Sang Li

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When I read F. Sionil Jose’s diatribe in his column, I was – at least for a moment – pretty sure he wasn’t talking about me.

It’s typical FSJ: the overtones of nationalism, the rage against the status quo, the new day borne out of the brilliance of his thought. Unless, of course, you consider the pivot to warmongering part of that brilliance.

I would suppose that Mr. Jose directed his barbs to a particular kind of Chinese people that deserves his wrath: disloyal, exploitative compradors (whom I never really had the chance to meet myself). Or maybe he looks at the Chinese with a colored view: the sort who make it to the “weird news” sections for the sad stereotype of the mainland Chinese international tourist. Like any patient reader, I read the piece further, looking for the nuances and evident truths that would have him asking for the emasculation of the Chinese in Philippine soil; or at the very least, their economic power. “Some” Chinese? Names of particular Chinese? “A minority,” perhaps “a majority?” I made sure to search for those qualifiers, and found nothing in the way, and certainly nothing of the sort. Mr. Boying Pimentel was right to ask for those nuances; after all, without them one can misunderstand Mr. F. Sionil Jose’s column.

It was then that I realized that maybe, FSJ was talking about me, too.

The little that I know of my Chinese grandfather comes from the stories of my Lola, Mom, my aunt, and my uncles. Mom and her siblings lived, like many Filipino-Chinese families of the time, at arm’s-length of my grandfather. Lola herself was not one to talk about her husband, either: except maybe for the few times I caught her staring at her one yellowing portrait of her and the tall Chinese man who was my grandfather. Growing up obsessed with stories, I figured that very few stories that my mom’s family had were just going to be fragments, and that I have to piece together the story myself.

When I piece together the story of my grandfather in my head, I start with a crowd of people in a harbor in Fujian. In that crowd was my grandfather: a boy of 12, who saved his coins and such to make his fortune. Around him were people seeking to escape the crushing poverty of a fallen empire. Perhaps things like the Boxers, the fall of the Aisin-Gioro, or the feuding warlords were not as important to that young boy. What was important to him was to escape the gnawing hunger in the pit of his stomach, which meant getting onboard to that steamship bound for Manila.

I’m not a historian, but my grandfather was probably the last of the “sang li:” that catch-all term for people who moved from China to “do business.” Or escape whatever was worth running away from. Perhaps in those steamships, enterprising people and refugees and runaways stood shoulder to shoulder with each other: perhaps that’s how you start a brand new life.

At this point, you would think that my grandfather struck it rich: like the typical rags-to-riches stories you would expect from people named “Sy” or “Gokongwei.” Or that I’d be mortified at the idea of emasculating the Chinese “power over the economy” on the basis of my grandfather’s own Cinderella story. But there’s a little twist to this piece.

My grandfather was many things in his youth: a peddler, a shop assistant, a laborer, eventually finding more stable employment as a laborer in a school’s laundry. There he met my Lola, and started a family. Like many Chinese at that time, he took up trading as a business: but with a growing brood, the war and reconstruction weren’t conducive for running a business if you didn’t have a lot of luck. Fortune didn’t favor my grandfather at all, despite the many things he tried to do to fulfill the reason why he left China in the first place.

To make a long story short, my grandfather wasn’t one of those Chinese taipans, much less the typical rags-to-riches Dick Whittington tale that we associate with most other Chinese migrants. My grandfather died poor, but not in the ignominious poverty that he would have suffered had he chosen to stay in China as a young man. The most success my grandfather had was to keep his family fed, clothed, and sheltered: which was already a monumental accomplishment for a boy with a jumble of papers in the docks of Amoy.

(Side note: I could probably do better with a lot more research, but when I get the time I probably would. It’s a story that’s just so interesting to tell.)

Well-respected folks like Dr. Caroline Hau and Ms. Teresita Ang-See are right in pointing out that FSJ is remiss in his numbers, and that the economic contributions of the Filipino-Chinese community are myriad. After all, FSJ’s diatribe is pretty much a high articulation of the casual racism we extend to the Chinese who seem to live at the edges of our standards of politeness, much less the tensions at the West Philippine Sea.

Yet outside of these, I think there’s merit in pointing out that the lack of nuance makes Mr. Jose’s prejudiced nationalism extend to people like me: people who don’t identify as Chinoy, who are distant from our Chinese roots, identify as Filipino, and are at the receiving end of a bigoted opinion. And that lack of nuance on his part reflects a sense of shallowness: as shallow as his appreciation is for the violent solution other countries pursued.

It’s reasoning like his that finds great root in places like Manzanar, Tuol Sleng, and at its extreme, Auschwitz. Places that I’m sure Mr. Jose would be familiar with. Places born out of – to use the term loosely – the banality of evil (more on that when I feel like it).

I’m not Chinoy; I’m not a member of a Chinese association, I have a very poor grasp of Chinese, and perhaps my best personal connection with China is my grandfather’s story. Dr. Hau and Ms. Ang-See are right to point out the factual errors of Mr. Jose from the point of view of people who have every right to be offended by such a piece. If anything this piece is probably just me pounding on the table. But you would, too, if the insult runs deep.

When I first read F. Sionil Jose’s diatribe, I was – at least for a moment – pretty sure he wasn’t talking about me, or people like me. But reading through the lack of nuance in his column, he was talking about me. And my grandfather before me.

Photo of Amoy Harbor from Wikimedia Commons

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