Saturday, December 5, 2009

Chinatown in Havana

When I moved out to live with my mother in Havana, the first thing I did it was to walk around every corner of the city. I remember walking Old Havana up and down, entering every single corner, sometimes at risk that some piece of the old buildings broke down and could hit me. I even recall the day I visited the Convent of “Santa Clara”, a very old building in the heart of Old Havana. At that moment it was closed to the public, but for some reasons I didn’t read the warning signal and I entered. The stairs were almost crumbling down in pieces, literally, there were no roof, many of the windows were rotten and the smell of the whole building, which it is huge, was a mixture of wet dust and soil.

I am recalling this because the first memory I have of Chinatown in Havana is almost the same: muggy, old, with buildings shored and falling into pieces. In the early 80’s, Chinatown was completely a mess. What it was one of the biggest Chinese neighbourhood in America was reduced to a few blocks with a few hundred Chinese-born walking down their streets.

During its prime, Havana’s Chinatown comprised 44 square blocks, but after 1959, many Chinese-Cubans fled the country for the US, especially San Francisco and to Canada, mainly to Toronto. Since then, Cuba has not attracted many Chinese immigrants, if any.

Today, Chinese-Cuban community is clustered around the largely dying “Barrio Chino”. Still a few real Chinese could be found there, and at the end of the 90’s a huge porch was lifted with the help of the Chinese mainland government.

I remember “Barrio Chino” (Chinatown in Spanish) with apprehension. Where the Pacific Restaurant is today, there was a Chinese movie theatre with its light board in Cantonese broken, and I remember seeing all along the perimeter of Zanja and Dragones, where is the heart of Chinatown, a few wrinkled Chinese faces walking down the streets with their eyes frozen, staring at the distance like ghosts.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants to Cuba started in 1847, when Spanish settlers brought  the first 200 Cantonese contract workers to work in sugar cane fields, mainly from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. And during the following decades, they replaced the labour of African slaves.

The 30’s, 40’ and 50’s were the decades of splendour of Chinatown, but in the earliest 60’s the most important core of that community disappeared with the expropriation of private business by Castro’s regime.

In the 90’s, with the awakenings of the touristic industry, Cuban’s authorities tried to recreate the old splendour of Chinatown, but they only barely achieved a little make up to the famous corner of Zanja and Dragones as you can see in the picture.

The landscape could resemble the old Chinese neighbourhood, especially with the names and architecture. Behind closed doors you can’t find too much authentic Chinese culture. It is almost a raw mixture of Cuban culture spiced up with some Chinese flavour.

In almost half a block in Cuba’ standards, there is a small place where a group of Cuban-Chinese teaches tae kwon do, and a few lessons of Cantonese. But mostly the rest is just what you can find anywhere in Havana: pizzas, sandwiches and local food. Even some names are more local Cuban names rather than Chinese. And when some of the streets name’s bars are in Spanish and Cantonese, there are just a few old chaps who can read them in their native language.

The dream of a reborn Chinatown is resting just as a picturesque glam that Cubans’ authorities wanted to add to Havana to bring another place to attract tourism, but nothing more. And even there, with these few touches, you can smell the old dusty smell of those places and even guess where the layers of paint are hiding an old building falling into pieces.

The streets are muggy and fill with bumps and water leaks, and when it’s a rainy day, the dirt and the filthy waste of food and feces are running all over streets and narrow sidewalks. Time to time, you can peek a stray dog full with ticks and starved in one of its corners.

What left of Chinatown nowadays it is just a fake flare of what was a vibrant and crowded neighbourhood. Today, it is just the famous corner of Zanja and Dragones. The Chinese Porch rests in what was the real entrance of Chinatown, but that place is banished. The old New York Hotel and the old American Telephone Company buildings are just old witnesses of an era banished from Havana. What left is the old dreams of the few Chineses who are dying in Havana, waiting for a new dawn of their culture.

But that, my friends, it is not going to happen. Not meanwhile the old government stays.