San José’s Chinatown (Paseo de los Estudiantes), the World’s Youngest Chinatown

The Chinatown's Paifang

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Excluding the frigid wasteland of Antarctica, each and every continent around the world boasts dozens of Chinatowns. While for the most part, this ubiquitous feature of modern-day cities was formed organically as more and more Chinese immigrants settled across the globe, it is not always the case. At first glance, Barrio Chino de San José might seem like any of its older counterparts, however, this newly-created Chinatown has a different story to tell, where soft diplomacy and an ambitious plan for urban renewal coincide.


It is plausible to assume that an unsuspecting passerby who stumbles upon the Iconic Paifang in the Costa-Rican capital will most probably believe that it lies there for over a century. Nevertheless, it couldn’t be furthest from the truth, as the formidable gateway along with the dozens of sculptures, monuments and Chinese-owned businesses are all part of a 2012’s project that transformed the somewhat sleepy Calle 9 into the country’s first Chinatown.


Unlike most districts of its kind around the world which developed over time due to influx of Chinese migrants, San José’s Chinatown was born as a joint collaboration between the Chinese and the Costa-Rican governments. While the government of China, who funded most of the project, sought to extend its influence in Central America, local officials were eager to revive a gritty piece of their capital city, making it a win-win situation.


The brand-new Chinatown spans across the half-a-kilometer-long Paseo de los Estudiantes, an 8,300m2 pedestrian area named after a group of students from the nearby “Liceo de Costa Rica”, who peacefully protested against the autocratic regime of Federico Tinoco Granados in the late 1910’s. Despite the initial controversy over the historically significant location as well as the pedestrianization of what was a major traffic artery, the Chinatown injects a much-needed life in an otherwise dusty neighborhood.

Food and Shopping Scene

It goes without saying that a visit to a Chinatown is first and foremost about food. With tens of restaurants and cafés across the street, Barrio Chino de San José has no lack of scrumptious bites to try, many of which incorporate both Chinese and local culinary influences.


Located at the corner of Avenida 8, Restaurant Bai Ji offers a plethora of typical Chinese food, most notably the Peking duck, slices of roasted and glazed duck that are served with pancakes and sweet bean dressing. The adjacent Yomi Cake & Tea on the other hand is a pilgrimage site for sweet lovers, who can find here numerous types of bubble tea alongside whipped cream-topped sponge cakes. If you are a dim-sum enthusiast, then Restaurante Wikiped is where you can find plenty of these fluffy Chinese buns, while Tang Dian Xuan Café has a hodgepodge of mochis, gyozas and other small eats from East Asia.


Beside its ample gastronomic scene, Paseo de los Estudiantes is also home to several Chinese supermarkets and shops, where one can find traditional Chinese grocery items and adorable knickknacks. Interestingly, many of the stores do not try to keep a sterile Chinese identity, showcasing also Japanese and Thai style trinkets, whereas some go as far as offering also Matryoshkas and figurines of the Statue of Liberty. Strange as it may sound, this mosaic resonates with Costa-Rica’s multi-cultural legacy of merging different influences from all over the planet.

Notable Places to See

Due its unique circumstances, San José’s Chinatown is far from being a pure ethnic enclave, and as such, functions like another layer in the urban fabric, side by side with landmarks that far predate its existence. Visitors who stroll along the Paseo de los Estudiantes can witness a Catholic church towering over buildings with signs in Mandarin, or a pair of Chinese guardian lions meters away from a calypso street performance, a testimony to the district’s mixed heritage.


Perhaps the most conspicuous monument of all is the Chinese style arch, commonly known as paifang, marking the very entrance to the Chinatown. Partly made of reinforced concrete, the 15-meter wide and 10-meter-tall gate cost more than half a million USD to construct, with its opening being wide enough for emergency vehicles to go through. It might come as a surprise, but despite being the single most traditional element we all associate with China, the paifang’s four bases are crowned with 8 spherical sculptures, representing Costa Rica’s indigenous culture.


Nestled next to the pedestrian street’s south end is a medium-sized statue of Confucius, an ancient Chinese scholar whose teachings form a substantial part of the Chinese culture.
Built in the 19th century, the Baroque-style Church of Our Lady of Solitude has been here long before the place’s current reincarnation, and is famous for its series of breathtaking Swiss stained-glass windows that depict different biblical stories. Facing the church is the Plaza de las Artes, a public square with modern sculptures and vividly-colorful murals.