“Cuban-Chinese” Is Not an Oxymoron
Shedding Light on a Little-Known Era of Cuban History
The term Cuban-Chinese is by no means an oxymoron, but my friend Antonio Wong (pictured above) certainly is. Born in Havana’s Barrio Chino in 1951, he has been working at La Caridad Restaurant in Manhattan’s Upper West Side since 1986. A living, breathing paradox, Antonio may look Chinese; but he speaks Spanish exactly like my abuelo — in addition to English and Cantonese. But how did Antonio and the Cuban-Chinese people come to be?
It is estimated that from the period of 1847–1874, nearly 150,000 Chinese contract laborers were brought to Cuba in an effort to supplement the dwindling institution of slavery. Essentially working as indentured servants, they were spread across Cuba to work on the numerous sugar plantations throughout the island.
Then, in the 1920's another approximately 30,000 Chinese immigrants made their way to the island. Just as Cuba’s neighbor to the north was experiencing the “Roaring Twenties,” the Pear of the Antilles was itself enjoying a very prosperous decade. The Chinese who immigrated to Cuba during this period did so under their own accord, and they settled mainly in Havana.
Consequently, Cuba’s capital developed the largest Chinatown in all of Latin America, and two very different cultures were woven together. Cuban-Chinese cuisine thus emerged as the contrast of Cuban and Chinese dishes served side-by-side on the same plate. What’s more, the inventor of la caja china, or “Chinese box,” that is so well-known in Miami, had the idea for his pork roasting box when he saw something similar while he was driving through Havana’s Barrio Chino in 1955.
After Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution, the chino-cubanos ultimately favored New York to Miami as the refuge of choice — breaking pattern with Cubans of Spanish descent. The exact reason for this is unknown, but one can speculate that it had something to do with the similarities between Havana and New York, inclusive of the fact that Manhattan already boasted a robust Chinatown of its own by that time.
What is known is that after the migration, Cuban-Chinese restaurants became a staple in the Big Apple. Opened in 1968, La Caridad restaurant has been serving New Yorkers for over a half century. Named after the La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the Catholic patron saint of Cuba, the restaurant is a historical enigma and one of the last authentic Cuban-Chinese eateries in the world — a relic of a nearly forgotten moment in time.
A comeback may be underway, however, as I recently spotted a trendy food truck near Madison Square Park serving Latin-Asian cuisine. Fittingly titled “Chicu NYC,” the establishment was run by two former marines-turned-chefs who wanted to resurrect the Cuban-Chinese cuisine they had grown up with in the city.
(1) Fun Fact: The Cuban flag was first sewn in New York’s Chinatown.
(2) Historical statistics are from the Cuban New Yorker blog.