LIFESTYLE

Town in northern Mexico is home to country's largest 'Chinatown' - and it's all underground

Just south of Calexico in California, lies Mexicali, Mexico, the capital of Baja and oddly enough, the largest ‘Chinatown’ in Mexico.

Beneath “La Chinesca,” as the neighborhood is called, is an even bigger mystery – a catacomb of tunnels connecting a community under Mexicali where hundreds of Chinese residents lived during the early 20th century.

Chinese immigrants first arrived in the early 1900s, following the completion of the railroads in the U.S., to work for the Colorado River Land Company on a project to build an extensive irrigation system in the Valley of Mexicali.

To escape the desert heat, and the anti-Chinese sentiment stemming from both the second Mexican Revolution and the cheap labor they provided, the growing Chinese community began living literally underground. 

Many of the laborers began to settle under the city in basements which would eventually become a complex subterranean world said to house bordellos and opium dens, extending into the U.S.

Historians have suggested that bootleggers would also use the tunnels as routes to supply the U.S. with alcohol purchased in Mexico.

Last year, the Committee for the Historic Center of Mexicali and Project Origins, opened the Chinesca’s abandoned tunnels for tours.

San Diego-based culture, food and travel journalist, W. Scott Koenig, of the website, AGringoInMexico.com, explored the tunnels recently with a local guide, unearthing a buried world recreated with exacting detail.

“Now that the basements and other parts of the ‘Chinesca’ are open for tours, anyone can explore the former underground world of Mexicali’s Chinese,” Koenig told Fox News Latino.

“Period furniture, artwork, household items and personal effects have been placed in the spaces to give a sense of what it must have been like to have lived there. It’s a fascinating tour. And you can stop for Chinese food afterward for the total experience,” Koenig said.

Mexicali still boasts more Chinese restaurants per capita than any other city in Mexico, more than 100 for the whole city, most with Cantonese-style cuisine. 

“Eating Chinese food always comes as one of the things you must do while visiting the city, and although is not primarily our food, it was adapted to the taste of “cachanillas” (natives of this city) creating a delicious fusion,” Ana Laura Holguin, a Tijuana native and culinary professional and educator, told Fox News Latino.

Growing up in Baja, Holguin says she thought the underground city was a myth.

“It was just a couple of years ago, that the Chinese community, through the Chinese Association began opening its doors for the whole world, to see that it was real and they started by giving access to some of the tunnels and basements in the city,” she says.

“I think it's amazing that we can have now the opportunity to take these tours, and we can see how organized people lived underground, and the unity of this community," Holguin says.  

"Although many are still buried by excess water or earthquakes, and others can’t be accessed due to private ownership, the committee for the Historic Center of Mexicali is working to rescue as much as possible,” Holguin said.

You can find out more about public tours of the Chinese underground (Spanish guide only) by visiting their Facebook page at Orígenes y Secretos de La Chinesca.

For those interested in an English or Spanish language tour, including lunch at a Chinese or fusion restaurant and a tasting of some of Mexicali’s excellent craft beers, Escape to Baja can arrange a single day, round trip experience from San Diego or Tijuana for parties of 6-14. Contact www.escapetobaja.wordpress.com

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Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for FoxNews.com. She can be reached at rebekah.sager@foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.