On June 3, 1847, the first 206 Chinese-born male, indentured servants arrived in Havana to work 8-year terms alongside the existing black African slave population. Over the years, more than 120,000 male coolies arrived, worked and earned their freedom in Cuba. The bulk of the indentured servants arrived from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. The coolie population was joined by about 5,000 American Chinese who fled persecution in the US in the late 19th century
Chinese Cubans or the Chinese diaspora (overseas Chinese) are descendants of the immigration. Upon earning their freedom, many Chinese purchased slaves and took them for their wives. These free Chinese chose to remain in Cuba and build an area known as Barrio Chino de la Habana or Chinatown. By the early 20th century, the offspring of white and black Cuban women emerged as free people. These offspring were raised in a strong business and artistic culture.
At one point, Chinatown comprised 44 square blocks and was a thriving economy with strong ethnic and cultural ties. The heart of Chinatown is el Cuchillo de Zanja also known as the Zanja Canal. The culture in Barrio de la Habana is unmistakable.
In its prime, Chinatown sported red lanterns and numerous privately owned and operated Cuban-Chinese restaurants, beauty shops, grocery stores and crafts stores. The area was popular for Chinese, Cubans and tourists. Much has changed in modern-day Chinatown but the core of Barrio Chino remains a popular tourist haven.
Chinatown contains two paifang; the larger paifang called Calle Dragones, to which the People’s Republic donated materials needed to rehabilitate the area in the 1990’s. Reconstruction was necessary due to years of neglect after Castro won the 1959 Revolution and nationalized all the businesses in Chinatown.
Upon losing their distinctive cultural businesses, most Chinese business owners fled Cuba to the United States, the Dominican Republic and other Latin America destinations.
During the 1990’s the rehabilitation of Barrio de la Habana included preservation of the distinctive architecture, the construction of cultural and arts centers like the highly regarded Chinese Language and Arts School (Escuela de la Lengua y Artes China). The programs at this school have produced some of the world’s most brilliant ballet performers, artists and writers.
Gradually, Chinese beauty shops, grocery stores and restaurants reappeared in Barrio Chino. The narrow streets are adorned with brilliant colors while a busy Chinese-Cuban, Cuban and tourist trade thrives on the cultural mystique.