The Chinese Presence and Historical Evidence

The presence of Chinese in Cuba in historical documents dates back to the year 1850. These documents show that they were elected to public offices in the city of Havana, were employed, and participated in Cuban society. Additional studies are needed to fully understand the Chinese influence in Cuba historically and its significance today. Our website is intended to provide the first step in assisting the collective studies of Chinese in Cuba, to serve as a key for future investigations that will help us understand more about the aspects of Chinese presence in Cuba and their significance. This section will consist of the examination of original documents from the Jose Marti National Library, as well as from contemporary academic studies and other sources.


The Jose Martí National Library in Havana, Cuba, houses the base of information in this effort to find historical evidence of the Chinese presence in Havana. Founded on October 18, 1901, the library remains one of the most important cultural institutions in Cuba. The library acquires, selects, processes, conserves, and safeguards the National Bibliographic Patrimony of Cuba. It has various specialized rooms that contain resources particular to Cuba: histories, studies of Cuban culture and music, and information about Cuban art.

The title of the oldest document examined is titled: “Copia de un contrato entre colono chino y el español”. It is not classified by the library under the name of the author but rather under the category “Chinos en Cuba”. The document was written around the year 1850 and it consists of seven illegible pages registered as C.M. Escoto No. 247. Following the same format of the classification and its correspondence with the name of the author in the second and third oldest documents, one might conclude that Escoto is the name of the author. From this information one might also deduce that as early as the 1850 there were Chinese in Cuba that were already colonists and that they conducted business with the Spaniards in Havana. One can only conjecture as to what type of business was conducted. The Chinese colonist probably worked in agriculture. The Spaniard, most likely of the upper class, was a merchant and this indicates the nature of the contract: an agreement between a Chinese agriculture laborer of the lower class and a Spanish merchant of the upper class. The specifics of the contract are unknown due to the illegibility of this poorly preserved document. One conclusion about this document is that the Chinese had already gained legal recognition by obtaining such a contract even though the Spaniard initiated the writing of the document for his own purposes.

The title of the second oldest document found is: “Chinos en Cuba Oficios”written by Martín Iraizoz. The last name of the author is not of Spanish origin but appears to be a misspelled Chinese surname, registered as C.M. Iraizoz No. 328. It was published in the year 1861, and is two pages long. The title indicates the existence of offices for Chinese in Cuba. What were the offices? Who were the Chinese that occupied these offices and what distinct characteristics did these individuals possess? How much importance did these offices have in Cuban society? It is notable that a Chinese man probably wrote this document. It indicates that there was at least one Chinese man literate in the Spanish. Language.

The title of a third set of documentation “China: Relaciones Exteriores”is attributed to (Grau San Martín) Curti Messina. This collection consists of five empty envelopes that are numbered from one to five. Registered as FC Curti (Col. Pre.) this collection of envelopes indicates that communications existed between people in China and Cuba. It is not known whether the contents of the envelopes were an actual correspondence or if they were written to describe the communications that occurred. Since the envelopes bear illegible inscriptions, it seems most likely that they contained a series of correspondences. The likelihood is small that there were many people in China that spoke Spanish. Thus, it is likely that, if there was actual correspondence, it would have been with a Chinese individual in Cuba, and the document would have been written in a Chinese dialect, or there was correspondence with someone traveling to Cuba. The theory that there was actual correspondence with a Chinese person is appealing because the Chinese immigrants in Cuba would have wanted to communicate with their families in China.

More Evidence

In 2000 the Fernando Ortiz Foundation dedicated a volume of its magazine, Catauro: Revista Cubana de Antropología, to the Chinese presence in Cuba (year 2, No. 2, 2000). The information is useful in giving information about the Chinese in Cuba and for the resources that contain the bibliographies of the articles. The articles cover several themes related to Chinese in Cuba: physical anthropology, general reflections about their presence, the “Barrio Chino” in Havana, theatre and music, linguistic aspects, their economic and social positions, inter-ethnic and interracial relations, and their participation in the Ejercito Libertador, the Cuban Army.

There are also articles in one section under the heading “Imaginario” that are studies without bibliographies containing less information than the previous articles. They are essays that celebrate the influence and the contributions of the Chinese. The articles are about an ancient Chinese doctor, a nostalgic history of the Chinese, a traditional Chinese dance, and the Chinese in Cuban literature. Another section that deserves a brief word is the section on the folklore archives. The section contains additional information about the political and socio-economic position of the Chinese.

El Cautaro mentions and commemorates Juan Pérez de la Ríva (1913-1976), a man whose work grew notably in success after his death. According to Dr. Jesús Guanche Pérez, a leading expert on the Chinese in Cuba, the most complete work about the Chinese coolies in Cuba by Dr. Juan Pérez de la Riva has been published recently (Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, La Havana, 2000, p. 468). The problem with this is that the book is difficult for audiences to access outside of Cuba. In matters of the Chinese presence in Cuba Dr. Guanche’s advice carries force; though it may be difficult it is worth the effort to take heed of his advice and try to obtain Dr. Pérez’s work.


More study is needed on the original documents and there is a need for more development in contemporary studies. There are extant documents that contemporary studies in the twenty-first Century have still not discovered. Current themes of conversation in contemporary studies are also discussed by experts in Cautaro (year 2, No. 2, 2000). A problem in the investigation was that of technological deficiencies. The Jose Martí National Library has a website but the student investigating this site is likely to have difficulties because the site is slow and sometimes inaccesible.

Historical Evidence from Two Literary Sources

La Desgrada de Lao-Chao is a problematic short story since it was written in Spanish by a Cuban author who attempts to present from the perspective of a Chinese narrator the experience of mystery and love. Due to a series of inconsistencies in the literary presentation of this short story, it remains difficult to ascertain if this story was truly an original creation or merely an adaptation of an early Chinese fable or myth. The author E. Morales de Acevedo could have been of Chinese descent although there is no evidence that supports this. An analysis of the short story found in an issue of the literary journal Figaro, dated 1911, demonstrates the attempt to present to Cuban society in the early part of the twentieth century the exoticism of the oriental culture. Erroneously, the illustrations represent specific elements of Japanese culture and dress and not those specifically of the Chinese culture.

La Desgrada de Lao-Chao. El Figaro, 1911
Garvel, Lucas. Venturas y Desventuras de los 150 Años de los Chinos En Cuba.
"CubaNet News" Junio 25, 1997. Comunidad china festeja 150 años en Cuba.

El Nuevo Herald. 29 de mayo de 1997.
Ricci, Jeanne. Island of Contradictions: Photos of Life in Cuba Today.
USA Today Magazine . May 1, 1995.

The Chinese Presence in Journalism

The Arrival and Survival of the Chinese in Cuba during the 1st Opium War Qian Long, ruler of China during the end of the 18th century was faced with the difficult decision of opening Chinese ports for the exportation of Chinese silks and other profitable products to Britain and the rest of Europe. At the end of the 18th century, China was a country who had always supported itself economically, utilizing only Chinese goods and services, impeding importation from other countries, and exporting Chinese goods to the rest of the world. For awhile the strategy worked, and China prospered considerably. However, the demand for Chinese exports like silk, tea, and certain types of spices was growing rapidly in many European countries. Fascination with the "Orient" and "Oriental" people, philosophy, and way of life became new and "exotic" to the Western eyes.

Great Britain's King George III had expressed in a written letter to Emperor Qian Long, the importance of Chinese trade with Great Britain, with direct emphasis on China opening some of its trade barriers and importing British goods. Qian Long's reply to the letter disagreed with this idea. Qian Long states that his country will not abolish its traditions, custom and etiquette in order to cater to the needs of the British. Qian Long pronounces China as a "Celestial Dynasty, a Celestial Empire," who already contains everything that it needs and "lacks no product within its own borders (Letter.)" And Long also explains to King George, that if the British mercantile ships should so much as even touch Chinese soil, they will then be expulsed.

Thus commences what would later be known as the first of the Opium Wars. The Wars instituted Britain's rejection of the wants of the "Celestial Empire," and also the consistent black market trade of opium which had become a popular and illegal in Great Britain. The British sold this narcotic in great quantities to Chinese in Britain in an attempt to obtain the money from the illegal trade, and to make the Chinese people addicted and thus immoderate customers. The Chinese pleaded with the British to end the illegal selling of opium, but the British would not budge until China opened more of its ports to British mercantile ships. The Chinese government did not yield and opium began claiming more and more Chinese lives in Britain. The Emperor's very own son died from an overdose as the problem was becoming too much for China to handle. As a result China and Britain began to engage in war. (Opium.)

In the article, “Los Chinos de Cuba” published by El Figaro, a Cuban writer, R. A. Catalá describes the arrival of the "Hai Chi" which was a Chinese naval war ship used in the Opium wars with Britain, entering the port at the Malecón in Havana, Cuba. Catalá describes the experience of seeing the "Hai Chi" as having an anxious effect on the crowd complete with “explosiones de entusiasmo”. The Chinese-Cubans, a population at the time of 10,000, were on hand to greet their compatriots who had arrived on their shores. Not only does Catalá write about the enthusiasm of the Chinese people, but he also mentions the prejudices that the Chinese-Cubans faced, and how the arrival of the "Hai Chi" produced more speculation from Cubans, instead of acclaim. Catalá compares the arrival of the "Hai Chi" naval ship with the arrival of the "Nautilus," a Spanish ship that arrived on Cuba's shores 4 years previous to the "Hai Chi." The receptions were quite different as one can imagine. Chinese-Cubans at the time were the most economically poor and under-class among the races/cultural ethnic groups in Cuba, the rich and wealthy being the Cubans of Spanish descent, "los cubanos hijos de los españoles." The author states that this was logical because of the economic status of the "Spanish-Cubans" who were and are, on average, more wealthy than any other racial/ethnic group in Cuba, and who also enjoy a greater population in Cuba in comparison to the Chinese-Cubans. "Es cuestión de número y raza." The author also argues that the question is not solely limited to race and population, but also to the economic history of the first Chinese who have arrived in Cuba. They arrived from Hong Kong around the year 1847 to work in the Cuban fields as contracted day laborers, hoping to earn enough money to send to their families in China, and to possibly return to China with more money. This contract, however, turned out to be more like a contract for slavery. The Cuban government in connection with the Chinese government, used these Chinese immigrants as "beasts of burden" and not only isolated them to work in the most horrible conditions, but selected the inhospitable and infertile land for them to reside and to live. It was, as described by Catalá, a “verdadera esclavitud”, and the Chinese were seduced into toiling the Cuban lands and beaches, but arrived and were instead greeted with a different reality than promised. Also, most of the Chinese arriving in Cuba from China were sick with infections and fevers caused by the voyage, and were later thrown to one side to be placed in the more infectious Cuban hospitals. The reasonably healthy Chinese were marched to the fields outside of the city where conditions were poor and the small huts, barracones, offered to the Chinese were dirty and uncomfortable. Because of the awful conditions of the Chinese in Cuba at the time, many committed suicide, were put into insane asylums, and the majority experienced injuries while working, Deformities were common, and workers were badly treated by the land owners.

Since the time Catalá wrote this article, October 1911, the situation of the chinos-cubanos has changed. Not only did they produce their own homes and businesses, but also grew politically and has gained diplomatic representation. For example the photo in the right corner of p.611 of the Hijos Del Celeste Imperio Residentes de La Habana, who are responsible for organizing festivals in honor of the landing of the "Hai Chi" represents Chinese-Cubans' growing political force. Chinese-Cubans even have their own special cemetery in Havana; however many Chinese-Cubans send the remains of their loved ones to China for burial. Catalá's article demonstrates the incredible transformation of the economic and political situation of the Chinese-Cubans, who have undergone disease and the perils of slavery, to progress to a highly respected, relatively prosperous and unique community culture within Cuba.

Brainard, Jennifer. Opium-The End of An Empire. Modern World History Jan. 2001.

Catalá, R.A. Los Chinos de Cuba. El Figaro October 1911.
E. Backhouse and J.O.P. Bland, Annals and Memoirs of the Court of Peking
(Boston Mifflin, 1914), pp.322-331.