By Dee Huat Guan
Ms Dee Huat Guan visited our website in March 2000, and was inspired enough to contribute this insight to the Chinese Filipino experience.
The first Chinese junks arrived in the Philippines around the 9th century A.D. When the Spaniards settled in the kingdom of Maynilad (today the city of Manila) in 1571, there were only about 150 Chinese settling with the natives. Upon the establishment of the Spanish colony, the number of Chinese drastically changed, and, by 1600, their number had increased to 15,000.
Over the centuries, immigration and intermarriage nurtured a distinct hybrid minority and, by the 19th century, a new breed called Mestizo de Sangley (in today’s parlance, Chinese-Mestizo) emerged. A Mestizo was taken to be someone of mixed parentage, while Sangley (from the Hokkien seng di, meaning to trade) was the generic name of the Chinese as used by the Spaniards here in the Philippines.
Similar to the Peranakans of the Straits Settlements, the Chinese-Mestizo had a (Malay) Filipina mother and Chinese father. This pattern eventually paved the way for the emergence of a distinct hybrid culture easily distinguishable from the (Malay) Filipino majority. Chinese-Mestizo culture is a blend of the dominant elements of the Philippine cultural tradition: Malay, Chinese and Spanish. The Chinese-Mestizo did not speak any Chinese, the language having in any case degenerated in the marketplace into a patois of Tagalog, Hokkien and Spanish. They also developed distinctive customs of kinship (based on the Chinese system) and dress.
The Chinese-Mestizo community concocted a large portion of what we today consider Filipino food. While most of the dishes are Chinese-inspired, numerous local and Spanish ingredients have been incorporated such that a newly arrived Chinese would find it difficult to attune his taste buds to the food. Inside Binondo’s (Manila’s historic Chinatown) 102-year-old Panciteria Toho Antigua (panciteria means a place where pancit is served. Interestingly, pancit, the generic term for noodles in the Philippines, actually comes from the Hokkien pian-e-sit, meaning ‘something quickly cooked’), the menu posted on the wall reveals a curious mixture of Hokkien, Tagalog and Spanish terms: bihon guisado (stir-fried vermicelli noodles), Ho To Tay (a soup dish), siopao asado (meat-filled buns), arroz caldo con goto (beef-tripe congee). The names and ingredients of the food show the unique identity of the Chinese-Mestizo. The restaurant has since abandoned its old name but it remains one of the last bastions of Chinese-Mestizo culture in Chinatown.
Even more interesting was the way Chinese-Mestizos worshipped the divine. The Spaniards, being zealous Catholics, converted the majority in no time. However, a kind of mixed worship evolved among Chinese-Mestizos, the unique product of Catholic and Buddhist intermarriage. In their homes, they burned incense and lighted candles before the images of the Blessed Virgin who became a representation of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist deity, or Ma-Tsu, protector and patroness of the seafarers. Religious syncretism was also evident at the household altars of the Chinese-Mestizos where you could find both Catholic and Buddhist images displayed side by side. Interestingly, this practice has survived to this day and can still be found in most Chinese-Filipino homes and shops.
Another distinctive Chinese-Mestizo feature is in their names. Chinese-Mestizos commonly Hispanicised their names to avoid suspicion from the Spaniards who distrusted all Chinese, whether pure or mixed. They usually ‘slurred’ the components of their father’s (or grandfather’s) name so that if the Chinese name was Sy Kia, the Mestizo surname would be Syquia (e.g. Jose Syquia, Manuel Syquia). A good number of Filipino surnames today show obvious Chinese-Mestizo roots: Tanjuatco, Cojuangco, Ongpin, Limjap, Yangco, just to name a few.
In the field of architecture, the Chinese-Mestizo also developed their own flamboyant style similar in function to those in the Straits Settlements but different in style. What was termed the bahay-na-bato (literally, the stone house) was actually a type of shop house architecture where the first floor, which functioned as the store, was made of stone, and the second floor, which acted as the living quarters, was made of wood. This type of mixed architecture developed because the Philippines is a country usually plagued by earthquakes. Decorations were also varied, with (Malay) Filipino sensibilities integrating Chinese and Spanish styles. Nowhere is this mixed type of architecture more evident than in the city of Vigan, where the streets have retained the features of their glorious past. Up until today, residents still refer to the historic area of the city as the Kasanglayan section (meaning where the Chinese live). A sign of the influence of the Chinese-Mestizos is the town’s Catholic cathedral with its four Chinese stone lions guarding its entrance. The same feature can also be found in Manila’s San Agustin church and in other churches where there was a big Chinese-Mestizo community.
Today, Chinese-Mestizo culture has already been integrated into the modern Filipino identity. Where before, Chinese-Mestizos, the newly arrived Chinese and the (Malay) Filipinos were classed as different entities, today, the barriers have already been bridged and most Filipinos, regardless of ethnic origin, consider Chinese-Mestizo culture uniquely Filipino, and, though perhaps ignorant of its beginnings, something to be proud of.
Just a year ago, the local Tsinoy (Chinese-Filipino) community opened a museum called Bahay Tsinoy inside Manila’s historic walled city of Intramuros. The museum highlights the positive Chinese contributions to and influences on Filipino life. As a tribute to the contributions of the Chinese-Mestizo, a big part of the exhibit is dedicated to them. It is indeed very appropriate and significant that their contributions to Philippine culture will forever be enshrined for future generations of Filipinos to learn, appreciate and reflect upon.
The Bahay Tsinoy Museum is at 32 Anda cor Cabito Sts., Intramuros, Manila.