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Back to the future in Havana’s Barrio Chino

Back to the future in  Havana’s Barrio Chino

I’ve always enjoyed waking around Chinatown early in the morning, when the streets are filled with senior citizens. As they walk around, I realize every one of them has a different story—one that, no doubt, holds substantial wisdom. Today, eight of them live at 506 Manrique St., in a building known as Residencia China. Watching them go about their daily routines is also a way to understand the past.

According to historians, the first Chinese immigrants settled in Havana around 1858. Chang Leng, owner of a modest restaurant, and Lam Siu Yi, who owned a fruit and vegetable stand were among them. From then on to the early 20th century, a considerable amount of Chinese immigrants arrived in Cuba. A population of nearly 10,000 inhabitants occupied approximately ten blocks, which today make up the Chinatown district.

The relocation of these Chinese immigrants to Cuba implied a relocation also of their complex cultural identity. As they settled among us, they created the necessary structure to continue with their lifestyles. This is how, among other things, they opened a printing press and got to have three newspapers in circulation. Likewise, the Chinese theater became notably active with venues that included the Águila de Oro (today a movie theater) located at 104 Rayo St., on the corner of Rayo and Cuchillo streets in Centro Habana.

In these first theaters, both women and men would play roles of either sex and in addition to acting, they also mastered singing, acrobatics, pantomime and martial arts. The operas performed on these stages featuring Chinese actors from California received widespread coverage.

Chinese medicine was also introduced in Cuba. As a result, an extraordinary drugstore was opened in which a wide range of medicinal products—mainly of a homeopathic nature—have been sold for over a century. Although conceived for the Chinese community, this drugstore has always been very popular among Cubans and, in a way, has contributed to changing our healing habits.

As it happens with all relocations, the immigration of Chinese men and women to Cuba was a distressingly painful process. Many of the newcomers were forced to take the place of African slaves and a large number of them joined the Liberation Army during the Cuban Independence Wars. Although their impressive work capacity had led them to successfully develop numerous business activities, an internal struggle to gain control of the district broke out, leading to the proliferation of casinos, opium dens and brothels.

The last large wave of Chinese immigrants took place in the 1920s, and by 1930, the Chinese community in Cuba consisted of 24,000 people. At the time, Havana’s Chinatown had achieved an image of its own, not for its architecture, but to the feel of the district and its people.

After 1959, the casinos, opium dens and brothels were closed down, but the rest of the district remained untouched, as frozen in time. The year 1990 marked a new era for Havana’s Chinatown—a movement began to preserve the old festivities and traditions, as well as to restore and reopen the restaurants in the area. As a result, the area has become one of the city’s liveliest districts. The spirit of Chinese commerce hasn’t been lost; on the contrary, it has overcome one difficulty after another for over a century and a half. Restaurants have proliferated and their menus offer a wide variety of dishes from both the Cuban and Chinese cuisines.

Ever since it was opened in 1995, the Casa de las Artes y Tradiciones Chinas (House of Chinese Arts and Tradition) has been developing a sociocultural program aimed at spreading the thousand-year-old culture and the values of the Chinese community in Cuba. This center holds a large number of Chinese items, most of which have been donated to the institution by the people of Barrio Chino. Curiously enough, the vestibule of the building that houses the center features the family tree of renowned Cuban painter of Chinese origin Flora Fong, through which she pays special tribute to her ancestors.

The district, which is limited by Escobar, Galiano, San José and Reina streets, is perceived in a peculiar way. The mystery of tradition has pervaded this city area and has given it a richness that can only be obtained where the essence of solid cultural traditions is incorporated into a foreign environment. The thousand-year-old culture came to the energetic Caribbean to stay and created a space where the two exotic cultures collide and coexist.

The arrival of African slaves may have marked our nation exceptionally, but the Chinese made our mix even more beautiful. The mix of the two races never ceases to amaze me with its variations of beauty. Just a few days ago, as I was walking down Barrio Chino’s short boulevard, the sight of two gorgeous “Chinese-mulatto” girls impressed me so much that I can only define them as the greatest expressions of sensuality. As I gazed upon them, I was secretly celebrating the frenzy that results from such an amazing mix.
Octuber 2014

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