Bridging the Gap

By Luis Antone Tan (H4G), Stallion Literary Editor
photos provided by Ms. Jeraldine Ching, Ignite Office

What is in a name or label that gives it so much power, even to the point where it can lead people to create a conclusion even without any evidence? In contemporary Philippine society, this power seems to have created a rift between the Chinese and Filipinos living in the country—a topic seldom debated upon by the masses. Due to the lack of discussion and study, the cause and validity of this divide is considered by many as a mystery.

Fortunately, some people who are directly affected by this division have taken action in order to understand the problem of racial discrimination and socio-cultural stereotypes, and thus attempt to remedy it. One of them is Xavier’s very own Richard T. Chu of Batch 1982. He earned his A.B. from Ateneo de Manila University in 1986, his M.A from Stanford University in 1994, and his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 2003, and is now currently an associate professor in the Department of History of the University of Massachusetts. His research focuses on the history of the Chinese in the Philippines and the different Chinese diasporic communities in the world, centering on issues of ethnicity, gender, and nationalism. He has published several articles, including “Rethinking the Chinese Mestizos of the Philippines” (in Shen and Edwards, Beyond China: Migrating Identities, Centre for the Study of the Chinese Southern Diaspora, ANU, 2002), “The ‘Chinese’ and ‘Mestizos’ of the Philippines:  Towards a New Interpretation” (Philippine Studies Journal, 2002), “The ‘Chinaman’ Question: A Conundrum in U.S. Imperial Policy in the Pacific” (Kritika Kultura, 2006), and “Filipino Americans in Boston/Massachusetts” (Institute of Asian American Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston, 2007).

On Thursday, August 8, 2013, Xavier School had the pleasure of having him give a talk to the current students of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program about the prevailing issues of racial discrimination and stereotypes. His talk and academic forum was entitled What It Means to be “Chinese” in the Philippines, and was held in the Angelo King Multi-Purpose Center (MPC).


He began his presentation with a quote in Hokkien—the dialect spoken by many of the Filipino-Chinese members of our society—that he always heard from his parents and family: “Di tio kong lán-lâng ōe. Di bian hoan-á gōng ki. (你該說咱人話. 你變番仔戆去.)” In English, this means to “Act like our own people, or go with the stupid foreign barbarians.” The word “lán-lâng” literally means “own people”, while “hoan-á” literally means “foreign barbarian.” However, in Chinese communities around the Philippines, these words now take on the meaning of “Chinese people” and “Filipinos” respectively. From the way the Chinese saw the Filipinos, a sense of superiority can be strongly felt, which are not only seen through the Chinese labels for the Filipinos but also in several Chinese traditions. For example, Chinese families discourage their children from having intermarriages with Filipinos; they can only marry fellow Chinese people. Dr.  Chu recalled the time his friend’s father ignored him for so long simply because he married a Filipina. Another example was during his time in the Ateneo de Manila University as he recounted his memory of one of his classmates telling him, “But you’re not Filipino, Intsik ka.” That was the first time he was stigmatized as a Chinese man. When he studied in China, he was called “hoan-á” by the other students in the dormitory, despite also being Chinese himself. These were some of the experiences that motivated him to start studying and learning about the issue.

He presented to the audience the abundance of intermarriages between Chinese men and Filipino women during the 19th century. From his research, intermarriages were very much accepted and sometimes even encouraged. From the faces of the members of the audience, it was evident that they did not expect that to be the case since most of them grew up believing that intermarriages were taboo and banned, or discouraged at the very least. He also presented that Hokkien and Tagalog have also blended over time: some Tagalog words, like “toyo” and “hikaw” were derived from Hokkien, while some Hokkien words, like “pan-niu (from ‘panyo’)” and “li-sibo (from ‘resibo’)” were derived from Tagalog. It was evident that there was that sense of harmonious coexistence between the two cultures and races during that time. The question posed to the audience simply was, “What happened?”

From his presentation, it turned out that this change in mindset between the two races began when the Chinese government went bankrupt. The Chinese government saw that the Chinese people who were in Southeast Asia were extremely wealthy, and they wanted that money to help jumpstart the Chinese economy. In order to do this, they offered them Chinese citizenship, which later on led to the establishment of Chinese schools throughout Southeast Asia. In these schools, Chinese children were taught to foster a sense of pride of being Chinese, which the Chinese government considered as a form of nationalism. However, with this came teaching the children that the Chinese is a superior race. From that point on, the succeeding generations began to live with the mindset that all other races or ethnicities are beneath them, thus leading to the creation of the several Chinese traditions that were based on this mindset.

Later on, stereotypes were developed, like that Chinese were hardworking and thrifty, while Filipinos were lazy and quick to spend. Dr. Chu also presented several factors that led to the creation of these stereotypes in the form of several comic strips from newspapers in the past, wherein certain images of the Chinese and Filipinos were implied. For example, one of the examples used depicted an American and Filipino businessman fighting, while a Chinese businessman milks a cow labeled “Philippine business,” and this image implied to its viewers that the Chinese were opportunistic businessmen. What also led to the strengthening of these stereotypes was the situation that could be seen in the Philippines. No one can find a Chinese person working as a maid or driver, or in the streets as a beggar—Chinese people in the country are rich because they are hardworking and thrifty, and the audience agreed with that notion since it was true. However, Dr. Richard T. Chu masterfully and easily disproved the stereotype with one of his experiences. He narrated that when he went to Taiwan, he could see beggars, drivers, and maids, who were Chinese as well. Through this he proved that not all Chinese people are hardworking and thrifty, as they are often perceived to be.

Lastly, he showed several clips from the Mano Po films. One was where the character, who was of Chinese descent, wrote down “Filipino” in the citizenship section of an arrival card on a airplane. Through this, he wanted to show that the Chinese people here in the Philippines truly were “Tsinoys”: the Philippines is the only country they can call home and they can not escape it. It was at this point that he revealed to the audience the reason behind how he had begun his talk: with the last two lines of the Panatang Makabayan, “Sisikapin kong maging isang tunay na Pilipino, sa isip, sa salita, at sa gawa”—because the stereotypes mean nothing, while the identity means everything.

Dr. Chu wrapped up the event by relaying to the audience several points. He said that the problem of racial discrimination will be one that they will be facing for the rest of their lives, and it will span multiple generations; therefore, it is crucial to understand why it exists and what factors lead to it so that it may one day be considered nothing more than a part of the past, and no longer of the present.  We are all human beings, regardless of ethnicity. What matters is not society’s perception or the stereotypes; the false identities formed by others—rather, what matters is one’s true identity.

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