Havana's Chinatown and how Chinese culture in Cuba is very much alive

Yes, there aren't as many "pure" Chinese people in Cuba as there once were. But Chinese culture, customs and food remain deeply rooted in Cuban culture, and nowhere more so than in Havana's Chinatown, a.k.a. "El Barrio Chino". On this post, we look at how Chinese culture merged with Cuban and Afro-Cuban heritage to create something quite unique, not found anywhere else in the world. Certainly, not in the same way. Chinatown offers a rare window into Chinese Cuba and how it's evolved over time.

Havana's Chinatown and how Chinese culture in Cuba is very much alive

The relationship between Cuba and China is a very special one. And no, I´m not talking politics. Even when both nations can be linked for their communist ideologies, and often are, as well as it´s recently solidified trade bonds (a few years ago a couple of Havana´s theme parks were refurbished with Chinese money and China is currently investing in the development of golf resorts in Cuba) the relationship is far more intricate, it goes far beyond diplomatic ties, far beyond idiosyncratic views, deeper than the holding of mutual values, deeper than friendships…it´s actually skin deep.

Not many tourists delve into this facet of Cuban culture and history, not many know about the strong Chinese influence that shaped aspects of island culture and which remain alive to this very day. Not many are aware of the dramatic impact that mass Chinese migration had in Cuba at one point. Not unless they step into Havana´s Chinatown, and even then, just by walking around its 44 blocks and eating at one of the fusion Chinese-Cuban restaurants, they won´t grasp the full picture and will likely walk away thinking they passed through a tourist trap with very little authentic Chinese essence, or real Chinese roots. Oh, but how wrong they´d be.

Chinese migrants came to Cuba as contract workers in the late 19th century, toiling away at sugar cane fields and treated little better than slaves. Those that remained after being freed either chose to remain in the island after forming close ties or simply had no choice but to stay put. Regardless of their reasons for staying, they soon blended into Cuban culture whilst managing to preserve their own identity, opening up shops, grocery food stores and restaurants, while mixing with local Cubans and Afro-Cubans to leave behind mixed-raced descendants and entire neighbours with a distinctly Chinese flavour as their ultimate legacy. On this blog, we follow the trail of Chinese culture in Cuba, to see how it shaped not just Chinatown, but an entire Caribbean nation.

A short story on how the Chinese first came to Cuba

Over a-century-and-a-half ago the first Chinese labourers started descending in Cuba to work at the sugarcane fields owned by the island´s wealthy sugar barons. At a time when Cuba was the number one sugar producer in the world and the African import of slaves began to dwindle after England abolished slavery in 1833, the island´s booming sugar industry had to look elsewhere to increase its labour force. At the same time, general political discontentment after the First and Second Opium Wars as well as changes in the farming system, population growth and ethnic strife - especially in the southern part of the country - drove many Chinese people to look at migration as the only way to prosper in life. And that´s how the first ship of Chinese labourers arrived in Cuba, one summer morning of 1857, with the hope of finding prosperity and a better life.

But the Cuban dream turned into a nightmare for many of them as dire working conditions and systematic abuse drove many to despair. The Chinese (from Canton and Hong Kong mainly) came to Cuba after signing five to eight-year contracts (that virtually rendered them slaves) after recruiters sold them a picture of prosperity and wealth that was worlds away from the fate that awaited them. The reality was drastically different and after enduring all series of abuses, many lost their lives trying to escape the plantation barracks or chose to take their own life rather than die at the hands of cruel masters.

Not unsurprisingly, but truly heartbreaking was the fact that the poor treatment of hundreds of thousands Chinese enslaved workers earned Cuba the title of highest suicide rate of any given country in the 1850s. So alarming were the numbers of suicides that in 1873 China sent investigators to look at the allegations of abuse and breach of contract by plantation owners and shortly after prohibited the Chinese labour trade, with the last ship taking Chinese workers to Cuba having reached the island in 1874.

Still, despite the inhuman working conditions and mass suicides, a few Chinese endured the many hardships, in large enough numbers to eventually form a significant Chinese community in Cuba.

A tale of hardship, endurance and ultimately love

Between 1847 and 1874, an estimated 140,000 Chinese men had arrived in the island after signing working indentures. By the time slavery was abolished in Cuba, the Chinese workers who remained (those who didn´t succumb to the hardships of labour, returned to their country or committed suicide) and their descendants were free to find dignified work elsewhere. The majority had come to Cuba expecting to return to their homeland after their contracts finished, but this was not a possibility for most of them, and the promised return ticket was never honoured for some. So many set up their own shops, pharmacies (where traditional Chinese medicine was sold, Cuban still hail the “pomada china” as a miraculous multi-purpose ointment), ornamental gardens and restaurants. The hard-working Chinese had no trouble prospering in Cuba once freed, and prosper they did.

At the point of their arrival to the island, Chinese workers were put in the same barracks with African slaves and they soon formed emotional ties, entering into consensual relations with Cuba´s black enslaved women. This resulted in generations of mixed Afro-Chinese Cubans, who beyond having the physical mix of traits, also inherited a unique mix of cultural beliefs and customs.

Mixes between Chinese people and people of African descent are rarely found elsewhere in the world, and nowhere like in Cuba. Afro-Chinese Cubans are almost unique in the world in the way those two heritages and skin colours have combined to create a multi-layered identity, the result of a kaleidoscopic amalgam of traditions, beliefs and religions

It wasn’t just African slaves who mixed with the Chinese migrants, in far lesser numbers some Creole Cuban women did establish either sporadic sexual relationships or more meaningful partnerships that resulted in mixed offspring. But this was extremely rare (didn’t happen at all during the years of slavery) as Chinese were initially discriminated against (put in the same box as African slaves) and only became more frequent among the younger generation of mixed Chinese-Cubans and the few older native Chinese who found white Cuban partners later in life, from the 1900s onwards. Thus, over time white, mulatto, “jabaos” and black short Cubans of all colours and heritages, ended up mixing with Chinese migrants and their descendants, further diversifying Cuba’s multi-coloured Chinese bloodline.

This is why, it won’t be so easy for you to distinguish Cuban people of Chinese descent at first, because the mixing spans generations of all shades and features. Chinese traits are more evident in some than others, but nowadays it’s hard to find a “pure” Chinese native in Cuba, although mixed descendants with clear (though softened) Chinese features can still be spotted.

In the end, it was love that brought them all together, and love that made Chinese migrants eventually fall in love with Cuba and abandon their dreams of returning to their homeland. Some even joined the local fights for independence against the Spanish colonisers, a fight they entered into voluntarily since by that time none of them were slaves. Indeed, many of them are revered as valiant martyrs. If that isn’t love for Cuba, willing to risk their life for the freedom of a country that isn’t your own, then what is?

Chinese heritage in Cuba today

Of those born in China, it is estimated that less than 150 remain alive today, and the vast majority of them are in old age. Still, they have all passed down valuable aspects of their culture and beliefs, to keep Chinese culture in Cuba very much alive, even when adversity had brought much opacity to it, as the Chinese population (along with all of the Cuban population) was more preoccupied about getting food on the table than keeping traditions alive. In a fast-changing world and a slow-changing Cuba, Chinese character still is a part of Cuba’s rich heritage tapestry, not as it once was sadly, but in recent years it has been revived. The remnants of the close-knit communities the Chinese formed in Cuba can still be appreciated, especially since efforts in recent years to revive them have brought them back to life, although many argue it’s too little, too late and it would take a fresh Chinese migration to properly cement Chinese culture in the city.

Havana’s Chinatown

For many years forgotten and neglected, Havana’s Chinatown has experienced a revival in recent years, with the warming of relations between China and Cuba having a lot to do with it, as Chinese authorities (in the form of cooperatives) are behind all of the popular restaurants that now dot this centric part of the capital.

Spanning some 45 blocks of the Centro Habana municipality, Chinatown was the Chinese migrant’s original settlement in the Cuban capital and it grew healthily (from the first 25 original Chinese settlers to around 250,000 at its peak) as more and more Chinese-owned businesses prospered. A second wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in Cuba between 1900 and 1959, seeking a slice of the prosperity their fellow countrymen enjoyed in the Caribbean island. The triumph of the Revolution put an abrupt stop to Chinese immigration and saw many leave in their thousands upon losing control of their businesses

But the ones who remained did manage to get by with the new government and enjoy relative success and visibility up until about 1985 when the imminent breakdown of the Soviet Union, meant a drastic economic blow. Chinese stop receiving merchandise.

Its resurgence in the late 2,000s

You’ll find the entrance to Havana’s Chinatown right behind the Capitolio building, on Zayas street, where a pagoda-style gate welcomes you to the city’s Chinese neighbourhood. It may not look too Chinese at first glance and the lack of Chinese characters on buildings is evident, but if you take the time to walk around its cobblestone streets you’ll discover the headquarters of a handful of organisations dedicated to keeping Chinese culture alive. From martial arts centres (where wu-shu, tai chi and kung fu are taught) to music centres and ornamental gardens.

A Chinese cinema still exists, as do casinos and the Pacifico building, completely refurbished and now the headquarters of the Confucius Institute, where over 4,000 Cubans students take to learning Mandarin. Of the 35 state-registered Chinese associations in Havana, around 10 still exist and operate in Havana’s Chinatown, with regional branches in other provinces. These associations are the lifelines of Cuba’s elderly Chinese community and the key to the continuance of Chinese traditions in the city.

The main reason for this neighbourhood’s survival is its community of devoted Chinese inhabitants and its descendants that fight daily to keep it alive.

The food

Right at the core of El Barrio Chino’s revival was the opening of a series of Chinese restaurants, which are partly subsidised by the Chinese organisations that still exist in Cuba, and which are privately owned but also supported by China-based cooperatives. They are spread throughout the neighbourhood but Cuchillo streets has the biggest concentration of them.

In terms of the food, you have to curb your expectations and remember that fusion is a strong element of it, as the Chinese adapted their cuisine to please Cuban palates and over the years the scarcity of authentic ingredients modified original dishes to a great extent. Favourites among Cubans include fried rice (“arroz tres delicias” or “arroz salteado"), crispy butterfly-shaped meat dumplings (“maripositas chinas”) and sweet sour pork. The menus are really long and also include typical Cuban dishes with no Chinese slant whatsoever and plenty of breaded options, which are also immensely popular among locals.

Oddly enough, you might be surprised by the fact that these restaurants are most famous for their Italian offerings! Their large pizzas and huge lasagnas are extremely popular. This rare mix is another peculiarity that adds to the unique character of Chinese Cuba. Why would a Chinese restaurant serve Italian pizza next to Chinese fare? The answer is pragmatic to the core - because they cater to what they know locals will love and at very reasonable prices at the reach locals’ pockets. Cubans love Italian food, but very few places in the city serve pizzas as large or as reasonably priced as El Barrio Chino. Plus, they’re tasty too. Another exemplification of the Chinese’s incredibly astute and unique ability to adapt. This versatility has been key to their survival in Cuba and beyond.

If you want the widest variety of more authentic Chinese fare, head to Tien Tan, known for keeping the menu as traditional as they come, from noodles and noodle soups to Schezuan specialities. It’s one of a few to provide a menu written in Chinese (with Chinese characters), English and Spanish.

What Chinatown town can teach you about Afro-Cuban Chinese culture

While not a lot of Chinese are left, their descendants are a remarkable mix of everything Cuban with an exotic dash of Asia. The blending of religious beliefs is an area that has been little-explored and where existing research is lacking, but Martin Tsang, a post-doctoral associate with the University of Miami Libraries has shed light on this little-known facet of Chinese-Cuban doctor with a series of online publications which were the result of his own personal research in the island.

Chinese influences in Cuba

On art

Perhaps the one Chinese Afro-Cuban that best put this unique heritage on the map was Wifredo Lam. A remarkable artist that was deeply in touch with both halves of his ancestry, Lam intended to increase awareness of Afro-Cuban traditions through his paintings at a time when African culture in Cuba was stigmatised and in danger of losing its identity.

Flora Fong is another famous, more contemporary Cuban artist of Chinese descent and her paintings shows a clear Asian slant in her vivid, colourful artwork that depicts elements of Cuban life. Her work adorns the interiors of public buildings like the collective mural at Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, and the design of a stained glass window at the piano bar of El Pedregal restaurant, also in the Cuban capital.

On life

Many Cuban songs have the appropriative phrase “mi chino “mi china” (“my Chinese girl/woman” or “my Chinese boy/man”) - an affectionate term that although initially only used to address people of Chinese descent (or who had features that made them look even slightly Asian) have now extended to the wider population as a generic endearing adjective used on a daily basis. You only have to listen to songs, old and new, to hear this peculiar way of addressing a loved one.

On religion

It might come as a surprise for many to know that Cuba’s African-rooted Yoruba religion (a.k.a. “santeria” blended with Chinese Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian principals to create its own syncretism, much like the well-known syncretism that exists between Roman Catholic saints and Afro-Cuban deities called “orishas”.

As a matter of fact, there are prominent Chinese descendants in Cuba who are priests in the Lukumi religion, proving the strong influence Chinese beliefs had in Cuba, transforming aspects of Afro-Cuban religion to incorporate Chinese deities and philosophies. For example, the Yoruba orisha, Shango, whose equivalent in Catholicism is Saint Barbara, is also identified with Chinese deity Guan Gong, a warlord known in Cuba as San Fan Con. And yes, it’s possible to find imagery that connects San Fan Con with Shango.

Not too Chinese-looking at first, but…

The reason the population of Chinese Cubans has dwindled so much is due, on one hand, to the way that generations upon generations have continued to mix with Cubans to the point of not looking very Chinese at all, and the important and crucial fact that the vast majority of Chinese who owned successful businesses in the island flew the country when the Cuban Revolution confiscated and nationalised their businesses. This is why Cuba’s Chinatown may not look as authentic as it once did, but trust me, rich history is at its core, and generations of Chinese descendants are the only ones responsible for keeping what little is left of it alive. Tourism interest in this place will further help its survival, so do spare some time of your visit to devote to Havana’s picturesque. It deserves your attention and needs it to keep the government reinvesting in its resurgence.

Susana Corona

Susana Corona

The islands' go-between

Having lived most of my life between Cuba and the UK and being half-raised in both island nations, I...

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