Tireless Chinese Gardeners
Provide Fresh Vegetables For People Of Zone
Panama Canal Review, January 6, 1956
Few local color slide or black-and-white photograph collections are without one of the Canal Zone's most typical pictures - a Chinese gardener plodding between rows of beans or carrots or heading cabbage, his sprinkling cans hung from a shoulder yoke.
It is not difficult to get such a picture. Except during a heavy rain, there is almost no hour between sunrise and sunset when a photographer cannot find at least one coolie-hatted Chinese watering his bright green vegetables in one of the 14 truck gardens in the Canal Zone. And during the dry season, the sprinkling is repeated five or six times a day.
Growing of garden truck by the indefatigible Chinese gardeners in what is now the Canal Zone dates back much further than any living Isthmian can probably remember. For information as to who these present day gardeners are and how they work, The Panama Canal Review turned to Harry Chan, a retired Canal employee now operating the restaurant at the Balboa YMCA-USO.
Mr. Chan, who ran a general store in Culebra during construction days and later worked for the Canal organization for many years, is one of the unofficial sponsors, interpreters and trouble shooters for the Chinese gardeners. Hawaiian-born, he speaks five or six of the Chinese languages and can understand - and make them understand him - most of the local truck farmers.
Scarely a month goes by that some of the gardeners do not come to him with their problems, personal or professional. Frequently he makes the rounds of the gardens, with one of the sanitary inspectors, who see to it that all health regulations are being complied with. Mr Chan then translates into Chinese any instruction or criticisms the inspector may make.
Most of the Canal Zone truck gardeners, Mr. Chan says, come from Kwang Tung Province in south China. Kwang Tung, whose capital is Canton, is one of the most fertile and highly cultivated provinces of China, or was before the Bamboo curtain shut China off from the rest of the world.
In addition to their heritage of farming skill, the people from Kwang Tung province have inherited a wanderlust; they use to travel abroad much more than any other single group of Chinese.
Sang Lee, who runs one of the gardens near Corozal, is a typical Cantonese. He has been in the Canal Zone at least a quarter of a century; he set up his first garden near Diablo Heights. When Diablo Heights began to expand, his license there was canceled and he was assigned to a new plot of ground just off Gaillard Highway.
Some years ago he saved enough money to send for a wife, Mr. Chan says. They now have several children. Like most of the gardeners, he speaks very little English and not much more Spanish - "just enough to sell," Mr. Chan explains.
Only a few of the truck gardeners are married. Most of them, like Tom Kong Yu who holds the license for the truck garden near the Limits in Balboa, live in a sort of bachelor establishment with their employees, taking turns gardening and housekeeping.
At the Limits garden, Tom Kong Yu and his four workers, three of whom were born in Panama, live on the larger of the two plots he holds. This one-and-a-half hectare plot is licensed as an agricultural and dwelling area. The smaller plot gives him space for his sales store.
Incidentally, Tom Kong Yu is one of the few Chinese gardeners who may properly
be called "Tom,"although that has been the name by which Canal Zone housewives
have addressed the purveyors of their green goods for many years.
Like the other truck gardeners, Sang Lee and Tom Kong Yu agreed, when their licenses were issued, to abide by sanitary and other regulations of the Canal Zone. They may not use manure to fertilize their gardens; they must wash all vegetables in running water before they can be sold, and they must keep their premises in accordance with sanitary regulations. The basic rules have even been translated into Chinese for their benefit.
All of the truck gardeners also agree, when their plots are licensed, to give the Commissary Division first call on their produce. Arthur S. Miller, buyer for the commissaries, makes regular rounds of the gardens, ordering vegetables for delivery the following day.
The surplus from the gardens may then be offered to individual purchasers, although the gardeners must give priority on sales to residents of the Canal Zone or to Zone employees and members of the armed forces who may live in Panama.
None of the gardeners raise all the produce they sell from their little stands. Some of the fruit for which they do not have space or proper land, like pineapples and oranges, is brought from the market in wholesale lots and resold at retail. Even here, they are restricted. The sanitary inspectors ask them to buy any such items from shipments coming into Panama City from El Valle, the Volcan or Boquete, all highland regions.
Truck gardening by Chinese gardeners in the Canal Zone area is much older than the Canal Zone. Early Canal files mention the $6 a year rate charged by the French Canal Company for a hectare of land used for agricultural purposes. Early Canal Zone officials considered this rate much too high and reduced it to $3 a year.
In 1906, the Isthmian Canal Commission received a letter from the Wah Me Hing Company of Baltimore, Washington and Hong Kong, asking permission to establish 10 or 15 truck gardens in the Canal Zone.
"The primary purpose of these gardens," the company wrote, "would be the maintenance and health of the coolie laborers, but the sale of vegetables and produce would add to the health and comfort of any workers."
The first of this chain of garden-stores was to be located at Empire, the second between Mindi and Cristobal, and the third near Panama. The Government of Panama gave its official blessing to the project, provided the Chinese did not reside in the Republic but the old files give no indication as to whether the plan was ever carried out.
However the gardens were established, there was truck farming by Chinese in the Canal Zone during the very early part of the construction period. Oldtimers recall that the gardeners not only planted the seeds, fertilized and watered the plants, weeded the rows and harvested the crops, but also peddled their vegetables from door to door in baskets hung from the same kind of shoulder yokes as they use to carry their watering cans today.
By 1908, the old records show, there were 42 Canal Zone land leases for gardens in the names of Chinese. (It is impossible to resist reporting here that one gardener, not Chinese, was named Samuel Parsly.)
Stimulated By Wars
About the time of World War I, the Supply Department operated what was known as the "Cattle Industry."This included a number of truck gardens. Mr. Chan remembers two large gardens of this sort, one at Summit where about 15 Chinese grew vegetables and fruit, and another not far from Frijoles. Frijoles papayas are still about the best on the Isthmus; the trees on which they grow may be holdovers from this old garden. The gardeners operated on a shorecropper basis; the bulk of their produce went to the commissaries but they could retain one-third for private sale.
World War II, with its supply problems gave another impetus to truck gardening in the Canal Zone. At this time, the gardeners increased both their output and also added to the variety of the fruits and vegetables they grew.
Today's truck gardens range in size from a half-hectare plot at Cocoli to a two-and-a-half hectare piece of land at Summit. All but two of them are on the Pacific side of the Isthmus.
There are four gardens at Corozal, more than in any other community and all of them close to Gaillard Highway. Balboa, Miraflores, Margarita and Mount Hope have one garden each; Cocoli, Paraiso and Summit have two apiece.
The two gardens at Cocoli are licensed to the same man, Chan Wei. Several of the other gardeners are related and in many cases the license has relatives working for him.