Visiting Cuba’s Barrio Chino

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Cathy Chavez-Miller with Margie Way at the entrance to Barrio Chino. (Chavez-Miller collection)

Cathy Chavez Miller (Co-chair of ACE) recently returned from visiting Cuba  and Havana’s Chinatown, once the largest Chinatown in Latin America. Cathy writes:

I inquired about a Cuban Chinatown to our guide, Professor Silvio, and he said we could go there for lunch. I was thrilled; he said some men and families came after the first World War. Most left, only 2 restaurants remain. We ate at Bavaria Dragones, not very traditional . . .but I was stoked . . . The owner said her grandfather used “Bavaria” in the name because it was a popular beer. The place was packed with Cuban families for lunch; there was a banquet room upstairs. Apartments were above the restaurant.

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Bavaria Dragones restaurant, Havana Cuba. Photo: Chavez-Miller collection.
We had our guide Silvio ( in the photo with hat) and Jorge (retired Cuban airforce pilot) as our driver in his 1967 Chevi. We did more than anyone had ever asked to do on a tour!

From all accounts Havana’s Barrio Chino was once a huge and bustling community. According to Will Weissert (Boston.com), it had, at its largest, a population of 50,000. Even now, the aging (and much smaller) community has the privilege of having the only privately published newspaper in Cuba, “Kwong Wah Po,” or “Shine China,” a 4-page broadsheet, printed in Chinese. Guillermo Chiu sets the type by hand on a century-old printing press.1

The history of Chinese in Cuba is somehat similar to the history of Filipinos who came to work in the sugar plantations of Hawaii, and then the agricultural fields of California. Kathleen Lopez writes that Chinese workers arrived in Cuba as part of “a massive scheme to import low-cost workers for Cuban sugar plantations prior to and during the period of gradual abolition of slavery in the Spanish colony.” However, many of the Chinese experienced extreme abuse on their journey to Cuba: “Approximately 142,000 men, mostly from southeastern Guangdong Province left for Cuba between 1847 and 1874. Roughly 17,000 died on the journey due to sickness, violence, and suicide.” A Chinese imperial commission investigated abuses, and ended the “coolie trade” in 1874. Lopez notes that coolies began to build Barrio Chino as early as 1858.

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Photo of members of the Wong Kong Ja Tong ethnic society in the Barrio Chino museum. Photo: Chavez-Miller collection.

Today, although their population is much smaller, Barrio Chino still has its old-timers, supported by local ethnic societies, contributions from China, and the Cuban government.2

The story of the Chinese in Cuba is a fascinating tale of adventure, hardship, hybridity, and the struggle to survive and change with the times. Salinas Chinatown’s population over the decades has also encompassed people from various cultures and classes who have learned a new language and new ways, and struggled to survive and thrive. And like the inhabitants of Barrio Chino, we often look fondly back on the neighborhood’s heyday, and plan–with much hope–for its future.

—Jean Vengua

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Exhibit in a Barrio Chino museum. Photo: Chavez-Miller collection.

 

1. In Havana’s Chinatown, Rare Droplets of Freedom

2. Remaking Havana’s Barrio Chino, by Kathleen Lopez

See also:

Film: Havana’s fading Chinatown: one cuban-Chinese man’s hope for a revitalized culture, in SCMP.tv.

Lost in Cuba: China’s Forgotten Diaspora

Diaspora and Trust: Cuba, Mexico, and the Rise of China, by Adrian H. Hearn.

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