- Spencer Low
Asian Influence in Portuguese Brazil
Updated: Mar 5
When I visited Minas Gerais in Brazil more than ten years ago, I made it a point to go to the city of Ouro Preto to check out some of the fine examples of Baroque churches, many of which featured work by the 18th century sculptor known as "o Aleijadinho" ("the Little Cripple").
There is an incredible amount of detailed wood sculptures, some of which had clear African influences (Aleijadinho himself was the son of an African mother and a Portuguese father). What was much more surprising was the clear signs of Chinese influence, including the historical detail that craftsmen from Macau helped build and decorate many of the churches being built during the Brazilian Gold Rush.
Orientalism and Chinoiserie were in vogue in Europe at the time, but it is important to note the role played by Portuguese trade routes. The ships of the Carreira da Índia (India Route) regularly anchored at Bahia on their way to Goa and Macau, and they would return to Lisbon laden with Oriental goods and products to be redistributed throughout Europe. This commercial circuit of the Carreira da Índia's luxury goods fostered the settlement of Asian-born artists and artisans in Brazil, many of whom made their way to the boom towns of Minas Gerais.
For more information on this little known bit of cultural exchange, here are some useful links (some in Portuguese):
'Orientalism' in the Baroque of Minas Gerais and the 'Cultural Circularity' between the Orient and the Occident, by Sônia Maria Fonseca
O toque chinês que influenciou a literatura e a arquitectura do Brasil colonial, by Sílvio Reis
“Chinesices”, traço oculto de nossa história colonial, by Sílvio Reis
Igrejas e capelas de Minas do século 18 guardam influências de países asiáticos, by Gustavo Werneck
If anyone has further information on the early presence and legacy of Asians in Portuguese Brazil, please drop me a note!