Chinese immigrants began arriving in Cuba in the middle of the 19th century and, like other immigrants to the largest island of the Antilles, they mixed in with Cuban culture while maintaining much of their own. Growing up in Little Havana, one of our favorite places to eat was at a Cuban-Chinese restaurant on Calle Ocho, where you got to enjoy Cuban staples such as bistec de palomilla and maduros along with fried rice, won-ton soup, and spring rolls. Here is a brief history of the when and why Chinese immigrants started coming to Cuba.
The Chinese community in Cuba: When and why did they come?
The Chinese presence in Cuba is a living testimony to the cultural diversity of the country. Starting in 1847, Chinese workers from the provinces of Canton and Fujian were brought to the island under contract to work in the sugarcane fields.
Although initially brought in as laborers, many settled permanently in Cuba, forming a community that became deeply integrated into our history and identity.
The 2012 Cuban census recorded approximately 113 Chinese citizens living on the island. According to estimates, there are 20,000 descendants of Chinese immigrants in Cuba. These Chinese-Cubans, as they are known, are descendants of Chinese and Cuban immigrants who have kept their cultural heritage alive through generations.
Chinese immigration to Cuba was motivated by various reasons, including the search for economic opportunities and the escape from political and religious oppression in China. Despite initial difficulties and discrimination, the Chinese in Cuba managed to emancipate themselves from indenture in 1877, thanks to the Chinese-Spanish Treaty.
According to historian Julio Le Riverend, between the years 1847 and 1874, around 150,000 Chinese arrived in Havana, mostly men.
Over the years, this Asian community on the island has adapted and significantly contributed to Cuban society. Many Chinese individuals married Cuban women of African and Spanish descent, giving rise to a rich cultural and ethnic blend. During historical events such as the Ten Years’ War and the Spanish-American-Cuban War, Chinese-Cubans joined the liberation forces, demonstrating their loyalty to their adoptive homeland.
However, the political change in 1959 brought economic and political challenges to the Chinese community. Many shop and restaurant owners were forced to leave the island after facing expropriations by the new government. Most of them resettled in the United States, especially in Miami, although some went to other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Despite the challenges, Chinese-Cubans have persevered and positively contributed to their communities in various ways. An example of this is the Chinatown located in the Centro Habana municipality, one of the oldest “Chinatowns” in Latin America.