Fantasia Chinesca

Havana, Cuba
June 15, 2002

Havana seemed like it was doomed not to happen. Cheuk had been corresponding with the potential story subject Miguel Chang, owner of El Flamboyan, for nearly a year. The combined factors after 9/11 and my dear papa fallen ill both slow down our travel plans.

Dad passed away this summer and I told Cheuk I was ready to go back on the road regardless of George Bush’s plans. But a week before our flight, we got word that Miguel suffered a heart attack and has been hospitalized. Communication with Cuba is a reminder of China thru the 70’s… extremely slow and inefficient. The phone lines are really bad and email is non-existent. So we had no idea what kind of shape he is in or if he is even alive. But we decided to let fate be our production manager and just show up to see what happens.

Abel Lam grandfather passport
Abel Lam grandfather passport

We arrive in Havana this morning and met up with our Chinese Peruvian interpreter Valeria Chu. For my opening shot, I film her in an amusing argument with the cabby who tries to overcharge us for the joy ride into Barrio Chino. The clip was priceless.

When we arrive, I’m in shock to find a bad set from a Cindy Lauper music video… decked out in tacky “oriental curios” and red lanterns… hosts and hostesses wearing cheongsam and kung-fu outfits with pigtails and coolie hats. I wanna fire the whole goddamn set decorator and wardrobe department.

As we are settling in to play a bit of tourist we get hustled by Luis Chung, a roly-poly street hustler with ears like an elephant. You can innocently mutter the words cigars, bongos or even girls and he’ll come running miles away out of nowhere to tell you he can get it cheap from his “cozzin”. Whatever it takes to make a buck… for the rest of our trip, I call him… my “cozzin Luis”.

Luis gives us an impromptu interview on the patio of Luna de Oro where he doubles as a waiter and customer wrangler meaning he stands outside in his politically incorrect coolie outfit and pulls customers in for a kick back. For my camera, he glorifies Castro and praises his Chinese heritage. I’m not sure how long he has been this “born again Chinaman” or is this merely an act to seduce us and other unsuspecting tourists. You can only take my cozzin Luis with a grain of salt. You never know how much is truth or dare. One thing I’m sure of is that his “wise guy” street colloquialism is having a hay day with Valeria’s proper Spanish.

As we make our way to the end of the strip, we get busted again. This time by a tartly woman in halter top and hot pants at least two to three sizes too small. When she approached to speak with Cheuk, I mistook her for a hooker trying to pull a trick. But it was much too early in the day. It turns out she works for Grupo Promotor del Barrio Chino de La Habana, a Castro agency responsible for the rejuvenation of the Fantasia Chinesca that we are now in. We’re not sure if she objected to us filming in Cantonese or just for talking to my unsavoury cozzin Luis. But she wants to haul Cheuk in to to see the president. However, we got what we need and agreed to put our camera away for the time being.

Before leaving the Grupo turf, we drop in on Miguel who lives just on the edge of this Grupo Disneyland. Miguel is back from the hospital and recovering at home. He is sleeping on his couch with the TV blasting when we arrive. This is a strange but common phenomenon with the elderly. My dad usually has his TV and the radio blasting simultaneously with his Chinese programs on. Could be just bad hearing. But Miguel was very weak. We could barely hear him when he tried to say something to us. It didn’t look like we would be able to shoot our original story. But we were confident that maybe my cozzin would help us find another as we did in Madagascar.