July 2007
Alien Nation

Beyond Binondo and Ma Ling

BINONDO congratulates newly-installed Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, who is of Chinese descent. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

AS A people, we tend to be fond of boxes. When we leave for a foreign country or come home, we pack up our lives in a box and take it all with us. Coming home is even more of a box-laden set of affairs; no balikbayan worthy of the name returns home without one, or, more likely, more than one. We’re good at packing things in boxes. We’re good at putting people in boxes, too. Gender discrepancies are okay, as long as they fit neatly in a box. Homosexuals are all right if they announce themselves as so, and limit themselves to the roles that society allows them. Different ethnicities are all right as well, as long as they jump out of the box on cue and do what they are supposed to do: the black import to win the basketball game; the Indians to do the 5/6 thing and then ride off on their motorcycles; and the Chinese to provide a continuous supply of haw flakes and Ma Ling.

It’s when ethnic minority groups begin to go beyond the social boundaries that we have set for them that we begin to get nervous. The Chinese in the Philippines are still the owners of the hardware stores in Binondo and the general merchandise retailers in cities outside of Metro Manila, but they have also begun to move beyond the boundaries and roles by which they had been known. Since the mass naturalization under Marcos’s time, they have been freed from the constraints that kept them in the retail and manufacturing industries and out of the professions of prestige such as law, medicine, and engineering, which are open only to Filipinos with full citizenship. They have not only moved out of the ethnic enclaves and into Filipino middle-class residential neighborhoods, but have taken up membership at the village golf club.

Ironically, though, much of the nervousness that the ethnic Chinese have inspired has occurred without them stepping out of the box; it’s just that the box has become very, very large. A study by the Economist, published in 2001, put the market capitalization of the Chinese in the Philippines at 50 to 60 percent. Even while more recent research on top 100 corporations in the Philippines points out that the largest businesses are still held by the Spanish mestizo elites, the extent to which the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines hold economic power is still remarkable.

While it is remarkable, it is even more notable that this fact does not cause more alarm or resentment than it does at present. This situation may change, as some point out, most notably Amy Chua in her incendiary (and somewhat far-fetched) book World on Fire, which hints at the inevitability of violence at some point or other. But unlike the ethnic Chinese in other Southeast Asian countries, those in the Philippines have followed the pathway of integration, rather than assimilation (e.g., Thailand) or separation (e.g., Malaysia).

The ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, and to a lesser extent those in Singapore, retain a distinct ethnic identity and, partly due to the fact that they constitute a far larger proportion of the population (more than 20 percent in Malaysia), they are able to maintain a coherent and hermetic ethnic community. There are many points of comparison that can be made between the ethnic Chinese community in the Philippines and that in Malaysia: the Chinese there are far more politically organized and play a larger role in national politics qua Chinese ethnics; at the same time, ethnicity plays such a large role in Malaysian society that it is identified on one’s passport, and the government routinely enacts policies to encourage desegregation of ethnic neighborhoods and curb the growth of institutional structures that maintain ethnic segregation, especially schools.

In comparison, the Chinese in the Philippines, while still retaining community values and norms, have more and more come to take on a certain degree of what might be termed biculturalism, especially among the present generation. Attitudinally, there are a significant number who think of themselves as either hyphenated Chinese-Filipinos or simply as Filipinos, who happen to be of Chinese ethnic origin. Equally importantly, they have full Philippine citizenship, and show little sign of wishing to return to China or of remigrating to a third country. The 50 to 60 percent market capitalization becomes a lot less threatening if one puts this fact into the wider perspective of the fact that they are Filipinos and that they aren’t going anywhere.

THIS IS not intended to paint an overly rosy picture of the situation, though, and neither the ethnic Chinese nor the mainstream Filipino population should be lulled into a complacency regarding their situation. The ideal of the ethnic Chinese who is integrated and thinks of himself or herself as Filipino while retaining Chinese cultural identity does exist, but so does the bigot who sees Filipinos as inferior and adopts a “sojourner” mentality and an instrumental attitude toward the Philippine economy. These two figures form the endpoints of a spectrum along which the Chinese in the Philippines are ranged. A fragile coexistence and acceptance exists now, but may not continue to do so. It is of more than theoretical importance to understand what the factors are, or were, that allowed the Chinese who did so to integrate into Philippine society at a structural level.

CHINOYS shop at Ongpin, one of Binondo’s most popular restaurant lanes. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

One possible response to this is that it is impossible to isolate particular factors that made the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines choose the path of integration rather than assimilation or separation, and that their situation now is the result of a particular set of historical circumstances that cannot be repeated. In other words, it was just a matter of luck.

Less skeptical or perhaps more optimistic individuals, can speculate on two levels. On the one hand, we can look at forces within the Chinese community and examine what made them make this choice rather than the other in response to the given historical circumstances; on the other, we can look at Philippine society and what made them choose to accept the ethnic Chinese, not just at the level of tolerance as an ethnic minority “other” in their midst, but as Chinese Filipinos. This is not true for all cases, of course; there is lingering distrust of the ethnic Chinese, especially amongst the older generation and outside of metropolitan areas, as well as outright racism and exclusion.

There have been various speculative hypotheses regarding the comparatively integrative acceptance of the Chinese in the Philippines by the mainstream population, as well as regarding the openness and willingness to integrate, again comparative to other Chinese migrant populations, on the side of the ethnic Chinese. But the speculative hypotheses are limited by the fact that they rely on largely anecdotal evidence, as well as stereotypes bordering on caricatures, which are based on ideas of attributed traits.

THE FALLACY of “attribution,” e.g., statements along the lines of “that’s so Chinese” or “that’s such a Pinoy thing to do,” is an easy trap to fall into when trying to understand the interaction between these two cultures, or when doing any sort of cross-cultural research in general. It is certainly convenient from a research point of view. But it’s always incomplete to look at anything from a single point of view — in this case, from the Chinese side or from the Filipino side. By definition, the account of an interaction has to tell the story from both points of view.

It is worth going through the hypotheses put forward, because they are not without merit. The Chinese in the Philippines, as opposed to the Chinese who migrated to other Southeast Asian countries, are ethnically homogenous; they come mostly from the same region of China and consequently speak their own dialect, which increased their cohesiveness as a community but reduced the relevance of institutions such as Chinese schools, which teach Mandarin.

CHINESE Catholics worship at a sidewalk altar in Binondo. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

The fact that the Chinese are of a more or less single Chinese ethnicity (mostly Fujianese, with just a handful from Guangdong) is also significant when one considers that the Philippines is itself composed of numerous strong regional ethnic identities. The Chinese could thus fit and be “Filipino” more easily than if the Philippines were linguistically and culturally homogenous. Finally, there is an often bandied-about characterization of the Filipinos as more inherently “open” and “adaptive.” While most Filipinos would agree with this assessment of their character, as indeed most of the Chinese would, as an inherent cultural trait this is difficult to measure, and as an explanatory mechanism it leaves much to be desired.

The emergence of China as a dominant force in the Asian economy has the potential to sway the state of affairs in either direction. The league of Filipino businessmen, especially those from the old Spanish mestizo class, is understandably very nervous; in political circles, the atmosphere of suspicion and resistance to the effect of China on Philippine economic growth in the short term is quite evident.

Beyond the earshot of the rhetoric of myopia and protectionist nationalism, though, the social implications are equally strong but the ramifications less distinct. The descendants of the older Chinese mestizo classes, who had previously downplayed their Chinese ethnicity, are now suddenly rediscovering the Chinese aspect of their ethnicity. The generation of Chinese-Filipinos who had emigrated in the first half of the century in the years leading up to the communist takeover of China and their descendants are now held in higher regard. But what has the potential to become respect can easily swing the other way to distrust if the power of the Chinese-Filipinos is seen to be too dominant — or, more to the point, if they are seen not as Filipinos, but as an ethnic minority group who has gained an incommensurate degree of influence.

WHAT IS at present making the situation that much more complicated is the increasing influx of what are often termed the “new migrants,” more properly known as the xinqiao. These are “mainlanders” who have emigrated from China since its reopening and represent an entirely different generation of migrants. They have been villainized as drug smugglers, shabu dealers, and importers of fake goods. Whether or not these allegations are true have yet to be proven (at least as a blanket description), but the fact remains that the image of the new migrants as a dodgy bunch is propagated in no small part by the efforts of the older migrants, who resent the competition from this new influx, most of whom are self-selected, willing to work harder, and may have better connections in China, as well as with a human capital advantage in being able to speak fluent Chinese.

Neither are these migrants a homogenous group; they come in from a diversity of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds from China (and, unlike the previous generation of migrants, are not all from Fujian), and they enter the labor market at many different points. These new migrants, in fact, are the reason why a more diverse range of Chinese regional cuisines is now being served up in small food shops in Binondo.

HOTELS like these are run and patronized by Chinese-Filipinos. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

The invention of the concept of the “Tsinoy” is a reaction on the part of the older generation of migrants to these new migrants, part of a conscious attempt to build a clear delineation of boundaries between an “us,” the Chinese who have been in the Philippines for at least three generations and are integrated to some degree with the mainstream society (or at least with the Philippine regional ethnic identity in which they found themselves), and a “them,” referring to those who have yet to undergo the process of acculturation and structural assimilation that the present generation has done, some to a greater extent than others. Apart from the encroachment of competition, the fear of the older generation — which is admittedly not unfounded — is that the Filipino mainstream population will be unable to distinguish between the newer migrants and the ethnic Chinese who have struggled to integrate into Philippine society, and that they, the more established and integrated groups, whose acceptance in Philippine society is fragile as it is, will be penalized by the behavior, or even the very presence, of the new migrants.

The creation of a boundary between old migrants and newer ones within an ethnic minority group is not uncommon, especially in societies that have had a long history of migration from a particular country of origin, as is the case with the Philippines and China. The trend is for new migrants to have to assimilate first with the native-born, as a pathway toward assimilation with the mainstream population. The effect of a sudden influx of new migrants on a fragile integration process is less evident. Nonetheless, the vilification of the new migrants and a double ethnic penalty — one of which might be deliberately imposed — are unfair for the xinqiao who had decided to come to the Philippines. Yet the outmigration from China likely to stop, and if the economy of the Philippines improves (as we all hope it will), the immigration flow is only likely to increase.

Meanwhile, the acceptance of the older generation of migrants is still very much in progress, and there is a long way to go. The descendants of the main wave of migration before the closing off of China in 1949 are now three to five generations removed from the original migrants, although many first-generation migrants are still around, and that the shift has taken place within the cycle of a single generation is nothing short of remarkable. The Chinese have moved out of the ghetto and into the mainstream of Philippine life, but they would have been unable to accomplish this had not Filipino society accepted them and allowed them to do so.

My father, who was born in 1931 and came to the Philippines just as war was breaking out in the Pacific, lived through blatant discrimination during his childhood and as he was growing up, and never thought he would see the changes in attitude that he had experienced. Today he is constantly amazed at how warmly Philippine society has embraced and accepted the Chinese presence in its midst. He was trained as an engineer but never allowed to practice due to institutionalized prohibition from access to qualifying examinations. The new generations have access to full citizenship and have achieved a degree of social integration that could not have been imagined 50 years ago. Nevertheless, the process of integration remains a continuous, fragile, and ongoing one, and greater understanding, as well as acceptance, on both sides can only be for the better, not just for the Chinese Filipinos, but for Philippine society as a whole.

Clinton Palanca was born in Manila, educated at Xavier School and Ateneo de Manila University, and is completing a postgraduate degree at the University of Oxford. He was a regular columnist for the Manila Times and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and co-authored a book on the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines, Chinese Filipinos.