By Charmaine Au-Yeung
‘I didn’t know there were Chinese people in Cuba!’ is the common reaction I received from my peers at St Andrews when I explained my research to them. The only person who wasn’t surprised was a Puerto Rican friend of mine, who said that her family had all sorts of ancestry, including an Asian great-grandparent somewhere, and that most people had a genealogy like hers. In fairness to my friends in St Andrews, I had been in their shoes before; I first learned about Chinese-Cubans through a YouTube video on their cuisine. That led me to JSTOR, then to the friendly people at Nottingham’s Hennessy archives, then to reading primary sources in Spanish and Chinese. I found myself writing a dissertation on the political activities of Chinese-Cubans in Cuba in the twentieth-century.
‘Chinese-Cubans,’ as noted by Kathleen López in Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History, refers to Chinese emigrants to Cuba, ethnic Chinese born in Cuba, and mixed-race Chinese-Cubans. Their presence in Cuba is reflective of a wider Asian presence in South America and the Caribbean. After the abolition of slavery in the British empire in 1833, and the fear that the Haitian Revolution would inspire other uprisings, colonial administrators turned to Chinese and Indian people as an alternative labour force, turning them into indentured labourers, or ‘coolies.’ Though technically paid, indentured labourers earned little, were often unable to leave their host countries at the end of their contracts, and the system they were in is now seen as “a modified form of slave trade”. Specifically, for the Chinese, political instability caused by the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), Michael Gonzales writes, left millions as refugees and even more vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of Chinese warlords, local labour contractors, and British and Portuguese merchants. In The Coolie Speaks, Lisa Yun estimates that roughly a quarter-million Chinese were labourers in Cuba and Peru.
Methodological nationalism in history has traditionally overlooked the role diasporas and emigrants have played in the shaping of the past. Methodologically nationalist histories reaffirm the doctrine that nations are, in the words of Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller, the “natural social and political form of society.” Diasporas therefore “appear as spots on the pure colours of the national fabric” as they are perceived as “outside” national borders, which leaves them ignored. This traditional view is incorrect and problematic. The idea that diasporas are “outside” nations implies that they cannot and do not impact the very shape of the nations they move to. It also implies wrongly that diasporas are imagined as inherently separate from the nation and so they exist in a separate bubble from everyone else. With the recent surge of interest in transnational history, historians have started to take diasporas seriously. In the last decade, transnational history “has opened up broader analytical possibilities for understanding the complex linkages, networks, and actors in the global South,” writes Isabel Hofmeyr. This, in turn, has encouraged more scholars to look past traditional understandings of nationalism and to consider the role diasporas have played in shaping nation-states, moulding the broader structures of the nations they encounter with their own experiences and perceptions of the world.
I ask how Chinese-Cuban experiences with indenture and political instability influenced their understanding of Cuban revolutionary nationalism. “Revolutionary nationalism”, Jennifer Riggan writes, describes the process of nation-building that involves structural overhaul and “a continuous struggle for identifying self-determination and national identity.” Although Riggan’s work is centred on Eritrea, her definition of revolutionary nationalism is applicable to Cuba. After the Wars of Independence (1868-78, 1879-80, 1895-98), questions about the nature of Cuban nationalism permeated political discourse there in the twentieth century. Although Cubans had gotten rid of Spanish colonialism, revolutionaries regarded this freedom as being “in name only” as they had fallen under American influence. The United States instituted the Platt Amendment (1901), intervening in Cuban affairs to maintain “a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty” and ensure its leaders were sympathetic to the US. This included Fulgencio Batista, who repressed all opposition to his American-backed leadership, including the Partido Comunista de Cuba, which led Fidel Castro and Che Guevara to instigate the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959). But even after the Revolution, discussions about national identity persisted. As Castro attempted to subsume everyone under one Cuban identity, Chinese-Cubans were prevented from performing Chinese culture in public, and Chinese dimensions of Cuban history were ignored. Therefore, Cuba is still undergoing revolutionary nationalism as it continues to struggle to identify self-determination and national identity.
Only recently have Cuban authorities started encouraging people to explore their ethnic origins. Within this project, Chinese-Cubans have been hungry to demonstrate their participation in Cuban nation-building by writing memoirs and historiography, like The Chinese in Cuba and Our History Is Still Being Written. These works are keen to emphasise how Gonzalo de Quesada, a revolutionary and contemporary to José Martí—‘father’ of the Cuban nation— regarded Chinese-Cubans as fiercely loyal to independence. Quoting de Quesada, they proclaim that ‘there was not one Chinese-Cuban deserter; there was not one Chinese-Cuba traitor!’ The works discuss how Chinese-Cubans also participated in the Revolution. The authors of Our History, Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui, and Moisés Sío Wong, were all generals deeply involved in the struggle led by Castro and Che Guevara. Considering these perspectives at face-value, the message to take is that Chinese-Cubans were seriously engaged with Cuba.
But while I was reading these works, I noticed that they were, to borrow a phrase from Joan Scott, ‘adding and stirring’ Chinese-Cubans into a prevailing Cuban narrative. The sources are methodologically nationalist because they are overtly-patriotic, painting Cuba as genuinely egalitarian and culturally free of external influence. Their reasons for doing this are clear; Choy, Chui, and Sío Wong all served in the Cuban government after the war. But by perpetuating and buying into an imagined Cuba that is geographically limited, sovereign, and defined by a deep, horizontal comradeship, we ignore influences from elsewhere that have permeated and contributed to the imagination of Cuba. The revolution, for instance, was a Communist uprising. The original Wars of Independence were a response to a global movement against slavery. Chinese-Cubans continued to have links to China despite their engagement in Cuban politics, which López demonstrates by tracing their remittances, investments, and return visits to China well into the twentieth century. Cuba was, and is, global.
This led me to analyse the history of Chinese-Cubans through the lens of global intellectual history, which examines the movement and adoption of global ideas. I suspected that Chinese political thought informed Chinese-Cuban understandings of Cuban nationalism. China underwent political upheaval at a similar time to Cuba across the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, experiencing events like the Taiping Rebellion, the Xinhai Rebellion (1911) that overthrew the Qing dynasty, the rise of the Kuomintang, and the success of the Chinese Communist Party in the Civil War (1945-1949). It felt plausible that Chinese-Cubans believed events in China ‘spoke to’ events in Cuba and could use their experience in China to translate revolutionary knowledge between cultures. In Tokens of Exchange, Roger Hart notes that historiographies that aim to translate between cultures tend to reach “dramatic conclusions about the fundamental differences” between people instead of analysing complicated divisions along class, schools of thought, and how these influence the way people think and translate.
Hart’s idea of understanding specific differences and contexts that inform translation led me to understand Chinese-Cubans as having ‘privileged access’, a term I borrow from epistemology. It refers to the fact that actors who translate might see themselves as unique in their ability to do so. This sense of ‘having privileged access’ was an idea implicitly communicated by one specific Chinese-Cuban, Antonio Chuffat Latour (1860 – ?), in his work Apunte Histórico, a history of the Chinese in Cuba published in 1927. A second-generation, Afro-Chinese Cuban, Chuffat’s story is interesting as he “positioned himself as someone who could travel and ‘translate’ between Chinese and Cubans because of his Afro-Asian heritage.” In his life, he had as many jobs as people do outfits. He was a translator for the Chinese embassy in Habana, a sanitary inspector for the town of Jubilado, and even proclaimed himself ‘President of the coloured race for the district of Colon y Yaguaramas.’ Overall, these self-perceptions demonstrate that Chuffat viewed himself as a fluid figure: a leader and spokesperson for both Chinese and Cuban interests due to his ability to manoeuvre within both cultures, making Apunte Histórico a source that provides “a rich, compelling view of the coolie and cultural identity”, as Lisa Yun argues.
However, Chuffat’s work also argues that Chinese-Cubans like him have privileged access. In one instance, Chuffat claims that the Chinese-Cuban captain, Juan Sánchez (Lam Fu Kin)], “knew the war” when he fought in the first War of Independence. His use of ‘knew’ indicates a more profound dimension to his work that has been underappreciated. This is apparent when Chuffat states that “Liberty lives eternally in the Cuban’s thought … Liberty [also] appears in the Orient … like golden rays that extended to the Occident, teaching the Cuban the route.” The passage implies an unequal relationship of epistemic exchange in producing and circulating meanings across mental worlds. ‘Liberty’ is a concept that ‘shines’ onto the West from the East, so Chinese-Cubans, who have links to both East and West, have a special purchase to understand, access, and thus teach Cubans. This idea, of Chinese-Cubans accessing and teaching revolutionary values to Cubans, appears elsewhere in Apunte Histórico. In another chapter, Chuffat states that indentured Chinese “knew to teach the love [of brotherhood] to Cubans,” which would in turn help “construct” a “new political condition for Cuba.” Overall, Chuffat’s work demonstrates that the ‘worth’ of concepts fluctuates when particular actors engage with them; Chinese-Cubans gained power by ‘knowing’ Taiping. Apunte Histórico depicts Chinese-Cubans as having a unique understanding of revolutionary nationalism, which in turn helps them justify their claim to Cuban identity and participation in Cuban nationalism.
It’s clear from Chuffat’s work that emigrants foster intellectual connections between homeland, hostland, and other spaces by translating between competing schools of thought. A global intellectual history of the Chinese-Cubans reveals a nuanced relationship between diasporas and revolutionary nationalism. Further work on diasporas in intellectual history – and links between China and South America – must be done, particularly histories that examine historical actors ‘from below.’ Although interesting, Chuffat occupied a unique position as ‘President,’ so saying that all Chinese-Cubans thought like him isn’t true. Nevertheless, I hope my work is a step in the right direction towards a history that examines intellectual exchanges between South America and China.
Charmaine Au-Yeung graduated from the University of St Andrews with an MA in Modern History and Philosophy. She will be starting her MPhil in World History at the University of Cambridge in October. She is currently interested in studying Asian migrants in South America through the lens of food.
Featured Image: A mural, likely outside a martial arts (wushu) centre in Havana, commemorating the Cuban thinker, José Martí, health, life, and the Cuban Communist Revolution, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.