El Chino

Lisa Yun



El Chino

you dance alone in a maelstrom of well-heeled couples

the tango, danzón, salsa, merengue, mambo, cúmbia

chachacha, guaracha on a midsummer night at Lincoln Center plaza

the singer shouts and you raise your hands:

el mundo se va a acabar

el mundo se va a acabar

aprovéche y pónte a guarachar

dance, old man, dance

your chest shines with the sweat

of memory, running rivers down your brown skin

down your moving waist and swiveling hips

down the strength of your sex

still alive still alive you say it

you dance the unpolished dance of the soil

of making love on leaves

burning sugar fields

chino man, your song is long, descendant

of proud men from farm lands

brought in chains to Cuba in 1847

to break bones on cane

only to die

under the harsh gaze of a New World sun

your songs of rebellion and imprisonment

of suicide

cheating the Spaniard

who paid 500 pesos for a live chinaman

estimated life span-- eight years

Chino, know that your son

boarded a boat and crossed the Pacific

with the savings of a village

to find your bones and bring them back

only to find nothing

unable to return, the son repeats the father's death,

distant and unremembered



You, shouting Spanish and Chinese

chanting the names-- Lee, Lau, Yee, Yang, Chu, Chan, Wong, Fung

Chino, you so old, so strange, we barely know you

singing your son in a strange uptown place

of ballet, opera, symphony, and summer dancing

disturbing the peace with

your story, shouting your name


You are alive

the center of the world

sweating oceans of the Atlantic and Pacific

stomping your feet, jerking your hips

your face lifted to the sky

tangled gray hairs escape your straw hat

your faded shirt and raggy pants are


your mouth opened, lined and defiant

aprovéche y pónte a guarachar

a proud ritual

under bright Lincoln Center lights

and a $10 ticket to dance in the plaza


of your ancestors long ago, packed on ships

coolie and slave, african, chinese, indian, brown skinned pobres

to Cuba, Peru, Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana

las Americas

your language labored under another tongue

you cut cane under the overseer's eyes

loaded guano, bird dropping fertilizer

its poisonous fumes killed you within a year

while men waited for loads in the harbor

dining under umbrellas

held aloft by silent boys



Old man

clench your hands and praise Obatala and San-Fan-Con

let us remember the leaves and shells as they were

let us remember how you chanted

run, run from the overseer

run, run from the overseer

ay húyanle, húyanle, húyanle al mayoral

how you worked the land in faith and despair

how you swept the leaves aside

making love with Juanika in the sugar fields and in the sand

hearing the peasant music of criollos and drums of africans

how you carried the gold ring of your mother

and her last advice, carry your name

el cariño que te tengo

yo no lo puedo negar

dance, dance old man

at 63rd street under the stars

sing your son, sing your sex, sing your family name


still alive still alive

Sing it!


      from Tribes Issue 10}



      Italicized lyrics are from the Cuban sons (a type of song) and other music about dancing, love, peasant guajiro life, folktales, and the plantation legacy. Songs include: "El Mundo," by Johnny Almendra y Los Jovenes del Barrio from Evolucionando, 1996, (performed outdoors at Lincoln Center Plaza July 9, 1998); "Veinte Años" by Maria Teresa Vera, "De Camino a La Vereda" by Ibrahim Ferrer, "Chan Chan" by Francisco Repilado (Compay Segundo), of Buena Vista Social Club, 1997. References to midsummer Lincoln Center refer to the annual outdoor summer festival of Latin dancing in the center' plaza, where people are admitted inside the velvet ropes if they pay the fee. Thousands cannot pay the fee but nevertheless, they have danced exuberantly outside the main arena. The story of the son who journeyed to Cuba to claim his father's bones is about my great grand uncle. He searched unsuccessfully for my great-great-grandfather's burial site in Cuba. The history of the poem is based on the saga of the Chinese coolies and my great-great-grandfather from Guangdong, China. Most were tricked or abducted onto European and American ships and sold in the Americas from 1840s-1870s. In Cuba and Peru, just under a quarter million Chinese coolies were sold, with the majority dying within eight years of arrival. Chango and San-Fan-Con refer to African and Chinese gods, both gods of war and protection. Both gods are present in Cuban rituals today.