sábado, 22 de noviembre de 2008

Chinesism and the commodification of Chinese Cuban culture

Palabras clave: comunidad sinocubana, literatura, mercantilización, Cristina García, Zoé Valdés
Por Ignacio López-Calvo
Publicado en Alternative Orientalisms in Latin America and Beyond. Ed. Ignacio López-Calvo. Newcastle, Inglaterra: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. 95-112



In this essay, I shall analyze the politics of representation surrounding the Chinese Cuban subject throughout the decades. After the texts published during the last decades of the nineteenth century, which silenced or erased the Chinese presence, those published during the first half of the twentieth century echoed the tacit and at times overt racism of their authors. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the texts evolved into Orientalist and strategically self-Orientalizing perspectives that eventually gave way in the 1990s and early twenty-first century to a more realistic and less homogenizing depiction of their presence and heritage on the island.

Cuba, like the rest of the Caribbean basin, experienced numerous and massive waves of migrations and emigrations. One of these began on June 3, 1847, when the first 206 Chinese contract emigrant laborers or “coolies” arrived in Havana. These voyages, which answered the demand for cheap labor created by the gradual abolition of the black slave trade, were the starting point of the oldest Chinese community in the Western hemisphere. Between this year and 1875 some 142,000 immigrants from the qiaoxiang or “native places” arrived in the Spanish colony.
[1] Surprisingly, in spite of the significance of the Chinese presence for Cuban national identity and cultural memory, the number of historical studies on the Chinese colony in Cuba, which was the first one of its kind in the Americas, is somewhat limited. Decades ago, the incorporation of African heritage as a key component of Cuban identity initiated by the poet Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989) and other Cuban intellectuals resulted in a revision of Eurocentric self-conceptions of the notion of cubanía or cubanidad (Cubanness). Yet in this process of reconsidering the false sameness of the national subject, the numerous contributions of the Chinese to Cuba’s culture and identity (and, for that matter, to those of several other Latin American countries like Peru, Panama, Brazil, and Mexico) in the last 150 years have been studied much less by historians and critics. Even the native Siboneys and the Tainos or Caribs of the island, whose numbers were dramatically decreased during the first decades of the conquest due to diseases and exploitation, have received more historical and literary attention than the Chinese. By the same token, in the field of literary criticism the lacuna is perhaps greater, even though the Chinese of Cuba have gained access to representation beyond Orientalist stereotypes through a compelling corpus of works.

A feature that is common to many of the works that will be mentioned in this presentation is their unveiling of the cultural differences that have traditionally dominated the lives of the Chinese Cubans. Rather than “identity,” perhaps terms such as “liminality” and “hybridity” articulate in more effective ways the collective condition of communities such as the Chinese Cuban, which are not exclusively defined by the territorially-based concept of the nation-state, preponderant since the nineteenth century. This cultural production re-creates the hidden voices of these colonial subjects in their negotiation of what Homi Bhabha has termed the “third space;” that is, an in-between situation that, according to him, can generate a potentially subversive agency. Ultimately, rather than a perfect replica of their communities in China, the result of the transculturation and mestizaje (or race mixture) of Sinic cultures with those of both the Creole and the black African communities was an entirely new Sino-Cuban hybrid reality with its own idiosyncrasies and institutions (schools, churches, occupational guilds, political parties, newspapers, chambers of commerce, cemeteries, theaters, clan associations, hospitals, residences for the elderly), which challenged traditional assumptions of Chinese separatism.
One of the earliest examples of the representation of the Chinese in Cuba during this period is the short story “Los chinos” (The Chinamen; 1924), from the collection Piedras Preciosas (Precious Stones), by Alfonso Hernández Catá (1885-1940), which explores a case of class-specific conflict between the Chinese and non-Chinese labor force.
[2] Following the advice of a mulatto agitator, a group of international workers who are striking in demand of better wages, poison the coffee of ninety Chinese men who have been brought to break the strike by replacing them. Initially, when the striking workers see the thin and small men, they feel sorry for them, convinced that they will not endure the arduous work: “Poor yellow monkeys! They will not withstand that harsh work! [....] The Chinese were […] good for women jobs! But to put up with the sun on their backs for eight hours, and to make holes in the iron, you needed very manly men!”[3] Despite the admiration that the racist first-person narrator feels for the tireless diligence and resistance of the Chinese men, he is unable to overcome his disgust for this ethnic group even after the unjust murder of ninety human beings:[4] “While a Chinaman always instills in us an insurmountable feeling of repugnance and remoteness in which there is also a bit of fear, a dead Chinaman is something dreadful...”[5] Paradoxically, it is unclear whether the anti-Chinese sentiments of the narrator reflect those of Hernández Catá, the author, or whether, on the contrary, this short story continues the author’s line of criticism of racist attitudes toward ethnic minorities, such as blacks and mulattos. In any case, the story ends when a new group of Chinese strikebreakers arrives to replace their dead countrymen, and the narrator, bemused by their persistence and identical appearance, continues to animalize and dehumanize them in his descriptions: “Thirty yellow men—identical, absurdly identical to the ones I saw fall dead on the floor, as if instead of having been taken for burial, they had been taken to the city to be repaired—, had stepped off the wagon and with the diligence of ants, before my maddened eyes, they began to work.”[6]

Another example of this derogative portrayal of the Chinese takes place in the three-act comedy, El chino (1947), by Carlos Felipe (Fernández y Santana; 1914-75). When Luis, preceded by his ubiquitous laughter, finally appears at the end of the first act, he always speaks in the third person, referring to himself as “The Captain.”[1] Luis is not described in the most flattering way in the stage directions and when the other characters talk about Luis, he is referred to as “El Chino” or as “that thing.” Overall, he is portrayed as an annoying, unstable, mentally deficient man who constantly complains about insignificant things. The stage directions also insist on presenting Luis, as in a display of Chinese shadows, in silhouette, behind a curtain. Sometimes his silhouette grows disproportionately, perhaps to underscore the importance of his memory; at other times the shadow is described as “fantasmagoric” (92). The reaction of a character called Santizo to his expulsion adds to the grotesque stature of Luis’s shadow behind the curtain: “I hate you, infernal Chinaman! Hellish abortion! Oh, if you were made of mud I would tear you into pieces, into dust...”
[7] In all, the Chinese character that appears in the title is reduced to a simpleton who is described with denigrating epithets. Even his alter ego, Renata, the Silent, is described in negative terms as paranoid and a poor devil.
Along with these first representations of the Chinese through the perspective of the characters’ or the implicit authors’ racial prejudice, we have Orientalist views of this culture in other works. One of them can be found in O Mandarim (The Mandarin; 1880), a roman à clef condemning the abuses against the Chinese contract laborers in Cuba, written by Portuguese author José María Eça de Queiroz. In this novella, China is depicted as a place where the rulers live in extravagant luxury while their subjects are starving. In this context, the Russian general Camiloff warns Teodoro, the protagonist, that if he gives millions of contos (that he inherited when he magically killed a Chinese man by pulling a bell) to the Emperor, “They would be swallowed up in planting gardens, collecting porcelains, carpeting floors with furs, providing silks for concubines. They would not relieve the hunger of a solitary Chinese or repair one stone of a public highway. They would go into orgies of Asiatic extravagance” (49).




Likewise, it could be argued that the libidination of Chineseness that prevails in quite a few pages of Severo Sarduy’s search for Cuban cultural identity is not far from Western Orientalism. Sarduy (1937-1993), whose ethnic background was marked not only by Spanish and African blood, but also by a remote ancestor from Macao,

[8] is one of the authors who have reflected more recurrently the Chinese contributions to Cuban culture. His works propose a reinterpretation of Cuba’s national identity through the incorporation of the previously ignored Chinese cultural heritage to the syncretism of the European and African cultures. Thus, of the three ethnic groups represented in his second novel De donde son los cantantes (From Cuba with a Song; 1967), the first to appear, the Chinese, is the most visible and the one that the implicit author finds the most fascinating.[9] Although both Judith A. Weiss and Roberto González Echevarría have emphasized Sarduy’s criticism and mockery of Western Orientalism, his representation of Chineseness seems to coincide, paradoxically, with the stereotype of the “Oriental sensuality” that Edward Said condemns so vehemently. Likewise, his depiction of Chinese characters sometimes falls within the Orientalist fascination of the West with Chinese women as exotica. Therefore, Sarduy’s mockery of Orientalism turns sometimes into an example of Orientalism itself, since the images of unlimited cruelty and perversity as well as those of exotic, erotic, and sensual splendor are the ones that ultimately remain in the reader’s mind.

In contrast with these works published by Hernández Catá in 1924 and by Sarduy during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, during the second half of the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, we see the publication of several novels that are characterized by a more realistic and less essentialist approach in their representation of the Chinese culture and heritage in Cuba.
[10] In the case of Mayra Montero’s The Messenger, Chinese witchcraft, in its interaction with its Afro-Cuban counterpart, is the basis for the representation of Chinese folklore. The fact that Chinese history and Chinese religion are put at the same level is evident, for instance, in the following passage, in which, almost skeptically, Enriqueta Cheng realizes not only that she belongs to the mysterious and fascinating world she is studying, but also that she is actually the product of the surprising love story narrated by her mother: “I was part of all this, this neighborhood and this house, part of the story of the frigate Oquendo, and of the enlightened journey of Sanfancón” (157).[11] Enriqueta, therefore, becomes a sort of national allegory through which Montero asks her compatriots to acknowledge the fact that, in one way or another, they too are the outcome of this multiplicity of migrations (including that of the “coolies”) and oppressions that have taken place in the Caribbean basin. In contrast with the perspective adopted by most of the literature before Mayra Montero’s, in this novel neither Santería nor the Chinese religious practices are understood—as is typical of the Eurocentric outlook—as ignorant witchcraft. On the contrary, the novel adopts a somewhat neutral, objective view of these beliefs, always from a prism of respect. In this regard, by mentioning the curse cast by a deceased white woman, the supernatural powers of Enrico Caruso’s voice, and the white witches from the Canary islands who lived in the Cuban town of Trinidad, the author eliminates the potentially Orientalist figuration of Chinese witchcraft as an exotic cultural element that is exclusive to the mysterious and “cruel” world of the Chinese.

The colonialist discourse has often used fetish and witchcraft as marks of otherness to justify the conquest and enslavement of Third-World peoples. In contrast, although Montero does use the term “witchcraft,” neither Santería, nor Voodoo, nor Chinese religion is represented in The Messenger as an ignorant or primitive practice, but simply as an alternative creed. Thanks to her representation of the syncretism between the Chinese, black African and European religious expressions, together with her refusal to judge the actions of the two babalawos, she manages to avoid depicting these cultural practices as something exotic or typical of an underdeveloped culture. On the contrary, despite the fact that Yuan Pei Fu owns corrupt businesses, his powers of magic are beyond good and evil; they are simply a way to defend himself and his loved ones from danger. In fact, this use of religion and witchcraft as both physical and psychological defense mechanisms becomes a prism through which a good part of Cuba’s history is re-written, this time from the point of view of two of the ethnic groups (of course, it was even more fatal for indigenous groups) who suffered most dramatically the consequences of Europe’s economic and political expansion. Montero attempts to provide a voice for these disenfranchised social groups, at the same time that she proves that, along with the numerous deaths and unimaginable suffering, another substantial consequence of Europe’s colonialism was the fragmentation and transformation of traditional cultures into new, hybrid expressions.


Along with the aforementioned examples of Orientalism, we also have cases of strategic self-Orientalization in Cuban art and literature. Thus, in the collection of “Chinese poems” Yuan Pei Fu’s Plum Tree (El ciruelo de Yuan Pei Fu;1955), Chinese Cuban Regino Pedroso (1896-1983) abandons the Modernista and avant-guard, socially committed direction of previous works, to concentrate, from a philosophical and nostalgic point of view, on the re-creation of the exotic world of his ancestors. In the introduction, the author challenges the innovations of contemporary avant-guard poets by claiming the central position of poetry in the culture of his ancestors: “for the man of this millenary race, poetry is not a simple game of the intellect [....] but an emotional way of feeling and seeing life.”
[12] In fact, here Pedroso is resorting to a sort of strategic essentialism or, rather, strategic self-Orientalization to defend his own poetry as a more authentic discourse than that of his avant-guard peers. In this sense, at the same time that he falls into occasional essentialist views of the Chinese,[13] he claims, through a sort of affected exoticism, a Chinese space that is impenetrable for westerners but not for him, since his Chinese ancestry provides him with a cognitive ability denied to the West: “the only thing is that for Westerners it will always be difficult to penetrate the depth of his smile.”
A more recent case of voluntary sinicization and deliberate self-Orientalization appears with the publication of Nube de otoño (Autumn Cloud; 1997), a collection of pictures of paintings by the Chinese Cuban Flora Fong García (1949-), supplemented with essays by herself and her critics.
[14] To leave no doubt about the “genuine” Chineseness of her art, one of the pictures in the book shows the painter with a framed photograph sitting on her lap, where we can see both her Chinese father and her Creole mother. Although at first sight many of her paintings do not show evident signs of the professed Chinese roots, Flora Fong claims that her work is inseparable from her father’s ethnic roots since the early eighties (her artistic debut was in 1970 and she visited China for the first time in 1989). In fact, almost the entire foreword by the artist stands as an effort to leave no doubt about the Chinese connotations and background of her works. It begins with an explanation of the origin of Chinese pictographic characters (or ideograms) and its relevance to her work.[15] Surprisingly, only the last paragraph of the foreword makes a brief reference to the influence of tropical nature in her art, even though it truly seems to be the main source of her inspiration. In order to convince the readers about the connection between Chinese culture and her art, the last page of Nube de otoño consists of a list of Chinese characters she uses in her painting along with their translation. However, the vast majority of her paintings depict Cuban landscapes (palm trees, banana leafs, plants, forests, the ocean), with a particular emphasis on the wind (tornados, cyclones, and hurricanes). Incidentally, Cuban coffee rather than tea, the traditional Chinese drink, inspires many of Fong’s paintings.

Likewise, this corpus of works reflects the malleability of so many marginal Sino-Cuban identities, forged between the gaps and interstices of at least two national cultures, which end up gaining new strength after being pushed beyond geographic and political borders by the advent of the Cuban Revolution. With the new migration (another one in the seemingly perpetual series), we witness the creation of a diasporic version of national identity, which incorporates new strategies to contend with the Eurocentric hegemony that has negated and silenced the Chinese (at least at an official level) since the time of their arrival. Therefore, the cultural production by and about the Chinese Cubans presents a challenge to national narratives posed by those interstices and connections among biographies, local and global histories, and different sociopolitical units, such as ethnicities, nation-states, and other politically- or territorially-based spaces. As could be expected, both fiction and reality are present not only in the cultural and discursive practices dealing with the Chinese Cubans, but also in the historiography and the testimonials. As an example, we have the discrepancies as to the number of Chinese that migrated to Cuba, the extent of their participation in the wars of independence, and the level of insularity of the Chinese community. In all, these works constitute a sort of cultural mapping of the rugged history of the Chinese colony in Cuba. Layer by layer, each Sino-Cuban character traces a collective identity in a process of uninterrupted articulation. Each one unveils a human palimpsest that reflects the evolving nature of the imaging of this ethnic group. At the same time, one must not forget that beyond the simple, mimetic reflection of a historical reality, these representational strategies constitute a new reality in themselves, a new history that is able to produce independent sets of meanings and regimes of representation. Regardless of the authors’ ethnic backgrounds, these aesthetic practices provide new histories to an oppositional discourse that challenges sanctioned versions of Cuban history based on either homogeneous cultural markers or the equally mythical binary opposition between blacks and Creoles. As Gustavo Geirola points out, a next step would be to compare and contrast these works with those written in China and also dealing with the Chinese migration to Cuba: “One can conjecture that there must exist artistic texts in Chinese and Japanese, that is, a cultural production in the original languages that in some instance may give an account of the tribulations of their countrymen in Latin American lands, whether they returned to their countries of origin or not. Naturally, this involves overcoming linguistic barriers.”
[16] Equally interesting, I would add, would be to find more cultural creations (besides The Cuban Commission Report) produced in Cuba by Chinese migrant workers and their descendents in any of the Chinese languages.

These works also call into question nationalist projects that inexorably trap culture within the idea of national territory and the State. Paradoxically, most of the cultural products analyzed here were created by authors and artists who lack the epistemologically privileged perspective of being either Chinese or Chinese Cuban. Notable exceptions are the testimonials The Cuba Commission Report and Our History is Still Being Written, the works by Antonio Chufatt Latour and Regino Pedroso, and the paintings by Flora Fong. Evidently, this is a reason for caution or even skepticism. In this sense, Rey Chow points out: “the émigrés who can no longer claim proprietorship of Chinese culture through residency in China henceforth inhabit the melancholy position of an ethnic group that, as its identity is being ‘authenticated’ abroad, is simultaneously relegated to the existence of ethnographic specimens under the Western gaze” (15). Logically, several questions come to mind. One of them is the following: should a Chinese Cuban literature be written in Spanish or in Cantonese (or Mandarin)? The fact that ethnic Chinese authors like Pedroso and Chuffat Latour chose to write in Spanish may respond either to their desire to reach a broader audience in Cuba or to the fact that many members of the Sino-Cuban community could neither speak nor write Cantonese. Some may also wonder whether the fact that Latina authors such as Cristina García are considered an ethnic minority in the United States provides them with “ethnic immunity” (to use Dinesh D’Souza’s term) to comment on the culture of other minority groups like the Chinese Cuban. In this regard, Severo Sarduy, in an interview with Emir Rodríguez Monegal, has acknowledged the inevitable shortcomings that plague westerners when dealing with the apprehension of Eastern cultures:

But I am not dealing with a transcendental, metaphysical, or profound India but, on the contrary, with an exaltation of the surface and, I would say, even with a shoddy India. I believe, and I would have liked Octavio Paz to agree with me—I believe he does—that the only decodification that we can do as Westerners, that the only possible non-neurotic reading for us, considering our logocentrism, is the one that privileges the surface. The rest is a Christianizing translation, syncretism, true superficiality.
[17]

On the other hand, while ethnic writing has been traditionally associated with nationalistic claims, one can hardly imagine how a Chinese Cuban literature could be nationalistic if it is being written by authors from different ethnic backgrounds.

In fact, it could be argued that the literature and other cultural manifestations about the Chinese diaspora in Cuba have followed in the same steps as indianista and indigenista literature. While in some works Chinese subjects are idealized and used almost as an ornament to embellish or exoticize the plot, in others, which could be termed “Chineseist,” Creole authors condemn their exploitation and defend their right to be considered an integral part of Cuban identity and culture (regardless of the well-known shortcomings of the term “national identity”).
[18] As in the case of indigenismo, besides the fact that most authors are Creoles, one must take into account that the modes of production determining these literary and cultural texts reveal an unequivocal Western influence, as reflected in the different literary genres and artistic styles used. Moreover, the mere fact that some novels were originally written in English reveals an implied reader who was most probably neither Chinese Cuban nor Cuban (at least not one of those who stayed in Cuba) but the U.S. market in general. Likewise, the recurrent and detailed explanations of Chinese and Sino-Cuban cultural idiosyncrasies in these texts are proof that the works are directed to a reading public that is not familiar with the history and culture of this ethnic group.

All these facts point to a considerable crisis of representation. On the one hand, there is a certain ambivalence with respect to the figuration of the Chinese world. In the same work it can be presented as a foreign subjectivity imported from mysterious, far-away lands, only to be vindicated a few pages later as something that far from being exotic, is an intrinsic part of Cuban national identity and should not be considered peripheral to the idea of Latin American culture. On the other hand, despite timid claims to Chinese ancestry by a few of these authors, there is an obvious cultural and ideological displacement between the objects of representation and the axiological system of the (at times sympathetic) writing subjects. In some cases, however, the authors, consciously writing on behalf of the Chinese Cubans, attempt to distance themselves (with different degrees of success) from their own Western outlook in order to apprehend the Chinese worldview in their works. That is the case, for example, of Mayra Montero’s The Messenger and Cristina García’s Monkey Hunting. Since neither one is of Asian origin, they are susceptible to the suspicion of creating paternalistic or hegemonic representations of the postcolonial subject. Yet, beyond the common incorporation of Cantonese words and far from a position of authority, they successfully transcend the merely mimetic transcription of reality to delve into the Chinese worldview and psychology. With this goal in mind, Montero and García resort not only to renowned famous Chinese thinkers but also to popular culture, in the form of religious beliefs, superstitions, witchcraft, legends, proverbs, and other cultural practices.
[19] Despite the inevitable limitations attached to the fact that both authors still write from a Western prism, their novels bring a new perspective to the field. They incorporate strong female characters, avoid the reinforcement of tedious generalizations and stereotypes, and acknowledge the extensive process of hybridization that has taken place in the blood and the life of the Sino-Cuban community. More importantly, they place the Chinese diaspora in Cuba, beyond provincialisms, within the sphere of geopolitical forces and globalization.

In one of the several definitions of Orientalism provided by Said in the introduction to his book, he highlights the Western intellectuals’ flawed attempts to understand, control, manipulate, and even incorporate something that is manifestly a different world. From his perspective, even the most progressive and embracing cultural production analyzed here would be categorized under that level, since they often try to incorporate Chineseness as an integral part of the Cubanness. However, it seems safe to say that it would not be easy to find a hegemonic and Orientalist perspective in these novels. Rather, they tend to mine colonial ideology by revealing the problematic of postcolonial subjectivity, with a particular emphasis on personal and cultural identity, double consciousness, cultural difference, and hybridity. In contrast with other texts that force the Chinese subject to be a “mysterious Oriental” or a demonized “Chinee,” the success of Monkey Hunting and The Messenger in representing the (non-essential) Chinese Cubans lies in their resistance to the temptation of racializing or “Chinesizing” them. Fortunately, García and Montero do not feel the need to tell their readers why the character is “typically Chinese.” Indeed, I believe that these two authors have successfully met Said’s request to find non-repressive and non-manipulative alternatives to Orientalism.
In similar vein, albeit less successfully, Regino Pedroso and Zoé Valdés (two authors who rightfully claim Chinese descent) also establish a dialogue between their works and Chinese culture, both popular and “high.” However, in contrast with Monkey Hunting and The Messenger, in the case of the works by Pedroso and Valdés Chineseness becomes more of an exotic object of study, hence falling into notions in tune with traditional anthropology, cultural diversity, and multiculturalism. Predictably, they lack the emphasis on that “third space” of liminality and hybridity that is prominent in the novels by García and Montero. Instead, Chineseness tends to be conceived as a homogeneous, cohesive, pure, and separate entity with no references to the negotiations and translations of cultural identity that dominate the life and subjectivity of the Chinese Cubans.

Although most of these authors are unable to dispose completely of their Western and contemporary episteme, at least their approaches bring them closer to the specificity of the dynamic Chinese Cuban worldview. It is important to note, however, that while indigenista novels appeared at the end of the nineteenth century, this “Chineseist” mini-boom in the Cuban novel has taken place at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. One cannot help but wonder: Why this sudden Sinophilia and literary interest in the coolies and their descendents? Is it due to the rise of the People’s Republic of China as an economic and geopolitical superpower, to the “trend” of multiculturalism, or to the international success of novels such as Monkey Hunting and Isabel Allende’s Hija de la fortuna (Daughter of Fortune; 1999) and Retrato en sepia (Portrait in Sepia; 2000)? While the answer is not clear, the fact is that the vindication of a place for the Chinese in Cuba’s history and the publication of these works by authors who have expressed anti-Castro views have been simultaneous with the efforts of the Cuban government to revitalize Havana’s Chinatown as a tourist attraction.
[20]

Recent examples of this new Sinicization of Cuban official discourse are the biannual conferences on the Chinese diaspora sponsored by the University of Havana and the yearly Festival of Overseas Chinese (Festival de Chinos de Ultramar), which has been celebrated since 1998 and sponsored by the Chinatown Promotional Group. Also telling is the creation of a professorial chair (cátedra) in studies on the Chinese immigration in Cuba in the University of Havana, and the fact that the 2006 edition of International Fair Cubadisco (devoted to the promotion of music) was dedicated to China.
[21] By the same token, as part of the 1997 celebrations for the sesquicentennial, the government presented a new stamp commemorating the anniversary of the Chinese presence in Cuba, which guarantees the coolie’s entrance into national iconography.[22]

On the other hand, Cristina Apón Peña, the first president of the Chinatown Promotional Group (1995-2000), argues that the government’s intervention in the internal affairs of the Chinese colony has been very positive and is actually a unique case in the Americas. She also draws attention to the fact the improvement of diplomatic relations with China has only occurred in the last years, while the constitution of the Chinatown Promotional Group was written in 1985. In fact, now that the office of the official historian of Havana is in charge of the revitalization of the Chinatown, the economic support of the Chinese embassy has decreased.


This newfound interest in Chinese culture has also coincided with the government-backed commodification of African-rooted religions for the benefit of the tourist industry (which, following the decline of the sugar industry, has become the main source of income in the country). There is even a Santería Museum in Guanabacoa and a Museum of the Orishas downtown Havana, which is maintained by the Yoruba Association of Havana. Likewise, the Callejón de Hamel in Havana, which the Afro-Cuban painter, muralist, and sculptor Salvador González Escalona (1948-) has been decorating with murals that make reference to Santería and Afro-Cuban culture since 1990, has also become a tourist attraction.
[23] In fact, several authors have commented on the sponsoring of tourist excursions to explore these religions by a government that until recently had frowned on all forms of religion. Here, it is worth recalling, for example, Zoé Valdés’s bitter criticism, in I Gave You All I Had, of the “discourse of mestizaje,” that is, the official appropriation and manipulation of racial mixture as a rhetorical and demagogical symbol of Cuban nationalism. Another passage that comes to mind is Daína Chaviano’s condemnation, in El hombre, la hembra y el hambre, of the way in which Cuban religions and folklore are being “wholesaled” for the tourist industry.

Perhaps a reason for this sudden literary and cultural interest in everything Chinese can be found in the short story “Confesión” (1991), by Cuban author Jesús Díaz (1941).
[24] There, the unnamed protagonist attempts to create “a new literature,” different from the Western canon, by drawing from the Chinese sources around him.

Yet he is depicted as a dishonest character who, as a child, had repeatedly insulted and thrown rocks at Manuel Wong (the Chinese man who is now his benefactor) and had always considered his face diabolic. All at once, this mixture of disdain for and fascination with Chinese culture turns into an opportunistic attempt to appropriate something that is not his in order to achieve literary success. In his defense, although he lies to Manuel Wong by telling him that his deceased son’s manuscript has no literary value, he does acknowledge the sophistication of Chinese literature and culture, feels remorse for having been disrespectful in the past, and even thinks about asking Manuel to teach him the language: “The quality of The Book of Tears could only be matched, in the stammering Western literature, by a few sporadic glimpses in certain texts considered foundational.”
[25] With this goal of “originality” in mind, he plans to plagiarize a Chinese text that will simultaneously allow him to evade State censorship and to pretend he has apprehended the essence of the mysterious Chinese world: “The best thing about the short story was that no one would believe the truth, and he, having written it, would limit himself to accepting the fact that others would attribute the story to him. Two birds with one stone: authorship and inclusion in the exclusive jet set of Western authors who had managed to write a narration with Chinese atmosphere.”[26] In this way, the protagonist of Jesús Díaz’s text has found, like many of the Cuban and Cuban-American authors included in this study, a fertile path to originality by turning his head to the Chinese component of Cuban culture.

However, it is important to note that the protagonist fails in his first attempt to create a new literature inspired by the text he plans to plagiarize. After coming to the conclusion that he is not a Western author, he realizes his potential to become the founder of a new type of writing: “If one only took into account his readings, there was no doubt; but that mixture of blacks and Chinese that constituted his surroundings, was that the West? And the evident fact that it was not, that he lived torn between two worlds, didn’t that offer him the possibility to blend them into a truly new literature?”
[27] Yet once he begins to write, he is unable to overcome that which Harold Bloom has termed “the anxiety of influence” and ends up unconsciously plagiarizing the first sentence of Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: “He began to have a headache, and two hours later he had only managed to write this sentence: ‘I owe the knowledge of Whuam Wong’s manuscript to the fortunate conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.”[28] This passage obviously implies the impossibility of ridding ourselves of our Western literary heritage and worldview, even if we have non-Western cultures around us. In any case, each reader must decide which Cuban and Cuban American authors, if any at all, have achieved the originality and freshness for which Díaz’s protagonist is striving.

This drastic change of attitude toward the Chinese in Cuba is a poignant example of the way in which race relations are historically contingent. Now that the Chinese colony per se has practically disappeared and presents no threat to official black-Creole mestizo national identity, the Chinese people and culture have gained a new acceptance on the island. After decades of negation of cultural difference, they have gone from being virtually silenced (even the lion dance was forbidden in 1961) to being officially celebrated and negotiated.
[29] Indeed, signifiers such as “Chinese” and “Chineseness” have evolved and fluctuated in Cuba depending on the current politics of cultural representation. Whereas before the first influx of Chinese migrant workers these categories were constructed by some planters as synonymous to docile, cheap, white and foreign labor, immediately after their arrival they were “lowered” to the same level as “black Africans” and “slaves.” Some time after the coolie trade had ended, the Chinese came to be known, alongside the Spaniards, as the island’s principal business owners. After the Cuban Revolution, this same image tended to evoke a capitalist petite-bourgeoisie and a primarily separatist and counter-revolutionary community. In contrast, today (perhaps because the reduced numbers no longer pose a real threat to national unity) the politics of cultural discrimination seem to have died away. However, this new freedom has not prevented the Chinese colony from becoming an exotic call for the profitable tourist industry, a mere symbol of a multicultural past, and a dying world that needs to be rapidly preserved for its proper anthropological study.

This cultural production reveals the instability of personal and collective identities. It also exposes the unrealistic nature of the claims of homogenizing nationalistic projects, and the simplism of the binary oppositions (such as black and white or Creole and indigenous) upon which many nationalistic discourses in Latin America and the Caribbean have been based. Rather than defining the West by negation (that is, the West is not what its cultural rival [the East] is), it rediscovers the “Orientals” among us, that foreigner or “other” who lives within ourselves and that Julia Kristeva studied in Strangers to Ourselves: “we shall never be able to live at peace with the strangers around us if we are unable to tolerate the otherness in ourselves” [....] “By recognizing our uncanny strangeness we shall neither suffer from it nor enjoy it from the outside. The foreign is within me, hence we are all foreigners” (191-2). Several of the “strangers” in these works incarnate a palimpsest of multiple diasporas, histories, and oppressions that goes well beyond any sort of reductionistic dualities. Ultimately, they redirect the domain of (Cuban, Chinese, Chinese Cuban) ethnicity toward the notion of cultural difference and above nationalistic claims.

The undeniable significance of this large cultural production for future re-elaborations of cultural canons in Latin American and Chinese diaspora studies should not be overlooked. These works rescue from oblivion essential aspects of the oral and written history of the international division of labor and labor migration. More importantly, they unearth a terrible history of internal colonialism and genocide. In fact, while the genocide of Chinese nationals described in The Cuba Commission Report (which despite plausible exaggerations is still the third largest in the history of the Americas) cannot be compared to the genocides of Amerindians and Africans in overall numbers, it certainly can be in ratio.


As we have seen, Chinese and Chinese Cubans have had their struggles for self-representation, with The Cuba Commission Report as one of the most notable examples. In more recent years, other Chinese Cubans, such as Chuffat Latour, Pedroso, Flora Fong, and generals Choy, Chui and Sío Wong have contributed to the early efforts. With different degrees of double consciousness and self-Orientalization, they have been representing themselves from the position of legitimacy provided by their Chinese ethnicity, rather than allowing the Creole other to do the job for them. Other contributions have come from writers of more or less distant Chinese descent, such as José Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy and Zoé Valdés, who have sometimes used the “ethnic immunity” of having a Chinese ancestor to claim some sort of authorial right to access the cultural representation of the Chinese on the island. Thirdly, we have the unique case of the Cuban American author Cristina García. Considered a member of an ethnic minority in her country of residence, she has used the experience of her own family’s exile and that of living on the margins of two cultures to extrapolate it to the Chinese experience in Cuba. In addition, she stands out as one of the writers who have been most successful in conceiving their story from a global perspective that universalizes and, in a way, deterritorializes the Chinese diaspora. Like García, other women writers such as Mayra Montero and Zoé Valdés have contested (or complemented) the contributions of their male counterparts by inscribing the categories of gender and sexuality into the collective discourse about cultural difference and hybridity. In their works, they add dimension of the modes of reproduction to the literary representation of the system of economic production and the international division of labor. Likewise, they often intersect the notion of cultural difference with that of sexual difference.

Ultimately, the analysis of these works must be framed within what Juan de Castro terms “the discourse of mestizaje.” In his own words, this Latin American discourse celebrates “miscegenation or cultural mixture as the basis for conceiving a homogenous national identity out of a heterogeneous population [....] [it] uses that heterogeneity paradoxically to imagine a common past and a homogenous future” (9). Indeed, the recent political Sinophilia in Cuba, together with the sinicization of Cuban and Cuban American aesthetic practices responds in part to a project of national consolidation under the flag of a harmonic process of mestizaje. In a sense, it is a different type of homogenization that, as de Castro argues, should be problematized: “it is precisely these harmonic images that must be analyzed in order for the contradictions and aporias that lie hidden beneath the smoothness of identity to be brought into focus. The importance of the analysis of the discourse of mestizaje is rooted in the need to uncover the social and cultural oppositions hidden by its veneer of homogeneity” (10). In this light, it would not be too far-fetched to conclude that the most recent manifestation of this literary and cultural cycle, termed here “Chineseism,” has indeed something to do with the increasingly powerful economic and political influence of the People’s Republic of China and the marketability of the Chinese (and Afro-Cuban, for that matter) ethnic label as a valuable commodity in Cuba and beyond.



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Notes


[1] In 1874 an investigation of the enforced recontracting by the Chinese Imperial Commissioner Chen Lanbin ended the “Coolie Trade.”
[2] Throughout his career, Hernández Catá explored racialized hostility against mulattos in several works: his novella La piel (The Skin; 1913); “El drama de la Señorita Occidente” (The Drama of Miss Occident), included in Libro de amor (Book of Love; 1924); and Cuatro libras de felicidad (Four Pounds of Happiness; 1933).
[3] “¡Pobres macacos amarillos! ¡Qué iban a resistir el trabajo tremendo! [....] Buenos eran los chinos para vender en sus tiendecitas de la ciudad, abanicos, zapatillas, cajitas de laca y jugueticos de papel risado; excelentes para guisar en sus fonduchos, o para lavar y planchar con primor... ¡Oficios de mujeres bien! Pero para aguantar el sol sobre las espaldas ocho horas, y agujerear el hierro, ¡hacían falta hombres muy hombres!” (48).
[4] He compares them to nervous yellow ants and is surprised to see that all they eat is some rice and that they do everything in silence, without sweating.
[5] “Si un chino nos infunde siempre una invencible sensación de repugnancia y de lejanía donde hay algo de miedo, un chino muerto es algo pavoroso...” (50).
[6] “De la vagoneta habían descendido treinta hombres amarillos—iguales, absurdamente iguales a los que yo vi caer muertos en tierra, cual si en vez de llevarlos a enterrar los hubiesen llevado a la ciudad para recomponerlos—, y con diligencia de hormigas, ante mis ojos enloquecidos, empezaron a trabajar” (50).
[7] “¡Te odio, chino infernal! ¡Aborto de los infiernos! ¡Ay, si fueras de barro para despedazarte, para hacerte polvo...” (92).
[8] One of his surnames was “Macao.”
[9] Even in the section titled “Dolores Rondón,” which concentrates on the African component, Chinese motifs are recurrent.
[10] Zoé Valdés’s Te di la vida entera (I Gave You All I Had; 1996), Mayra Montero’s Como un mensajero tuyo (The Messenger; 1998), Cristina García’s Monkey Hunting (2003), and Arnaldo Correa’s Cold Havana Ground (2003).
[11] “Yo era parte de todo aquello, de ese barrio y de esa casa, de la historia de la fragata Oquendo, y del iluminado viaje de Sanfancón” (195).
[12] “Para el hombre de esta raza milenaria, la poesía no es un simple juego del intelecto [....] sino un modo emocional de sentir y ver la vida [....] nace de un profundo estado contemplativo ante la naturaleza, o más bien, de su cósmica inmersión en ella, y está en lo estelar de su alma y no en el simple juego de hacer literatura” (18).
[13] (“For the yellow man, although he is materialist and a persistent defender of his daily ration of rice, [...]“)
[14] Flora Fong was born in Camagüey in 1949. She graduated from the National School of Art of Cubanacán in 1970 and taught art at the San Alejandro Fine Arts School from 1970 to 1989. She works with sculpture, ceramics, stained glass, textile design, and Asian-style artistic kites, and has received numerous awards, including the 1988 Distinción por la Cultura Nacional (Distinction for National Culture) and the Distinción 23 de Agosto (August 23 Distinction), of the Federation of Cuban Women in 1989. She has exhibited her works in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa and the United States, and her paintings have been purchased by museums in China, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, France, and Canada. Fong is also a member of Cuba’s National Union of Writers and Artists and of the International Association of Plastic Artists. Nube de otoño is also the title of an art video directed by Alejandro Gil in 1993 and based on the biography and works of Flora Fong.
[15] Other Cuban painters such as Baruj Salinas (1935-; whose origin is not Chinese but Sephardic) have also found a source of inspiration in the Chinese ideogram. Salinas left Cuba in 1959.
[16] “Se puede conjeturar que han de existir textos artísticos en chino y japonés, es decir, una producción cultural en lenguas originales que en alguna instancia esté dando cuenta de las tribulaciones de sus con-nacionales en tierras latinoamericanas, sea o no que hayan regresado a sus países de origen. Esto supone, naturalmente, superar barreras lingüísticas” (114).
[17] “Pero no se trata de una India transcendental, metafísica o profunda, sino al contrario, una exaltación de la superficie y yo diría hasta de la pacotilla India. Yo creo, y me hubiera gustado que Octavio Paz estuviera de acuerdo—pienso que lo está—que la única descodificación que podemos hacer en tanto que occidentales, que la única lectura no neurótica de la India que nos es posible a partir de nuestro logocentrismo es esa que privilegia su superficie. El resto es traducción cristianizante, sincretismo, verdadera superficialidad” (Rodríguez Monegal 318-9).
[18] In fact, in some cases, the rhetoric used by these authors is reminiscent of the one used in La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race; 1925), by the Mexican José Vasconcelos (1881-1959).
[19] Among these renowned thinkers are the poet Li Po, the philosopher Lao-tzu, and the painter, writer, and calligrapher Wu Chen (1280-1354).
[20] Among the authors and testimonialists studied here who have not been openly critical of Castro’s regime are Regino Pedroso (who, after the Revolution, became cultural attaché to the People’s Republic of China), Arnaldo Correa, and generals Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui, and Moisés Sío Wong. Leonardo Padura Fuentes is the only author in this study who has dared to criticize Castro’s politics while still living in Cuba.
[21] In addition, the 2006 edition of Cubadisco featured a lecture by Dr. Jesús Guanche Pérez entitled “Chinese presence in Cuba,” and a Chinese traditional dance led by Zhang Zheng, professor of classical dance in China (Dance Institute in Beijing).
[22] Cristina (Nip) Apón Peña, a Chinese Cuban who was the first president of the Chinatown Promotional Group (1995-2000) and now runs the Havana Chinatown's social work program, has pointed out additional symbolic gestures: “In 2003, the Cuban and Chinese governments hosted a trip home for five of the [Chinese] immigrants, and plans are in the works to organize visits for about a dozen more” (Arrington). There is also an official celebration of “The historic October of China and Cuba” (“El histórico octubre de Cuba y China") in Havana. Scientific forums, sociocultural activities, and sports events commemorate the anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic of China (October 1), the beginning of the Cuban Wars of Independence (October 10), and the Day of Cuban Culture (October 20).
[23] Incidentally, in the house in the Callejón de Hamel where Salvador González’s paintings are exhibited there is a figure of the Buddha, sitting by various images of Santeria orishas. In fact, it is quite common to find figures of the Buddha, with offering of rice by them, in Cuban homes.
[24] Jesús Díaz has written several film scripts, including the following: Clandestinos (1986); Barroco (co-written with Paul Leduc; 1987); and Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas (co-written with Daniel Díaz Torres; 1989). He has also directed the documentaries Cincuenticinco hermanos (1978) and En tierra de Sandino (1979), and the films Polvo rojo (1982) and Lejanía (1985). He was a philosophy professor at the University of Havana (1962-1971) and founded the cultural magazine El Caimán Barbudo (1966-1967).
[25] “El Libro de las lágrimas reunía valores que, en la balbuceante literatura occidental, sólo podían encontrarse como atisbos esporádicos en ciertos textos considerados fundacionales” (215).
[26] “Lo mejor del cuento estaba en que nadie creería la verdad, y él, habiéndola dicho, se limitaría a aceptar que los demás le atribuyeran la historia. Dos pájaros de un tiro: la autoría y su ingreso al exclusivo jet set de autores occidentales que habían logrado una narración de atmósfera china” (219-20).
[27] “Si sólo tomaba en cuenta sus lecturas no cabrían dudas; pero aquella mezcla de negros y chinos que constituía su entorno, ¿era occidente? Y el hecho evidente de que no lo era, de que vivía desgarrado entre dos mundos, ¿no le brindaba acaso la posibilidad de fundirlos en una literatura verdaderamente nueva?” (220).
[28] “Empezó a dolerle la cabeza, y dos horas después sólo había logrado esta frase: ‘Debo a la afortunada conjunción de un espejo y una enciclopedia el conocimiento del manuscrito de Whuam Wong” (220).
[29] Perhaps reflecting the improvement of diplomatic and economic relations with the Chinese government, particularly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the subsequent proclamation of the período especial, Mandarin language courses are now being sponsored as part of the project to revitalize Havana’s Chinatown. While there used to be courses in Cantonese phonetics every other Saturday, they have recently been cancelled. Scherer has pointed out the paradox of teaching Mandarin (or Pekingese, as they call it) as opposed to the Cantonese spoken by the coolies. When I asked several members of the Chinese colony why they were being taught Mandarin instead of Cantonese, their answer was that they were interested in learning it to be able to communicate with Chinese tourists and diplomats. Mandarin courses are taught by the Chinese Cuban Alberto Koc.
“Special Period in Peacetime” was the official name given to a steep economic decline during the first half of the 1990s. After the collapse of the socialist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, Cuba lost 85% of its foreign trade and 80% of its ability to purchase goods abroad. Among other measures, the Cuban government opened the door to the tourist industry, imported millions of bicycles from China, and allowed free circulation of the U.S. dollar. It also allowed some self-employment and deregulated some prices in agricultural markets.


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