Friday, October 26, 2007

Chinese in Cuba

Rough seas & revolutionary stories
Ann-Marie Stillion. Northwest Asian Weekly. Seattle, Wash.: Apr 21-Apr 27, 2007. Vol. 26, Iss. 17; pg. 8, 2 pgs


Photo by Ann-Marie Stillion

Speakers (from left) Dr. Anthony Chan, Freedom Allah Siyam, Martine Koppel and Bettie Luke listen to Dr. Moon-Ho Jung talk about the history of the slave trade in Cuba on April 10 at the UW.


Abstract (Summary)

Most people don't know that the Chinese in Cuba arrived as indentured servants, or economic slaves, beginning in the 1840s. When the Spanish began to run out of African slaves and slavery itself came under question, Spain - assisted by American traders - turned to China to find workers for the Americas. Generations later, their ancestors came to play a part in the Cuban revolution. One of the oldest Chinatowns in the Western hemisphere is said to be in Cuba. While Chinese can be found in every corner of the planet, it is only as Cubans that they have played such a large role in revolutionary social history beyond their ancestral land.

Dr. Anthony Chan, associate professor of communication and international studies at the UW and author of Perpetually Cool: The Mary Lives of Anna May Wong, discussed his roots as a Canadian and an American. He pointed out that one can stay in "Chinese Canada" and speak only Chinese. He founded it particularly interesting that all of the generals had Cuban mothers due to Chinese men not being allowed to immigrate with their wives. Chan also talked about the culture that was created as a result of Chinese bachelors. He wondered aloud if the Cuban generals would have been accepted if they were "pure Chinese."

Full Text (764 words)
Copyright Northwest Asian Weekly Apr 21-Apr 27, 2007

Most people don't know that the Chinese in Cuba arrived as indentured servants, or economic slaves, beginning in the 1840s. When the Spanish began to run out of African slaves and slavery itself came under question, Spain - assisted by American traders - turned to China to find workers for the Americas. Generations later, their ancestors came to play a part in the Cuban revolution. One of the oldest Chinatowns in the Western hemisphere is said to be in Cuba. While Chinese can be found in every corner of the planet, it is only as Cubans that they have played such a large role in revolutionary social history beyond their ancestral land.

These facts and many others were revealed in a fascinating evening of history and culture inspired by a new book published by Pathfinder. The book took four years to write and is part of a series on Cuban revolutionaries. Originally, the book was conceived as a story about the life of the Chinese Cuban Gen. Armando Choy, who is profiled in its pages.

Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution, edited by Mary-Alice Waters, documents the results of interviews with Choy, Gustavo Chui and Mois├ęs Sio Wong. These three men played pivotal roles in the 1956-58 war that led to the Cuban government we know today. Their stories as fighters and political leaders take readers on a journey through modern Cuba, helping readers understand how the Chinese got to the Americas in the 1800s, as well as some of the reasons why.

Last Tuesday night, a dynamic panel of observers from the socialist and labor movements, historians and one of the interviewers gathered at the University of Washington. Bettie Luke from the Organization of Chinese Americans moderated the panel. Luke pointed out that the book brings readers up to the minute on what is happening in Cuba today.

Last year, some of the individuals profiled in the book went on a book tour of eight cities, in Cuba. Since then, meetings like the one in Seattle, which drew a crowd of about 150, have happened in many countries. According to one observer, the principal interest for North American readers has been how the generals overcame racism in Cuba.

The book has been printed in both English and Spanish.

Martine Koppel, one of the panelists and an interviewer who traveled on the Cuban tour, said that the stories of the generals appeared to have struck a chord with many immigrant communities. On this evening, for example, audience members had driven from all parts of the state to attend the talk.

Delivering a speedy but thorough overview of slavery in Cuba, Dr. Moon-Ho Jung, associate professor of Asian American history at UW, emphasized the powerful demands of the sugar industry, which led to the enslavement of many Chinese. They signed contracts that lasted eight years and found themselves poor and stranded in countries that did not want them in the end, Jung said. As with the African slaves, many Chinese died on the long journeys across the ocean to work in the sugar plantations.

Another panelist, Freedom Allah Siyam, from Bayan-USA, spoke about modern-day struggles in the Philippines and how Filipinos can learn from the successes of the workers in Cuba.

Dr. Anthony Chan, associate professor of communication and international studies at the UW and author of Perpetually Cool: The Mary Lives of Anna May Wong, discussed his roots as a Canadian and an American. He pointed out that one can stay in "Chinese Canada" and speak only Chinese. He founded it particularly interesting that all of the generals had Cuban mothers due to Chinese men not being allowed to immigrate with their wives. Chan also talked about the culture that was created as a result of Chinese bachelors. He wondered aloud if the Cuban generals would have been accepted if they were "pure Chinese."

Our History Is Still Being Written takes a fresh look at history and culture through the unique perspective of three men in a country still off limits for most Americans. Examining these generals' lives and unique stories may help us understand our own immigrant journeys with greater strength and clarity.

[Sidebar]
Right: Panel moderator Bettie Luke, alongside posters depicting the Cuban revolution
Below: Speakers (from left) Dr. Anthony Chan, Freedom Allah Siyam, Martine Koppel and Bettie Luke listen to Dr. Moon-Ho Jung talk about the history of the slave trade in Cuba on April 10 at the UW.

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