Tsinoy in the Philippines: A look at the Chinese Community
Ni hao! Hello! With one of the most important Chinese celebrations just waiting to burst around the corner, allow me to greet you with a hearty gong hey fat choy! Manila’s streets and some pockets around the Philippines will be filled with the noise of gongs, dancing lions and a blast of red in a few days as the buzzing Chinese community welcome their New Year, also called Spring Festival or Lunar New Year.
But before we celebrate the boisterous and delicious New Year with our Chinese friends, I am sure some of you are wondering… why such a big fuss about a second New Year? Well, apart from the size of the Chinese community in the Philippines, the two cultures have also gone through years and years of integration and merging that many of us really cannot tell the difference between the two!
Let me explain a bit, and let us discover a few fun facts about the Chinese in our country. Grab your favourite Chinese food and chow down while I tell you the story of the Tsinoy in the Philippines.
The Kingdoms (900 AD to 1535)
When places like Tondo, Butuan and Aklan were still thriving kingdoms beyond our imagination, our Filipino ancestors already had a very profitable relationship with the Chinese. The empire of China did not belittle our kingdoms and considered our country a valuable trading partner. There were trade delegations and ambassadors visiting all the time, both ways!
The proof of this very lucrative mutual relationship lies in the artifacts from Chinese dynasties found all over the country. Take a look:
In exchange for these kinds of precious porcelain items, early Filipinos traded, among others, a native wealth that was prized around Asia: pearls.
The relationship went on like this, according to the history books, until the big Spanish galleons came and changed the Philippine landscape.
Spanish settlement (1565-1898)
The economy and international trade boomed during the Spanish period. As with any developing country, manpower was needed. Luckily for them, many Chinese were interested in the prospect of business and ventured to the Philippines to seek their fortunes. At this point, the growing number of Chinese immigrants formed a small community of their own. The Spanish called this group sangley: people of pure Chinese ancestry.
Many things happened during this period in Philippine history between the Filipinos and the Chinese. One of this is intermarriage. The sons and daughters of Filipino and Chinese parents were called mestizo de sangley. They had more rights in the eyes of Spain than their pure-blooded parents.
As Chinese immigrants grew in number, however, Spain began to look at them differently. At the beginning of colonisation, Spanish attitudes for pure Chinese became so tense that they segregated all those living in Manila to a place outside Intramuros known as ‘parian.’ Because their activities had been greatly limited, the Chinese learned to do business on their own. In such restricted conditions, a person who has limited resources but manages to make it big truly has sharp business acumen!
A lot of Chinese turned out that way, and so they thrived. Soon, there was no way to deny that these small businessmen were valuable in the local economy. By the 18th century, the parian was abolished and the sangleys were allowed to live with the mestizo de sangley community in Binondo. Yes, Binondo… it was also around that time that the world’s oldest Chinatown was born!
The success of the Chinese in business indeed turned their life around in the Philippines. Since they had money, they began to become prominent members of the community and, together with Spanish mestizos, settled snugly in the middleclass-elite levels of society.
American rule until Martial Law (1898–1987)
Despite having a foothold in Philippine society, the Chinese still encountered a number of problems after the Spanish Empire was booted by the American Commonwealth. Americans tried to bar the increasing number of immigrant labourers early in their rule. But many still managed to pass through and arrive in Philippine shores.
The occupation of the Japanese during World War II gave the Chinese and Filipinos opportunity to reach out to each other against a common enemy. During the Marcos era, new laws allowed the Chinese to integrate further into Filipino society. But it took one lady, a ‘plain housewife,’ to truly turn the tide for the Chinese community in the Philippines as she symbolised the strength and power the community finally had in Filipino society.
Modern times (1987–onwards)
Enter the late Corazon Aquino. Now, she didn’t sponsor any specific law that furthered Chinese power in the country. What she did was simply win the elections and bring her name on the spotlight. You see, the former president was a member of the Cojuangco family, a clan that has control over banks, trade houses, businesses, a hacienda and the Philippine politics!
Not many of you know that Cojuangco is the Hispanised version of the Chinese surname Xu and that the family hails from the Co Yu Hwan of Fujian province. To give you an idea of the power that Chinese families have today, here’s just a few surnames you may be familiar with that have influence in many sectors in Philippine society:
Okay, here are a few photos I have of some popular Filipinos, then and now, with Chinese blood. Can you name all of them? I bet you could!
The Filipino-Chinese community’s history can be compared to a success story. From strangers, to trading partners, labourers to billionaires, the Chinese have worked their way from virtual nobodies to the most important people in the country. Unfortunately, this has got some Filipinos feeling resentful.
News of Chinese businessmen being kidnapped for ransom is not uncommon in Philippine headlines. The fact that the Philippines’ relationship with a number of countries with Chinese people (the West Philippine Sea issue with China, the Luneta Hostage Crisis involving Hong Kong citizens and the OFW tensions in Taiwan) is currently rocky doesn’t help to extinguish the stereotype that Filipinos have attached to the community.
Stereotypes and international issues are continuing to hurt a centuries-old relationship established by our forefathers, and not a lot of Filipinos realise that. I think we should begin looking at the Chinese-Filipino community as a sort of ‘pansit’ or Filipino noodle dish: that essential food in our culture’s cuisine.
What do I mean? The noodle of the pansit came from our Chinese friends while the dish itself has been thought of by Filipnos and prepared with Filipino ingredients. Whether the pansit is a sotanghon, habhab, malabon, batchoy, lomi, mami, miki or whatnot (name your favourite!), the noodle remains a Chinese influence. We cannot deny that fact. But then again, there’s also an undeniable Filipino twist to the dishes: that unique taste from the ingredients that cannot be found anywhere else.
The Filipino and Chinese cultures in our country are like the ingredients of the pansit: inseparable, complementary and delicious! We cannot pick one ingredient and drop the other because that is not the way to make a pansit.
That picture of the bihon truly made me hungry! I’m all ready for the Chinese New Year, I hope you are too as we are armed with a better knowledge of our Chinese brothers and sisters and how our histories have intertwined. ‘Til next time!