Log in

Log in

The Chinese Filipino in Theater By Debbie Ann Tan

08 Dec 2013 5:25 PM | Anonymous
One of my advocacies as a playwright is to present the voices of the Chinese Filipinos through theater.  The Chinese Filipino in the Philippines should be viewed as ethnic minority, not foreigner.  However, many stereotypes still exist to this day.  Our identity is that we are born and bred in the Philippines, but we have Chinese blood.  We know no other country and are proud to be Filipinos.  There are many layers to this issue and it goes way back to the country's history.

The Chinese journeyed to the Philippines in 982 AD, pre-Spanish colonization.  They were mainly traders and later on became cooks, carpenters, craftsmen and masons.  Forward to the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, the Chinese were oppressed because they were successful in making money. 

The Spaniards taxed them exorbitantly and then, isolated them in a walled city called Parian.  There was also a law that forbade the Chinese to look directly in the eyes of both Spaniards and Filipinos.  The worst was the statistic of massacred Chinese from 1603 to 1764 and the number is 72,000 murders.  The Chinese, in history, were known as the Jews of Asia.  Spain colonized the Philippines for 300 years.

I'm merely condensing some history in a paragraph to point out that the oppression forced the Chinese and especially, their families into assimilation.  They darkened themselves to look native, they learned the dialects where they resided, they intermarried, they abandoned their connections with other "obvious" Chinese, they even joined in oppressing the others and they would constantly try to prove their loyalty to the Philippines. 

In the 1950s, children of the Chinese and children from mixed marriages born in the Philippines were given citizenship.  But it was only in 1975 that migrants were granted to become naturalized citizens.  Thus, if not for the fair skin and slit eyes, people with Chinese blood function hidden within the culture and society.

I come into this, born within the Philippine Martial Law period, still functioning within the seams of society easier claiming Filipino than acknowledging mixed culture.  Although, I'm a fourth generation; my great grandparents were the original migrants, the history is within me.  Growing up, I speak more Tagalog, the dialect of Manila than Fookien, the dialect of the province of my ancestors. 

And because I lived in Chinatown, very near the old Parian of the Spanish Period, I was exposed to the trickles of the Chinese "culture" like lighting incense, drinking Chinese concoctions, some superstitions and beliefs.  But functioning outside the family, I unconsciously acted less "Chinese" except I couldn't escape discriminatory remarks and stereotyping because I do look Chinese.  Thus, the struggle and suppression was second nature and for a long time, unconsciously felt.

I only got into the study of what is "Chineseness" and what is "Filipinoness" when I was into my Masters education.  And, oh my, it was a hard internal journey to even try and find the separation of cultures within a person.  Because even if I have the Chinese culture practiced within the family, it is a culture that is not pure Mainland Chinese, but a modified local Chinese culture and ways. 

But I knew I had to find a niche to create a writing project that could be original enough.  I found out that there was no modern, fourth generation voice of a female Chinese Filipino in theater.  That was in 2002 and until now, there is a lack in this hybrid voice.  I did recognize that there were known Chinese Filipino writers in fiction, poetry and nonfiction; in theater, they would infrequently show the stories of elder Chinese of generations past, but not in modern, experimental theater with a female voice.  

The term Chinese Filipino can be shortened into Tsinoy (Tsino and Pinoy or Filipino) or Chinoy (Chinese and Pinoy), credit to KAISA Foundation.  The confusion in the present day is that there are many Mainland Chinese migrating to the Philippines to do business and/or reside hereundefinedlike a cycle in our history.  They have the ways and manners of the Mainland Chinese, but Filipinos sometimes lump the Chinese Filipinos with them.

I see that the children and grandchildren of these modern migrants will one day become Chinese Filipinos too.  But they, being first generation, are still self-identified pure and loyal citizens of China.  Thus, the stereotypes never leave us.  Some stereotypes that exist today are: Chinese marry their own kind (the reason why this happened before was because of oppression, the Chinese could only socialize among themselves, after colonization, discrimination continued so, the defiant Chinese who could not assimilate became defensive and exclusive but that is not true today among modern Chinese Filipinos); Chinese are good in math; Chinese are rich or great in business (they've always been into trade, but in modern times, the world's richest men, the Taipans are Chinese Filipino); Chinese don't speak straight Filipino (national language); Chinese are not modern; Chinese know hocus-pocus (Feng Shui, fortunetelling, etc.) and many more.

In some of the plays I write, for I don't always write about the Tsinoys, I like to put in the element of magic realism, fantasy, black comedy or surrealism.  Of course, depending on the flow of the story, but I prefer not to outright preach or teach, theater is to be transported into another place and a distorted time inside the dark surrounding. 

If the audience learns and finds out the truth in the play then that's a bonus.  Sometimes the point of my play is interpreted in many different ways and that is fine because the audience's insights are surprising, even adding another dimension to the original intention.  

I like making audiences or readers laugh, because I'm not making my characters, be it Tsinoys or not, ridiculous in identity, but my characters are laughable in the situations that they are in and laughable for basic human mistakes regardless of color or culture.  I've only been produced six times in a major theater company, each time is to audiences probably less than 300. 

Is there clamor for my type of plays? No.  Am I out there actively promoting myself or the work? No.  Are there more women playwrights? A few.  Am I going away? No.  It took "blood and tears" to finally overcome fear, rejection, criticism for being hybrid.  I own it now and found out that it does build character wherever life or writing takes me.

Baviera, A. (1994)  “Contemporary Political Attitudes and Behaviors of the Chinese in Metro Manila.”  Philippine-China     Development Resource Center, Quezon City
Hau, C., ed.  (2000)  “Intsik: An Anthology of     Chinese Filipino Writing.”  Anvil     Publishing Inc., Pasig City
See, T. (1997)  “Chinese in the Philippines: Problems and Perspectives, Vol. 1 & 2.”      Kaisa Para Sa Kaunlaran, Inc., Manila

A personal Note:
Please continue to help typhoon Yolanda survivors, please donate to Philippine Red Cross ( and World Food Program (WFP) (" 

© Debbi Ann Tan 2013. This article may be republished only with full attribution to the author. 


  • 17 Dec 2013 1:25 PM | christine emmert
    The commonality of all life as well as the singularity of an individual one is what the theatre is all about. I so
    enjoyed finding the voice of the many interpreted the voice of one strong narrative of how you got to the point of writing what you write. Yes, don't go away!
    Link  •  Reply
  • 23 Dec 2013 1:16 AM | Raf
    This was fascinating. I hope you DO find some way of promoting yourself and your work, as I'm certain there is a much larger audience out there for your insights and your knowledge than you may realise.
    Link  •  Reply
  • 23 Dec 2013 10:58 AM | Elana Gartner
    It is so wonderful that you are giving voice to this somewhat hidden population in the Philipines. This is exactly what playwrights are meant to do: give voice, offer perspective. I am glad you are being so courageous and determined!
    Link  •  Reply

To leave a comment, you need to be logged in as a member.
Leave a comment by clicking the blue button at the top of the post

ICWP Is a 501- c - 3 Non Profit  Organization, incorporated in the State of Ohio, USA

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software