Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Chinese New Year with Cuban Flavor

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A traditional Chinese gate leads into Havana’s Chinatown. Photo: Seb Agudelo

Reading Time: 2 minutes

View a slideshow of Havana’s Chinatown below.

Havana’s Chinatown was once the largest and most economically significant Chinese community in Latin America. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, more than 150,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in Cuba to work in the sugar fields. Their descendants opened restaurants, cafeterias, theaters, banks, and newspapers, and propelled the district’s economic development. Some of the old bustle of Barrio Chino returns once a year, when hundreds of people gather between Dragones, Rayos, Lealtad, and Zanja streets to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Celebrations begin on the first day of the first month of the traditional Chinese calendar. The actual date of the festivities varies every year, and each New Year is represented by a different animal of the Chinese zodiac. This year, the Year of the Horse, celebrations took place on January 31.

In Havana, residents celebrate the New Year with traditional dragon dances and martial arts performances at the large pagoda-style Chinese portico that stands at the entrance to the historic district. Chinese descendants and locals mix together in the audience just like Chinese and Cuban flavors blend in the arroz frito, pork chops and black bean sauce served in the district’s traditional restaurants. The festivities also have an air of nostalgia. Only about 150 ethnic Chinese live in the neighborhood now—a population so small that many refer to Barrio Chino as “a Chinatown without Chinese.”

The ban on private business and other restrictions imposed by the Communist regime led many Chinese-Cubans to flee the island. But in 1990, the government-sponsored Group for the Advancement of Chinatown began the area’s revitalization in an effort to promote tourism and attract foreign investment. Some of the area’s shops and restaurants were restored—along with customs and traditions like the Chinese New Year. The area now has some of its former distinctiveness, with traditional Chinese associations, restaurants, martial arts schools, opera, cinema, and even a Chinese-language newspaper, the weekly Kwong Wah Po.

Among the district’s latest acquisitions is a statue of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, inaugurated in December 2012 by Havana City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler. Located on the former site of the old Shanghai Theater, the statue is a testament to the profound mark that Chinese-Cubans have left on Cuban culture.

View a slideshow of Havana’s Chinatown below.

All photos courtesy of Seb Agudelo.

Tags: Barrio Chino, Chinatown, Chinese New Year, Cuba
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