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Cuban Chinese: Heroes and Healers

Given the history of discrimination and prejudice towards Chinese immigrants throughout the Americas, the Chinese of Cuba enjoy a surprisingly good reputation. In Havana, a commemorative stele pays tribute to their loyal and unfaltering contribution in Cuba’s wars of independence: No hubo un chino cubano desertor, no hubo chino cubano traidor. “There was not one Chinese Cuban that deserted, not one Chinese Cuban that betrayed [the cause].” As opposed to other countries that the Chinese emigrated to, they are not only remembered as successful business owners, but also war heroes, pioneering doctors, and fervent revolutionaries.

 

Three Liberation Wars: Ousting the Spanish

 

Starting in the 1850s, the stirrings of nationalist uprising were underway in Cuba,then a Spanish colony. Cubans in the eastern provinces were dissatisfied with high taxes, corruption within the Spanish administration, and lack of political freedom. It was also around this time that the cost of keeping slaves became too high for landowners, who slowly began to employ indentured workers from China. In 1868, sugar-mill owner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes led an uprising and declared independence of the Cuban people from Spain’s clutches. Ten years of fighting ensued, with neither side winning any concrete battles; the Cuban revolutionary committee was plagued by internal dissent, and the US government at the time opposed Cuban independence. Eventually, Spain gained the upper hand, but tensions would remainthroughout the Little War (1879-1880) and reach a climax during the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898), which saw public opinion in the US turn in favor of the Cuban people and against the Spanish. This last war truly escalated after a US ship, the Maine, exploded in the harbour of Havana, on its way to the capital in the midst of Cuban Spanish loyalist riots breaking out against the new autonomous government set up by Spain to appease Cuban separatist rebels. After losing its other colonies in Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the US, Spain eventually sued for peace in 1898. After three years of US occupation, Cuba was finally and formally a state in its own right in 1902.

It is reported that around several thousand Chinese were enrolled in the Cuban patriotic forces against the Spanish settlers during this entire period of civil war. They formed an integral part of the Liberation Army during the first separatist war, with one battle in 1874 being renamed el ataque de los chinos, “the Chinese offensive,” when a mostly Chinese unit led by Antonio Maceo infiltrated the city of Manzanillo and laid siege to a Spanish garrison. Most notable are Colonel José Bu Tack (Hu De) and General José Tolón (Lai Wa), who both fought for more than 10 years and in all 3 liberation wars, subsequently winning the right to stand for president of the newly independent state. This honour was conceded only to two other fighters born outside of Cuba in the history of the country: a Dominican and a Polish.

 

Herbalists and Doctors

No te salva ni el medico chino” goes a Cuban saying – meaning “Not even the Chinese doctor can save you,” when your chances of recovery are looking slim. This saying is usually associated with Cham Bom-Biá, later Juan Chambombian, a Hakka Chinese herbalist who helped popularize Chinese traditional medicine in Cuba at the end of the 19th century, although there were many more Chinese doctors who contributed significantly to both healthcare and medical science.

Kan Shi Kom was a prestigious Chinese doctor in Havana in the mid-19th century. In Santiago de Cuba, Don Domingo Morales, a naturalized Chinese, treated and saved victims of the cholera epidemic of 1867-1872. Liborio Wong (Wong Seng), a herbalist and doctor to Chinese agricultural labourers in the region of Manzanilla, is also remembered for his courage as a captain in the Liberation Army during the Ten Years’ War of independence.

Fast forward to the twentieth century, and Cuba is one of the pioneering countries in medicine. Today, increasing numbers of foreign students are ditching medical school to go and study on the Caribbean island. Out of this rich medical tradition, two Chinese Cuban pioneers emerged: the forensic scientist Israel Castellanos Gonzalez, and his brother Agustin, two-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for his pioneering work in angiocardiography.

 

Revolutionaries and Deserters

More recently, international media attention has turned to Chinese Cuban involvement in Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution of 1958-59. Following years of repression under Fulgencia Batista’s corrupt military dictatorship, Castro’s dreams of a socialist system appealed to many Cubans of Chinese and African descent, who joined Castro’s rebel army en masse. Perhaps most memorable are three young rebels of Chinese descent who threw themselves into the fight, eventually becoming generals and high-powered decision makers in government. Their names were Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui, and Moisés Sío Wong.  

 

Spreading the Revolution at Home…

Born in the mid-1930s, all three men were sons of Chinese shopkeepers who had travelled from China in search of better prospects. As teenagers, the three took up arms, lead protests in the cities, and later joined the Rebel Army units fighting in eastern and central Cuba. After successfully overthrowing the Batista regime, they were instrumental in coordinating a Cuban Chinese militia unit that eliminated drugs, prostitution and gambling in Havana’s Chinatown, and ousting the nationalist Kuomintang supporters that had long dominated its leading associations. 

 

… and Abroad

At various times between 1975 and 1988, Choy, Chui and Sío were all sent to Angola to defend the country from a US-backed invasion by South Africa and Zaire, and help consolidate the socialist regime. They would also participate in several other international aid missions. Chui served in Nicaragua, Mozambique, and Ethiopia. Choy was appointed ambassador to Cape Verde. Sío Wong, ex-president of the Cuba-China Friendship association, served in Venezuela to advise on a “city-farming” project. In recognition for their roles and dedication to the revolutionary cause, Chui, Choy and Sío Wong were appointed to key posts in Interior Ministry and Ministry of Defence. To this day, many Cubans of Chinese descent hold high level posts within the Central Committee and the Cuban Communist Party’s Political Bureau.  

 

A Community Divided?

While these three generals have been championed as heroes by the current Cuban government, let’s not forget that a large part of the Chinese community refused to support the revolution. Back in 1957, wealthy Chinese business owners joined a demonstration in support of Batista and in celebration of him surviving an assassination attempt by several revolutionaries. After Castro’s victory in 1959, these same Cuban Chinese business owners packed up their things and sought refuge in neighbouring Caribbean countries, the US, and Canada. Those that remained saw their land and shops confiscated by the new socialist state. According to official Cuban census figures, there were nearly 12,000 Chinese in Cuba in 1953 – a number halved by 1970. 

 

For more information, read Our History Is Still Being Written. The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution, by Armando Choy, Moisés Sío Wong, and Gustavo Chui, edited by Mary-Alice Walters (2005).

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