Chen Grew From Distinct Roots

By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

They are two lonely figures, huddled together in San Juan, Puerto Rico on an early March evening, blanketed by a tropical heat and a love of a nation and a son, watching a baseball team practice that will soon represent them and their countrymen.

The names posted on Panama's World Baseball Classic roster read fluidly in Spanish except one: Bruce Chen. He is why the two figures sit in this stadium. In two days, Chen, the couple's son, will throw a pitch in the classic that will span the globe.

With one pitch Chen, son of Panama, descendant of China, will make a statement for all those immigrants who had escaped a difficult life and sought a new beginning, but had yet to be recognized. With one pitch, one that turned out to be a ball, Chen will make the loudest claim to his heritage and so his parents are on hand to watch.

"I believe that if one doesn't have a love for their country, it is like being an orphan," Luisa Laffo de Chen, Bruce's mother, said. "It's an honor for all of us that he's pitching for Panama."

It is quite a shock for many when they see Chen, the Baltimore Orioles' starting pitcher who will make his season debut on Saturday against the Boston Red Sox, and hear him speak perfect Spanish. He is Panamanian but not in his facial features. Chen is also Chinese, a group that represents nearly five percent (approximately 150,000) of the Panamanian population. Chinese immigrants helped construct Panama's railroad system and they had a hand in building the Panama Canal. The majority came in the 1920s, when many fled the instability that had threatened their home country. The Chinese civil war pitted nationalists against communists and it was often the poorest who suffered the most.

"In that time there was a revolution," said Jose Kasendo Chen, Bruce's father. "Those who weren't part of the Communist Party were shunned and mistreated. At that time parents sent their kids away so they would find opportunities that were not available in China."

One of those children, Kuen Chin Chan Lee, a boy not yet 10, was sent from his home in Guangzhou, in southeastern China, to Panama on a boat. Several brothers and cousins had been sent ahead, but the boy was frightened to be traveling alone. He would likely not see his parents again and he would have to learn a new language and a new culture without them.

"In six months he was able to pick up a great deal of Spanish, a little bit broken, but he could speak it," Jose Kasendo Chen said. "He did good for himself."

The boy worked odd jobs, some in restaurants, until he finally had saved up enough money to start his own business. By then he had changed his name to Jose Chen. And one day, Jose Chen had a son, whom he named after himself. There was no point in giving the child a Chinese name. Years later Jose Chen became a grandfather. The grandson was named Bruce Chen.

The old man and little Bruce spent much time together. They often spoke about history and their heritage. But seven years ago, his grandfather died and Bruce, not so little anymore, was left with just one grandparent to share stories about China. Except Kuen Yin Liu de Laffo, mother of Bruce's mom Luisa, was not so willing to do so.

"She did not speak about China often with me because it was very painful for her to share stories," Bruce Chen said.

She had been born in Panama, but one day a fire ravaged the family's home, sending all 16 children and both parents back to China. When both of Yin Lui's parents died, the young girl was forced to a life of hard labor. It was not until she was 24 that Yin Liu was able to move back to Panama.

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