As I passed through the dramatic Chinese-style gate to Barrio Chino de La Habana (Chinatown in Havana) I was shocked to find a lack of any Chinese people on the streets. I expected to see small stores selling things like scallion pancakes and tons of people speaking various dialects of the Chinese language. There were a few Cuban style Chinese restaurants but nothing like what you would find in the Chinatowns of New York, Houston or San Francisco. The only language I heard people speaking was Spanish and I saw no Asian faces.
I was told that at one time Havana’s Chinatown was one of the largest in all of Latin America. Starting in 1847, hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers were brought in to replace the labor of African slaves. After completing 8-year contracts, the Chinese immigrants generally settled permanently in Cuba, where their descendants have since intermarried with local Cubans. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, however, most of the Chinese Cuban entrepreneurs fled the country for the United States. Since that time Cuba has not attracted Chinese immigrants. The redevelopment of Havana’s Chinatown would require huge investments and the current political conditions in Cuba are not favorable to this.
As I walked around Barrio Chino I ran into a Chinese Language School that was mainly teaching Cuban children to speak Chinese and learn about the Chinese culture. Although all of the staff personnel I met were Cubans they were doing a good job of exposing Cuban children to Chinese traditions and language. The school also introduced me to a magnificent Chinese martial arts school located within the gates of Barrio Chino de La Habana. This became one of the highlights of my visit to Cuba.
Photo by Laura – http://tinyurl.com/lkuja56
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