National hero not a fan of China

The Inbox

By Carlo Figueroa, VERA Files

Jose Rizal, the country's national hero, avoided Chinese-made products like the plague.

That is the observation one can make upon reading his letters that have been published by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.

In a letter to his mother Teodora Alonzo dated Oct. 22, 1895, Rizal wrote, "I vowed not to buy anymore from them (Chinese), so that sometimes I find myself very hard up. Now we have almost neither dishes nor tumblers."

A year earlier, he had written his friend, Austrian scholar Ferdinand Blumentritt, describing how he organized a farmers' cooperative while in exile in Dapitan to empower local traders against their Chinese counterparts:

"Here I have become half physician, half businessman. I have established a commercial company here. I have taught the poor Mindanao folk to unite for trading so that they may become independent and free themselves from the Chinese and thus be less exploited."

Claims of Rizal's anti-Chinese sentiment are not new. Manila-based Chinese-Filipino businessman Alfonso Ang said Rizal's writings are replete with rejection and discrimination against the Chinese. In his essay "Rizal's Chinese Overcoat," Ang explained how Rizal even denied his Chinese ancestry.

Genealogists have traced Rizal's ancestry to Shang Guo village of what is now Jinjiang City in Fujian province in southern China.

Family records show that his paternal great-great-grandfather, Domingo Lam-co (Ke Yinan), was part of the Ke clan. He eventually settled in Laguna in the mid-18th century, married the Sangley or Chinese mestiza Ines de la Rosa, and changed his family name to Mercado, which means market, to match his profession as a merchant.

Decades later, Lam-co's great-grandson, Francisco Mercado, petitioned the courts to change their family name to Rizal after then Governor-General Narciso Claveria ordered families to use last names from an approved list provided by the colonial government. "Rizal" was apparently chosen to suit Mercado's farming business as the name was derived from the Spanish ricial, meaning "green pastures."

Both Rizal's novels—Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo—are known to criticize the incompetence and the corrupt system of governance of the Spanish colonizers back then. However, aside from its stinging rebuke of Spanish rule, the novels had a number of insulting references to the Chinese community in the Philippines.

Ang particularly mentioned the character of Quiroga in El Filibusterismo and went on to identify the real person behind it. "Quiroga, the subject of Chapter 16 of the El Filibusterismo, 'The Tribulations of a Chinaman,' was none other than Carlos Palanca (who was then the leader of the Chinese community). Artificial in manner, hypocritical, cunning, a bootlicker of government officials, engaging in business speculations, intent on nothing but profit—such was Rizal's portrayal of Quiroga."

Ang said Rizal's portrayal of Palanca, the gobernadorcillo of Binondo and head of the Gremio de Mestizos (Mestizo Guild), was not without basis. "History clearly records Palanca's involvement in disreputable businesses like opium importation and the monopoly on cockfighting arenas," he said.

Ang points to the cultural and political milieu of Rizal's time as reasons behind his antagonism toward the Chinese. "Most of the Chinese mestizos had already 'forgotten' their Chinese ancestry and had become indistinguishable from the "natives." Moreover, there were significant political, cultural, and economic contradictions between these mestizos and the so-called pure-blooded Chinese," he wrote.

Dr. Caroline Hau of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University concurs with Ang. In an interview she gave to the Manila Bulletin last year, she explained how Rizal's views of the Chinese were shaped by his "background, his class, his education, and the mores and racial attitudes of the time."

"Anti-Chinese sentiment, especially among mestizos and naturales, was a fact of life in the late 19th century, and you can expect some of these sentiments to color Rizal's portrayals of the Chinese in his novels," she said.

But Teresita Ang-See, an expert on Philippine-Chinese studies and issues, does not view it as anti-Chinese, but more of a general anti-foreign sentiment.

"The turn of the 19th century was a period when most intellectuals, the ilustrados foremost among them, were just starting to develop a national consciousness and staking their claim on the Filipino national identity. They start(ed) to veer away from being Caviteno, Cebuano, Ilocano but learn to assert that they are Filipino," Ang-See said in an email interview.

"Rizal's spurning the Chinese should be seen in that context," she added.

While Ang See admitted that the Chinese during the time of Rizal were profiled as illiterate, barefoot vendors and workers who went around in tattered and dirty clothing, Ang-See saw it as something bigger than racism.

"Rizal's ridicule of these characters should be seen in the context of social class distinctions. Rather than anti-Chinese racism, I see it more as an elitist anti-lower class attitude," she said.

Though some scholars would argue Rizal's regard for the Chinese, Austin Coates' book Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr tellingly describes how Rizal even protested a document he had to sign before his execution in 1896. The reason for his protest was a reference to him as a "Chinese mestizo." In Leon Ma. Guerrero's The First Filipino, Rizal was adamant in claiming that he was a "pure Filipino" and not a "half-breed."

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true".)