Chinese Filipino in the 16th Century

The Philippines has a large population of people of Chinese ancestry. As in Thailand, Chinese in the Philippines have intermarried with Filipino and largely been assimilated into the population. Chinese language instruction has been restricted since 1973. Many young Filipino-Chinese consider themselves to be more Filipino than Chinese. Hokkein, the Southern Min dialect of Fujian, has traditionally been the primary dialect of many Overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore Indonesia, and the Philippines whereas Teochew, the Southern Min dialect of Chaozhou, is the primary dialect of the Overseas Chinese communities in Thailand.

In the Philippines Chinese have traditionally been called "Sangley," from a Southern Min word referring to "[those who] do business." Southern Min is a group of Chinese languages or dialects spoken in Fujian, most of Taiwan and Eastern Guangdong, Hainan, and Southern Zhejiang in mainland China. . Research indicates that Chinese were one of the least accepted ethnic groups. The common Filipino perception of the Chinese was of rich businessmen backed by Chinese cartels who stamped out competition from other groups. There was, however, a sizable Chinese working class in the Philippines, and there was a sharp gap between rich and poor Chinese. *

Because Manila is close to Taiwan and the mainland of China, the Philippines has for centuries attracted both Chinese traders and semipermanent residents. The Chinese have been viewed as a source of cheap labor and of capital and business enterprise. Government policy toward the Chinese has been inconsistent. Spanish, American, and Filipino regimes alternately welcomed and restricted the entry and activities of the Chinese. Most early Chinese migrants were male, resulting in a sex ratio, at one time, as high as 113 to 1, although in the 1990s it was more nearly equal, reflecting a population based more on natural increase than on immigration. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Population and Intermarriage of Chinese in the Philippines

There are around 1.15 million to 1.4 million Chinese in the Philippines (2013). They make up approximately 1.5 percent of the Philippines’ population. These numbers do not always reflect the full extent of Chinese presence. Partially assimilated Chinese are often not counted as Chinese. There are many levels and degrees of mixed blood. There are 27 million Mestizos and Mixed Blood, that are part Chinese, in the Philippines. Around 600,000 Chinese were counted in the Philippines (1 percent of the population) in the 2000s. [Source: Wikipedia]

There has been a good deal of intermarriage between the Chinese and lowland Christians, although the exact amount is impossible to determine. Although many prominent Filipinos, including José Rizal, President Corazon Aquino, and Cardinal Jaime Sin have mixed Chinese ancestry, intermarriage has not necessarily led to ethnic understanding. Mestizos, over a period of years, tended to deprecate their Chinese ancestry and to identify as Filipino. The Chinese tended to regard their culture as superior and sought to maintain it by establishing a separate school system in which about half the curriculum consisted of Chinese literature, history, and language. *

Intermarriage and changing governmental policies made it difficult to define who was Chinese. The popular usage of "Chinese" included Chinese aliens, both legal and illegal, as well as those of Chinese ancestry who had become citizens. "Ethnic Chinese" was another term often used but hard to define. Mestizos could be considered either Chinese or Filipino, depending on the group with which they associated to the greatest extent. *

Chinese and Chinese Mestizos in the Philippines in the Spanish Era

Chinese Mestizos

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, deep-seated Spanish suspicion of the Chinese gave way to recognition of their potentially constructive role in economic development. Chinese expulsion orders issued in 1755 and 1766 were repealed in 1788. Nevertheless, the Chinese remained concentrated in towns around Manila, particularly Binondo and Santa Cruz. In 1839 the government issued a decree granting them freedom of occupation and residence. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, immigration into the archipelago, largely from the maritime province of Fujian on the southeastern coast of China, increased, and a growing proportion of Chinese settled in outlying areas. In 1849 more than 90 percent of the approximately 6,000 Chinese lived in or around Manila, whereas in 1886 this proportion decreased to 77 percent of the 66,000 Chinese in the Philippines at that time, declining still further in the 1890s. The Chinese presence in the hinterland went hand in hand with the transformation of the insular economy. Spanish policy encouraged immigrants to become agricultural laborers. Some became gardeners, supplying vegetables to the towns, but most shunned the fields and set themselves up as small retailers and moneylenders. The Chinese soon gained a central position in the cash-crop economy on the provincial and local levels. *

Of equal, if not greater, significance for subsequent political, cultural, and economic developments were the Chinese mestizos. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, they composed about 5 percent of the total population of around 2.5 million and were concentrated in the most developed provinces of Central Luzon and in Manila and its environs. A much smaller number lived in the more important towns of the Visayan Islands, such as Cebu and Iloilo, and on Mindanao. Converts to Catholicism and speakers of Filipino languages or Spanish rather than Chinese dialects, the mestizos enjoyed a legal status as subjects of Spain that was denied the Chinese. In the words of historian Edgar Vickberg, they were considered, unlike the mixed-Chinese of other Southeast Asian countries, not "a special kind of local Chinese" but "a special kind of Filipino."

The eighteenth-century expulsion edicts had given the Chinese mestizos the opportunity to enter retailing and the skilled craft occupations formerly dominated by the Chinese. The removal of legal restrictions on Chinese economic activity and the competition of new Chinese immigrants, however, drove a large number of mestizos out of the commercial sector in mid-nineteenth century. As a result, many Chinese mestizos invested in land, particularly in Central Luzon. The estates of the religious orders were concentrated in this region, and mestizos became inquilinos (lessees) of these lands, subletting them to cultivators; a portion of the rent was given by the inquilino to the friary estate. Like the Chinese, the mestizos were moneylenders and acquired land when debtors defaulted. *

By the late nineteenth century, prominent mestizo families, despite the inroads of the Chinese, were noted for their wealth and formed the major component of a Filipino elite. As the export economy grew and foreign contact increased, the mestizos and other members of this Filipino elite, known collectively as ilustrados, obtained higher education (in some cases abroad), entered professions such as law or medicine, and were particularly receptive to the liberal and democratic ideas that were beginning to reach the Philippines despite the efforts of the generally reactionary — and friar-dominated — Spanish establishment. *

Chinese Rebellion in the Philippines

Chinese in the Philippines in 1899

Spanish rule was punctuated by periodic revolts, many of them involving Chinese who lived outside the walls of Manila in a place called the Parian. In 1574, a Chinese pirate named Lin Tao Kien unsuccessfully attacked Manila. In 1574, the governor of Manila was assassinated by Chinese mutineers on his galley. Even though 12,000 Chinese were expelled in 1596, settlers continued to arrive from the mainland.

There were anti-Chinese riots in 1603, 1639, 1662, 1686, 1762 and 1819. The one in 1603 was particularly nasty: some 6,000 armed Chinese set fire to Spanish settlement outside Manila and began marching on Manila itself. A Spanish attack was quickly repelled and Spanish leaders were beheaded and had their heads displayed on stakes. Spanish reinforcements from the south saved for the Spaniards. The rebels were turned back and Parian was set on fire. The Spaniards and their Filipino and Japanese allies then took their revenge and massacred 20,000 Chinese.

The Chinese remained afterwards because the Spaniards couldn’t conduct trade without them.

Chinese in the Philippines in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Spanish decline of the Philippines began in the 1700s when the power of Spain was eclipsed in Europe by the England, France and the Netherlands. Foreign competition in the late 1700s disrupted the trans-Pacific trade routes and independence of Mexico and other Latin countries in the early 1800s brought an end to Spain's trans-Pacific monopoly.

Mestizos (people of mixed Malay, Chinese and Spanish ancestry) began to move into positions of influence and take the place of the Spanish. The opening of trade created a wealthy class that was educated in Europe, where they were exposed to the same kind of liberal ideas and philosophies that fostered the independence movements in the U.S., France and Latin America.

In the late nineteenth century, Chinese immigration, now with official approval, increased, and Chinese mestizos became a feature in Filipino social and economic life.

In 1931 there were between 80,000 and 100,000 Chinese in the islands active in the local economy; many of them had arrived after United States rule had been established. Some 16,000 Japanese were concentrated largely in the Mindanao province of Davao (the incorporated city of Davao was labeled by local boosters the "Little Tokyo of the South") and were predominant in the abaca industry. Yet the immigration of foreign laborers never reached a volume sufficient to threaten indigenous control of the economy or the traditional social structure as it did in British Malaya and Burma.

Filipino Chinese Weddings

The Chinese, like the Filipinos, have unique wedding traditions, ceremonies, and even superstitions. Because China is a large country, each clan has its own special tradition and customs. Their traditions mixed with the Filipinos, made Filipino-Chinese weddings even more colorful. Here is a guide on the basic wedding rituals of the Filipino-Chinese. [Source: Jonathan Dionisio, July 13, 2009 /*/]

Cory Aquino, president of the Philippines from 1986 to 1992, was Chinese Filipino

The elements of ancestor worship and elder reverence, the lookout for omens, the use of professional matchmakers, the ornate gift-giving rituals and patrilineal kinship are similarly present in both traditional Chinese weddings and Chinese marriages in Philippine soil, along with the primary objectives of enhancing families and perpetuation of lineage. The element of time likewise plays a major part in Chinese weddings. Compatibility between bride and groom, for one, is more often than not determined by their respective star signs and horoscopes, which are in turn determined by the date and time of their births. The time of the ceremony is carefully picked, again for purposes of adherence to what their horoscopes dictate. [Source: ^]

Unlike their western counterparts, Chinese weddings make extensive use of the color red, for it is believed that the color symbolizes joy and luck. On the other hand, the practice of showering the newlyweds with rice is remarkably present in both cultures. In a marriage, the dragon symbolizes the male role while the phoenix symbolizes the female role. Dragon and Phoenix designs symbolize male and female harmony and a balanced relationship. The motif is rooted in mythology where the dragon symbolizes the Emperor and at his side stands the magically powerful phoenix with her life-giving song. ^

Chinese elders usually play a major role in the Chinese wedding. This role traditionally starts even before the child to be wed is born, when parents arrange for the weddings of their children. Sometimes, couples seek the help of a professional matchmaker, usually an elderly local woman of reputable character. Children, for their part, customarily follow their parents, as dictated by the analects of Confucius. ^

For the Chinese, the preferred partner is also Chinese. Chinese parents usually dislike Filipinos for in-laws. This prejudice against Filipinos mainly stems from their values which are different from those of Filipinos. Thus, inter-racial marriages are rare. In a culture where ancestral worship is practiced, it comes as no surprise that weddings are held in front of the family altar. The local Chinoy version varies little, as ceremonies are usually held before ancestral shrines in clan halls. ^

Once the future bride has accepted the marriage proposal of the future groom, the couple consults a Feng Shui expert to assist them in choosing the date of their Kiu Tsin or Kiu Hun or pamamanhikan (asking of hand in marriage), Ting Hun or engagement, and Kan Chiu or wedding ceremony. The Feng Shui expert determines the most auspicious date and time for these three important occasions based on the Chinese Zodiac sign of the marrying couple, their parents, and grandparents. [Source: Jonathan Dionisio, July 13, 2009 /*/]

See Weddings

Kidnapping of Ethnic Chinese in the 1990s

Because they are seen as being richer than other Filipinos, Chinese Filipino are often the targets of crime such as kidnapping. Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, “The highly visible role of the Chinese in Philippine economic growth — the Chinese-owned shopping malls and high-rises that are transforming Manila — have made them obvious targets for extortion. Members of the Chinese business community agree that investment has been affected but say it is impossible to estimate the amounts involved.” [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 17, 1996 ]

On one incident, Mydans wrote: “The kidnapper's speech impediment gave him away. As he negotiated with Jepson Dichaves over the amount of ransom for the businessman's two small sons, he kept stumbling over the word for cheapskate. "He tried to disguise his voice by making it lower," Mr. Dichaves said, "but I recognized him. He has a short tongue, and there was one word he could not pronounce: kakuriputan. It means cheapskate. He kept telling me I was a cheapskate and did not love my sons." In the end, Mr. Dichaves, a wealthy Filipino-Chinese importer of fan belts and other rubber goods, talked the ransom down to 1.5 million pesos — about $60,000 — and the kidnapper, whom he recognized from his Tagalog-language pronunciation as a business associate named Ernesto Uyboco, freed his sons, aged 2 and 5. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, March 17, 1996]

“In the last three years, 665 people have been kidnapped in the Philippines, most of them ethnic Chinese, said Teresita Ang See, who heads a citizens' group that monitors the issue. Of these, 31 have been killed. Victims have acknowledged paying more than $11 million in ransom in this period, though Mrs. Ang See said the true figure was probably much higher. Thw highly visible role of the Chinese in Philippine economic growth — the Chinese-owned shopping malls and high-rises that are transforming Manila — have made them obvious targets for extortion. Members of the Chinese business community agree that investment has been affected but say it is impossible to estimate the amounts involved.

"I am told that some members of the Chinese community keep 5 or 10 million pesos at home," said Solita Monsod, a leading economist, "and hope that when it's their turn they will be kidnapped by the professionals, because then they know they will not get hurt. They just budget for it." It is the parents of young children who worry the most. Hundreds of Filipino-Chinese families have sent their children abroad to school, Mrs. Ang See said. Those who have not mostly keep them at home, a number of parents say, forbidding visits to malls, video parlors and movies. One Chinese high school recently canceled its prom.

With danger seeming to lurk around every corner, many ethnic Chinese here have learned to live defensively, varying their routines, avoiding strangers, screening employees and eliminating much of their night life. In Binondo, Manila's Chinese quarter, shops close at 5 or 6 P.M. now and business at restaurants is down. "Me, I try to avoid Manila," said Benson Dakay, a Filipino-Chinese entrepreneur on the central island of Cebu, which is comparatively isolated from the kidnapping wave. And when he does visit, he said, he varies his schedule and where he stays. "Now I have to apologize to my kids for being very paranoid," Mrs. Ang See said. "My younger child — he is 10 years old — feels very bad that he has to stick to me all the time in the mall. I tell him, 'Sorry, but I don't have the money to ransom you.' "

See Kidnapping Under Crime Under Government

Vietnamese Boat People

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, more than a million people left Vietnam, about 5 percent of South Vietnam’s population, most of them by boat. Many sailed long distances in overcrowded small boats, at risk of shipwreck and pirate attacks. Many were Chinese Vietnamese. Some didn’t make it to their final destinations. Some died. Most settled in the United States, which accepted political refugees but turned back economic refugees. Many of those who didn't make it were detained at camps in Hong Kong or the Philippines.

In 1900 the Philippines was viewed at the U.S.'s stepping stone to China

More than 3 million people fled Communist-controlled Vietnam and neighboring Laos and Cambodia after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. More than a million Southerners, including about 560,000 "boat people," fled the country soon after the communist takeover, fearing persecution and seizure of their land and businesses. The plight of the so-called "boat people" turned into a humanitarian crisis as they came under sometimes deadly assault. More than 125,000 refugees from Vietnam were resettled in the U.S. between 1975 and 1980, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

For this privilege of leaving Vietnam Chinese had to pay the Vietnamese government about US$2,000 a head in gold. At the time these fees were Vietnam's main source of hard currency. At that time the Chinese owned many businesses in Vietnam and there was a lot of hostility towards Chinese in Vietnam. China and Vietnam have long history of animosity. Many Chinese were thrown out of Vietnam at the time China and Vietnam fought a border war in 1979. In the early 1970s there were about a half million ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. In the early 1980s there were practically none. Vietnam made US$2 billion from the forced migration. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, November 1979]

Many Vietnamese ended up in the Philippines. After being refused admission to the U.S. because they were not seeking political asylum, thousands of Vietnamese were stranded at refuge camps in the Philippines. When the Philippine government decided in 1993 to repatriate them some of the Vietnamese involved threatened to commit suicide if they were forced to return to Vietnam. Some were carried kicking and screaming onto planes.

Last Vietnamese Boat People in the Philippines

In the mid-2000s there were still some unsettled Vietnamese refugees in the Philippines waiting for a chance at a new life in the U.S. David Haldane wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ Hanh Luong and her two young sons spend their days and nights huddled next to a packed suitcase with their cellphone nearby. For more than two months they have lived in a small dank room that a refugee organization has leased in one of the poorest sections of the Philippine capital, awaiting a call they know will soon come. Luong, who is Vietnamese, says she doesn't mind the long hours of boredom sitting on the hard floor her family shares with seven others, who also use the same hot plate and toilet. For at the end of that coveted phone call, she says, lies fulfillment of a powerful dream: Escape, after 16 years in the Philippines, to a new life in the United States. "I'm just happy that my family has a future," says Luong, 48, who will join a sister in El Monte. "Whatever job is offered me, I will take it, even if it's washing dishes or cleaning the bathroom." [Source: David Haldane, Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2005 ^^]

“Luong and hundreds of her compatriots in the Philippines constitute the world's last group of unsettled Vietnamese refugees. Thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War, the majority of the refugees are at last proceeding to hopeful futures in the United States. The less fortunate talk of suicide and weep over being left behind. Goodbyes are bittersweet. "I feel lonely when I send some of my friends to the airport," Luong says, "because I don't know when I will see them again." ^^

“Resettlement in the U.S. became possible only after American and Philippine officials hammered out an agreement last year. Until 1989, anyone escaping Vietnam was classified a political refugee. Since, however, the international community has screened refugees to determine whether they left for economic reasons, a finding that often bars them from legal immigration. Having left their country about the time the policy changed, the Vietnamese still in the Philippines, many of them the last of those who escaped their homeland by sea, have been living a stateless existence. Unwanted by other countries and unable to own businesses, buy homes or hold most jobs here, the majority have eked out sparse livings as illegal street vendors. ^^

“Most initially lived in a refugee camp on Palawan, a remote island about 360 miles southwest of Manila. In 1996, the camp was closed and the Philippine government, under United Nations supervision, began sending them back to Vietnam. Some refugees responded by attempting suicide, community workers say, and others rioted at the airport. Finally, after the intervention of human rights groups and the Philippine Catholic Church, the repatriation was halted. Under the revised resettlement program, the first of the displaced refugees, 229 of them, left for the U.S. in September. By March 2006, an estimated 1,600 are expected to have made the trip. ^^

“Tam Do Tran, 42, who is married and has two Philippine-born children, says her family is very happy about their imminent departure. "We're too excited to eat," she says. "For 16 years, every night I've gone to bed dreaming of going to the USA. We want a country where we can find freedom and have a better life." ^^

Vietnamese Boat People in the Philippines Barred from Entering the U.S.

David Haldane wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ Hanh Luong and her two young sons spend their days and nights huddled next to a packed suitcase with their cellphone nearby. For more than two months they have lived in a small dank room that a refugee organization has leased in one of the poorest sections of the Philippine capital, awaiting a call they know will soon come. Luong, who is Vietnamese, says she doesn't mind the long hours of boredom sitting on the hard floor her family shares with seven others, who also use the same hot plate and toilet. For at the end of that coveted phone call, she says, lies fulfillment of a powerful dream: Escape, after 16 years in the Philippines, to a new life in the United States. "I'm just happy that my family has a future," says Luong, 48, who will join a sister in El Monte. "Whatever job is offered me, I will take it, even if it's washing dishes or cleaning the bathroom." [Source: David Haldane, Los Angeles Times, December 28, 2005 ^^]

“For years her family had cared for the child of an American soldier and a Vietnamese woman, she says. Such children are afforded special immigration status by the United States government. In their haste to escape, she says, the family falsely claimed the child as a relative. The child has since emigrated to the America, but U.S. immigration officials denied the family's request to follow, she says, sobbing. "I see nothing but pitch darkness," Le says. "I'd commit suicide if it weren't for my children and religion." ^^

“Similar stories of anticipation and dejection are heard on Palawan. After the closing of the camp in 1996, at least 400 refugees were moved 10 miles away to a site called Vietville that the Catholic Church built. Today about 40 remain, living in two-room huts made of concrete and bamboo. A few doors away, Van Teo Nguyen, 31, is in complete despair. He is married to a Filipina, which precludes resettlement for his family. Praying that the U.S. will reconsider, he struggles to support his wife and three children on the $71 a month he earns cleaning the village grounds. "It's not enough to feed the children," he says. "They are hungry all the time. I'm just like the other refugees, but now they can go, and I must say goodbye." ^^

“Nguyen's case is far from the most hopeless. That distinction may belong to Phong Huynh, 48, who has spent 20 years, the last eight at Vietville, sitting naked in a locked room with dirty walls and no furniture. Huynh escaped from Vietnam in 1983, but the boat was lost at sea for several weeks. To survive, neighbors say, the refugees resorted to cannibalism, killing and eating Huynh's brother. "That's why he became crazy," says Minh Dung Tran, 35, a refugee assigned by one of Vietville's nuns to feed and clean up after Huynh. Huynh spends his days carrying on conversations with his dead brother and babbling to passersby through an open window about finding a good woman and going to America. "As long as I stay here I will take good care of him," promises Tran, who has been denied emigration because he's married to a Filipina. ^^

“Ten miles down a thinly paved road, the abandoned refugee camp is a ghost town marked by the cracked concrete foundations that once bore barracks and a leaning wooden tower at the spot where a church used to stand. "We had to catch rainwater in buckets," recalls Niem Thoa Quy Le, 19, who spent his childhood here with his mother. Later, the pair moved into a tiny room nearby. Like hundreds of others, they have been denied permission to move on. ^^

“Amid the dust of the camp, one corner remains alive. It is a small white coral grotto made by refugees in the trunk of a tree. There's a cross in the cave, and a statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by engraved ceramic tiles, fresh flowers and half a dozen lighted candles. For the Vietnamese refugees, many of whom are Catholic, the place is a shrine. "Every week they make offerings," Le says. "Those who have been approved offer flowers as thanks. Those who've been denied come to pray that they'll be accepted." ^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Philippines Department of Tourism, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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