Havana’s New Chinese Merchants

Daisy Valera

Photo from Havana's Chinatown by Caridad.

One often hears it said that the Chinese were excellent merchants.

Many friends and acquaintances from several countries have told me that where they live there are always Chinese businesses where the products these sell are relatively inexpensive.

This information was consistent with what I had learned in my history classes; the Chinese have traveled to many places around the world and have established their businesses there.

In many countries there exist “Chinatowns,” and Cuba is no different.  What is called Chinatown in Havana is made up of several blocks where there are establishments that sell Chinese food (or poor imitations of it).

This district has somewhat of a Chinese character, reflected to some extent in the style of many of its buildings and in the names of several streets, such as “Dragons” and “Zanja.”

When I, who am from another province, first learned about this famous district, I couldn’t help but wonder where the Chinese were.

No matter how much I looked for them, they didn’t appear, despite my going by through that area almost weekly.

But the situation of not seeing any Chinese changed about three years ago.  Non-Cuban Chinese began walking through the streets of Old Havana.

They have come to the island by the thousands to study Spanish, and now we find them everywhere.

At first sight, the Chinese students appeared to be better off economically than a large part of Havana’s population judging by the quality of their clothes and the fact that they make purchases in “dollar stores” using hard currency CUCs (1 CUC is equal to 25 Cuban pesos).

But that was only a first impression, because with the passing of time I’ve been able to note that not all of the Asian students live under the same conditions of comfort and well-being.  There have appeared what I want to call Chinese merchant girls.  They walk through the streets in groups of two or three with backpacks and plastic bags in which they carry their merchandise.

People already identify them as vendors and call them over to see what they have to offer. From their bags these young women begin to take out detergent, soap, cookies and even Chinese balms.

With their cheerful faces, they go in and out of workplaces in which they try to hawk their products.

After finding out about this situation, I immediately recalled our official newspaper, Granma. With 60 years of the Chinese Revolution, the Cuban press has highlighted the fact that it, as a socialist country, it has been able to advance economically.

In our newspapers, the role of the PCCh (the Communist Party of China) is recognized as having led them to achieving a better situation for the Asian giant.

Nonetheless, there’s something I’m not able to understand: If China is the fourth largest world economy, why is it that this nation is unable to guarantee conditions for its students in Cuba that prevent some of them from having to become street peddlers?

The differences between the students could be an indicator of the differences that exist between classes in their country.

However, I might be mistaken and the young women with the oriental features who sell in the streets don’t do so out of need but are only following that old tradition of Chinese of being simple merchants?

4 thoughts on “Havana’s New Chinese Merchants

  • My wife and I were in Varadero this summer. We met 4 Chinese students staying at the same hotel. They told us that they came from Havana, and paid some 200 CUCs for two (or four?) nights each. Anyway, they told us that they came to Cuba to study and were sponsored by the Cuban government, under some kind of exchange student program. All they had to pay was the plane tickets to Cuba. They came from regular Chinese families. They can come because they chose coming to Cuba as their first choice on their university entrance exam application.
    My wife brought with her a small jar of Chinese Sichuan source with her (someone told us that the hotel food is a bit flat), and she gave it to one of the students who was from that province. She was very happy. She said the same source would cost about 45 CUCs among Chinese students. (It only costs us about a dollar in China town in Canada). So I guess these little Chinese students are merchants even among themselves.

    They told us that some of them will be going back to China because Cuban government is having some funding difficulties. And the students going back will attend the universities they picked as their second choice.

  • I would be careful not to rely too much on cultural stereotypes and mild forms of racism when analyzing why these students need to sell items in the street. They, like all people, are simply reacting to economic conditions more or less out of their control. I’ve had people tell me the same, while only visiting Cuba once or twice, that Cubans are “naturally” one way or the other…I’m not going to delve into the positive or negative stereotypes people have about Cubans living in Cuba. But, for all of the stereotypes people have about Cuba all of them can be explained by looking at the political and economic situations that force people to behave in a certain way.

    Yes. Why are these girls forced to sell soap in the street to survive. Why are Cubans also forced to do the same. I think its cool that these students became familiar enough with Cuban street culture to be able to pull this off. But your question is a good one. What country sponsors its children abroad only to leave them without enough money to live ?

  • If you want to see authentic Cuban-Chinese restaurants run by real Cuban-Chinese people you have to come to Manhattan where you can find them very well-thank-you-very-much feeding the masses of Hispanic and not-Hispanic as well. You can fin La Caridad on Broadway and 75th. Havana-Chelsea on 9th Ave. and 18th Street. just to mention two of the must popular. The reason why they are here? They don’t want more social experiments.

  • Excellent article, Daisy. Thank you.

    The true history of the triumph of the PCCh is worth recapping, because it relates to the situation of China today and of the current suggestions that Cuba follow the Chinese path out of the constipation of Soviet-model socialism.

    In the late 1930s when Japan invaded the coast of China, journalist Helen Foster Snow–wife of famous journalist Edgar Snow–was horrified that the Japanese were stripping the Chinese factories and sending them equipment to Japan, causing the collapse of the Chinese industrial economy. She had an idea that worker-owned industrial cooperatives should be set up to take this equipment west and resume industrial production. This would help the destitute people and also greatly assist the anti-Japanese war efforts (both the Nationalists and Mao’s forces.

    Helen’s New Zealander friend Rewi Alley organized several thousand of such cooperatives, and they were a tremendous success. In addition to supplies coming into China via the Burma Road, the so-called “Gung Ho” (also, Indusco) cooperatives supplied the people’s needs and also the patriotic war efforts.

    After WWII ended, the Gung Ho co-ops supplied Mao’s forces. They thus helped the Chinese Revolution to succeed against the Nationalists by 1949.

    After coming to power Mao abolished the worker-owned cooperatives and set about trying to build socialism according to the Marxist state-owns-everything formula.

    This is all relevant because it is worker-owned cooperatives that have succeeded in the Basque region of Spain, China 1938-1949, Farabidabad, India 1949-52, and in many other places.

    If the Cubans will learn the true history of worker cooperatives and their real potential for reform of Cuba’s sputtering Soviet model, the Revolution might be saved and the world might see a model of workable socialism. Cheers.

    PS: China has escaped from the constipation of the Marxian model, but it has not gone back to the entrepreneurial socialism of worker-owned cooperatives, as it ought to have done. Cuba hopefully will begin to experiment with Mondrogon-style cooperative corporations and show the Chinese and Vietnamese how real socialism can work.

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