The Chinese Spoken by Chinoys is a Philippine language in its own right



Every Buwan ng Wika celebration is an opportunity to appreciate our unique cultural diversity as a nation with over 200 languages and dialects. Alongside local languages, a number of foreign languages have their own localized varieties due to our unique history. 

There is Philippine Spanish, the kind spoken by ilustrados like Jose Rizal, which survives today as Chavacano spoken mostly in Zamboanga. There is Philippine English, with the Oxford Dictionary recognizing several  “Philippinisms” such as “carnap”, “salvage”, “comfort room”, “tabo” and “yaya” as standard English words. But older than both Philippine Spanish and English is the Philippine variety of Hokkien Chinese known as “Lan Nang Oeh,”  spoken by the local Chinese-Filipino community for centuries. Literally meaning “Our People’s Tongue,” it is the Chinese spoken by Chinoys that reflects both the country they left and their newfound home. 

But First, A Brief History 

A sample of the Doctrina Christiana, the primary catechism of Spanish friars, translated into Chinese

Long before the Spaniards, Hokkien-speaking merchants have sailed in the trading ports of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao for commerce and cultural exchange. As early as 1593, Dominican friars created a full Chinese translation of their main catechism book Doctrina Christiana with the intention of converting the local Chinese traders into Christianity. The Galleon trade which brought Chinese goods to Spanish-controlled Acapulco in Mexico, came with it  a constant supply of Chinese immigrants eventually leading to the establishment of the oldest Chinatown in the world in Manila. Over the centuries, the local Chinese would settle and assimilate into Philippine society, developing a new dialect in the process.

How the Philippines Shaped Hokkien

Through trade, Chinoys began mixing their Chinese with words and phrases from Spanish, English, and the local Philippine language. Where Chinese people in Manila speak  their Hokkien with Tagalog, Chinese people in Cebu or Bacolod will do the same with Bisaya or Ilonggo respectively. This is why second or third generation Hokkien speakers tend to say ba-su for cup instead of the Hokkien word pueh-ah (杯仔). 

Philippine Hokkien also has a large amount of toh-oeh (土話), or local and informal slang that is considered strange or outdated to Hokkien speakers in Taiwan or Mainland China. This is because many of the earliest immigrants who came to the Philippines were often less educated. The community also became more isolated from China following World War II. Some unique terms used by Chinese-Filipinos include: 

  • am-cham [am-tsam] (骯髒): dirty. In Xiamen dialect, the equivalent it is”lāu-siông”.
  • chha-thâu [tshia-thâu] (車頭): chauffeur (literally, “car head”). In the Xiamen dialect, the word is “chhia-hu [tshia-hu]” (車夫).
  • khan-chhiú [khan-tshiú] (牽手): to marry. In the Xiamen dialect, the word is “kiet-hun” (結婚).
  • sio̍k (俗): cheap, economical. In the Xiamen dialect, the word is “piān-gî” (便宜)

How Hokkien Shaped Filipino 

Conversely, through trade, Hokkien Chinese words have found their way into the everyday vocabulary of Tagalog and other Philippine languages. Staples in Philippine cuisine such as pechay, sitaw, toyo, siopao, siomai, lumpia, taho, and tikoy all come from Hokkien Chinese, but Chinese is not only found in the food that Chinese immigrants brought to the country but also the goods they bought and sold, or the act of trading. Tagalog words that directly or indirectly come from Chinese include suki (主客/chù khè, “favorite customer”), ginto (金條/kîm tiàu, “gold”), hikaw (耳鉤/ hī kau, “earrings”) and pakyaw (跋缴 poa̍h-kiáu, “to gamble”). Even words as essential as Ate and Kuya have origins in Hokkien Chinese as ah-tsi (阿姊) and ko-hia (哥仔) respectively. 

The Present and Future of Philippine Hokkien 

Philippine Hokkien has influenced both Chinese-Filipinos and mainstream Filipino culture, but the language is disappearing among younger generations. Following World War II, people began associating with poverty, backwardness, and Communism. Discrimination led some Chinese-Filipinos to not pass down their language to younger generations. As a result, a study conducted in 1997 found that only 12% of Chinese-Filipinos spoke Hokkien as their mother tongue. That number is decreasing as younger Chinese-Filipinos become exposed only to English and Tagalog through school and modern pop culture.

Through the years, Chinoys have not only called the Philippines home, we have also contributed to its cultural richness. The Chinese we speak reflects that through the unique slang and words we use with our peers and elders. Philippine Hokkien is a cultural treasure that is part of our identity, and something worth passing on to future generations.





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