By: Michael L. Tan
I thought I would use President Aquino’s visit to his ancestral village to talk about the ancestral roots of Filipinos of Chinese ancestry. To do this I consulted two books that are indispensable for any Filipino trying to probe into their “Chinese-ness.” One is “Tsinoy: The Story of the Chinese in Philippine Life” (Kaisa para sa Kaunlaran, 2005) and the other is “Chinese Filipinos” (Jesuit Communications, 2003).
The late President Corazon Aquino wrote the foreword to “Tsinoy” with information about her own Chinese roots. Inside the book is another article by Marisse Cojuangco Reyes that gives more details on the Cojuangco clan.
It was Cory Aquino’s great grandfather, Co Giok Huang, who first migrated to the Philippines. She referred to him as “Ingkong (a Chinese-derived word) Jose.” His home village was Hongjian, which P-Noy visited and where he paid his respects to his maternal ancestors by offering incense and bowing to the family altar. (This is actually a break with Chinese tradition, which is patrilineal, meaning one traces ancestors through the father’s line, but exceptions are always possible, especially for a president. I have heard the Aquino side also has Chinese ancestors but could not find any research materials about this.)
Cojuangco was a modification on the Chinese name, a frequent practice among Chinese migrants. It was taken from two words in Ingkong Jose’s name: Co and Huang, with “co” (elder brother, as in ko-ko) added. Co Giok Huang also took on the Christian name Jose, having been baptized on the feast of St. Joseph.
Jose Cojuangco traded in rice, salt and bagoong in Malolos, as well as engaged in the dyeing of sinamay fabric. In 1866, he married Antera Estrella, a wealthy mestiza from Gapan, Nueva Ecija. They had two children, Melecio Cojuangco, who was elected to the first Philippine Assembly in 1907, and Trinidad.
Jose Cojuangco moved to Paniqui, Tarlac, in 1896, when he was already 68, to trade in fruits and agricultural produce as well as to operate a rice mill. It was money from this trading that allowed him to accumulate land, or what today is Hacienda Luisita.
After Cory Aquino became president, she made a state visit to China which included a trip to her ancestral village. There she planted an araucaria, an evergreen tree similar to our pine trees. According to the Chinese, the araucaria usually just grows with one large main trunk, but Cory’s tree branched out toward the top with two large branches, which was interpreted as a sign that one of her descendants would follow in her footsteps or match her accomplishments.
The Cojuangcos’ ancestral village of Hongjian is found in Jinjiang, Fujian province. Most of the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines trace their roots back to Fujian, and among its cities and towns, Jinjiang produced the bigger number of migrants who went to the Philippines.
Migrants from Fujian ended up in the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia. The neighboring province of Canton (Guangdong) also produced many migrants, some of whom ended up in the Philippines and are referred to, erroneously, as “Makao.” The Cantonese seemed to be more adventurous, migrating farther out to the United States and to Europe.
Today’s Tsinoy or Chinese-Filipinos came from the 20th century wave of migrants. Jose Cojuangco belonged to an earlier influx.
Contact between the Chinese and the Philippines dates back to the precolonial period, but the Sangley were mainly traders, coming and going. “Sangley” in fact came from the Chinese words “sionglai,” which means frequent visiting (or, more accurately, “coming”). After Spain colonized the Philippines, the Chinese visitors were looked upon with suspicion, and they were limited to staying in Manila and, even there, to an area called Parian.
In the 19th century, as Spain opened up the islands to the world economy, a more hospitable climate emerged for the Chinese. It is estimated that more than 100,000 came to the Philippines around mid-century, many with intentions to stay for the long term.
Chinese women were not part of this migration, so many of the Chinese males who came to the Philippines ended up marrying local women. More of these intermarriages occurred with the Chinese rather than with the Spaniards so “mestizo” referred to those with Chinese blood.
The mestizo families started with a Chinese man marrying a local woman. The next generation of mestizas would then marry Chinese men again. Richard Chu’s “Chinese Merchants of Binondo in the 19th Century” (published by UST Press) provides many details about the mestizos and shows the economic importance of these marriages. The mestizo families became principal players in the emerging globalized economy, many becoming prosperous as cabecillas, traders dealing in local as well as foreign goods.
The intermarriages were powerful for economic consolidation, combining money that came from the Chinese man’s trading activities and his wife’s land holdings. Some of the clans that grew out of the intermarriages were the Tambuntings, Limjaps, Ongpins, Chuidians, Yangcos, Syquias.
Unlike earlier Chinese, the 19th century migrants were allowed to spread out through the archipelago, some becoming very powerful political clans in the 20th century, as was the case with the Cojuangcos.
While the first generation of mestizos and mestizas tended to retain many aspects of Chinese culture (some were even sent back to China to study), succeeding generations eventually became very assimilated to mainstream Philippine society, considering themselves different from the Chinese. It was this mestizo population that dared to expropriate the “Filipino” identity. (“Filipino” originally referred to Spaniards born in the Philippines.)
The “Gomburza” priests—Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora—executed in 1872 were mestizos. The “women of Malolos” who had the audacity to write the Spanish governor-general in 1888 to ask for a night school so they could learn Spanish were mestizas. The 13 Martyrs (Trece Martires) of Cavite, executed in 1896 for alleged subversive activities, were mestizos. So too were Rizal (who wrote a letter to the women of Malolos praising them for their courage), Pedro Paterno, Emilio Aguinaldo and other reformers and revolutionaries.
I want to emphasize that while many of the mestizo family’s descendants became affluent, their origins were much more humble. It was poverty that drove Chinese peasants in Fujian to migrate to the Philippines. The migrants worked hard, scrimping and saving and building their networks for business as well as for social life. Some moved from rags to riches, creating their niche in the Philippines, their children not just becoming Filipino but fighting for the Filipino.
I would like to think that the President will carry on this legacy.