The Forgotten Massacre of Chinese Immigrants During
the Mexican Revolution
Julián Herbert Chronicles an Unsung Outrage
Walter J. Lim’s former country house is a chalet-style building with green roof tiles and redbrick walls whose color is intensified by lines of white mortar. The roof is curved and seems to break like an emerald wave onto the garden, in which dwell, alongside younger orange and grapefruit trees, a pair of ancient mulberries. These trees—perhaps members of the same species growing in the Venustiano Carranza woods to the east, where the Chinese-owned market gardens that supplied the town with fresh fruit and vegetables once flourished—testify to an entrepreneurial dream: converting a locality famous for its cotton fields into a silk-producing region. There was no time for this dream to be realized.
Six months after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, Francisco Madero’s rebel troops entered the grounds and raped the woman who cared for the house. Later, a mob attempted to lynch Dr. Lim near Plaza 2 de Abril, despite the fact that he was wearing the Red Cross insignia on his left forearm.
Walter J. somehow escaped to relate, some months afterward, his version of the small genocide perpetrated between May 13 and 15, 1911, in the northern Mexican city of Torreón, located in the region of La Laguna. Not all of his compatriots were so lucky: some 300 Chinese immigrants were murdered, their corpses mutilated, their clothes removed, and their belongings looted. The bodies were dumped in a mass grave, dug on the order of an Englishman, by the outer walls of Ciudad de los Muertos: the city of the dead. Others ended up under the waterwheels on the road to the Venustiano Carranza woods, an area then known as El Pajonal.
“The doctor was never an imperial consul or chargé d’affaires,” clarifies Silvia Castro, a thin woman with graying hair and an aquiline nose. “He was the leader of the local Chinese community, which is a very different thing. He’d already become a Mexican national before the massacre took place.”
We are at the entrance to the Museo de la Revolución, of which the schoolmistress is director. That is to say, at the doors of the chalet that belonged to Lim in the early years of the twentieth century. The building—a ten-minute cab ride from Torreón’s historic downtown—was subsumed within the city limits decades ago, and is now surrounded by a commercial zone and a middle-class residential area.
“This wasn’t his home,” adds Silvia. “He owned it, but didn’t live here. His brother-in-law, Ten Yen Tea, took care of it. Lim’s sister—the only Chinese woman mentioned in the archives—was here with her children when the rebels arrived. The doctor says they held the eldest girl at rifle point and forced her to say she’d marry them. Then they threw everyone out of the house and looted the property. The Ten family took refuge in the house of a man called Hampton.”
We enter the vestibule, a very short, dark passage, where a ceramic oval set into the wall announces:
This house was built by Dr. J. Wong Lim. It was later acquired by the Compañía Explotadora de Bienes Raices, S.A., and, according to a number of sources, functioned as a brothel. After this it belonged to Ignacio Berlanga García, and then Carlos Valdés Berlanga and his family. The house finally passed into the hands of Ramón Iriarte Maisterrena, who, during the Torreón Centenary celebrations, donated it as the seat of the Museo de la Revolución.
I’m amused by the parody of biblical genealogies the plaque devotes to private property. But it’s curious that the text names the original owner as J. Wong Lim: all the documents I’ve come across, including a newspaper advertisement for his medical practice, introduce him as Walter J. Lim, Sam Lim, or JW: anglicized versions of his name. It’s an unimportant detail, but also a temporal wink that suggests how deeply embedded in the oral tradition our knowledge of the massacre is.
I also find it ironic that Ramón Iriarte Maisterrena—former CEO of the Grupo Lala dairy company, a tutelary figure of Norteño conservatism, and perfect exemplar of the Spanish-American bourgeoisie: a prototype of unfettered capitalism—appears as the patron of the museum. I’d lay odds that, back in 1914, none of the heroes the premises extol would have considered its benefactor’s prosperity desirable, or even legitimate. is is one of the paradoxes that give Torreón its sublime air: a city deeply devoted to the Porfirio Díaz regime that loves the revolution with teenage passion.
It’s Monday. The exhibition rooms are closed to the public. In the shadows, I cross the freshly polished wooden floors, stand in windows resembling embrasures, squint to decipher cycloramas that, with concise paragraphs and blurred photographs, attempt to summarize a civil war that claimed a million lives (many of them victims of hunger and disease) in ten years. I ascend the pine staircase to the second floor. In one corner, I discover a mischievous image displayed in large format: the front page of El Imparcial glorifying the triumphs of Victoriano Huerta’s army in 1914.
But what actually catches my attention is a short note about the arrival of a new, relatively numerous Chinese diplomatic mission, composed of Chen Loh, Hu Chen Ping, T. Chen, and George H. Hu. I surmise that among their objectives was persuading Huerta to pay the 3,100,000 pesos in gold promised by President Madero after the unfortunate events in La Laguna. But Madero had been assassinated—on the orders of Huerta himself—one night in February 1913, without the permission of Western civilization, but with the approval of the Most Honorable Ambassador of the United States. I doubt it was part of the new revolutionary government’s plans to repay the debts of a dead democrat.
“Would you like some tea?” Silvia asks.
I accept her offer.
We go to her office, a building in the courtyard behind the beautiful chalet. We talk. The schoolmistress gives me a summary of the book Tulitas of Torreón, shows me images from the revolutionary era taken by H. H. Miller, allows me to digitize the copy of the English-language newspaper the Torreon Enterprise that stands framed on her desk, sets up an appointment with Ilhuicamina Rico, a local historian who has written about the pre-revolutionary Magonista liberal movement in La Laguna . . .
“Here,” she says, turning the screen of her computer toward me. “This is what the throng of needy souls looked like through the lens of Miller’s camera on the day before the attack.”
The photograph shows a collection of carts in supposedly military formation. No weapons are in sight. The vehicles are like the bodies of squatting, naked giants. The wood is rotten. The people—both men and women—appear to be in dire poverty.
“Those were the ones who attacked the Chinese,” asserts Silvia. “They were a troupe of scoundrels who followed the revolutionary armies everywhere, with the clear intention of looting. The majority weren’t even from around here. As Juan Puig notes at the end of Between the Perla and the Nazas Rivers, the events of May 15 were an unplanned tragedy: a spontaneous reaction by the mass of common folk, taking out their frustrations on a particular group of immigrants because they thought they were too different. What happened had little or nothing to do with an act of xenophobia carried out by the people of La Laguna.”
That is more or less the general consensus among Mexican historians, with only a few exceptions. It’s a plausible thesis, and one that sits comfortably with Lagunero idiosyncrasy, the middle classes, and the annals of the nation. It is a thesis with which I disagree.
The slaughter of the Chinese community in Torreón is a revealing but buried episode of the Mexican Revolution, and it cannot be said that the zero historical (re)cognition of it is due to a lack of documentary evidence. Between 1911 and 1934, various oral and print versions of the events were in circulation. A number—I won’t say a great number—of academics took an interest in the topic from 1979 to 2012. Read in Borgesian terms, one might say it is something that wants to be told: every few years, it refuses to die. This book is merely a version of that refusal.
In parallel, different interest groups—including, curiously, contemporary Chinese residents of Torreón—have done everything in their power to water down the story. And for this reason, it is difficult to access the nuances of its underlying causes.
I first heard about it as a child, from Julián Jiménez Macías, a boy from La Laguna whose precocious skirt chasing—one Halloween, while we were trick-or-treating along the dark streets of the Barrio del Alacrán—ended in my getting my head split open. As punishment, at his parents’ instigation, that other Julián turned up at my bedside on two or three afternoons and attempted to make up for that whack to the head with reports on Llanos soccer games, tabloid scandals, and stories involving corpses. In the version he told me, the murderer of the Chinese immigrants had been a legendary phantom: Pancho Villa.
With the passage of time, I discovered other incarnations of the events, and more than once imagined dedicating an evening of prose to them. A pretext for this arose in 2012, when a new edition of Between the Perla and the Nazas Rivers was published. My intention was to write a review; a thousand words at most. I soon discovered I had too much information and, more importantly, too many different opinions. I was tempted by the idea of undertaking something longer, based on Between the Perla and other sources. “It’ll be,” I thought, “an essay of 15 to 20 pages.”
By the summer of 2014, I’d unearthed enough to consider embarking on a historical novel, but as soon as I began to invent, it became obvious I was betraying the material I’d gathered: the fiction had already been written by the National Spirit. What didn’t exist was a crónica, in the hybrid Mexican sense of the term, with its blend of literature and journalism, objectivity and subjectivity. I decided to write an ambiguous story, a stylized cross section of history that would bring together the events of the past, and the dents they have left in the present (and in me). A “gonzo” reading applied to history. Not an epic or a tragedy, much less an academic thesis: an all-encompassing report.
In counterpoint to the above, as my research and its writing-up proceeded, I noted that the impulse toward the great Mexican novel had taken hold of me like a fever. In order to tell the story of the massacre, it seemed indispensable to include anecdotes about how I’d found my sources, and to note how strange it is that this small genocide continues to be a taboo subject for inhabitants of Torreón (especially among those in business).
To explain how it was that Torreón had such a large Chinese community at the beginning of the 20th century, it would be necessary to address the meteoric rise of the city, describe the semi-aristocratic, semi-picaresque condition of the region of La Laguna, attest to the coexistence of multiculturalism and racism within its traditions. To explain why the national Sinophobia reached its apotheosis in a freight rail terminal, I would have to go back to the origins of the Chinese diaspora, consider its consequences, and analyze the particular transnational character of that cultural and financial unity that extended, for one hundred years, through Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
I would also have to make use of the satirical penny press of the Porfirio Díaz presidency and the earliest documents on illegal migration between Mexico and the United States, whose protagonists were not wetback mojados, but people of Cantonese origin.
And I couldn’t fail to make use of the story of the first Confucian philosopher to tread the streets of a western town: Kang Youwei, the man who led the first revolution of the modern era in China, whose thinking would, moreover, have a degree of influence on Mao Zedong, and whose penchant for real estate speculation would be responsible for the founding, in the Mexican desert, of the Wah Yick banking and railroad company: the building housing this enterprise was the urban focus of the violence that resulted in the largest mass slaughter of Asians on the American continent.Why would anyone want to read such a book?
At times I doubted if anyone born outside of La Laguna would be interested in the region’s history. I mention it here because I feel the theatrical aspects of the massacre are important. But also because La Laguna is both old and exceptionally young; not dissimilar from, say, the humble Japanese fishing village that would, at the end of the nineteenth century, become the magnificent port of Yokohama. Both geographical and symbolic territories are the setting for an industrial and commercial liberal utopia, a secular religion that extracted from nothing worlds that, in certain eras, aged prematurely: almost at the same rate as a human being.
(I’m lying; I decided to keep my portrayal of Torreón due to a mere textual impulse: the desire to narrate the story of a city I love in the form of a parody—in the etymological sense Gérard Genette gives the word, namely, a parallel ode—of the 20th-century Latin American novel.)
I like the idea that these pages contain not only a story, but also an essay: an oblique reflection on violence in Mexico. I spoke to historians to give my choice of criteria a solid foundation, I interviewed the cab drivers who crossed my path, I endeavored to see our national history reflected in the daily life of contemporary Torreón, I gathered as many juicy anecdotes as I could, without caring that this took me on mischievous digressions . . . The result is a medieval book: a denunciation dressed up as a military and economic chronicle, with a smattering of short biographical sketches, in (equally unsuccessful) imitation of both Stefan Zweig and Marcel Schwob. An anthology of others’ texts, glossed and/or plagiarized in a language that eschews creative writing. A historical antinovel: overwriting: a stockpot with bony prefixes to season a greasy literary field that has run out of meat.
Why would anyone want to read such a book?
I asked myself that question in October 2014. I’d written 180 pages of The House of the Pain of Others when I was invited to speak about it at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile. I was doubtful: If my regional retablo ran the risk of being of no interest to Mexicans, what was the point of talking about it to people living on the other side of the world?
I traveled to Santiago de Chile in the company of another writer, Cristina Rivera Garza. The main topic of our conversation during that journey was one that to this day leaves me lost for words: the forced disappearance (declared a multiple homicide in February 2015 by the Mexican judicial system) of 43 students from the rural teacher training college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero State. At that moment—as we sleepily disembarked from our plane to meet our hosts, Professors Macarena and Fernando, and Cristina was detained for an hour by customs officers because she had forgotten to declare an innocent bag of almonds—we were unaware of what the case was about to become: a social and media phenomenon that would have a profound effect on the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto.
Although the 43 are not the most serious example of mass disappearance to occur in Mexico, they do represent a fundamental fracture of society and the state. The Sweet Nation; paraplegic and diamante.
While I was speaking in the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral about whatever came into my mind, in dozens of Mexican cities there was an upsurge of indignation that would briefly become global. at night, reading the news in a hotel in Providencia, I decided that although the massacre in Torreón might not be of interest to anyone else, for me it functioned as a shield of Perseus: a circle, burnished by time, on the surface of which I could glimpse, without being turned to stone, the Medusa’s head my country had become.
This is not the story you were expecting: it’s the one I have.
–Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney.
From The House of the Pain of Others: Chronicle of a Small Genocide by Julián Herbert. Used with permission of Graywolf Press. Translation copyright © 2019 by Christina MacSweeney.
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