Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History

Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History

Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History

Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History


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 Lopez 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, Lopez draws out implications for issues of race, national identity, and transnational migration, especially along the Pacific rim.


In 1859, the fifteen-year-old Tung Kun Sen (Dong Gongcheng), a native of Dongguan County in Guangdong Province, China, was kidnapped and taken to the Spanish Caribbean colony of Cuba as part of the infamous coolie trade. He signed a contract of indenture that obligated him to work for eight years on a sugar estate in Cárdenas, Matanzas Province. There he was baptized and given the name Pastor Pelayo, after Cuban planter Ramón Pelayo. After completing his term of service, he was forced to recontract for another eight years.

When Pastor Pelayo finished his indenture, he was in his thirties and had no hope of returning to China. He migrated eastward to the sugar districts of central Cuba. There he moved from estate to estate, earning wages as part of a cuadrilla, or work gang, and eventually became a labor contractor. Recently out of bondage, the former indentured laborer came into daily contact with enslaved African men and women on the cusp of emancipation. Through earnings from his work gangs, he managed to accumulate enough money to purchase freedom for a domestic slave named Wenceslaa Sarría and her brothers. Pastor Pelayo and Wenceslaa Sarría entered into a common law union and had nine children together, who they raised among a network of people of Chinese and African descent in the town of Cienfuegos.

Pelayo emerged as a leader among the local Chinese, establishing an immigrant association and a theater. Both Pelayo and his first Cuban-born son, Blas, supported the War for Independence from Spain in 1895 and registered as eligible voters after the establishment of the new Cuban republic. in 1913 Pastor Pelayo died, insolvent due to a penchant for gambling. He is buried in a plot at La Reina Cemetery in Cienfuegos, much of which today is inundated with water and overgrown with weeds.

Just a few years later, when the Cuban government permitted the wartime importation of contract labor, a second major wave of Chinese laborers crossed the Pacific. Among them was Lui Fan (Lü Fan), who in 1918 at age eighteen emigrated from his village in Xinhui County, Guangdong Province. Lui Fan initially worked on a plantation to fulfill Cuba’s need to increase . . .

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