Kathleen López: Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History

Posted in Asian Diaspora, Audio, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Interviews, Media Archive on 2014-11-22 02:39Z by Steven

Kathleen López: Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History

New Books in Latin American Studies: Discussions with Scholars of Latin America about Their New Books

Alejandra Bronfman, Associate Professor of History
University of British Columbia, Canada

Successive waves of migration brought thousands of Chinese laborers to Cuba over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The coolie trade, which was meant to replace waning supplies of slaves, was but the first. In the twentieth century, a sugar boom in Cuba facilitated the entry of thousands more. Many of these itinerant workers stayed, and this book uses Chinese and Spanish languages sources and microhistorical methods to trace their lives as they married, raised children, formed associations and ran businesses. Kathleen López‘s book Chinese Cubans, A Transnational History (University of North Carolina Press, 2013) asks questions about belonging and offers a nuanced interpretation of the ways people of Chinese descent could proffer loyalties to Cuba even as they were embedded in transnational Chinese networks. There are surprising stories here, about race, family and work. Next time you encounter a Chinese-Cuban restaurant, you’ll know a little more about how it got there.

Listen to the interview (01:06:29) here. Download the interview here.

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Chinese Cubans: A transnational history by Kathleen Lopez (review) [Roopnarine]

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive on 2014-04-21 20:46Z by Steven

Chinese Cubans: A transnational history by Kathleen Lopez (review) [Roopnarine]

Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History
Volume 15, Number 1, Spring 2014
DOI: 10.1353/cch.2014.0018

Lomarsh Roopnarine, Associate Professor of Latin American and Caribbean History
Jackson State University, Jackson, Mississippi

López, Kathleen, Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013)

Without a doubt, the literature on Cuba since the mid-nineteenth century to contemporary times has primarily focused on Cuban wars of independence, the abolition of slavery, the United States of America’s involvement and domination and Fidel Castro’s revolution and socialism. Spanish Whites, Black Africans and Mulattos have been the main ethnic groups discussed. Cuban Chinese have largely been unexplored, save for the period 1847–74, when they were introduced as indentured “Coolies.” Kathleen López tries to rescue Cuban Chinese from their marginalization in Cuba’s national discourse by examining and expanding on their history. She takes a transnational approach and shows how Chinese in Cuba have maintained meaningful connections with their homeland and other Chinese in the United States and Peru. She also demonstrates how racial ideologies, class stratification, gender imbalance among the Chinese and Castro’s socialist doctrines converged to shape Chinese presence in Cuba. The end result is a rich narrative of Chinese struggle, participation, and contributions to Cuba.

López divides her book into three neat sections. The first section, “From Indentured to Free,” is really a journey of why and how the Chinese were brought to Cuba and their subsequent treatment on the sugar plantations. Lopez paints a sad picture of how Chinese were manipulated and deceived into leaving their homeland and worked as indentured laborers in Cuba. The Chinese were told that they would be wage-laborers, but in reality their employers treated them like African slaves. Some Chinese resisted their deplorable working and living conditions, but a majority of them served out their contracts, drifted into noncontractual plantation employment and became fruit and vegetable vendors. As they earned wages, they also “participated in the social and cultural life of the towns and helped to build the foundations for Chinese communities in Cuba” (81). However, the “planting of their roots” in Cuba was not without challenges. The Chinese were exposed to bouts of discrimination and cultural ridicule from the wider Cuban society and suffered from internal schisms within their own society, particularly between the second wave of business elites and the former indentured “coolies.” Yet, they persevered.

The second section, “Migrants between Empires and Nations,” is an analysis of how Chinese Cubans gradually practiced selective assimilation within a class- and race-conscious plantation society, while simultaneously maintaining their own culture and identity. They formed a series of international and national associations, which they used as a base to build solidarity and to participate in Cuban society. The result was impressive. Chinese Cubans were involved in the building of modern Cuba. They fought in many wars and sided with and supported the independence movement. Readers may be surprised at the magnitude of Chinese participation in Cuba from the 1890s to 1959. Their participation might have emanated from their desire to be Chinese Cuban, but anti-immigration laws and anti-Chinese sentiments in Cuba and the Western Hemisphere as well as political turbulence in their homeland might have also pushed them to be more proactive in their new homeland. Whatever the reasons for their participation might have been, Lopez provides an excellent narrative of Chinese Cubans as freedom fighters, rebels and nation-builders as never depicted before.

The third section, “Transnational and National Belonging,” describes a dramatic turn in the general welfare of Chinese in Cuba, precipitated by the overthrow of the nationalist government in China (1949) and the introduction of socialism in Cuba (1959). Both events affected the Chinese community in Cuba. Many Chinese fled the new communist government in China, and relations between China and Cuban Chinese broke down. Ten years later, Fidel Castro toppled the US-backed regime in Cuba and embarked on a socialist journey for Cuba. However, communist China and socialist Cuba were at odds with each other since Cuba leaned towards the Soviet Union. These complex international events had an enormous impact on the Chinese in Cuba. Castro nationalized and disallowed private businesses, and as a consequence, almost all aspects of Chinese life deteriorated and declined, including their businesses, their associations, and their numbers—the latter through mass migration. However, efforts have been made to restore Chinatown and other Chinese communities in Cuba.

The strength of this book lies…

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The Chinese in Latin America and the Caribbean

Posted in Anthologies, Asian Diaspora, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Mexico on 2013-12-28 22:43Z by Steven

The Chinese in Latin America and the Caribbean

256 pages
Paperback ISBN13: 9789004182134
E-ISBN: 9789004193345

Edited by:

Walton Look Lai, Professor of Anthropology
Chinese University of Hong Kong

Chee-Beng Tan, former Lecturer in History
University of the West Indies, Trinidad & Tobago

The Chinese migration to the Latin America/Caribbean region is an understudied dimension of the Asian American experience. There are three distinct periods in the history of this migration: the early colonial period (pre-19th century), when the profitable three-century trade connection between Manila and Acapulco led to the first Asian migrations to Mexico and Peru; the classic migration period (19th to early twentieth centuries), marked by the coolie trade known to Chinese diaspora studies; and the renewed immigration of the late 20th century to the present. Written by specialists on the Chinese in Latin America and the Caribbean, this book tells the story of Asian migration to the Americas and contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the Chinese in this important part of the world.


  • Introduction: The Chinese in Latin America and the Caribbean / Walton Look Lai
    • Chapter One Sinifying New Spain: Cathay’s Influence on Colonial Mexico via the Nao de China / Edward R. Slack, Jr.
    • Chapter Two Asian Diasporas and Tropical Migration in the Age of Empire: A Comparative Overview / Walton Look Lai
    • Chapter Three Indispensable Enemy or Convenient Scapegoat? A Critical Examination of Sinophobia in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1870s to 1930s / Evelyn Hu-DeHart
    • Chapter Four The Chinese of Central America: Diverse Beginnings, Common Achievements / St. John Robinson
    • Chapter Five Report: Archives of Biography and History in the God of Luck: A Conversation with Ruthanne Lum McCunn / Lisa Yun
    • Chapter Six Tusans (tusheng) and the Changing Chinese Community in Peru / Isabelle Lausent-Herrera
    • Chapter Seven Old Migrants, New Immigration and Anti-Chinese Discourse in Suriname / Paul B. Tjon Sie Fat
    • Chapter Eight The Revitalization of Havana’s Chinatown: Invoking Chinese Cuban History / Kathleen López
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Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History by Kathleen López (review)

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive on 2013-10-07 17:11Z by Steven

Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History by Kathleen López (review)

Journal of Latin American Geography
Volume 12, Number 3, 2013
pages 234-236
DOI: 10.1353/lag.2013.0049

Joseph L. Scarpaci, Professor Emeritus of Geography
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Kathleen López, Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013)

The new millennium cast into the academic and general public’s dialect the word ‘globalization’ as well as the call that everyone should ‘think globally and act locally.’ That may be all well and good, but this adage often falls flat when scholars aim to connect the local with global (glocal). Like the words ‘impact,’ ‘effect,’ and ‘affect,’ the terms at once say everything but communicate little. As the graduate coordinator of my doctoral program was fond of harping in front of frightened graduate students many decades back, “perfectly general, perfectly true, but absolutely meaningless.” Clichés, alas, often substitute for deep, critical thinking and analysis.

For these reasons, when one sees a subtitle that includes the ambitiously stated ‘transnational history,’ a little skepticism inevitably comes to mind. Geographers are no doubt even more skeptical because, after all, scale and spatial analysis situate both human and physical geographies in the broader context of social and natural sciences, respectively.

Enter Kathleen López: Assistant Professor of History and Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies (a title that might also give one pause) at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Whereas many Latinamericanist geographers struggle to speak any semblance of Spanish and conduct fieldwork with the assistance of Latin American and Caribbean scholars, Dr. López approaches the study of transnational migration to the island of Cuba armed with fluent Spanish and Chinese. Armed with extensive field work in Cuba, China, and the United States, Dr. López assembles a tour d’force that brings archival, ethnographic, and historic analyses to bear on a story that traces the history of Chinese migrants to Cuba in the nineteenth century, through the alliance with Cuban forces to overturn the colonial yoke imposed by Madrid, to the twentieth century events that include strong xenophobia, the Japanese-China war, WW II, and the Cuban Revolution. Copiously referenced and gracefully written, Chinese Cubans tells the tale of a truly global transnational migration pattern that documents how the Chinese in Cuba used investment, remittances, and return visits to bridge these migrants’ search for the best of Cuba and their homeland. The tale begins with the importation of more than 100,000 Chinese workers – indentured servants often treated as slaves because of Great Britain’s objection to the African slave trade—who build rail lines and work in sugar plantations in ways similar to how Chinese ‘coolie’ workers did in the United States. Chinese Cubans were fiercely loyal to the Cuban independence movement of the nineteenth century, and great accolades were given to them by the fiercest and most venerable of revolutionary fighters. Unlike conditions in Peru, Jamaica, and the especially harsh anti-Chinese movement in Mexico in the 1930s, we learn that Cuba was relatively welcoming (overall) in receiving the Chinese diaspora. They added to the miscegenation (mestizaje) stew (ajiaco) that Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortíz highly praised. However, to López’s credit, she calls into question the much-venerated Ortíz’s description of this marginal contribution to Cuban culture (which Ortíz postulated that, numerically at least, was a European and African fusion). The so-called ‘third founder’ of Cuba (after Columbus and Alexander von Humboldt), Ortíz derided Chinese immigrants for their certain tolerance of homosexuality, their (limited) use of opium. That is why he classified them phenotypically (i.e., “yellow mongoloids”….”and essential otherness” (p. 210).

Readers will find that similar prejudices hurled upon immigrants elsewhere were also cast upon Chinese Cubans. They were often characterized as ‘inassimilable’ just as Jews were in Europe in the twentieth century and much the way Mexicans are portrayed in the current U.S. immigration debacle. When hard economic times fell upon Cuba, anti-nationalism was whipped up against Cubans of Chinese descent, who were often portrayed as perennial strike breakers and ‘scabs.’

Not surprisingly, there are indirect parallels to be drawn between the relationship of mainland (communist) China and Taiwan, on the one hand, and Cuba and the United States, on the other hand. The 1949 Chinese communist takeover of mainland China and the exodus of Chiang Kai-shek to Formosa (Taiwan) generates yet another out-migration of Chinese to Cuba. And in 1959, many Chinese…

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Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History

Posted in Anthropology, Asian Diaspora, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Monographs on 2013-05-04 01:10Z by Steven

Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History

University of North Carolina Press
June 2013
352 pages
6.125 x 9.25
15 halftones, 3 maps, 7 tables, notes, bibl., index
Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4696-0712-2
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4696-0713-9

Kathleen López, Associate Professor of History and Latino and Hispanic Caribbean studies
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

In the mid-nineteenth century, Cuba’s infamous “coolie” trade brought well over 100,000 Chinese indentured laborers to its shores. Though subjected to abominable conditions, they were followed during subsequent decades by smaller numbers of merchants, craftsmen, and free migrants searching for better lives far from home. In a comprehensive, vibrant history that draws deeply on Chinese- and Spanish-language sources in both China and Cuba, Kathleen López explores the transition of the Chinese from indentured to free migrants, the formation of transnational communities, and the eventual incorporation of the Chinese into the Cuban citizenry during the first half of the twentieth century.

Chinese Cubans shows how Chinese migration, intermarriage, and assimilation are central to Cuban history and national identity during a key period of transition from slave to wage labor and from colony to nation. On a broader level, López draws out implications for issues of race, national identity, and transnational migration, especially along the Pacific rim.

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