Chinese Cuba

An estimated 140,000 Chinese were indentured to Cuba from 1847…

With the rapid pace of the sugar industry showing no abatement in the early years of the nineteenth century, the demand for unfree labor in Cuba far outstripped its supply. Alongside the waning of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, Spanish-owned plantations looked east for workers. Coinciding with the opium wars that Britain impinged on the country, China’s ports were forced open and ushered in a phase of international brokered indenture for the first time in its long history. As a result, a steady stream of young male workers embarked on ex-slaving vessels from Guangdong’s five ports leaving with the intent of working abroad for five to eight years and returning home with wealth and pride.

My research concerns Asian and African ethnic groups and religious mixing in Cuba. On the island, thousands of predominantly Cantonese men and Afro-Cuban women met and formed consensual relationships during the aftermath of the trade in enslaved African people when the indentured system that had been established in the nineteenth century was created in response to sugar production.

Chinese indentured migration to Cuba started in 1847, nearly four decades prior to the official abolition of African enslavement on the island. The first indentured workers from China disembarked at the port of Regla from the ship Oquendo, one of the Cuban-owned vessels that had been frequently used in the Middle Passage.

Between 1847 and 1874 an estimated 140,000 men signed up from the Chinese coastal provinces of Xiamen (then called Amoy) and Guangdong. They were largely white-collar artisans, entrepreneurs, and traders in their twenties with little prior experience to plantation working conditions. They were bold, sure of who they were, with a strong, unified cultural identity yet blithely unaware of the harsh living and working conditions they would go on to endure in Cuba.

La charada china

Brokered by Chinese and Spanish middlemen, many Chinese workers signed contracts before boarding for Cuba, bolstered by romanticized accounts of life and opportunity in the Antilles. Reality fell far short of these tall dreams. Upon arrival, the Chinese, by way of the contract, were sold to the hacendados, or plantation owners, who gathered at Havana’s ports to bid on new batches of “coolies.” Cuba’s newspapers announced the arrival of new human cargo on a weekly basis, and the Chinese could be sold or exchanged between plantations according to supply and demand by way of their contracts. They were not free to break their contracts or leave the plantation.

The Chinese were contractually obliged to work for an initial period of eight years, at which point it was the owners’ right to impose a further contractual period of work to stave off shortages in labor. With plantations located in rural areas across the island, Cuban law enforced the indentured system and from wages earned, Chinese were expected to pay for lodging, clothing, and food. To not do so was considered treasonous and could be a punishable offense. The only way a Chinese contracted laborer could avoid recontracting was to pay for their own passage back to China, something that was virtually impossible given the unfair wage-board and lodging system the Chinese were subjected to.

El barrio chino de la habana

As a result of being unable to readily return to China, many Chinese settled indefinitely in Cuba and the Caribbean as a whole. Chinese workers colored the island’s sugar industry with rebellion and resistance, from plantation escapees to sabotage and violence against overseers. Additionally, to ‘save face,’ many Chinese chose to take their own lives by suicide rather than live indignantly, earning Cuba the highest rate of death by suicide in the 1850s.

Living in the same barracks and working alongside freed and enslaved people of African descent, the Chinese formed social and consensual relations with women of color. Not only did African and Chinese workers share the same living and social spaces, they also were viewed under law and civic action as one and the same; both groups faced discrimination during colonial and modern periods of Cuba’s history. This amalgam of Chinese and African people and cultures led to the sharing and blending of religious beliefs and practices that have not been adequately described in existing research.

I quickly realized through conducting fieldwork in Cuba that the idea of syncretism, and its place in the broader anthropology of religion, had to be revised. Existing work describes syncretism as being the result of the meeting of two complete, stable, uncontested and coherent wholes, within a specific frame. My work moves beyond syncretism, which, when pared down to its simplest definition, does not offer much insight into how this blending of religions develops or changes over time. I work to understand the process rather than the product.

Afro-Cuban religions are often framed as a straightforward and finalized connection between Afro-Cuban deities called orishas, which originate with the Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria, and Catholic saints. Each orisha was paired with a Catholic saint or virgin so that worship of the deities could clandestinely be carried out under colonial rule.

However, this is only part of the story. The influence of Chinese persons in Cuba has translated into Afro-Cuban religion incorporating Chinese deities, philosophies and material culture. My work is the first of its kind to investigate these relationships in depth. Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian elements are found in the Lukumi religion, also called Santeria or La Regla de Ocha.

For example, the Lukumi orisha of thunder and justice, Shangó, is popularly syncretized with Saint Barbara. However, Shangó is also syncretized with Chinese deity Guan Gong, a warlord known in Cuba as San Fan Con. It is possible to find imagery of San Fan Con in connection to Shangó, just as one can find Saint Barbara connected with that same orisha.

My research helps to reconfigure existing theories of mixing in Afro-Caribbean religions and, by examining the influence of Chinese religions and persons, we are able to better understand the unique fusion of spirituality, pluralism and ethnic groups in Cuba. I’ve labeled this new idea of religious mixing as interdiasporic cross-fertilization, in other words, how different diasporas can coalesce into something new and unique. My work also helps in unbinding religion to region, taking into account past and modern migrations of people and exploring the dynamics of religious heterogeneity.

To me, these expressions of Afro-Chinese religiosity challenge accepted history and directly impact ideas of sociocultural movement, identity-making, and cross-cultural dialogue, processes that are fluid and ongoing. This lens helps shed new light on the interconnectedness of symbol, practice, and meaning, and that may in turn be applied to other areas of religious and cultural anthropology across the globe.

Private altar for the five Shaolin monks who are credited as founding the “secret society” Min Chih Tang (MCT)

Chinese associations and secret societies in Cuba have deep sociocultural and religious roots back to eighteenth century China

Havana’s Chinatown—El Barrio Chino de la Habana—is the oldest Chinatown in the Caribbean and is a major tourist draw. It spans approximately 45 square blocks of living quarters, economic ventures, Chinese associations, and plenty of restaurants serving both traditional Chinese food and comida criolla, Cuban creole cuisine.

I’ve studied the influence of Chinese culture in Cuban society, including the evolution of Chinese neighborhoods and social organizations in Havana and across the island since the arrival of the first Chinese indentured servants in the mid-nineteenth century.

Havana’s Chinatown has many Chinese mutual aid associations, or huiguans. Initially, huiguans were established to provide social welfare assistance to Chinese bachelors in Cuba. In the decades following the 1847 arrival of the first Chinese indentured servants, the immigrants were quickly plugged into Cuban society through their affiliation with one or more of these associations, which provided orientation, bureaucratic and legal aid, translation services, help with letter writing, temporary lodging, credit and mutual aid, and emergency funds. Since their inception, the associations have been sources of historical narratives and genealogies, and sites of Chinese community activity, recreation and education, promoting cultural and festive celebrations of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Over the decades the associations evolved. Newspapers ran sensationalist reports of El Barrio Chino and singled out the associations for suspected links with the black market, Chinese politics, gang warfare, gambling, opium and prostitution. These reports heightened public suspicion of the Chinese as clannish and impenetrable, and greatly furthered sinophobia, culminating in a nationwide closure of Chinese associations around 1967.

For 25 years the associations were forced underground to avoid public scrutiny. They’ve since re-emerged as government-licensed organizations with stated goals of public assistance and education. Though suffering from being misunderstood, these associations are deemed lifelines for the elderly Chinese community in Cuba today.

Between 1900 and 1929 there were 35 state-registered Chinese associations in Havana. Today there are 13 associations operating in Havana’s Chinatown, with some of these organizations having regional branches in provinces throughout the island.

One association is Havana’s National Association Chee Kung Tong, which is commonly referred to as Min Chih Tang (MCT). The Havana lodge—or logia, as members refer to their organization—has a restaurant with residences and a shrine room located above, where ceremonies and celebrations take place. Society members pay 12 Cuban pesos (approximately 50 US cents) for annual membership and they receive breakfast and lunch every day of the year. In the great hall, with its mural of the Great Wall of China, members can watch Chinese language movies and read newspapers and books or socialize.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, associations such as these boasted membership in the tens of thousands. The MCT currently has about 200 elderly members, men and women, and mainly second and third generation Chinese-Cubans.

The group was founded in Cuba by Chinese immigrants in 1887, but its roots are in China wherein the early 1760s it operated as an underground fraternity whose motive was to overthrow Manchu rule (of the Qing Dynasty) and to fight for the reinstatement of the Ming Dynasty.

Brotherhoods such as the MCT, also called Hungmoon, thus became synonymous with secrecy and were established in China on the principles of loyalty and fraternity, operating covertly, and branching out from southern China to form a vast transnational network wherever large populations of Chinese immigrants (Huaqiao) are present overseas.

The Cuban MCT and its Chinese predecessor incorporate religious traditions and both are referred to as the Heaven and Earth Society, where Heaven is viewed as the father, Earth as the mother, and members are brothers and sisters. Heaven, earth, and humanity, or brethren, form the three most important and fundamental elements of the organization and these are echoed in its rituals, construction of altars, code of practice and iconography.

The MCT’s iconography, for example, incorporates symbols of European Freemasonry, especially the square and compass with the letter “G,” and this is often combined with Chinese-derived Hungmoon symbols such as triangles representing the trinity of heaven, earth, and humanity, as well as flags in five colors representing the five Shaolin monks who established the organization.

Visiting Havana’s Chinatown, one is most likely to see a shrine of Guan Gong, known in Cuba as San Fan Con. He is the deity MCT members most venerate, and initiations take place before his image.

A shrine of Guan Gong, known in Cuba as San Fan Con. Havana’s China town.

Recent research into Chinese secret societies has explored their connections to European and North American Freemasonry practices. Chinese Masonry and European Freemasonry are similar in form. They both require oath-taking by their members, have highly ceremonial and ritualized meetings, use specialized or secret language, have a strict hierarchical structure, and have legends and narratives that give the membership a rationale for existing.

The Min Chih Tang and the other twelve associations that are still operating in Cuba are accustomed to adapting to changing social and cultural spheres. Stepping into the world of the Min Chih Tang, or any of the other associations on the island today, helps us to understand the many parallel histories of Cuba’s immigrants over the centuries, many of which are not well known. What will become of this “secret society” in the future and the role it will play in Chinese-Cubans’ lives remains to be seen.


Read my scholarship on Chinese indenture and religious formations in Cuba.


Contact me to discuss events and talks about the Chinese in Cuba.


Click here for resources on the Chinese in Cuba.


Yo te espero
bajo los signos rotos
del cine cantonés
Yo te espero
en el humo amarillo
de una estirpe deshecha
Yo te espero
en la zanja donde navegan
ideogramas negros
que ya no dicen nada
Yo te espero a as puertas
de un
en un set de la Paramount
para una película que se fila a diario
Dejo que la lluvia cubra
con sus raíles de punta
mientras presiento tu llegada
En compañía de un coro de eunucos,
junto al violín de una sola cuerda
de Li Tai Po,
yo te espero
Pero no vengas
porque lo que yo quiero realmente
es esperarte

Miguel Barnet

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