Project Description

Havana Chinatown: A Fading Community


Until recently, the Chinese of Cuba constituted the third largest ethnic group in Cuba, after Cubans of African and European descent. The first wave of Chinese indentured labourers or coolies to arrive on Cuba was in 1847 – 2 years before the first wave of Chinese landed in Peru, and 7 years before Panama and Jamaica. When the coolie trade ended some forty years later, migration to Cuba slowed but continued into the 20th century. Freed from their contracts, the Chinese labourers opened small businesses and restaurants in various towns across the island, and in the capital, these came to be concentrated in what would later become Chinatown.

The Barrio Chino in downtown Habana is famous for being decrepit and slightly disappointing to tourists and locals alike. There used to be a running joke that there are no Chinese people in Chinatown. Now, the joke is that it has been repopulated by mainland Chinese tourists, sampling Cuban-Chinese specialities in the restaurants.

The truth is, and contrary to popular belief, there are Chinese people in Chinatown… if one knows where to look.

There are exactly one hundred and thirteen Chinese in all of Cuba – and most of them are over 70 years of age. Some came straight from China in the 30s, 40s and 50s, fleeing the internal unrest and steady rise of communism. Others are second, third, or fourth generation Chinese. On a regular day, they can be found in the Lung Kong or Min Chih Tang associations-turned community centres for a game of mahjong and a hearty lunch. They are the last ones standing in a community that gradually trickled out of the country in search of sunnier shores, namely Florida, New York, and Canada in the 1960s. Once again, they were fleeing socialism – this time led by Fidel Castro. Those that left were often successful shop owners whose businesses had been seized by the government.

The Chinese community of Cuba is a dying one – but since many early migrants intermarried with local Cuban women, many Cubans today are unaware of their heritage. As the country opens up and increases trade with China, Cuban Chinese around the world may find a newfound interest in their roots.

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