A friend and I bustle through the red-lacquered wooden doorway at Wah Kee right at 10:24 a.m., excited we made it in time for dim sum—that variety of Cantonese delicacies and dumplings traditionally served with tea—as the best dishes tend to run out by noon. A server immediately approaches our table with a three-foot-tall push cart, stacked high with juicy shrimp har gow, succulent meatballs flecked with watercress, and rice paper rolls stuffed with char siu pork.
Frankly, I’m surprised to discover such quintessential Chinese food in Panama City. Here at Wah Kee, the dim sum tastes as good as in Hong Kong. Also, similarly, the dim sum service is typically only available during brunch hours, after which a seafood-forward menu leads with Cantonese banquet-style dishes such as chow mein with deep-fried crispy egg noodles.
This is no surprise to locals, though. Panama is home to one of the largest and oldest Chinese communities in South America, and the most vibrant Chinese enclaves shine in the country’s capital of Panama City. “The first Chinese who immigrated brought their culture, customs, and gastronomy,” says David Izquierdo, executive chef at The Santa Maria, A Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort in Panama City, and former restauranteur in Hong Kong.
Those early immigrants were a group of Chinese workers—705 total—who landed in Panama on March 30, 1854 to work for the Panama Railroad Company. “Since then, the Chinese never stopped immigrating,” says Esteban Cheung, a Panamanian-Chinese communication consultant based in Panama City. Today, one in five Panamanians can claim some form of Chinese ancestry.
Cheung believes that about half of Panama’s Chinese population lives in the capital, which has dozens of festivals and events that allow Panamanian-Chinese to celebrate and share their heritage.