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Reviewed by:
  • Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History by Kathleen López
  • Ignacio López-Calvo (bio)
Kathleen López. Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. 339 pp. Paperback $29.95, isbn 978-1-4696-0713-9.

Kathleen López’s Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History is a highly valuable contribution to Latin American history, Chinese diaspora studies, and labor studies. Using an impressive array of archival work and oral interviews, it describes the transnational experience of the approximately 142,000 Chinese who signed indenture contracts to work in Cuba before and during the gradual abolition of black African slavery, of the Chinese who migrated freely to Cuba, and of the descendants of these two groups. It also looks at their “multiple identities as Chinese and Cuban” (p. 4; and as Chinese Cubans, I might add). The introduction, [End Page 112] titled “A Transnational History,” focuses on the lives of two Chinese men who exemplify the Chinese Cuban experience. The first one is Tung Kun Sen (Pastor Pelayo), who, in 1859, was kidnapped in Guangdong Province, taken to Cuba as part of the coolie trade, forced to sign a contract of indenture to work for eight years in a sugar estate, and then to recontract for eight more years. The second one is Lui Fam (Francisco Luis), who immigrated to Cuba in 1918 to work on a plantation and later became a familiar sight in Cienfuegos, peddling vegetables. He maintained what López calls “a transnational family” (p. 3), with a wife and two daughters in China and another wife and two more daughters in Cuba. As López explains, despite the negative racial stereotypes that were also common in the rest of the Americas, the Chinese in Cuba did not suffer the same level of discrimination and violence experienced by their compatriots in the United States, Peru, and northern Mexico, in part thanks to their participation in the Cuban wars for independence from Spain, their cross-racial alliances, and Cuba’s goal of having a racial democracy.

While Denise Helly’s 1979 Idéologie et Ethnicité: Les Chinois Macao à Cuba and Lisa Yun’s 2008 The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba focused for the most part (Yun also studied the second-generation perspective through the analysis of Antonio Chuffat Latour’s work Apunte histórico de los chinos en Cuba [1927]) on the coolie period in Cuba, and particularly on the 1874 testimonial The Cuba Commission Report: A Hidden History of the Chinese in Cuba, López expands the research to the transition from indenture to free wage earners and entrepreneurs in the late nineteenth century and the formation of transnational communities in the twentieth. Likewise, Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History expands Mauro García Triana and Pedro Eng Herrera’s research in their 2009 The Chinese in Cuba, 1847–Now, which also explores the role of the Chinese in Cuba’s three wars of independence; the types of Chinese businesses found in twentieth-century Cuba; and the Chinese influence in Cuban society, history, and cultural life; as well as the appearance of the first Chinese Marxists in Cuba during the 1920s and 1930s and of Sino-Cuban members of the Armed Forces in the twentieth century. For instance, López devotes several pages to the factors that have contributed to shaping different Chinese identities in Cuba and even Cuban identity itself. She also addresses the historical link between African slavery and the Chinese coolie trade, including their shared forms of resistance. She further compares, throughout the book, the Chinese experience in Cuba with that of other countries in the Americas. Unlike the aforementioned books, Chinese Cubans examines how Chinese migration to Cuba transformed the families and village lives in the Cantonese-sending communities, as well as the patterns of migration from Cuba to other regions in the Americas, thus taking a hemispheric approach.

The three chapters (chaps. 1–3) in part 1, “From Indentured to Free,” trace the trajectory from coolie work to free agricultural labor and entrepreneurship. Part 2 [End Page 113] (chaps. 4–5) follows the Chinese from 1898 to 1911, focusing on the formation...


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