Migrant Knowledge

The Chinese Fountain: Migrant Knowledge and World-Making in Early Twentieth-Century Peru

“La Fuenta China,” Mundial, Lima, no. 220, August 1, 1924.

On July 27, 1924, a festive inauguration took place in the Parque de la Exposición in Lima, Peru. It was of the monumental fountain the Chinese community in Peru had gifted to the Peruvian nation in honor of the centenary of its independence. The Fountain of the Three Races, as it became known, had been designed by the Italian architect Gaetano Morretti and made in Pietra Santa, Italy. After the monument was shipped to Peru, local contractors assembled it on site. The result, most contemporaries agreed, was a stunning piece of art. Placed on a small rotunda surrounded by lush palm trees, the fountain attracted the eye because of its elegance and the white Italian marble from which it was hewn. In a well-received speech, China’s chargé d’affaires to Peru, Yuming C. Suez, observed that no more beautiful symbol could have been created to represent the friendship between the two nations, as well as the “universal brotherhood and future union of all races.”1

The construction of the Chinese fountain was not an isolated act. In 1921, the German, Italian, English, French, Spanish, Belgian, Japanese, US-American, and Mexican communities also contributed to the beautification of Lima’s cityscape by gifting public buildings or monuments.2 In so doing, these migrant communities responded to President Augusto B. Leguía’s project of urban modernization that not only aimed at expanding utility services but also giving a new face to the public spaces outside the former city walls. Contributing to this campaign presented a viable route for them to gain recognition from the nation’s highest authority and simultaneously allowed them to publicly express their gratitude to Peruvian society.

In the conversations and negotiating processes surrounding these monuments, knowledge played a crucial role. Project initiators had a good understanding of Peruvian society and the ambitions of its current government. Moreover, they apprehended how these aspirations tied in with the president’s narratives about what the Peruvian nation should be and how the members of this pluricultural and multilingual society should live together. Representatives of the Chinese community deliberately appropriated elements of official discourses and blended them with their own views of Peruvian society in the statue they created. I understand this materialization of both a specific sense of being in the world and imagination of the nation and its connections to a wider world as a deliberate act of world-making, involving both the authorities and representatives of a migrant community.3

Between Inclusion and Exclusion

Chinese workers had first arrived in Peru during the 1850s. After Peru abolished slavery in 1854, about 100,000 indentured laborers were shipped across the Pacific to work on sugar and cotton plantations, in guano pits, on the construction of railroad lines, and in Peruvian households. These numbers sharply declined after the Chinese and Peruvian government signed the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation on June 26, 1874. Still, thousands of free foreign laborers and merchants remained in Peru while smaller numbers of migrants looking for new opportunities continued to arrive.4

The relationship between newcomers and local populations was complex. Indentured Chinese laborers faced the abuses of landowners and their employees, as well as of the officials who protected elite interests. Even the workers who managed to complete their contracts and work as free entrepreneurs could not entirely escape maltreatment. In their everyday life, they faced discrimination, violence, and regular violations of their rights. In 1881 and 1909 outbursts of extreme Sinophobia also led to pogroms against the Chinese in Lima that left many dead and numerous businesses destroyed.

In spite of such hostility, Chinese migrants found ways to carve out a place for themselves in Peruvian society from as early as the 1860s. In part they did so through congregating and collaborating among themselves. They created Chinese neighborhoods, helped each other out with work and loans, and created cultural societies. At the same time, members of the Chinese community found ways to establish links to Peruvian society as well. They learned the language, adopted Spanish names, conducted business with other groups, had relationships with and married local women, converted to Catholicism, and participated actively in Peruvian civic life.5

By the 1920s, Chinese wholesale traders and small business owners had become a fixture in many Peruvian cities and towns, offering valued services to the community. Anti-Chinese sentiments had not disappeared, however. They resurfaced in the heated debates over the question of whether new Chinese migrants should be allowed to come from China, while opponents of the Leguía government used a racial slur to oppose its attempts to bolster their inclusion. The Chinese, in turn, sought to benefit from Leguía’s benevolence towards migrant communities by celebrating Peru and their contribution to its development.6

Peru and China in a World of Liberty and Prosperity

The celebrations of the centenary of independence were central to President Leguía’s efforts to reinvent and reinvigorate the nation––efforts that were intended to lead to the creation of what he and contemporaries referred to as the Patria Nueva. In his new conceptualizations of the nation, Leguía created room not only for Peru’s indigenous population but its many migrant communities as well. This became visible, for example, in the street parade that took place on August 1, 1921. Of the twelve carts that participated that day, one had been created by the Japanese community and another by the Chinese. The latter’s enthusiastically praised wagon displayed two figures symbolizing the indigenous and Chinese traditions in Peru, respectively.7 The Chinese fountain was created in the same context.

We know nothing of the deliberations of the commission chaired by the Chinese wholesaler, Santiago Escudero Whu, that planned the fountain. Undoubtedly, Morretti, the architect, together with the Italian sculptors Giuseppe Graziosi and Valmore Gemignani, considerably influenced its design. But a closer look at the fountain reveals traces of the dialogue in which this specific migrant community was involved—a dialogue that bridged artistic and knowledge traditions. As Suez phrased it, this was a marvelous example of Italian art that had been inspired by “the Chinese concept of elevated ideals.”8

Let us consider two features of the fountain that showcase this dialogue between official government and Chinese imaginations of the nation and its place in the world. The first is the sculpture on top of the fountain. At the center of this statue is a female figure carrying a torch and a book. To her left stands another female figure that appears to be Asian and carries a basket filled with fruits. Two men are positioned to the right of the seated female figure. One of them stands and appears to be of the Caucasian race; the other sits and represents the African race. Around these four figures are three cherubim carrying a large garland.

In this allegory of liberty and the three races, different discourses converged. One of them related to the occurrence Peru had been commemorating in 1921: the acquisition of its independence from Spain a century earlier (July 28, 1821). Another discourse about freedom and national sovereignty formed pillars of the Patria Nueva ideology. Javier Prado, for example, a wealthy entrepreneur and intellectual who drafted Peru’s new constitution, wrote how the end of the First World War had heralded the dawn of a new era, an era during which the world would be reorganized according to the principles of peace, liberty, national sovereignty, and international collaboration.9 Third, liberty was an element of the history of the Chinese in Peru. As Suez reminded all those who attended the fountain’s inauguration, the emancipation of African slaves had led to the arrival of Chinese indentured workers, who were emancipated to become free laborers over time. Suez merged these discourses in his observation that all shared the common wish of a “fraternal fusion uniting all the efforts and activities of all nations, without exception, in promoting the world’s prosperity and the pursuit of improvement and general progress.”10

The second feature of the fountain that reveals the knowledge the Chinese brought to bear in its construction is comprised of the black patina bronze elements on the pedestal for the statue and on top of the platform on which this pedestal rests. One side features a male figure holding a jug from which a cherub drinks. Behind him is a plaque depicting Peru’s coat of arms and representing an allegory of the Amazon River. The opposite side features a female figure with Asian facial characteristics; she sits on a rock while a cherub holds a jug from which water is flowing. Positioned in front of the state emblem of the Empire of China, she symbolizes the Yellow River.

The two figures represent the friendship between the two nations. As Lima’s mayor, Dr. Pedro José Rada, explained in his speech to the gathered crowd, the water of the two rivers flowed together in the fountain’s basin. Rada not only recognized the symbolism, but he also used water as a theme to discuss the greatness of Chinese nature and civilization.11 Referring to a history of Chung Kuo (“Chon-Kuo,” center of the earth), he talked about the Yangtze, Yellow River, and Mekong, emphasizing their role in the cultures, now a thousand years old, that had developed around them. He also named several Chinese intellectuals, ranging from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China, whom he described as a harbinger of democracy and progress. In the following speech, President Leguía underscored this relationship between the two countries located on the opposite sides of the Pacific whose age-old civilizations were now connected through migration and trade. Suez, in turn, reaffirmed this point, mentioning how “the rice and silk of the Yangtze had arrived at the banks of the Amazon River, and coffee and sugar from the valley of Chanchamayo had approached the mouth of the Yellow River.”12 Once more, we see how ideas about progress, collaboration, and trade merged to form the pillars of a new notion to undergird not only the Peruvian nation but other nations of the world as well.

Making New Worlds

It is tempting to think of the Chinese Fountain as a symbol of liberty or friendship between nations. But it was more than this. The fountain was also a tool in a process of world-making that engaged representatives of the Peruvian government, the Chinese community in Peru, and an advocate of the Chinese Republic. Using knowledge of the other’s culture and aspirations, they succeeded in tying overlapping discourses to a monument brimming with symbolism. The Peruvians and Chinese people could benefit one another in their efforts to realize progress and become active participants in an incipient global order. Undoubtedly, much idealism and wishful thinking flowed into this dialogue. Suez’s observation of Peru as never “having instituted social barriers of prejudice based on racial distinctions, and always having observed the eternal laws of God, Nature and Equity” rings hollow.13 Yet this is what world-making is all about. These were new ideas about citizenship and nationhood and the place of the nation in an increasingly interconnected world that were supposed to shape new realities. Regrettably for the Chinese community, their impact would be limited. With Leguía’s political demise in 1930, the alliance between the government and the migrant communities ended as well. Only in more recent times has the fountain come to serve again as a locus of knowledge production about the Chinese community and the lasting role its members have played in making Peru what it is today.


Nino Vallen (@NPVallen) is a research fellow in Latin American History at the GHI’s Pacific Office at UC Berkeley. In his current research project, he explores the role of the Chinese migrant worker in the stories that people in South America told in disputes about the exploitation of natural resources during the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries.

  1. Qtd. in “Solemne entrega de la Fuente obsequiada por la colonial china a la ciudad de Lima,” La Prensa, Lima, July 28, 1924, 1. ↩︎
  2. For more details about these projects, see Juan Luis Oregon Penagos, ¡Y llegó el Centenario! Los festejos de 1921 y 1924 en la Lima de Augusto B. Leguía (Lima: Titanium Editores, 2014); Johanna Hamann, Leguía, el Centenario y sus monumentos: Lima, 1919-1930 (Lima: Fondo Editorial de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 2015). ↩︎
  3. For a more detailed discussion about the relationship between art and migrant world-making, see Anne Ring Petersen and Moritz Schramm, “(Post)Migration in the Age of Globalization: New Challenges to Imagination and Representation,” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 9, no. 2 (2017): 1–12. ↩︎
  4. Humberto Rodríguez Pastor, Herederos del dragón: historia de la comunidad China en el Perú (Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú, 2000), 59–100. ↩︎
  5. Benjamín N. Narváez, “Becoming Sino-Peruvian: Post-Indenture Chinese in Nineteenth-Century Peru,” Asian Journal of Latin American Studies 29, no. 3 (2016): 1–27. ↩︎
  6. Adam McKeown, Chinese Migrant Networks and Cultural Change: Peru, Chicago, Hawaii, 1900–1936 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), 168–71. ↩︎
  7. Oregon Penagos, ¡Y llegó el Centenario!, 84. ↩︎
  8. Qtd. in “Solemne entrega,” 1. ↩︎
  9. Javier Prado, La nueva epoca y los destinos históricos de los Estados Unidos (Lima: Emp. Tip. “Unión”, A. Giacone, 1873). ↩︎
  10. Qtd. in “Solemne entrega,” 1. ↩︎
  11. Ibid. ↩︎
  12. Ibid. ↩︎
  13. Ibid. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Nino Vallen, "The Chinese Fountain: Migrant Knowledge and World-Making in Early Twentieth-Century Peru," Migrant Knowledge, September 19, 2022, https://migrantknowledge.org/2022/09/19/the-chinese-fountain/.