University of California, Merced
Book review forthcoming in 17.1 China Review International (CRI)
The Chinese in Cuba, 1847-Now. By Mauro García Triana and Pedro Eng Herrera. Edited and translated by Gregor Benton. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2009. 233 pages.
The Chinese in Cuba, 1847-Now is an English translation of three previously unpublished essays by Mauro García Triana and Pedro Eng Herrera, followed by appendixes including edited excerpts from three key texts by and about Chinese and Chinese Cubans. It opens with a preface by Abel Fung, a Chinese-born resident of Havana’s Chinatown who has lived in Cuba for over fifty years. After an introduction by the editor and another one by the co-authors, the fifty-four page-long first chapter, titled “The Chinese in Cuba’s War of Independence,” also includes an appendix titled “Cubans in a Japanese Internment Camp in Hong Kong.” Chapter 2 is much shorter, twenty pages, and it is titled “Chinese Business in Cuba in the Twentieth Century.” The third, “Chinese in Cuban Cultural Life,” is sixty-six pages long. Before the index, there are three additional appendixes: “Chinese Emigration, the Cuba Commission. Report of the Commission Sent by China to Ascertain the Condition of Chinese Coolies in Cuba (1877); “Gonzalo de Quesada, The Chinese and Cuban Independence (1892); and “Duvon Clough Corbitt, Coolie Life in Cuba” (1971).
According to Abel Fung’s preface, “This book reveals the part played by Chinese and their descendants in Cuban society and history, a role unmatched in extent and depth in any other Western country” (ix). Like similar texts, this one bases Chinese claims to national belonging on their military participation in the wars of independence and, later, in the Cuban Revolution. In his introduction, the editor and translator Gregor Benton analyzes different factors in the process of integration of the Chinese community to the Cuban nation, including the concepts of a “raceless nation,” their role in the liberation struggles and the Cuban Revolution, the anti-Chinese racism brought by the U.S. occupation of Cuba in 1899, and Cuban sinophobia and orientalism. Benton wisely argues that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese line of the Cuban family has acquired new visibility thanks to the new geopolitical and economic power of the People’s Republic of China. Part of the revival of ethnic Chinese culture, he adds, are the creation of the Havana Chinatown Promotion Group and the opening of the Chung Wah Casino’s membership to descendants of Chinese, including mestizos.
The introduction explains that every chapter and appendix in the book is a tribute to the Chinese and their descendants in Cuba in the 160th anniversary of the inception of Chinese emigration to the island. After a brief explanation of the reasons behind the Chinese emigration and of the progressive reduction of their community, they list Chinese regional and clan associations, political organizations, corporative bodies, sporting societies, and periodicals. Chapter 1 explores the important role of the Chinese in Cuba’s three wars of independence, explaining that they found their motivation in “the exploitation and maltreatment by the landowners and the colonialists” (1) and the “resentment against foreign colonialists and the Opium Wars and the tradition of the Taiping Rebellion and the struggle against feudal exploitation” (24). The significance of their participation is proven by the fact that colonial authorities decided to stop the import of a Chinese labor that was detrimental to the pacification of the island. Curiously, some of the sources provided contradict the general premise of the chapter, e.g. that Chinese participation in the wars was out of Cuban patriotism. Thus, a British consul is quoted stating that the colonial government’s habit of forcing the Chinese to renew their contracts was “the main cause . . . if not the only one, of Chinese presence in the rebel ranks” (3). While admitting that this was partially true, García Triana and Eng Herrera claim that many had already joined the rebels before this 1871 imposition. The chapter includes detailed accounts of the main battles, such as the one in Las Guásimas, a discussion of the number of Chinese soldiers, and the names of numerous Chinese participants, including Colonel José Bu Tack, Captains José Tolón and Tancredo, Lieutenant Carols Achong, the medical doctor Liborio Wong, and Juan Analay. Regardless of the numbers, according to the authors, Chinese participation in the wars was important because of “the example they set to Cuban whites and blacks” (23).
García Triana and Eng Herrera also dismiss the depositions made by some Chinese coolies in the Cuba Commission Report claiming that they had been forced to join the rebel forces and that some had escaped after being recruited by the mambises. In the authors’ view, they reflect the biased stance of Chin Lan-pin, the Imperial Commissioner who led the investigation: “Governments nearly always advise émigrés to respect the laws of their countries or residence, and an official report would be unlikely to strike an attitude of hostility toward Spain, on the eve of negotiating an agreement” (25). The first chapter also devotes sections to the first Chinese Marxists in Cuba during the 1920s and 1930s as well as to Sino-Cuban members of the Armed Forces in the 20th century, including the three generals interviewed in Our History is Still Being Written (2005). While these subchapters represent an interesting resource for researchers, the inclusion of very long lists of names, instead of selecting the key figures, make the reading somewhat monotonous. In any case, the emphasis is on the delineation of a sustained record of support to liberation struggles that has not been sufficiently recognized: “The Chinese Revolutionary Militias were a continuation of the Chinese mambí tradition, which had ‘neither traitors nor deserters’” (42). Interestingly, while pointing out that one Chinese Cuban, Captain Alfredo Abong Li, did fight for Batista’s army, his actions are justified in the following paragraphs: “Abong Li and his fellow officers were impelled by a mixture of military loyalty, courage, and ignorance of the political and military situation. . . . Although Abong Li took the wrong side, he was a worthy adversary. He resisted tenaciously, but he opposed the plot to assassinate Camilo [Cienfuegos] and ordered his men to guarantee his rival’s safety and human dignity” (44-45).
The second chapter, dedicated to Chinese business in Cuba, is much shorter than the other two chapters in the book. It begins by pointing out the profits made by landowners thanks to Chinese labor as well as their participation in the construction of railroads, in domestic service, port work, mines, and tobacco and nail industries, among other areas. The arrival of free Chinese from California contributed to the beginning of Chinese businesses and, soon, “Havana’s Barrio Chino was the biggest and best-known Chinatwon in Latin America” (58). A symbol of Chinese commercial success is the fact that, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, “two Chinese capitalists bought sugar mills in Sagua la Grande and Santo Domingo in Las Villas” (56). The chapter also includes the number of Chinese workers in each profession and lists of Chinese-owned businesses, including pharmacies, health centers, and the most popular one, grocery stores. A subchapter is dedicated to Chinese doctors, including the most famous and altruist one, Chan Bom Bia, as well as others like Saanci and Dhin Fua Sin, who were often persecuted by the Spanish law due to the competition they generated against Western doctors and pharmacists. Chinese pharmacies, the co-authors point out, began to close one by one in 1961 until only one was left: the Chung Wah Pharmacy.
The third and last chapter deals with Chinese influence in Cuban cultural production. It begins with Federico Chi Casio, a pioneer of Chinese cinemas who built the Águila de Oro cinema-theater and stimulated other arts and traditions, such as Chinese dragon dancing. His influence was such that the Chinese government appointed him to represent China’s war effort against Japan among Chinese overseas. The next figure to be discussed in the great surrealist painter Wifredo Lam. After mentioning some other painters, a new sub-chapter is devoted to literature by and about the Chinese and Chinese Cubans, including works by José Martí, Ramón Meza, Carlos Loveira Chirino, Lino Novas Calvo, Alfonso Hernández Catá, Antonio Ortega, Arístides Sosa de Quesada, Miguel Barnet, Leonardo Padura, Enrique Cirules, Mauro García, Jessica Amanda Miranda, Arturo Carnicer Torres, Nicolás Guillén, and the Chinese Cuban Regino Pedroso. The following section studies Chinese influence in Cuban music, including the pentatonic rhythms and instruments such as the corneta china (Chinese oboe) and the cajita china (Chinese wood block). Several compositions with Chinese themes and sounds are also mentioned. The tenor Jesús Li is also highlighted as the best-known Cuban Chinese singer. Another subchapter is dedicated to Chinese theater, with an emphasis on the Cantonese opera. The chapter points out that several Chinese theaters, including the famous Shanghai Theater, were built beginning in 1873. The rest of the subchapters review the presence of Chinese martial arts and other sports, the history of the Chinese cemetery and of Chinese Cuban funerary traditions, and Chinese and ethnic Chinese religious beliefs in Cuba, concentrating on the figures of Chinese “saints” Sanfancón and Guan Yi.
A short epilogue closes the three essays in an optimistic note: “Relations between Cuba and China are excellent, and the number of publications on the Chinese in Cuba and the Barrio Chino is increasing, while the community is no longer controlled by business and bourgeois social conventions, as it once was” (133). Paradoxically, right after the celebration of the end of capitalism in the Chinese community, the authors express their sincere hope that foreign capitalist investment will soon come to Cuba: “Perhaps in future investors from among Chinese communities overseas or even from the PRC, together with the prospect of new immigration, will stimulate a further development of the Barrio Chino and other parts of Cuba” (133). To complete the contradiction, a new paragraph adds:
Over the past 160 years, the integration of Chinese cultural values with the diversity of ideas and customs of the Cuban nation happened along a road relatively untroubled by communalist traumas and ethno-cultural problems of the sort that punctuated the course of history elsewhere in the world. True, Chinese suffered racial and social marginalization, and Chinese have-nots were exploited by Chinese haves. On the other hand, the destruction of bourgeois social structures in Cuba in the second half of the twentieth century revolutionized Chinese and Cuban-Chinese economy and culture. The confiscation of the Chinese bourgeoisie caused many to migrate, while families that remained in Cuba lost their social status. Even so, as Baltar points out, “the discriminated ethnic minority was transformed by the revolutionary socio-economic changes.” (133)
Overall, the essays and appendices included in The Chinese in Cuba, 1847-Now are, undoubtedly, a great source of information on the Chinese presence in Cuba for specialists in the topic. However, the tendency to include very long lists (many of the names also appear in Chinese characters) is tedious. In their impetus to celebrate Chinese achievements in Cuba, the two authors, the historian Mauro G. García Triana and Pedro J. Eng Herrera, a Sino-Cuban amateur historian who was also one of the leaders of the Milicia popular china Brigada José Wong, seem to be afraid of leaving anyone out. Surprising, however, are the omissions. For example, in the section dedicated to Sino-Peruvian painting, there is a long list of unknown artists (including Pedro Eng Herrera’s hardly veiled attempt at self-promotion as a naïf artist), yet Flora Fong, arguably the best-known Sino-Peruvian painter after Wifredo Lam (whose name is several times misspelled in the book as “Wilfredo”), is only mentioned as a painting instructor! Perhaps another limitation of this otherwise very useful book is the fact that the authors ignore recent scholarship on the topic, including Lisa Yun’s The Coolie Speaks (2008) and Ignacio López-Calvo’s Imaging the Chinese in Cuban Literature and Culture (2008).
Along the same lines, The Chinese in Cuba, 1847-Now coincides with another book mentioned in the study, Our History is Still Being Written, in its tendency to include segments that are reminiscent of a political pamphlet in their support of Castro’s regime. Ironically, Gregor Benton, the editor and translator, disregards previous studies by Juan Jiménez Pastrana and Juan Pérez de la Riva as “dated, and highly ideological” (xii). Both texts also converge in the contradiction of presenting the Cuban Revolution as beneficial for the Chinese community even though they admit that most of its members fled the island after 1959 and that “some Chinese Cubans were prevented from performing Chinese culture in public and the Chinese dimension of Cuban history and culture was ignored or suppressed” (xxi). This is perhaps understandable in the context of the authors’ participation with the Cuban Revolution and of the limitations caused by Cuban official censorship.
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