These early immigrants were joined by overseas Chinese fleeing anti-immigrant legislation in the United States in the late 19th century, as well as 20th-century migrants from China during war with Japan and the Chinese civil war. At the time of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the Chinese population was estimated at 50,000, but as Chinese-owned businesses and restaurants became nationalized following the revolution, many of their owners migrated to the US, Canada, or other Latin American nations.
Today’s Chinese Cuban community comprises those chinos naturales who stayed, as well as descendientes chinos, those with Chinese ancestry born in Cuba who are often mixed raced. As the population of chinos naturales ages and dwindles, Chinatown’s clan surname associations—those that have not closed down in recent years—have opened their activities to the latter group, who number in the thousands and are ready to connect with their heritage, even helping to lead its preservation.
Ramón Wong, the Min Chi Tang’s Chinese teacher and staff member at the Wong Clan Association, is a second-generation descendiente chino born in Havana. He had grew speaking a dialect of Guangdong province with his mother, and learned Mandarin on his own. Because he was never formally taught, and lacks experience in conversation, he speaks with an accent—he has asked me to assist him with what I learned from my own Mandarin teachers.
There’s a lot of laughter in Ramón’s weekly sessions. Because most of his students have known him since he was a young boy, they feel at ease making jokes in his class. They tell to him to slow down as he writes Chinese characters for them to copy; when one student takes too long to answer a question, another shouts out the answer for her. The group, all women over the age of 70, include many who hold leadership positions in Chinatown’s associations and aware of their importance to the neighborhood’s survival.
The community’s interest in language learning has been catching the eye of the government on the Chinese mainland. In 2009, the China National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (“Hanban”) established a Confucius Institute in Havana—coincidentally, located where El Pacífico used to be. As of 2016, there were around 1,000 students enrolled, both children and adults, taught at various levels of proficiency by teachers from the Chinese mainland.
The growing influence of the PRC also means that the Min Chi Tang Association’s classes are now only for Mandarin, though Cantonese courses used to be offered in the past by demand from seniors of the community, all of whom trace their roots to Guangdong. It’s also difficult to find a qualified teacher for Cantonese, and the dialect is quickly disappearing from Chinatown—but for now, the students will settle for more opportunity to practice conversation in any dialect, perhaps so one day they can visit China or reconnect with family still living on the mainland.
Georgina Wong, an Afro-Chinese resident, is one of those who had the chance: Trained as a Cantonese opera performer in the barrio since she was in elementary school, she went to China in the early 2000s to perform and saw her ancestral village, though she had not started studying Chinese then. It’s beyond the means for most of the community to save up for a similar journey, so each week, they make the trip to Chinatown and pore over their copied notes, a small but tight network of elderly Chinese Cubans determined to stake their own place in the diaspora.
Inspired by their persistence, I ask Georgina what motivates her to study. “因为我喜欢中国文化 (because I like Chinese culture),” she replies, proud to express herself in her beginner Mandarin skills; but it’s clear there was so much more she wanted to say.
Huiying Bernice Chan is a second-generation Chinese-American researcher and a Susan Rappaport Knafel Traveling Fellow, documenting Chinatowns around the world.
“Chinese Lessons in Havana” is a story from our issue, “Cloud Country”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.
Article by Huiying Bernice Chan