11 JULY 2007


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AS A people, we tend to be fond of boxes. When we leave for a foreign country or come home, we pack up our lives in a box and take it all with us. Coming home is even more of a box-laden set of affairs; no balikbayan worthy of the name returns home without one, or, more likely, more than one. We're good at packing things in boxes. We're good at putting people in boxes, too. Gender discrepancies are okay, as long as they fit neatly in a box. Homosexuals are all right if they announce themselves as so, and limit themselves to the roles that society allows them. Different ethnicities are all right as well, as long as they jump out of the box on cue and do what they are supposed to do: the black import to win the basketball game; the Indians to do the 5/6 thing and then ride off on their motorcycles; and the Chinese to provide a continuous supply of haw flakes and Ma Ling.

BINONDO congratulates newly-installed Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, who is of Chinese descent. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]
It's when ethnic minority groups begin to go beyond the social boundaries that we have set for them that we begin to get nervous. The Chinese in the Philippines are still the owners of the hardware stores in Binondo and the general merchandise retailers in cities outside of Metro Manila, but they have also begun to move beyond the boundaries and roles by which they had been known. Since the mass naturalization under Marcos's time, they have been freed from the constraints that kept them in the retail and manufacturing industries and out of the professions of prestige such as law, medicine, and engineering, which are open only to Filipinos with full citizenship. They have not only moved out of the ethnic enclaves and into Filipino middle-class residential neighborhoods, but have taken up membership at the village golf club.

Ironically, though, much of the nervousness that the ethnic Chinese have inspired has occurred without them stepping out of the box; it's just that the box has become very, very large. A study by the Economist, published in 2001, put the market capitalization of the Chinese in the Philippines at 50 to 60 percent. Even while more recent research on top 100 corporations in the Philippines points out that the largest businesses are still held by the Spanish mestizo elites, the extent to which the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines hold economic power is still remarkable.

While it is remarkable, it is even more notable that this fact does not cause more alarm or resentment than it does at present. This situation may change, as some point out, most notably Amy Chua in her incendiary (and somewhat far-fetched) book World on Fire, which hints at the inevitability of violence at some point or other. But unlike the ethnic Chinese in other Southeast Asian countries, those in the Philippines have followed the pathway of integration, rather than assimilation (e.g., Thailand) or separation (e.g., Malaysia).

The ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, and to a lesser extent those in Singapore, retain a distinct ethnic identity and, partly due to the fact that they constitute a far larger proportion of the population (more than 20 percent in Malaysia), they are able to maintain a coherent and hermetic ethnic community. There are many points of comparison that can be made between the ethnic Chinese community in the Philippines and that in Malaysia: the Chinese there are far more politically organized and play a larger role in national politics qua Chinese ethnics; at the same time, ethnicity plays such a large role in Malaysian society that it is identified on one's passport, and the government routinely enacts policies to encourage desegregation of ethnic neighborhoods and curb the growth of institutional structures that maintain ethnic segregation, especially schools.

In comparison, the Chinese in the Philippines, while still retaining community values and norms, have more and more come to take on a certain degree of what might be termed biculturalism, especially among the present generation. Attitudinally, there are a significant number who think of themselves as either hyphenated Chinese-Filipinos or simply as Filipinos, who happen to be of Chinese ethnic origin. Equally importantly, they have full Philippine citizenship, and show little sign of wishing to return to China or of remigrating to a third country. The 50 to 60 percent market capitalization becomes a lot less threatening if one puts this fact into the wider perspective of the fact that they are Filipinos and that they aren't going anywhere.

CHINOYS shop at Ongpin, one of Binondo's most popular restaurant lanes. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]
THIS IS not intended to paint an overly rosy picture of the situation, though, and neither the ethnic Chinese nor the mainstream Filipino population should be lulled into a complacency regarding their situation. The ideal of the ethnic Chinese who is integrated and thinks of himself or herself as Filipino while retaining Chinese cultural identity does exist, but so does the bigot who sees Filipinos as inferior and adopts a "sojourner" mentality and an instrumental attitude toward the Philippine economy. These two figures form the endpoints of a spectrum along which the Chinese in the Philippines are ranged. A fragile coexistence and acceptance exists now, but may not continue to do so. It is of more than theoretical importance to understand what the factors are, or were, that allowed the Chinese who did so to integrate into Philippine society at a structural level.

One possible response to this is that it is impossible to isolate particular factors that made the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines choose the path of integration rather than assimilation or separation, and that their situation now is the result of a particular set of historical circumstances that cannot be repeated. In other words, it was just a matter of luck.

Less skeptical or perhaps more optimistic individuals, can speculate on two levels. On the one hand, we can look at forces within the Chinese community and examine what made them make this choice rather than the other in response to the given historical circumstances; on the other, we can look at Philippine society and what made them choose to accept the ethnic Chinese, not just at the level of tolerance as an ethnic minority "other" in their midst, but as Chinese Filipinos. This is not true for all cases, of course; there is lingering distrust of the ethnic Chinese, especially amongst the older generation and outside of metropolitan areas, as well as outright racism and exclusion.

There have been various speculative hypotheses regarding the comparatively integrative acceptance of the Chinese in the Philippines by the mainstream population, as well as regarding the openness and willingness to integrate, again comparative to other Chinese migrant populations, on the side of the ethnic Chinese. But the speculative hypotheses are limited by the fact that they rely on largely anecdotal evidence, as well as stereotypes bordering on caricatures, which are based on ideas of attributed traits.

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