Ties that bind the Philippines and China – from trade, food to faith

Written by: Linda B. Bolido

The eminent Filipino historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo said the Philippines and China started their trade relations in the 9th century, hundreds of years before the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan “discovered” in 1521 the archipelago for Spain.

The steady and continuous flow of goods from China led, in fact, to the establishment of Chinese communities along Philippine coastal towns.

China-PH trade since ancient times

Agoncillo wrote in his “History of the Filipino People” (8th Edition, 1990), “The long contacts of the Filipinos with the Chinese, beginning with the 10th century of the Chinese era, inevitably led to Chinese cultural penetration of the Philippines. Chinese influences on Filipino life were mainly economic for the Chinese who came to the islands were ‘economic’ men whose interest lay in profits rather than in political domination.”

The centuries of relations had added to Philippine languages, particularly Tagalog or Filipino, hundreds of words “directly appropriated from the Chinese.”

It was also from the Chinese that Filipinos learned how to use the umbrella, gongs, lead and porcelain, among other things; and the manufacture of gun powder, mining methods and metallurgy.

Foods like pancit, lumpia, toyo, siomai and siopao and many others were brought here by Chinese traders and migrants. The word susi for “key” originated from the Hokkien or south Fujian language word so-si. Hikaw  (earring) came from the Hokkien hi for ear and kaw or hook.

Inquirer columnist and historian Ambeth Ocampo had also chronicled the Chinese minority’s contributions to Philippine economic and social life in history. Many customs were adopted and adapted by Filipinos from the Chinese.

Richard T. Chu, in his “The ‘Chinese’ and the ‘Mestizos’ of the Philippines: Towards a New Interpretation” (Philippine Studies, Ateneo de Manila University),  wrote: “While comprising only about  one percent of the total population, they (Chinese) have played a major role in the local economy.”

Today, the bond that the Chinese and Filipinos forged centuries ago remains strong and significant.

Allies from Revolution to WWII

Dr. Henry Lim Bon Liong, president of the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc. (FFCCCII) and chief convenor of the Filipino Chinese Community Calamity Fund that raised over P300 million for medical and food relief donations during the corona virus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic for all regions of the Philippines, says, despite recent spats on some issues by some politicians, the two countries’ traditional good ties are strong and enduring.

“The Philippines has been a traditional friend and ally of China for over a thousand years, even during the late 19th century to early 20th century. In the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish and American colonizers, (the) Chinese nationalist revolutionary hero Dr. Sun Yat Sen supported President Emilio Aguinaldo. Chinese entrepreneurs also supported with donations. An immigrant Chinese fought and rose in rank as revolutionary General Jose Ignacio Paua. In World War II, both nations were again allies in resisting Japanese militarism and invasion of Asia, with local Chinese guerrillas fighting alongside Filipinos against Japanese invaders. The late General Vicente Lim was one of our foremost World War II heroes, giving up his life in the fight against Japanese invaders. Our two countries have also been the closest trading partners since ancient, pre-colonial times. Up to now, China is still our undisputed No. 1 trade partner,” he says.

Dr. Lim adds that he hopes to seek the assistance of top Filipino historians to correct often inaccurate and unfair portrayals of Limahong that often omitted his contributions to the Pangasinan area and other regions. The FFCCCII president is also the past president of the Philippine Se Ho Lim Association, which unites all Lims. The historical figure Limahong is part of the Lim clan.

Friends, partners in Galleon Trade

 Dr. Lim says, “The Philippines and China are not only good friends for over 1,000 uninterrupted years, but we are also geographically close neighbors, culturally fellow Asians, fraternal brothers and relatives, too. There is a saying that a neighbor is more important to us than even a relative who is far away.” 

 In the field of economics, Dr. Lim says, “Chinese migrants and traders have for centuries contributed to the economic and social development of the Philippines. The famous Galleon Trade, (which plied the route between the Philippines and Mexico) for over two centuries, was essentially Manila acting as a profitable entrepot or middleman between China and the West, in Latin America and Europe.”

 Chinese goods collected in Manila were exchanged for Mexican silver. With China regaining its ancient global status as an economic superpower, Dr. Lim says it has become even more important as a trade and development partner of the 21st century Philippines. 

Sulu Sultan’s visit to Ming Dynasty Emperor 

The bond between the two neighboring nations extend far beyond trade and commerce.

According to Dr. Lim, “Both countries have had high level diplomatic and trade relations, with Chinese emperors warmly welcoming Sultans from the Philippines, as shown by the preserved over 600-year-old mausoleum of the Sulu Sultan in Dezhou city in Shandong province, China. (The Filipino) ruler got sick on his way back (to the Philippines) and died there. The Ming Dynasty Emperor of China honored his good friend, the Sultan of Sulu who got sick and died in Shandong province. The recent successful state visit to China of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and First Lady Liza Araneta Marcos to meet President Xi Jinping continues this tradition of high-level friendship and exchange of state visits between our leaders.” 

Chinese cultural practices and beliefs permeate the Philippines’ own culture and traditions. 

“Many prominent Filipinos of Chinese lineage or heritage have immeasurably enriched the Philippine national culture for centuries,” Dr. Lim says. The cultural linkages and ties between the Philippines and China are dynamic, vast and very important. 

Political leaders of both countries, Dr. Lim says, have traditionally been good friends and close allies, despite disruptions caused by Western colonization of the Philippines and a few “decades of ideological divergence in the Cold War era of the 20th century”. And “the positive political dialogue and cooperation between our two countries continue to flourish,” he adds. 

Chinese in the church

 Even in the spiritual realm, the lives of Chinese and Filipinos have been intertwined. Many of the Philippine Catholic Church’s religious leaders and icons have Chinese blood, descendants of immigrants from Fujian province. These include the first Filipino saint St. Lorenzo Ruiz (said to be surnamed Lee), the founder of the oldest all-Filipino religious order Mother Ignacia, the late Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, former Manila archbishop now Vatican-based Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, etc.

Howard Q. Dee, a Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient, founded the Assisi Foundation and championed social development causes. His devotion to the Catholic church led to his appointment as Philippine Ambassador to the Vatican. Incidentally, his late father Dee Hong Lue was a respected FFCCCII vice president and a great-granduncle was the 19th century civic leader and lumber tycoon Dy Han Kia.

Even in the non-Catholic faiths, the Filipino Chinese community, like Pastor Peter Tan-Chi of the  Christ’s Commission Fellowship (CCF) evangelical church and those in Buddhist and Taoist temples, has contributed to Filipino religious diversity and deep faith. 

Chinese in Filipino pop culture, arts

To honor excellence and correct the stereotype that the Filipino Chinese community is only focused on Philippine economic development and business success, the FFCCCII, led by Dr. Lim, other top officers and the FFCCCII Public Information Committee, conferred in two separate ceremonies in December 2022 lifetime achievement awards to two outstanding Filipinos of Chinese descent —National Artist Ricardo “Ricky” Lee and respected singer-songwriter Jose Mari Chan.

Both Chan and Lee are sons of Chinese immigrants from Fujian province, who became exemplary citizens of the Philippines. Antonio Chan became a sugar industry leader and Lee’s father was a scholar who served as a respected secretary general for two decades of the Camarines Norte Filipino Chinese Chamber of Commerce. 

The awardees studied Chinese language, as well as Ilonggo (for Chan) and Bicolano (for Lee) in their youth in Iloilo and Camarines Norte, respectively. Lee eventually deciding to write novels and movie scripts in Filipino while Chan composed his well-loved songs in English.

‘Even best friends  spouses disagree’ 

For Dr. Lim, the Philippine-China relationship is so deep and close and has remained strong through the years for the countries to allow current issues to ruin it.

“We should never burn bridges, but we should strengthen bridges and deepen constructive dialogue with all countries, as part of our independent foreign policy. I urge our country, the Philippines, to not focus too much on misunderstandings or differences of opinions on a few issues. Even best friends, husbands and wives, business partners and siblings have differences on some issues. It is not only with China that, we the Philippines, have some disagreements on issues, but also with Vietnam, Malaysia, etc. What is important is we continuously dialogue and frankly discuss our differences as good friends, not as adversaries. What is important is we prioritize and focus more on the many areas where we agree on and can cooperate with each other, for the sake of peace and progress,” he says. 

 Dr. Lim suggests that the Philippines should continue to collaborate and learn from its neighbor in solving some of its major problems. “China has much to impart or share with us. Not only can we receive economic support in trade and aid, China can share its most modern high technologies, world-class science and industrial prowess, plus its rich culture and ancient 5,000-year-old civilization.” 

Even with regards to the fishing issue at the West Philippine Sea, Dr. Lim advises dialogue and cooperation between the two countries like in ancient times.

 “It would be a tragic mistake to have an adversarial relationship with our neighbor, traditional friend and the world’s rising economic superpower just because of disagreements on a few issues. We need to look at the bigger picture—mutually beneficial diplomatic, strategic, economic, infrastructure, agriculture and other areas for cooperation with China, like how our competitors, other Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and Asian neighbors, have for years gained and profited so much from their engagements and good relationships with China,” he says. 

 “In agriculture alone, let us learn technologies and pro-farmer policies of China, how its government, agronomists, like my late mentor the Magsaysay Awardee Yuan Longping, and farmers were able to amazingly achieve food self-sufficiency and food security for 1.4 billion people,” he adds. 

Bullish on PH economy and Asia in Rabbit Year

Despite global uncertainties like inflation and recessions in the West but because of positive Philippine socio-economic fundamentals and the country’s good diplomatic and strategic cooperation with the rising economic superpower China, Dr. Lim is optimistic about the Philippine economic growth rate of 6.5 to 7.5 percent although other number-crunchers, including those in government, have more modest expectations.

Dr. Lim says his optimism is based on discussions with FFCCCII member entrepreneurs all over the country belonging to the federation’s 170 chambers – from Aparri, Cagayan to Tawi-Tawi. Consumer spending is up, he points out, and China, the world’s No. 2 economy and No. 1 biggest consumer market has decisively reopened.

“I am very hopeful (there will be a) robust and resilient economic growth of the Philippines, Asean and China, which contributes to the synergy of our whole region, despite some gloomy forecasts on possible worrisome recessions in the United States and European Union,” he says.

Dr. Lim’s bullishness about the Philippine economy is boosted by 2023 being the Year of the Rabbit in the Chinese lunar calendar. He says, “Part of our strong optimism about the Philippines and Asia is due to the dynamic, agile rabbit year being predicted to be more prosperous, friendly, cheerful and, even supposedly, more romantic, too!” 

But Dr. Lim hastens to add that people cannot just rely on forecasts of good fortune for a productive and prosperous Year of the Rabbit. Ethnic Chinese, he says, “are pragmatists, too, who believe that true good luck ultimately comes from old-fashioned hard work, frugality, filial piety and love for our parents and ancestors, sincere faith in our Creator or God.”

While FFCCCI believes this is the golden age of Asia’s economic renaissance, with the Philippines right smack in the middle of the world’s most economically dynamic region, some things need to be done to ensure that the Philippines reaps the benefit of positive economic development.

He says FFCCCII is hoping, among other things, that the Philippine Senate approves the Philippines’ participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to speed up the country’s economic revival and revitalization.

“Our ethnic Chinese minority has for generations become an integral part of the Filipino nation, and we are happy that more and more Chinese traditions have become accepted as part of the Filipino culture and national life like the popular and delicious tikoy, its sweetness and stickiness symbolizing happiness and family unity. Let us build Filipino national unity in cultural diversity to continue to enrich the Filipino national culture,” Dr. Lim says.

The FFCCCII president says the country should make the Rabbit Year when the entire Philippines shall bounce back from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and the economic crisis it caused, as he wishes everyone   Happy Chinese New Year, “Kiong Hee Huat Chay” in Hokkien (the south Fujian province language used in the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Penang and other parts of Malaysia, etc.), “Gong Xi Fa Chai” in Mandarin and “Kong Hei Fat Choy” in Cantonese (language used in Guangdong province and China’s Special Administrative Regions Hong Kong and Macau).


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