“You’re the first Chinese person I have seen in years,” says the woman behind the counter in Spanish as I’m buying an orange juice from a makeshift stand on the side of the street in Havana. “Cuba used to be full of people who look like you!” She pulled at the edges of her eyes to make them narrower, a normal sign of racist bullshit in America, but harmless coming from this woman, who reminded me a bit of a Cuban version of my grandmother.
But anyway, I was clueless about the fact that hundreds of thousands of Chinese had called Cuba home over the past few centuries, many originally brought over to work in the sugar fields as slaves. She then told me that the Chinese had fought alongside Cubans during the Cuban Revolution, led by the infamous Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
I thanked her and set out in search of Havana's Chinatown, “El Barrio Chino."
Lucky for me, I magically stumbled upon it the next day, after spotting Chinese symbols and a familiar roof awning in the distance. On the way there, I passed a man who looked slightly Asian, but his skin was beautifully tanned from the Cuban sun. As I passed him, we looked hard at each other, as if we instantly recognized each other, even as strangers.
Walking under the pagoda-styled archway, I was met with the typical elements of any Chinatown—prominent traditional symbols, colorful lanterns, and golden lions. But there was one obvious difference—there were no Chinese people to be found. El Barrio Chino was the opposite of Manhattan’s hectic Canal Street. This seemed more like a Chinese Disneyland dropped in the middle of Havana.
Meet Gustavo, the friendly waiter at Toi Sen. He was surprised I spoke Spanish and totally psyched to have his photo taken and was all smiles, bouncing around, trying to find the best stance. Then, he struck this stoic, majestic pose, his smile gone, replaced by this too-cool resting bitch face. After, he sprang back to life and handed me the menu.
And here, we have the delicacies of Cuban Chinese food. Looks like the Cuban equivalent of America’s General Tso’s Chicken is “Pollo Picante,” or “Spicy Chicken.” And check out those "Ravioles." Yum.
Continuing on, I stumbled upon a bright yellow wall, painted with a giant yin yang. I walked in and found myself amidst a plethora of little Cuban children practicing Chinese martial arts—where the hell was I?
At Havana’s famous Wushu School, of course. Were these Cuban kids aspiring to be miniature Jackie Chans and Jet Lis, both famous Wushu fighters? Perhaps.
I then asked an elderly man my lingering question—“Where are all the Chinese people?”
He explained that during the late 1960s, Cuba had become much more nationalistic under Castro’s rule. During the Cold War, international tensions rose as Cuba became closer with Russia and less friendly with China. Cue the mass exodus by the Chinese, leaving El Barrio Chino to fade away from its traditional roots and evolve into something completely different, in a country where only 300 ethnic Chinese remain.
Knowing Spanish will completely change your experience in Cuba—you'll get invited into people's houses to have coffee and play dominoes. Lucky for you, Fluent City just launched a 12-week Spanish crash course. Learn more here.