Not that I was expecting, or would have thought to look for it, but I was not suprised that there is a Chinatown in Havana. According to the Michelin mustsees Havana: (one of the little guidebooks I managed to find in an (gasp) actual physical bookstore just before I left when it hit “OH HEY! I really am going to Cuba… uh… maybe I should have some idea of what I’m getting in to here…”)
After slave rebellions in Cuba in the first half of the 19th century, Chinese indentured servants from Guangdong Province, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan were brought in as a more stable labor force. At the end of their contracts, some stayed on. Others came from California in the second half of the 19th century, fleeing anti-Chinese sentiment. At its peak, Havana’s Chinatown was the largest in Latin America, with a population over 120,000 people and encompassing 44 square blocks. After Fidel Castro’s nationalization programs when he came to power in 1959, many Chinese Cubans left the country.
The guidebook mentions El Cuchillo de Zanja, a pedestrian street with red lanterns and dragons, that has several restaurants, including Tien Tan, where we had lunch. It seemed pretty much Chinese, but the book also mentions Chinese-Cuban food, which blends Asian and Caribbean flavors. Too bad I missed that. The book also says a Chinese newspaper is published twice a week and there is a Chinese New Year celebration every year with a parade and fireworks.
Chinatown is just a few blocks from the Capitol in one direction, and from where we had our morning lesson in another. Odd how not far from a nondescript, unremarkable neighborhood we popped out on to a street with the Chinese influence. But that’s how cities are. There definitely were ethnically Chinese people around, but I wouldn’t have said they were the majority, or that I would have particularly noticed them without the architectural cues.
Tien Tan had a fantastically large tri-lingual menu, with some of the most awesome English descriptions I’ve ever read. I love the fearlessness of the translations. (don’t get all bent about that remark. or do, if you must, but take it somewhere else. Sure, I get some giggles, but their English is WAY better than my (non-existent) Chinese, and even their Spanish is, I’m sure, way better than mine, so I’m not meaning any of that in any kind of disparaging way.) I am kinda curious if actually it went through Spanish first on its way to English.
Anyway, it seemed the fairly standard straight-up Chinese food menu that you’d see anywhere. My stomach was better but not quite its usual self, and when I saw they had Chicken Noodle Soup that sounded like just the ticket. Which, indeed, it was. And then some ice cream!