Overview of the Chinese Cemetery

Our research team which includes five Southwestern University student and two professors were granted a unique opportunity to conduct research regarding the Chinese presence in Havana. Since different societies and groups within societies do not always share identical way of thinking, part of our research includes studying the rites of death. Cuba and China are in some ways at opposite poles of the spectrum since one nation looks to a more Buddhist thought and the other to a predominately Catholic perspective. Not sure what to expect as to how these two polar beliefs would interact with one another we ventured out to actually view a Chinese Cuban cemetery in Havana. Upon arriving at the Chinese Cemetery once is faced by a large Chinese style entrance to this resting place. The cemetery is locked the entire with admittance granted by a guard who must remove the heavy chains that bind the two gates together. Some may think that the grand entrance is a symbol of the many years of struggling the Chinese endured for the approval and completion of cemetery, but in actuality it is used to intimidate bad spirits from entering. Many Asians believe that if all the universe is in harmony they will be granted peace and harmony as well in life and death [connection of this sentence with the previous ones are unclear.

Stepping though the gates reveals a new world and brings the history of the Chinese population in Havana to life. According to our guide Professor Pedro Eng, the Chinese Cemetery is not the largest cemetery in Havana, measuring only about 9,000 square meters, but the histories of the Chinese descendents it holds are great.

Walking around the cemetery the history of how the Chinese assimilated into the Cuban society is clear since the writing on the tombstones moves from all Chinese, to Chinese and Spanish, then to the writings being predominately in Spanish (with the names possibly being in both languages). The earlier tombstones are rather small simple, but the modern day ones tend to be larger and more eye -catching. Also interesting is the presence of a cross on most of the tombstones since most of the Chinese people were not Catholic. Apparently when the Chinese men went to Cuba to earn money they often left their families in China and then once the war broke out they lost their opportunity to return home. If these men married again their wife was often Catholic and would later request a cross instilled on her late husbands tomb as a symbol of salvation.

Currently since the Chinese Cemetery is overcrowded many of the various Chinese societies have built large tombs in which to place their members remains. This is done by placing the remains of the deceased into zinc boxes and then placing them in the, sometimes, underground tombs [chambers]. This practice dates back to 1945 and still occurs today with a total of about 2,000 zinc boxes. In order for a person to become a member of one of the twelve Chinese societies they must be able to trace their Chinese lineage. While there still remain some pure Chinese people in Havana, most of the living Chinese descendents are only partially Chinese and, therefore, blend in with the rest of Cubas mixed population.

Struggles of the Chinese Cemetery

The mysteries of the Chinese population in Havana remain inherent in some parts of Chinatown, but clearly they have left a deep mark in Cubas history. During the era of World War I the Chinese people who immigrated to Cuba could not return to their homes in China so this kindled new problems that the Chinese people. The remains of deceased Chinese people were no longer allowed to be shipped back to China, but rather had to be returned to the land of Cuba. [However, in a following paragraph, you mentioned that the Chinese had a burial ground since the Spanish ruling] During this time family members of deceased Chinese who were living in Cuba mourned the death of their family member moreso since they felt that the deceased family member could not rest in peace until he/she received a proper burial ceremony. A proper burial ceremony would include lighting red candles, burning sandalwood, and placing ceremonial funeral coins over the eyes of the deceased. Of course a proper funeral ceremony could not lack customary fruits like the tangerine [Tangerine in Chinese puns on luck [jie] in many southern dialects.] These items were given to the deceased person to provide light, food, and money in the next life. In the event of a young childs death, toys would also be added to this list. In addition tobacco in the form of cigars or cigarettes was used as an offering to console the person who lost a loved one. Another Cuban addition to this ceremony was the presence of sugarcane during the ceremony. This ceremony as well as the building of the Chinese cemetery and funeral home came as a result to the realization that the Chinese people were destined to stay in Cuba in the late 19th century.

In 1964 Ming Zhidang, the general director of an importation store in Cuba, and his wife were invited to Beijing for the 15th anniversary of the installment of Peoples Republic of China. During his stay in China he died and instead of being buried in China, his body was cremated so that half of his remains could stay in China, but the other half was transported by his son back to Cuba. Later there was a monument erected in the Chinese Cemetery in his honor. This is only one case in which the Chinese Cubans tie to Cuba becomes evident since years before the Chinese believed that their dead could not rest in peace until being sent back to their home country.

It was also because of this realization that Horatio Molina, a former judge and journalist, made a promise to complete the Chinese funeral home as well as send part of the remains of the deceased back to China. His decision to do something for the people came after he grew tired of working for the living without reward. The initial steps to establish a burial ground for the Chinese began in 1883 while Cuba was still under Spanish rule. It was in this year that a proposal for such a cemetery, by a man named Lin Yangyao, was rejected by the Spanish Crown. Instead the South side of the Columbia Cemetery was reserved for burying non-Catholics. Then finally in 1892 the Spanish authorities approved a proposal for the building of a Chinese cemetery. This did not, however, mark an end to the difficulties that the Chinese people would face concerning their cemetery because even though the Chinese Cemetery was finally completed in 1933, it was not officially inaugurated until 1947 (100 years after the first Chinese immigrated to Cuba). Even then it was not until July 13, 1967 that the Chinese Cemetery was nationalized by National Monument Resolution #133.

The layout of the cemetery is relatively simple. The tombstones are arranged in straight rows where two tombstones are back to back with a larger walkway at the foot of the graves. There are mausoleum type building throughout the cemetery for members of certain Chinese societies. With the Casino Chung Wha having the largest of these structures. Other Chinese societies have large monuments for members of their society who are deceased. The structures typically have a stone staircase leading to a platform decorated with flowers and old Chinese proverbs as well as other poetic sayings. Some of these structures have the two lions guarding the entrance of the structure, but a point of interest is that the lions are not visually differentiable. Generally, one lion is a male, shown with a ball underneath his paw, and the other is a female, defined by holding a cub underneath her paw. But in the Cuban Cemetery it seems that the yin-yang balance is lost.

Several years after Cubas Revolution the nationalization of the Chinese cemetery finally gave the Chinese population some long awaited recognition for all their strenuous efforts during the Cuban Revolution. This nationalization meant that the Cuban government committed to provide all services necessary to maintain and protect the cemetery and the Chinese system of burial. This event is so monumental since the claim of Cuban socialization breaks all barriers between groups in order to recognize everyone at a comparable level. This is not the only time that the Chinese population in Cuba have received special privileges from the government since they are also permitted to own land in the district labeled as El Barrio Chino in Havana.

The Chinese have not always been granted special rights by the government. Since they first arrived in Cuba they were generally among the lower class. Now, however, the Chinese in Havana are considered to be in the upper echelons of the socioeconomic structure. [The remaining part gives important info that should belong somewhere else; some general comment will be useful] Though El Barrio Chino has not yet reached the status it once had as being the largest Chinatown in Latin America, new restaurants, vegetable stands, and cultural schools (Mandarin, Wu Shu, and Tai Chi) are resurrecting the thought to be dying Chinese culture in Havana. The revival is accelerated with the help of the Chinese government who provides El Barrio Chino with assistance in several manners such as donating movies, Mandarin teachers, architects, and chefs. Without the aid from China, the rebuilding of El Barrio Chino would still only be a dream.