Tsinoys: A cultural revolution

They skillfully weave their way among the crowd – mingling easily with the common folk on their way to school, to work, and to the neighborhood grocery store. They are not fazed at the sight of kids galumphing on the streets or at the cacophony of horns and chatter that are typical of a day out in Philippine soil. In fact, the locals have grown to accept them – relishing, even, in their company as trustworthy people and in their service as excellent businessmen. In turn, these Chinese and Tsinoys have embraced the Filipino lifestyle – sharing the same land as Filipinos, and breathing in the same air that the latter does.

The Filipino race is a diverse blend of East and West – a skillfully crafted mishmash of golden-brown skin and thick-fringed eyes, of black locks and thick lips. A prominent segment of this race is comprised of our Filipino-Chinese brethren, or Tsinoys, as they are popularly dubbed. Comprising about 18 to 27 percent of the Philippine population, their ancestry can be traced back to Chinese immigrants and tradesmen, who maintained lasting relationships with the native Filipinos. 

Poverty and persecution sparked by rebellions drove the Chinese en masse to the islands, and reforms by the late President Marcos further assimilated the Filipino Chinese to mainstream Filipino society. It was a jagged fit – a rough-and-tumble integration marked by years of anti-Chinese sentiments and warm, acquiescent handshakes alike, but it is done and over with. Now, the Philippines is the harbor of one of the greatest overseas Chinese communities.

While we may see our Chinese classmates effortlessly weaving strings of equations with us, and our Chinese colleagues skillfully conducting business with the locals like natives, how easy was it truly for them to adapt to a lifestyle so different from theirs? Their blood sings of a childhood in a faraway land, yet they are home; their yesterday is nowhere in sight, and their today is the here and now. Where do Chinese-Filipinos truly belong? Who are they, really? – a clump of this and that, a heap of here and there. After all these years, do they finally feel like a warm-blooded, happy-go-lucky Filipino?

A cultural transition

Federico, a pseudonym, aged 51, looks out at the bustling metropolis from a window nine storeys up, sighs, and runs a hand through his greying hair. “I have no idea why you are asking this question,” he answers matter-of-factly, when asked to elaborate on his own history. “It was a long time ago, and there is no use in bringing up the past.”

He speaks in a gravelly tone – his Fookien reverberating loud and clear throughout the room. “That is not to say I do not like my past – for it is what I am proud of and it is what has brought me here today,” he intones.

“We were and still are a hardworking bunch – us Chinese are. Back in Hong Kong, I was a farmer in my father’s fields as a young boy – up in the early morning to gather straw for the goats and water for the cows. It was a simple and frugal life we lived. School was more than ten miles away, and I had to walk with thin slippers on for more than two hours. All of us did – my neighbors and me – and while we were not exactly well-off, we knew education mattered,” he recounts. He was a man of duty, like a soldier out in the front lines.

Fortunately, his simple past did not deter him from trying to make the most out of his newfound life in foreign soil. “I remember my first step on Philippine soil – it was a rainy day back in the 1980s and the streets were still fresh with tears from Ninoy’s death,” Federico says. “It was not that hard landing a job. My uncle owned a factory and he hired me. Every day, for five years, I walked to the factory in Caloocan for two hours, rinsed and grinded dry noodles for eight hours, and walked another two hours to get back to my small unit.”

When asked how he found Manila and Filipinos upon his arrival, Federico immediately quips, “Friendly, but the environment took some time getting used to. It was unusual seeing people smiling at you and willing to help you out in a snap, but the surroundings annoyed me. I cannot stand the smoke and the noise. But I was glad to finally make a living for myself.”

Federico has no qualms about his Filipino lifestyle, although if given the chance, he would have preferred to go back to Hong Kong. “I am still a Chinese above all. We Chinese can be a very closed-off people. While I have grown to love a bit of Filipino food, and even found myself occasionally saying ‘opo’ to older Filipinos – sometimes, I even laugh and share a story or two with the loiterers by the corner store; their enthusiasm is infectious – I will remain Chinese first and foremost. The Chinese are traditional that way.”

And, perhaps, he might even have been happy. “We Chinese are known for a lot of things – being conservative, patient, thrifty, family-oriented, and being good businessmen – but we cannot deny all these stereotypes. We are hardworking. We think long-term. We have a great sense of value for our families. Our bitter past has made us more methodical and more grim-faced and determined in our endeavors. Most of us flocked to the Philippines for a better future – a more stable job, perhaps. Some of us wished to start a family here.” He has grown to see his family live comfortably in the country – his children slowly making their mark on the world – and if he is not happy, he does not know what he is.

Filipino or Chinese?

Federico’s life mirrors that of a contemporary Tsinoy, who is more often than not caught at a crossroads. They are exposed to both Chinese and Filipino media and are forced to take sides regarding controversial issues, such as the ownership of the Scarborough Shoal, the Quirino Grandstand Bus Massacre, and many more. Furthermore, a Tsinoy also has difficulty accepting the pervasive influence of the West, especially the United States, inasmuch the same way that they have difficulty adapting to the Filipino culture. While people from the West encourage people to speak their minds, the Chinese are taught to be silent, and to respect what their elders say. They will seldom say “I love you” or “I feel hungry” or “you look beautiful,” even if they feel that way. Despite harbouring the desire to preserve the Chinese culture by force or by marriage, Tsinoys live with the niggling knowledge that succeeding generations of Tsinoys will never be truly Chinese, and never be truly Filipino.

In the meantime, the Chinese-Filipino have focused on the things that they can control, such as education. Not all Tsinoys are well-endowed, but they prioritize education above all, even to the extent of borrowing money just to educate their children and grandchildren. This is why there are so many Chinese-Filipino students populating the Top 4 Philippine universities. Tsinoys know that a flourishing business run by an astute businessman today will not reach its desired summit in the future without an educated young generation. 

In the end, the Chinese are known to be extremely proud of their heritage, as justified by Federico. “… We value our culture and traditions very much and we would like to see future generations honoring the customs we were born to practice. If possible, we would like to preserve our lineage and lifestyle as is.”

While this may strike others as extremely conservative and elitist, the Chinese’s great regard for their culture and ancestry is admirable. “Any Chinese, kahit na Filipino-Chinese or even American-Chinese, will always be a Chinese,” Federico quips. While Tsinoys, particularly young and locally bred ones, may not fully comprehend this kind of ancestral pride (torn as they are between both cultures), there must be no contest to which land they truly belong — they may be a Chinese in blood, but from the moment they embraced Philippine culture, they are now also Filipinos in all other ways.

Shi Ailyn

By Shi Ailyn

Stephanie Tan

By Stephanie Tan

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