Updated: Dec 10, 2021
It was on one of my trips to Beijing, this particular one being in 2017, which now seems like ages ago, I stumbled upon the Overseas Chinese History Museum of China. I frequently yet unknowingly passed it as it was en route from my apartment to the hospital where I was participating in an internship program in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It was only by coincidence, after admiring the blend of modern and classic Chinese architecture of the building, that I noticed this was a museum. For me personally, the history of overseas Chinese is interesting enough as it is and standing in front of a whole museum dedicated to just that, I immediately decided to enter. The entrance was free. All I had to do was show them my ID.
The museum is huge and modern. Very clean and has whole full scale sets of streets, towns and ships on display to allow for a really immersive experience. Even lighting and ambient sounds and noise is considered. The scale, like most museums in China, is enormous and all is well taken care of. There is personnel around every corner keeping an eye on things, but not too obvious nor intrusive.
As practitioner of Chinese Medicine, one display was particularly interesting to me. It was about a Chinese doctor who had migrated to Cuba in 1858, and was so successful in treating patients, he ultimately was the inspiration for a common Cuban slang expression, people use when someone is thought to be incurably sick: “¡A ese no lo salva, ni el Medico Chino!”, which loosely translates into: “the situation is so dire, not even theChinese Doctor can save him!”
In general, not many know the origins of this phrase, or the man behind it. But this saying and the man it pertains to, helped lay the foundation for an alternative healthcare revolution within a revolutionary country. In China he was born Chang Piang Pon (詹伯弼). Having trouble pronouncing it, Cubans called him Cham Bom Bia or sometimes Cham Bom. Then to give himself a Spanish sounding name he called himself “Juan Chambombian”.
Chang Piang Pon (詹伯弼) was born a Hakka, an ethnic group found in theGuangzhou, Hong Kong, Macau areas of South-Eastern China. In the mid-nineteenth century these areas, along with most the rest of China, were in chaos: the last of the Opium Wars with Great Britain still raged; technological changes to the farming system put many out of work; there was a dramatic increase in the size of population.All that along with widespread political discontentment, natural disasters, banditry, and ethnic strife led many young people to look for work overseas. Chang grew fascinated with the advertisements he saw that promised a better life by working in Cuba. All that was needed, was to sign an eight-year contract. Only men could sign. Chinese women were not allowed to enter Cuba.What was not mentioned on the posters was that this was no more than a scheme to trap unsuspecting young men into an eight year long indentured servitude at the pay of four pesos a month. Once in Cuba the emigrants were usually sent to large sugar plantations and once there they were treated as indentured slaves, or "coolies", literally meaning "bitter work" or "bitter use of force”, a term for a low-wage labourer, typically of South Asian or East Asian descent.
The actual passage to the new world was also risky and very lively depicted in the Museum of Overseas Chinese History. Western colonists always put Chinese coolies, usually abducted or seized, in ocean-going ships and sold them off, transporting them to different destinations. Due to the dismal and overcrowded condition aboard the ships, a great number of Chinese coolies lost their lives to shipwrecks or diseases before reaching land. Therefore, the ships carrying them were often called “Floating Hell". A full scale hull of one of these ships, including the human cargo is depicted at the museum. Sound effects of the ships wood cracking and ocean waves are added to make it all the more immersive.
The situation was so severe that in 1873 the imperial Chinese government sent investigators to Cuba to investigate the large number of suicides by Chinese labourers, as well as allegations of abuse and breach of contract by plantation owners. Shortly after, the Chinese labor trade was prohibited and the last ship carrying Chinese labourers reached Cuba in 1874. By 1877 a treaty was signed between China and Spain completely banning the contracting system.
In 1854 Chang Piang Pon entered Cuba with a contract for agricultural work in the province of Guamacaro, in the western province of Matanzas. Chang as many otherChinese of the time was familiar with herbal medicine. He had a working knowledge of the healing properties of certain herbs, roots, bark, leaves, grasses, fruits, even shells. Legend has it that as a field worker he was able to prepare medicine made from the roots of shrubs and tubers that saved many lives. In 1858, four years before the contract was supposed to be over, somehow he escaped his servitude and began practicing medicine in Havana. His knowledge of botanical medicine served him well for the preparation of herbal teas, poultices, ointments, powders, soaps and healing incenses.He also knew about arsenic, mercury and opium. He grew successful in Havana; not only Chinese, but now Spanish, Afro-Cubans and people of mixed ethnicity came to him for help. Other doctors began losing patients and because of that, along with jealousy, triggered by Chambombian's successes, they began a series of law suits against him. In the nineteenth century Chinese Medicine was actually very competitive alongside the “modern”, “western-medicine”.
In 1863 Juan Chambombian was accused of the illegal practice of medicine. It was claimed that he was practicing medicine without a license and that he had just received a consignment of medicinal drugs from Chinese suppliers in San Francisco, California.
To his accusers the techniques of Traditional Chinese Medicine seemed bizarre. But what really made it unacceptable for the other doctors is that these "bogus" methods all too often worked better than their own!In 1864 he was placed on trial. The judge and jury agreed with the doctors and Juan Chambombian was found guilty. He lost his home and was forced to stay withChinese friends. He soon relocated fifty-six miles away to Matanzas. Undaunted, he began practicing Chinese Traditional Medicine again.In Matanzas he lived in the Chinese district on 11 Calle Mercaderes.
Again the allegations of practicing illegal medicine were raised; to his enemies he was no more than a charlatan, an unscrupulous foreigner cheating other people. With new court trials pending against him, combined with not having many patients, around 1872, he moved to Cárdenas, which had a large Chinese population. There he continued to develop his own medicinals. He is said to have used rhubarb, aconite, sulfur, arsenic and opium along with folk medicine native to Cuba and especially its Afro-Cuban population. He also continued to import Chinese herbal medicine from San Francisco and worked at a Chinese pharmacy, which gave him a way to make money and to find more patients for his private practice.
It was said, he had a number of miraculous cures, of clients, said to be terminally ill by western doctors. His fame began to spread throughout Cuba. Most likely it was during this time that the expression, “Not Even The Chinese Doctor Can SaveHim!”, meaning that a person was in such bad shape that not even a miracle worker such as Juan Chambombian could help them, appeared.
To promote his own medical and business activities he would travel back and forth
the ninety-seven miles between the cities of Cárdenas, Matanzas and Havana.Dr. Juan Chambombian was described as a tall statuesque man. He had small penetrating eyes, a slightly drooping moustache and a small skimpy goatee at the end of a long sloping chin. He spokeSpanish and some English with a Chinese accent in a formal style. He dressed professionally in the manner of a western doctor: jacket, top-hat and loose fitting linen frock coat, which he often carried formally draped over his arm. But he never forgot his humble past. When people came to him for medical treatments he would say; "If you have the money you pay. If you have no money you do not pay”. “I am no more than one simple man giving medicine to someone else”.
One morning in 1872 Juan Chambombian was found dead in his home, in Cardenas. He lived alone. He had seemed perfectly healthy the day before and no cause of death could be determined. The cause of his death is shrouded in mystery and there are many stories and speculations. It is said that he is buried in the Chinese Cemetery in the Nuevo Vedado section of Havana and that the grave site is often covered with flowers or other offerings left by people hoping to be cured of some incurable disease.
“No lo salva, ni el Médico Chino!”, began to be used to refer to other famous Chinese physicians of the 19th Century, although none ever would gain the legendary status of Juan Chambombian. These legends about the outstanding Chinese doctors of the nineteenth century helped create a foundation for the widespread use of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 21st century Cuba. Of course the Overseas Chinese History Museum of China has so much more to offer and I definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Beijing if you have some time to spare.
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