Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Essay: Filipino-Chinese Marriage Practices

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

I don't seem to have the words to describe the kind of relationship the Filipinos have with the Chinese. An over-simplification would call it a love-hate relationship but that's not quite accurate either. On one hand, the Chinese are one of the earliest "immigrants" the country had--and one that didn't attempt to take the country by force unlike the Spanish, Americans, or Japanese (of course I expect there were the occasional pirate clashes or perhaps even raids ala the Vikings). Of course by the same token, Philippine culture is remarkably distinct and different from the other Chinese-influenced nations in Asia such as Japan or Singapore--precisely because the Chinese didn't attempt to assimilate us into their culture. Spain, on the other hand, was more than willing to jump at that particular opportunity (see Culture and Histsory by Nick Joaquin for more references), giving the Philippines a more European--and later Western--atmosphere as opposed as to what is usually perceived as "Asian"*.

Trade was one of the earliest methods in which the Chinese interacted with Filipinos and so it should be no surprise why Ongpin or "Chinatown" was located in Manila, a popular port and market hub several centuries ago. Even before the Chinese Revolution, migrating to the Philippines seemed like a lucrative opportunity: it was the new frontier and a gateway to the West yet remaining familiar because of prior experiences with trade. Later on, the Philippines became a haven for those wanting to escape the Chinese Revolution or its one-child policy.

Perhaps what many people are unaware of is the Chinese minority that actually fled to the Philippines. China is a huge country that has variations in language and dialect. People wanting to learn "Chinese" are actually studying Mandarin or the other prominent dialect, Cantonese. In the Philippines, majority of its Chinese immigrants speak Fookien (I can already imagine the mnemonic technique of "fuck!"), a remnant from a southern Chinese province. I don't think a modern Chinese citizen would be able to understand Fookien, although we get to use Fookien when bargaining with some vendors in Hong Kong. Suffice to say, Fookien is the dominant Chinese language in the Philippines despite the fact that Mandarin is the language being taught at schools (and in the case of my generation, more students are proficient with the former than the latter).

With the history lesson out of the way, I can begin to talk about the Filipino-Chinese culture. Many Filipino-Chinese families take a more conservative stance when it comes to tradition. I suspect this is one of the last few ways they cling on to their culture. The Chinese elders that I talk to don't consider themselves Filipinos for example. They consider themselves Chinese. The term Filipino-Chinese is in many ways a modern construct that is accepted only by the recent generation who grew up in Philippine culture. Even today, whenever I talk to my parents about a friend, the first question they'll ask me is langna or huana which translates to "Chinese or Filipino?" A classmate even asks me the same question when I bring up an unfamiliar name. Suffice to say, for the Filipino-Chinese, there is a divide between people they consider Chinese and people they consider Filipino.

Of course if the Filipino-Chinese community is arrogant and prejudiced in their disposition, Filipinos haven't really attempted to dispel this notion either. I'm sure there are many Filipinos who perceive the Chinese as grabbing the business opportunities that should have gone to them. There are those who would, given the chance, deport all the Chinese from this country, making it a "Philippines for Filipinos" ideal--never mind the fact that many modern Filipino concepts such as SM Megamall or the fast-food chain Jollibee are run by Filipino-Chinese entrepreneurs. When the Spanish originally inhabited the Philippines, they labeled the natives as "indios" in much the same way America labeled its natives as Indians or its slaves as negroes. The Chinese were once called "instik" by native Filipinos although the label has lost its derogatory meaning over time.

Going back to the conservative stance of the Filipino-Chinese community, purity of blood is still a tradition that is still valued. There are some traditions that we've dropped (i.e. arranged marriages) and some that we've kept (i.e. dowries). But the last bastion of tradition the Filipino-Chinese will fight to the death is probably its preservation of its pure Chinese blood (which similarly leads to the popularity of exclusive Filipino-Chinese schools). Currently, it is still taboo for a Filipino-Chinese to marry someone who is not Chinese. There have been many actions taken to reinforce this belief. A friend once shared with us that his father took him to a strip bar when he was just a teenager to show him that there were many beautiful women in the world and not to fall in love with the first woman who caught his interest. Another friend was threatened to be kept out of the will and disowned should he marry someone not Chinese.

What interests me is the hypocrisy of exemptions that occur under these practices. Filipino-Chinese families will have qualms if you marry someone Filipino but if you're some other foreigner--let's say an American--that's perfectly fine (having said that, there are still some racial combinations that is frowned upon such as an Indian marriage). If you're a Filipino who's particularly wealthy, the family will probably also make an exemption. What baffles me are the Filipino-Chinese families who aren't of pure descent to begin with: the father who married a Filipina but is forbidding his son or daughter from marrying someone not Chinese.

That's not to say people haven't broken taboo. It's probably easier these days for a Filipino-Chinese person to marry someone not Chinese compared to one or two generations ago but the stigma is still there. My uncle married a Filipina but he eventually migrated to the US. Whenever he visits us and my late grandfather, he never brought his family. Whether this is simply a logistical problem (accommodations, expenses, etc.) or simply avoiding bringing up old wounds, I don't know. Having said that, this exemption mentality has also brought up a new prejudice: if anyone in the family is going to marry someone not Chinese, let it be the male child.

A friend once asked me why this is so and I replied that she should remember that China is a patriarchy and most of the benefits go to the men. She replied that if that were truly the case, then they shouldn't care who their women should marry. Well, for one thing, humanity has always been contradictory. For another, I see it as the Filipino-Chinese having this belief that if anyone should break tradition, it should be the person with the most authority. So while there's been progress when it comes to Filipino-Chinese marriages, we're not there yet. The males can break taboo with some difficulty but that's not the case with females.

*Sadly, friends recount numerous anecdotes of Americans asking them if they know kung-fu when they claim that they are Asian.


Anonymous said...

What you have written is very much true. It is easy for Chinese men to break the tradition while it is still a taboo for Chinese women to do so. I myself, broke that tradition and got "evicted" and "disinherited" from my whole family. Its been more than four years since I last saw my parents and they still haven't forgiven me for choosing to be a "disobedient daughter". Sad to say, I feel they they would never find it in their hearts to forgive me anymore. So everyday for me has been like living in "hide-and-seek from friends/relatives/classmates/acquaintances" and "guilty consciousness". I really wish the tradition of marrying only from the same race would somehow dissipate throughout the next generations and that our ancestors would see the person behind the "race" and not the race itself.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I am a Chinese woman and I married a Filipino man but we do live in America. We both came to America as kids and our parents are pretty open minded I guess. I had no idea that the Chinese people in the Philippines were so segregated, but even in America some Chinese families do not want their daughters to marry outside of their race.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to share a short excerpt from my own current situation. I currently have a very serious relationship with a Chinese woman and the sad part is of course I am not Chinese (although technically I do have Chinese blood from both my parents' family trees). So I'm sure you pretty much know the situation. I've been with her for the past 4 years and though her parents seemingly agree that I am a wonderful person, they still do not approve because I am not Chinese.

The twist here is that my girlfriend is actually half Chinese born to a Chinese Father and a Filipino Mother with European descent. Currently she lives with her dad and her step-mom and 2 siblings (her step-mom is half chinese). So, the hard part here is where do I begin? I am a pretty rational person being immersed in different ethical philosphies and all but I cant seek to pinpoint any logic whatsoever with her dad's decision to insist on finding a real Chinese guy.

Not to justify myself or what not, but I am pretty immersed with the Chinese culture for my parents worked for the longest time in Binondo as a Surgeon and a Nurse respectively. Not to mention that I myself can already speak Hokkien practically.

Your comments and advice would be very much appreciated.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

i can closely relate to this article as well. and i appreciate how it was written by someone who is chinese (correct me if i'm wrong in my understanding).

i am currently in a rather complicated relationship with a lovely young lady who is half chinese. she is half filipino (mother of european descent) and a large part of the complication, evidently, is that i am not chinese. i am filipino.

we have discussed the matter a few times, and while we both have openly said that we have strong feelings for one another, she has also said that it is very difficult for her, since her family does matter significantly.

i honestly find it very difficult to understand how i can be judged almost exclusively for my race/ descent, and not for my character or personality. her parents have hardly allowed any chance to get to know me better.

i also find it very difficult to understand how her parents both appear to disapprove of me and of her spending time with me, when her father married a non-chinese, and her mother is non-chinese.

we share pretty much everything beautifully together. and i know that we make one another happy. i have learned so much from her, and being with her just "feels right". she has told me the same, but, as the situation has become more serious and, at the same time, more complicated, she has appeared to hold back her feelings slightly.

while we both separately believe(d) that a truly meaningful relationship is fueled by the heart, it appears more and more that this will be a most difficult situation.

i honestly find it difficult to understand and to accept how something so good and so "right" could be so wrong.

what is it that makes filipinos so disapprovable for chinese?

Charles said...

Thanks for all your comments but I'm not a love advice column. There's no universal advice to a generic problem--it should be handled on a case to case basis. People are complex and what might work with one person won't with another.

As for prejudice and discrimination, we all have them. You can think of it as a cultural gap. Or a status gap. What makes Chinese disapprove of Filipinos? The same thing that makes Filipinos disapprove of the Chinese. Or the rich of the poor and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

that (love advice column remark) was funny! sorry, i think what some of us found was simply something we could relate with strongly. and a chance to let out what we feel.

thanks, and yes, i agree, it should, in the end, be handled on a case-to-case basis.

just for the record, i am filipino, and i do not disapprove of the chinese. i do not understand the chinese culture entirely, but that is not disapproval. thanks again.

Anonymous said...

When the church was built god told the Romans to remake the world in his Image. As a descendant of the Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire I'm very sad to say we have not completed our task and have a lot of work ahead of us. So it's best for Asian women to have children by People with some European/Roman blood. We all know what the offspring look like(Very Good Looking). Mexicans are turning back into savage natives before our eyes as they breed the European blood out. The world has been given to Roman Catholics and we are god's chosen ones Soldiers of Rome and the Reich.
In Hoc Signo Vinces
Dominus Vobiscum

Anti Beast said...

Sir, please clarify what you mean by "Chinese" and "Filipino". If by "Chinese", you mean the ethnic "Chinese" who were born and raised in the Philippines and who have Philippine Citizenship, then these people are not "Chinese"; they're "Filipinos of Chinese descent". If by "Filipino", you mean the "mestizos" who have Chinese ancestry, then they are also "Filipinos of Chinese descent". The question now is: why do these "mestizos" want to marry "intsik" when they themselves want to DENY their Chinese ancestry?

Anonymous said...

This is interesting, I am a student at the present and the things I have read here contributed much to my knowledge. We did study Filipino-Chinese culture and practices. And as of now we are unto analysis of the "joy luck club" movie version. I guess there are many possibilities that a Chinese would marry another race.

Anonymous said...

...yup I am really baffled by the fact why is it really a taboo for Filipino-Chinese to marry a Filipino when they're living in the Philippines for most of their entire life????:)

Sean Kay said...

U forgot the Arab immigrants that ruled before the Spanish

Anonymous said...

i am not interested with Chinese people ever since.They are here in the Philippines yet they discriminate Filipinos. It was all for the sake of money and business.
Ironically, I fell in love with one Fil-Chi man. Now, it became a dilemma.What shall I do? He's a very close friend of mine..I think I couldn't cope with their culture in case..and probably their family won't like me

kate chua said...

this is really right and correct.. i fell in love with a filipino chinese man but his family dont like me because their reason is i am not a chinese and i dont have a chinese blood, and i can't speak chinese language.. i do not believe to this kind of culture.. the important is the decision of the person who is involved here. they can decide what they want and what they really feel.. for me, the fil-chi guy who is involved here, is we are happy when we are together eventhough we know that its not right for his part.. but the important is we really love each other and whatever happens, it will stay in our hearts together.. i do not like his family tradition but i love him with all my heart..

Nicki Chen said...

Charles, I enjoyed your essay.

My husband's family has been in and out of the Philippines since the 1800s. His great-grandfather came to Manila from Amoy (Xiamen)as a teenager without two pesos to rub together and became (so I've been told) the richest Chinese in the Philippines. When he died, his son took his body back to China and stayed there.

My husband lived in Amoy, Fookien Province, until he was ten years old. His first experience of life in the Philippines was during his college years at UP. As you mentioned above, his family wanted a Chinese daughter-in-law. His mother tried to fix him up with girl after girl. He had a mind of his own, though.

He finished his college at Seattle University and went to work in my hometown. His parents weren't happy to have a white American daughter-in-law, but they got used to me.

Four year after our marriage, my husband got a job at Asian Development Bank in Manila, where he worked for 25 years. His Chinese friends from UP all married Chinese women.

Coincidentally, my name, Chen is actually Tan in Fookienese.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Can I just say how accurate I found this article? In particular, I find this to be true and applicable to my friends who are Chinese but not to me, who is "half-chinese". There is a certain arrogance and bigotry among the Chinese community here, and I think what was missing here is how a lot of Chinese mistrust Filipinos especially in business.They also have a low opinion of Filipino attitudes. It's very insulting that many (not all) Chinese think very poorly of Filipino business ethics and yet a lot of them also have dubious business practices.

I do agree with a lot of things in here like the fact that everything is so arbitrary. You can't marry a Filipino if he is less than or only as rich as you are. If he were, say, an Araneta or Madrigal, I'm sure the family is going to approve.