Sun, May 12, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Havana’s Chinatown dreams
of a new lease on life

As the Cuban capital prepares to celebrate its 500th anniversary, authorities have committed to restoring many parts of the city, including what was once Latin America’s largest Chinatown

By Moises Avila  /  AFP, HAVANA

People watch as dancers perform at the House of Traditional Chinese Arts in Havana on Jan. 25.

Photo: AFP

Nestled alongside Havana’s old town, surrounded by colonial buildings and swept by the exhaust trails of passing 1950s American convertibles, stands a large arch with an ornate roof. It is the entrance gate to Havana’s Chinatown, once the biggest in Latin America, whose residents are now dreaming of recovering its past glory.

Here, taxi drivers joke that it is the only Chinatown in the world without any Chinese, a testament to the assimilation of a migrant community that first arrived in Cuba in the middle of the 19th century.

“Since its creation, it was an open Chinese neighborhood that produced this mix between the Chinese and the country’s original population,” said Teresa Maria Li, director of the local House of Traditional Chinese Arts.

Li comes from a family with a Chinese grandfather and a Spanish grandmother.

“First of all, I feel Cuban, but deep inside I have the Chinese gene and I defend it vigorously, with a sense of belonging,” she said.

After lunch at the Lung Kong old people’s association, pensioners sit around a table playing mahjong.

These are some of the last remaining Cuban residents who are 100 percent Chinese. Their descendants have embraced the local culture and are more Cuban than Chinese.

The first wave of Cantonese migration arrived in 1847 to work as “coolies,” agricultural workers who replaced African slaves in the sugar plantations.

However, the next wave had money and were fleeing discrimination and an economic crisis in California.

They built a thriving neighborhood with hundreds of thousands of people, as well as restaurants and theaters — Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier christened it the “Yellow City.”

However, the migratory flow dried up with Cuba’s 1959 communist revolution. Those fleeing Mao Zedong (毛澤東) were met by Fidel Castro — they did not hang around.

“Calculating the number of descendants is impossible. There are first to fifth-generation Chinese. Those fully Chinese ... there are 121 in the whole island,” University of Havana Asian history professor Maria Teresa Montes de Oca Choy said.

The influx of rich Chinese migrants from California provided a boost to Cuba’s GDP, but in 1959 Castro’s “nationalization law affected all Chinese. Small businesses had considerable Chinese capital,” Montes de Oca Choy said.

However, following the fall of the Soviet Union and after Cuba spiraled into an economic crisis in the 1990s, some old Chinese restaurants reopened, although like most of the city they remain run down.

With Havana celebrating its 500th anniversary, authorities have committed to restoring many parts of the city, including Chinatown.

As well as resurfacing the roads and improving street lighting, there are to be traditional Chinese cultural activities too.

On Manrique Street, about 30 children learn wushu (武術) — traditional Chinese martial arts.

Next door, in what was once a Chinese cinema, nandao (南刀, broadsword) brandishing wushu master Roberto Vargas Lee teaches adults.

The grandson of Chinese citizens, he studied martial arts in China in the 1990s. His wife is from Shanghai and his mother was part of the former Cantonese Opera in Havana.

“Some people tell me I don’t look very Chinese, others ask me when I arrived from China. It’s like the Tao says: Everyone can look at the same thing, but see it differently,” Vargas said.

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