For years, what remains unspoken in polite discourse is race, although it emerges in private exchanges among friends.
The old Spanish elite would denigrate those of lesser purity by referring to them as “mestizo entresuelo” and mutter about having to compete in business with the children of the Chinese coolies and merchants.
The Chinese themselves referred to the Spanish as “the loud ones” or “feeble ghosts.” Anyone not Chinese was traditionally a “barbarian,” but special opprobrium was reserved for brown-skinned Filipinos, who were lazy and needed discipline.
Filipinos, of course, could be racist about almost everyone: Indians, Arabs and blacks. Especially blacks. In contrast, Filipinos absolutely worship white people. When you hear tourists say that Filipinos are so friendly and go out of their way to be nice to you, the tourists are almost certainly white.
I’ve stopped being indignant about the many times that white people get seated in a restaurant ahead of me, or are allowed to cut the queue in a barbershop, or receive preferential treatment. In the Philippines, where society is very hierarchical to begin with, the hierarchy of race is very clear: whites at the top, roughly co-equal with other Asian races like the Chinese, the Japanese or Koreans and most other races denigrated.
I say this not just because I’ve had an arrogant American cut the queue in front of me at Mercury Drug and proceed to berate the saleslady for slow service—she giggled and simpered, of course—but because I think we talk too little about race. We talk about it a great deal in private, but most modern, middle-class Filipinos adopt the Western model and believe that it’s in bad taste to talk about race.
Instead we talk about things like “ethnicity”—which is something quite different, and is a useful technical meaning. But it’s often co-opted in general usage to mean race. A white girl who was adopted and grew up in Shanghai with Chinese parents would be defined as having Chinese ethnicity—but when the police say to look out for an ethnic Chinese man fleeing on foot, they’re not going to ask him whether he likes wontons or believes in ghost month.
“Multicultural” places such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore and, increasingly, world centers like Hong Kong and Dubai, have resorted to substitute words in conversations and substitute variables in studies. That’s why it remains a simmering undercurrent, stealthily informing discussions about migration, refugees and borders.
The reason this is particularly important is that the Chinese government is specifically targeting the overseas Chinese in their bid for what is known as “sharp power”—a term coined by the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based think tank, and popularized by The Economist.
The Confucius Institute, which celebrates Chinese customs and traditions and provides language classes, is soft power. Targeting overseas Chinese and awakening nationalism based on the face you see in the mirror is far more dangerous—it’s definitely spiky, if not sharp power.
The initiative, launched by Xi Jinping, is aimed at “ethnic Chinese” abroad, and the goal is increased allegiance to China, including creating a special visa category for those who can prove their ethnic ancestry.
Top of their game
Which brings me to my argument that I make every year—that declaring Chinese New Year in the Philippines to be a nationwide holiday is a mistake. But then, so is kowtowing to Beijing and offering China a gift of a couple of strategically located islands. Hey, would you like them gift-wrapped?
That said, I’m happy to invite everyone to celebrate Chinese New Year, regardless of race or ethnicity.
If Valentine’s Day is the most important day of the year for fine-dining establishments, Chinese New Year is when Chinese restaurants rake it in. The three Chinese restaurants which I think are at the top of the game now are Hai Shin Lou, Choi Garden and Hai Kang, in no particular order.
Of the hotel restaurants, I like Crystal Dragon (City of Dreams Manila), Lung Hin (Marco Polo), and Canton Road (Shangri-La at The Fort), again in no particular order.
I had very high expectations for Xiu and it was off to a good start, but it seems to have priced itself out of reach, and now I’m actually missing having Lugang in that spot.
As for the sinking ship of Gloria Maris, it is simply out of the game—you’re better off raiding DEC and Eng Bee Tin and having a no-fuss Chinese dinner at home: “Maximum pleasure for minimum effort,” as Nigella Lawson would put it.
For the Chinese in the Philippines, being Chinese is about both race and ethnicity. This is why there continues to be talk about being “pure” Chinese or “one-fourth Chinese on my mother’s side.”
Ethnicity is not quantified in fractions that are exponents of two, but race is. Ethnicity is created by society, but it is also created and asserted on an individual level.
This is why I can be proud to return to my parents’ home and ring in the new year with seven special dishes. But, as a Filipino citizen, I can assert that the administration’s current stance regarding its territorial sovereignty is treasonous—
although this is something that I leave to our sharpest legal minds to prove in court.
The ethnic Chinese who are foolish enough to support it because of a nostalgic rooting for the motherland have been played. —CONTRIBUTED