How Buenos Aires Grew a Chinatown from a Shed
Main image shows Walter Lui in Buenos Aires Chinatown.

How Buenos Aires Grew a Chinatown from a Shed

Migration from China and Taiwan to the Argentine capital began in the 1980s. Since then, the city’s barrio chino has evolved from a tiny indoor market to a bustling neighbourhood of Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Korean restaurants and shops.
April 24, 2017, 1:21pm

Buenos Aires Chinatown started life in shed. Back in the 1980s, Taiwanese migrant families would gather at weekends in a makeshift indoor market to sell homegrown Chinese vegetables.

Nearly 40 years on, however, and the Argentine capital boasts a small yet flourishing barrio chino. Situated in the Belgrano neighbourhood, the area is home to a Buddhist temple and a Chinese community centre, as well as enough Asian restaurants and amply stocked supermarkets to establish the area as the go-to place for fresh fish, lemongrass, and any kind of packet noodle imaginable.

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For the past 16 years, Walter Lui's family has run one of the most popular restaurants in the Buenos Aires Chinatown, Hong Kong Style. Dad Cheuk Hung Lui, a Hong Kong-born former football player, and mum Lih Lih Hwang, originally from Taiwan, met in Argentina. Cheuk ditched sport for food and opened Hong Kong Style in 2001, before moving the restaurant to its current premises five years later.

Walter has waited tables at Hong Kong Style since he was 15 and though he now has a degree in petroleum engineering, he's still here most nights, greeting regulars the Argentine way with a kiss on the cheek.

Today, however, he'll be taking a break from Hong Kong Style to give me a guided tour of the Chinatown he knows so well.

Walter Lui, whose family have owned a restaurant in Buenos Aires Chinatown for 16 years. All photos by the author.

Walter—who's bilingual in Spanish and Mandarin—begins with a short history lesson.

"Buenos Aires Chinatown started on Mendoza and Juramento streets with a weekend indoor market run by a few Taiwanese families in 1980," he explains, as we walk through the pedestrianised streets. "They'd grow Chinese vegetables then come here to sell them. One of the first restaurants to open was Todos Contentos. Casa China then followed as the first supermarket. For many years, that block was known as Calle Taiwán [Taiwan Street]—that was until the continental Chinese started moving to Argentina in the 1990s."

Although many Chinese and Taiwanese migrants settled in Taiwan Street during this period, the area's offerings are now even more diverse.

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"There's a bit of everything in Buenos Aires Chinatown. It has become a place where we can mix cultures, which is cool to share," says Walter. "There's Japanese and Korean food here. And people come here to take Chinese classes or go shopping to buy products they know they can't get anywhere else. A lot of Buenos Aires cooks come shopping in the barrio chino for products they can't get anywhere else."

There are three key supermarkets here: Casa China, Asia Oriental, and Tina & Co. Cheuk buys supplies for the restaurant from each of them.

"We go to Casa China for dry goods such as noodles," Walter explains. "It's also good for dried shiitakes, mung beans, and pulses. Tina is new and has a bit of everything from all corners of the world. It's a good place to browse. But Toni at Asia is the man and we order in advance from. He'll put fish aside for us, which ensures good quality. We also buy pork here for the restaurant as well as fruit and veg such as bok choy."

Sarsaparilla, a Chinese soft drink.

When we pass the fridges at Tina & Co., Walter pulls a can from one of the shelves.

"I'll also come by here to pick up a can of Sarsaparilla, which is like cola with dried fruit," he says. "We Chinese like sugary things but not overly sweet."

Over in Asia Oriental, the fish and seafood counters are vast. We check out the prawn section, where Walter shows me his tattoo of the pink crustacean.

"I'm a big prawn fan—my dad's pan-fried prawns with his secret spices are my favourite dish," he says. "I've got a tattoo of a prawn because gastronomy has been important to me for such a long time."

Walter shows off his prawn tattoo.

We wander out of the grocery store and into the Saturday afternoon sunshine. I quickly realise that you need sharpened elbows to weave through the Argentine shoppers snapping up green tea, soy sauce, and Melona ice creams. Veteran barrio chino-goers know that it's always best to start your shopping trip early.

"If you want to buy in earnest, come early at the weekend—especially if you want fish, seafood, or pork," Walter advises. "There's way more variety before 11 AM. During the week, however, it's best to come on Tuesday, when there are more fresh products. And the same goes for dining: you'll always have to queue at the weekend."

Walter's favourite fried chicken sandwich at Belike Time.

Walter has two go-to foods spots for when his dad—understandably, after lunch and dinner shifts at the restaurant—doesn't want to cook for him. One is just around the corner from Hong Kong Style, a small fast food joint called Belike Time that sells burgers and chips.

"I come here for a spicy fried chicken thigh sandwich," says Walter. "It's pretty authentic."

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We bite into our sandwiches and there's certainly no need for extra hot sauce. This might be the spiciest—and tastiest—chicken sandwich in Buenos Aires. Walter's other go-to is a grotty-looking place that specialises in deceptively good veggie food, Taiwán-Way.

"They do some great bao that instead of being steamed, are cooked on the griddle," he explains. "They also make some great desserts stuffed with starchy numi rice and peanuts—they fry the batter so they're delicious. Taiwán-Way also does some great rolls, filled with mushroom, cabbage, or carrot. They are like big bao but made with a lighter dough."

Walter Lui at Hong Kong Style.

Back at Hong Kong Style, Walter tells me that the dishes his dad cooks are fairly faithful to his native cuisine. His favourite are the dim sum and lacquered pork bao.

"Gastronomy is growing here and Argentines are more disposed to try Chinese food. Dad has to modify a few things: in Hong Kong diners are used to eating seafood straight out the ocean but that's impossible in Buenos Aires. Plus there are various spices we just can't get hold of," he says. "But it just means we have to be creative to do something similar to conserve the essence of Hong Kong food."


Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.