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Sean Alexander Geraghty documents Havana’s hidden Chinese community

Rene is posing with a "Jian", a modern version of the traditional sword used to perform Wushu routines. Chinese immigration to Cuba was predominantly male, this further facilitated the mix of Chinese people with Cubans of all heritages, creating a unique multi layered identity. Kids like Rene are the faces of the new generation of Chinese Cubans © Sean Alexander Geraghty

In the 1950s, El Barrio Chino in Havana, Cuba, was one of the largest Chinatowns in Latin America. Now dubbed “A Chinatown with no Chinese,” its remaining residents are committed to its survival

At first glance, Havana’s Chinatown – one of the largest in Latin America in the 1950s – seems only to be made up of a handful of restaurants, with almost no Chinese people in sight. Before visiting, photographer Sean Alexander Geraghty read news stories that dubbed it “A Chinatown with no Chinese,” but when he went there, he discovered something different.

“Havana’s Chinese community is very much present and alive, but it is ageing,” says Geraghty, who has created a series of portraits of the city’s Chinese residents, many of them second or third generation. He found societies where ageing members would meet to play Mahjong, watch Chinese movies, and eat breakfast together. A large majority of the younger community have never been to China, but are dedicated to preserving the culture of their parents and grandparents, despite being so far away from it. “There is a strong will for the community to survive,” says Geraghty.

Chinese immigration to Cuba began in 1857, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers were sent to labour in sugar plantations, following the decline of the African slave trade. Though the Chinese labour trade was abolished in 1874, many of the workers, who were mostly men, chose to settle in Cuba, marrying Cuban women and giving birth to a new era of multiculturalism.

El Barrio Chino in Havana soon became one of the largest chinatowns in Latin America, where its growing number of residents opened shops, social clubs, and hosted cultural events, and founded a unique fusion of sino-carribean cuisine. But when the revolutionary government came into power in 1959, many Chinese shop owners had their properties seized, and fled the country.

Still, “The traces that Chinese culture left in Cuba are definitely there to stay,” says Geraghty, “There are many Chinese influences in Cuban cuisine, language, music and even religion”. The majority of people that Geraghty spoke to said they felt Cuban in identity, but as the sole gatekeepers of the multiculturalism that their ancestors built, many described a deep connection to this part of their heritage and history too.

“Citizenship is more of an administrative concept, it’s given to you,” says Geraghty, “but national identity is something built from memories, traditions, and feelings. Cuisine, festivals, art, music, literature or even small daily habits can keep this sense of belonging alive”.

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The Escuela Cubana de Wushu was founded by Chinese-Cuban master Roberto Vargas Lee. He dedicated his entire life to preserve and promote Chinese culture in Cuba through martial arts. Nowadays many Cubans like Alberto come every morning to practice the ancient martial art of Wushu. The school prides itself for being open to anyone who wants to study as well as for having many gold decorated students, who participated in international competitions © Sean Alexander Geraghty

Carlos was born in Cuba to a Chinese mother from Canton and a Chinese descent father. Carlos is one of the few Cubans to have travelled to China, more than once. The first time was with his mother, 20 years after she moved to Cuba, to meet his relatives there. He fondly remembers his time in China and recalls how impressed he was by the speed of change in the country. Carlos devoted much of this time performing the Lion Dance in Cuba and recently wrote a book about this ancient tradition. Despite Carlos’ heritage and love for Chinese culture, he still feels completely Cuban © Sean Alexander Geraghty

Essa is a member of the Lung Kong Society and is one of the approximately 150 pure Chinese left in Cuba. Some of the oldest members like her still speak their native Cantonese among themselves. With the help of a Chinese friend from the community, Essa managed to go back to China many years after she moved to Cuba. She only found out once in China that all her relatives had passed away. She never had the chance to communicate with them while in Cuba © Sean Alexander Geraghty

Alfredo is a Chinese-Cuban paper mâché artist, painter and biologist. He has never been to China and yet most of his art practice revolves around Chinese iconography. Throughout his work he tries to recreate a visual representation of China and its culture. He is seating next to one of his painting called “Soñando China” which could translate into “Dreaming about China” © Sean Alexander Geraghty

Anselmo is a Chinese-Cuban member of the Lung Kong Society. He comes every day to the society for breakfast and lunch. After eating together some members like playing mahjong, a traditional Chinese board game. Before the Revolution of 1959 the role of societies such as this one was primarily to defend the rights of the once discriminated Chinese community. Later on, their role shifted to solely preserve Chinese culture in Cuba and as recreational spaces for ageing residents of the community. The Lung Kong Society, as other societies, still keeps alive many traditions such as celebrating Chinese New Year, the Lion Dance and worshipping ancestral spirits according to Chinese belief © Sean Alexander Geraghty

Mirta is the president of the Alianza Socialista China de Cuba. She was the first woman to take on this role in the society. Before her, such role used to be reserved exclusively for pure Chinese men. At the time, being accepted as a woman and as a descendant holding this position was very difficult. However after years of dedication to the community, she eventually became one of the leading figures of Barrio Chino © Sean Alexander Geraghty

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