Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Chinese in Manila (1846)

The Chinese in Manila (1846)

Posted 00:40am (Mla time) Feb 09, 2005
By Ambeth Ocampo
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A15 of the February 9, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

ALTHOUGH I am about one-eighth Chinese, my paternal great-grandfather being a full-blooded Chinese who allegedly had a braided ponytail, we never celebrate Chinese New Year. As a boy I just noticed the boxes of “tikoy” [a kind of Chinese cake] that came in some time in February as a signal for Chinese New Year. Now that business is down, the tikoy doesn't descend on us as it used to but a growing number of Filipino friends seem to be preparing round fruits, red clothes and fireworks for the Chinese New Year. Times must really be hard for people to go into feng shui, Chinese horoscopes, and have those gaudy ornaments that allegedly bring luck, like the frog with the coin in the mouth or the cat with the waving paw.

Thinking of all this made me look up what Jean Mallat said about the Chinese in the Philippines in 1846. In his two-volume work "Les Philippines" are chapters on different racial types. The Chinese take most of a chapter shared with mestizos. Mallat described their looks, the trades they engaged in, and even their personality as a people.

Not much seems to have changed in over a century, except physical features. Mallat described Manila Chinese as having "average height" (whatever that meant in 1846). Most of the Chinese were male who left their families in China in search of a new life in the Philippines. Mallat wrote that while men in China were good-looking, those in Manila, "who have come for the most part from Macao, Chanceo, Nyngo and Canton, are very ugly and this is explained partly by their social position, for these are generally coulis (porters) and domestics who come to the Philippines to do business and who send their savings every year to their families." (These days we have Jerry Yan smiling from huge Bench billboards around the city and we watch Chinese “telenovelas” [TV soap], and the characters look very much like Manila Chinese.)

When Mallat mentioned that the Manila Chinese in 1846 sent their earnings back to their families in China, I could not help but think that we have come full-circle. In the 19th century, men usually from southern China came to the Philippines to trade, practice a trade or just find work. When I was a boy, some of my friends had real Chinese amahs as their “yayas” [nannies], but today Filipinas work in Hong Kong as domestic helpers. Our compatriots today also send their earnings to families back home.

Reading Mallat reminded me of many prints, lithographs and photographs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that show us that in the past, Philippine Chinese did not look anywhere close to the stereotype characters of the movies "Mano Po" 1, 2 and 3 whose lively brocade costumes are bought from souvenir shops and are not worn by Chinese. Mallat described their costume as:

"... (S)imilar to that of coulis of Macao and Canton; this is a kind of overcoat in the form of a blouse, a shirt called bisia and wide pants made of white cloth, with very low seat, fastened by a string; sometimes these pants are black or blue. They shave their heads, leaving only a braided tail and wear a small black cap tapped with a red knot [again something usually bought by tourists as souvenirs from China]. Their shoes are black, rounded at the tip with thick soles made of paper; they get them ready-made from their country." (Today we know these light distinctive black shoes as "kung-fu shoes.")

Then as now, the Manila Chinese shared a reputation for being good at business and math, "apart from wholesale and retail commerce which they share in Manila with mestizos; they are also spice-dealers, fruit-dealers, cook-shop keepers, pastry shop keepers, either at home or on the streets. Other Chinese are tailors, boot makers, shoemakers, soap makers. In a word it would be difficult to enumerate all the kinds of industries they engage in. Moreover they send their savings regularly to China."

Mallat described a Chinese using an abacus and concluded that though the Chinese have a reputation as good accountants "they do not know decimal calculation; they also have account books, but it seems that they are hardly skilled in what is properly called bookkeeping."

That of course is his point of view. What is common to all travel accounts of the Philippines is the graphic description of eye, ear and nose cleaning by Chinese that supplements many illustrations of this kind of livelihood in old books:

"It is very strange to watch without being seen, this part of their toilette, which is done with the aid of a razor shaped like a triangular chopping-knife. The barber runs a kind of small brush on the lids, the mucous membrane, on the cartilage of the lower lid and even on the eyeball to stimulate a tickling sensation: this operation causes a lot of ophthalmias.

"Cleaning of the nose and ears, by means of pins and small, especially made instruments is still the domain of Chinese barbers ... They put their customers to sleep by touches and truly magnetic frictions; they run their hands from head to the shoulders and even the armpits and then shave the customer, and when the operation is finished, the latter gets up, stretches his arms and yawns as if after a long sleep."

There is a lot of material on the Chinese in the Philippines waiting to be read and help us see their influence on our history and our culture.


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