The Politics of Acceptance: a case Study of Havana’s Barrio Chino

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The Politics of Acceptance: A Case Study of Havana’s Barrio Chino

Diana Paola Moreno
Chinese Literature 132: Chinatowns

Professor Eileen Ching-yen Chow

15 May 2002

The Politics of Acceptance: A Case Study of Havana’s Barrio Chino

In Spanish, La Caridad 78 Restaurant announces that it offers “comida china y criolla” (Chinese and creole food). For less than $7.00 a meal, you can pick from the “Spanish” side or the “Chinese” side of the menu, or the “Special Combination” section, offering fried rice with some Cuban-style meat. Placemats depicting either the map of Cuba or the animals of the Chinese Calendar cover the tables of this medium-sized, popular restaurant. The waiters move easily between Chinese and Spanish and their facial features bear the mark of these two cultures. In this restaurant, on the corner of 78th and Broadway in New York City, one can find an often unnoticed aspect of the history of the Chinese Diaspora: Chinese immigration to Cuba. Since the arrival of the first Chinese laborers in Cuba in 1847, the Chinese have formed part of Cuban society. In the note at the end of his novel De donde son los cantantes (From where are the singers1), Severo Sarduy writes: “Tres culturas se han superpuesto para construir la cubana -- espanola, africana y china” (Three cultures have come together to make the Cuban and these are the Spanish, African and the Chinese) (235). Although the presence of the Chinese in Cuba has been constant since 1847, their role in society has changed according to the political climate. In this way, I will argue that the shifts in power in Cuba affected the degree to which Chinese were accepted in Cuban society.2 I will use Havana’s barrio chino (Chinatown) as my lens.
The Setting of the Spanish Sun and the Beginnings of El Barrio Chino: 1847-1898
At mid-nineteenth century Cuba was a colony in Spain’s fading American empire. On the island sugar was king and its cultivation demanded the hands of hundreds of workers. The Spanish elites imported slaves from Africa to tend to the fields, but the might of the navel sea power, Great Britain, prevented further importation of African slaves after it criminalized the slave trade. Since hiring workers from Europe or other parts of America did not satisfy the need of the planters of keeping labor costs low, they instead sought the cheap labor of the Chinese. On June 3, 1847, the ship Oquendo arrived in Cuba after a journey of 142 days across the Pacific. Of the 300 who had boarded in Canton, 206 survivors of the perilous trip staggered ashore. Once on Cuban soil they were stripped naked “to ascertain whether they possessed strength, just as if an ox or a horse was being bought” (Ch’en 18). For eight years or more (if the employer was unscrupulous and did not keep his side of the contract), the Spanish expected the Chinese to toil in virtual slavery and live on a meager wage of four pesos a month. They were accepted as laborers, but not as humans.
In 1874, the imperial government in Peking dispatched a commission headed by Ch’en Lan-Pin to investigate the conditions of the Chinese “coolie” in Cuba. The commission interviewed Chinese throughout the island; story after story revealed the deplorable state of these overseas Chinese. Here one Chinese laborer Chu Chia-hsien tells an all too common tale:

As I saw Liu A-k’u receive 150 lashes dealt with severity, I, in indignation, proceeded to Havana in order to prefer a charge against the overseer. The official gave me no heed to me, but sent me back to the plantation, where an exactly similar chastisement was inflicted on me. The flogging continued from 8 to 10AM, and an hour afterwards Liu A- k’u threw himself into a sugar cauldron (31).

Even though the 71st Article of the Spanish Royal Decree of 18603 protected the Chinese from the whims of the employers, few Spanish officials heeded to the letter of the law (30). The commission report revealed with terrible detail the harsh conditions under which the coolies labored. Under the tropical sun, many were forced to work long hours even if ill and were beaten to death or else took their own lives. Most were malnourished, having only scraps for a meal once a day. Therefore, it is not surprising that of the 126, 000 Chinese who landed in Cuba between 1847 and 1877, 43, 298 were still alive in 1877 (Pan 69). When the report was published in Shanghai in 1876, the imperial government charged the Spanish Crown with mistreatment of Chinese citizens and so, the Spanish, after “acrimonious exchanges” freed all the coolies from their contracts (Pan 69). It can be imagined that without the intervention of the imperial government, the Chinese would still have been treated in a subhuman manner.
After the Chinese had been freed from the brutal caprices of their employers, many moved to Havana where a Chinatown or barrio chino, as it is known in Spanish, was beginning to take shape along Zanja Street (Canal Street). Following the harsh anti-Chinese legislation passed in the United States, a second wave of Chinese immigrants, known as the “Californians,” settled in Havana. Unlike the first wave which had little money and lacked entrepreneurial experience, the Californians brought with them their savings and expertise in business. With this second wave, el barrio chino grew into a commercial center.
Although the Chinese in Cuba in the 1880s were more “free” than the ones in the United States -- no Chinese exclusion act -- a similar discriminatory tone dominated the public discourse on the Chinese in Cuba. Like Chinatown in San Francisco or Limehouse in London, Havana’s barrio chino occupied the popular imagination with phrases such as “peculiar place of amusement,” “dark and narrow streets,” mysteries,” etc. Opium and gambling dens and brothels were said to occupy the darkest cellars and alleys of el barrio chino. In pamphlets from 1893 and 1894, respectively, called Los chinos fuera de china y el antagonismo de razas and Los chinos y su charada: folleto de actualidad (The Chinese out of China and the antagonism of races and

The Chinese and their “Charada”: a pamphlet of current events) the authors view el barrio chino as a foreign space within the familiar space of Havana where vice seems to flourish. They claim that the Chinese are people of “low character” who “gamble too much,” “eat parts of animals that no Spaniard would eat” and “refuse to pay taxes.” In the second pamphlet, the writer expresses his fear of the Chinese gambling game, called by the Spanish “Charada,” spreading throughout Cuba, corrupting the masses by making them addicted to this “dangerous” game. The author writes that this game “is a means through which those astute sons of the Celestial Empire will exploit our citizens.” Fear of the unknown and an inability to see beyond the “exotic,” to see the similarities between the Chinese and the Spanish built a wall of mistrust around el barrio chino, excluding it from Spanish society.

Independence and the Heyday of El Barrio Chino: 1898-1959
The air of distrust did not permeate all of Cuba. The revolutionaries, wanting to free Cuba from the rigid control of Spain, saw the Chinese as fellow soldiers of the same cause. Several Chinese joined the ranks of the revolutionary army, including Jose Tolon (Lai Wa) and Jose Bu who later ran for President after the Republic was formed. In 1920, to recognize the patriotism of the Chinese, a monument was erected on one of the main avenues of Havana. The inscription reads: Not one Chinese Cuban a deserter, not one a traitor. Jose Marti, the leader of the revolution, wrote: “los chinos eran grandes patriotas; no hay caso de que un chino haya traicionado nunca” (The Chinese were great patriots; there was never a case of a Chinese traitor) (Varela 10). Here both the inscription on the monument and Marti’s quotation use the Spanish stereotype of the “unloyal Chinese” and turn it on its head. The Chinese were no longer “exotic others,” but were seen as compatriots in the revolutionary war to free Cuba from the grip of Spain.4

When the Spanish elites left the island, they took with them the old hierarchy and left the Cubans with the question: What does it mean to be Cuban? Who is Cuban? Although Jose Marti died in 1895 before Cuba became independent of Spain (1898), he left behind his vision of Cuba as a land where social equality may flourish. As Cuba evolved as a nation, it embraced to a significant degree those groups which had been marginalized by the Spanish: the Africans and the Chinese.

In a note at the end of his novel De donde son los cantantes (From where are the singers), the Cuban author Severo Sarduy writes: Three cultures have come together to make the Cuban and these are the Spanish, African and Chinese; these are the singers of the title (235). According to Sarduy to understand the origins of Cuban culture, one must look at its music. In Cuba the word “son,” which appears in the title, has two meanings: it’s the plural form of the word “to be” and it is also the name of the most basic type of Cuban music. “Son” is both music and being. When Cuba celebrates its nationality during the period of Carnival in July, one can hear in the music the three cultures that make up what it means to be Cuban: the beats of African drums, the strumming of the Spanish guitar and the clear, sharp sound of the Chinese trumpet (Suo Na). Thus, the first chapter of Sarduy’s novel opens with the Chinese Opera in el barrio chino, with the Chinese trumpet playing a dominant role. By beginning the novel with the Chinese narrative of Cuban culture, he points to the fact that before the idea of the New World was connected to Africa or to Spain, it had been aligned with Asia: When Columbus landed in the New World, he thought he had finally arrived in Asia. The idea of Asia has been part of Cuba since its discovery in the 15th century.
Chinese influence also appears in other parts of Cuban culture. In Cuban cuisine, for example, several dishes such as Pito de auxilio and Alegria de ajonjoli were first prepared by Chinese Cuban cooks, as were ice creams flavored with fruits of the island. Traditional Chinese medicine is highly regarded by the Cubans and in time, a Cuban expression appeared which praises the effectiveness of Chinese medicine: “no lo salva ni el medico chino.” (If a Chinese doctor cannot cure you, then nothing can). It appears that with this acculturation, the “foreigners” of Chinese culture dissipates and its presence becomes part of the everyday.
However, at the same time that Chinese culture became part of Cuban identity, Chinese culture in Cuba saw a period of constant renewal with each new wave of immigrants. Cuba had the largest population of Chinese in Latin America, with 40,000 at its peak. A wave of Chinese immigrants entered in the early part of the 20th century and then another arrived in 1949 as China saw periods of political unrest. El barrio chino was the most vibrant Chinatown in Latin America. Restaurants and other small businesses lined its streets. There was also a theatre called “Shanghai,” a hospital specializing in Chinese medicine, Chinese schools and family and merchant associations. Three Chinese-language newspapers circulated around the city and a radio station transmitted news and entertainment in Chinese. El Paradiso Pacifico Restaurant in the heart of el barrio chino was once internationally renowned. It is said that Hemingway wrote part of novel there. El barrio chino saw its heyday as Chinese culture successfully straddled that gap between “foreign” and “familiar.” With the disappearance of the Spanish hierarchy, the Chinese were accepted as Chinese members of the Cuban community.
Revolution and the Decline of El Barrio Chino: 1959-1991
In 1959 after having toppled the Batista government, Fidel Castro entered Havana hailing a period of greater equality. Private businesses were nationalized and so much of the upper and middle classes fled to the US, Spain and Latin America. In these droves of immigrants were many Chinese Cubans.5 With their departure and the lack of new waves of immigrants, el barrio chino began to decline. The Chinese Cuban population’s peak of 40,000 (1950s) rapidly dwindled to 700 (1990s).

However, if the Chinese Cubans had stayed, it seems that el barrio chino would have lost its “Chineseness,” despite their presence. Most significantly, the idea of the Cuban community changed with the revolution, allowing little room for one to be a Chinese member of it. Retaining one’s “Chineseness” became difficult as the idea of “Cuban” became a monolithic identity: all Cubans are the same. Any person who opposed this idea was quickly arrested and branded a “traitor to the Revolution.”

Few Chinese Cubans stayed behind and of these most assimilated into this new idea of “Cuban.” Chinese almost completely ceased to be spoken and passed on to younger generations. Without the renewal that new waves of immigrants brings to Chinese culture in non-Chinese soil, the cultural ties became thinner and thinner. In addition, since Sino-Cuban relations were not particularly friendly during these years that the Soviet Union was Cuba’s principal ally, government funding for any “Chinese” enterprise (such as the publishing of a Chinese language newspaper) was cut off every time a diplomatic spat arose between China and the Soviet Union. Increasingly, “Chineseness” became regarded as “enemy.” To be Chinese in this context meant to be a traitor, and so the old Spanish stereotype of the “unloyal Chinese” reappears.
China is our ally” and the Revitalization of El Barrio Chino: 1991- present
In the final month of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and separated into 13 republics and in the island of Cuba, panic filled the air as its greatest benefactor ceased to exist. With the Soviet Union gone, the Cuban government looked to China. Slowly Sino-Cuban relations warmed and at the same time, el barrio chino has seen the beginnings of a revitalization. Walking in el barrio chino, one may spot the Chinese school opened in 1993 with a classroom full of children that can claim a Chinese grandparent. Down Zanja street, the main thoroughfare of el barrio chino, El Paradiso Pacifico restaurant has reopened with the help of cooks from China who taught the Chinese Cubans the art of the cuisine they could no longer remember. And slowly, as descendants of Chinese Cubans discover their Chinese roots, the number of members in the Chinese family associations has climbed. In 1997, el barrio chino, with the sponsorship of the Cuban and Chinese governments, celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Chinese to Cuba. The improvement of Sino-Cuban diplomatic relations has allowed Chinese Cubans access to the culture they had almost lost.

The heroic history of the Chinese Cubans (or Cuban Chinese, as the Chinese would call them) has resurfaced as the dialog between China and Cuba has become friendlier. In an article on Sino-Cuba relationship Lasts as Long as Universe, a common history appears as a link to the future:

The contact and friendship between the two peoples of China and Cuba have a long history. As early as the period of Cuba's two independence wars, the heroic deeds of Chinese nationals in Cuba who fought side by side with the Cuban people had been deeply engraved in the latter's hearts. . .it has become the eternal symbol of the friendship between the Chinese and Cuban peoples.
Like the joint revitalization of el barrio chino, this retelling of the War of Independence has provided the narrative to replace that which dominated the cold war years. In this story, they find themselves not as enemies, but as comrades- in- arms for the same cause. However, here instead of the Chinese Cuban’s “Chineseness” representing independence, it represents dependence. To show that Cuba is on China’s side, it must play up its barrio chino and its Chinese history. The tables have turned and now, Cuba must prove its loyalty to China.
Concluding Thoughts

As I traced this incomplete history of el barrio chino through pamphlets, articles, fiction and music, el barrio chino seems to transform from a foreign space to a space that becomes one of the sources of Cuban culture, while maintaining its “Chineseness” with new waves of immigration. With the departure of many of its residents, it then becomes a space of nostalgia for the once vibrant Chinese community, but at the same time, as it becomes a symbol of the renewed diplomatic relations between China and Cuba, it becomes a space of hope for the renewal of Chinese Culture in Cuba. But can it ever regain its “Chineseness” without a new wave of immigrants, can Chinese culture be taught and passed on? One of the members of the older generation who had seen el barrio chino in its hey day remarks: “They would like to make it like before but it can't be -- there are not enough Chinese.” The hope of Chinese cultural renewal seems hollow not only because of the lack of new Chinese immigration, but because the attempt to teach “Chineseness” is based on political motives and these could change at any moment, as the history of any country shows. However if the desire to regain the lost Chinese culture does come from the Chinese Cubans themselves and is not imposed by the government, then perhaps it is possible for el barrio chino to regain its identity, for “chino” to have meaning again.

Ch’en, Lan-Pin et al. Chinese emigration : report of the Commission sent by China to ascertain the condition of Chinese coolies in Cuba. Shanghai: Imperial Maritime Customs Press, 1876.
De Perseverancia, Ramon. Los chinos y su charada: folleto de actualidad. (Havana: Imp. La 1 de Belascoain, 1894).
Ordas Avecilla, Federico. Los chinos fuera de china y el antagonismo de razas. (Havana: A.Mirada y C. Impresores, 1893).
Pan, Lynn. Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora. New York: Kodansha International, 1994.
Sarduy, Severo. De donde son los cantantes. Madrid: Ediciones Catedra, S.A., 1967.
Varela, Beatriz. Lo chino en el habla cubana. (Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1980).

1All translations are mine and will be included in the text to facilitate the reading of my essay.

2Unfortunately due to the lack of resources on the subject at Harvard and on the web and my distance from the place of study, the argument will not be as compelling as I wish it to be.

3The 71st Article of the Spanish Royal Decree of 1860 reads as follows: The Chinese shall in every case possess the right of making complaint to the Protector, regarding any wrong done to them by their employers, whether such wrong consists in the infliction of punishments without sufficient cause or the imposition of unauthorized penalities, or in the breach of any of the provisions regulating the treatment of them (Ch’en 30-31).

4I wish I could have access to the Jose Tolon or Jose Bu’s diaries or letters. It would be interesting to find out exactly why they and other Chinese joined the revolutionary army. Did they feel Cuban?

5Here, unfortunately, limited resources do not permit me to say with certainty if most Chinese Cubans were well off in this period.

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