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Chinatown: little-known part of Cuba is eager for a comeback

The tourists who come to Havana for cigars, mojitos and a dose of Latin American culture sometimes get a shock when they take a turn near the famous Partagas Cigar factory and find themselves standing beneath a huge arch that resembles the roof of a Chinese pagoda.

The arch is the entrance to Havana's famed Barrio Chino, or Chinatown, a once-thriving district that for decades hummed with life and added a colorful accent to the city's colonial architecture.

These days Havana's Chinatown is only a shadow of its former self, centering on a single street of brightly painted restaurants catering to tourists and the handful of new Chinese who have emigrated as trade relations between China and Cuba grow.

But ambitious restoration plans are afoot, and Cubans seem proud of the little-known part that Chinese immigrants played in the Caribbean island's past.

"I'm Cuban-Chinese," said Julio Wu, 34, a waiter at one of the district's restaurants. "There are only a few pure-blooded Chinese left, because the immigrants who came were mostly men. They had to marry Cuban women because there weren't many Chinese women. That's what my father did."

Part of red-light district
Chinese immigrants first came to Cuba in the middle 1800s, lured to the island to labor on railroads, construction projects and sugar plantations.

Eventually about 100,000 Chinese arrived in Cuba, most working at first in the rural provinces. Over the years they gravitated to Havana, where the Chinatown district became one of the hemisphere's largest, a 44-square-block neighborhood brimming with restaurants, shops, laundries and other businesses.

It also became known as part of Havana's famed red-light district, which in the 1940s and 1950s catered to partying Americans who flocked to Cuba to enjoy gambling and risque nightclub acts.

But Cuba's Chinese population dwindled after the 1959 Revolution. Many Chinese business owners left the island, moving to the United States or other Latin American capitals because they were unhappy with property confiscations and the new socialist government.

Chinatown fell into disrepair, and the number of pure-blooded Chinese Cubans dwindled to a few hundred.

Area's revival
A revival came a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of billions of dollars in subsidies in the early 1990s as Cuba turned to tourism to rescue its shaken economy. The arch leading into Chinatown was built and Chinese restaurants were encouraged to open as a tourist draw.

Street signs with dragons were hung from corners in the district, and there are plans for a museum highlighting the role of Chinese immigrants in Cuban history.

Dahlia Cuan, 72, came to Cuba as a girl in the 1940s with her father, who opened a general merchandise store in Santa Clara, about 100 miles east of Havana. Eventually the family moved to Havana, and Cuan worked as a manager for a Chinese-language newspaper.

"There are only a few hundred of us pure Chinese left," she said. "But there are thousands of mixed Cuban-Chinese, and they are in every part of society, as engineers, teachers, even military men. I'm glad they are restoring Chinatown because it is an important part of Cuba's history."

While some Cuban-Chinese seem nostalgic for the neighborhood's past, many are also optimistic about China's growing importance to Cuba. Chinese officials and businessmen make frequent visits to set up new trade deals, and a tiny number of new Chinese immigrants are making their way to Cuba.

"I came in 1995 after Fidel Castro visited China," said Tao Jin Rong, who owns Tien Tan, one of the district's thriving Chinese restaurants. "There was nothing here in the 1990s, so we're growing. The Cuban people are lovely. They are poor in pocket but rich in heart."

Source: By Myke Williams,

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