Ethnic Chinese first arrived in Cuba in 1847 as indentured laborers to work in the sugar cane fields under 8 to 10-year contracts. They were originally brought to the island to make up for the decline in the import of enslaved Africans,
The second half of the century saw over 150,000 Chinese join the working ranks in Cuba. This number may seem trivial today, but it represented about 10% of the population of Cuba at the time.
Today Havana’s Chinatown is but a memory of what it was in its heyday.
When their contracts ended, many Chinese stayed and started businesses in Havana and other Cuban cities. Because most of the Chinese contact workers were male, many married native Cuban and Afro-Cuban women. The result of this was that the second generation of Cuban Chinese had a Cuban mother and spoke Spanish at home. The Chinese language and culture struggled to survive even one generation on. What did survive and thrive, however, was the entrepreneurial spirit of the Cuban Chinese. Gradually, a thriving Chinatown was established with pharmacies, restaurants, laundries, schools, a cemetery and four Chinese-language newspapers.
Accompanying the growth of the Chinese population and businesses were the Chinese mutual aid societies, or “huiguans.” These organizations provided social welfare programs to their members helping integrate arriving Chinese via assistance with translation services, letter writing, lodging, employment, credit, emergency funds and even burial services. Some Chinese immigrants arrived with jobs and lodgings already waiting for them. These societies were similar to the organizations established by Spanish immigrants for the same purposes, like the Casa Galicia or the Centro Asturiano.
The Chinese continued to arrive but now they were being enticed by stories of their relatives’ successes in Havana. By the 1920s Havana’s Chinatown had become the biggest Asian neighborhood in Latin America, a bustling hub of productivity and industry that came to be known as Havana’s Barrio Chino, Havana’s Chinatown.
The late 1940s and early 1950s saw another surge of Chinese immigration when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in1949 and nationalized businesses. Many Chinese successfully recreated their businesses in Havana’s welcoming Chinatown.
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By now El Barrio Chino was a town onto itself, busy day and night. The neighborhood became a major tourism destination frequented by locals as well as tourists from as far away as Europe. Located behind Havana’s iconic capital building, El Barrio Chino grew to over 40 square blocks bordered by Zanja Street in north and Simon Bolivar Street in the south. Bustling restaurants decorated with red lanterns lined both sides of Calle Cuchillo, the main street.
In 1959 the Cuban revolution came to power. The early ‘60s saw the government nationalize businesses including those in El Barrio Chino. Little by little, like so many others, the Chinese left, many of them to emigrate for a second time in just 10 years. Most went to the United States. There many capitalized on their bi-cultural Chinese-Cuban heritage and created the culinary phenomenon known as Chino-Latino, a blending of Chinese and Cuban ingredients to create a unique new cuisine.
El Barrio Chino was almost entirely abandoned over the next two decades. Vestiges of a vibrant past remained, a faded street sign in both Spanish and Chinese, a forgotten poster of a Shanghai beauty in the dirty window of a boarded restaurant. The Chinese, conspicuous in their absence.
In the 1990s, the Cuban government recognized the tourism potential of the Barrio Chino. They invested in revitalizing the neighborhood’s historical character. The Chinese government collaborated by donating a large pagoda-shaped arch at the entrance to the original neighborhood.
The Cuban government offered incentives to the remaining Cuban-Chinese business people and their descendants- now only about 120 ethnic Chinese remained- to promote shops and restaurants. Investing in the Cuban-Chinese community paid off and the neighborhood slowly began to stir from its decades long slumber. The 500th Anniversary of the founding of Havana in 2019 provided yet another investment infusion and pumped life into the historic neighborhood.
Today Havana’s Chinatown is but a memory of what it was in its heyday. There are a couple of reasonably good Chinese restaurants on Calle Cuchillo. A sign in a storefront advertises Tai-Chi classes and bi-racial Cuban-Chinese congregate on the steps of the Cuba-China Friendship Association. And the classic red lanterns foretelling good fortune have begun to reappear in doorways.