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Cuban Chinese Restaurants

By Larry Tung

Kenny Yu’s grandfather had a dream when he left for Cuba from China’s Canton Province in the 1920’s.

In search for a better life, he left his family behind and moved to the Caribbean island to open a laundromat business. Thirty years later, when Fidel Castro took over the country and nationalized his business, he found himself fleeing in another exodus. This time, he settled down in New York and opened a Cuban-Chinese restaurant on 8th Avenue and 19th Street in Chelsea.

“La Chinita Linda,” now owned by Yu, is one of the few remaining Cuban restaurants in the city. As the old generation of Cuban Chinese population in New York diminish, few of their descendants are holding on to the restaurant business that once was blooming everywhere in the city.

“The original owners of those restaurants are very old now,” Yu said. “In addition, the second and third generations are not interested in the restaurant business. They want to do other professional work, like [becoming] lawyers and doctors.”

Yu shares a common family history with tens of thousands of Cuban Chinese in the United States. Their history goes back to 1847, when more than 200 Chinese men arrived in Cuba to work on sugar plantation as contract workers. The growing anti-Chinese sentiment on the west coast of the United States and the Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted in 1847, also forced many Chinese in America to flee to Cuba and other Latin American nations.

By 1940, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 were living in Havana, Cuba’s capital, and other parts of the island. El Barrio Chino, the Chinatown in Havana, was once the most prosperous and densely populated Chinatown in Latin America, occupying more than 40 blocks bursting with Chinese-owned restaurants and other businesses.

But a communist revolution led by Castro in 1959 changed all that. The state took over private property and nationalized all private-owned businesses. Most Chinese fled overseas and many settled in Miami and New York, where the North American Cuban Chinese Benevolent Association is headquartered on East Broadway in Chinatown.

“All my family in Cuba came to the United States and brought the rest of us here,” said the China-born Yu, who has never been to Cuba and only united with his grandfather when he was 12. “My grandfather opened the restaurant in 1970 and I have been working here since I was in high school.”

The restaurant used to serve the Cuban and other Hispanic workers in the nearby industrial area before gentrification changed the landscape of the neighborhood. In these days, it is hard to maintain the business, he said.

“There used to be at least five Cuban Chinese restaurants in Chelsea,” Yu said. “But most of them closed down because the rent went up so high and the old owners just wanted to retire.”

On the other hand, in order to appeal to a bigger market as more immigrants from other Caribbean islands are coming to the city, another restaurant, Dinastia China, expanded its menu from Cuban Chinese to pan-Carribbean in 1986 and now calls itself a “Chinese-Latin” restaurant.

“There are not as many Cubans here anymore,” said Michael Lam, a senior employee there who is Uruguayan-Chinese. “But there are large Dominican communities in Washington Heights and the Bronx. Many of them would come down here to eat.”

“We even get celebrities like Wesley Snipe, Queen Latifah and Chris Rock,” Lam added. “But the business is basically run on word of mouth.”

La Caridad 78, located at Broadway and 78th Street, is one of the few Cuban Chinese restaurants where business is thriving. Founded 30 years ago, its excellent location gives it an edge to attract a more diverse crowd. The nearby Beacon Theater, which is one of the city’s most renowned concert halls for performing artists, also brings them a lot of pre-show and after-show business.

“A good location is so important,” said Clement Htam, a manager for 17 years. “We bought out the stores next door and expanded twice since 1986.”

Although most Cuban Chinese restaurants are run by second or third generation Chinese, the food they serve is more on the Cuban side. Their most popular dish is Fried Pork Chop, or Chuleta Frita, while Fried Chicken Crackling, or Chicharrones de Pollo Sin Hueso, is also one of the favorites.

Other popular dishes include Beef Steak, or Bistec de Palomilla, Fried Plantain, or Platano Frito, and Shredded Beef, or Ropa Vieja.

Given their focus on the Caribbean flavor, they are not exactly popular among traditional Asian diners.

“Many of our customers are Hispanics,” Yu said. “We get very few Asians.”

“Some of our customers are Chinese-Americans,” said Lam of Dinastia China. “They would come here with their Spanish-speaking friends. But they are not here for Chinese food. They want to try something new.”

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