The History of Chinese Migration to Cuba — and Why We All Need to Know It

Entrance of Barrio Chino. Havana. Cuba island. West Indies. Central America. (Photo by: Riccardo Lombardo/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If anyone mentions Cuba's Barrio Chino or the history of Chinese Cubans, it's usually in reference to culinary traditions that were brought to places like Miami and New York City after the Cuban Revolution. However, the Chinese-Cuban merchants that fled the revolution and settled in New York and Florida are not the beginning of the story. In fact, they represent the middle. Very rarely is it recognized that Asians, particularly Chinese communities, have been a part of Cuban history much further back than the 1940s when they began arriving in Havana. Only recently is the general public being made aware of the contributions of the enslaved, indentured, and Chinese immigrants, as well as their role in Cuban society, revolution, and Latin America overall.

The New Kind of Slavery

When the rest of Latin America had already been liberated from Spanish and Portuguese rule, Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under the control of the Spanish. As one of their only remaining colonies, it was imperative that Cuba continue to be a stronghold for them. "When the Haitian revolution ended in 1804, enslaved people in Haiti alongside locally born freed people were able to overthrow the French colonizers, a lot of planters left with their slaves and went to Cuba," says Dr. Kathleen López, associate professor in the department of Latino and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University. "But what happens to the slave trade?" she asks. "The slave trade shifts to Cuba, it's one of the last sugar-producing colonies in the Caribbean that's going to heavily depend on slave labor."

The looming end of the Atlantic slave trade in the 19th century meant the Spanish were trying to find a new source of labor to supplement the lost flow of enslaved Africans. Following the lead of the Dutch, French, and British, who had started importing workers, or "Coolies," from China's Fujian and Guangdong provinces, the Spanish began bringing thousands of male indentured workers from China to Havana. Although the Spanish colonies were in constant contact with Asia throughout the 500 years of European colonization, this would be the first time the island would see such a large-scale influx of Chinese men, many of whom were either kidnapped, coerced, or signed labor contracts that tricked them into servitude when they arrived.

Between 1847 and 1874, with the same ships and routes that were once used to transport enslaved Africans, 142,000 Chinese indentured workers were sent to Havana, and of that 142,000, only 125,000 arrived. Around 17,000 men either jumped overboard or died of the horrific conditions in transit. Coolies endured similar treatment as the enslaved Africans, but the Chinese presented a disruption in the Casta hierarchy since they were white-skinned like the Spanish but occupationally and socially like the Africans.

Chinese and African Intermarriage

Chinese and African/Afro-Cubans worked side by side in the sugar plantations, which led to alliances and intermarriage. This was an uncommon occurrence in the colonies because the Spanish had once been strict about keeping the races separated by labor type, as well as fostering resentment between groups to keep them from forming alliances. Although the Chinese were thought to be docile and easy to control, that proved to be a fallacy.

Together, the Chinese, alongside Africans and other Cubans of color, protested and organized mutinies. The Chinese labor trade was prohibited in 1874 after investigators from the imperial Chinese government were sent to Cuba to look into allegations of breach of contract, abuse, and suicides by Chinese laborers. Though the Spanish never intended for the Chinese to stay in Cuba, thousands of free Chinese workers (most of whom could not afford to return to China) eventually settled in Cuba and continued to work, move about the island, marry, and make lives for themselves.

"Most Chinese men maintained transnational connections back home," says Dr. López. "They had a Chinese wife at home, and children, but they would also find a Cuban partner, and in some cases, it would result in a formal marriage, or in other cases it would be a common-law union, but they would be recognized as married and have mixed children."

According to López, it was precisely interracial marriage between African and Chinese workers that helped facilitate the shift from servitude to free workers. Former indentured laborers mostly intermarried with Black and mulatta women, but also married or had children with criollo and mestiza women, as well. Chinese men would often buy the freedom of their significant other or their children and vice versa. Many coolies became business owners and eventually influential members of Cuban society. Intermarriage was the result of the close contact of communities in the sugar plantations, but also because Chinese women were explicitly denied passage in the Spanish colonies. Fewer than 100 Chinese women were ever brought to Cuba during the coolie trade, the idea being that if they did not want the men to stay, why would they create the conditions for families to lay down roots.

Entrance of Barrio Chino. Havana. Cuba island. West Indies. Central America. (Photo by: Riccardo Lombardo/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Getty/Riccardo Lombardo/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group

The Formation of Free Cuba + National Identity

During the Ten Years War (1868–1878), Cuba fought against Spain for their independence and lost. But hundreds of Chinese people joined their masters in the struggle against the Spanish government. Masters promised their laborers freedom in exchange for fighting, and even though Spain defeated them, their heroics were not forgotten. From 1860 to 1875, another group of Chinese immigrants arrived in Cuba, with approximately 5,000 individuals seeking refuge from restrictive and prejudiced anti-Chinese laws in California. Dubbed "The Californians," these relatively affluent newcomers played a vital role in establishing the economic framework of Havana's Chinatown, or "Barrio Chino."

In 1895, Cuban Chinese communities fought the Spanish for their freedom again until the US stepped in to "support" Cuba (Spanish–American War, 1895–1898). The Spanish–American war ended, thus granting Cubans their freedom. But freedom was a relative term; Cubans didn't have a voice in their own peace treaty, which was written between the Spanish and the Americans to ensure the protection of their businesses and agricultural assets.

From 1899 to 1902, the US occupied Cuba to "help" them become independent. Immigration to Cuba was officially restricted under the US occupation in 1899 and into the Republican era, but the ban on Chinese laborers was lifted to boost sugar production during World War I. The next wave of Chinese immigration to Cuba in the 1940s and '50s can be traced back to several factors, including economic opportunities, political instability in China, labor demands in Cuba, and the Chinese exclusion act that prevented them from immigrating to the US and other parts of Latin America.

China was facing economic and political upheaval, including the Second Sino–Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War. This instability led many Chinese to seek opportunities abroad, including in Cuba. The Cuban government actively encouraged immigration in order to meet the growing demand for cheap labor in industries such as agriculture, mining, and manufacturing. They were treated as second-class citizens, and many were subjected to violence and abuse. These immigrants worked long hours in harsh conditions for low wages, often with little legal protection. Despite these challenges, the Chinese Cuban community established businesses, like restaurants, newspapers, laundries, and grocery stores, which became important parts of Cuban society.

During the Cuban Revolution (1953–1959), a number of Chinese Cubans actively joined the rebel forces and fought alongside their fellow Cubans against Fulgencio Batista's government. One notable individual was Carlos Embale, a renowned Chinese Cuban musician recognized as the "Sinatra of Havana," who served as a member of Fidel Castro's rebel army and participated in several pivotal battles.

"The Cuban Revolution in 1959 was considered an anti-imperial revolution, this time against the US," says López."So, when the socialist revolution prevailed after 1959, two things happened: [the first was that the] Chinese who were there, mostly wealthy merchants who came in the '20s, '30s, '40s, and '50s, left alongside the elite Cubans who fled in that first wave. And [the second was that] some chose to fight on the side of Fidel Castro."

Some formed armed militias, and some showed their support for the revolution through financial or material contributions. For instance, Eduardo Chibás, a Chinese Cuban businessman, donated funds to the revolutionary cause and assisted in procuring weapons.

From Cuba to the US

Chinese Cubans who fled Castro's revolution, however, did not have the same experience stateside. Chinese Cubans didn't fit in with Chinese Americans or the majority of Cuban Americans. In the US, they sought out other Latine and Cuban neighborhoods, and there they established the long-standing tradition of Cuban Chinese food. Post-revolution Chinese Cubans, on the other hand, proved time and time again that they were down for the fight and ready to support the cause. There was no question to whom they were loyal. On January 23, 1960, Castro stated: "We feel that our Revolution will help eliminate those prejudices and injustices that remain latent. For the time being, we have given proof in our revolutionary struggle in the absolute identification and brotherhood of men with all skin colors." In other words, if we fight together, we are brothers. It's doubtful that this statement actually prevented all racism, but now Cuba's ethnic minorities were being commemorated and recognized."

Today, Cuba's Barrio Chino is dying peacefully and is referred to as the only Chinatown without Chinese. Despite the Cuban government's revitalization of Havana's Barrio Chino, a lack of opportunity on the island, reduced immigration, and an aging population means that a new generation is needed to keep it going.

"Fewer than 100 ethnic Chinese who have been there from before the 1950s are still in Cuba — they may have come as young children or been born to two Chinese parents in Cuba. They are old and they've suffered a lot since the pandemic, unfortunately, but they're still there," says Dr. López.

Chinese Cubans represent a stark contrast to any other Latin American country where Chinese still face heavy prejudice and present us with a rich framework to explore the nuances and facets that make up our history. It is vital that we recognize that and remember that we all contain multitudes, and that the history that makes us isn't as cut and dried as criollo and mestizo history pretends to be.