- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

HAVANA - At first glance, the Cuban capital’s Chinatown seems a misnomer. Restaurants serve pizza, and the Chinese are vastly outnumbered by tourists and Hispanics.

But behind the walls of aging buildings, prayer shrines and tai chi classes endure, going back to an era when a Chinese merchant community thrived in Havana and culture from the mainland dominated daily life.

Leaders of the 2,000-strong Chinese-Cuban community, who are struggling to maintain Havana’s Chinatown, hope yesterday’s visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao will serve as the cue to revive their dwindling ancestral culture.

Mr. Hu, on his first trip to the island since taking office in March 2003, met with presidents of the community’s 13 associations at Havana’s Hotel Nacional.

“Our expectations are high,” Alejandro Chiu said before the meeting. Mr. Chiu is the president of Cuba’s Lung Kong Association and one of fewer than 300 Chinese-born Cubans. “We are content.”

Mr. Chiu, 78, arrived in Cuba in the early 1950s after his family fled communism in China. Before he was 30, he was a successful merchant when Fidel Castro propelled the island into communism in 1961.

The Chinese community, then estimated in the tens of thousands, had worked hard to carve out its space in Cuban society. Most left rather than hand over their businesses to the Cuban government, which is what Mr. Chiu did.

The first Chinese immigrants to Cuba landed here in 1847, a group of 200 brought over from Canton on a Spanish frigate to work as contract laborers on Cuba’s sugar-cane plantations.

Tens of thousands of Chinese followed during the mid- to late-1800s as contract laborers, many of them working for years in virtual slavery for a few pesos per month. Slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886, and with time, the Chinese learned to make their living from restaurants, laundries and vegetable gardens. In those years, many Chinese brought their entire families to live with them on the Caribbean island.

Before Mr. Castro’s revolution, Chinatown bustled with activity. But as top merchants and community leaders left for places like San Francisco, Toronto and Caracas, Venezuela, the neighborhood went downhill.

“There was total decadence,” said Leandro Chiu, a second-generation Chinese who has lived in Havana’s Chinatown all his 73 years. “This place was abandoned, and became really poor.”

Those who stayed kept busy working for the new Cuban government, but decades later, as these men and women began to retire, they focused their energies on re-creating a strong Chinese-Cuban community.

“We decided to unite those who stayed behind,” said Leandro Chiu, who directs a day center that feeds and entertains Chinese senior citizens. “We started teaching the children [our traditions], and giving more life to the neighborhood.”

Kung fu, tai chi and Chinese language classes began, and old customs were brought back to life. In the mid-1990s, support even came from the Cuban government.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Cuba embraced tourism as a way to bring in revenue lost when aid from the Soviet bloc dried up. An attractive Chinatown became part of the process to lure tourists to Havana.

State resources were channeled to help revive a Chinese “look” for the neighborhood. Street names were posted on clean white signs showing a red dragon, and a huge cement arch, with a sign saying “Barrio Chino” in Spanish as well as in Chinese characters, was built to decorate the neighborhood’s entrance.

Under modest economic reforms, Chinese societies also were given permission to operate restaurants collectively and charge customers for meals in U.S. dollars as long as they paid taxes on their profits.

“Because of the tourism, we were given certain liberties so that Chinatown could flourish,” said Leandro Chiu. “It might not seem like much, but there are more businesses here, and there is more life now. We’ve been making improvements, bit by bit.”

Today, the subtle lingering of old Chinese traditions blends in with the touristy facade and Cuban culture.

A young Chinese-Cuban woman teaches tai chi to the neighborhood’s children on an outdoor patio beneath paintings of dragons and the yin and yang symbols. Outside, lively Cuban dance music booms from a car stereo, and a wall facing the street says: “Martial arts: another weapon of the revolution.”

Cubans fill a Chinese restaurant, ordering pepperoni pizza and sodas. One floor up, ethnic Chinese seek advice from deceased ancestors at an elaborate wood altar.

Leandro Chiu, who married a Hispanic woman, maintains ties to his heritage through daily contact with the community’s elderly. But his children are not fluent in Chinese, and he has never visited the mainland.

“Now it’s mainly Cubans here, and very few Chinese people,” he said. “But for those of us left, this is home.”

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