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PERRYSCOPE: Chinese migration to the Philippines

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By Perry Diaz

Five-five hundred years ago, the first Austronesians migrated from South China to Taiwan. It took another 1,500 years before they migrated to the Philippines.

In my column, “Who Discovered the Philippines?” (April 13, 2007), I wrote: “In the late 1990s, Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA and winner of the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, and Peter Bellwood, Professor of Archaeology at the Australian National University, postulated that the Austronesians had their roots in Southern China.  Diamond said that they migrated to Taiwan around 3,500 B.C.  However, Bellwood believed that the Austronesian expansion started as early as 6,000 B.C.  Around 3,000 B.C., the Malayo-Polynesians — a subfamily of the Austronesians — began their migration out of Taiwan.  The first stop was northern Luzon [near present-day Aparri, Ilocos Norte].  Over a span of 2,000 years, the Malayo-Polynesian expansion spread southward to the rest of the Philippine archipelago and crossed the ocean to Celebes, Borneo, Timor, Java, Sumatra, Malay Peninsula, and Vietnam; westward in the Indian Ocean to Madagascar; and eastward in the Pacific Ocean to New Guinea, New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, Marquesas, Cook, Pitcairn, Easter, and Hawaii.  Today, the Malayo-Polynesian speaking people have populated a vast area that covers a distance of about 11,000 miles and two oceans – Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean — from Madagascar to Hawaii, almost half the circumference of the world.”  We’ve come a long way, baby.

Pre-Hispanic era   

In the 11th century, long before the arrival of the Spaniards, Chinese traders had already been coming to the Philippines.  They went as far as Butuan and Sulu. However, most of their trade activities were in Luzon due to its proximity to China.  The trade with China has a major influence and contribution within the Filipino culture. 

In 1405, during the reign of the Ming Dynasty in China, Emperor Yung Lo claimed the island of Luzon and placed it under his empire. The Chinese called the island “Lusong” from the Chinese characters Lui Sung.  The biggest settlement of Chinese was in Lingayen in Pangasinan.  Lingayen also became the seat of the Chinese colonial government in Luzon. When Yung Lo died in 1424, the new Emperor Hongxi, Yung Lo’s son, lost interest in the colony and the colonial government was dissolved.  However, the Chinese settlers in Lingayen — known as “sangleys” — remained and prospered.”

Spanish colonial era

When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Manila in 1571, they destroyed the existing Muslim settlement and built a fortress around it and named it Intramuros, which became the capital of the new colony.  The walls were constructed to keep out invading Chinese pirates.  One of them was the notorious Limahong.  In 1574, he tried to capture Manila but was beaten by the combined Spanish and native forces.  Limahong retreated to Lingayen where he built a fort in 1575.  He fought the Spaniards for four months but eventually abandoned his fort and fled to the sea never to return again. 

The Chinese migrants lived in a settlement called Parian outside the walled city of Intramuros.  The Chinese men, who arrived without women, intermarried with the native women, and their offspring came to be known as Mestizos de Sangley.

During the Philippine Revolution of 1898, full-blooded Spaniards born in Spain and sent to Spanish colonies to govern were called peninsulares.  Full-blooded Spaniards born in the colonies were called insulares and those born in the Philippines were called Filipinos.Filipinos with Spanish blood and native blood were also called Filipinos and so were the Mestizos de Sangley and other races mixed with Spanish blood.  In contrast, the natives of pure Austronesian descent were called Indios, which was considered derogatory.   It was only after the Philippine Revolution when the Spanish colonial regime ended that the Indios came to be called rightfully as Filipinos.

The Chinese mestizos – the Sangleys/Filipinos — would later fan the flames of the Philippine Revolution.  Many leaders of the Philippine Revolution themselves have substantial Chinese ancestry. These include Jose Rizal, Emilio Aguinaldo, Andres Bonifacio, Marcelo del Pilar, and Antonio Luna.  And lastly, there was the principalia, the ruling and usually educated class, comprising of the Gobernadorcillo (similar to present-day mayor), Cabezas de Barangay (heads of the barangays), former gobernadorcillos and Municipal lieutenants.

Modern-day Philippines 

Today, the Filipino Chinese population is about 1.8% (1.5 million) of the country’s total population, most of whom had Hispanized their names or contracted them into a single surname like Teehankee from Tee Han Kee.  The largest groups of Chinese are those who migrated from Mainland China since 1949 when the communists took over the country.   

Chinese migration to the Philippines has been constant but it increased exponentially in 2016 when President Rodrigo Duterte came to power.  Today, there are at least four million Chinese nationals from Mainland China who were allowed to enter the country as tourists but were able to get special work permits by bribing immigration officials. This came to be known as the “pastillas scheme.”

According to news reports, the “pastillas scheme” had generated some P30 billion in kickbacks from 3.8 million Chinese arrivals that were shared among officers at the Bureau of Immigration (BI) under the non-visa-upon-arrival (non-VUA) racket.  Another P2 billion in bribes was generated from Chinese tourists under the visa-upon-arrival (VUA) racket.  Since VUA requires the issuance of visas, the bribe money goes straight to the main office where the visas are approved.  Another P8 billion was earned through payola for hassle-free departure of trafficked people.  That’s a whooping P40 billion generated in the pastillas scheme!  Yes, everybody has a cut, from top to bottom.

It’s called pastillas scheme because the bribe money is rolled in white wrapper like the milk candy called “pastillas.”  It involves BI officers who allowed the smooth entry of Chinese nationals to the country in exchange for a P10,000 “service fee” or “lagay.”

It’s interesting to note that the Chinese nationals arriving in the country has almost tripled since 2016 when Duterte came to power.  They bought condos, live in upper middle-class homes, and drive expensive cars. Hundreds of Chinese POGO workers have taken up residence in a known multinational subdivision in Parañaque City.  And they also boosted retail sales.  They also bought large tracts of land using Filipino straw buyers, which has substantially increased the price of land. 

Residents in the upscale subdivision said they’re troubled by those moving into their neighborhood.  They said that they’re worried about the recent construction of a firing range, which caused them to wonder if the able-bodied men with short-cropped hair could be members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on mission to the Philippines.  

There has been a mounting backlash from locals who fear that the Chinese workers are taking their jobs.  In addition, the Chinese workers were suspected of committing crimes.

Rise in crimes

Crimes committed by Chinese have been headlined causing resentment from the locals.  Last year, a 23-year-old Chinese woman hurled a cup of soy pudding at a police officer after she was barred from boarding a train with her food. The incident triggered an online fury. The police said the number of Chinese suspected or involved in crimes tripled from 2016 to 2019, which is about 40% of all cases involving foreign nationals.

From 2016 to 2018, around 335,800 working visas and special work permits were issued to Chinese, representing over half the total number of permits issued to foreigners.  Current estimates place 200,000 to 400,000 Chinese are working in Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGOs), which were established after President Rodrigo Duterte took over the government in 2016.  Currently, there are around 50 POGOs in operation today, mostly operated by Chinese nationals.  POGO revenue substantially increased to P7.35 billion last year from P657 million in 2016.

But what’s causing the ease for foreigners to acquire work permits is a glaring loophole in the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) system where any of the 3.12 million Chinese “tourists” registered at the Bureau of Immigration (BOI) can convert their tourist visas into working visas as long as they obtain an Alien Employment Permit (AEP).  And while waiting for their AEP, they are issued a Provisional Work Permit (PWP).  So, in a practical sense, any tourist admitted to the country can stay and work without too much of a hassle… provided they pay the “pastillas.”

Chinese invasion

As one resident in Metro Manila had observed: “The Chinese have invaded our islands in the West Philippine Sea and now they’re in my condo!  It’s a home invasion!”

The home invasion that one Metro Manila resident had observed is just a drop in the ocean since the time when Chinese traders started coming to the archipelago long before it was named Las Islas Filipinas by Spain.  It was just a few drops compared to the bloody invasion by Limahong and his pirates in 1574.  But it was a flood compared to the storm that began in 2016 when Duterte opened the floodgate of migration into the country.  Just imagine – it took 900 years for Chinese migration to grow to 1.5 million prior to 2016 and just four years for it to grow by four million!  And now the country is awash in Chinese migration, which has impacted the social, cultural, economic, and ideological fabric of the country.  I’m sure it’s for the betterment of the country, socially, culturally, and economically.  A multi-racial society is rich in tradition and culture. But I have reservations whether the ideological calculus is what the freedom-loving Filipino people desire. It’s like mixing oil and water.  By the same token, communism and democracy simply just don’t mix and never will.


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