Yellow Peril in a Globalized Tijuana: The Dog-Meat Incident, NAFTA, and Chinese Immigrant Labor

Lo Yen City

In October 2015, while in Tijuana’s Moustache Bar listening to anarcho punk from Mexico City, Pomona, and Riverside, I ran into a familiar Chinese woman in the bar’s patio. This Chinese woman who did not identify herself by name to me, can be seen frequently throughout Tijuana in her daily vending routes, especially in El Centro (downtown) and the Pasaje Rodriguez. Pushing her cart and shouting, “Chun-kuuuun! Chun-kuuun!”[1] she sells chicken, vegetable, and shrimp egg rolls for twenty and thirty pesos each, the equivalent of a dollar-fifty and two dollars. She has even caught the eye of the San Diego Reader, who identified the 31-year-old vendor as Liang Yanfen.[2] Many people coming from the US at the punk show only had dollars and she accepted them as well. The profit the Chinese woman made at the show from receiving dollars that night was surely higher than what she makes in her usual weekday sales. During a brief conversation she told me that her income decreased significantly since April 2015. In her seven-hour walking shifts she sells about thirty chun-kuns a day, a drop from the hundred she would sell daily before April. Aside from sharing with me that her street-vending became increasingly slow, she also presented a few pictures of her baby girl, whom her husband and mother care for while she works Tijuana’s downtown.

That same night the woman also struck up a conversation with a Chinese-American friend of mine who also happened to speak Cantonese and who purchased three chun-kuns from her. Surprised to find a fellow Cantonese-speaker in the crowd, the woman expressed relief at being able to talk with him. They exchanged words about her life in Tijuana. She told him that she had arrived three years before and that her husband had only joined her recently. Again, and most importantly, the woman told him how bad business has been since April. My friend also noted that chun-kun is the Spanish transliteration of the Cantonese word for egg roll. I did not know this previously, though I had learned the word “chun-kun” prior to “egg roll.” Growing up along the border I was familiar with Tijuana’s Chinese community from a young age. My mother hails from neighboring Mexicali, Chinese capital of the border, and I grew up expecting Chinese people to be part of urban centers in Mexico. This lexical detail only partly reveals the resilience of the Cantonese in the city amidst the turbulent history of Chinese immigration along the border.

But, what happened in April, and why did the woman tell my friend and I about the turn of events since? On 7 April 2015, Lo Yen City, a Chinese restaurant located in Tijuana’s Boulevard Fundadores, was shut down due to an anonymous tip provided to local police claiming that the restaurant was selling dog meat.[3] This old trope about Chinese restaurants serving dog or cat meat to patrons is widely known and circulated in Tijuana, as in other places. This time the tip was taken seriously and police raided Lo Yen City becausethe anonymous tipper also told of a haphazard slaughter of dogs they had witnessed in the restaurants’ backyard. The tip was revealed to be sadly true in the days to come and a dog corpse was found in Lo Yen City’s kitchen. Evidence of dog meat served to patrons is elusive, we will never know.. The untimely closure of the restaurant unleashed a racial hysteria throughout Tijuana tinted with turn of the century anti-Chinese sentiment. Chinese immigrants have long been present in northern Mexican border cities. The Chinese neighborhood of “La Chinesca” in Mexicali is a striking exemplar of the urban spatial changes decades of Chinese immigration brought to the border after the United States passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The law led to the deportation of Chinese immigrants and the banning of most Chinese immigration into the United States. Barring the lucky few who migrated clandestinely or were accepted as international students, the US experienced a lull in Chinese immigration.

The year 1882 signaled a watershed in Chinese-Mexican history by initiating the most important inflow of Chinese migrants into Mexico. At the time, the border’s favored expression of Yellow Peril relied on casting the Chinese as a threat to Mexican labor. The influx of Chinese migration coincided with the beginning of Mexico’s 1910 revolution, the Chinese were easy targets for exploitation and Mexico’s revolutionary fervor and nationalism aided in constructing them as economic competition during a time of uncertainty. The fervor led to a disastrous and painful anti-Chinese event in Torreon, Chihuahua, where 303 Chinese and five Japanese were murdered by followers of Francisco Madero. [4] In 1931, the Chinese were even expelled from Sonora. Historian Evelyn Hu-Dehart has discussed the role of Sinophobia in initiating anti-Chinese propaganda and sentiment in Northern Mexico, a means to consolidate the nascent Mexican national racial ideology of “mestizaje” amidst the revolution. [5] Mestizaje provided modern Mexico with a national identity based on Jose Vasconcelos’s 1925 influential essay, “The Cosmic Race.” Mexico’s cosmic race described and exalted the racial miscegenation of indigenous peoples and Europeans. Mestizaje is rooted in the Spanish colonial caste system’s designation for the offspring of Spanish settlers and indigenous people, and eventually became the Mexican state’s official national identity. While Vasconcelos believed the cosmic race would replace pure bloods, his calculations relied on the colonial racial order that left no room for the Chinese.

However, in the late 20th century US Empire opted for inclusion rather than exclusion. In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) forever changed constellations of land and labor between Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Tijuana in particular has been recipient of wealthy Asian investors’ capital in the region. The maquiladoras producing medical equipment, televisions, and glasses remain unregulated sites of production entrenched in exploitative labor practices. NAFTA has brought back nefarious hiring rituals that include pregnancy-tests, limitless sexual harassment, and worker intimidation in the maquiladoras. The labor force is primarily feminine because employers view female labor as more easily controllable and disposable.[6] Without going into too much detail about the environmental degradation, pollution, and health hazards maquiladoras are responsible for, it is fair to say that whatever economic contribution they make to Tijuana’s economy is undermined by the laundry-list of infractions these border factories commit..

Lest the border region appear victim to macabre foreign capital plans, NAFTA-inspired labor practices and foreign investment are warmly encouraged by the local municipalities and government. Tijuana’s elite still tout foreign investment and foreign-owned factories as symbols of success and modernity, a badge signaling Mexico’s entry into the league of modern nations. Mexico’s immersion into the global economy has benefited a small number of entrepreneurs and the fact that the majority of the population in Tijuana struggles to buy tortillas, milk, and eggs is seen as the citizenry’s inability to modernize itself and adopt the hard-working ethic necessary to triumph in late capitalism. The structural economic changes the city is experiencing are naturalized in favor of displacing blame on to the majority of the working poor population for not keeping up.

Meanwhile, the Tijuana elite who manage the poorest sectors reward their hard-work by vacationing in Europe and engaging in conspicuous consumption in San Diego’s Horton Plaza or Fashion Valley Mall, considered more upscale shopping malls than the geographically close San Ysidro Outlets located right at the border. The outlets are mainly frequented by Tijuana’s low-middle-classes with access to a visa and they are notorious for their high-traffic. As a high-schooler working there, I remember selling Guess shirts in bulk to wealthy Chinese visitors, likely surveying the area for potential future business. A sign of capitalist modernity, the complex changes that NAFTA has brought to the borderlands are not restricted to the financing of maquiladoras and the enrichment of the Tijuana elite.. NAFTA has also opened the door to demographic changes in the city stemming from national and international immigration.

One of these steady changes is reflected in my encounter with the Cantonese woman at the punk show in Moustache Bar on a mid-October Saturday night. Chinese capitalists now enjoy direct flights to Tijuana from Shanghai. For around three-thousand dollars you can cross the Pacific and reach Asia without having to depend on flights from San Diego. A mundane fact, perhaps, but the direct Asia-Mexico connection in Latin America is rare and novel considering the century-long presence of Asians throughout the continent. Only a few countries in Latin America can boast direct flights from China, notwithstanding their large Chinese populations. Argentina comes to mind as a clear example. The Shanghai-Tijuana flight symbolizes China’s important role in spreading Asian capital throughout the hemisphere, certainly a new stage in the Asia-South America relationship requiring a fast connection that bypasses the global north.

The Shanghai-Tijuana connection is bringing more to the city than rich Chinese men with expensive leather suitcases. Working-poor Chinese immigrants are also finding their way to Tijuana making use of the Mexican government’s friendly immigration policy with China”. Arriving with nothing more than a few contacts in the city, these working-class and working-poor Chinese immigrants populate Tijuana’s ubiquitous Chinese food industry. They are the young women who take your order and the men cooking your meals. Fast-forward to April 7, 2015 and the dog-meat scenario: Tijuanenses woke up to the inevitable reality of a fast-growing post-NAFTA urban metropolis. The inevitability of the occurrence does not reside in the dog-meat, nor on racist explanations of Chinese backwardness. The inevitability lies in Tijuana’s lure as a deregulated capitalist dream with ample room for the exploitation of workers, immigrant and national.

Local media repeatedly showed footage of Tijuana’s police raiding the Lo Yen City Chinese restaurant and soon after the story hit national news it was published in the tabloids, such as TV Notas[7]. The Chinese dog-meat scandal galvanized Tijuana and the rest of the country given the de facto common sense circulating in the Mexican imaginary about its Chinese inhabitants. As briefly discussed, Chinese presence in Mexico is not new and nor is anti-Chinese sentiment. The Tijuana dog-meat case demonstrates how fast the media and the public resorted to culturally racist explanations for unfortunate incidents related to Chinese immigrants. Six months later, I was able to glean the long-term material effects of the resurgence of Yellow Peril by talking to the Cantonese immigrant woman vending chun-kun in the city center. She still contends with the consequences of the dog-meat episode. Notwithstanding the precariousness of her labor peddling egg-rolls prior to the controversy, the incident jeopardized her ability to sustain her family even further.

After April, Tijuanenses boycotted Chinese restaurants all over the city, worried they would serve dog meat. Twenty restaurants closed and many more continue to struggle to stay afloat. The Chinese restaurants that remained open let Chinese staff go and the entire Chinese food industry in Tijuana was seriously impacted.[8] In this instance of Yellow Peril, racial difference is understood in terms of Chinese cultural difference, a version also reiterated by Chinese consul Wang Jian, who explained Chinese restaurants’ propensity to serve dog meat to patrons as an expression of local cultural practices from China.[9] Jian also expressed his opprobrium and made sure to sanction all legal actions taken against the Lo Yen City owner.

And what happened to the owner? He fled to the United States upon being bailed out of jail. The Cantonese vendor I talked with mentioned that had the owner stayed, he would have been ostracized from the Tijuana Chinese community for the financial damage he caused everyone. We will never know if Lo Yen City served dog meat to Tijuanense patrons of the restaurant, or if the meat was prepared by and for the consumption of the Chinese owners and workers. All we know certain is that a dog corpse was found in the kitchen.

The cultural superiority expressed by Tijuanenses at having found the Chinese responsible for such an atrocity would probably be short-lived if the same scrutiny were redirected to Mexican-run local businesses. Everyone in the city has heard of the urban legend suggesting that taco stands without street dogs nearby mean you are getting a dog taco. The difference between the taco stand and the Chinese restaurant is simple. The former belongs to “us,” ostensibly the mestizo Mexicans, whereas the latter is a foreign addition to Mexican fast food. Never mind that Chinese food has been around for at least a century in the region! Tijuanenses felt the need to punish the Chinese businesses for poor hygienic conditions. The dog-meat crisis helped Tijuana bolster itself as a modern and civilized city that would not tolerate this kind of practice. As much as restaurant goers would like to think the cockroaches and lack of food handling permits are symptomatic of Chinese restaurants, I suggest an alternative explanation.

This is not to argue that the Chinese restaurant owner who decided to butcher street dogs is not guilty of deception, but there is a broader culture of deregulation that enables this kind of business practice. The incident demonstrates how racially inspired hysteria disguised as cultural difference has real, lived effects on the livelihoods of vulnerable Chinese immigrant populations. The Cantonese street vendor central to this essay arrived to Tijuana following a route laid out by NAFTA agreements, which turned the border into a place of unrestricted free enterprise. NAFTA paved the way for Chinese financial investment in Tijuana and also initiated flows of Chinese people into Tijuana. In the meantime, the Cantonese woman will continue her daily grind selling chun-kuns downtown. If you run into her while in Tijuana, do not be afraid to buy some.

Jael Vizcarra is a Ph.D. student at the University of California San Diego in the Department of Ethnic Studies. Her dissertation research focuses on the 1979 Argentine decree that granted political asylum to 293 Southeast Asian families during Argentina’s military dictatorship. Jael’s dissertation gestures towards a transnational reading of the US-centric and universalizing category of “Asian-American” by elucidating the geopolitical implications of South American racial formations that produce Asians beyond US-based racial logics and categories.





[4] Delgado, Grace. 2012. Making the Chinese Mexican: Global Migration, Localism, and Exclusion in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. Stanford University Press. pg 104.

[5] Ibid., pg. 3

[6] Schmidt Camacho, Alicia R. 2005. “Ciudadana X: Gender Violence and the Denationalization of Women’s Rights in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico” The New Centennial Review. Vol (5) 1