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Americas Nows 20120611 Chinese Roots

06-14-2012 11:34 BJT

Back in the mid-1800’s, tens of thousands of Chinese were shipped to Cuba to work on tobacco, coffee and sugar plantations. At its peak, 150,000 Chinese immigrants and their descendants were living on the small Caribbean island. It was one of the largest Chinese populations in the Americas. Today there are less than 300 ethnic Chinese left in Cuba. As correspondent Michael Voss reports, those remaining are determined to rediscover their Chinese roots.

A group of dragon dancers perform on the quayside in the old port of Regla on the far side of Havana Bay. They are awaiting the arrival of this small white boat. Aboard are some of the few remaining ethnic Chinese who were born in Cuba. It’s a symbolic re-enactment marking the 165th anniversary of the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants to this Caribbean island. It marked the start of a long history of Chinese migrants.

Many of their ancestors still live in the Barrio Chino, in what is today a rundown part of Central Havana. At one point this was the largest Chinese community in the Americas outside of San Francisco, California.

In June 1847, the first ship carrying contract workers from China landed here. Historian Theresa Maria Li is director of the Chinese Cultural centre in Havana. She comments on the historical event:

"This was a time when the battle was on to end the slave trade and the option was to bring in Chinese peasants. They arrived in massive numbers starting from this date and were assigned to work in the sugar plantations as well as the tobacco and coffee fields”.

Regla is the same port the Spanish used to bring in slaves from Africa.
Some of their descendants were also on the quayside participating in the anniversary festivities with dances that have strong afro roots.

The Chinese were treated almost as badly as slaves, sold to plantation owners as indentured servants where they had to work for eight years before being set free. Li adds:
"The majority, almost 99% of those immigrants, were men. As you can imagine all those single males went out principally with black women, because they had similar social status. And from there came the famous and beautiful Chinese Cuban mulata, men and women born of Black and Chinese parents”.

These connections resulted in a population today of hundreds of thousands of Cubans who can claim an Afro/Chinese ancestry. And one of the most famous just may be the late surrealist painter Wilfredo Lam. Born in 1902, his mother was the daughter of an African slave, his father a Chinese immigrant.  One of his works sold for 4.5 million dollars at Sotheby’s in New York last month.

Then there is General Gustavo Chui. Angered at the discrimination against blacks and Chinese before the revolution, he joined Fidel Castro as a guerrilla fighter in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Later, he went on to command Cuban troops fighting in Angola. He shares his experience:

"The Chinese, even those who have died and those who went away have left a Chinese mark on Cuba on descendants like us. The revolution produced three generals and there were a lot of colonels, majors, captains and women. Chinese women fought during the revolution in the mountains too”.

General Armando Choy also fought in the revolution and in Africa, one of three Cuban Chinese who rose to the rank of General.

"The Chinese community participated in everything going right back to the War of Independence against the Spanish. Cuban people are a mix of Spaniards, Africans and Chinese people. Unfortunately, the original Chinese immigrants are dying off, and few remain”.

Today there are only a few hundred Chinese people still living in Cuba.
Amongst them the Chang family; there are three generations of Chang’s living in a tiny first floor apartment on the edge of Chinatown. The Chang family are one of the few who have married within the community and tried to keep the traditions alive. 70-year-old Esther is herself a third generation immigrant; it was her grandfather who came here almost a century ago:

"My mother never told me the reasons why her father had moved to Cuba. These were remote times and they lived in the countryside, not in Havana and the life of peasants was much harder then”.

Her husband Roberto left China as an 18 year old to seek his fortune as a watchmaker in Cuba. Roberto comments, "I had a sister here and she asked me to come here. I always wanted to see other countries so I took up her offer and came here”. When asked if he had any regrets, Roberto replied, "None, I like Cuba a lot”.

Their son German Chang works in the printing trade. Like the rest of his family he had the opportunity to visit relatives in China.  They remain committed to retaining their Chinese roots. German comments,

"We try as much as possible within the family to maintain these customs. I practice Tai Chi and Kung Fu.  Also the food we cook. It’s not the same but we try to use similar ingredients”.

"My name is Lester and I’m 12 years old”, the Grandson says in Chinese. In his free time after school he is learning to read and write with Chinese characters. Lester adds, "I study Chinese language in a center near here, I go there because I want to know about the culture and the language which they have”.
Lester Chang was one of those invited to be aboard the boat which docked in Regla. He is also an enthusiastic follower of Wushu martial arts and participated in several of the big open air displays which were part the week-long set of anniversary activities. He first started taking classes as a five year old. He replies, "I am really interested in it. It’s really great what we are doing here, participating in the events. And the group I’m in has advanced a lot”. Havana boasts a large and well-developed school of Wushu or Kung Fu and Tai Chi is also widely practiced here.

Today only a minority of those involved are descended from Chinese immigrants but cultural activities like these continue to fascinate many Cubans. And in this anniversary year, the authorities in Beijing have paid for a member of the Chinese Wushu Association to come to Cuba to lend a helping hand. Wang Yi, a member of the Chinese Wushu Association, comments on the Wushu performed by Cuban students, "It’s not bad.  Their basic techniques are very good. I didn’t think teachers here would be able to produce such outstanding students. It really surprised me”.

The most recent wave of immigrants came in the 1950’s after Mao Zedong’s revolution in China. Amongst them were merchants and businessmen who had supported his opponent General Chang Kai Shek and had links to Taiwan. Historian Li adds, "After the triumph of the revolution, a considerable proportion of the wealthy Chinese immigrated to the United States. This provoked a marked decline in Havana’s China Town”. Since then the whole area has fallen into neglect. Some of the Chinese clubs and societies have managed to survive, and efforts are now underway by the Cuban government to restore the district to its former glory.
China is one of Cuba’s major trading partners and political allies. But it is a shared history, which goes well beyond commercial and ideological ties.

Michael Voss from Cuba
© CCTV -- Americas Now

Editor:James |Source: CNTV

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