Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

The Chinese Community and the Corneta China: Two Divergent Paths in Cuba

Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

The Chinese Community and the Corneta China: Two Divergent Paths in Cuba

Article excerpt

The Chinese are acknowledged to be one of the four basic ethnic groups that made up Cuba as a nation. Many Chinese joined in the nineteenth-century independence wars against Spanish colonial rule, and several Cubans of Chinese ancestry (hereafter, "Chinese descendants") turned out to be renowned artists and writers, including, among others, poet Regino Pedroso, painter Flora Fong, and Wifredo Lam, the most universal of all Cuban painters. Chinese influence has been felt in diverse fields of Cuban culture, from culinary art to religion, and from martial arts to music. Specifically, the introduction of a musical instrument, a sort of oboe or shawm called a corneta china, derived from the Han Chinese suona, is one of the most significant Chinese cultural contributions to this island country. Nevertheless, the original instrument is no longer played by Chinese natives, and the corneta china lias been appropriated by non-Chinese Cubans since 1915, particularly in the eastern region of the island, where it is played in carnival street bands almost exclusively by performers of African descent. Thus, except for a short-lived attempt to come together in the lion dance during the 1980s and early 1990s, the development of the Chinese community and that of the corneta china have followed divergent paths in Cuba, both of which are succinctly traced in this article.

The Chinese presence in Cuba

Historical background

Cuba was the first country in Latin America to receive massive and nearly uninterrupted migration from China over a considerable timespan. Not until the nineteenth century did the need for labour on Cuban sugar plantations enable the flow of such a population. The introduction of those immigrants, known in China as Huagong, or "indentured Chinese labourers working abroad" (Wu and Cheng 2007:657), and called "coolies" by the British, started in 1847. The first Chinese were recruited by traders in Manila who had the contacts with the English companies in Xiamen (Amoy), Fujian Province, which controlled the shipping of coolies and provided the clippers (Pérez de la Riva 1975:258).1 In addition to Xiamen, the ports authorized for this traffic were Fuzhou (also in Fujian), Shantou, and Huangpu, in Guangdong Province, as well as the respective British and Portuguese colonial enclaves of Hong Kong and Macao, all in southern China. Since 1853, only Macao was entitled to ship coolies.

After 1860, around 5,000 Chinese coining mainly from California began to arrive in Cuba. These were the first free Chinese entering the country and their economic status contributed to the development of the Chinese community overall. It was tills migratory flow which established Havana's Chinatown.

The above notwithstanding, Chinese immigration in the nineteenth century was mostly concentrated in the then-expanding sugar-plantation zones in Matanzas Province (in the western zone of Cuba, some 100 to 150 km east of Havana). It has been reckoned that between 1847 and 1875 a total of almost 150,000 Chinese arrived on Cuban shores. However, the brutal exploitation and ill treatment of the Chinese indentured workers pushed many of them to coimnit suicide. This fact, along with the loss of lives during the three independence wars, was the cause of a terrifying demographic drop: the 1899 census showed the number of Chinese as fewer than 15,000.

During the first occupation of Cuba by the United States (1898-1902) in the wake of the Hispanic-American war, the intervening authorities banned the entry of Chinese to the island. In 1902, a protectorate was established, and Cuban president Tomás Estrada Palma and his immediate successors continued to apply the restrictive American policy toward Chinese immigration. Still, a second major wave of Chinese migrants entered Cuba from 1917 through 1922, "When restrictions on labor iimnigration were lifted to promote sugar production during World War I. The global depression of 1929 and nativist policies in Cuba led to a decrease in the Chinese migrant population. …

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