At first glance, Havana’s Chinatown – one of the largest in Latin America in the 1950s – seems only to be made up of a handful of restaurants, with almost no Chinese people in sight. Before visiting, photographer Sean Alexander Geraghty read news stories that dubbed it “A Chinatown with no Chinese,” but when he went there, he discovered something different.
“Havana’s Chinese community is very much present and alive, but it is ageing,” says Geraghty, who has created a series of portraits of the city’s Chinese residents, many of them second or third generation. He found societies where ageing members would meet to play Mahjong, watch Chinese movies, and eat breakfast together. A large majority of the younger community have never been to China, but are dedicated to preserving the culture of their parents and grandparents, despite being so far away from it. “There is a strong will for the community to survive,” says Geraghty.
Chinese immigration to Cuba began in 1857, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers were sent to labour in sugar plantations, following the decline of the African slave trade. Though the Chinese labour trade was abolished in 1874, many of the workers, who were mostly men, chose to settle in Cuba, marrying Cuban women and giving birth to a new era of multiculturalism.
El Barrio Chino in Havana soon became one of the largest chinatowns in Latin America, where its growing number of residents opened shops, social clubs, and hosted cultural events, and founded a unique fusion of sino-carribean cuisine. But when the revolutionary government came into power in 1959, many Chinese shop owners had their properties seized, and fled the country.
Still, “The traces that Chinese culture left in Cuba are definitely there to stay,” says Geraghty, “There are many Chinese influences in Cuban cuisine, language, music and even religion”. The majority of people that Geraghty spoke to said they felt Cuban in identity, but as the sole gatekeepers of the multiculturalism that their ancestors built, many described a deep connection to this part of their heritage and history too.
“Citizenship is more of an administrative concept, it’s given to you,” says Geraghty, “but national identity is something built from memories, traditions, and feelings. Cuisine, festivals, art, music, literature or even small daily habits can keep this sense of belonging alive”.