updated 3 Oct 2012, 13:23
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Fri, Feb 27, 2009
The Straits Times
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Love breaks down Filipino 'Great Wall'
by Alastair McIndoe, Philippines Correspondent

MANILA: - For some young Filipinos of Chinese descent, the Great Wall has a special meaning. It signifies the generations of opposition from parents and grandparents to marrying outside this prosperous and close-knit community.

The wall, to be sure, is not so great any more. Not like it was in the 1950s, when Mr Benito Lim, a leading authority on the Chinese in the Philippines, met his future wife at university in Manila. The two fell in love working on the varsity newspaper.

'When my mother found out that I planned to marry a non-Chinese, she threatened to commit suicide. So we had to marry in secret. She came around after our first child was born,' said Mr Lim, a second-generation Filipino.

Such histrionics are rarer these days. Even so, enough of the wall stands to remain a source of tension for young Filipino Chinese men and women who date and marry outside the community.

It was the subject of a forum earlier this month organised by the Chinese Students Association of the University of the Philippines (UP) in Quezon City.

'We felt that this is still an issue for us,' said 19-year-old Merryan Jin, who studies creative writing at UP. 'Families are becoming more open to inter-cultural relationships, but for the most part they prefer that we marry Chinese Filipino.'

'I think we are more open in not limiting our choices to just Chinese partners,' said Ms Jin. 'I have friends dating Filipinos, but their parents don't approve.'

She believes that her generation could give the wall its biggest battering yet.

'Among many families there is still the rule that you don't marry outside the Chinese community; but it's cultural not racial,' said UP arts lecturer Helen Yu-Rivera. To her considerable surprise, her mother put up little resistance when she chose to marry a Filipino in 1991. 'But it helped that he was a teacher.'

For anthropologist Michael Tan, the 'great wall' - a new term that is just catching on - reflects a 'degree of resentment among the young ethnic Chinese' over who they may choose as partners.

Writing in his column in The Philippine Daily Inquirer, Dr Tan argues that the wall is based on ethnocentrism - the idea that one's ethnicity or cultural group is superior to all others. This is strongly felt among the Chinese generally, he said.

But it also exists among Filipinos themselves. Ilocanos from the north pride themselves on being hardworking and careful with money, viewing Visayans from the central Philippines as feckless and extravagant.

The ethnic Chinese account for less than 2 per cent of the Philippines' 90 million people, but their roots go deep.

Several centuries before the explorer Ferdinand Magellan named these islands for King Philip of Spain in 1521, merchant ships from China were trading with native settlements here. It was only during Spanish colonial times that the Chinese came in large numbers, mostly traders and artisans from Fujian.

Inter-marriage brought the locals and the Chinese closer together; criss-crossing bloodlines blurred the distinction.

The forebears of today's Chinese Filipino were mainly Fujianese immigrants who came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Hokkien dialect is still widely spoken in the community.

'Because many professions were closed to the Chinese settlers, some until as late as the 1950s, they went into business for a livelihood,' said Mr Lim.

As a result, the Philippine Chinese, unlike a large swathe of the general population, are by and large financially solid.

'We have assimilated well,' said Ms Christine Tan, 30, a volunteer for Kaisa, an organisation promoting Chinese Filipino culture. 'We're still hardworking, but like Filipinos we are also much more outgoing and warmer than the Chinese in other parts of the world.'

She married her Chinese Filipino husband, a businessman, two years ago. 'I met the right guy who happened to be Tsinoy,' said Ms Tan, using the local term - pronounced Chinoy - for Filipinos of Chinese descent. 'But it's important in a marriage to have a partner with shared values and plenty of common ground.'

Gauging the state of the wall is hard. There has been no recent research on the subject, for one. So, in that case, who better to ask than a wedding photographer?

Mr Patrick Uy, one of the best-known in the business here, has seen a marked increase in 'mixed' marriages over the past decade. He says Chinese Filipino bridegrooms marrying Filipina brides are now common, although these couples almost always come from the same social class.

Everyone agrees that this is the clincher for scaling the wall.

On wedding shoots, Mr Uy sees far fewer Chinese brides marrying Filipinos - a reflection, perhaps, of the reluctance of women to leave the coop.

For them, getting a job in a bank after university or college is a still a popular way of meeting a suitable Mr Right. 'It's one of the few jobs for young women that are not frowned upon in traditional Chinese families,' said Dr Yu-Rivera.

'Unlike a flight attendant,' chimed in her husband Robin Rivera, a record producer and lecturer in popular culture.

I asked the couple's 14 year-old daughter Nicole whether she felt closer to her Chinese or Filipino side. Removing the earphones to her iPod, she replied: 'It's just not something that I think about.'

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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