Typeset By Hand

Relic of the Past Still Provides a Link to the World

October 18, 1998

HAVANA - You can say this about many things in Cuba, but it's certainly true about the Kwong Wah Po: It's a wonder it still runs.

With a printing press older than anyone who works there and a readership that has been dwindling in number since 1959, the Chinese-language weekly newspaper continues to fill a vital role in El Barrio Chino.

Its four thin pages of articles, mostly on Cuba and China, remain the only source of news for many elderly Chinese Cubans, some of whom never learned to read Spanish fluently. Others are simply hungry for information from the homeland they left behind decades ago.

In the 1950s, newsstands in Cuba boasted four Chinese newspapers, which were based both in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. But since the revolution, when most ethnic Chinese fled the country, three of the papers closed, and Kwong Wah Po has shrunk from a daily circulation of 1,500 40 years ago to a weekly circulation today of less than 700.

In the intervening years, it survived everything from having its paper supply cut off by the government to constant fear of its editors' going to jail. Its struggles mirrored those of the Chinese Cuban community, who were often victims of the vagaries of Cold War politics.

Because Cuba was closely allied with the Soviet Union, the nation's relations with China took a nose dive following the Moscow-Beijing split in the 1960s. In 1964, the Cuban Communist Party halted financial support to the paper. The Soviet- and Cuban-supported Marxist insurgency in Angola in the mid-1970s increased tensions for the Chinese in Cuba.

When China went to war with Soviet-allied Vietnam in 1980, the Cuban government cut off the newsprint supply, forcing Kwong Wah Po to buy paper illegally from other sources. One of their suppliers was jailed.

"It was a hard time," said Ramon Wong, who filled almost every job at the paper in his 30 years there. "We almost went to prison."

Relations between Cuba and China improved in the late 1980s, and, after a two-year hiatus, the paper fired up its turn-of-the-century U.S.-made printing press again in 1987. It's a hulking machine that must be oiled and fine-tuned for several hours before it runs each week.

A dedicated staff of 10, including two reporters and three typesetters, keeps Kwong Wah Po going.

Instead of dealing with 26 letters of the alphabet, the typesetters must keep track of thousands of different Chinese characters. The pencil-thin metal type bodies are organized into compartments filling rows and rows of shelves in a crammed room next to the printing press.

The paper once employed 20 typesetters, who must manually find and set each character of the newspaper. Now just three remain, one of them almost 80.

Managing editor Hector Fung, 80, has started labeling the shelves with numbers so non-Chinese readers can do the job. Last year, when an entire shelf accidentally fell over, it took workers a full month to put the pieces back in the correct cubbyholes.

Alejandro Hong started the job nine years ago. Glasses on his nose and tweezers in hand, he scans the shelves for the right character. Asked why he does it, the 79-year-old replied, "No one wants to work here."

With no new immigration into the community, the number of people who can read Chinese is shrinking. Last year, the editors decided to publish the paper's fourth page in Spanish to reach younger Chinese Cubans.

Once a week, Fung picks up his newspapers from Hong Kong, the source of Kwong Wa Po's China news. Although the foreign papers arrive via airmail, it still takes the Cuban postal system one month to deliver them.

"Yes, it's last month's news, but it's news to our huaqiao (overseas Chinese)," Fung said with resignation.

copyright 1998 San Francisco Examiner. Articles may not be reproduced without permission.