[TIMELINE] Chinatown in Cuba
- Barrio Chino: Chinatown in the Caribbean
A Report from Havana's Chinatown by the Chinese Historical and
Many people are surprised to learn that there is a Chinatown in
Cuba, but Chinese have been a part of Cuba's history since at least
1847. Although Chinese may have arrived in Cuba earlier, the first
large group of Chinese arrived on the Spanish frigate Oquendo in
1847 to work on sugar plantations. When the ship dropped anchor in
Havana harbor, only 206 of the original 300 contract laborers from
Guangdong province had survived to work the sugar fields.
These indentured workers and those who followed were recruited to
fill the gap created by the termination of African slave trade.
Estimates of this immigration over the next quarter century range
from 50,000 to 130,000. About 13 percent died during the voyage or
shortly after arrival.
These early laborers were bound to virtual slavery on the sugar
plantations for four pesos a month. At the end of their eight year
contract, the Chinese were often in debt to the plantation owners
for food, clothes, and other daily needs.
Between 1860 and 1875, a second wave of Chinese immigrants arrived:
about 5,000 who fled anti-Chinese sentiment and legislation in
California. "The Californians," as these relatively wealthy
newcomers came to be called, laid the economic foundation of
Havana's Chinatown. At the same time, former indentured laborers
provided an eager work force for produce farms, laundries,
restaurants, small soy sauce and tobacco factories, and family
businesses typical of Chinatowns across the globe.
Havana's Chinatown became the largest Chinese enclave in Latin
America. Throughout the 19th century, Chinese Cubans participated in
the struggle to gain independence from Spain, which succeeded in
1898. A period of integration and assimilation followed.
A third wave of Chinese immigrants to Cuba resulted from the
political and economic upheavals between the establishment of Sun
Yat Sen's republic in 1912 through the early years of the Chinese
revolution. At its height, the ethnic Chinese population in Cuba was
Traditionally small business owners, many Chinese left Cuba with the
dissolution of private enterprise in 1959. In time, this exodus,
gradual assimilation, lack of new Chinese immigration and death of
community elders led to the deterioration of El Barrio Chino. The
Chinese Cubans are estimated at only about 500 today. Only a very
small portion of Havana's Chinatown is occupied by Chinese Cubans
and their descendants. However, some Chinese chose to remain after
1959, and the younger generation now include doctors, lawyers and
engineers. These young people, often the product of intermarriage
with non-Chinese, are determined to regain their lost traditions.
The Chinese Language and Arts school opened in 1993 and thrives
today. Various community groups are working to revitalize Havana's
Chinatown and to rescue and foster Chinese traditions for future
generations. Several years ago, Cuba's economic policy was altered
to allow individual operation of small businesses such as repair
shops, beauty salons, and produce and food stands. Many such
ventures are now active in the Havana Chinatown. After decades of
attrition, the Chino Barrio community are experiencing a renaissance
with a bustling market and plans for a museum and renewal of the
Our CHCP member brought gifts for the Chinatown community: two
suitcases of books and videos on Chinese culture, including
donations from the Chinese Cultural Center in Sunnyvale, CHCP's own
Golden Legacy curriculum of Chinese cultures and traditions, Connie
Young Yu's Chinatown, San Jose, USA, a symbolic sequined Pearl of
Wisdom and Dragon Gate from the Dragon Master Dave Thomas and
CHCP. "The country is very poor," she says. "The average Cuban earns
$7 [U.S.] a month." Responding to the need of the community, she
left all of her personal belongings as well. Other recent donations
from overseas Chinese included office equipment and cultural items
such as incense, Chinese books and music...and 1,000 pairs of
While the government provides health care and there are many
doctors, the county is hampered by lack of pharmaceuticals. Chinese
doctors are introducing the use of acupuncture and massage to help
alleviate this medical shortage.
Education in Cuba is free. About 90 percent complete high school and
70-80 percent go on to college. However there are not enough jobs
for this highly education population.
Despite their situation, our CHCP member reports that the people are
cheerful and, in contrast to the usual Chinese reserve, the Chinese
Cubans are very affectionate and demonstrative.
Coe, Andrew. Cuba. Hong Kong: The Guidebook Company Ltd., 1997.
Navarro, Esperanza and Isabel Sierra. "The Chinese Presence." Sol Y
Son, no. 5, 1997,: 30-31
Strubbe, Bill and Karne Walt. "Start with a Dream." The World and I,
September 1995, 188-197
Twu, Rose-Marie. "El Barrio Chino." Presented at Senior Citizens
Meeting, King Recreation Center, San Mateo, July 1998.
Wong, Bill. "Cuba's Chinatowns: Tales from the Diaspora." Asian
Week, 9 April 1998.
Article reposted with the kind permission of the Chinese Historical
& Cultural Project, which reserves all rights. CHCP, chcp@...,
www.chcp.org, P.O. Box 70746, Sunnyvale, CA 94086