Chinese-Filipinos On Deck

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

A very busy schedule trying to make up for an extended absence due to a trip abroad made me miss a most interesting article written by F. Sionil Jose. The truth is, I have not read it yet.

But some Facebook friends posted two rebuttals to the F. Sionil Jose article, one from a Clinton Palanca, and the other from columnist Boying Pimentel. I read their reactions to the article in question and a common feature was that both Palanca and Pimentel apparently regard F. Sionil Jose highly. That made their responses very amicable, very courteous, but very clear as well. It is so refreshing to find contrary views so civilly expressed when the issue could be very hotly debated.

Sionil Jose’s controversial opinion is like a can that has been opened publicly, a can that has been open since 2012 when China first grabbed Scarborough Shoal. I can almost call this can a can of worms but that would be inaccurate on my part as of yet. Yes, it can be a can of worms, or it can be much worse. It is simply that delicate.

The bullying of China, not just claiming what we also claim as ours, but actually occupying the disputed reefs and islets, now even building structures widely believed to be of military use as well on them, is triggering not just anger against a government but also against the Chinese people. Wrong or right, it remains a fact. And those who don’t think so, especially Chinese-Filipinos, would fare better not to be so defensive but more reflective.

I am not talking about who is right and who is wrong. What is so historical and cultural can have so many nuances that no debate will ever end to collective satisfaction. I am not saying there is good reason for Filipinos to resent Chinese-Filipinos, or do not. I am saying that there is a quiet resentment that is more general than selective.

At the height of the China-Philippines controversy in 2012, I was requested to meet with a small group of businessmen, all Chinese-Filipinos. They were not from Metro Manila and I remember flying to a provincial city and had a quiet and somber exchange of views over a long and slow meal. The main menu was not the food, it was about China and the emotional response of a growing number of Filipinos.

I am no expert in Filipino-Chinese relations, historically and culturally. I guess I know enough as most other people, but that would be enough. Because the slow boil on the ground is not fuelled by expert knowledge, although there is history and culture involved there. What I brought to the table was what I have been experiencing as a social and political advocate for 30 years, of being a ground worker for causes that directly engage people and communities, especially the poor.

It may be that the relationship between the Spanish authorities and the Chinese during the colonial period had not been mostly friendly. We are all aware of the stories about how the Spanish government here at that time had, from time to time, been very harsh with the Chinese in the Philippines, whether in Manila or Batangas. At particular times, the treatment had been very violent, described in some historical accounts as “massacres.”

It is not strange, as well, that locals who had long been subjects of Spanish rule would often be very influenced by what the foreign masters do. Even Christianity expanded quickly without theological acceptance by their native converts, but by the desire or mandate of a State that was married to the Church. It stands to logic that when the State and the Church would move one way, most natives would follow. I do not refer to the very small minority of rebels who were not able to mount a nationwide rebellion until after 300 years.

If the State, and I believe the Church, too, during that period, had been prejudiced and suspicious of the Chinese for whatever reason, native Filipinos were influenced enough to grow their own prejudice against the Chinese. And in the last century without Spain, I do not see any reason why such a prejudice would go away. I do not remember any overt campaign by Chinese-Filipinos to reach out and try to dismantle the view of native Filipinos about them. Maybe, it hardly mattered then. Maybe, it matters much more now.

I remember the 1998 riots in many cities and provinces of Indonesia. What started out as student protests unfortunately happened during an economic slump. In short, rioting broke out and many commercial establishments were looted, mostly owned by Chinese-Indonesians. The security forces of the state tried to quell the riots and looting, and thousands died in the process, mostly protestors and looters. But many Chinese-Indonesians were killed and raped in the process, sending a chilling aftertaste that was more than just political or economic among Chinese-Indonesian families.

Like Indonesia, collective anti-Chinese sentiments have roots in politics and economics. Like Indonesia, the majority of Filipinos are poor, and the majority of Filipino-Chinese are seen as rich. Poverty seeks to find blame elsewhere because poverty cannot be blamed on natives who were simply born poor. Authority will be blamed, the rich will be blamed. And rich Chinese-Filipinos will be easier to blame.

Having Chinese blood in our family (for more than 250 years) and a history of rebellion against Spain and Japan, I can testify that Filipino nationalism can be a fact for some. Unfortunately, Filipino-Chinese are on deck because China is generating so much ill will against all Chinese. It might be a good move if Filipino-Chinese communities and organizations make overt public expressions of their loyalty. That way, if and when we have to deal with Filipino traitors, we will not be distracted.

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