Retracing the Cuban-Chinese connection

Chinese presence in Cuba. | Photo by KS Louie

Chinese presence in Cuba. | Photo by KS Louie

Earlier this month, Kin-sheun Louie from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-author of Transmitting Chinese Medicine to Cuba: A Byproduct of the 19th Century Coolie Tradetalked about the Chinese-Cuban connection and the impact of migrant workers from China to Cuba.

Louie participated in a community dialogue as guest of the Pacific Canada Heritage Centre, Museum of Migration (PCHC-MoM).

“We host the community dialogue and invited him to be a speaker in Chinatown after the conference because we know there are many local people with ancestors among the Chinese migrants in Cuba,” says Winnie L. Cheung, president of PCHC-MoM.

Personal incentive

Kin-sheun Louie from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. | Photo by KS Louie

Kin-sheun Louie from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. | Photo by KS Louie

Research is not the only connection Louie has to Cuba – his grandfather and father lived and worked there. Like many Chinese migrants at that time, they went to Cuba without family. Louie’s grandfather went back to Hong Kong in 1959 and his father in 1966, seven years after the Cuban revolution.

“All of them were pretty old and poor. Most of them had never gone back to their native place after their arrival in Cuba. They were generally little educated and therefore not capable of leaving a record of their life and experience,” explains Louie.

It wasn’t until after Louie’s mother passed away in 2004 that he became more interested in his family’s history when he found 200 letters that his father sent back from Cuba to his mother. Louie went to Cuba in 2010, which turned out to be quite different from what his grandfather and father told him; when he visited, there were only about 300 Chinese people living there.

“After reading [the letters], I began to have a great curiosity to find out more about the Chinese in Cuba. So I went to Cuba in 2010,” says Louie.

He interviewed and compiled an oral history of the remaining migrants. Luckily, he spoke their dialect. Louie spoke to 40 Chinese in Cuba – the oldest, 96 and the youngest, 70.

“They have been cut off from the outside world for more than half a century. Their story is little known, or studied,” says Louie.

History of slavery in Cuba

As a world-leading producer of sugar, tobacco and coffee, Cuba relied heavily on slaves from Africa for manpower up until the 19th century, explains Louie. Louie says the supply of slaves from Africa became increasingly difficult and plantation owners turned their attention to China. Organized migration from China to Cuba began in 1847, a few years after the opium war. That year, two lots of Chinese workers – around 700 total – arrived in Havana. They were indentured labourers employed with a contract, usually of an eight-year duration, and were commonly known as “coolies.” According to Louie, between 1847 and 1874, 150,000 “coolies” were recruited and shipped to Cuba as a replacement to African slaves. The anti-slave movement occurred shortly after the mid-1800s one in Europe, with Britain playing the leading role.

China-Cuba developing relations

Louie says that when Cuba became independent in 1898, China was among the first countries to recognize its independence. When the Republic of China was created after the 1911 revolution, Cuba was among the first countries to recognize the new republican government.

“China became a socialist state in 1949 and Cuba adopted the same path ten years later. For a long time, Cuba was a close ally of Soviet Union and thus was hostile to China,” says Louie.

He notes that it was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 that the two countries re-established close ties and that today, China’s investment in Cuba is substantial and diversified. Several thousand Chinese students pursue studies in Cuba, and Louie says the Chinese experience serves as an important reference for Cuba’s economic reform.

Current relations

According to Louie, there is now closer contact between China and Cuba in the diplomatic, commercial and economic arenas, and Cuba may well become China’s major ally in Latin America. In the past, Cuba was the destination for deprived Chinese, who went there to make a living and seek out their fortune. Today, Louie says, Cuba is the destination of Chinese investment. Previously, the impetus of exchange mainly came from the grass-root level. Now it comes from the capacity of the state.

Louie believes Cuba is trying to reform its economy and open up, looking ahead to a change of leadership, post Castro brothers.

“Cuba may rely on China for economic and technological aid, and China may seek to establish a stronghold in Cuba in its overall strategy regarding Latin America,” says Louie.