Watching Havana in Habana Part 8 by Nathaniel Kostar

31 de Marzo

DAY 4 IN CUBA: Chinatown, Bongos and Palitos!


Chinatown in Habana isn’t more than a few blocks, its main attraction seeming to be a tiny pedestrian street off Calle San Nicolas (the HavanaCallestreet I happen to be staying on) just south of Avenida Zanja. There are about 8 restaurants on the street, almost all shaded by red and gold awnings and flaunting the ubiquitous circular-shaped lanterns you see in Chinatowns around the world. There are Ying-Yangs painted on walls, two modest sculptured dragons on either sidewalk, and a poem by a Cuban poet welcoming and embracing Chinese immigrants etched on a plaque at the entrance of the street. Coming in and out of the restaurants are waiters and waitresses dressed in traditional Chinese dress. Though most of them look Cuban, there are a few Chinese—more than anywhere else I’ve been in Cuba.

The history of the Chinese in Cuba goes back quite some time. In the 19th Century large numbers (estimates range between 50,000 and 130,000) of Chinese immigrants arrived to work the sugar plantations. They had been recruited to fill a significant gap in workers caused by the diminishing African slave trade, and many became near-slaves themselves, working tirelessly for years only to find themselves in debt to plantation owners. Another wave of immigrants arrived in the late 19th century, fleeing discrimination in California. And still more in the 20th century to escape political turmoil in China.

In the late 1870’s, there were more than 40,000 Chinese living in Cuba and Barrio Chino de Havana, which spanned over 40 square blocks, was the largest Chinatown in Latin America. But because so many of the immigrants who came were male workers who intermarried with Cubans, and many others left when Castro took power and seized their businesses, the culture appears to be fading. Walking around Chinatown in Cuba today you’re hard-pressed to find someone who is “pure” Chinese and living on the island. Estimates say, in fact, that only about 400 Chinese Cubans who were born in China reside in Havana today.

I take a seat at an outdoor veranda at a restaurant called Tien-Tan and flip through the 15 page menu. Before long a band arrives and sets up on the little pedestrian alley in front of the restaurant—maracas, two guitars, bongos, and a flute. The flute looks ready for the salvation army, or salvation of some sort. As I order my food they begin playing Cuban son and boleros and cha cha cha and salsa and who am I kidding? I don’t really know the difference from one to the next unless they sing it in the chorus—cha! cha! cha!—but I do know I’ve never listened to Cuban music and ordered Chinese food in Spanish in 80 degree weather with the sun slanting in under the awning to warm my cheek. I do know this is different. This does not happen to me every day. Cha cha cha and lo mein, un bolero dipped in dumpling sauce—the novelty alone gives me goose bumps. And palitos is how you say chopsticks in Spanish (according to the waiter)—did you know that? I didn’t (and neither does googletranslate), but I do now!

During a pause in the music, the maraca player and singer asks me where I’m from and says te parace Cubano (you look/seem Cuban) and I feel like those white kids in the Dave Chappelle skit who get happy because a blind black guy thinks they’re black and shouts a racial slur at them.

High five mom and dad! I can blend!

And now that I think of it, on the way here, not one, but two old ladies stopped me and asked me for directions.

“Lo siento. No puedo ayudarte. Soy turista,” I told them.

The music resumes and a middle-aged man in khakis and collared shirt with slick hair and dark features, a benevolent looking Mafioso type, not the type to look you in the eye and pull the trigger, more of a book-keeping body-burying kind of guy, has stolen the maracas from the percussionist and is dancing with a black woman as he shakes them above her head. And look at me, now I’m playing the clave with my chopsticks (palitos!) on my beer and smiling. A plate of dumplings is in front of me, and my fried rice and steamed vegetables are on the way. It is one of those moments when everything comes together, strange as it all is, and feels perfect. It is one of those moments when there is nowhere else I could be. And then it occurs to me, it’s Easter Sunday.

Across from my restaurant there is a bar selling what look to be massive blenders full of beer; large clear tubes about three feet tall and six inches in width. There are four people sitting around a circular outdoor table with a red Hollywood umbrella, the state run cigarette company, drinking from one of these big funnels. From their features they could be Cuban, but they are clearly not, at least they do not live here now. Two black men, a light skinned Hispanic looking dude with a visor, and a pretty, darker skinned girl in her late 20’s. They are all wearing designer sunglasses and well-pressed clothes. They are all hip, no doubt. In fact they are so hip that none of them can bob their head or tap their feet to the music, or even clap when a song concludes. Fortunately, however, one of them is just hip enough to take out his camera and snap a picture—a dull moment captured “forever.” Perhaps later, amidst the fuzzy half-truths of recollection, they will have had a helluva time listening to the musicians in Habana’s Chinatown.

After the band wraps up their set the guitar player walks over to me and asks where I’m from.

Here we go. The question.

He knows I enjoyed the music and wants to talk. He tells me, cracking that universal mischievous grin that appear on faces just before they are about to say something which may not be entirely PC, that the Asian customers never pay any attention to the music. This causes him to be especially grateful to me for expressing my pleasure. Then another musician comes over and before long I’m in a big conversation, in Spanish, with the band. They want to know if I am a musician, which I’m not, but I have dabbled with the congas and I’m interested in trying to learn bongos.

So I ask the bongo player, Amaurys, if he’d do a lesson. I ask how much, and he shrugs his shoulders—lo que quieras (whatever you want).

I finish my meal and off we go, Amaurys and the singer, into the streets of Habana. We stop outside of an apartment to drop some of the instruments off. Their set is over for the afternoon and most of the group will probably take a siesta or relax until the early evening before returning to Tien-Tan.

But Amaurys and I are quickly headed to his apartment, where I follow him into a dark hall with exposed piping, then up a set of stairs into an even darker, hardly furnished apartment with more exposed piping and a teenager, Amaurys’ cousin, sitting on a ratty looking couch. Amaurys doesn’t want to stay here, understandably, and we head to a park around the corner.

“Hablas ingles?” (Do you speak English?)


Then he continues in Spanish, just as fast and fluent as he’d been talking the whole time. I find this happens a lot in Cuba, and in the end it’s just what I need to learn.

“I’ve been playing music since I was 10. My whole family is in music. My aunt, un contadora muy famosa—she passed. Glory a Dios. The trumpet player in Pupi y Son Son, my cousin.”

He continues to rattle off names of Cuban musicians and speak as though I understand Spanish fluently, and since he speaks to me with such confidence, I begin to think I do.


“Si, si. Por supuesto.”


We are in a park in Centro Havana, some 20 blocks or so up from the Malecón, and like all parks and outdoor spaces in the city, it is crowded with people. Old men sitting, smoking, young lovers embracing softly on faded stone benches, kids playing baseball and soccer. The grass is half-dead, which means half-yellow, which in my opinion is no less appealing to the eye than the sought after suburban green. And fumes from the old cars rattling by mix with concrete and dust and shine under a setting sun.

And here we sit, me and my new friend, Amaurys, the bongo player from Chinatown tapping out one Latin rhythm after the next—ta ta ta ta ta teee bop!—ta ta ta ta ta teee bop bop! –boleros and bachata, salsa y son, bossa nova and samba—his strong calloused fingers and palms smacking—ba pop pop ta ta—ba bop bop ta ta—with sublime consistency and feeling—mindless, effortless, passionate.

The bongos, like many things in Cuba that are fixed instead of thrown away and thus prone to various mutations over the years, have lost their original drum skin and been remade with a clear blue plastic stretched tight across the circumference of the drum. But even without the natural skin of the drum, they still make a deep and desirable popping sound.

Needless to say my gringo hands have difficulty maintaining even the simplest of rhythms (perhaps made to seem simpler than they are by Amaurys’ mastery), and I worry my repetitive marcha, as Amaurys calls it, will scare the lovers away and make the old men laugh. But no one cares or notices me in this public city of sound and dance. The wild cacophony of taxi honks, conversations, children’s feet and voices, music like hot breath flowing from doorways, old slick-shined Fords painted blue and cream and ruby-red zipping by, Al Capone jalopies bumbling along , rusted metal bouncing and exhaling smoke plumes—the city is on beat, and my arrhythmic drumming is but an eye-drop of water in a vast ocean. It goes almost entirely unnoticed.

We play for about an hour, and talk, and then Amaurys daps me and hugs me after I give him 8 CUC for the lesson (overpaying again, I guess. But it is my offer, not his request). 

“Do you know where you’re going?” he asks.

“Not really, but I have nowhere to go. So I can’t really get lost.”

He understands, I think. Though I can only express these last words to him in English.


Oh go, go, go to this city! City of 2 million and right now every last one of them is on the street. Zig-zagging holding hands pushing strollers loitering in parks talking walking peddling bicycles sitting in the shade on their taxi bikes zooming by in yellow coco cabs that look like Thai tuk tuks but are shaped round as their name suggest—an entire city in the street carrying bags of onions and potatoes and tomatoes, balancing eggs, drinking rum along the Malecón, wearing berets and fedoras, playing chess on sidewalk tables, men with flashy silver and golden belts and Cuban swagger, Santeria kings and queens in all white robes that flow like a soft sea breeze, women in tight jeans and sneakers and tank tops whizzing past on Vespas and motorcycles two at a time, abuelas sweeping the sidewalk in front of open doors with exposed piping and crumbling concrete walls and bad plumbing and barely furnished rooms—and also in front of open doors that bear entry to timeless spotless living rooms with old wooden rocking chairs and mahogany cabinets and the aromas of age-old recipes wafting from the kitchen with all the olfactory intensity of moon-blooming jasmine. And on the street hardly anyone looks too busy or too stressed, too lonely or too sad, and no one passes with their face glued to a stupid touch-screen that is a portal to another less lonely, less real, less human world. And also no one (from what I can see) sleeps under the bridge on cardboard boxes, or holds up homeless cry-for-help signs to passing cars, or stammers past  with that tweaking twitching crack-infused stammer I see so often in my own city, or stands outside of Walgreens—there is no Walgreens—and asks me for my change.

Got any change man? Just a little change.

Every day a little change, and still no change at all.

What is this place I know so little about? What was it? What will it become?


 About Nathaniel Kostar


About Nate Kostar’s exciting Renaissance Man Project, and how you can help:

Over the past 3 years I have periodically embarked on a journey that has taken me to four distinct locations around the world. They include:

  • Dorf Tyrol, Italy. The Castle of Ezra Pound
  • Phuket, Thailand. Tiger Muay Thai Training Camp.
  • Paris, France.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana

In each country I have studied the skills expected of an Italian Renaissance Man (poetry, combat, visual art, and music so far), but in a modern, more global sense. In other words, rather than learn how to fight with a lance and ride a horse I went to Thailand to learn Thai Kickboxing, also known as Muay Thai–”the art of eight limbs.”

Ultimately, the goal is not to become a “Renaissance Man” in such a short period of time, but rather, to investigate the intrinsic values that lie at the heart of the Renaissance philosophy and see how they can apply to, and hopefully improve, my own life. I am also concerned with the benefits of becoming well-rounded, and of with the knowledge that can be gained by casting myself in uncomfortable, difficult, and sometimes painful (ie: Muay Thai) situations.

This project began three years ago and I only have two months left. The first month will take place in The Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands where salsa is part of everyday life for many.

To help donate to Nate’s project and bring it to completion, click here!