You can't take the Chinese out of the Filipino

CHINESE New Year, as a holiday in the Philippines, is like an orphan who grew into a spectacular specimen of humanity.

Though declared a public holiday, Chinese New Year, being a borrowed festival, is not as widely and elaborately celebrated in the Philippines as its Catholic counterpart, except in one, small district in Manila: Binondo, an enclave of hundreds of years of Chinese history, culture and commerce, the oldest and biggest Little China in the world.

Its parochial scale notwithstanding, Binondo always knows how to put on a show to celebrate its heritage, and for one day of the year, all eyes in the archipelago are on it, partaking of the sights and sounds as Binondo unleashes its dragon dancers, fireworks, and dazzling menagerie of red and gold.

The majority of the population, mostly Catholics, may not be exchanging hong bao packets or doing the lo hei toss or sharing spring dinners, but almost everyone will pore over their horoscopes to seek financial wisdom from China’s gods and send out a hearty greeting to Chinese and non-Chinese alike; and, in the Philippines, it has always been, Kung hei fat choi!

In a way, Chinese New Year, as it is celebrated in the Philippines, is a nod to how deeply China’s influence permeates through every nook and cranny of Philippine life.

Historically, Philippine-Chinese relations predate Spain’s colonial rule. Before the Philippines ever became “the Philippines”, settlements known as “balangays” were already bartering hardwoods, pearls and turtle shells with Chinese merchants. Some of these traders eventually settled in the Philippines, marrying into the native population and bringing with them an identity that, over time, changed the Philippine diet, language and fashion sense. (Apart from the obvious influence – fireworks and porcelain, for instance – the early Filipinos inherited from the Chinese the habit of wearing loose trousers and wooden slippers, as well as the practice of arranged marriages.)

By the time the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in Cebu in 1521, the Chinese had already been sailing in and out of the islands for over 500 years.

As it was then, China’s influence on the Philippines is today still most pronounced in commerce.

The country’s three wealthiest men all trace their roots back to Fujian province, their families swept up by one of the largest waves of migration in human history in the 1930s.

The head of the pack, retail tycoon Henry Sy, arrived in Binondo literally on his bare feet.  That experience, it is said, inspired him to open a shoe store in Manila that over the years has grown into a US$14 billion (S$17.3 billion) conglomerate.

Another Fujian native, Mr Lucio Tan, is now sitting on a fortune worth US$4.5 billion, most of it built on tobacco and alcohol.

Mr John Gokongwei, the third man in the triumvirate, was born into a modestly wealthy family in Fujian whose fortune was decimated by war.  He clawed his way back to profitability, selling anything he could load onto his bicycle.  He now has a personal wealth of US$3.2 billion, with key investments in Singapore via United Industrial Corp.

In politics and the arts, China’s influence, though still extensive, dissolves into a watermark: subtle, yet ubiquitous.

Mrs Corazon Aquino, the Philippines’ former president, is part-Chinese via the Cojuangco line of her family.  Her great grandfather hailed from Fujian as well, and her grandfather was a “sangley” – a converted Catholic – who did carpentry work in Binondo’s churches before he settled in what later became his family’s political bailiwick in Tarlac province in northern Luzon.

The man that Mrs Aquino supplanted as head of state, Ferdinand Marcos, traced his lineage much further back: to the pirates of the warlord Limahong, who in 1574 and 1575 tried to overthrow the Spaniards in Manila and in the main island of Luzon with an army of 3,000 men and nearly 100 ships.

More significantly, Jose Rizal, the national hero, is a Chinese “mestizo”, a child of interracial marriage.  Another Chinese mestizo is the Philippines’ first saint, Lorenzo Ruiz.

In the arts, the signatures of Chinese artisans can be seen in the Chinese Fu dogs that adorn the courtyard entrance of the San Agustin Church in Intramuros, Manila, and in countless religious icons that bore features more Sino than Anglo-Saxon.

Although China’s influence is woven tightly into the fabric of everyday Philippine life, Filipinos still have a sense of ambiguity towards their Chinese heritage.

On one hand, they embrace it as an inescapable part of their history and psyche, appropriating many facets of China as their own.  Yet, because they do not trace any ancestry to the mainland and because of the barrier that language places to fully embracing another culture, they also keep it at an arm’s length, as something that is still foreign and not entirely benign, regarding it with suspicion.

It does not help that a territorial spat between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea flares up now and then, stoking mere ambiguity into outright Sinophobia.

Most Filipinos, however, know how to place such wrinkles in diplomatic relations in their proper context, and whatever ambiguity they may harbour towards their Chinese heritage never crosses the dangerous line that differentiates nationalism from racial animosity.

In the final accounting of things, as can be seen in the way Filipinos embrace Chinese New Year, you simply can’t take the Chinese out of the Filipino.