The Chinese word for “crisis” (wei ji) is composed of two characters: the first denotes danger, while the second denotes opportunity. “The Chinese tend to find and make the most of opportunities during critical times, to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones, and to honor their parents, grandparents and ancestors,” says Teresita Ang-See, social activist and academic who researches extensively on Chinese heritage and culture.
During the Spanish occupation, the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines were mostly skilled artisans and farmers who left their homeland in search of a better life. At that time, they were not allowed to own land or practice their professions, and the only occupation open to them in this country was to be middlemen who bought and sold goods. “They filled the vacuum in trade,” says Ang-See.
When the Americans took over, it was “the golden era of Chinese trade,” she adds. “No longer did ethnic Chinese have to secure passes to go out of their enclaves. In the past, if they returned past curfew, they were conscripted to hard labor by the authorities. Under the Americans, the Chinese were allowed to go anywhere in the country, so they distributed goods all over the archipelago. Soon toothpaste became synonymous with Colgate, the sewing machine with Singer, the refrigerator with Frigidaire.”
“I believe that the Chinese traders were the ones who connected foreign trade with domestic consumption, and made American goods into household names in the Philippines,” says Ang-See. “The Chinese found their niche, and they made the most of it.”
When the Philippines attained independence, the ethnic Chinese had to pivot once more, because for some time, non-Filipino citizens were not permitted to engage in the retail trade. Thus, many people turned to manufacturing, and before long, textile mills, hardware factories and other industrial sites burgeoned.
It was only decades later, when most ethnic Chinese attained citizenship in the country they now call home did they feel emboldened to work in other fields. Today, the younger generation of Chinoys are active not only in business, but also in medicine, law, education, the arts, etc.
History gives a hint to why the Chinese community tends to be close-knit.
“The word of honor among Chinese-Filipinos is a sacred bond,” says Ang-See. In the past, official written agreements were not the norm, but the indirect sanctions that ensued when someone broke a promise was enough of a deterrent.
“My uncle used to say that if a check bounces in Mindanao, you will hear about it in Manila,” says Ang-See. “Word of honor serves as the informal banking system. You literally pay with your word.” For example, in the past, if Juan purchased abaca from Pedro in Bicol, there was no need to pay Pedro at once, for when Juan reached Manila and made jute bags from abaca, he paid Pedro’s client what Pedro owed him. This system was de rigueur half a century ago, and today, honor and reputation, with the horror of loss of face, are still top of mind and heart for many Chinoys.
With resilience comes pragmatism. For instance, feng shui (literally, wind and water) is not so much based on myth but on “common sense,” says Ang-See. “In the past, feng shui started as a science done to promote harmony between humans and nature. For example, in China, doors did not open north in order to shut out the cold north wind. Similarly, in the Philippines, doors should not face west to keep out the heat of the afternoon sun.”
“Today feng shui is associated with fortune and luck, but it is really just sound practice,” continues Ang-See. “At the start of a new year, feng shui tells us to clean our house, supposedly for good fortune, but we know that decluttering our home makes us feel more comfortable and productive. We are told to clear out our closets to invite good luck, but if we have not worn those clothes in ten years, it is only common sense to make space for useful ones.”
May the Year of the Tiger bring us wisdom, honor, peace.
Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” via Lazada and Shopee, or the ebook via Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected]
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