QCOSTARICA by Michael Miller – If you have any Costa Rican friends who live in San José, and you would like to see them laugh, bring up the subject of Barrio Chino. This is the city’s newly created Chinatown.
San José did not have a Chinatown until 3 years ago. It was in 2012 that the city took the very busy Calle 9, and converted 7 blocks of it into a pedestrian walkway. At the northern end of the walkway, on Avenida 2, they built a grand Chinese “welcome gate,” put up a sign that said “Barrio Chino” and announced to the world that San José now has a Chinatown.
Many Ticos have been very critical of this. They cite problems like the rerouting of traffic, the loss of bus stops (and the loss of the shoppers who came on those buses), and the constant flooding that takes place during the rainy season.
But the criticism that you hear most from our Tico friends is: “There aren’t any Chinese in Chinatown.”
Welllll . . . . not so fast.
At first glance you may think that our Tico friends are correct. The first thing that you see as you approach the Chinese Welcome Gate is a very popular Colombiana Panaderia (or bakery). Walk under the Gate and you will immediately see another popular, local, bakery.
Then, if you walk half a block, the pedestrian walkway opens up to the Plaza de las Artes which is famous for the statue of John Lennon sitting on a park bench. On the left is the pretty Soledad Catholic Church, and across the Plaza from the church is a Pops Ice Cream outlet.
You can’t get any more Costa Rican than that! And it is certainly not Chinese.
But keep on walking. As you continue south along the walkway, you will see many Chinese owned businesses. Some of them have been part of the neighborhood for a long time, and some of them brand new.
One of the newest businesses is run by a young Chinese entrepreneur, Tony Wong. Tony’s store features Chinese designed clothing for young children. He tells us that his products have been very popular with Costa Rican parents and that he has styles that cannot be found anywhere else in the country.
When we arrived at his store, Tony was brewing some Chinese green tea on an interesting looking grill in the picture window of his store. He served us some of the delicious tea in elegant little Asian teacups.
Tony, from Canton (Guangzhou), China, has been in Costa Rica for three years and speaks Spanish quite well. His store is called Tong Fei Hsiao Ke, and it has only been open a couple of weeks. We are not sure if Tony has decided on a Spanish name for his store yet.
On the next block, we discovered the store where Tony purchased his tea set. This store is called Asiatica, and it is chock full of all kinds of things that you would need for a Chinese kitchen. You will find dishware, pots and pans, ceramics, decorative sets of chopsticks, knives and cleavers of all sizes, as well as herbs, oils, spices and teas.
One of the most interesting discoveries in Barrio Chino was the Chinese-Costa Rican Cultural Center. On two floors, the Cultural Center has classrooms, offices and a large open room where they offer Tai Chi lessons. In addition, you can sign up for classes in Chinese cooking or learn to speak and write Mandarin Chinese.
The administrator for the Cultural Center, Monica Hong, originally from Canton, China, tells us that the cooking classes are particularly popular with both Chinese and Ticos. There are 8 classes and they charge 8,000 colones (about $16 U.S.) for each two-hour class.
Another fun stop in Barrio Chino is the Hobby Center. This specialty store, owned by Joanna Fu, features hundreds of different model kits of cars, trucks, battle ships, military tanks, planes, helicopters, and much more. Some of these come from China, but many others are from Russia, Japan, Korea and other countries.
Ronald, the Hobby Center’s Tico sales guide, helped us to learn about the huge selection available. He explained to us that these are very exact scale models. And, because of the price tags on many of these models, most of their customers were not children, but grown-up kids.
If you want to get a real feel of China, there is one store that sells Chinese art and porcelain. We could not figure out the name of the store, but there is no mistaking it. As you walk back through this cavernous place, you will see typical Chinese wall art, small statues, and beautiful dishes and serving sets.
Keep walking all the way to the back of the store. You will be rewarded with an amazing selection of exquisite porcelain statuettes and urns. We are told that these are from the “porcelain capital of China” along the Yangtze River, where Chinese craftsmen have been making pieces like this for centuries. Many are remarkably beautiful, and quite expensive; some of the pieces costing many thousands of U.S. dollars.
As you continue walking south on the Barrio Chino walkway, you will come to a statue of the Chinese philosopher, Confucius. At this point, you are at the southern end of San José’s Chinatown.
If you are familiar with Chinatowns in the western U. S. or Canada, you may conclude that San José’s Barrio Chino does not have the look, the smells or the feel of the older more established Chinatowns in other cities. For one thing, there are very few Chinese restaurants in Barrio Chino, and those that are there, are more like Tico sodas. There was no dim sum, no live fish, no Peking ducks hanging in the windows.
But to say that there are no Chinese in San José’s Barrio Chino is not accurate. This is the world’s newest Chinatown. It is young and it is growing. The businesses that you see there today, are the pioneers. And there is enough to see right now to make it worth your time to take a walk through Barrio Chino the next time you are in Downtown San José.
Besides, if you get hungry, the popular Asian restaurants, Tin Jo and Don Wang are on the next block over, on Calle 11. It’s all part of The Real San José.
Michael Miller is the author of the first and only guidebook that focuses on Downtown San José, titled: The Real San José.