A Tsinoy Journey


What is a Chinese-Filipino or Tsinoy museum doing in Intramuros, the old Spanish enclave of Manila? The answer that may startle is, because it rightfully belongs there.


Why is it housed in a bahay na bato where mestizos or ilustrados lived and not a stupa crowned temple where Chinese worship? The not too common answer is, because some prominent mestizos and ilustrados were in fact, Tsinoys.


How can another museum retell 10, 000 years of history, find threads in the narrative without overloading the visitor or the viewer with facts long been retold and rehashed like the junk trade, the galleon trade and the Parian? The straightforward answer, which sounds like a challenge, is—it can; go find out how.


But first, know where to go. The KAISA Heritage Center which Angelo King helped to build and which houses the museum stands on the corner of Anda and Cabildo Streets in Intramuros. Both streets form a right angle to the Manila Cathedral from its back and left-hand side.


Off right in the marbled lobby, an audio-visual show prepares the visitor for the “journey” of “The Tsinoy, The Chinese Who is Filipino: A Shared Destiny.” The story on screen unravels history backward – from the present through ten centuries—until the viewer arrives at a shoreline along the coast of the South China Sea.

But first, my story about the day we understood what Tsinoy meant.

For Eva Penamora, the friend who designed the museum, and me, our visits to Bahay Tsinoy will always mean the private “journey” we fearlessly embarked on.


It began over a Chinese lunch of bird’s nest soup, pancit canton, and pata tim to which a mutual friend invited us. Talk about constructing the museum had been passed on to us with a skeletal concept.


The emptied dishes taken, we scanned the concept papers and each other’s faces. Around the table’s rim, hand to elbows at rest, sat Eva and me across Tessy Ang See, KAISA adviser and its former president, more known as civic leader and scholar and from whose late husband’s dream this museum took shape, and Go Boon Juan, the banker-journalist whose passion is Tsinoy history, and other members of KAISA.


“Easy,” we thought as we skimmed through four pages of “key ideas’, our minds already bunching up images that started to float up. Yet, reflexes honed by 20 years of putting up exhibits and multi-media shows, held back the stream of images as we braked.


“What about artifacts?” we asked. It later turned out we only had a handful. “And can we have the background materials so we can flesh out the narrative, draw out the story line?” These laid in wait to be picked from volumes of researches, monographs, papers, and periodicals at the KAISA library then housed in a Binondo financial center.


In between the Chinese and us Filipinos—as we saw it during that lunch—gaped a 10,000-year chasm. Eva and I felt like ants about to cross a bridge. At the next meeting in Angelo King’s Makati office where someone finally handed us the blueprint for the museum space—firm hand that traced a 700 sq. m. box behind the grand staircase, mostly walls that rose to a high ceiling past an open mezzanine, and a 384 sq.m. ground area—Eva and I stared at the emptiness as ten centuries of history tossed in our heads.


We said, “Yes,” to endless afternoon meetings over hopia, tikoy, ampao, and tea. Then came days we wallowed through facts, details, dynasty annals, archeological data, old prints and pictures with Tessy, Boon Juan and the library staff leading us out of the haze. Until one day, a path through those centuries appeared—for me, the “key” was the “merging points” in what used to be separate histories in our minds. Finally, images that seemed to have been bouncing through the storm settled, took form and sprang to life.


Eva and I soon began working on the “path.” She started designing from my rough drawing of the concept I could only describe in words. We finally saw the “journey” and it was life-like. But we had to situate history to match its wealth. Through the tedious job of designing, supervising construction and set-up which was Eva’s job, and writing the text boards which was mine, we kept unraveling more of the history we thought we already knew by heart.


The day we saw through our path to that “journey”, the separate sides of the table that first lunch meeting dissipated – theirs and our history became just ours, and Tsinoy gradually meant us, we; each day we became keenly aware of Chinese chips in our thinking, speech, manners, rituals, and lifestyles. That journey we had thought perilous in the end brought us to a shoreline on golden sand in the distant past, and what we have seen changed us.


And so one evening, I finally started writing my “epiphany”, the exhibit text now being read by thousands who have visited the museum since it opened in 2003. This is how the opening panel reads in what I titled:

“The Tsinoy, The Chinese Who Is Filipino: Shared Destiny”

In every aspect of Philippine life, in every phase of Philippine history, in its culture and tradition, language and songs, in everything Filipino, there throbs a Chinese presence which found its way there long before Philippine recorded history. Although political, economic, or cultural exigencies throughout Philippine history sometimes isolate the Chinese Filipinos from a destiny shared with Filipinos, in the end, in everything that is Philippine, there emerges the Tsinoy—the Chinese who is Filipino or the Filipino who is Chinese, the Tsinoy—molded through the centuries by Philippine life; enriching this land with the legacies of his Chinese heritage.


Early Contacts: Shared Beginnings


The visitor walks into historical reality on stepping into the museum, passing first through ancient ground to view a glassed-in display of prehistoric artifacts that note similarities between Luzon uplands and parts of China. And then, with a slight turn to the left, he steps into a slice of seashore awash in soft golden light. Here, Chinese and natives (in Muslim regalia) engage in barter. The figures are humanly tall, their expressions and gestures life-like, and their gear and goods, real.


A sampan (Chinese junk ship) casts a shadow on the water opposite the traders. Part of its hull is carved out, showing the goods it carries in various levels: water or wine in earthen jars down below, bales of Chinese silks, and smaller jars of spices in the upper decks. In the background, the wind hisses and the waves rhythmically lap the shore


The viewer here experiences prehistoric times, summarizing evidences of the ancient land bridges known to have linked all of Asia, and the trade relations that developed when the land bridges sank. This trade so flourished that imperial scribes glowingly recorded it in 10th century Sung Dynasty annals. Diplomatic relations even appeared in Ming Dynasty annals, narrating in detail how native chiefs sailed with tributes of huge perfect pearls to the Chinese imperial court. Trade relations between China and the shore lands of a place the Chinese named Ma-I had become a way of life by the 16th century.

Colonial Era: Shared Labor


Once the visitor moves to the other side of the sampan, the sea narrows to a river, and the ground, a shored up riverbank. The light brightens up a bit; the sound cackles among a river crowd unloading goods from the sampan: a single figure carries bales of silk on his way to a galleon ship a few meters off but unseen in the tableau. The viewer has arrived in the mid-16th century, the Spanish Colonial Era.


History has moved on. Time is now fifty years later. The Spanish colonizers who claimed the Philippine islands in Cebu for the Castillan crown have reached Maynilad. They vanquish Rajah Sulayman and his settlement perched on the tongue of a river’s mouth; they also take over its trade, the most flourishing yet of what they have heard and found. Maynilad is Hispanized into a Spanish capital and its river trade extended to Europe the other side of the hemisphere with ships called galleons. These would sail off to Acapulco on summer winds bearing Oriental goods and back with European gold. Manila soon blossoms into a European capital.


Within the next century of Maynilad’s metamorphosis, the 150 Chinese the Spaniards found in Sulayman’s settlement swelled to 20,000, some of them merchants settling in, others small traders who peddled wares, but mostly artisans who used their native skills in the fast-rising walls, cathedrals, palaces and villas. They and the Filipinos shared labor in the burgeoning Spanish settlement. But even as the Spaniards needed the Chinese, they also treated them warily, mistaking their mysticism and Oriental ways for secretiveness.


The ground on the riverbank the visitor had briefly walked on has changed into a cobbled street that leads to the drawn bridge of the Parian Gate. The atmosphere too has shifted to a gray and eerie evening. Off to a corner on the right wall, light flashes and wavers as in a fire, and screams of panic shatter the air. The viewer has walked into a diorama of a massacre, one of the many in the Parian, the ghetto where the Spaniards segregated the Chinese.


Under a policy that swung between acceptance and intolerance, the Parian was burned seven times, moved nine times, and controlled in size from 20,000 to 5,000. But fresh arrivals took on where others had left. Alongside the Filipinos who were relegated to farming that was even then, a subsistence economy, the Chinese became the backbone of Spanish rule.

Colonial Culture: Shared Hands


As the visitor turns away from the massacre, he walks to the drawbridge and through the Parian Gate into a lively everyday scene of the 17th century: A mid-morning light swaths the plaza where life-sized Chinese craftsmen, food vendors, even a reader, a jewelry maker and cobbler are at work.


The ground then clears into the patio of San Agustin Church. Behind the church door, the viewer meets a mason, and a carpenter; and further on, a goldsmith – the hands behind the full flowering of the colonial culture. A few artifacts display Chinese native skill in silver work, gold thread embroidery, and ivory sculpture. Early catechism books in woodblock print, and documents in calligraphy also illustrate the handiwork of the Chinese.


Inside the plastered walls and under the dome, what has always been obvious envelops the viewer: since the Chinese had to be Christianized, they used their skills to propagate the Catholic faith. Working on Western forms, they infused symbols and details of their old beliefs embodying a religious synergism they will long practice. In the next century, Filipinos would have enhanced their own native skills with what the Chinese passed on to them, some as apprentices, most as heirs.

Emergence of the Chinese Community: Shared Life


Once out of San Agustin, the visitor steps into a corner of Binondo, the settlement across the river that replaced the Parian, and where enduring early wealth flourished. Seated on a dais against a wall, a rich Chinese merchant in full regalia awaits a caller. Off to his left, artifacts of 19th century business houses born in the 17th century line the wall; and off right raised on a platform uncannily effusing power even if empty, is the ornate chair of the Capitan Chino who was charged with the Chinese Gremio, the Gremio de Binondo


The gremios or municipal governing bodies ended the oppressive rule of segregation by taxation. Both Chinese and Filipino or indio, settlements prospered under the capitan who had collecting and mediating powers. The growth of communities under his relaxed control also resumed earlier trade and friendly relations with the Filipinos broken by anti-Chinese sentiments the colonizers’ fueled. A social class called mestizo would soon emerge from intermarriages between baptized Chinese and the india that the church encouraged.


The Chinese community swelled anew with another migration wave in the 19th century. Attracted by the expanded trade and lured by relatives, these overseas Chinese or the hua-ch’iao helped by a broker or coolie sailed in. Some took on the silk trade in Binondo, others ventured to the provinces to farm. By the end of the century, both mestizo and hua-ch’iao families had the economy in their hands.


In Defense of Freedom: Shared Sentiments


The museum ground here splits into a fork to reflect shift in time. With a pivot to the right, the visitor meets up boys under the shadow of a bahay na bato in the yard playing tops and flying kite in a backyard, toys the Chinese brought with them.


The bahay na bato is settling down in the fading sun. On the first floor made of stone, the father quietly tends the store. A stack of farm produce fills the zaguan or the space before a turn up the stairs, and on the wall, mud farm implements like the plow – that too, comes from China.


The house belongs to a mestizo, a class out of which the ilustrado, or the enlightened class would be born.


Living by the traditional Chinese virtues of hard work and frugality, and helped by the native Filipino resourcefulness, the mestizo families cashed in on crops that enabled them to send their children to school in Manila and Europe. These young idealists exposed to liberal ideas fanning Europe at that time would forge a movement against the repressive colonial government.


The fork on the left takes the visitor to opposite walls telling of the Revolution that freed the Philippines from Spain. Sentiments nurtured through centuries of shared oppression have exploded to a single cry for freedom. And some of the loudest would be those of mestizo descendants like Jose Rizal and Emilio Aguinaldo. Where else would Rizal found his La Liga Filipina in secret but in a house in Binondo? A faded picture of that house hangs on the wall.


But a mural on another wall honors a pure Chinese, Ignacio Paua, a general of Aguinaldo charged with gunpowder manufacture and battle strategy. The mix of portraits reveals how the revolution diffused class distinctions and how the fight melded sentiments that gave birth to a nation.


Leaving the portraits of heroes and martyrs, the visitor returns to the bahay na bato to relive the idyll. He climbs the wooden stairs on to the living areas of the house and feels transported by the dark patina of wood, the delicate weight of embroidery, and the milky richness of porcelain. Except for a man reading by a lamp, women live here; the afternoon quietly slips by as they let the visitor look in on their embroidery or game of sungka. In the kitchen, the mother sets dishes of fruits and vegetables. She smiles as if inviting the onlooker.


The visitor may choose to peer closer to the sisters playing in the bedroom or look out of the veranda to retrace the centuries he has just walked through. He may also now walk out of the past and into today – on marble floors and glass walls that make up the gallery of modern day Tsinoys.


A look into the portraits in the gallery is a must in the “journey.” Only then can the visitor unify the experience of knowing the Chinese who is Filipino or the Filipino who is Chinese. Chances are he may discover a Tsinoy in himself.

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