In Havana's Chinatown, rare droplets of freedom

By Will Weissert
Associated Press Writer / July 12, 2010

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HAVANA—At Cuba's only privately run newspaper, it doesn't take much to stop the presses. It's a wonder they even get started.

The language of the four-page broadsheet Kwong Wah Po is Chinese, and its press is an antique, but some see its relative freedoms, and that of the island's tiny Chinese community in general, as a pointer to the way forward if the communist government ever opts for broader reforms.

The paper, whose name means "Shine China," appears a few times a year, and 77-year-old Guillermo Chiu is the only person in Cuba who knows how to set the type on the 110-year-old printing press.

A 300-word article can take him five hours to lay out.

"Soon this will be a museum," Chiu said, surveying the 6,000 tiny lead plates -- each with a single Chinese character -- which he places by hand. "The future won't be like this."

Perhaps, but there may be clues to the Cuba of tomorrow in the unique autonomy given the paper. Its articles, mostly translated from the state-run media, contain nothing that might upset Fidel Castro. But it is edited and produced independently, and that leeway reflects the small yet unprecedented freedoms the government has granted Cuba's Chinese community to help preserve its dwindling cultural heritage.

Should communist authorities ever embrace reform, the island's Chinese may hint at what's to come.

On one freewheeling street in Havana's Chinatown, privately run restaurants offer chow mein and mojitos, and Chinese exchange students belt out karaoke. Restaurateurs keep all profits and hire and fire at will. Besides its newspaper and eateries, the community also has its own exercise schools, social clubs and political associations.

All this is going on under a government that dominates nearly every facet of life, from what Cubans study at university to the food in their monthly rations. All other media is state-controlled.

"I think these kinds of initiatives hint at Cuba's near future -- a path of reform within the current state structure," said Kathleen Lopez, a Rutgers University professor who has written on Cuba's Chinese community.

Havana's Chinatown was once one of Latin America's largest, with a population topping 50,000 and made up mostly of men from Guangdong province who began arriving in 1847 to labor on sugar plantations. They formed a community outside the city walls then ringing the capital -- today's "Barrio Chino."

Their numbers peaked in the 1940s and early 50s. But immigration dried up when Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and Cuba drew close to China's rival, the Soviet Union.

Today, Chiu is one of fewer than 150 native Chinese in Havana, mostly elderly Cantonese-speakers. But intermarriage has produced tens of thousands of Chinese-Cubans, Cuba and China are now allies, and 3,000 Chinese exchange students arrive annually to spend a year learning Spanish.

After the Soviet economic lifeline died and officials turned to developing tourism, they sought to make Cuba's Chinese culture an attraction. The state began allowing Chinese associations and social clubs to operate freely, and that freedom is felt along Calle Cuchillo -- Knife Street -- a pedestrian alley in the heart of Chinatown lined with Chinese restaurants.

Beijing's famed "Food Street" it is not, but the eateries compete to snare passers-by, in contrast to state restaurants whose waiters earn so little they don't care whether customers turn up.

"It happens here and nowhere else in Cuba," said Maria Isabel Martinez, head of Chinatown investment.

The Knife Street restaurants rent their buildings from the city, but otherwise can get rich -- unlike private restaurants run by Cubans out of their homes that pay hefty taxes and aren't supposed to hold more than 12 diners at a time.

"We have more freedom. We are privileged," said Roberto Vargas Lee, 44, manager of the Tien-Tan, a Knife Street favorite.

Founded by Vargas Lee's father-in-law after he moved to Cuba from Beijing, the Tien-Tan has two chefs from China. Its menu features 130 dishes and, unlike at state restaurants, actually has them all.

A Havana native, Vargas Lee also teaches martial arts, which he studied in Beijing.

A few blocks from Knife Street, the Long Sai Li Society is one of 13 Chinese associations island-wide. The group has its own apartment building, restaurant and a room where Chinese sip tea and play mahjong under a mural of the Great Wall.

Lopez, the Rutgers professor, said the case for Chinese autonomy should not be overstated. She noted that, as a means of asserting greater state control over neighborhood efforts to preserve Chinese heritage, city historian authorities in 2006 shuttered 4-year-old "Fraternidad II," a magazine that carried Chinatown news and interviews with community figures.

Martinez acknowledged that all Chinese associations and clubs report to the Ministry of Justice, but said its officials "only provide orientation," not outright control.

The Havana city historian's office has refurbished many crumbling buildings in Chinatown and a $324,000 restoration plan for Kwong Wah Po would preserve the printing press -- built in 1900 by the National Paper and Type Company of New York -- as a museum piece and provide modern equipment and a new office. Construction could begin by year's end.

The newspaper was shut after Fidel Castro's rebels seized power, and didn't reopen until 1987. Its masthead declares "52 Years of Revolution."

It has a staff of nine and devotes one of its pages to Spanish-language articles for those who don't read Chinese. Its one reporter does the translations and writes about community events. Like all newspapers in Cuba, it carries no advertising.

Chiu picks the articles from approved publications and from newspapers occasionally donated by the Chinese Embassy. Each of the 600 copies sells for 60 centavos, about 2 1/2 American cents, and some of them are sent to the Ministry of Justice to monitor what has gone into print.

The latest issue appeared in June. Publication is supposed to be every two months, but the previous issue came out on Jan. 19. It included stories about China unveiling the world's fastest train, and the discovery there of the remains of a possibly poisonous dinosaur.

The June installment featured a fawning story about Celia Sanchez, a revolutionary fighter and Castro's closest confidant, who died 30 years ago of cancer.

Neither of Chiu's adult children is interested in following in his footsteps and he has had trouble passing on his typesetting skills to a successor.

"The ink stains your hands," he said. "Young people, they don't like to get their hands dirty." top stories on Twitter

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