Porcelain and Pansit: The Philippine Chinese

 The Filipino Chinese Friendship Arch in Manila's Chinatown (Photo by Judge Florentino Floro/Wikimedia Commons)

The Filipino Chinese Friendship Arch in Manila's Chinatown (Photo by Judge Florentino Floro/Wikimedia Commons)

On any December morning, especially as the thin cool air gives way to a balmy, bright day, the hapless Filipino who cuts across San Francisco's Chinatown on the way to work will feel a touch of homesickness. Were he or she a habitue of Manila's Chinatown, the smell, sounds and bustle of San Francisco's Chinatown could trigger a flood of memories—Quiapo, Escolta, Ongpin, Divisoria...

Who among you do not hanker for some hot, bite-size belly-warming hopia (mung bean cakes) fresh from the bakeries near the Quiapo Bridge? Who does not hiss out to catch the attention of the taho (bean curd in thin molasses syrup) man as he makes his rounds early in the morning? Who has not owed a few centavos to the suki (favorite) Chinese storekeeper at the corner sari-sari (mom-and-pop) store for a few sticks of cigarettes purchased tinge (retail)? After the day is done, who does not come home to a lola (grandmother) who has set out a merienda (snack) of arroz caldo (chicken-rice soup) or siopao (pork bun)?

Like some unclaimed cultural baggage, nostalgia works its way at gut level, reminding us of a heritage which is part of us; yet other parts of it still remain unclaimed.

In our rush toward Americanization, in Manila and in the United States, Filipinos take for granted the immense influence that Asian culture has made on Philippine society. The domestication of these "foreign" influences has been so thorough. What we now proudly call as sariling atin (our very own) actually evolved from centuries of recasting Chinese, Spanish and indigenous features into a tradition known as Filipino.

 Our ancestors are looking: Ewer from northern Sung Dynastv. / 11th-12th century. Shensi province. (Illustration by Fr. Rey Culaba)

Our ancestors are looking: Ewer from northern Sung Dynastv. / 11th-12th century. Shensi province. (Illustration by Fr. Rey Culaba)

Our culinary tastes, respect for the elderly, fondness for retail and shrewd business sense are considered national traits and claimed as the Filipino way.

Successfully exporting the Filipino way to the many Filipino immigrant communities in the U.S. and elsewhere is a different matter though. The reason for our nostalgia for the Filipino way is due to the intuitive belief that there is something in that tradition that is good and true. In other words, indulging in nostalgia means taking comfort in memories of our motherland.

Of the great traditions in Asia, Chinese culture (the other being Indian) has made the most profound influence on Filipino life. On occasion, especially in the presence of non-Philippine guests, we would proudly claim our Chinese heritage yet, in the same breath, place the blame on the Chinese for the increase in the price of rice or some other commodity.

Since Spanish times ambivalent attitudes have marked Filipino Chinese relations. One reason for this ambiguity is our colonial education that fostered negative attitudes towards minorities in general. Unfortunately, history is replete with cases where the Chinese in host countries like the Philippines or the United States, served as convenient scapegoats for economic problems.

That ambiguity is also byproduct of historical circumstances. Unlike the Spaniards or the Americans, the Chinese did not come to the Philippines as conquerors. Yet, our relationship with China is by far the longest the Philippines has had with any country outside Southeast Asia. Records of this early relationship appear as early as the 9th and 10th century A.D. In 1125 Chao Ju Kua, the Chinese trade commissioner of the Sung empire in the Fukien province reported this manner of trade with the inhabitants of "Ma-ti" (possibly Mindoro Island, in Southern Tagalog).

Repayment for these goods would often take eight to nine-months as the Filipinos took the goods to other islands. For porcelain pottery, trade-gold, lead, glass beads and iron needles, the Filipino traded yellow wax, cotton, pearls, betel nuts and Yu-ta cloth. It was a lively trade that was a prelude to the galleon trade in the l6th century.


In our rush toward Americanization, in Manila and in the United States, Filipinos take for granted the immense influence that Asian culture has made on Philippine society.

The great quantities of porcelain pottery excavated from pre-Hispanic gravesites in Santa Ana, Manila; Laguna and in Batangas indicate the prestige the early Filipinos attached to imported Chinese goods. A gravesite in Calatagan, Batangas revealed porcelain plates that covered the torso of the dead, a funerary practice common to the Han tombs found in North Vietnam.

A Philippine-Chinese connection not too widely known was the relationship between the Chinese Muslims and the Muslims of Sulu. According to historian Cesar Majul, Sulu Muslims exchanged tributes with the Chinese emperors. Before the Spanish period and well into the three-hundred-year period when the Spanish waged war against the Moros, Sulu was an important Chinese trade center in the southern Philippines.

The Chinese in Sulu, aside from their culinary contributions, were believed to have also introduced the shirt sleeve, the restriction in the use of the color yellow to royalty, the agricultural technique for grafting fruit trees, and the architectural designs found in the mosques in Simunul and Tawi-Tawi.  

First published in Filipinas Magazine, January 1993


 Michael Gonzalez

Michael Gonzalez

Dr. Michael Gonzalez has degrees in History, Anthropology, and Education. A professor at City College San Francisco, he teaches a popular course on Philippine History Thru Film. He also directs the NVM Gonzalez Writers' Workshop in California. 


More articles from Dr. Michael Gonzalez