Beyond the Great Wall

By Jillian Uy (Class 2026)

Photo by Markyn Kho (Class 2020)

The Filipino Chinese are Filipinos who descend from the Chinese diaspora resettled in the Philippines, many of whom are from the Fujian Province in China. We call ourselves Lannang (“our own people”) and are distinguished from other ethnic Chinese groups by our own dialect, the Philippine Hokkien/Fookien or Lannang-oe. Culturally, we remain similar to the Fujian Province as it was during the Spanish Period, assimilating some Filipino influences along the way. 

It is ingrained in us to be proud of our heritage, to be thankful for being born into a different culture which blends the Fujian Chinese heritage with the Filipino influences of our motherland. We are raised with the archaic traditions and heightened expectations of the generations before us while growing up in the modern era. Instead of learning how to speak Filipino, we are raised primarily in a Hokkien and English environment, only picking up Filipino and other Philippine languages through constant exposure from outside contact. In addition to visiting churches, we pray in temples, venerating our ancestors and asking for their guidance. In lieu of playing outdoors with neighbors, we learned to take inventory before we could even count and watched negotiations before we could comprehend what was being said. Our parents were raised in this way, therefore we must be too in order to promote success in our futures. This is the life of a Filipino-Chinese, one that lives and dies by their craft.

Those in more traditional families may remember the constant feeling of being judged against an impossible standard, especially when around elders. Pai Se culture or the fear of embarrassment drives actions; outside the home, we are constantly reminded to behave in an acceptable Chinese manner in order to avoid shaming ourselves, and most importantly, our families. The ability of our youth to look and act appropriately from a young age is a source of pride for our parents, even if said children do not quite understand what they are doing just yet. Most of the time we are not taught why said actions and traditions are correct, just that this is the norm. Conformity is not just expected, it is imposed.

But this rigidity of our culture could indeed be our downfall. The Filipino-Chinese culture is comparable to an imposing waterfall in the middle of the majestic forest. It is a vital part of forest life, yet as it exists it slowly whittles itself down to oblivion; the rushing water contributing to its majesty eroding the foundation it sits upon, until what was once the lifeblood of the entire community becomes nothing more than a trickle seeking relevance in a world which has moved on. We rely on ourselves to continue the traditions that have been passed on to us, but we are also slowly losing ourselves to our new motherland and the people who we now consider our own.

However, despite growing up immersed in the Filipino Chinese culture, I myself am not as Chinese as my parents desire me to be — my Oriental looks belie my barely elementary comprehension of anything spoken in my own language. What I have learned and what little I practice of this ancient culture is but a drop in the vast ocean of what traditions my grandparents have already forgotten. I am paradoxically a continued source of pride and disappointment for my parents; a veneer of academic success thinly painted over language and cultural expectations I have not, and cannot, accomplish, a fact I am constantly reminded of as I try to navigate the intricacies of the adult world. Every day is a battle between being myself and being what my parents expect me to be.

Nevertheless, maybe it is time to consider that we are no longer the Fujian Chinese of that era. We are not our forefathers who risked their lives to migrate into the Philippine islands, escaping poverty and certain death in the mainland. We are the products of our time, the children of the new generation who, at a young age, learned to navigate the intricacies of two cultures. Our heritage should not be a shackle limiting our every move but a billowing cape we wear proudly on our shoulders. Slowly we are changing our way of thinking, becoming less conservative and more accepting of blending both aspects of our reality. 

Nowhere is this more clear than in the way our generation is rebelling against purely intracultural marriages. Current popular culture in the Philippines shows that Filipino Chinese in the modern era have a proverbial “Great Wall” in place, discouraging interethnic relationships and marriage especially towards pure Filipinos, mostly in an aim to preserve heritage. If both parents are raised with the same familial and cultural expectations, it is easy for future generations to grow up in the same manner. However, this utilitarian process only goes so far, as relationships in this age are based on love and values, not the more arranged marriages of the bygone era. Being raised in the Philippines and immersed in their beliefs makes this goal difficult as well. Older generations may still desire us to remain “pure” to our heritage, however, it is clear that the Great Wall that once separated “us” from “them”, Lannang from Hui Li Pin Lang (“Filipino people”), is being chipped away.

Maintaining a cultural enclave without compromise is impossible. Whether we admit it or not, our culture is integrating itself to the Filipino landscape, shaping not only our thoughts but those of our fellow Filipinos. Schools that were once reserved solely for those of Chinese heritage have long since opened their doors to educating everyone in a mix of Filipino, Chinese, and religious ideals. The country celebrates Chinese holidays like the Lunar New Year together, featuring older traditions like the Dragon and Lion Dances alongside mixed traditions  like eating tikoy flavored with ube or pandan. The Great Wall is merely an obstacle to be overcome in the present time, especially with more lenient families. This does not mean that we are abandoning our past nor is it a free pass to ignore our heritage altogether, but rather that we allow it to tie ourselves to a common history while keeping our options open for the changing future.

To be Filipino-Chinese in the present era means embracing both the rich heritage that our grandparents brought with them as they migrated from the Fujian province and the evolving lifestyle of the Filipinos. It means balancing atop the Great Wall, chipping away the stone barrier until enclaves become shared land. It means forming our shared destiny in the Philippines together, becoming the future of the motherland as Jose Rizal once put it. It means preserving our traditions while adapting to the modernity of the present and future. It means passing down our way of life to the next generations while pruning the thorns that once restricted ours. Above all, we may be ethnically Chinese, but we are Filipinos. We are the Filipino-Chinese.

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