By VANESSA ARRINGTON | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
At first glance, Havana’s Chinatown seems a misnomer. Restaurants serve pizza, and actual 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 the capital’s Chinatown, hope a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao Monday will serve as the cue to revive their dwindling ancestral culture.
It was not clear whether Hu, on his first trip to the island since taking office March of 2003, would actually visit Chinatown. But presidents of the community’s 13 associations were scheduled to meet with him Monday at Havana’s Hotel Nacional.
“The president is coming, and our expectations are high,” said Alejandro Chiu, the president of Cuba’s Lung Kong Association and one of less than 300 Chinese natives on the island. “We are content.”
Chiu, 78, arrived to Cuba in the early 1950s, after his family fled communism in China. He was not even 30 years old and already 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. The vast majority decided to leave rather than hand over their businesses to the Cuban government, which is what Chiu did.
The first Chinese immigrants to Cuba landed here in 1847, a group of 200 brought over from Canton province on a Spanish frigate to work as contract laborers on Cuba’s sugarcane plantations.
Tens of thousands of Chinese eventually arrived during the mid- to late-1800s as contract laborers, many working for years in virtual slavery for a few pesos a month.
Slavery in Cuba was abolished in 1886, and with time, the Chinese learned to make their own living with restaurants, laundries and vegetable gardens. In those years, many Chinese brought their entire families to live with them on the Caribbean island.
Before Castro’s revolution, Chinatown bustled with activity. But as top merchants and community leaders began leaving 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 recreating a strong Chinese-Cuban community.
“We decided to unite those who had 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 were launched, and old customs brought back to life. In the mid-1990s, support even came from the Cuban government.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Cuba was forced to embrace 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 were also 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,” Leandro Chiu said. “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 women teaches tai chi to the neighborhood’s children in an outdoor patio, underneath paintings of dragons and the yin and yang symbol. Just 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 sugary sodas, while just one floor up Chinese descendants ask for advice from their deceased ancestors at an elaborate wood altar.
Leandro Chiu, who married a Cuban woman, maintains ties to his heritage with the daily contact with the community’s elderly. But his children are not fluent in Chinese, and he has never traveled to the mainland.
“Now it’s mainly Cubans here, and very few Chinese people,” he said. “But for those of us left, this is home.”