Back in the 1950s Havana’s Chinatown was the largest and most resplendent in the whole of Latin America. Cuba’s Chinese population had come to the country over a period of 200 years, some against their will as slaves in the 1800s and others during a number of waves of immigration throughout the 20th century. Today, there are only around 150 people who were born in China left on the island and the ageing population is gradually disappearing. But this community and its descendants – many whom have never been to China – are keen to keep traditions alive. Inspired by their story and the questions it raises about the relationship between national identity and citizenship, photographer Sean Alexander Geraghty captured their ideas and histories for series his series Barrio Chino, Habana.
“This community are the heirs of a very important part of history, not only of Cuba, but of the all the Americas,” Sean tells It’s Nice That. “Slavery and the immigration of Asian people starting from the 18th Century is something that deeply shaped the history and culture of all the Americas – documenting their presence in Cuba is particularly important.” Many of the Chinese nationals coming to Cuba were single men and subsequently started families with Cuban people of all heritages, “creating unique multilayered identities”, explains Sean. But the 1959 Cuban Revolution abruptly halted immigration and led many Chinese nationals to flee Cuba. The community began to decline. Sean says, “Those who stayed, are the living testimony of the multiculturalism that formed Cuban culture.”
Sean’s interest in photographing this community was piqued partly because of his own cultural identity. “I guess it comes from my own story, I was born in Nice, France to an Italian mother and an English father (with Irish grandparents). So for me, the concept of national identity has always been a bit vague,” he explains. “Discovering their stories and how they feel about being Chinese in Cuba has been a fascinating experience.”
During each of the portraits Sean interviewed his subjects about their feelings about their own identity, the definition of Cuban-ness, how they keep traditions alive and their experiences of visiting China. Many felt 100% Cuban although with a very deep connection to Chinese culture and traditions, explains Sean. “This answer was common in some of the oldest members who came to Cuba in their 20s as well as in people who only had one Chinese grandparent. Citizenship is something that has to do with the everyday life while national identity is something that has to do with feelings and memories and not necessarily with the place where someone was born and grown up.”
Some of the portraits portray Sean’s subjects in situations and spaces they feel are important to their cultural identity, while others are shot at home. Sean captured 80-year-old Ip, who came to China with her father in her 20s, at the Min Chih Tang Society, a Chinatown institution where members can play mahjong, watch Chinese movies and eat breakfast and lunch everyday, while Young Rene posed with a “Jian”, the sword to perform routines from the ancient martial art Wushu.
One of the most moving interviews for Sean was the story of paper mâché artist, painter and biologist Alfredo. “He has never been to China and yet most of his art practice revolves around Chinese iconography,” says Sean. “Throughout his work he tries to recreate a visual representation of China and its culture.” In Alfredo’s portrait he sits next to one of his paintings called Soñando China, which could translate as “dreaming about China”. “It was very touching to see so many members of this community like Alfredo dedicating so much of their lives to preserve their parents, grandparents and even ancestors’ culture although being so far away from it.”