Forgotten Chinese of Havana

El Barrio Chino Hopes for Revival

October 18, 1998

HAVANA - Julio Wong was just out of his teens in 1920 when he boarded a steamship headed west, leaving behind his wife and infant son in China. He set sail with big dreams of striking it rich in the sugar fields of Cuba.

"My goal was to find something here, make a fortune, then return to China," he said.

For four years he labored under the tropical sun, eventually opening a small restaurant, but he never made his fortune. Nor did he ever make it back to China. Now 98, Wong is one of just a few hundred Chinese-born Cubans living in Havana, virtually forgotten by the world.

But the roots that he and thousands of other Chinese set down in this island nation live on in a younger generation of Chinese Cubans, who are rediscovering their past while forging their own identity in the unique cultural amalgam of modern Cuba.

"I feel more Cuban" than Chinese, said Maria del Carmen Kouw, who is in her 40s. "But because my father is Chinese, I want to know his culture, his history."

Her heritage dates back 151 years, when the first documented boatload of 200 Chinese men landed on the northern coast of Cuba after a grueling voyage in which 100 died. As the African slave trade wound down, plantation owners needed laborers to work sugar and tobacco fields. About 100,000 Chinese were imported over the next 30 years.

Although they earned a nominal salary, their contracts tied them to eight years of work, making them essentially indentured servants. Many intermarried with slaves of African descent.

Like Wong, Chinese immigrants continued coming to the island in search of prosperity. By the 1940s, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 ethnic Chinese lived in Havana and other parts of Cuba. They flocked to El Barrio Chino, once one of the most prosperous and densely populated Chinatowns in all of Latin America. Occupying about 44 blocks of central Havana in its heyday, the neighborhood was full of Chinese-owned restaurants, theaters, bookstores, gambling parlors and jewelry shops.

By 1949, the new immigrants had an additional incentive to leave China: political upheaval wrought by Mao's communist revolution.

But by an ironic twist of fate, another communist revolution took place 10 years later - this one led by Fidel Castro - and everything changed. The state took over private property, and by 1968 all Chinese-owned businesses were nationalized. Most Chinese fled overseas in a mass exodus. El Barrio Chino began to fade.

The Chinese natives left behind in Havana, the ones who lacked the resources or political will to leave Cuba, are mostly in their 70s and 80s. They've integrated into local society, intermarried with Cubans and lost touch with both family in China and much of their cultural heritage. The community has seen no new immigration for 40 years.

Now, the younger generation of Chinese Cubans - with a mix of Spanish, Creole and even African ancestry - has launched a drive to revitalize El Barrio Chino. With the blessing of the Havana provincial government and a fresh coat of paint to spruce up some buildings - a rare commodity in Cuba's anemic economy - the Chinatown Promotional Group was formed five years ago.

Within a few years, the group opened a language school, revived interest in martial arts and calligraphy and helped several small Chinese restaurants open on El Cuchillo (the Knife), the tiny street that cuts through the heart of El Barrio Chino. Last year, the group held its first overseas Chinese festival, opening the community's long-closed doors to Chinese from the United States and Canada.

But some Chinese Cubans are worried that the group's motivation is more financial than cultural. Much of the emphasis in this year's festival, held the first week of June, was on promoting a fair selling Chinese-made products and attracting overseas investment. Moreover, the revitalization project coincides with the government's push to develop tourism as a way out of its economic crisis, brought on by the withdrawal of support from the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

In making Chinatown more attractive to visitors, Abel Fung, a 61-year-old editor of Kwong Wah Po, Cuba's only Chinese newspaper, wonders whether its residents will benefit. "I feel ashamed to see the old Chinese men living in these kinds of conditions," Fung said. "We should be inviting overseas Chinese to help us organize the community, not take part in a festival."

Julio Wong gets by on a monthly pension of 79 pesos, or about $4. Frail and weak, he has given up hope of visiting China, but continues to wonder whether his son, who would be 80 now, is still alive. The last time he heard from his family was before World War II broke out. Wong remarried in 1959, yet he continued to send money home until 1963, even though he feared his family had perished.

"I stopped sending because I had no more money," he said softly, speaking in Spanish.

His hearing is failing, and although Cuba's health care system is widely praised, both medicine and supplies such as hearing aids are scarce. A popular joke is that Cuba has more doctors than aspirin.

A small Chinese pharmacy sells medicine only to members of the 13 Chinese family associations. Wooden drawers labeled with Chinese characters, similar to those found in any apothecary from New York to Hong Kong, cover one wall. But the drawers either are empty or contain desiccated herbs more than 40 years old.

Evelio Lee Huie, 81, once ran three successful restaurants in Havana. But after the revolution, he had no choice but to go to work for the government, helping run the businesses he once owned.

One recent afternoon, relaxing in a rocking chair at Ming Chi Tang, one of the family associations, he complained about his government-issued ration card, which entitles him to one loaf of bread and a small amount of sugar, eggs, cigarettes and other supplies each month.

"This place is no good," Lee said with a scowl. "I can't do business."

Many Chinese left Cuba after Castro's revolution for this reason and made their way to New York and Miami, which explains the popularity of Cuban Chinese restaurants in those cities.

Others were fervent supporters of the revolution. Moises Sio Wong, the 12th child of Chinese immigrants, fought in the jungles alongside Castro and Che Guevara when they were underground rebels. He is now a general in the Cuban military. Earlier, Chinese Cubans joined in the uprisings against Spanish rule; their loyalty is memorialized by a monument in downtown Havana.

More typical were Gloria Tang's parents, who once ran a neighborhood grocery store in Havana called Las Tres Chinitas, named for Tang and her two sisters. She remembers those years as happy times, when the entire family worked in the store fetching sugar or slaughtering fresh chickens for customers.

But by 1962, their store operations were restricted, food was rationed, and there were long lines for almost everything, she recalls. Her father, who arrived in Cuba in the 1920s, decided to take the family to the United States.

Entry was eased by a fluke of fate: Tang was born in San Francisco while her mother was en route from China to Cuba, which made her a U.S. citizen. They were allowed to bring no money or jewelry with them, only two items of clothing.

"Once you leave that country, you leave everything behind," said Tang, now a Sunnyvale homemaker and aerobics instructor who still cries when recalling how much her parents gave up. "It practically broke my parents' heart. Even though they had a good home, they just closed their eyes, climbed into the airplane and never looked back."

While men like Evelio Lee Huie fume about the lack of business opportunities, their overseas brethren are jumping in to what they see as an exciting and untapped investment landscape.

Several Canadian Chinese attended the June festival to explore the possibilities and celebrate the opening of the first Canadian-backed Chinese restaurant, La Muralla, or the Great Wall. They are particularly aware of their advantageous position over Americans, who are barred by the decades-long economic embargo from investing in Cuba.

The warming of official relations with Beijing, accelerated after Castro's 1995 visit to China, also has sparked interest from Chinese state enterprises. In a show of friendship, China has donated the materials and labor for a massive Chinese-style portico to be built at the original entrance to El Barrio Chino on Calle Dragones. At 62 feet wide, it will be the largest of its type in the world.

That entrance is now several blocks away from the present-day Chinatown, a concentration of relatively new Chinese restaurants and food stalls on El Cuchillo. Although the family associations and some Chinese families reside in the surrounding area, it's largely a mixed residential neighborhood.

The same diffusion is reflected in the younger generation of Chinese Cubans, a melding of Chinese, Spanish and African ancestry and culture. Chinese men and women greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. They speak Spanish with all the lightning speed and animated gestures typical of Cubans. Many had their names Latinized by immigration officials - Lai became Alay, Liang became Leon.

The food has been Cubanized too, from chop suey de pollo to rollitos de primavera (spring rolls) and maripositas (little butterflies, or won tons).

Intermarriage is the rule rather than the exception. Every other Cuban seems to have a Chinese grandfather. The sight of someone like Sandra Wong Leon - 21 years old and pure ethnic Chinese - still draws startled looks and cries of "chinita!" from passersby on the streets of Havana.

"Chinese people attract attention everywhere," she said, trying to conceal her exasperation at dealing with a lifetime of being noticed everywhere she goes. She doesn't speak Chinese, but said she would like to work in Chinatown as an accountant after finishing her business degree at the University of Havana.

It is a far cry from the early days of Chinese immigration, when a popular Cuban saying went, Eso es como tirarle un hollejo a un chino - it's like throwing an orange rind at a Chinese. The slur described something done easily and without consequence.

Still, the prejudice Chinese immigrants faced in Cuba was not as bad as things could be elsewhere. In fact, in the late 19th century, a few thousand Chinese sought refuge in Cuba to escape discriminatory laws at home - in San Francisco.

With the Cuban revolution came the official abolition of racial discrimination. "No es raza" ( "Race doesn't matter" ) is the motto still repeated to outsiders in response to questions about bigotry.

While the concept is one the Chinese descendants like to believe in, many feel spiritual ties to the land of their ancestors. Said Enrique Lam Chiu, who is 49 and three-quarters Chinese: "My aspiration is to see China before I die."

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