Sea dispute no barrier to celebrations in the Philippines

One of the Philippines' many ironies is that while Manila and Beijing are feuding over the South China Sea, a large chunk of the Philippine economy is kept alive by Filipinos with roots in mainland China.

That irony is even more pronounced as Chinese New Year rolls by, when China's flag is hoisted alongside the Philippine flag in Manila's Binondo district, the cradle of Chinese influence in the Philippines.

The two countries are locked in heated disputes over territories in the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea, a sea lane vital for its resources and strategic location. Some pundits are even warning that an armed conflict may be inevitable.

But in Binondo, the Chinese-majority community firmly believes there is much hope for peaceful co-existence. Manila councillor Bernie Ang, whose district covers Binondo, said "relations between our two peoples should continue", no matter how caustic the disagreements that separate the two sides. Binondo's council chief Nelson Ty said: "China is willing to share. We can share whatever we both can get."

Asked where their loyalty lies in the unlikely event of a conflict, the two were unequivocal.

"Even China is saying that wherever you were born, grew up, that is your country. We are considered Filipinos, so we will fight for the Philippines," said Mr Ang. Said Mr Ty: "I won't side with China. I am here. My being Filipino takes precedence."

Created by the Spaniards in 1594, the 66ha Binondo is the oldest and largest Chinatown in the world. It was meant to separate Chinese immigrants from the well-to-do population of native Filipinos and Spaniards who lived in Manila's Intramuros district.

Through the years, especially in the 1930s until the 1970s, Binondo had been the Staten Island for Chinese immigrants fleeing poverty and persecution in their homeland. It was a place where young boys with nothing but dreams could start anew and build business empires.

Today, the Chinese influence has spread far beyond Binondo's sinuous alleys and the chatter of its Hokkien-speaking residents.

It is an influence most felt in commerce. The three wealthiest men in the Philippines all came from Fujian province. Mr Henry Sy didn't even have slippers when he arrived in Binondo. So, when he managed to raise enough money to start his own business, he opened a store called Shoemart. That store has since grown into the US$14 billion (S$17 billion) conglomerate SM Group.

Two other Fujian natives - Mr Lucio Tan of Fortune Tobacco and Mr John Gokongwei of the Summit Group - are sitting atop companies that employ hundreds of thousands of workers and paying billions of pesos worth of taxes.

In politics, Binondo's influence has been less pronounced, as politicians tend to downplay their Chinese lineage. Yet it is as far-reaching as the strides the Chinese community has made in business.

President Benigno Aquino, for instance, is the great-grandson of a Chinese immigrant who did carpentry work in Binondo's churches before he settled in Tarlac province north of Manila where his descendants built a political dynasty that has given rise to two presidents and countless mayors, senators and congressmen.

That Chinese influence permeates every aspect of Philippine life has provided fodder for ultra-nationalists unhappy with what they see as Manila's kowtowing to China over the South China Sea.

Defence analyst Jose Antonio Custodio calls it "a dangerous assumption".

"You cannot doubt an entire ethnic group for what China is doing... We're talking about two- thirds of the Filipino population with Chinese blood in them," said Mr Custodio, who has written extensively on the South China Sea.

rdancel@sph.com.sg