Emslie Horniman Award – Martin Tsang

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Award Holder: Martin Tsang
University: Florida International University
Title of Research: Con la mocha al cuello: From Canton to Havana, the emergence and negotiation of Afro-Chinese religion in Cuba

My doctoral research focuses on the impact of the Chinese migrants–who arrived in Cuba following the abolition of slavery—on Cuban and Afro-Cuban cultures. In contrast to the sizable volume of literature dedicated to European-derived elements in Cuban society, little is known of the widespread Chinese influence on Afro-Cuban religion. My work seeks to evaluate and understand how Asian, especially Chinese ethnic groups have played their parts in fashioning Cuban identity, and how they influenced Cuban society and culture through the lens of religion and associated cultural phenomena.  Beginning with the arrival of the first vessel carrying Chinese indentured labourers on the 3rd of June 1847, more than 100,000 predominantly male Cantonese workers came to Cuba. The Chinese constitute one of the largest migrant populations to come to Cuba in the nineteenth century.  They have been poorly researched and under-represented in the Cuban context.

The impetus for this research stems from my understanding that Afro-Cuban religious traditions incorporate Chinese-derived practices and rituals, the extent of which has not been surveyed. Existing academic work has concentrated exclusively on the European and Catholic syncretisms that shaped these West African derived religions on the island, such as the correspondence between Catholic saints and Yoruba orishas.  I contend that this existing work presents only part of the picture. Initial pilot fieldwork that I conducted in 2010 has shown a rich cache of syncretisms between Chinese and African religious practices, as demonstrated in iconography, ritual, narratives and methods of ceremony and veneration.

From the moment of their arrival in Cuba, the Chinese have shared a similar socio-economic standing with people of African descent in 19th and 20th century Cuba. Seen as a ready, disposable supply of cheap, temporary labour, the Chinese were brought following the waning of the African slave trade. They were regarded as an antidote to the ever-increasing strictures on slave labour and recruited in order to stave off a potential plummet in labour availability following official abolition and emancipation. The Chinese indentures initially signed contracts requiring a minimum of eight years service. Upon the expiration of the first contract, and with little accumulated resources to meet the stipulation of paying for their own passage to China, many were forced to re-contract for a further eight years. The majority of Chinese eventually stayed and settled in Cuba, making the island their permanent home. The indentured plantation conditions were akin to slavery, with Chinese and formerly enslaved Africans sharing the same living conditions and working space. Chinese and African workers also shared similar social and economic standing in the eyes of the Cuban government. Their similar conditions didn’t stop there: their claim for land was looked at as non-indigenous, and inter-racial marriages between Africans and Chinese became the norm, intensifying contacts between two cultural groups, which in turn influenced the growing Afro-Cuban religious processes that began to take shape on the island since the introduction of slavery.  As a result, most Chinese took wives of African and Afro-Cuban descent. It is through these personal and widespread mixings of two and more distinct ethnic groups that emerged significant Sino-African religious syncretism. These interactions, cultural exchanges, and sexual intimacy between these two groups beg for more research.

Relevance of the Study

This research focuses on the socio-cultural dimension of African and Chinese interactions in Cuba, particularly in the areas of identity, religious syncretism, material analysis and the capturing of life histories and perceived worldviews. Slaves from West Africa brought to the island religions of Yoruba, Dahomean (now the Republic of Benin) and Bantu origins, spawning uniquely Cuban expressions of these beliefs, namely: La Regla de Ocha (Santería), Arará, and Palo Mayombe. These religions took on outwardly visible European and Christian guises and iconographies in order to escape persecution. This included the popular syncretism of African deities with Catholic Saints, following logical and intellectual associations and similarities between religions, for example pairing similar and parallel orisha biographies with saint hagiographies and affording the orisha a publicly Catholic and syncretised persona that was juxtaposed to a private, or identifiably African mode of worship and symbolism. African-derived religions are best described as being ‘hospitable’ and symbiotic with other religions that they may come in contact with. New beliefs, tenets, and the inclusion or synthesis of extrinsic elements from such contact with alien practices all aided in forming unique and intricate religious practices in Cuba.

African-derived religions in Cuba have incorporated elements of worship that are Chinese in origin, and so far, under-reported. Indeed, the research has unveiled not just Chinese symbolism inherent in Afro-Cuban religion but also the large number of people of Chinese and Afro-Chinese descent that practice Afro-Cuban religions, both today and from the late 19th century. Initial inquiry and fieldwork into this realm has shown correspondences between the orishas of La Regla de Ocha and Chinese deities. An example of this is the thunder god Shango syncretised with the Chinese Taoist deity San Fan Con (known as Kwan Kung in China). Afro-Cuban narratives have now expanded and assimilated this syncretism in order to provide an explanation of the origin of this meeting. Shango, the deified king of Oyo, an ancient kingdom in Nigeria, would have travelled to Asia whilst alive. There, he met various people and claimed the land for his kingdom, as now explained in contemporary Cuban religious narratives which seeks to account for the role of the Chinese within the religion and also to confirm Shango’s sovereignty. This was the springboard for my research. I went to the field equipped with this knowledge and the intent to discern the extent of Chinese influence and to answer broad questions as to how and why such syncretisms became accepted, and widespread.

This project incorporates two distinct phases. The majority consisted of fieldwork investigation: ethnographic research carried out in Cuba as funded by the Emslie Horniman Fund and crucial, additional support from the Sutasoma Award, as administered by the Royal Anthropological Institute. This was supplemented by archival research carried out in centers in North America and Europe.

Conducting Fieldwork

I commenced fieldwork in March 2012. I used the beginning of the year to supplement my work with additional, in-depth language training and by making contacts in the field through letters of introduction from established Cuban scholars and by working with academics in Miami that have access to persons in Cuba who would potentially be important to my research.

I initially divided my time in Cuba to include the three geographical locations leaving room to return to any individual setting that I may see fit in order to conclude research or to make contact with persons that were not available during initial field site visits. The three research sites were Havana, Matanzas (56 miles east of Havana) and Sagua la Grande (central Cuba), each noted for their historical importance in the production of sugar and home to the three largest concentrations of people of Chinese descent in Cuba. I also made research trips to Santiago de Cuba on the eastern tip of the island and also to Cienfuegos, 160 miles south of Havana.

Havana was an important research site for several reasons. Firstly, it is home to a thriving China Town that is currently being renovated in order to become a key cultural and a tourist destination in Cuba. In Havana and its environs, there is a sizable and visible demographic of orisha worshippers, of every phenotype and ethnicity and with greater access to funds and commodities than their provincial counterparts with which to conduct their rituals and celebrations. Being a major destination for extranjeros or foreigners: tourists, dignitaries, students and scholars, I was able to make many key contacts in Havana that participated in my research and facilitated my access to otherwise closed groups both in the capital and outside of it. I learned from conducting research in Havana that access is highly dependant upon the method of initial approach. I accepted the advice of trusted contacts gained through colleagues to “build up” relationships first before attempting what could be deemed fieldwork proper. This measure ensured that confidence was gained, my participants were able to understand me, and my interests in great measure and I was eventually given access and encouragement to explore my methodologies to their fullest extent. I conducted interviews both formally and informally in a myriad of settings. I also participated fully in innumerable religious events. It was very evident that my affiliation and backing by the Royal Anthropological Institute through the funding of the research helped tremendously. Explaining to my colleagues in the field that my work had been made possible through RAI funding, many took great pride in the part they played in providing valuable data, facilitating meetings and ensuring that I do not miss significant events. This was extremely important given the secretive nature by which religious practices are conducted in Cuba due to extant discrimination. This is made doubly important given how tightly moderated contact between Cubans and foreigners on any discourse, but especially religion is experienced on the island. It was very important that I conducted my research in a manner and style that was fully respectful of the social-cultural and political climate of Cuba, ensuring that no unnecessary attention would befall those that contributed.

How fieldwork influenced aims and methodologies

I did not make any large reforms to my research aims once in the field; however, I had arrived with a certain amount of research space within which to manoeuvre. A rigid research plan was not appropriate in this instance as much of my research rested on making further contacts once in the field and to participate in ethnographic opportunities as they arose. One of the most important events that occurred within the first few weeks of research was the participation in the annual commemoration of the landing of the first Chinese to Cuba. This is held at the port of Regla where the ex-slaving vessel, the Oquendo, docked carrying the first cargo of 206 Chinese from the port of Amoy in Guangdong Province. At this event and associated activities, I was able to meet Cuban scholars on Chinese presence in Cuba, as well as Chinese and Afro-Chinese practitioners of various forms of Afro-Cuban religions. It was through these contacts that I became aware of a crucial factor that helps to explain the process by which Chinese and people of Chinese descent became involved in Afro-Cuban religion. Unfortunately, I am unable to make the details of this public at this juncture, however it will be fully incorporated within my dissertation.

I was able to collect a wide variety of ethnographic data. Using the aforementioned methodologies of interviews and participant observation, I also included ethnohistorical methods of material and symbolic analysis. I was able to document shrines, altars, celebrations and other materials through photography and short vignettes through video recordings. In this process, I amassed more than 2,500 images, which may potentially be used in post-doctoral research. Collecting life histories was also an important undertaking. In so doing, those interviewed were able to affirm their own understandings of Afro-Cuban religion and its syncretisms as well as comment on their own understandings of identity and positionality. Aside from the anthropological and ethnohistorical data that I accumulated, I was also interested in capturing the ideas and importance of contemporary relations between China and Cuba and to understand how such relations may influence identity making and religious co-optation possible.

Of the data that I collected to support my original aims, I was fortunate in finding much more than I had initially anticipated. I was able to find further examples of syncretism between different orisha and Chinese Taoist and Buddhist deities than those that have been reported and published so far. I have also recorded oral narratives of Chinese and African interfacing within Afro-Cuban religion. This was especially prominent in the divination verses that are recited by Babalawos and Santero/as (priests within La Regla de Ocha) in Havana and elsewhere. Furthermore, I discovered separate yet connected instances of syncretism, such as the syncretism between Catholic Saints and Chinese deities. I also witnessed and documented Chinese material influences and iconography in orisha shrines and consecration ceremonies that were previously unknown.  In several distinct locations, specifically Chinese imagery was used in a distinctly Afro-Cuban context and manner. This latter point leads to an important lesson in how to conduct fieldwork in Cuba. I had initially thought it would be sufficient to inform my participants of my topic and to give examples of what I hoped to witness, presupposing that Chinese influences would be easily and universally identifiable. I anticipated that it would be relatively easy for practitioners to recognise overt Chinese influences within their own practices. I had not taken into account the several layers of meaning that specific objects are given and imbued with, as well as how much positionality and context truly govern the linking of sign and signified within the religious fields within which they operate. Having successfully interviewed one priest several times, it later became apparent that I could have easily missed a crucial piece of data due specifically to my belief that Chinese imagery would be readily reported. In this particular case, it was months into the working relationship that I managed to visit the priest at his home and view his shrine. I was surprised to find various images next to his orishas that were patently of Chinese origin that he had failed to mention. Understandably, to the priest, they were consecrated emblems of the orisha, referred to by a Yoruba name and formed part of a coterie of satellite deities that Babalawo rely on in their religious practice. Such images were therefore not viewed as alien or intrinsically “Chinese” and as such did not come to mind during our interviews that focussed specifically on Chinese “things.” As a result, I was ever more mindful of my modes of questioning and of the importance of documenting and researching continually, and to fully interrogate the assumptions I unwittingly brought with me to the field.


These data gathered in Cuba by virtue of the Horniman Foundation Award directly form the majority of my Ph.D. dissertation research as well as possibly leading to further instances of publishing and exciting post-doctoral work. This research is important not only to understand how two disparate ethnic and religious groups negotiate their place and identity in Cuba, whose histories and experiences have been academically marginalized, but also the significant contribution of new data that broaden our current understanding of religious interaction. By analyzing these data and offering a new theoretical framework by which we can understand the underlying processes, we gain important both knowledge and important tools by which we can further examine the juncture of culture and religion with even greater precision and clarity.