What Does It Mean to Be Filipino?

Our identity as a nation is continuously evolving, and it needs continuing discussion. Esquire Philippines presents a collection of essays offering different perspectives on the necessarily nuanced and complex question of Being Filipino.

We are a country made up of 7,641 islands, with almost 105 million people speaking 183 living languages. And yet it seems we haven't thought enough about what it means to be Filipino.

It's been over 70 years since Carlos P. Romulo wrote "I Am a Filipino," still the best-known—perhaps the only—work of literature about national identity that's taught to schoolchildren throughout the country. "I am a Filipino," we are taught to say, "inheritor of a glorious past, hostage to the uncertain future. As such I must prove equal to a two-fold task—the task of meeting my responsibility to the past, and the task of performing my obligation to the future." This much is still true.

But then: "I sprung from a hardy race, child many generations removed of ancient Malayan pioneers. Across the centuries the memory comes rushing back to me: of brown-skinned men putting out to sea in ships that were as frail as their hearts were stout. Over the sea I see them come, borne upon the billowing wave and the whistling wind, carried upon the mighty swell of hope—hope in the free abundance of new land that was to be their home and their children’s forever."


It's great rhethoric, but it's rhetoric that does not prepare us in grappling with the complex and nuanced question of identity, especially when it comes—as it does, these days—bundled with questions of nationalism, and sometimes with the questions of race and religion.

Or, scratch that: It's not a question of Filipino identity, but rather a continuing discussion. Identity, neither personal nor collective, has never been a fixed point. There are no answers because it continuously evolves along with our context and our experiences. And because no one is all things at all times, a conversation between different perspectives is always necessary.

It is a mixed blessing to be in the midst of these conversations about Being Filipino now, given that it takes these periodic bursts of race-baiting—if not outright bigotry—to spur these conversations on.

Tsinoy Writers Respond to F. Sionil Jose

One might recall the furor after F. Sionil Jose published his thoughts on Tsinoys in 2015, in the Philippine Star and then in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It provoked, as it should, a flurry of reactions from Tsinoy writers. Clinton Palanca, in "An Open Letter to F. Sionil Jose," pointed out the flaws in Frankie Jose's argument:


It seems to me that the underlying problem of your column is a failure to identify who the “Chinese-Filipinos” are. You yourself point out that their presence in what we now call the Philippines preceded Western colonization, and that intermarriage and acculturation took place over the centuries. If this were so then the Chinese would have been absorbed into the Filipino, racially and culturally. That there is a separate and identifiable group of Chinese in the Philippines is because of the large number of migrants who arrived in the years between the American occupation of the Philippines, when the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act extended to these islands, up to 1975 when they were allowed to take Philippine citizenship. By this time they had formed a distinct identity: not one of enmity, but a migrant’s mindset of a community that had to stick together as a minority group.

Since then they have entered the professions, intermarried, and sent their children to schools where several generations have grown up as Filipinos. They see the Philippines as their home and the people around them as compatriots. What pains them about what you have written is that while they think of themselves as Filipinos, it is a sad but unfortunate truth that this view is not always reciprocated. They will always be the other: those who have to be kept within firing range of the cannon in the parian; those whose foreign culture must be kept from tainting the native; those whose business interests must be kept in check by laws and migrant rights. And now there is a new reason to distrust them: that they might be the advance guard of the enemy at the gates, who will unlock the bolts from within. What fearful asymmetry, indeed: that the ethnic Chinese see themselves as Filipino, but there are still Filipinos who see them as Chinese who happen to be living in the Philippines.


Likewise, Yvette Tan wrote a column entitled "Chinese Filipinos are Still Filipinos," a sentiment that would (have to) be repeated years later. She wrote:

As a third generation Chinese-Filipino, I’ve battled this prejudice in one form or another all my life. I’ve had to explain numerous times–to cab drivers, sales ladies, press officers–that my Chinese surname doesn’t make me less Filipino. Random people whose opinions shouldn’t matter, yet whose thoughts I try to change anyway. I’m sure other Chinese-Filipinos have experienced the same.

When you think about it, the Chinese-Filipino make easy targets. They generally aren’t confrontational or violent, and like to keep to themselves. They’re practical and don’t want trouble. This is probably why many from the Chinese-Filipino community haven’t reacted to it yet, though most probably, it’s because they know that the accusation is bunk, and they would rather not waste their time with it. Besides, they’re probably too busy raising families and running businesses, like the good Filipinos that they are.


Thankfully, they were not alone. Many other voices were raised to offer strongly worded rebuttals: Oscar Franklin Tan lamented that "Anti-Chinese-Filipino slurs are invisible"; Boying Pimentel said outright that "F. Sionil Jose is wrong on Chinese-Filipinos." In many other letters-to-the-editor, in essays and opinion columns, Filipinos countered Jose's opinions on Tsinoys.

Solita Monsod's Column Reignites the Fiery Discussions

Amidst growing tensions surrounding the country's relationship with China, Solita "Mareng Winnie" Collas-Monsod wrote her theories on "Why Filipinos Distrust China" in her column for the Philippine Daily inquirer. Though she begins with the disclaimer, "Understand, Reader, we’re not talking about trust in Chinese, but trust in the country China," she quickly moves on to say that "There seems to be no distinction between the Chinese people and the Chinese government".

The problems of the column become most apparent in the succeeding sentences: "a Chinese-Filipino will never ever state unequivocally that he/she is a Filipino first, and a Chinese second (meaning, his loyalty is to the Philippines)...Combine this with the fact that most of our billionaires are Chinese-Filipinos, and that Chinese-Filipinos (especially the males) seem to be culturally averse to marrying Filipino women, and that they are some of this country’s most hated employers. It then becomes easier to understand the distrust factor."


There is a lot to unpack in that statement, and Caroline S. Hau, an academic who has written literarlly written the book on The Chinese Question (the book is called The Chinese Question: Ethnicity, Nation, and Region in and Beyond the Philippines) quickly wrote a rebuttal that stated in no uncertain terms the piece's similarity to Jose's earlier piece, and her own reaction to it in "Why I Distrust Solita Monsod's 'Why Filipinos Distrust China'":

In her Inquirer article, Solita "Mareng Winnie" Monsod makes the same mistake as F. Sionil Jose of conflating "Chinese people" with "Chinese government," and worse, conflating "Chinese people" with "Chinese in the Philippines," which is further subdivided into three categories: Filipinos of Chinese ancestry who self-identify as Chinese Filipinos, Chinese nationals who hold Republic of China passports (note that Taiwan should not be equated with Mainland China; majority of Taiwanese certainly do not think they are the same as the Chinese in the mainland), and Chinese nationals who hold People's Republic of China passports.


Conflating such diverse groups of people is not only intellectually lazy, but leads to all sorts of unfounded generalizations.

Caroline Hau, being the widely respected academic that she is, managed to get enough attention with her rebuttal for Winnie Monsod to publish a second column to reply to Hau—in what was characterized by many as "doubling down" on her original column.

Hau's second response likewise pulled no punches, explaining "Why Solita Monsod is 'a Racist Enabler':

As far as I’m concerned, Monsod, by uncritically retailing the stereotypes and assumptions of the alien Chinese as people “taking away what is ours” and failing to call out the racism of such a statement, is not just a messenger, but a racist enabler who condones racism and even seeks to justify and rationalize it.

Again, there were other voices that joined the conversation. Social activist and academic Teresita Ang See, herself the author of The Chinese in the Philippines, wrote that "Tsinoys Are Deeply Rooted in Philippine Soil", reminding Monsod that her "earlier articles way back 1987 already contain unequivocal statements that the Philippines is our country where we were born and for which we will proudly die."


Ang See goes on to talk about the history of Tsinoys in the Philippines. In 1983, for example, the predicted collapse of the Philippine economy in the wake of the Aquino assassination didn't happen, thanks to the loyalty of the Tsinoy business community:

Economists subsequently reasoned that one important factor is that Tsinoys did not pull out their capital. Many among the elite Filipinos escaped to other countries and pulled out their resources. But Tsinoys stayed and suffered with their workers, rotated work days so that employees can work at least two to three days a week. Many also rationed rice for all so that at least there is rice on the table. As an economist, I’m sure Monsod must be aware of that.

Ang See further goes on to make several strong points: that pacifism should not be misconstrued as disloyalty to the country, for one thing, and that Tsinoys have stood shoulder to shoulder with other Filipinos on countless historic occasions. Furthermore, she has some numbers that are relevant to the discussion:


In 1990, my social survey showed 90 percent of Tsinoys were born in the Philippines. Their first language is Filipino, or a local dialect, and then English; Chinese comes a poor third, to the endless lament of their parents. A high 83 percent said they do not see themselves leaving the Philippines and 92 percent consider the Philippines their only home.


Monsod has apparently not touched base with these Tsinoys, spent time to exchange stories and experiences with them, enough to broaden and enrich her outlook. Had she done so, she would get to know that Tsinoys are Filipinos who happen to be of Chinese descent and not Chinese who happen to be in the Philippines.

She would above all also find out that Tsinoys would willingly die for the Philippines, but, most importantly, live their lives for and with their fellow Filipinos.

If any more proof were needed that Monsod's columns indeed struck a nerve, Teresita Ang See's daughter, Meah Ang See, who has taken over the leadership of Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran and of Bahay Tsinoy from her mother, also chimed in, asking "Why Do We Have to Defend Ourselves in the First Place?":


Throughout history, even in other countries, racism and discrimination often arise among the common people when there are macro factors that we cannot control. Take the 1919 rice shortage. The rice crisis was not confined to the Philippines, as Southeast Asia was reeling from poor rice harvests. At that time, the Chinese migrants in the Philippines were rice traders and became the convenient scapegoat for the crisis. They were accused by the general public of hoarding rice, and thus supposedly causing the shortage. The rice crisis is a macro event that should have been handled by the government. Instead of lashing out at the government for its poor management of the rice shortage, it was easier to vent frustrations on the minority. Thus, the racial riots of 1919 in Manila.

One hundred years later, a similar scenario is unfolding. People are frustrated and angry at this government. Many people, especially on social media, accuse government of selling out. Memes about being a province of China abound. Frustrations mount because people also know that this government does not listen. So where do people’s frustrations go when we feel inutile against the powers that be? At another people—with Solita Monsod’s opinions coming to provide public validation.


From abroad, Richard T. Chu, an associate professor of history at Amherst and a Tsinoy, also wrote to reiterate that being Chinese Filipino meant being "a Filipino first":

First of all, I prefer to use “Chinese Filipino” without the hyphen as this would mean that a person is primarily a “Filipino” and that being “Chinese,” used here as a modifier, comes second. I am a Chinese Filipino in my 50s, born and raised in the Philippines. Even if I now live in the United States I still consider Philippines my home and myself a Filipino. And I can say that many who belong to my generation of Chinese Filipinos and those of the next generations share the same sentiment, as was evident in the first and second Mano Po movies where the main characters—both Chinese Filipinos—unequivocally proclaimed themselves Filipinos and their political loyalty to the Philippines, even though they may be Chinese “by blood.”


Other Perspectives on 'Filipino-Ness'

There were a few who took the opportunity to expand the discussion in other directions. Historian and professor Vicente L. Rafael asked Filipinos to examine our definitions of 'Filipino,' too: "Who fixed this identity? For what ends? Isn't 'Filipino' also inherently and historically a mixed racial and cultural identity?" he asks.

Amir Mawallil, author of Constant Retelling: Exploring the Bangsamoro Narratives, reminds us that our ignorance of other cultures often result in the marginalization of minorities, and that this is often manifested in big and small ways: "There are preconceived notions about Muslims in the Philippines, some of them are insulting in a racist kind of way—as in the way Ramon Tulfo demonizes Meranaws, or Winnie Monsod makes sweeping generalizations about people with Chinese ancestry. These notions are bigoted, plain and simple."

The conversation about identity needs to continue, and because we are a multicultural nation with a long and storied past, the conversation about Being Filipino needs a multitude of persepctives; it needs the participation of as many people as there are willing to think, to talk, and to listen.



"Why I Distrust Solita Monsod's 'Why Filipinos Distrust China'" by Caroline S. Hau

"Solita Monsod is 'a Racist Enabler'" by Caroline S. Hau

"Tsinoys Are Deeply Rooted in Philippine Soil" by Teresita Ang See

"Why Do We Have to Defend Ourselves in the First Place?" by Meah Ang See

"Being Chinese Filipino Means Being Filipino First" by Richard T. Chu

"Since We're Talking About Tsinoys, Let's Also Talk About Being Filipino" by Vicente Rafael

"You Don't Look Like a Muslim" by Amir Mawallil

This story originally appeared on Esquiremag.ph.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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