Chinese immigrants in Cuba repository collection.

Author:Tillman, Margaret Mih

Scholars have generally focused on the important role of Overseas Chinese in the United States, but significant numbers of Chinese also migrated to other areas in the Americas, most notably Peru and Cuba. Cuban sugar planters solicited cheap Asian labor to supplement the island's slave population and increase sugar production in the context of rising international prices. When repeated efforts to attract European immigrants failed, the Junto de Fomento transferred 100,000 pesos from the European Immigration Fund (Comision de Poblacion Blanca) in 1847 to insure and engage former slave traders of the firm Julieta y Cia to import contracted laborers from China to Cuba. (1) In the following twenty-six years, an estimated 124,873 to 150,000 Chinese migrants arrived in Cuba. (2) Among them were Hakka farmers, lured to ports like Hong Kong and Xiamen because of famine, many of whom had allegedly not understood the stipulations of their contracts. (3) Coolies also included some circulatory migrants to the Philippines and even natives indigenous to Mexico. (4) Notwithstanding its complexities, the coolie system first introduced Chinese to Cuba and created the basis of a significant mixed-race Chinese Cuban community.

This community has produced important historical records detailing daily life in Cuba, as well as ongoing communication between the Chinese Cuban community with ties in China. Historian Kathleen Lopez has recently and persuasively argued in her book Chinese Cubans: A Trancultural History that the Chinese community played a significant but often overlooked role in Cuban history. (5) As scholars increasingly draw attention to the complex history of ties between Latin America and East Asia, as well as the history of East Asians in Latin America, they will find local, personal records of great use. Fortunately, some of these personal records have been collected and are now online.

In August 2013 a Memo of Understanding (MOU) was signed between Mr. Melikian and Arizona State University Libraries defining the relationship between ASU Libraries and the James and Ana Melikian Collection. ASU Libraries received the images (from the digitization) and placed them in the libraries' repository.

The Arizona State University Digital Repository is an open-access repository managed by ASU Libraries and available for use to the global public. The goal of the ASU Digital Repository is to advance research and learning at ASU, to foster interdisciplinary collaboration, to contribute to the development of new knowledge through the archiving, preservation, and presentation of digital resources, and to facilitate discovery of and provide open access to these resources. The repository is fully indexed allowing for search by keyword, subject, Melikian number, and series. The repository is searchable using both the Latin alphabet and Chinese characters. The repository is harvested by Google and is also searchable using Google. The platform for the digital repository is an object-relational database based on a Python web framework (Django) and other open-source technologies. The repository is hosted on Arizona State University servers and presently contains over 2.5 terabytes of information. The metadata are loosely based on the Dublin Core with modifications.


ASU's online searchable repository contains over 1,479 archival documents concerning Chinese in Cuba. The documents in the Melikian Collection span the late 1850s to the 1970s, and contain a wide range of sources, from personal photographs to visa documentation. At present, the repository contains over one thousand manuscripts in Spanish, around two hundred manuscripts in Chinese, as well as a small number of manuscripts in other European languages.

Items from the nineteenth century tend to focus mostly on government or paragovernmental documentation and regulation of the Chinese. These archival documents include labor contracts; ship manifests and docking information about shipments of workers arriving on the island; legal documents about regulations; baptismal, marriage, and birth documents; documentation necessary for permanent residency on the island; information about runaways; and legal disputes with regard to the Chinese. ASU has collated the paragovernmental and governmental materials in this manner in order to facilitate the study of immigration and naturalization on the island.

The Melikian Collection's twentieth-century materials are much more diverse. One reason for this is that in the twentieth century the Chinese Cuban community gained a greater degree of wealth and resources to create records from their own perspective. This shift in the socioeconomic spectrum was in part due to the immigration of relatively wealthy Chinese immigrants to Cuba during this time period. (6) Another reason is the increased prevalence of modern technologies, such as the camera, which allowed the community to capture information about their families and lives. The Melikian Collection contains a great number of personal photographs from family photo albums. Here, scholars can see visible evidence of the daily lives of Chinese, especially relatively wealthy shopkeepers in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to these digitized materials, the physical collection also contains some evidence of material culture, especially traditional Chinese medicine and coinage. The collection also contains the manuscript of an unpublished novel and a great many letters. Because these materials were amassed as part of a private collection, they span a range of sources and types.

By making archival documents digitally available to scholars, and by collecting some unique pieces, the James and Ana Melikian Collection has the potential to make a significant contribution to scholarly inquiry about Chinese in Cuba. The following provides a schema of some of the ways in which the Melikian Collection contributes to our understanding of history: the contributions of contract labor to Cuban society and politics; the place of the coolie trade in international migration; naturalization in Cuba; the contributions of Chinese workers to Sino-Cuban diplomacy; the living and working conditions of the Chinese in Cuba; the rise of Chinese civic associations; and, finally, daily life in the twentieth century.


A major question in the mid-nineteenth century was the problem of slave labor--how to continue plantation production while warding off the threat of slave insurrections. By the early nineteenth century, it was becoming clear that slave systems were not only inhumane for slaves, but also problematic for masters. In 1790, the black population of Haiti revolted. In the United States, slavery triggered political tension between North and South. These potential problems forced elites to confront the volatility of inherently violent slave systems. Abolitionists also helped to spur legal change, through laws like the British Slave Trade Act of 1807. (7) In this context, contract labor provided a possible diplomatic alternative to supply labor for the increasingly profitable sugar economy of Cuba. (8) Plantation masters could foresee introducing a new ethnic group to divide the plantation labor population racially; nevertheless, contract labor also disrupted the existing labor structures and complicated the existing racial landscape of Cuba. (9) Thus, the merits of contract labor, and its relationship to slave labor, were a contentious issue in the nineteenth century.

Drawing in part on these historical debates, modern scholars, like Denise Helly and Evelyn Hu-DeHart, have researched the historical claim that coolie labor could allow Cuba to transition from a labor-intensive, slave-based economy to a technologically advanced, wage-based economy. The political and economic ramifications of contract labor have been debated at length among scholars. For example, Rebecca Scott has examined the issue from a political perspective, especially because the contract system introduced an alternative model to the existing slave system. (10) Denise Helly and Evelyn Hu-DeHart have debated the issue from an economic standpoint; whereas Hu-DeHart emphasizes profitability of the coolie trade within neoliberalism, Helly focuses on the limited contribution of contract workers to adjusting the sugar economy. (11)

The Melikian Collection contains contracts, economic script, and other materials that supplement our understanding of the coolie system. Although these types of materials have been uncovered before, the volume of over four hundred contracts in the Melikian Collection, for example, could be studied more systematically for numerical and salary changes over time. Furthermore, although contracts have been previously replicated, scholars have generally focused on terms of contracts rather than the material culture of the contracts. The digital collection offers facsimiles of the contracts, which allows us to see the visual motifs that sometimes adorned the marginalia of the contracts. These motifs of Chinese farmers perhaps intended to convey information about the nature of the work involved to some men who spoke regional dialects unfamiliar with that of the Chinese scribes that processed the paperwork.


The coolie trade tapped into existing patterns of circular migration within the southeast Pacific, as well as the illegal opium trade. (12) Because of existing patterns of circular migration (despite the Qing ban against out-migration), some early contract workers anticipated working in the Philippines...

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