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Kiong Hee Huat Tsai!

The Chinese in Philippine history


By Dr. Jamie C. Laya 

That’s “Congratulations and wishing you prosperity” in Hokkien, not “Happy Chinese New Year” that we think it means and that we associate with tikoy, the sticky rice slabs now available in pandan, ube, sweet corn, and strawberry flavors, or with the joyful Lion Dance that bring good luck and drive evil spirits away, or with the angpao, red cash-filled envelopes.

The Chinese have been with us since trade began 1,000 or more years ago. We exported things like gold, pearls, birds’ nest, and wood and in exchange got ceramics that we buried with our dead and possibly perishable items.


                                                                         Bridge of Binondo in Manila (Early 1800s)

Contact increased with Spanish colonization. Initially, transient traders coming and going with goods for the Galleon Trade, Chinese service workers and artisans like carpenters, masons, weavers, and carvers began to settle down to meet the needs of the Spanish colonizers that indios could not or did not want to do. The first book printed here (1593) was done in the Parian District by a Chinese named Keng Yong. Chinese residents rose exponentially from a few thousand Chinese residents in the late 1500s.

The pirate Limahong had been mainly interested in the junks bringing goods from China to Manila but decided to aim higher, attacking Manila in 1574. He got as far as Parañaque before being driven back. He retreated, holed out in Pangasinan but was eventually chased away.

Without motors, ships were powered by wind and rowers. A couple of hundred Chinese were collared in 1593 to power a Spanish galley heading for the Moluccas to battle the Dutch. Unused to the task and treated harshly, they mutinied and killed most of those aboard including Gov.- Gen. Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas who headed the expedition.

Then in 1603, three Chinese “mandarins” arrived with an entourage, supposedly to look for a mountain with trees that bore gold. While in town, they also disciplined offenders among the Chinese, arousing suspicion. Badly outnumbered, the Spaniards became increasingly apprehensive and when the Chinese mounted an uprising later that year, Spaniards, Japanese, and Pinoys massacred some 20,000 of them.

Other insurrections are recorded, the one in 1639 remembered for the damage to the Virgin of Antipolo. A relieve formerly in the church shows the image being toppled by rebelling Chinese. The image still bears traces of the rebellion.

Still and all, mutual benefit meant a modus vivendi between Spaniards and Chinese. The former needed their services and goods for the Galleon Trade while the latter got profit and employment. From being traders and service providers, the Chinese rose in the economic ladder and by the mid-1800s were prosperous middlemen and lenders in the abaca, rice, coffee, coconut, and other high-volume products, and in the retail trade.

They have married locals and are now among the most powerful Filipinos. We also deal with them in the West Philippine Sea and in places like 168 and we will soon have a bridge, funded and built by them, connecting Spanish Intramuros and Chinese Binondo.

As they say in Cantonese, Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Note: The distinction between “Kung Hei Fat Choi” and “Kiong Hee Huat Tsai” is from an article by Willard Cheng in ABS-CBN News. 

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