How does being Chinoy define you?
Maybe it’s the shape of our eyes, or maybe it’s the language that we speak. Or perhaps the traditions we carry or the expectations that some have set upon our shoulders by virtue of blood and gender. It could be any of these, all of these, or none of these at all.
This is a fact: Chinoy culture is something that is constantly evolving.
In light of the multi-generational struggle to define who we are as a people, CHiNOY TV is introducing its new weekly documentary program Chinese by Blood, Filipino by Heart #1CH1NOY, which aims to explore the modern Chinese-Filipino identity through dialogues with eight Chinoy personalities in the country. Among these notable individuals is Philippine Star associate editor Doreen Yu, who recounts the life she has led as she navigates her way through this fusion of these two cultures.
From her experiences growing up as a naturalized citizen in the 1950s to her observations on the rising Chinoy youth, Doreen Yu shares with us a perspective through time and evolving tradition. Here, with CHiNOY TV, she reveals experiences in the past that are still relevant today, in our realization of who we are as modern members of the Chinese-Filipino community.
Chinese by blood
We all have a history. For Doreen Yu, the Chinoy heritage can be traced back as early as three generations prior. First, her great-grandfather came to the Philippines to work as a blacksmith. Then her grandfather, together with his brothers and cousins, followed suit and established a family business in the country. As far as Chinese-Filipino diasporic stories go, this is as textbook as one could get. However, the curious detail comes in: Doreen’s grandfather didn’t stay.
“There was always that option of going back. My grandfather did. I think it was a fortune teller who told him that he would die in a year, so he cleaned up his business here. When he decided he would go back to China, [it was] to the old village to die there. But he didn’t die for many years,” shared Doreen.
There is a difference between living in another country and claiming that country as your own. Although Doreen’s great-grandfather was the one who had planted the seed, his son was yet an ungrounded soul who visited and left as he pleased. Eventually, the latter died in the Philippines, but it wasn’t until around the 1950s when the family roots really settled in. Doreen’s father, who had also been born in China, decided to return to the Philippines after the Second World War.
“The family business was very successful,” said Doreen. “And by that time, my uncles and my father decided that we would be naturalized. We would become Filipino. Thinking back, that was perhaps one moment when we decided that this was going to be home. China was no longer home.”
Although Doreen herself was born in the Philippines, she had to be naturalized at the age of four. This is because Filipino citizenship is awarded on the basis of jus sanguinis, which recognizes nationality by right of blood, as opposed to jus soli, which has citizenship determined by one’s place of birth.
This brief confusion of legal identity, however, doesn’t seem to bear any weight as to how Doreen perceives herself. “Chinese by blood. Filipino by heart. I don’t really have an opinion on that because that’s simply what I am,” said Doreen, matter-of-factly. “My parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are all Chinese. I was born here and raised here, so I’m a Filipino.
“That’s what it is. That’s what I am.”
Filipino by heart
Although Doreen has lived in the Philippines for her whole life, she is still a daughter raised by Chinese parents, albeit with a Chinese mother who was also born in the country. Doreen has self-acknowledged singkit eyes, speaks both Hokkien and Mandarin, grew up in a traditional Chinoy compound, and considers a family dinner in Lunar New Year to be the highlight of her year.
Other people who have not been raised in Chinoy households, understandably, are likely to recognize these characteristic bullet points as facets from another world. As a result, there have been occasions where Doreen’s national loyalty was in doubt.
“You know, some years ago, I was asked to participate in a survey,” started Doreen. “It was a survey on China-Philippines relations and all that. One of the questions that stuck to my mind was, ‘If there was a basketball game between the Philippines and China, who would I cheer for?’ ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘No brainer. Of course, I’ll cheer for the Philippines.’”
Expressing what loyalty meant to her, Doreen explained: “I don’t consciously think of loyalty. The Chinese character for loyalty (忠) is made up of ‘heart’ (心) in the lower part and ‘middle’ (中) on top. I guess, in a way, I think you see it as where your heart is. My heart is here in the Philippines, so in a sense, there’s loyalty to the Philippines.”
Loyalty to one’s country is measured in several different ways. One of the best indicators of cultural identity, for example, is language. Doreen, like several Chinoys before and after her, is multilingual. Not only does she fluently speak English, Hokkien, and Mandarin, but also Tagalog and smatterings of Bisaya and Ilonggo, courtesy of her friends.
Despite her apparent fluency, however, there are still many who express surprise when she communicates in Tagalog. During one occasion, she recalls someone whom she identifies as a very respected man specifically commenting on her unexpected use of the language during a talk that she had given.
“I mean, I said Tagalog was my second language,” said Doreen, in response to the remark. “I’m very happy in the place I’m now in as a Chinoy, as a Pinoy. I’ve lived long enough that if anybody challenges or tries to belittle what I am, I know enough to fight back. I know I will win because whatever prejudices they have, I know I can counter.”
That said, Doreen does recognize how language fluency is different now for the younger Chinoy generations. Many have assimilated more into Philippine life, retaining less from their Chinese background — a process that is natural for future generations of diasporic communities.
“I don’t know if this is politically correct, but my niece admits that she’s a hwanagong,” shared Doreen. Hwanagong, in a sense, can be understood to be a derogatory term that discriminates against Chinoys who are no longer in touch with their cultural heritage. “And then she tells me, ‘Huh? My other classmates, they’re ‘hwanagonger’ than me. You know that term speaks of her facility with the language.”
“The younger generation of Chinoys don’t really speak either Hokkien or [Mandarin] anymore. They are a lot more comfortable now being Pinoy,” Doreen continued, acknowledging the change — for better or for worse.
Chinoy by spirit
The difference between the current Chinoy youth and Doreen’s generation is that they were raised in different ways. The former are likely to grow up with the guidance of parents who are Filipino-born, diluting traditions that have been passed down two or three generations down the line. The latter, on the other hand, was more exposed to a more traditional take on values and expectations that are colored by a purely Chinese upbringing.
Of course, let it be said that neither side is more right or wrong for changes beyond societal control. Culture is fluid. It evolves as time passes. Chinese society, for instance, is very different now as compared to when Doreen’s family initially left. What matters in this reflection of cultural identity is the recognition of the roots that have brought you to this point in life.
When Doreen was younger, she was molded all the same by a set of circumstances, traditions, and culture that was introduced to her: her Chinese family and her Filipino country. When it came to her upbringing, one aspect that she ruminated on was the gender roles assigned to her clan and the career that she eventually pursued because of them.
Having lived in a clan compound that comprised six houses’ worth of cousins, uncles, and aunts, Doreen observed the structure that had been laid down for the family: “[Regarding] the role of gender, in hindsight, I think we were pretty open. I know my grandfather let my eldest aunt go to school at an age when girls didn’t go to school. All of my girl cousins went to school.
“In my family, I got the sense that I could basically study what I wanted. Of course, it was expected that I would study business, economics, or accounting. But I found in my first year in college a wonderful literature teacher. And I fell in love with the written word. The plan originally was I do my basic AB courses and transfer to the College of Business Administration at the UP. But, of course, all that went out the window. And I guess, I think because I was a girl, nobody objected.
“I was not expected to go into the family business, so I could basically do what I want,” stated Doreen. “The boys in the family were expected to go into the family business or at least work in a bank.”
The firm business-minded mentality established in Chinoy families comes partly due to the difficulties experienced in the beginning, when they had just settled in the Philippines. “Discipline and fortitude come, I guess, from the early days when the first Chinese immigrants came over — they were poor.
“A lot of them were traders, and they came over to escape poverty. For some of my family, [it was] to escape the famine in Southern China. And, you know, poverty develops values. It develops discipline. It develops hard work. It develops fortitude. When you have to really work hard for rice on your plate, you do what needs to be done. This is what made them the success that they are,” said Doreen.
“It’s a belated realization, but when my family and a lot of other Chinese had nowhere to go because [the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949] happened in China. Before that, there was famine. They came over here, and the Philippines gave us a home. We found a home, we started up a business, we became successful, and we made a life here.”
At the end of the day, there was a long journey Doreen had taken to acquire the life she is living. “It’s not about being half-Chinese and half-Filipino. I’m a Filipino,” stated Doreen proudly. “Take 100% of being Chinese, and take 100% of being Pinoy. Other people only have 100%. You have 200%.”