THE FALL-OUT from the killing of eight tourists from Hong Kong and Canada last August 23 could include a spike in discrimination and even violence against Overseas Filipino Workers in Hong Kong and other parts of China. There are also fears that whatever efforts the Philippine government is exerting to stop the execution of those Filipino workers sentenced to death for various offenses in the latter will quickly lead nowhere.

The media have made much of such incidents in Hong Kong as a domestic worker’s being fired by an employer outraged over the August 23 killings, and of a Filipino senator’s passport’s being allegedly thrown at him by an immigration official. But neither have the media failed to report the actor Jackie Chan’s urging his countrymen not to take out their outrage on Filipino workers in Hong Kong, and some Hong Kong students’ declaring the same sentiment. Hong Kong officials have also assured the Philippine government, so the media tell us, that they will protect Filipino workers in that part of China. (The British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997.)

There are some 200,000 OFWs in Hong Kong, of which 90 percent are women in domestic services — i.e., as nannies, housemaids, cooks, etc. Large numbers of workers are also in other parts of China, which is among the 200 countries where millions of Filipino workers are currently deployed.

It wasn’t always that way, but the opposite. Chinese amahs — from Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan — were once a feature of upper, even middle class homes. The Philippines was once also among the most preferred destinations of Chinese migrants. Such was the country’s reputation as a host country that it used to have a huge problem with illegal Chinese immigration — and a community of lawyers that was almost exclusively focused on legalizing the stay in the country of immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.

Philippine- Chinese relations are centuries old. Part of the evidence is the number of Filipinos whose forebears were Chinese, among them Benigno Cojuangco Aquino III, and the country’s national hero, Jose Rizal.

“Chinatowns,” which exist in almost every major city on the planet, are expressions of Chinese separateness from the rest of the population. But while there is a Chinatown in most Philippine cities, they’re less a signifier of otherness in this country than elsewhere, and are mostly the remnants of a less tolerant period, the Chinese having been so integrated into Philippine life that there’s little of the tensions and violence that characterize Chinese relations with the local populations in such countries as, say, Indonesia.

There have been pogroms against the Chinese even in the Philippines, but the last cases occurred during the Spanish colonial period, when the racist policies of Spain kept the Chinese apart from the rest of the population, and occasionally kept their numbers down through expulsion and massacres.

The Philippines is one of the most tolerant countries in Southeast Asia, among other reasons because, despite the Spanish colonial government’s discriminatory policies, a mestizo, or mixed blood, elite arose out of the intermarriages and other liaisons among members of the local principalia (the descendants of the datus of pre-Hispanic times), Spaniards and Chinese people. The result is the preeminence of Filipinos of Chinese origin as well as mestizos in business as well as in politics.

But remnants of anti-Chinese sentiment and discrimination remain. There are speculations, especially in the Chinese community, as to whether the hostage-taking crisis of August 23 could have ended otherwise had the hostages not been Chinese but, say, American or European.

The Philippine record in racial and ethnic relations may be less bloody than that of Indonesia, but it doesn’t mean there’s no racism in this country. Among the more recent evidence of its persistence are the anti-Chinese rants in some Internet blogs in the wake of the August 23 hostage-taking crisis.

Such idiocies are expected in a medium that’s accessible to any pimply 12-year old with a laptop. What’s really disturbing is that the Aquino government looked at the crisis as a local one, but would most certainly have regarded it as an international crisis worthy of Mr. Aquino’s personal attention and that of the highest officials of the police and the Department of Foreign Affairs had it been Americans or Europeans who were being held hostage. Part of the reason for the anger in Hong Kong and China is the sense that race played a part in the outcome of the crisis despite our history of relative racial tolerance.

The paradox is that Filipino exposure to other races and their cultures has never been more extensive. Because of the de facto policy (it is explicitly denied in the Migrant Workers Act of 1995) of labor export as a means of keeping the foundering economy afloat, and their own quest for better lives — or at least a place of order and stability where the trains run on time — Filipino workers and immigrants are everywhere on the planet, the diversity of whose peoples and cultures should be providing more than enough lessons in greater tolerance and understanding.

Not only is it a matter of recognizing that despite the differences wrought by race, history, and culture, there is only one human family: it is also a matter of survival. As more and more Filipinos leave the country — from 20 to 30 percent of the population would if they had the chance, and some 4,000 do leave daily — as they leave the country and find themselves in other climes, they’re going to have to adapt to the cultures of their hosts, even as, in such events as the hostage taking of August 23, some of them could end up hostaged not only to the inefficiency displayed by their government, but also to the stubborn persistence of the intolerance of those other times and circumstances when the Philippines was the place to go to rather than to leave.


Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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