Steffi Audrelia uncovers a personal history of Chinese migration to Cuba at the Casa Ajión in Trinidad.
chinese cubans
Steffi discovers shared Chinese roots in Trinidad. Photo courtesy of the author.

Somehow, I ended up at the home of “el chino cubano,” one of the few Chinese Cubans in Trinidad. Inside his casa particular, I found the tell-tale symbol of any Chinese establishment — a well loved Chinese lucky cat figurine, whose front left paw no longer moved, but whose power was undoubtedly believed and cherished nonetheless. 

Roberto’s paternal grandparents emigrated to Cuba from Guangzhou, China in the early 1900s in search of a better life. By that time, the Chinese had already been migrating to Cuba for over half a century.

Before traveling to Cuba from my home in Australia, I knew little about the Chinese who settled on this Caribbean island. Being of Chinese heritage myself, I cannot think of any nations more geographically and culturally disparate. And then I met Roberto — one of the approximately 90 Cubans with Chinese descent left on the island. My mind was opened to the little-known (but fascinating) history and influence of the Chinese in Cuba.

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Roberto and his niece, Patricia, run a casa particular in the center of the beautiful colonial city of Trinidad, about four hours east of Havana. From the moment I saw Roberto, something drew me in. Over the next couple of days, I was fortunate enough to hear his life story, recalling his childhood memories, and learn about the rich Chinese cultural influences that remain today in Cuba. 

Roberto’s paternal grandparents emigrated to Cuba from Guangzhou, China in the early 1900s in search of a better life. By that time, the Chinese had already been migrating to Cuba for over half a century. 

chinese cubans
Roberto Ajión Ruiz with a photo of his grandmother.

There’s a significant amount of history connecting these two countries. Back up to 1847, and Cuba’s booming sugarcane fields and processing mills needed labor. Though slavery wasn’t abolished until 1886, slave trade ended twenty years earlier, in 1865, further increasing the need for additional laborers. The first wave of Chinese laborers (historically referred to as ‘coolies,’ now considered a derogatory term) were brought to Cuba under an eight-year work contract, most of them heading to the provinces of Matanzas and Villa Clara where sugarcane plantations were abundant. 

The first wave of Chinese laborers were brought to Cuba under an eight-year work contract, most of them heading to the provinces of Matanzas and Villa Clara where sugarcane plantations were abundant. 

Between 1847–1874, there were around 120,000 Chinese migrants living and working in Cuba. They were not just in the fields, but also on the battlefields. Many Chinese immigrants fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain in the Ten Years’ War (1868–1878). 

For most Chinese, Cuba was not a permanent destination, and many took the opportunity to work for eight years and go back to China. However, in the years of working alongside the African slaves in the plantations, many also assimilated to the environment around them. Some even adopted the Afro-Cuban religion. Meanwhile, Cubans also adopted some of the Chinese customs. The Chinese community had a system for picking lottery numbers, and this was embraced by the Cubans as the modern-day charada game, popular today in Cuba and with Cuban exiles living in Florida. 

chinese cubans

After the 1959 Revolution, many Chinese immigrants fled to the United States.

El chino de Trinidad

Roberto Ajión Ruiz was born in 1961 to a white Cuban mother from the Villa Clara province and a Cuban-born father of Chinese descent from the Matanzas Province.

Curiously, Roberto’s grandfather did not come under the ‘eight-year work contract’, instead setting up a small general shop in the small town of Coliseo. The business was successful enough for his grandfather to return to China to bring back his girlfriend and start their life anew in Cuba. They even changed their name to sound less… foreign. So it was that Domingo Ajión and Mariana Hill Eng got married and had five children; the eldest son was Roberto’s father — José Domingo Ajión Hill. They prospered in this new-found paradise.

Two generations later, despite being brought up with mostly Cuban values, Roberto may not speak Chinese, or practice many of the traditions, but he is incredibly proud of his Chinese heritage. He showed me a few tins of well-preserved photos of his family, a Chinese calendar, and a tiny jar of empty Tiger Balm (the all-healing cure all in Chinese culture!) that Roberto and I bonded over when I showed him mine. 

“I am Cuban. I was born in this beautiful country, I can’t deny it. But Asian blood also runs in my veins. I feel emotionally connected to China and its people. I feel love and nostalgia for the land of my ancestors.”

Roberto Ajión Ruiz

He fondly recalled that on special occasions, he would watch his grandmother in the kitchen making some of his father’s favorite Cantonese dishes like chow fan (fried rice) and chow mien (stir fry noodles). Unfortunately, Roberto hasn’t been able to recreate the dishes that he holds close to his heart due to the lack of Asian seasoning in Cuban supermarkets, like soy sauce. However, in his leisure, he reads books about China and often watches Chinese documentaries that are shown on Cuban television.

Before meeting Roberto, it had never crossed my mind that Chinese migration reached all the way to Cuba. And yet, looking at the island now, remnants of visible cultural influences remain. The old Chinatown in Havana lacks a large Chinese population, but still contains the signs and architectural signs of a once-proud Asian representation. 

In Trinidad, Roberto is known as “el chino.” My curiosity led me to ask him: “Do you mind the nickname?” Roberto replied, “I am Cuban. I was born in this beautiful country, I can’t deny it. But Asian blood also runs in my veins. I feel emotionally connected to China and its people. I feel love and nostalgia for the land of my ancestors.”

And whilst this is the story of Roberto and not mine, I cannot help to think of my own migration and my own Chinese background. And it brings me back to Cuba, a country that I love and identify with so deeply – and I wonder if this ancient connection between the two countries has something to do with that.

Su casa es tu casa

Whether you are interested in learning more about the Chinese culture of Cuba, or if you just want to meet a genuine and unique character in Trinidad, I highly recommend staying at Roberto’s tranquil casa particular, “Casa Ajión.” His niece Patricia makes the best chicken dish and potaje, the rooms are cozy and well kept, and the company is as homelike as you can possibly hope for. It is centrally located in Trinidad, and if you want to explore, Roberto and Patricia are happy to help you find your own unique stories. 

chinese cubans
Steffi celebrates her birthday with her hosts in Trinidad.

Sources: 

  • Los culíes chinos y Cuba” Evelyn Hu-DeHart (Radio Television Martí) 9 March 2020
  • Interview with Roberto Ajión Ruiz and Patricia Barcelo Ajión 
  • “Chinese Coolies and African Slaves in Cuba, 1847-74” by Lisa Yun and Ricardo René Laremont, in Journal of Asian American Studies. June 2001.

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6 comments

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  • Interesting article, I liked it a lot. In my opinion, we have to know our roots. Is the first step for understand our lives. Congratulation researcher!!! Viva Cuba y su gente multicultural!!

  • Very interesting, I grew up near el barrio chino in Havana. Their culture always interested me.
    Many Chinese immigrated to other countries in the Caribbean also. I’ve meet people from Venezuela, Jamaica, Dominican Republic with Chinese ancestry.

  • Great read. Many Chinese also emigrated to Hawai’i like my great great grandparents – also from Guangzhou. Fascinating how spread out the diaspora really is. Thanks for sharing.

    I love Cuba!

    • It truly is very widespread! Mine emigrated to Indonesia from Guangzhou also. Fascinating stories like these need to be explored and told. I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Besos x

  • My great-grandfather was from China; he was a farmer, married a Cuban woman and settled in Baracoa. He changed his name and, since all his sons/daughters have long passed (including my beloved grandfather who came to the USA to live with us the last two years of his life), not much is known about him; he came to Cuba with a Spanish family, as their servant…supposedly stowed away on a freighter from China to Spain in his teens…I hope one day to see if records can be found to get more information. His great-grandchildren are spread throughout the USA, with a large group in California…one surviving great-granddaughter is in Palma Soriano, Oriente & I was blessed to visit her last year…
    Thank you for this article – always knew there were many of us out there!
    Meybol FERNANDEZ Rivero

    • You are very welcome! And thank you for sharing the incredible story of your family Meybol. I wanted to bring a light on how important it is to be aware of our background so we can respect it and understand the present better. I hope you can find those records 🙂

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