Xiao Chua & Angelia Ong: On the Nuances of the Chinoy Identity

Taking the time to learn your own country’s history should by all means be considered a different level of nationalism, even more so when you’ve dedicated your whole life to it. This is the case for the Filipino public historian Xiao Chua, but despite his passion for Philippine history, he still faces doubts regarding his allegiance to the country because of his Chinese heritage.

Xiao’s great grandfather was an ethnic Chinese from the Fujian Province who migrated to the Philippines and married a Filipina. Even though Xiao has always been aware of his Chinese side, he never got to live out the Chinoy culture because his father wasn’t able to learn the language. Still, Xiao felt a sense of longing to connect more with his Chinoy heritage, and he was able to do this through his passion for history. 

Xiao considers his unique heritage as a form of wealth, which is why he couldn’t help but be taken aback when someone implied that he shouldn’t be talking about Philippine history because he’s Chinese. This raises many questions about what constitutes the Filipino identity and how the Chinoy community fits inside it, and Xiao was able to present facts as well as debunk a few misconceptions about the Chinoy identity.

You shouldn’t have to choose one identity only

First, identity is nuanced in nature, so people shouldn’t be expected to pick a side if their identity falls between two cultures. In fact, Xiao points out that there are likely not a lot of “pure Filipinos” or “pure Chinese” given the Philippines’ long history of trade and migration with China. During the Spanish colonial era, the Chinese that settled in the Philippines were mostly male traders, so their choice for spouses were only Filipinos, Indians, and even Spaniards, which created a class known as “Mestizo de Sanglay.” The concept of the Great Wall (i.e.  the idea that Chinese should only marry a fellow Chinese) did not exist at this time and only emerged after the Sino-Japanese War, when an influx of ethnically Chinese migrated to the Philippines to avoid the conflict of war and the eventual rise of communism. 

Being descendants of Mestizo de Sanglay does not make one any less Filipino, so the same should go for Chinoys, whose grandparents might have been from China but were born and raised in the Philippines. 

Not all Chinoys are rich, but money still talks

With the abundance of successful Chinoy businessmen, it’s not surprising that there is the general idea that all Chinoys are rich. Jumping to that conclusion based on a wealthy few is a form of stereotyping, and Xiao refers to this as the Myth of Chinese Prosperity. In reality, being rich or poor isn’t determined by ethnicity, but it actually has more to do with the Chinoy value of being frugal and finding opportunities among risks. That’s why many Chinoys are able to become successful businessmen, but that does not automatically make all of them rich. Promoting such a stereotype only erases the struggles that Chinoy ancestors went through to ensure that their families can have a good life today. 

However, Xiao cites another factor that drives many Chinoys to become rich, which is the Chinoy community’s tendency to equate wealth with respect. You don’t necessarily have to be “rich,” you just have to have as much or more money than your friends and relatives to elevate your social status. Otherwise, there is a tendency for you to be discriminated against, even by members of your own family. This is the sad reality that needs to be confronted and changed.

The Chinoy community doesn’t always keep to themselves

Chinoys are seen as a community that keeps to themselves and is reluctant to be vocal about the issues happening in the Philippines, and this is only true to some extent. 

The Sanglays in the Spanish colonial era were isolated because the Spaniards segregated them to the Parian (now known as Binondo) to keep a close watch on them and prevent attempts of rebellion. They also had their own cemetery because they weren’t allowed to be buried in Christian cemeteries. However, this did not stop them from getting involved in the Philippines’ fight for freedom. The primary example is Roman Ongpin, the namesake of one of the biggest streets in Binondo today. He sold propaganda material such as La Solidaridad, Noli Mi Tangere, and El Filibusterismo through his Art Store in Binondo and even donated his store’s insurance funds to Philippine revolutionaries. When he died, he chose to be buried in a Barong Tagalog.

Times have also changed since Roman Ongpin, and it’s now becoming more and more common to see Chinoy politicians, businessmen, civic leaders, and even students being vocal about Philippine issues and helping their community.

Angelia Ong’s experience with two sides of her identity

All this is exemplified by Chinoy beauty queen Angelia Ong, who was mostly raised by her Filipina mother in Iloilo City after her parents separated. However, she still attended a Chinese school, and she admits that her mixed background made her feel left out sometimes, since she didn’t look Chinoy and wasn’t that familiar with Chinese culture

“There was a big chunk [of] me that craves for Chinoy family because I would always see the examples from my classmates in school. I’ve always appreciated [it] and it has become my standard and aspiration. And I love that they have these activities like the Mooncake Festival.”

“Sometimes, I do feel like a fake Chinoy because even though I studied Chinese for more than a decade, I couldn’t speak Chinese fluently because I couldn’t apply what I learned in school back home. Nobody speaks Chinese back home. So sometimes I just memorize them but I couldn’t really remember them afterwards.”

Despite this, she learned to embrace both sides of her culture, and in turn, her Illonggo and Chinoy community became a second family to her and helped shape her into the person she is today. 

Since Angelia’s mother was raising her by herself, they often faced financial difficulties, which sometimes hindered Angelia from participating in extracurricular activities. She loved to sing while growing up, she recalled one instance where she almost wasn’t able to participate in a Chinese singing contest in Manila, but her school community worked together to help ensure that she was able to join.

“Because my mom was struggling, we couldn’t support [it] on our own, and it became a bayanihan [effort.]” I think that’s one very Filipino thing that [also applies to] Chinese people. My teacher was helping me out financially, to pick  what to wear to the competition. Like this is out [their pocket] not even from the school, [and it’s] really something personal for us.”

Angelia always had big dreams after seeing her mom work hard to make sure that she had a good future, so when she was presented with the opportunity to join Miss Earth, she immediately took the leap.

The strong family ties in the Chinoy community

“I didn’t win the first time, but even so, the Chinese community in Iloilo found out just weeks before the coronation night. Because I never told anybody, I didn’t know the city could actually help you financially cause I used up my own savings to join. Lo and behold, the first people to help me [was the] Ong Association, even though they didn’t need to [because] I didn’t even go to them. They just found out, and they connected with me and said ‘we wanna help you.’ And that’s just amazing [because it’s] like a family.”

Angelia eventually became the back-to-back winner of Miss Philippines Earth 2015 and Miss Earth 2015, and recalled how the Ilonggo and Chinoy community came together to support her.

“When I won Miss Earth, I remember when I came back, I wasn’t really able to experience having a super big welcome parade, but the moment the Ilonggos, especially my Chinese school found out about this, it was my school’s idea to throw me a little welcome parade. and I found that very sweet.”

“Surprisingly, the tandem of being an Ilonggo and Chinese makes [the sense of family] stronger. For example, in Iloilo, we have an Ong Association, so even though we don’t know from which ancestors I was from, the Ong association there fully embraced me as their own.”

“Growing up, I [felt]  little sense of lack because growing up in Iloilo made it easier and bearable because everybody would make you feel like you have a space in their family. So time and time again, the Ilonggos and  Chinoys would never fail to lend out a helping hand and make you feel that you are not alone.”

Xiao Chua pointed out that the Chinoy identity is not monolithic, so you shouldn’t have to choose one or the other. Some might be more in touch with their Chinese side while embracing their Filipino identity, while others might not know their Chinese side at all. So even though Xiao and Angelia grew up with differing experiences, that doesn’t change the fact that they are Chinese by blood and Filipino by heart. 


Catch Xiao Chua’ and Angelia Ong’s episode on June 18, 8pm on CNN Philippines. You may also watch the replays on (inset date and time) and follow CHiNOYTV’s Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube for the latest updates.

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