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My life: José Josoy

The 73-year-old tells Hugh Chow about heading to Cuba from Hong Kong as a teenager, how his family lost everything and why he wouldn't change a thing

 

        

 

 

 

 

 

DISTANT SHORES My name is José but my friends and neighbours in Cuba know me by my nickname, Pepe. But the name that my father gave me is Ho Yui-kwan.

I left Hong Kong when I was 15, having lied about my age so that I could travel on my own. At the time, my friends in Hong Kong didn't even know where Cuba was. Back then, it took three days to fly here, with compulsory stopovers in Canada and Mexico.

Cienfuegos, on the south coast, is now home. It isn't a big place, but when I arrived here back in 1955 there were about 200 Chinese living here. There were three Chinese clan associations in this town alone.

My uncles - my father's brothers - ran grocery stores. They imported equipment from Italy to make ice cream, which they sold in the shops. I came out here to help them run their businesses. As the second of eight children, my father encouraged me to leave - life was pretty tough for us in Hong Kong.

 

ALL CHANGE In the final years of the Cuban revolution, up to 1959, many Chinese who lived here sold everything they owned and left to head home or start a new life in the United States. There are only a dozen of us left in Cienfuegos from those early days.

My uncles and I lost everything after the revolution. One day we owned and ran our own business. Then, after private ownership was banned, we became state employees. I carried on working in one of the stores for a while. Then I became a table tennis coach at a special school for athletically gifted kids, where I taught until my retirement.

 

LOVE ACTUALLY I have made many friends in this country. Racism has never been an issue because Cuba has such a diverse mix of races and cultures. The people here are very passionate. You know, I had quite a few girlfriends in Cuba before I met the one who would become my wife. I could never discuss this openly in the past but we're getting on now, and Sofia knows everything already. We've been married for 47 years. She's the main reason I stayed.

 

CALL TO ARMS Things haven't always been easy. I remember the battle at Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) a couple of years after the revolution. It's not far from here and you could hear the explosions. The men from this town formed part of the first civilian militia units to respond to the attack [an American CIA-backed attempt to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro].

Some Cubans want to leave this country. It's hard but not impossible. Our two daughters have left but I won't go because it's so expensive living abroad and I don't want to emigrate again at my age. I have diabetes and high blood pressure and Sofia had to have a major knee operation recently. Health care here is still good, and it's free.

 

MATERIAL WORLD Many people here make less than 600 Cuban pesos (HK$200) a month. My monthly state pension pays about 265 pesos. We receive some basic necessities with our ration books and I can make some extra money by renting out comic books. My sister in Los Angeles sometimes sends me Chinese-language magazines and Hong Kong films on DVD. I read all about Henry Tang Ying-yen [the defeated candidate in the chief executive race] during the elections earlier this year.

I last visited Hong Kong in the early 1990s, after my father passed away. I stayed with a brother who lived in Tsing Yi, although we don't keep in touch very much; I don't have a phone. I need to go next door and use my neighbour's whenever there's a call for me. Based on where my brother lived, flats in Hong Kong seem very small.

I do miss the food in Hong Kong, though, especially the Cantonese soups and Chinese vegetables. There's a bottle of soy sauce in our kitchen and someone has started growing pak choi in Cuba, although it's not very good.

 

MADE IN CHINA You see more people from China around here these days, especially students and engineers working at the local power plant. We replaced our old Russian electrical goods with new ones from China, which are more energy efficient. We've also switched to Chinese-made low-energy light bulbs.

If China prospers, it does make me proud and happy, as a Chinese person. But if I'd stayed in Hong Kong, I don't think I would have had such a fortunate life. Given a second chance, I would make the same choices all over again.

 

 

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