HAVANA – After years of oblivion, Havana’s Chinatown, one of the oldest in Latin America, has been restored to its former glory as its most famous street “Knife de Zanja” bounced back to life with new businesses and decor.
The quaint passage which brings together the largest number of restaurants per square meter in the city lit up rows of traditional red lanterns again after the first stage of redevelopments, which were part of the ambitious 500 years of Havana.
“Those of us who live in this area know that it has suffered from deterioration,” Teresa Maria Li, director of the House of Chinese Arts and Traditions, told EFE.
“We are in the same place, but at the same time it is different, totally transformed.”
The works started about six months ago, focusing on basic infrastructure development such as water, gas and electricity networks followed by the revamping of wineries, shops and markets for the benefit of the local community.
There were several waves of immigration of Chinese people in Cuba between the second half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century.
From around 1858 Asian migrants began to settle in the vicinity of the Havana streets of Zanja, Dragones, Amistad and San Nicolas, in the outskirts of the old town.
They were forced to work in conditions of virtual slavery as thousands signed onerous work contracts on the island.
Upon arrival, many lost their identity and were forced to adopt Spanish names and surnames.
This process has made it very difficult to establish an exact number of Chinese migrants that moved to Cuba in this period.
“In the nineteenth century, (historian) Julio Le Riverend calculated there were 150,000 Chinese people in Cuba,” Li said.
“In the 20th century, we had different migratory waves.
“The figure could not be calculated, but it is very large.”
Havana’s Chinatown was almost from its beginning an “open community” and as such the Chinese became “the third ethnic group of Cuban identity “after the Europeans and Africans,” Li added.
This sets it apart from other settlements such as the communities of San Francisco or New York.
“The Chinese in Cuba mixed, integrated with the native population,” she continued.
“They mixed with blacks, mulattos and islanders (as Cubans from the Canary Islands are known in Cuba) because in terms of social status they were the most similar.”
The immigrant population became an important part of the island’s economy – with almost 4,000 Chinese-owned businesses in Havana alone in 1932 – and over time they developed a sense of belonging that would lead them to join the Mambi side in the wars of independence against Spain between 1868 and 1898.
The saying “There was never a Chinese Cuban traitor” reflects the value of the Cuban-Asian community and has been immortalized on a monument in the port city.
When the first Cuban presidential elections were called in 1902, two officers of Chinese ethnic origin from the Liberating Army put themselves forward as potential candidates for head of state.
More recently, after the revolution led by the late Fidel Castro, he worked with three generals of Chinese descent.
Chinese influence also reached the kitchen.
“Chinese food mixed with international and Cuban food is made here,” Jorge Duran, a chef hoping to find work in the refurbished Chinatown, told EFE.
“Especially soups, ‘Chinese butterflies’ (fried dumplings) and fried rice,” he added.
At the peak of its golden age, the Chinese neighborhood had theaters, cinemas, several newspapers, traditional pharmacies, clinics, a bank, importing companies and cultural and political societies.
The arrival of Californian Chinese from the United States fuelled Chinatown’s expansion.
The decline and drastic reduction of its population started with the arrival of the Revolution which triggered the exodus of a large part of those who arrived on the Caribbean island to escape communism in their country.
What was once “a city within the city” became over the years a Chinatown devoid of Chinese people.
It became better known for its pizzas than for Asian specialties although in recent years a renewed interest in Chinese culture resurfaced.
“From the last wave of migration we have approximately 105 Chinese people that remain alive, but we have a community of descendants of hundreds of thousands,” Li said.
In addition to the traditional family restaurants – among the first private businesses allowed by the government in the mid-1990s – revitalization includes the opening of spaces that “will add value” to the area, including a gallery-workshop for the renowned Painter Flora Fong and her children.
“It is an ambitious project that we have named Cultural Circuit, a complex that will include a plaza called San Fang Kong which should be ready in the coming months and I think it will be an oasis for the municipality of Havana Centro (Central Havana),” Li added.
Novelties will include an ice cream parlor with traditional recipes, a tourist information center to book guided tours and a space for meditation.