Rare droplets of freedom in Havana

The language of the four-page broadsheet ‘Kwong Wah Po’ is Chinese, and its press is an antique, but some see its relative freedoms, and that of the island’s tiny Chinese community, as a pointer to the way forward if the communist government ever opts for broader reforms.

The paper, whose name means ‘Shine China,’ appears a few times a year, and 77-year-old Guillermo Chiu is the only person in Cuba who knows how to set the type on the 110-year-old printing press. A 300-word article takes five hours for layout.
“Soon this will be a museum,” Chiu said, surveying the 6,000 tiny lead plates which he places by hand. “The future won’t be like this.”

Perhaps, but there may be clues to the Cuba of tomorrow in the unique autonomy given the paper. Its articles, mostly translated from the state-run media, contain nothing that might upset Fidel Castro. But it is edited and produced independently, and that leeway reflects the small yet unprecedented freedoms the government has granted Cuba’s Chinese community to help preserve its dwindling cultural heritage.

Chinese identity
On one freewheeling street in Havana’s Chinatown, privately run restaurants offer chow mein and mojitos, and Chinese exchange students belt out karaoke. Besides its newspaper and eateries, the community also has its own exercise schools, social clubs and political associations.

All this is going on under a government that dominates nearly every facet of life, from what Cubans study at university to the food in their monthly rations. All other media is state-controlled.

“I think these kinds of initiatives hint at Cuba’s near future — a path of reform within the current state structure,” said Kathleen Lopez, a Rutgers University professor who has written on Cuba’s Chinese community.
Havana’s Chinatown was once one of Latin America’s largest, with a population topping 50,000 and made up mostly of men from Guangdong province who began arriving in 1847 to labour on sugar plantations. They formed a community outside the city walls then ringing the capital — today’s ‘Barrio Chino’.

Their numbers peaked in the 1940s and early 50s. But immigration dried up when Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and Cuba drew close to China’s rival, the Soviet Union.
Today, Chiu is one of fewer than 150 native Chinese in Havana, mostly elderly Cantonese-speakers. But intermarriage has produced tens of thousands of Chinese-Cubans, Cuba and China are now allies, and 3,000 Chinese exchange students arrive annually to spend a year learning Spanish.

After the Soviet economic lifeline died and officials turned to developing tourism, they sought to make Cuba’s Chinese culture an attraction. The state began allowing Chinese associations and social clubs to operate freely, and that freedom is felt along Calle Cuchillo a pedestrian alley in the heart of Chinatown lined with Chinese restaurants.
Beijing’s famed ‘Food Street’ it is not, but the eateries compete to snare passers-by, in contrast to state restaurants whose waiters earn so little they don’t care whether customers turn up. “It happens here and nowhere else in Cuba,” said Maria Isabel Martinez, head of Chinatown investment.

The Havana city historian’s office has refurbished many crumbling buildings in Chinatown and a $3,24,000 restoration plan for Kwong Wah Po would preserve the printing press — built in 1900 by the National Paper and Type Company of New York — as a museum piece and provide modern equipment and a new office. Construction could begin by year’s end.

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