Chinese New Year in Havana

First day of the year of the Chinese Calendar
Barrio Chino, around Zanja, Amistad and Dragones Streets in the heart of Centro Habana

In Cuba, the most important event in the Chinese year is celebrated with traditional dragon and lion dances and takes off at the large pagoda-style Chinese Portico, a gate built in 1999 that leads into Barrio Chino. During this most spectacular event, the streets are packed with women, men and children of all ages, Chinese descendants and Cubans in general, who have come to see the dances performed to the sound of gongs and drums as they parade down the street.

Barrio Chino
Cuba’s Chinatown, or Barrio Chino, is centered around Zanja, Amistad and Dragones Streets in the heart of Centro Habana. Located just a few meters away from El Capitolio, it was formerly the largest Chinatown in Latin America. The Chinese district comprised 44 square blocks during its heyday. According to historian Julio Le Riverend, between 1847 and 1874, around 150,000 Chinese, mostly men, arrived in Cuba to replace African slave labour in the sugar industry, and by the early 20th century, approximately 10,000 of them were living in the city in the area around Zanja and Dragones Streets.

In the beginning, the Chinese immigrants stayed true to their customs, marrying only members of their community, but as many started to immigrate to other countries, the ones that did stay began to marry Cubans and Caucasians, and their race has now become a mix of races. Today, most Chinese-Cuban are a mix of their Chinese ancestors with Spanish and African descendants.

From 1869 until the first half of the 20th century, different waves of free Chinese, mostly from California in the US, immigrated escaping discriminatory laws. The “Californians,” as they were called, laid the economic foundation of Havana’s Chinatown, opening small shops ranging from street cafes, fruit and vegetable stands, laundries, grocery stores, family businesses typical of Chinatowns all over the world. At one point, Havana’s Barrio Chino was the largest and most economically important Chinese community in Latin America, the venue of various thriving business establishments. There were also a large number of self-proclaimed leisure and educational clubs, being the Kuomintang and the Chi Kong Tong the most popular ones.

With the dissolution of private businesses in 1959, many Chinese left the country. In time, this led to the deterioration of the Chinese district. However, in 1990, thanks to the efforts of the Group for the Advancement of Chinatown, the support of local authorities and the help of the Government of Havana, the recovery and restoration of restaurants, shops, festivities and traditions began for Barrio Chino. Today, the remaining Chinese and their descendants maintain a distinct community with traditional Chinese associations, a Chinese-language newspaper, restaurants, pharmacies, martial arts schools, opera, cinema, among other.

Today there are many Sociedades Chinas de Instrucción y Recreo, small casino-bar-restaurant establishments. Among them, Sociedad China La Unión de la Familia (Family Union Chinese Society), Lung-Kwn-Sol Chinese Society, Sue-Yuen-Tong (a small restaurant) and Chi-Tack Tong (another small restaurant).

There are a few other must-see things in this neighborhood, such as the Kwong-Wah-Po (People’s Chinese Newspaper), which is still being published; a Chinese movie theater, where original versions of movies are featured; and an odd Chinese homeopathic pharmacy and the House of Chinese Arts and Traditions, which brings together a community of descendants of Chinese families who seek to cultivate their ancestors’ traditions and culture. The Cuban School of Wu Shu, well-known for its work in promoting this martial art and Chinese culture, promotes a healthy lifestyle for the body and mind. It is today practiced by hundreds of people of all ages.

Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. In China, it is known as Spring Festival, the literal translation of the Chinese name 春節 (Pinyin: Chūnjié), since the spring season in Chinese calendar starts with lichun, the first solar term in a Chinese calendar year. It marks the end of the winter season, analogous to the Western Carnival.

The festival begins on the first day of the first month (Chinese: 正月; pinyin: Zhēngyuè) in the traditional Chinese calendar and ends with Lantern Festival which is on the 15th day. Chinese New Year’s Eve, a day where Chinese families gather for their annual reunion dinner, is known as Chúxī (除夕) or “Eve of the Passing Year.”

Because the Chinese calendar is lunisolar, the Chinese New Year is often referred to as the “Lunar New Year” and Agriculture / Agricultural / Agrarian Calendar’s New Year. In the Gregorian calendar, Chinese New Year falls on different dates each year, between January 21 and February 20. In the Chinese calendar, winter solstice must occur in the 11th month, which means that Chinese New Year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice

Each lunar year is represented by an animal: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. This year 2012 is marked by the presence of the Dragon. It is a mythological symbol that represents fertility, immortality and happiness. It is also the divine ruler of sea, rivers and lakes.

According to Chinese predictions, this is a strong year given that it is a yang year—positive, bright, and masculine—and the figure of the dragon reigns. The Dragon brings a year of contradictions, authoritarianism, force, power, but is also considered a year of luck and good fortune in the areas of health, wealth and long, prosperous life, irradiating positive elements against the negative ones in human existence.

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