I’ve never been on the receiving end of any racism as a Filipino-Chinese. The ethnic jokes thrown my way are harmless, delivered by smart, working-class Filipino friends who only like to tease for the heck of it. The jokes range from jibes about my perceived capability to buy out establishments, my ownership of said establishments (anything from CDR King to Burger King to Chowking to the King Sam bus line), my aversion to marrying a non-Chinese, my penchant for exotic animal parts, and my affinity for the mainland should our strained relations with China go south.
These are all funny, because they’re untrue.
A minor bout of anti-Chinese sentiment has risen to the fore yet again though, most recently with the hilariously unenlightened comments against record-breaking UP summa cum laude, Tiffany Uy. Aside from deigning to state the obvious (she’s Chinese by family name!), some commenters lament the fact that a non-Filipino should garner highest honors from the State U. In the words of one netizen, “Chinese a**. Walang bang pure Pinoy diyan?”
Working our way backwards, there was National Artist F. Sionil Jose’s column last month, categorically stating it was useless to ask our local Chinese whom they would side with in the event of war; the answer was obvious. In reminiscing about his coming-of-age at the cusp of WWII, Manong Frankie put all Filipino-Chinese in a box and closed the lid, depriving an entire group of the right to profess their loyalty to the country.
Of course, there’s the ever-tightening noose around the area of the West Philippine Sea, a deadly tango between Chinese militia and fishermen on the one hand, and our hapless coast guards on the other. This drawn-out territorial dispute has almost single-handedly managed to reignite popular sentiment against the Tsinoys, mostly by the ignorant and spiteful, looking for a scapegoat.
With the modest discussion generated by jabs against the Filipino-Chinese community, it might be relevant to note that P-Noy, who, for all intents and purposes is the face of this country, is himself of Chinese blood. So too the great Jose Rizal, and so on with other icons of the Philippine Revolution — Andres Bonifacio, Marcelo del Pilar, Antonio Luna. These figures evoke a sense of patriotism, a means of identifying with the nation. And yet, the (Chinese) force is strong within them. I can end there, but given how people throw their words around so loosely, a review of some concepts are in order.
Race and ethnicity do not mean the same thing. All constructions of racial differences are based on human intervention, not biological fact. Racism upholds the discrimination of certain people on the grounds of perceived racial differences, and trumpets these artificial constructions as gospel truth. Think of racial distinctions as political constructions, meant to serve the interests of certain groups of people. There was Hitler’s genocidal rampage against the Jews, the apartheid in Africa, the lynching in America, the crackdown on the Chinese in Suharto-led Indonesia.
But while “race” prioritizes physical features as an excuse to lump people into convenient groups, the parameters of “ethnicity” tend to be wider — involving a variety of social practices and traditions in identifying different pockets of society. Ethnic groups draw demarcation lines between who can or cannot belong, according to criteria ranging from credentials of birth, the kind of language used, the cultural and symbolic mannerisms particular to one community. And while race and ethnicity are useful in establishing common identities, we all know that both can be used as grounds for discrimination.
Interestingly, an effect of racist ideology is to produce a sense of national identity, one gained through the exclusion of others. “Hating” (and I use this word very loosely) on the Chinese, in our case.
Postcolonial theorist Etienne Balibar says that nationalism has a reciprocal relation with racism: where one is found, the other is never far away. Nationalism can be complicit with racism, privileging one racialized group as the “true” people of a country. In the Philippine context, however, I’d say the lines have been blurred ages ago.
It is almost trite to say that Chinese in the country have been around for centuries. We know (or at least, we think we know) the racial and ethnic profile of a typical Tsinoy — pale and yellow-skinned, with chinky, almond eyes, owner of a business establishment of some sort, a close-fisted capitalist, patriarchal and stringent, traditional to a fault. We forget the little nuances that have contributed to the history of our country. Like the historical figures who helped forge the nation in the first place. Like the stellar Filipino-Chinese contributing to local literature (Caroline Hau, Charlson Ong) and art (Ang Kiukok). Like how many Chinese were underestimated as mere retailers… but eventually came to control, and contribute to, a huge part of the economy.
Perceptions of race can structure a nation’s norms and limits. However, as mere interpretations, people forget that these are open to contestation and change. They can, and should, be broken.