Santa Cruz, Lifestyle, Cultura

Checky Chen: The Guanacastecan Chinese woman who conquered TikTok with her spice

Esta publicación también está disponible en: Español
Translator: Arianna Hernández

Checky Chen remembers being the only Chinese student in her entire high school. While her classmates ate gallo pinto for breakfast and casados for lunch, she enjoyed congee rice and seafood soups made by her parents, who are from China. Although she didn’t know it at the time, years later, food would become the universal language for preserving her family’s culture and traditions.

Now at age 25, she says she understands things better. The “different” dishes that her parents cooked for her were the way to feel closer to her other homeland in her heart. She appreciates it and celebrates it. Being a Chinese Guanacastecan makes her feel unique.

Checky was born in Nicoya in 1996. Two years earlier, her parents had migrated from Canton, in China, to Santa Cruz, in Guanacaste. They opened a restaurant there specializing in traditional Chinese food.  In that restaurant, Checky grew up, worked and fell in love with cooking.

The culinary fusion between both countries led her to accumulate a million subscribers between YouTube and TikTok, with videos that introduce her followers to the dynamics of her family, her cooking, her culture and her sparkling personality. She’s very proud to show it.

“I’m grateful to my parents for instilling in me both the food and everything about them, because now this way I can continue to have the culture and the tradition of what they do,” the content creator tells The Voice of Guanacaste.

Checky outside the family’s restaurant. Photo: Courtesy of Checky Chen

Dozens of Asian families have come to the country since 1855. At that time, the most popular areas were Limon, Puntarenas and the Nicoya Peninsula. Since then, Costa Rica and several areas of the peninsula are among the destinations that have the most cultural wealth and contributions from Chinese immigrants.

A Way to Create Content

Checky smiles constantly when she talks. Although she shows a vibrant and outgoing personality in her videos, she confesses that she is actually a bit shy in person. In fact, creating content is more of a hobby that helps her improve her mental health and unwind from her day job as a pharmacist in San Jose.

I’m always recording what I do and it makes me happy,” she says. One of the things that makes her happiest is visiting her parents in Santa Cruz or practicing the recipes that they taught her while she was growing up.

She started her journey into creating content in 2017, with a trend at that time: she tasted fast food menu items such as Taco Bell or dishes from other cultures like Peruvian or Salvadoran food.

She remembers that her first video about Chinese food that went viral was in 2018. Without thinking much about it, she made an unstructured video that was not as well produced and visually pleasing as the ones she currently posts, about the recipe for spring rolls from her parents’ restaurant.  Although she wasn’t planning it at the time, her vlog (video blog) opened the doors to her culture for her audience.

She wasn’t sure about posting it for several reasons.  She revealed the restaurant’s recipes, she was afraid of receiving negative comments and she didn’t know if she should confess to her parents that she was famous, or something like that, on YouTube.

When she told them, they smiled and very lovingly responded, “It doesn’t matter that people know [the secret to making them]. Rather, that way they know how it’s made, what we add to make it have this flavor and they learn,” she relates. 

The responses to her video, mostly positive, encouraged her to keep telling people about her parents’ culture and the food she loves. In addition to gastronomy, now she also introduces his “little friends” — as she calls her followers— to her family’s daily routine, from going back to Guanacaste to play jokes on her parents to going out to eat at food chains to try their menus.

“We’re Different and That’s Fine”

If there’s something Checky likes to highlight, it’s that her story and her family are unique. Although she was afraid that she wouldn’t fit in with her friends when she was younger, now those differences make her feel more empowered and special, not just as a Chinese girl but as a Guanacastecan.

It’s not just being Chinese in Costa Rica, but in Guanacaste. I feel like the upbringing would be very different. Life is like it is more from day to day; it’s slower than here [in San Jose],” she affirms.

The first Chinese to come to the peninsula were the Sanchun and the Chen families in 1897, according to research on Chinese immigrants in Guanacaste’s lowlands. The sons and daughters of these families still live in Nicoya and Santa Cruz.

Although Checky isn’t from those families since her parents are the first generation of immigrants in their family she believes that it’s important to mention the Chinese diversity that runs in the country’s veins. Instead of forming prejudices, embrace the differences.

That’s also her biggest goal when she thinks of videos.

When I was little, we were judged because of rumors or prejudices that especially maligned Chinese culture. I want to let people know that we aren’t all the same, that there are people who are very different and it’s not bad,” she comments.

Checky says that even though she doesn’t talk about xenophobia or racism directly, there isn’t a more effective way to respond to the “negative” than by being a complete and happy Chinese Guanacastecan.

She doesn’t plan to stop producing content or talking about China or Guanacaste. She also won’t take a break from the jokes on her parents or the step-by-step instructions to make her recipes full of flavor. She likes what she does because she feels that she helps preserve her roots. And to her, that is celebrating the cultures that coexist in the province and that make it what it is.