Appreciating the Chinese-Filipinos

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

This year, the Lunar New Year, known more popularly as the Chinese New Year, was again declared a national holiday. This is an indication of the importance of the Chinese-Filipino community in this country. We sometimes refer to them as Tsinoy or Chinoy, the colloquial term for Tsinong Pinoy or Chinese-Filipino. It comes from the portmanteau of the Filipino word Tsino or Chino in Spanish, and the Filipino word Pinoy.

In order to understand the significance of the Chinese-Filipino community, one must first learn the story of the Chinese diaspora or the overseas Chinese. Migrants from China mostly came from southern China and spoke mainly Cantonese, the language of Hong Kong, or Fookien, the main dialect of the Filipino-Chinese community.

In the 1800s, many Chinese went to southeast Asia first as laborers or “coolies.”  That was also the time when the first Chinatown began springing up and the Chinatown in Binondo is known as the oldest Chinatown in the world. These original Chinese migrants who came to the Philippines began to thrive under the Spanish colonial rule. They were also mostly male and the result was intermarriage with the local Filipino communities. This is the reason why many Philippine families can trace their roots to a marriage between a Chinese migrant and a local girl.

My middle name is Sicangco and we trace our roots to a union of a Chinese migrant and a Filipino woman. I was told that his name was Si Cang Co and he used that for his family name. My mother used to tell me that they were told that this Chinese ancestor still wore pigtails.

After the 1949 Communist Revolution in China, hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrated overseas to Taiwan and other countries like the Philippines to protect their lives and their wealth. This Chinese diaspora included women and children and the result was that there was little intermarriage between these new migrants and the local population.

The emotional attachment to their motherland of many of these overseas Chinese who came after World War II was still powerful and they considered themselves more Chinese and retained their traditional Confucian values more than those who remained in the mainland. In fact, during the Maoist period, the Chinese government started attacking traditional Chinese values such as family loyalty and social hierarchy. So while the mainland Chinese tried to adopt the new values of the Maoist regime, the overseas Chinese maintained traditional Chinese or Confucian values where they increasingly became isolated ethnic minorities.

This new wave of overseas Chinese became extremely close knit. Clan associations and benevolent societies often based on common village origins or common dialects gave rise to tight social networks that served for trade purposes and for protection of their persons and interests. Unlike therefore the first wave of Chinese migrants who intermarried and blended into the local community, this new wave remained a relatively tight knit community.

Today, however, after two or three generations of the migrants from the post-Communist era, this new generation that has grown up in the adopted countries of their parents and grandparents have remained essentially still Chinese but have also integrated into their local communities much more than their elders.

The overseas Chinese in their adopted countries started operating with a “minority mentality.” They had to rely on hard work and adaptability to ensure their survival.  They specialized in business and trade to help them survive.

In the Philippines during the ‘50s and the ‘60s, the nation remained primarily an agricultural economy. The Filipino elite was primarily landlords and landowners while the overseas Chinese focused on business and trade.

The overseas Chinese elite were predominantly businessmen. Allied industries like banking and insurance were set up primarily to service these overseas Chinese. The local overseas Chinese community in the Philippines and most of southeast Asia have therefore been mostly led by leaders of their business community. The leader of the local Chinese community has traditionally been the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Inc. (FFCCCII).

There is a new generation of Filipino-Chinese that has begun to ascend to leadership roles in their communities. In the Philippines, for example, the new generation may have gone to Chinese-oriented schools but have gone to colleges and universities that are predominantly Filipino. There is also an increasing number that are going overseas to western countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, to complete their education.

The FFCCCII, under the leadership of its current president Cecilio Pedro, is leading this traditional Chinese organization to become more engaged in the major issues affecting the whole nation.

One of the complaints I hear from the older generation of Chinese-Filipinos is that the new and emerging generation has not even learned to speak their national language, Mandarin. Furthermore, even their use of their dialects like Fookien or Cantonese is less than fluent and is similar to the Taglish that many young Filipinos speak.

There are some in the new generation that have gone into nontraditional occupations like in government, mass media, academe and the arts. Some have even become beauty queens, politicians and movie stars.

For the majority, however, business has remained the traditional occupation. And business has remained connected to family. The vast majority of Chinese businesses outside mainland China are family-owned.

It is important to understand the culture of the overseas Chinese because they remain a major component of the Philippine economy.

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