Clinton Palanca and the dilemma of the (un)hyphenated Filipino

Clinton Palanca and the dilemma of the (un)hyphenated Filipino

How the esteemed writer became a scholar of an evolving identity, from Filipino Chinese to Chinese Filipino.

Manuel L. Quezon III | Jun 07 2019

In the kitchen of his little London flat, some strange-looking vegetables materialized early one afternoon, and I asked Clinton Palanca what they were. “Rhubarb,” he said. Seeing my blank expression, he helpfully added, “I am going to make sinigang for dinner tonight.” Through some sort of culinary sorcery I still don’t understand, rhubarb apparently makes for a pleasing substitute for sampaloc and it turned out to be the most delicious sinigang I’ve ever had in my life.

In 2014, writing in the cookbook My Angkong’s Noodles, Clinton revealed that his time as a scholar in the U.K. was also a period of discovery in terms of food. He recalled that it was only then that he developed “a hankering for Chinese Filipino home cooking.” “Aside from being the taste of home,” he wrote, “Fujianese food had a clarity and purity of taste that the greasy Cantonese stir fries and oil-based Sichuan hot-pots that were available in Chinatown did not have.” He called home for recipes, and discovered something else, too: “I also cooked Filipino food while in Oxford and London and couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity between Fujianese food from the Philippines and mainstream Filipino food. Not only were so many of the ingredients similar, but so were many of the techniques.”

But this discovery, aside from inspiring a potential topic for his Ph.D studies, became “something of a touchy subject,” as he laid out in an illuminating passage:

“A Chinese cultural chauvinist could say there is very little in Filipino food in Luzon and the Visayas that wasn’t influenced (or taught) by the Chinese traders in some way or another. On the other hand a Philippine chauvinist could counter that Fujianese food is a simplistic cooking style that hasn’t been very popular even in its home province, and developed its complexity and was improved upon only in the Philippine setting. Neither would be completely wrong. The only fact we can agree on is that southern Chinese food and Philippine food were intertwined from very early on, from before recorded history when trading ships learned to cross the sea that separated the two cultures. There is ample proof that Filipino culture made an impact in Fujian, one of the few places where chocolate was imbibed as a stimulant, as well as in the architectural style and materials (for example, Machuca tiles) of wealthy traders’ houses. Both of these, however, date from the Spanish colonial period.”

The passage is illuminating because in the midst of his personal testimony about his absence from home finally inspiring an identification with the cuisine he’d formerly taken for granted, Clinton identified what could be “touchy”: extremism –chauvinism, one definition of which is “excessive or prejudiced support for one’s own cause, group, or sex.” In the overlapping circles that comprise the Venn Diagram of our lives, Clinton was, as he himself wrote in 2003 in his book of the same title, a member of the group called Chinese Filipinos. A passage from that book combines an image he would return to, time and again, with the definition he would insist on using for the rest of his life:

“There is a structure that still stands to this day on what was then called ‘Engineer Island’, or Tsui-tsu in Hokkien, where the immigrants who arrived from southern China during the first half of the twentieth century were held while their papers were sorted out. Some of them stayed for a few hours, others for days, and still others for months or years. It was the gateway by which several hundred thousand Chinese, most of them illiterate farmers, crossed the South China Sea and entered what was then known as the Philippine Islands. They did not come to stay, but eventually did; and today they make up the 1-2 percent of the population who are known as the ‘Chinese Filipinos.’”

Photograph from Amazon

Clinton went on to point out that the Chinese Filipinos of today were previously known as something else:

“This group of people was formerly known as the ‘Filipino Chinese.’ The new terminology was used as a catchphrase, in the advocacy arena, to encapsulate the new sort of Sinitic individuals living in the Philippines; primarily Filipino in nationality and allegiance, integrating into the mainstream society without sacrificing their culture and legacy. Chinese Filipinos, in reversing the order of the modifier and the modified, proclaimed they are Filipinos, who happen to be of Chinese origin.”

Engineer Island, introduced in Chinese Filipinos as our sort of home-grown version of Ellis Island, would reappear in Clinton’s other writings in a more personal way, most poignantly, perhaps, in his An Open Letter to F. Sionil Jose which appeared in in June, 2015:

“It would be a poor society that would deem as less of a Filipino one such as my father, who took his chance as a migrant and was held at Engineer’s Island as a young man, hoping to enter the Philippines. He then spent half a lifetime waiting to be given the chance to pledge his loyalty to a new homeland; with the same vigor, it would seem, that many are now seeking to escape it by emigration. To ask him or me to be less Chinese in order to be more of a patriot diminishes not just my humanity but the great diversity and history of integration that is part of the Filipino identity.”

Clinton’s father, Albert, belonged to the second great wave of migrants who came to the Philippines in the 20th Century from 1918-1948, during the era of American colonization to the Commonwealth and the first years of independence. He was a contemporary of my own father, and so through Clinton’s writings I came to appreciate just how different their worlds were, the fundamental division being along racial –and racist—lines. My father had a wicked sense of humor and liked putting arrogant mestizos –who assumed he shared their prejudices—in their place by replying to some private, anti-Chinese outburst from some acquaintance by pointing out he’d traced his family’s origins to the Parian and that if his father (supposedly the supreme mestizo) had any brains, “it was because of his Chinese blood.”

Well-deserved as such rebukes might be, neither he or anyone of his generation could possibly imagine the life of exclusion –and extortion—that was the lot of the migrant generation. The genesis, as I understand it, of Clinton’s Chinese Filipinos book was to describe, in an attractive coffee-table format, the origins and experiences, the difficulties and yet astounding durabilities, of those migrants at a time when their children and grandchildren had become free (because assimilated) enough, to begin forgetting or even dismissing the heritage that had ensured their progenitors’ survival.

The book was necessary not only for the transmission of collective memory but also because the past has an irrepressible ability to haunt the present and inflict itself on the future. Jonathan Fast and Jim Richardson in Roots of Dependency: Political and Economic Revolution in 19th Century Philippines, pointed out that there had been a first great wave of migration to the Philippines, with its origins in the 1830s to 1840s when the Spanish colonial authorities in the Philippines made one of their periodic about-faces in policy and decided to welcome, rather than forbid, Chinese emigration. With typical Spanish efficiency it was only in the 1850s that the policy, meant to attract labor to work on haciendas, really started to kick in: entering high gear from 1876-1886, “when the Chinese population rose from approximately thirty thousand to over ninety thousand. In the early 1880’s, over 10,000 Chinese immigrants a year were landing in Manila.”

This first wave may have been during the twilight of Spanish rule, but it established the social and political conventions that would endure into the second wave when Americans, then Filipinos, were in charge.

A true story: Two scions, one belonging to a venerable Spanish merchant house, and the other, the son of a Taipan, were drinking at a bar. The son of the Taipan bewailed the fact that he was the richest man in the club to which both scions belonged, but for all his billions, why didn’t he seem to get any respect? “That’s because,” his mestizo companion told him, in his best, bored, matter-of-fact manner, “you’ll always just be a Chink.”

Here, in a nutshell, was the traditional pecking order of things, at least at the time the story took place, which was slightly less than twenty years ago. In the nearly two decades since, however, our society has changed, and where there is change, there is tension.

Clinton was fully aware of these tensions but in a manner different from either his fellow Chinese Filipinos, Filipinos in general, or the foreigners who pontificate on our country and culture. If his book, Chinese Filipinos chronicled the formation of an identity, and its manifestations in everything from food, to language, to the urban landscape, the same period in Oxford and London that led him to seriously embrace and explore the cuisine of his Chinese Filipino heritage, led him to apply the scrutiny of a scholar to the tensions he had come to recognize in the larger whole and the subset he had helped label.

In Beyond Binondo and Ma Ling, published online by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in July, 2007, Clinton distilled his findings into an essay suitable for ordinary readers. In it he describes what sets Chinese Filipinos apart from communities descended from Chinese migrants in some of our neighboring countries. In a nutshell, the vast majority of Filipino Chinese such as him, belong to a cohesive group (“mostly Fujianese, with just a handful from Guangdong”) in a nation, the Philippines, itself composed of many cohesive groups (Tagalogs, Ilocanos, Capangpangans, and so on). But if the story of how Chinese Filipinos came to be –and coped—has been told (not least in Chinese Filipinos, which came out just four years before this article), change, again, had come, disturbing what had so painstakingly taken generations to emerge. Change, in this case, was represented by the rise (really, the revival) of China’s power and prestige, as well as the influx of a new wave of Chinese migrants to the Philippines. As Clinton put it, “what is at present making the situation that much more complicated is the increasing influx of what are often termed the ‘new migrants,’ more properly known as the xinqiao. These are ‘mainlanders’ who have emigrated from China since its reopening and represent an entirely different generation of migrants.”

In the dozen years since this article came out, what Clinton had already identified and described, the tensions that have arisen in broader Philippine society and even within the Chinese Filipino community, has gotten increasingly impossible to ignore, not least because it has given old prejudices a new lease on life. It led to Clinton speaking out in only the way he could, in a much-noticed open letter to F. Sionil Jose. It was a trend Clinton found reprehensible not least because it needn’t be inevitable; what it demanded, however, was a clear-eyed appreciation of its insidious staying power. Just six months ago, he would reintroduce and update many of the ideas he first introduced in his 2007 article in another piece, Anti-Chinese Sentiment Grows In Philippines, published in the Asian Sentinel in December, 2018.

He closed that piece with an assertion and a warning:

“The Chinese Filipinos are caught in between—not because their loyalty is divided, as pundits such as Monsod would have it. Their loyalty has remained unchanged—but the friends and neighbors they have lived with for years are suddenly looking at them differently. All parties concerned are beneficiaries of a fragile peace that took three generations to build.

“Most Chinese Filipinos identify as Filipino—and many are, in fact, the most vocal critics of the economic colonization by China. But many, especially rabble-rousers in search of a scapegoat, don’t know the difference, or don’t care; and as the economy sours further, so mounts the ethnic tension.”

Chances are, like me, you tried to get through your studies on Rizal with minimal compliance. It was only later in life that I got to appreciate his words of dedication in the NoliI will do with thee what the ancients did with their sick, exposing them on the steps of the temple so that every one who came to invoke the Divinity might offer them a remedy.

On the penultimate night of Clinton Palanca’s wake, F. Sionil Jose and his wife appeared, to condole, and, as he sat quietly in the front row looking at the urn, I suppose, also to reflect. In the corner where we were seated a writer-friend turned to me and whispered, “Do you remember Frankie’s column and the way Clinton replied?” Of course. “Well, wasn’t that pure Clinton? Firm, yet kind, rational and respectful, but in the end, he put the old man in his place.”

And now here was the “old man.”

Was he returning the sentiments Clinton had expressed to close his open letter from four years ago? His last line had been, “I remain, and always will be, your friend in words and ideals.” I’d like to think so. But there was one additional comment during that huddled conversation in a corner of a wake that has stayed with me: “Clinton was the only one who bothered to leave open the door for dialogue even when he firmly drew the line on the kind of thinking that’s just plain wrong.”

What is a book, Chinese Filipinos, in a nation that might tolerate it as something decorative but hardly as an enduring guide to the future by way of the past? What is an article, whether meant as a contribution to the rigorous analysis of our society in a particular era, or a fraternal correction to a peer befuddled by bigotry, or even as reportage on a troubling trend, if it only serves to build walls instead of dismantling them? It would be pointless –and this is the point of this introduction to what I believe will long endure as Clinton’s most substantial contribution to the continuous puzzlement that is being an (un)hyphenated Filipino. Eloquently, rigorously, fearlessly, he contributed to our self-awareness without succumbing to the temptation to be self-absorbed.

Clinton Palanca showed the way forward, for all Filipinos. Remember that.

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