An aging Chinese Cuban community fights to preserve its Chinatown

The gate of Havana’s Chinatown protrudes above a four-lane street connecting the residential neighborhood of Central Havana to the local tourist destinations. Every day of the week, vintage American cars drive past carrying foreigners on private tours of the city, or serving as rideshares for locals on their way to work.

The cement arch is written with the characters “华人街,” marking the beginning of El Barrio Chino, Chinatown. Around it, nothing visibly suggests a neighborhood for overseas Chinese—no Chinese grocery stores, or symphony of dialect in the streets. To Havana locals and the global Chinese diaspora, this neighborhood, now home primarily to Afro-Cuban residents, is a contradiction: a Chinatown without any Chinese.

But the barrio’s winding streets are still home to a small community of Chinese Cubans who reside there, or frequent the handful of Chinese associations that are the last remaining institutions of the old Chinatown, as well as leaders in the struggle to keep the neighborhood alive—one language lesson at a time.

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Chinese Lessons in Havana is a story from our issue, “Cloud Country.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


Huiying Bernice Chan is a second-generation Chinese-American researcher and a Susan Rappaport Knafel Traveling Fellow, documenting Chinatowns around the world.

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