In fact, what is now a small strip of restaurants on Cuchillo near Calle Zanja is not really a surprise at all; Havana once had one of Latin America’s largest Chinese communities dating back to the mid 19th century when Cantonese contract or indentured workers were brought in to work in the sugar can fields. Many stayed and at one point Havana had a thriving, vibrant Chinese-Cuban community, at the time the largest in Latin America.
Today the Barrio Chino is a block and a half of restaurants, most of which carry colourful Chinese themed facades but are more tourist eateries that use “Chinese” to mean “any ethnic.” Some tip their hat to Cantonese cuisine but also offer Italian and other non-Cuban dishes. There are Cuban hostesses – some with a hint of Chinese ancestry – in Chinese style dresses adding to the fun of the area.
There is an effort to revive the historical area’s roots led by Grupo Promotor del Barrio Chino so that there are signs recognizing the cultural impact and a large arch marks the area – after the major official visit by Fidel Castro to the People’s Republic of China in 1995, materials were provided for a new Chinese arch on Calle Dragone.
I was able to identify Tien-Tan, a pretty authentic Cantonese spot completely reminiscent of similar small restos in London’s Soho or urban Chinatowns like you’d find in New York, San Francisco, Vancouver or Toronto. Inside, you’d feel at home in your favorite ‘hole-in-the-wall’ but the patio is more characteristically Havana. The food too was enjoyable and reasonably authentic seeming but more importantly, the lantern filled patio dining was sunny and warm adding a Caribbean feel to the experience.
It’s fascinating to recall the Chinese heritage of Cuba by visiting this small enclave. China’s impact today on the island could well create a rebound in the country’s Chinese community and in the meantime it serves as a living monument to a time past. It’s also a very enjoyable place for lunch!