Cuba Headlines

Cuba News, Breaking News, Articles and Daily Information

The Casa de Asia mysteries of Asia in Colonial Havana
Tiny, finely decorated elephants guard the Buddhas Tooth. Exquisite figurines of jade, precious stone with its aura of good luck, harmony and balance emanate from a tea ceremony set. These are but a few of the symbols of this ancient culture, still mysterious to westerners, which can be admired in the Casa de Asia (Asia House) in the very center of colonial Havana.
As if the enchantment of Asia were not enough to attract visitors to the institution situated appropriately on Mercaderes Street, an important commercial center in the colonial city where immigrants of Asian origin settled, it should be known that the building where it is housed was constructed in 1668.On the 160th anniversary of Chinese immigration, the Casa de Asia celebrates its 10th year of hard work, having transformed the spacious but bare rooms into beautiful exhibition spaces and established a close relationship with the surrounding community.
On this occasion, Granma International interviewed Teresita Hernández, director of the Casa since the beginning.Lets begin with the architectural value of the building.
This building has great architectural value, keeping in mind that original elements are mixed with changes made over subsequent centuries and that this building has always served a domestic purpose.

From the beginning it has been a house, a dwelling, with special characteristics, since all those who lived here over the course of many years were linked to the religious life of the city. We can cite surnames of families from Havanas aristocracy - Castellón, Hermosilla, Luque. The house was called a capellanía and the rent was turned over to the church. In the 19th century the house was known as el conventillo, perhaps because its shape - rectangular, narrow, with many doors - was reminiscent of a convent.

Among the original architectural elements that we can admire are the neoclassical façade crowned with magnificent geometric graphics along the top, the portico with its double arch and some remnants of the mezzanine, an intermediate floor commonly used in the 19th century. We have found evidence of murals painted al fresco, which are being restored. A variety of decorations fashionable during that era have been found, from angels to geometric motifs and oval shaped boxes and medallions.

Finally, the original roofs made of hardwood (alfarje) are also of great importance.

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, space within the house began to be used for different purposes. We have evidence of commercial activity, of some associations and, little by little, with renting to families it was transformed into an apartment complex which is what we found in the 90s when we began our restoration.

What became of the families?

As I said, it was an apartment house, even the numbering on each of the apartments remained, each door led to an apartment with its own subdivisions and barbacoas, improvised loft areas. The residents were moved to other places so that the house could be preserved as a museum.

The policy of the historic quarter is, first of all, to survey the families, in order to gather basic statistical information and, among other things, to determine if they wish to remain in the area. Depending on their preference, they return to the area, to another building or are moved to other municipalities. Temporary housing is provided until the families are permanently relocated.

What is your relationship with the community?

We maintain a close relationship with the community. We pay special attention to the elderly and children through our museum classes.

We work with one grade level for three months and then move on to another grade. The students receive their regular daily assignments but linked to the Casa, to their heritage, which they are taught to love and care for. By visiting various Casas they develop a broad cultural understanding of the region represented. Activities are presented as appropriate for each grade. A beautiful and positive experience in the historic quarter, begun years ago, with magnificent results. The children are very motivated, they attend study groups based on their interests, participate in contests. We take them to concerts.

We also have a language lab, donated by the Japanese government. Almost since the beginning, we have offered a Japanese language class, an elementary, basic course and for a few years now, we offer Farsi, the language of Iran.

Also very important to our community relationship is the specialized library with titles covering art, history, politics and economics. Given that the culture is so broad, we include many, many artists. You can find books about the culinary tradition, so rich in these countries. We treasure books categorized as "rare" for their antiquity and uniqueness, among which are those printed on plant fiber.

Generally, the community program includes many cultural activities, such as exhibitions, conferences, events, courses, workshops, spectacles, all devoted to the promotion of appreciation of the diversity and richness of an ancient culture, the Asian, our main objective.

The idea for a Casa de Asia?

The idea of a Casa de Asia came in the late 80s, especially in the mind of Dr. Eusebio Leal, City Historian, who came to love the pieces (of Asian art) in the City Museum, the epicenter of all cultural work in the city. It should not be forgotten that Asian culture, especially Chinese, is deeply rooted within our culture and the development of our national identity. One of the fundamental goals of the Casa is the promotion of knowledge about the culture of these countries.

Lets talk about the collections.

The first were donations by many people who, as descendents or admirers of Asian culture, owned very valuable pieces. Now we have 10 collections, much enriched over the years. I need to especially mention President Fidel Castros collection which he donated so that it might be enjoyed by the Cuban people. The collection contains gifts he received on his many visits abroad and, although they are from the 20th century, all are of magnificent quality, made using ancient techniques with precious materials.

Later we received more support from others who donated pieces they owned. It should be noted that, beginning in the 19th century, the Cuban people developed an aesthetic appreciation of Asian culture. From the 17th to the 19th century trade was promoted and maintained between that part of the world and Havana since the Manila fleet from the former Spanish colony in the Philippines was required to pass through the port. This taste for Asian culture also arrived in Europe and moneyed families in Cuba began to import furniture, porcelain, paintings and brocades with which to decorate their palaces. To this we add the Asian immigration that came later, the Chinese and Japanese.

We also have contacts with institutions and governments who facilitate our acquisition of pieces and collections, both permanently and on a temporary basis.

If I had to summarize, I would say that a visitor can admire here everything from marble carvings inlaid with precious stones to works of silver, gold and bronze, porcelain, ancient weapons and traditional clothing, including a sumptuous ceremonial kimono.

How have you organized the tours?

We have more than 1,000 museum pieces, all displayed in our halls which are, fortunately, spacious. On the first floor are two halls reserved for traveling exhibitions and above are our permanent collections. This last year we opened a new hall devoted to China, in an adjacent building which, as you will see, can be reached through an interior patio.

The countries best represented are China, Japan and India, though we have items from all of Asia - Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Korea, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Mongolia, Iran, just to mention a few.

We have exceptional pieces, exceptional given the craftsmanship, the source of the donation, the materials used or the artistic value. The Casa owns, for example, five small Japanese marble figurines from the 19th century, which represent popular personalities.

Of equally great value, we have in the Fidel Castro Collection a representation of the Hindi god Shiva dancing - a bronze piece made using the ancient technique of lost wax casting.

The furniture displayed dates from the 19th century, one set produced in China, another in Japan, are exquisitely carved. The Chinese set was made for European taste during the "boom" of all things Chinese. These are items of furniture produced in China for export but the techniques, the decoration, with pearl inlay and mother-of-pearl in the wood, is absolutely Asian.

Looking back over 10 years?

These have been 10 very fruitful years. The Casa was inaugurated June 24, 1997 as a completely open, undeveloped, civic project. We undertook the development of the presentation, the museology, that best fit the pieces we received from the City Museum. After 10 years we have a new location, new pieces, new written material - labor that has brought us prestige and benefit.

The Casa de Asia, where, in Havana, East meets West.

Source: By Mireya Castañeda, Granma Internacional

Related News