Barrio Chino, Havana, Cuba -- Over the weekend, my husband and I took our kids to Havana’s Chinatown to look for Chinese New Year.
Even if we found very few Chinese faces, we came across plenty of Chinese New Year spirit. Elderly Cubans in white, flowing tai-chi outfits paraded down the street. Down an alley, inside a newly-restored building called the Confucius Institute, a group of college students were doing calligraphy. One student, named Fidel, even painted a beautiful character, “fu” — meaning luck — on thin red paper for my daughter. And at noon, a crowd gathered to watch lion dancers move rhythmically, with a hint of salsa swaying, to the beat of a kettle drum and crashing gongs.
We were surprised by the spirit on display that day. Barrio Chino, as Chinatown is known, is the least Chinese Chinatown I’ve ever visited. The first time my husband and I went together, we weren’t even sure we’d found the right neighborhood — nothing about it seemed different than the rest of Central Havana, except for a large Chinese gate that had been recently been built. We found very few Chinese characters displayed on signs and buildings; no one looked obviously Chinese. My husband searched in vain for someone with whom he could practice his Mandarin. After receiving blank stares from a few people with whom he tried a few words of greeting, he gave up. Finally, we stopped for a moment in a park with a statue of Confucius. A group of white, black, and mixed race kids were playing soccer near the statue. “Do you know who that is?” my husband asked. They shrugged and went back to their game. We headed to our car, defeated.
Chinatown used to be one of the most vibrant neighborhoods of Havana. Before the Revolution, a famous restaurant called El Pacifico served some of the best Chinese food in the Western Hemisphere. It was a frequent hangout of Ernest Hemingway. Nearby, a scandalous theater called The Shanghai was known for its seedy shows. A daily newspaper in Chinese was published and circulated in the community. The neighborhood was not unlike Manhattan’s Chinatown, full of vegetable and fruit vendors, snack stalls, and many small businesses.
Nowadays, there are only about a couple hundred full-blooded Chinese descendants left in all of Cuba. Chinese began arriving in Cuba in the late 1800s. In that era, Cuba had just abolished slavery, which left the sugar industry in need of laborers. The Chinese men who came to work in the sugar industry were usually single, and later married and had children with African and Spanish descendants. (I meet a lot of Cubans who don’t seem to have a trace of Chinese blood but say they have a Chinese grandfather or great-grandfather.) Another wave of Chinese arrived in the early 1900s, and it included middle-class and wealthy merchants looking for business opportunities. A third wave of Chinese, fleeing Communism in China, arrived after 1949. It was just their luck that exactly ten years later, Cuba, too, would have its own revolution that paved the way for socialism.
After 1959, Chinese-Cubans fled for the United States and other Latin American countries. The effect on Barrio Chino is apparent. Today, in Havana’s Chinatown, there is a languid feel, an absence of Chinese, and just one decent Chinese restaurant. There are no street vendors selling treats, and there is no bargaining or haggling going on anywhere. (Having visited this neighborhood one day after Trump banned all refugees and some foreign visitors from entering the United States, I wondered if certain immigrant communities in America might one day feel as hollowed out as this Cuban Chinatown.)
In the last few years, Cuba has been trying to revive its Chinatown. It has courted Chinese in recent years to invest in the area. Partnering with the Chinese government, the University of Havana recently opened an organization, called the Confucius Institute, where we watched the calligraphy making. It is one of a world-wide network of Confucius Institutes that promote Chinese language and culture. The School of Wushu, run by a Chinese-Cuban named Roberto Lee, has attracted a steady following of Cubans interested in Chinese dance and martial arts. But, despite the recent improvements, there’s an air of sadness running through the community still, reflecting what it once was and what it no longer is, as in much of Cuba.