned the tunnel system in part due to the invention of air conditioning and the industrial, window-set "swamp coolers" — ubiquitous in the Chinesca. Some families still live "underground", albeit in apartment buildings such as the Hotel Cecil, which is partly subterranean with a street level entrance.

Mexicali's Hotel Cecil. Photo AGringoInMexico.com

As the tour concluded, we climbed out of the last basement, up the last set of stairs and into the bright October sun. As we walked the Chinesca, we didn't encounter any Asian residents until we arrived at Esteban Lluis' favorite Chinese restaurant for a late lunch. Even here, the Mexican staff outnumbered the Chinese 3-1. The city still maintains a population of around 5,000 Chinese, but many have moved to Calexico, California just across the border.

Throughout their history in Mexicali, the Chinese have been both summarily shunned and warmly welcomed. The basements, tunnels and remnants of their former lives in this subterranean museum remain as a testament to their persecution as well as their acceptance in Mexican society.

You can find out more about public tours of the Chinese underground (Spanish guide only) by visiting their Facebook page at Orígenes y Secretos de La Chinesca.

For those interested in an English or Spanish language tour, including lunch at a Chinese or fusion restaurant and a tasting of some of Mexicali's excellent craft beers, Escape to Baja can arrange a single day, round trip experience from San Diego or Tijuana for parties of 6-14. Contactwww.escapetobaja.wordpress.com

San Diego-based culture, food and travel journalist W. Scott Koenig has explored Mexico and Baja California for over two decades. He founded AGringoInMexico.com in 2012 to report on south of the border destinations, food, culture and adventure. The website has since become an invaluable source of information on the burgeoning food and culture scene in Baja California, as well as the wider scene throughout Mexico. Visit Scott's websites and social media via the links, below.

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