A Short History of the Chinese in Cuba

Chinatown, Havana.
Chinatown in Havana, Cuba. Getty Images/Mark Williamson

The Chinese first arrived in Cuba in significant numbers in the late 1850s to toil in Cuba’s sugarcane fields. At that time, Cuba was arguably the largest producer of sugar in the world.

Due to the diminishing African slave trade after England’s abolition of slavery in 1833 and the decline of slavery in the United States, a labor shortage in Cuba led plantation owners to search for workers elsewhere.

China emerged as the labor source following deep social upheaval after the First and Second Opium Wars. Changes in the farming system, a surge in population growth, political discontentment, natural disasters, banditry, and ethnic strife -- especially in southern China -- led many farmers and peasants to leave China and look for work overseas.

While some willingly left China for contract work in Cuba, others were coerced into semi-indentured servitude.

The First Ship

On June 3, 1857, the first ship arrived in Cuba carrying about 200 Chinese laborers on eight-year contracts. In many cases, these Chinese “coolies” were treated just as the African slaves were. The situation was so severe that the imperial Chinese government even sent investigators to Cuba in 1873 to look into a large number of suicides by Chinese laborers in Cuba, as well as allegations of abuse and breach of contract by plantation owners.

Shortly after, the Chinese labor trade was prohibited and the last ship carrying Chinese laborers reached Cuba in 1874.

Establishing a Community

Many of these laborers intermarried with the local population of Cubans, Africans, and mixed-race women. Miscegenation laws forbade them to marry Spaniards.

These Cuban-Chinese began to develop a distinct community.

At its height, in the late 1870s, there were more than 40,000 Chinese in Cuba.

In Havana, they established “El Barrio Chino” or Chinatown, which grew to 44 square blocks and was once the largest such community in Latin America. In addition to working in the fields, they opened shops, restaurants, and laundries and worked in factories. A unique fusion Chinese-Cuban cuisine melding Caribbean and Chinese flavors also emerged.

Residents developed community organizations and social clubs, such as the Casino Chung Wah, founded in 1893. This community association continues to assist the Chinese in Cuba today with education and cultural programs. The Chinese-language weekly, Kwong Wah Po also still publishes in Havana.

At the turn of the century, Cuba saw another wave of Chinese migrants – many coming from California.

The 1959 Cuban Revolution

Many Chinese Cubans participated in the anti-colonial movement against Spain. There were even three Chinese-Cuban Generals who served pivotal roles in the Cuban Revolution. There still stands a monument in Havana dedicated to the Chinese that fought in the revolution.

By the 1950s however, the Chinese community in Cuba was already diminishing, and following the revolution, many also left the island.

The Cuban revolution did create an increase in relations with China for a short time. Cuban leader Fidel Castro severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1960, recognizing and establishing formal ties with the People’s Republic of China and Mao Zedong. But the relationship did not last long. Cuba’s friendship with the Soviet Union and Castro’s public criticism of China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam became a sticking point for China.

Relations warmed again in the 1980s during China’s economic reforms. Trade and diplomatic tours increased. By the 1990s, China was Cuba’s second largest trade partner. Chinese leaders visited the island several times in the 1990s and 2000s and further increased economic and technological agreements between the two countries. In its prominent role on the United Nations Security Council, China has long opposed U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

The Cuban Chinese Today

It’s estimated that Chinese Cubans (those who were born in China) only number about 400 today. Many are elderly residents who live near the run-down Barrio Chino. Some of their children and grandchildren still work in the shops and restaurants near Chinatown.

Community groups are currently working to economically revitalize Havana’s Chinatown into a tourist destination.

Many Cuban Chinese also migrated overseas. Well-known Chinese-Cuban restaurants have been established in New York City and Miami.