Asian culture also hit by emigration, intermarriage
By Laurie Goering. Tribune foreign correspondent.
Chicago Tribune. April 26, 2001
HAVANA -- Each Wednesday afternoon, in their office filledwith dusty racks
of lead-type Chinese characters, Abel Fung and his two pressmen crank out
Havana's last Chinese-language newspaper.
It takes just two hours for the ancient press, growling with each turn of
its well-oiled cog wheel, to turn out 650 neatly folded copies of the paper. The
problem is that hardly anyone can read it anymore.
Age, emigration and intermarriage have taken a toll on Cuba's once
flourishing Chinese community. While descendants are making efforts to preserve
and revive the culture, the island's last pure Chinese are slowly disappearing
into Havana's Chinese cemetery, taking with them part of Cuba's history.
"To read the Chinese language you have to come from there, like me,"
says Fung, a slim, gray-haired man in his 70s. "Our descendants don't learn
Chinese. Some try, but it's not easy."
When he retires, Kwong Wah Po, the last of what were once four Chinese
newspapers in Havana, will pass into history. "I think the paper is very
important, but it will shut down," Fung admits. "Our readers are very
few and very old."
Almost a century ago, Havana was home to Latin America's biggest and most
vibrant Chinatown, the product of heavy Chinese immigration.
Chinese first arrived on the island in 1847 as contract laborers on sugar
plantations, hired to fill the labor gap left by the decline of African slavery.
Over the next 35 years, more than 100,000 indentured Chinese would make their
way to Cuba.
Many made the trip on refitted slave ships and worked in conditions little
better than slavery, their eight-year contracts bought and sold in lots in the
same Old Havana market where slave sales had flourished.
Gradually, however, many of the workerswho survived years of grueling field
labor finished out their contracts and started small businesses. Freed Chinese
joined Cuba's wars of independence against Spain in the late 1800s, and outside
Havana's stout city walls a fledgling Chinatown of shacks grew up along the
Zanja Canal that brought water to the city.
By the early part of the 20th Century, Havana's Chinatown--now incorporated
into the city--was booming with restaurants, laundries, banks, pharmacies,
theaters and newspapers. In most cities in Cuba, Chinese ran small shops and
vegetable farms, and sold fried fish on street corners, according to Evelyn
Hu-DeHart, a Cuba historian at the University of Colorado.
The boom ended, however, when Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution seized private
businesses, sending tens of thousands of business-minded Chinese fleeing, mainly
to the United States.
Today, old age is fast claiming those who remained. The average age of
Cuba's 300 Chinese immigrants is 80.
Because most of these immigrants were men and many married Cuban women,
pure-Chinese descendants are relatively few. Tens of thousands of Cubans,
however, claim some Chinese heritage.
"They're Cubans. They don't know much about being Chinese, or have much
left of their Chinese-ness," Hu-DeHart says.
But such descendants are at the heart of an effort, launched in 1995, to
preserve and resurrect Cuba's Chinese culture.
Havana's Chinatown is more tourist attraction than thriving community.
Behind an ornate red gate, rows of restaurants hung with red lanterns and
dancing red paper dragons draw visitors. Waitresses--their faces showing faint
hints of Chinese heritage--wear bright, fitted Chinese dresses and serve
Havana's best flan alongside Chinese specialties. One waiter sports a fake
ponytail attached to his cap.
Around the corner, the 90-year-old Chinese pharmacy sits mostly empty, the
doorway blocked by a broken wooden gate.
"You can't just walk in here!" protests one shop attendant, a sour
old Chinese fellow in an ancient fedora, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The
shelves, on his side of the pharmacy, which supposedly offers modern medicines,
Nearby, his partner, a Chinese man wearing a constant smile like a serene
Buddha, perches in front of a wall of drawers marked with Chinese characters, a
few still holding traditional cures.
There's Chinese salve and Chinese menthol, a few syrups, but not much more,
says Jorge Chiong, 64. Today the spare supply of medicines is available only to
the aging Chinese still living in Chinatown.
Things are similarly spare at the Lung Kong senior center down the street,
where elderly Chinese men without families spend their days rocking before an
oversize map of China and eating around lunch tables covered with old,
pink-flowered plastic tablecloths.
Signs of a richer time
Two flights upstairs, Leandro Chiu, 72, tends the shrine of the Lung Con Cun
Sol brotherhood, one of dozens of Chinese societies that once flourished in
Havana. Chiu bows three times before the 100-year-old gold leaf shrine, Chinese
vases and a faded cloth picture of the shrine's patrons, testament to a richer
time in Chinatown's history.
Chiu's father came to Cuba in 1925 "to find a good life," Chiu
says, but after the revolution most of his family and most of the brotherhood
fled to San Francisco. Today the shrine has few visitors.
Other parts of Chinatown, however, are showing new life. Each morning at
7:30, Santos Hernandez, 51, helps lead tai chi classes in a barren lot behind a
metal door marked with yin and yang signs. Of the 17 participants, only two
appear to be Chinese.
"This started so we wouldn't lose the traditions," says Hernandez,
a dark-skinned man with a gray beard whose grandmother is Chinese.
"I think of myself as Cuban, not Chinese. Being Chinese is a distinct
temperament," he says.
At the heart of the effort to reinvigorate Chinese culture in Havana is the
Chinatown Promotion Group, created in 1995 to, as its brochure notes, "rescue
our forefathers' beautiful traditions from oblivion and bring Havana's Chinatown
back to life for good." Its members' names reflect the generations of
mixing: Perez, Li, Pineda, Lao, Chong, Garcia, Gonzalez.
The group, besides organizing cultural events, leads Chinese language
classes each Saturday, teaches Chinese calligraphy and carving of miniatures,
runs its own small home for the elderly and keeps alive Chinese medical arts
such as acupuncture.
Faro Argundin, a 33-year-old graphic designer who looks Cuban but inherited
a Chinese grandfather's interests, has taught himself the art of Chinese
calligraphy, and now paints the organization's signs.
He dips a stick of black Chinese ink in water, swirls it to the right
consistency, dips a brush and carefully paints the character for happiness in
"I worked long nights learning this and practicing," he says. "I
did it with a lot of personal sacrifice because I liked it."
Argundin is raising his own children to know and appreciate Chinese culture.
"I feel more Chinese than Cuban," he says. But he admits that his
fight to hold on to Cuba's Chinese culture is probably a losing battle.
"Chinatown will disappear if no new Chinese come in," he said. "Even
those who know the old recipes guard their secrets."