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East Meets West | The Cuban Ambassador Pereira: Why Do Cubans Love Chinese Kung Fu?
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East Meets West | The Cuban Ambassador Pereira: Why Do Cubans Love Chinese Kung Fu?

In the Chinatown in the old town of Havana, the Cuban capital, there is a school dedicated to teaching Chinese martial arts. Many Cubans, both young and old, go there every day to learn Chinese kung fu and health qigong. So, how did Chinese martial arts become a sport for all ages in Cuba and why do Cubans love Chinese kung fu so much?

This year, on the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the first Chinese settlers in Cuba, and in an exclusive interview with "East Meets West" of China News Service, the Cuban Ambassador to China, Carlos Miguel Pereira, told the story of the founding of the Cuban Martial Arts School, looked back on the formation and development of the Chinese community in Cuba over the years, and described the positive impact that Chinese culture has had on the diversity of Cuban society.


Carlos Miguel Pereira Hernández, Cuba’s Ambassador to the People's Republic of China, was born in Havana, Cuba in January 1966. He graduated from the Raúl Roa García Higher Institute of International Relations, and then studied at Beijing Language and Culture University and the Department of International Politics of Peking University where he obtained a master's degree in International Political Relations. Pereira was the Cuban Ambassador to the People's Republic of China from 2006 to 2011, before being appointed to the equivalent role in Japan in 2016. Then, in 2019, he returned to his previous position as the Cuban Ambassador to China. He has accompanied several Cuban delegations on bilateral visits to countries in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and he has participated in numerous international events and conferences.


CNS: There is a Cuban martial arts school in Havana's Chinatown where many Cubans study Chinese kung fu. Why have martial arts become popular in Cuba?

Pereira: One of the important legacies of the Cuban–Chinese community is the Cuban Martial Arts School which was established in 1995 in the heart of Havana's Chinatown by Roberto Vargas Lee, a Cuban–Chinese martial arts master. He studied martial arts and Chinese at Beijing Sport University and returned to Havana to offer courses on relevant subjects, teaching qigong for health. The school was established under the supervision of the Federation of Karate and Martial Arts, and competitions and events are regularly organised. Members of the school have participated in several international martial arts events, including festivals and tournaments in China. Initially, the students were primarily children and young people, but an increasing number of adults and seniors have subsequently enrolled. Currently, the school has around 15,000 students throughout Cuba, including Havana and the Isla de la Juventud Special Municipality.

Cuban students perform Chinese taijiquan during the opening ceremony of the Chinese Martial Arts School in Havana, Cuba (2015).

Photo by Mo Chengxiong, China News Service

The popularity of martial arts in Cuba is mainly due to the widespread regard for kung fu movies, especially those starring Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, which have prompted more and more Cubans to experience this actual combat sport at first-hand. In fact, Jackie Chan is an actor who is much loved and admired by the Cuban public. During a recent visit to the Cuban Embassy in Beijing, Chan professed his admiration for Cuba and its history and culture, and expressed his desire to visit the country to carry out various exchange programmes in order to strengthen the cultural ties. This will undoubtedly help to increase the popularity of martial arts among the Cuban population.


CNS: How has the Chinese community in Cuba integrated into local society? And how has the Cuban–Chinese community been culturally integrated with the various ethnic groups on the island?

Pereira: Cuban–Chinese relations have a long history dating back 175 years to 1847 when the first 206 Chinese labourers arrived in Cuba after an arduous 140-day journey across the sea. During this colonial period, they replaced African slave labourers on the sugar, coffee and tobacco plantations. It is estimated that, between 1847 and 1883, some 150,000 Chinese labourers settled on the Caribbean island.

In addition, Chinese immigrants arrived from California as they had been affected by the Chinese exclusion movement in the United States, which was denounced by the famous Cuban poet and national hero, José Martí.  

These Chinese people eventually settled in Cuba and, due to their independence, enterprise and hard work, they made a vital contribution to the initial development of the Chinese community on the island, particularly in relation to the expansion of Havana’s Chinatown.

The "Chinatown" archway at the entrance to Campanario Street in Old Havana, Cuba (April 2015).

Photo by Mo Chengxiong, China News Service

During this period, there was also the phenomenon of economic migration. This group of Chinese migrants were all men who were living in poverty. After completing their eight-year contract to work in Cuba, the vast majority of them were still as poor as when they arrived, and few were able to realise their dream of returning to their distant homeland with their hard-earned money. As a result, they had to remain in Cuba. Some of them became farmers, while others settled in the cities. In the early decades of the 20th century, the number of Chinese migrants in Cuba grew significantly and they were spread across the whole country. They integrated socially and culturally and, together with Africans and Spanish, influenced the Cuban nationality. They married Cuban women, integrated with local customs, had an impact on lineage and made a particular contribution to the diversity of Cuban culture.

The "Silk Road" signboard of a shop in Havana's "Chinatown".

Photo by Mo Chengxiong, China News Service


CNS: What positive impact has Chinese culture had on Cuba's diversity?

Pereira: Throughout history, the Chinese community has had a positive impact on the rich, diverse and pluralistic Cuban culture. In fact, Chinese culture has influenced the language, cuisine, work and way of life in Cuba. The integration and acceptance of the Chinese into Cuban society has brought the two cultures closer together and even engendered a religious fusion. Over time, this close intercultural connection of cultures has been reflected in the contributions of many prominent people of Chinese descent. Examples include the famous painters Wifredo Lam and Flora Fong, and the famous Chinese general Armando Choy.

Chinese associations from different Asian countries and regions have also played an important role in preserving traditional Chinese culture, including the art of cooking. Lion dancing is performed at the Carnival celebrations in Havana; hand drums are used with other instruments in the ensembles of Danzon, Son and Rumba music; and suona is widely used in the instrumental ensembles of conga music in eastern Cuba.

In September 2016, a special cultural performance took place at the Havana Theatre for the "Hand in Hand – Year of Cultural Exchange between China and Latin America".

Photo by Liu Zhen, China News Service  

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Chinese in Cuba, the famous Cuban cultural magazine Carteles praised the exemplary role of the Chinese community and the hard-working nature of the Chinese people. It also referenced the close links with Cuba and how the Chinese community, whose founders included brave soldiers from the Cuban War of Independence, has had an important influence on Cuban culture and nationality. There are numerous examples and symbols that demonstrate how the two countries are closely linked: the Chinese notebooks, pencils and lanterns used in the literacy campaign following the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959; the exchange of students to and from Cuba; the song "Beautiful Havana" by a famous Chinese composer; the exportation of Cuban sugar to China since the 1960s; the quote by José Martí written in Chinese calligraphy by a Chinese ambassador; and the great attention and importance given to this special historical friendship by the previous generation of leaders as well as by the eminent leaders of modern-day China and Cuba. 


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