PANAMA CITY -- Is Panama City about to become Hong Kong West?
Immigration officials were astounded recently when as many as 8,000 Hong Kong Chinese expressed an interest in Panama's little-used policy of granting a passport to anybody willing to put $80,000 in the national bank for five years.
The passports appeal to Hong Kong businessmen made nervous by China's takeover of the British colony in 1997, say members of the long-established Chinese community in Panama.
Despite Beijing's promise that no changes will be made in Hong Kong's freewheeling way of life and trade before 2047, the switch of sovereignty could generate a westward-bound rush of cash from the Far East's financial capital.
But no one was prepared for the big Hong Kong wave that washed onto Panama last year. Indeed, the concept seemed almost too big for the government of President Guillermo Endara to grasp.
"Disney World," pooh-poohed Ruben Carles, Panama's comptroller.
"Too good to be true," said U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton.
They were referring to efforts by Ganun International Holdings Ltd., a Hong Kong company, to set up a consortium that would build a $10 billion, tourist-industrial development on Panama's most prized piece of undeveloped land, 12,355 ocean-front acres on the Pacific approach to the Panama Canal.
The 10-year project would generate 500,000 jobs in a country with a work force of 850,000. The Asian consortium would build 5,000 factories, an "Oriental-style amusement park" and three five-star hotels, including a "Chinese Palace."
In short, Hong Kong would save Panama's staggering economy.
But despite yearlong talks and the promoter's spending $1.7 million on engineering tests and wining and dining Panamanian officials in Hong Kong, the deal has been held up by Panama's curiosity over who the members of the consortium would be. There is also concern about whether the project would conflict with adjoining Howard Air Force Base and the canal's needs.
The only major investor appeared to be China Merchants Holdings Ltd., ironically a mainland China conglomerate but a big business interest in Hong Kong. The enterprise, which was behind some of the biggest export projects in the Hong Kong area, sends 500 ships through the Panama Canal each year.
Despite the initial pessimism, Hipolito Porras, the lawyer representing Ganun International Holdings, was confident "something could be worked out."
"The concept was too big for Panamanian officials to understand," Mr. Porras said. "People forget that Disney World makes a hell of a lot of money."
One of the project's biggest fans appears to be Ana Mae Endara, the middle-aged president's 23-year-old, Chinese-descended wife.
According to a Panamanian development official, Sunny Yip, Ganun's chairman, was stunned during a recent visit to find Mrs. Endara knocking on his hotel room to gush: "I am your biggest cheerleader."
In addition to the Ganun proposal, feelers have come from Taiwan, the wealthy old Nationalist Chinese stronghold historically troubled by mainland China's growing political acceptance.
A subsidiary of BES Engineering, a Taiwan developer, is about to begin a $10 million industrial park near Panama's international airport.
"I would say there is some unease about Taiwan and continental China -- just as in Hong Kong -- and that you will see more interest in Panama," said David T. Cho, BES's Panama manager. "This country is ideally suited for world trade, with the canal and the banking system."
Evergreen, a Taiwanese shipping conglomerate, is among five bidders for Air Panama, the bankrupt national airline, and has expressed an interest in setting up container operations in Panama's Balboa and Colon ports, which are soon to be returned to private ownership.
"I would say that predominant interest in Panama is not coming from Europe or the United States," said Roberto Alfaro, Panama's minister of commerce and industry. "Practically all of it is coming from Asia,
especially Taiwan and Hong Kong."
The China-Panama connection is not new. Thousands of Chinese helped to build the trans-isthmus railroad in the 1850s and the Panama Canal early in this century.
Today, according to a census by the China-Panama Cultural Center, Panama has about 100,000 native-born Chinese or people of Chinese descent in a country with a population of 2.3 million. Others put the figure at 200,000, since many undocumented Chinese were fearful of talking to the census takers.
In the last few years of the Manuel Noriega government, more than 20,000 Chinese emigrated from Canton to Panama via Hong Kong. Many paid as much as $13,000 in bribes to get a tourist visa and a ticket to Panama.
The influx is part of a broader diaspora made up of Hong Kong and other Chinese seeking to make their way to the United States and Canada through stopovers in the Dominican Republic, Belize and Panama.
But many Hong Kong and Cantonese Chinese here say they plan to stay in Panama.
"The climate is very similar to Hong Kong's, and many of us already have relatives here," said Yeung Long Chin, a Cantonese who has a brother in Panama City.
Mr. Yip, the Hong Kong promoter, said that "America's continuing interest in Panama" is also a major factor in Hong Kong businessmen's wanting to invest there.
"Now that stability is restored and the military dictatorship ended, we find Panama to be ideal," Mr. Yip said.
Every day, scores of Cantonese-speaking Chinese can be seen packing Panama's casinos. A Chinese disco and video stores have blossomed. Many stores have signs in both Spanish and Chinese.
Panama's largest tabloid, El Siglo, carries one or two pages in Chinese, most featuring articles on the efforts to legalize undocumented immigrants whose tourist visas have long since expired.