How Can a Cuban Get into Hong Kong?

A magician and his friends, all Cubans, show me that goodness is at home anywhere. And it’s not a trick.

By Isidro Estrada (in Beijing)

An ancient sampan sails into Hong Kong Bay.

HAVANA TIMES – Be warned: A camel will pass though the eye of the needle before a Cuban is allowed to enter the Special Administrative Región (SAR) of  Hong Kong (a phrase that ought to be written in gold letters on the wall of the Hong Kong Immigration Office in Beijing)

Hong Kong is a place forbidden to Cubans, off-limits, as they say in English. We’re simply not welcome because the authorities are convinced that every foot-loose and fancy free Cuban in the world is determined to seek asylum on that tiny piece of land.

Anyone attempting to travel to the region with a Cuban passport, needs to be psychologically prepared to undergo grueling interrogation sessions in which you will be asked to document your life’s story, in addition to committing yourself to getting out of there with the haste of a long distance runner, show you have a healthy balance in the bank and that you’ll reside in a hotel for the duration of your stay.

I was about to cancel the trip and opt instead for Mongolia or Malaysia, which doesn’t ask us for a visa but my Chinese employers in Beijing insisted I travel to HK, because Chinese law says that in order to apply for work visas, foreigners, even those have lived a long time in China, have to leave the mainland and come back.

They also added that HK is “part of China (ha, ha, ha, a great Chinese joke!)” And “mei banfai” (hard luck, in Chinese).

Consequently, putting a brave face on things I faced down my “tormentors” who ultimately – probably out of sheer exasperation after six trips to their offices – allowed their arm to be twisted and let me enter their very peculiar version of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Okra out of the hat

On the upside, however, I can argue that the bitter hours of fighting with the little office of yore, were erased when I landed in the former British colony and was welcomed by four compatriots previously unknown to me.

David Chala (percussionist for Cirque du Soleil and Jose the magician.

Although I had exchanged emails with magician José Antonio, the welcome  he and his friends gave me came none the less as a surprise. And there they were waiting for me: Jose Antonio Almenares (native of Santiago de Cuba), with his wife Jennifer, his beautiful daughter, Sophia, and her Philippine maid, his assistant in the world of magic, Duliet Malpica from Camagüey, with her Chinese husband Alvin and their two young children, and the philosopher and researcher Eduardo Freyre Roach (from Havana, married to a Hong Kong woman) a highly knowledgeable man in his own right.

Next day I met up with David Chala, a musician from Matanzas you’d give your right arm for. And on the table, the leg of the “macho” roast, the congrí, salad and the best trick of the magician: slippery okra! As if it had been pulled out of the magician’s hat by pure magic.

All my new friends have settled in the Territory after residing in other countries, particularly Canada. They also found it difficult to get into HK but once settled here, life has smiled on them and they all agreed that this city offers opportunities in life comparable to Europe.

For my part, I owe a very special debt of gratitude to José Antonio and family. The only Cuban magician I know in China and its surrounds who worked the everyday magic of making me feel at home in a distant land.

With a wave of his magic wand he untangled the knots of my fatigue, frustration and impatience. And ended up pulling out of his top hat by its ears, a sincere friendship that I hope will last much longer than the current impediments for Cubans to visit the southern rock.

Hong Kong takes on a different life after 10:00 at night.


The first sign I was in Hong Kong came from a tap. Even before leaving the airport I was surprised to see people drinking directly from a tap fixed to the wall, something unthinkable in Beijing, where tap water may contain anything from amoebas, dancing aserejé up to waste effluent from the Chernobyl nuclear central.

Then I noticed that the balance on my bank account had grown since with the current exchange rate between the HK dollar and the RMB, the second is imposed by knockout, and what you bring from Beijing multiplies automatically.

However, this joy is short-lived for a poor man, because as soon as you take the HK metro, travel by taxi or a modest urban bus you find out that taking a trip round the city for the price of two humble yuan (about US $ 0.30) is only possible on the mainland.

My wife often says by way of consolation that the 20 percent the Chinese state deducted monthly from my official salary (and from any work I did for other state organizations), goes to the coffers of the increasingly efficient public transportation system we have in Beijing. (But be warned, judging by the prices, the Hong Kong bus driver appears to charge you the tax directly).

The third sign that you’re in China but not in China,is you have to get rid of your protective clothing right away. HK is subtropical, in theory, but a heatwave like in Havana can hit you even in November, and to emphasize its geographical similarity it has rows and rows of royal palms in its crowded streets, something quite unheard of central and northern China.

Finally, once you leave the airport terminal, a very different scent from that of Beijing explodes in your face. How to describe it? Well, it’s something like the whiff given off by the eating places concentrated in the Carlos III Mall in Havana. Remember it? Well that’s what the enclave smells like. At the first sniff anyway.

As I said already, Hong Kong is China but then again it isn’t. And if the Hong Kong Immigration gets terrified by Cubans, Hong Kong people are frightened even more by their own countrymen across the border, as Henry Cheng, a former journalist turned magician (yes, another magician!) explains forecasting that the eventual wave of mainland Chinese arrivals will ruin the enclave’s buoyant economy, currently enjoying unparalleled growth, the highest in the world.”

That must be why it has limited the number of mainland women giving birth in HK hospitals, which would eventually allow them to enter the SAR as if they owned the place, as the mothers of a Chinese citizen born there.

Henry seems to overlook the fact, however, that China more than once has provided a pipeline of money and other resources to flow unrestricted into HK, as happened in 1997 at the time of the Asian financial crisis, as well as from 2008 when the global financial crisis erupted.

Roasted pork, rice and beans, okra in Hong Kong. From left to right: Alvin, Duliet, Isidro, Eduardo, José and Jennifer.

Beijing has the main interest in ensuring its capitalist window display to the south continues to flash its attractions, oblivious to the ups and downs of life north of the little territory.

No wonder Hong Kong people permit themselves luxuries their compatriots don’t have. I’m not referring to the world of shoddy goods and worldly pleasures, but to prerogatives of a more transcendental nature.

Like running into the Falun Gong sect (banned in China) on every corner and heaping abuse on the Communist Party – even demanding the prosecution of its leaders in international courts – which they do at every hour of the day without being bothered by anyone.

It works to the benefit of China. A lesson in flexibility and pragmatism, thanks to the grand ideas of little Deng Xiaoping, who made it clear to Margaret Thatcher in the 80s, when he assured here that even horse racing would be kept alive in Hong Kong for a long-time. But that was before they had the Falun.

Another feature that kept me aware I had strayed from Dongbei (Northeast China) was the massive presence of buildings in the Lingnan architectural style, better known in southern China as Tong Lau.

But one thing I realized is that the roots of the Chinese in Cuba owe nothing to the Beijing culture or that of northern China in general. The origins of our Chinatown can be traced from Canton downwards in an arc of cities formed by the territories of HK and Macao, and the provinces of Guangzhou (Canton) and Hainan.

Guarapo juice seller Hong Kong style.

That is the architectural style and the style of life promoted in Cuba by hundreds of thousands of Chinese coming over for more than a century.

Paradise for pick-ups

If scoring women tends to be a problem in northern China, because of the bigotry and prejudice baked in the oven of Maoist and Confucian concepts, the opposite happens in HK.

David Chala, an outstanding percussionist from Cuba, chosen by the Cirque du Soleil for its Fire Dance, says it is largely due to the continuous arrival of women from Indonesia and the Philippines, who usually come to work as domestics, alone and for long periods of time. So, on weekends it is common to see them grouped together on busiest corners of the city, ready to melt at the first compliment.

Neither this open-mindedness nor Hong Kong’s prodigious late night life, hot in every sense of the word, have gone unnoticed by many Latin American women who has chosen to boost the female migration flow.

The only difference being that unlike the daughters of Manila and Jakarta, they disembark with a potentially more profitable purpose in mind: working the street at rates ranging from 600 to 1,200 Hong Kong dollars (US $ 78-155) a time.

“I’m in HK because of Chavez,” says Gladys from Venezuela whom I just met in a downtown bar to which my hosts brought me. She insists on accusing the president for her professional misfortune, blaming him because she can’t find employment in her home country.

Which is why she’s in a foreign country seeking sustenance in the world’s oldest profession. Despite what she says I don’t quite see the connection (maybe the vodkas my friends are plying me with are dulling my wits).

Especially since a Dominican and six Colombians come in after Gladys. All of them say they’re here “because things are very difficult there” and they have families to support. Curiously, they don’t blame Danilo Medina, or Juan Manuel Santos, for their misfortunes. So? Either I have misunderstood or politics and vodka don’t make a good cocktail.

I go outside to take the morning air looking for an ATM – it’s time to pay my round of drinks – and bump into a stunning Hong Kong girl. “Hello” – she says obsequiously. “My name is Yvonne and I can cure your loneliness. I am a real, true woman.”

I didn’t understand the declaration. From head to toes she’s all woman. She must have thought I was passing through and don’t quite get her drift because she leads me to the corner and points to a group of “ladies”, a few meters away.

The new generation of Chinese-Cubans.

“Beautiful”, I think. “They’re transvestites,” Yvonne explains. Again, I think the vodka is numbing my senses. If she didn’t tell me I wouldn’t realize it. How the world has changed. Or I haven’t been able to change with it.

I gracefully take my leave of Ivonne and walking back to the bar where my friends are waiting, a melody stops me. In the bar opposite, a Filipino band, with extraordinary sense of pitch and “cover”, is performing “Stairways to Heaven” – the 70s classic of Led Zeppelin.

I sit there, feeling quite bewildered. After a while I ask them to play “Blue Bayou” for me and the friendly Filipinos oblige. And take me back to the years when Roy Orbison and later Linda Rondstadt were stars on the radio waves.

An hour later, Jose the magician – who has given me up for lost – finds me nailed to a bench, singing along with the band “Play that funky music, white boy” a Corona Mexican beer in hand – no doubt about it, vodka does your head in – offering up a toast to times when there was no Reggaeton and women were … women.

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