The Chinese Presence in Havana

Deep within the heart of Havana lies a community whose history began more than a century ago. Trade ships brought their ancestors from China to Cuba. Today these people have become an integral part of society. Although much of their original history has been lost over the years, they have maintained and developed a new culture based on their Chinese traditions and their Cuban heritage. Through the efforts of community leaders and the support of the Cuban government, the Chinese descendants of Cuba have become a thriving community with much more promise in store.

In the late 1800s, provinces of China such as Canton were extremely poverty-stricken. The Cantonese could not find any opportunity or future in their towns. Conditions in the entire country were very poor. At this time foreign ships from the Americas arrived with businessmen offering a better opportunity for the Chinese. Among these ships were those from the tropical island called Cuba. There was a need for sugar plantation workers in Cuba and this appeared to be the ideal opportunity for young Chinese men to work in order to support their families. Hundreds of men signed contracts as indentured laborers offering to work for a period of time in exchange for their passage. They had planned to send their earnings back to China to support their family. After enduring a harsh trip across the oceans, during which many of the men died, the survivors arrived in Cuba only to find themselves in a country where the hardships reminded them of the deplorable conditions at home. With the little money they earned, few were ever able to save enough to return home, and the majority of the Chinese remained in Cuba for the rest of their lives, never seeing their families or China again.

Over the years, the Chinese learned to adapt to their new home, and began creating their own Chinese community. Since it was mostly Chinese men, many chose to marry Cuban women. With each generation, Chinese blood has been so intermixed with the other heritages that Cuban people have assumed an exotic appearance. As one glances at the faces of the Cubans, one might catch a glimpse of the Asian characteristics, but very few of the current descendants still look like their original ancestors. The Chinese are so interracially mixed that there is no longer a determination of Chinese or Cuban; they consider and identify themselves as Cuban, not Cuban-Chinese. A small percentage of pure Chinese are still alive, mostly in their late 80s. Today many of those who are aware of their Chinese descent have become active members of the Chinese community. Through the twelve societies that have formed, many descendants are working in some way to regain their lost culture and some wish to renew their ties with China.

Many traditions that most Chinese take for granted no longer exist in Havana, or they have been modified in some way to accommodate the little resources that these people have. In each society, there are individual family names that have been honored in special sacred rooms. In these rooms, shrines and Chinese furniture have been kept in excellent condition, and are almost a century old.

In each building which houses the services and events of a Chinese society there are individual family names that have been honored in special sacred rooms or on the walls of the building's interior.

These rooms are set up to honor the ancestors, and are used during special occasions such as weddings, funerals, and birthdays. Incense is burned, and special fortune telling objects are used to obtain the answers to a person's question about the other world. Only the Chinese elite are permitted to enter these rooms which are maintained by each society.

The lunar calendar is still used as a guide for particular occasions, such as Chinese New Year, which is celebrated on the streets of Chinatown, and the Autumn Festival, when delicate pastries called mooncakes are made and the people celebrate the autumn moon. The only existing authentic Chinese objects were imported from China decades ago. These include banners with Chinese calligraphy and beautiful silk tapestries.

These artifacts are kept in each society's meeting hall, and are displayed for all to admire and see. In the Casino Chung Wah, a major society where only pure Chinese are allowed to be members, wooden tables and chairs carved with Chinese decorations are used and the walls are lined with Chinese banners and tapestries.

Although the Chinese were once considered heathens because of their non-Christian religions, devotion to most of the symbolic gods and deities once worshipped no longer exists. All that remains are a few Chinese legends and stories within each family, as Christianity replaces the old Chinese beliefs.