IMAGINE a Chinese Filipino. Typically you’d imagine someone with light skin, tiny eyes and black hair, who speaks wit]h an odd accent. Now imagine him in China – he’d blend right in with the crowd of yellow-skinned black-haired Chinese people walking through Beijing’s hutong alleyways… until he opens his mouth.
You see, a Chinese Filipino is not the same thing as an actual citizen of the People’s Republic of China. While they have many similarities, they also have many differences in terms of religion, culture, language and superstitions. The Chinese Filipinos aren’t even called “Chinese people” in China (Zhongguoren). They’re called “Huafei” – literally “Chinese Filipino” – which unfortunately also translates to “Fairwhale”, a brand of men’s fashion.
The Philippines is home to one of the largest ethnic Chinese groups outside of China. The largest group of the Chinese diaspora is in Thailand. When the Chinese first got here during the 9th century, they were here to do business. 1,200 years later, they’re still doing business here. Chinese businessmen in the Philippines stick together and provide financial assistance to each other in times of need, while also putting a great deal of importance on family decisions regarding the business.
However, some Chinese businessmen are known for burning down their failed businesses to collect insurance money – while this is commonplace in the Philippines, it is unheard of in China.
While the majority of Chinese people living in the People’s Republic are either atheist, Confucian, Taoist or Buddhist, the overwhelming majority of Chinese people living in the Philippines are Christian – a phenomenon unique to the Philippines (Chinese immigrants elsewhere maintain their old religion). Even so, they still practice their Chinese religious ceremonies alongside their Christian obligations. It is not uncommon for one to find a statue of Señor Santo Niño sitting beside a statue of Buddha (or Bodai, his plump, jolly counterpart) at the altar of a Chinese household. Some Chinese Filipinos even venerate the Virgin Mary the Chinese way, using incense sticks. In Mainland China, ceremonies like this are reserved for Buddhist saints (bodhisattvas) or Chinese gods.
Another thing that separates a Chinese Filipino from a Mainland Chinese person is his name. People in the Philippines say that names like “Go”, “Tan”, “Cua”, “Dy” and several others are “Chinese.” In China itself, these names are unheard of. For example, Spanish historical records show that a certain family’s name was “Go”, when in fact it was “Wu” in China. This is because the Spanish, unable to pronounce Chinese names properly, resorted to Hispanicizing Chinese names during censuses to make record-keeping easier. They even did the same for English names like “Backhouse” (Becus). So Huang became Ong, Cai became Chua/Cua, Shi became Sy, Xu became Co, Zhuang became Chong, and so on…
Today, the Chinese Filipino is neither completely Chinese nor 100 percent Filipino. He has an identity all his own, and it is one that he should be proud of.