Havana’s Chinatown and the Shanghai Theater

A report by Alfredo Prieto for On Cuba News.

Jamaican writer Walter Adolphe Roberts left an exceptional testimony about what he found there in the 1950s.

Jamaican Walter Adolphe Roberts (1888-1962), the author of the book on Havana discussed in a previous article, unfoundedly has also been called a racist for his portrayal of Chinatown. His approach to the place, on the contrary, is invaluable to be able to capture the marginality that characterized it in the 1950s, at times with a harshness that is nothing but an expression of the purest realism, despite the euphemisms that the author uses or is forced to use.

Roberts scares away from the place potential visitors, far from encouraging them to enter. And he does so from an ethical stance, and even personal security, very well defined and consistent with other testimonies of the time.

He writes:

Like most of the Chinese neighborhoods of the New World, Havana’s has its morbidly secret side, its dens where opium is smoked and other vices are practiced. The visitor would do well to stay away from them. Anyway, few guides would risk showing him the way, and he would never find it by himself. If you can’t satisfy yourself only if you’ve taken a glimpse of the degradation, you don’t have to go any farther than some of the bars open in Zanja, near San Nicolás, and go down the side alleys. You will see the marijuana addicts and the drunks. Generally speaking, Cubans are not inclined to alcoholism, but the scoundrels who drink crude liquor at five centavos a glass in Chinatown, are simply using the easiest and cheapest means to stun their nerves.

Of course Roberts is, along with the Graham Greene of Our Man in Havana, one of the most important sources to enter the Shanghai Theater. Thanks to his testimony we know with a certain wealth of details what happened on stage:

A theater of this kind has existed for a long time on the edge of Chinatown. I will not say its name, but the visitor will have no difficulty in identifying it, since it is announced discreetly and each bartender and each taxi driver knows it. A typical program begins with a moderately long sketch that an outsider will probably find boring, relying as it does on dialect and local allusions.

The theater’s stage. Film “Our Man in Havana” (1959).

This is a cultured traveler who knew French and Spanish, as well as English, obviously; but in spite of that, what happened to other foreigners also happened to him: naturally, they didn’t understand the Cuban vernacular language, as happened to the men of the U.S. magazine Cabaret when they went to one of those shows. But, beyond any limit, they did understand the obscene gestures.

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