Last week, I attended a talk by renowned anthropologist Fernando Zialcita at Ateneo de Manila University.
It broadly encompassed the Chinese influences in Filipino life, but Dr. Zialcita chose to hone in on two areas where he has considerable experience: architecture (if you don’t have a copy of “Philippine Ancestral Houses,” published by Gilda Cordero Fernando, with photography by Neal Oshima, your library is lacking something), and food.
On architecture, he pointed out that many of the old colonial-era houses that we call “Spanish” are not actually Spanish—or, if they were, it is unlikely that they are still standing. Traditional Spanish houses had walls made of stone (at least during the colonial period); these were load-bearing walls which supported the weight of a heavy tiled roof.
Spain doesn’t get a lot of earthquakes, but the Philippines does—with a good shake, the houses could come tumbling down like dominoes.
Philippine colonial houses, to remain standing, employ a Chinese building technique, known as dougong. There are some cool online videos of scale models of dougong buildings being shaken in simulated earthquakes, and the engineering is impressive, indeed.
The roof sways precariously, but the joints between the pillars, which bear the roof’s full weight, and the roof itself simply all move together with the shockwave of the earthquake. Aside a from a few tiles slipping off the roof and smashing, the building remains standing.
Examples of dougong houses can be found in Binondo, Vigan, Malolos, and elsewhere.
The latter half of the presentation was about the influence of China on Philippine food. I’ve written about this subject at length, both in this column and elsewhere. Suffice it to say, the Chinese influence on Filipino food, from our woks to the names of our vegetables, to our basic frying techniques, hint at an intersection of culinary cultures that goes back hundreds of years, long before the Spanish “discovered” the Philippines.
Dr. Zialcita ended his talk with a tableau of commensality drawn from the opening chapter of “Noli Me Tangere”—the famous party with a Spanish priest, a mestiza, a Chinese mestizo, an indio, all dining together.
If Rizal’s portrayal is accurate—and we have no reason to think otherwise—then it was a late colonial society that was fragmented and stratified, but the various social groups seemed capable of sitting down together at a civilized dinner.
Philippine society continues to be a mix. Look at all the multiracial “influencers” partying with well-heeled children of the old mestizo class, as new money buys everyone rounds of overpriced drinks.
The old Chinese-Spanish mestizos continue to be well represented, and now, so are the “Greenhills Chinese,” who built their fortune on hardware and construction before moving to retail, real estate and banking.
In one generation, they will be joined by the soon-to-be-extremely wealthy children of the Davao clique, and others who made their fortune during the Duterte regime. (Or should that be regimes, if Sara Duterte wins in 2022?)
Although Imelda Marcos can still cause an uproar by her mere presence in a university gathering, it’s now conveniently easy to forget who rose to power during her family’s reign.
The Ateneo student population is that much more diverse these days—it’s not just the Jesuit influx and the other Catholic boys’ and girls’ schools anymore. There are students from international schools in Kuwait, kids with Korean surnames who speak perfect English and Tagalog.
Let’s not forget that the new migrants from China are not so new anymore: the xinqiao, as they are called, have been here for almost two decades—so there is a new generation of Chinese who grew up in the Philippines.
I’ve seen hate and vitriol directed at the influx of new migrants, especially the transient ones who are now being employed as construction workers, or are operating online gambling servers at the Mall of Asia vicinity. As it turns out, the anger and gnashing of teeth are coming from the older migrants—people like myself, whose father and grandfather took the boat from Fujian to escape the Communists and the war.
Now that we are more or less integrated in Philippine society, why is there so much tension with a new generation of migrants? Would we want them shepherded into the parian, placed strategically within cannon range?
It’s hard to be compassionate toward migrants—as the United Kingdom found out when it held its Brexit referendum—if you feel migrants have taken away your business or job.
In our case, it’s hard to extend a warm welcome to a people whose government has been infringing on national sovereignty, bullying us in the South China Sea, and probably hacking our elections.
“The Chinese!” we say, and foam at the mouth—defecating in public, setting up food halls to which nonmainlanders are allegedly not invited, pushing and shoving in line.
But I think of the individual Chinese I’ve met: kind language professors who work at the Confucius Institute who routinely get their handbags snatched by motorcyclists in Salcedo Village.
I’m not saying hate them (though you will hear a lot of encouragement to do so, during the campaign season). Nor am I saying, embrace them with open arms.
All I’m saying is that it’s a lot complicated, and individual citizens don’t always represent the authoritarian fist of the Chinese government.
It might even be that they’re here to escape that—just as my father boarded a steamer from the port of Xiamen many years ago. —CONTRIBUTED