Ghosts and Hope: The story of Havana’s Chinatown

  • Havana

Havana’s “Barrio Chino” is one of the oldest Chinatowns in Latin America, yet the neighborhood and local Chinese culture has been in decline for the last fifty years. Since Chinese Cubans started leaving the island after the revolution in 1959, the incredible culture and history of Havana’s Chinatown has been struggling to survive.

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Chinese first arrived in Cuba in 1847 as indentured laborers (referred to derogatorily as “coolies” by the locals) to work in the sugar cane fields. Hired to make up for the decline in African slavery, the second half of the century saw over 150,000 Chinese join the working ranks in Cuba. When contracts were finished many Chinese started businesses and, gradually, a thriving Chinatown was established with restaurants, pharmacies, laundries, schools, a cemetery and four Chinese-language newspapers.

Because most of the Chinese immigrants were male, many of them married Cuban and Afro-Cuban women resulting in a second-generation of Chinese in Cuba who have a Cuban mother and grew up speaking Spanish. Adapting to their Cuban setting, the Chinese language and culture struggled to survive even one generation after the original wave of migration.

In the years following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, private businesses were seized and Chinese Cubans fled the island to the U.S. and Canada. The Chinese community in Havana never really recovered. Now, I’ve been told, there are no more than 40 original Chinese immigrants left in Cuba who arrived before the revolution, although tens of thousands claim some level of Chinese heritage. The Chinese language newspapers have shut along with their 100-year-old printing press. The editor was one of the few people left in Havana who could read the language, decipher the complex Chinese characters, and operate the press.

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Not far from the capital building, just west of Galileo Street in Central Havana, you’ll notice the official entrance to Chinatown, a large pagoda-style Chinese gateway. After a visit by Fidel Castro to China in 1995 to improve relations between the two countries, China became one of Cuba’s main sources of manufactured goods, and funded the construction of the archway. It’s a grand entrance for a neighborhood that – apart from a few signs, one narrow alley of Chinese restaurants, and a smattering of paper lanterns – feels just like the rest of Havana.

The heart of Havana’s Chinatown is The Cuban Wushu School run by Master Roberto Vargas Lee. A third-generation Chinese-Cuban, Master Lee has been running the martial arts school since 1995, when he returned to Cuba after studying Kung Fu in China. With an emphasis on health and community, the school feels like Chinatown’s greatest hope for survival. A café serving tamarind juice and Cuba’s famous strong and sugary coffee sits in the corner of the outdoor patio that serves as a meeting place for friends as much as a practice and performance space for the school. But don’t be mistaken, Master Lee is serious about martial arts, his students have competed internationally in Wushu and Tai Chi competitions, taking gold over 20 times.

Professor Luis Vivo (left), Master Roberto Vargas Lee (right)

“We have two reasons for existing: to preserve Chinese culture and to use the practice to improve the community,” says Professor Luis Vivo, a teacher at the school. “75% of my students – I have 250 – are over 70 years old. Even the Cuban Ministry of Health has recognized how much the quality of life improves for old people when they practice.” Luis says he believes that it’s hard for the elderly no matter where in the world you are and what sort of government you live under, but in Cuba it’s particularly hard. Pensions are far too low and conversations can be easily steered towards the negative. “It’s forbidden in my school to talk about those who have died. We need positive energy – the problems stay out of the room. Every week you notice how the elderly change, the more they come, the straighter they stand and the more they smile.”

Luis became a Tai Chi professor after he had a heart attack and retired from his job as the chief physician in the quarantine center of the hospital. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to have a chief like I was!” he laughs. He continued teaching at the university and a fellow professor suggested he try Tai Chi to manage his stress levels and prevent another heart attack. Luis agreed and went to a class that Master Lee happened to be teaching. They joke it was love at first sight. Master Lee told him to go to the Wushu School and get certified to teach Tai Chi and it was the moment that changed his life forever. Not long after, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer that had spread across his body. Still, he practiced Tai Chi throughout his treatments: “At one of my appointments the doctor just said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it! It’s working!’ And eventually I went back and the cancer was totally gone. I believe I expelled the bad energy in my body, and it cured me.”

The stories of students being healed and dramatically improving their lives from the Cuban Wushu School are endless he tells me. I have to admit; the atmosphere is overwhelmingly positive, even bubbly. Watching a Wushu lesson with some of the more advanced youth, I find myself hypnotized by their focus. The students move with such precision, so in tune with each other they look like one entity. Chinatown might not be the thriving center of Chinese life and business that it was 60 years ago, but it hasn’t totally disappeared either.

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When the class is over, the pretty teenage girls head straight for a table where the elderly students are sitting. Two of the ladies stand up to greet them by dancing to the music that’s playing in the café. The teenagers laugh and match their moves. The music gets turned up and before I know it everyone is dancing, even the server from the café comes out from behind the bar and salsas with the oldest lady at the school.

Some say there’s a fresh wind in Chinatown these days, with more energy and resources going into revitalization by Chinese-Cuban descendants hoping to preserve some of their roots, and more and more Chinese students arriving to study at the university. It’s unlikely the Chinese influence could ever be as great as it once was in Havana, and the new efforts seem to be focused on preserving and documenting the history rather than rebuilding it. The number of interracial marriages mixed with Cuba’s deep national identity and the sheer strength of its culture is enough to absorb even one as distinct as the Chinese. I’ve never seen a Chinatown look less like China and so much more like the local city, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Tourists love to see Havana as a city that’s been trapped in time, perfectly preserved and otherworldly. But the beauty of Cuban culture has always come from its blending – with China and Africa – and each time it does, there’s never any doubt that it remains totally and utterly Cuban.

This story is published in Issue 11: Havana – order your copy HERE for more stories like this one.

Words by Erin Spens
Photos by G L Askew II

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