Havana’s Chinatown is a site of ghosts. Although at some point it was one of the largest Chinatowns in the Western hemisphere, today, only faded Chinese characters and kitschy decorations remain. Walking through its streets, I am struck not by what I see, but by the absence of what I feel should be there – Chinese people. There are still restaurants, though the promoters are Cuban, and when they see me, they utter a barely comprehendible, “Ni-hao,” before quickly reverting back to Spanish or English.
The story of Chinese in Cuba is a story of disappearances. The Chinese who were in Cuba in the early twentieth century were often the descendants of “coolies,” indentured servants who served as an intermediary between slave labor and free labor. Yet this history is painted in violence, as many of the coolies were kidnapped or misled in China, and once in Cuba, worked till death or forced into continuous new labor contracts. Almost all of the Chinese who arrived in Cuba were men, so the majority intermarried with Cuban women. The children of these marriages were often given the surnames of their mothers in order to better assimilate into Cuban society.
Chinese culture struggled to stay alive without proper resources and materials. Many of the descendants of these Chinese-Cuban marriages could not read or speak any Chinese because there were no schools or teaching materials. And without adequate ingredients, such as soy sauce, Chinese dishes could only be approximated with local ingredients.
However, the Chinese Cuban community was propped up by waves of new Chinese immigrants who left China due to economic hardships and sought opportunity in the Americas. With each new immigrant, Chinese culture was refreshed again. The Chinese community began to thrive in Cuba, but this quickly ended after the Cuban Revolution, when most Chinese left Cuba for Miami, New York, or even back to China.
Today, there are only a few Chinese who can still remember the era before the Revolution, and they are old, living remnants of a forgotten time. Some are in retirement homes, living out their days. Mirta was one of the few Chinese Cubans I encountered. Already in her seventies, she was spry, working two jobs even in retirement: one as the president of the Chinese Socialist Alliance, and another as the manager of a Chinese restaurant. Essentially, she functioned as a waitress, cashier, host and organizer. Her husband, the only chef in the restaurant, stays behind in the kitchen, which is the size of most Cuban apartments.
She hobbles around her restaurant on a cane, extraordinarily energetic and friendly, though she admits that she’s emotionally and spiritually worn down. “I stayed because I really believed in the ideals of the revolution,” she said. “But what has that brought us? I have to work two jobs in retirement because the pension ($20) cannot support me.”
The restaurant she owns is well-lit and decorated. Framed fans hang on the wall. Silk screens fold across the space. The image is opulent. But the large space is disturbingly empty of people. Instead, it conjures up the impression of being filled with ghosts, the spirits of the Chinese who once lived and thrived in the neighborhood.
Written by Lisa Lee