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TYBOX: Alice through a Tsinoy’s looking glass

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(MindaNews / 21 May) — A journalist friend asked me, since I’m a Tsinoy, if I speak Fookien better than Chinese Mandarin.

This question had to do with Alice Guo, that 37-year-old first-time mayor of Bamban, Tarlac, whose nationality is questioned along with the anomaly of having a POGO operation with illegal Chinese workers near the municipal hall. 

Is she a Tsinoy, or a naturalized Mainland Chinese, or a Mainland Chinese faking her Filipino citizenship, Filipino-ness and mocking our politics?

And why does language figure here? A Tsinoy posted on X (formerly Twitter) that Mainland Chinese speak Mandarin, while majority of us Tsinoys, short for Chinese Filipinos who have stayed in the Philippines for generations now, speak Fookien or Hokkien, because this is the language of our angkong’s, ah-mah’s, and older generations who come from China’s Fujian Province.

So, if Guo speaks Mandarin fluently, and she can’t speak Fookien, that’s a giveaway.


But that friend’s question is double-edged. What if Tsinoys can’t speak Chinese fluently, Mandarin, Fookien or even pinyin? Are we less Chinese now?

Many Tsinoys in this generation could barely speak Chinese except when they talk with (or just listen to) their grandparents and with teachers in Chinese schools.

Tsinoys, who are now the third or fourth generation of migrant Chinese, have assimilated or been Filipinized over the decades, mingling, interacting and embracing Pinoy culture and language in school, workplace and everywhere else. I bet young Tsinoys even like K-Pop and sing those songs.

But our Chinese elders always say language is important for us. It is the link to our roots. They always say we may not be Chinese enough if we can’t speak the mother tongue.

But it’s not the fault of most Tsinoys if they can’t speak the mother tongue. Why? It has to do with the Filipinization of Chinese schools, which started under President Ferdinand Marcos Sr.

In his research, former UP Chancellor and sociologist Michael Tan noted that in 1973, Marcos instructed schools to remove “Chinese” from its names. (That explains why Davao Chinese High School became Davao Central, but now it changed its name to Davao Chong Hua).

Another change made under Marcos was the reduction of Chinese subjects to two 40-minute subjects a day.

This was a drastic change, as Chinese schools used to spend half the day teaching Chinese reading, language, essay writing, even mathematics, calligraphy and arts. And they taught both Mandarin and Fookien. That’s where my parents, uncles and aunties had a good foundation of Chinese language and history.

At present, the Chinese subject is whittled down to one subject per day.

If Pinoys lament how K-12 has reduced important subjects like history and social sciences, Tsinoys, too, should frown on how little we know about our history and culture because the kids now just have one 40-minute session a day to learn that. Unless you want to count watching Mulan or Chinese movies as part of learning, when K-Drama is more fun to watch.


If knowing the mother tongue is a deficit for most Tsinoys, it doesn’t mean we’re lacking of anything in general.

Tsinoys contribute much to society, not just in trade and business (which is a stereotype), Tsinoys also deliver as doctors, engineers, cultural workers, writers, lawyers, civic workers, and even as politicians, but definitely not Alice Guo.

And being Tsinoy, we also agree that the islands in West Philippine Sea belongs to the Philippines.  

Being Tsinoy, where we pay our taxes, respect the rules and be diligent with our paperworks, we are equally indignant that this Chinese lady in Bamban made her way as mayor with a delayed birth certificate and without a school diploma. Giunsa pagkalusot ning bayhana? Some of my folks had a harder time getting naturalized as Filipinos by the way, and some even failed.  

Being Chinese is more than just language. As Michael Tan writes: “the struggle is not so much a choice between being Chinese or Filipino as in joining an entire nation that is itself in search of an identity. For the local Chinese, questions are raised about the very relevance of acknowledging Chinese ancestry and heritage, of speaking or not speaking Chinese, all in the context of the Philippines and of being Filipino.”


Back to that question again. Can I speak Mandarin or Fookien if my life depends on it? 

My Tsinoy family is unique in that, we speak Mandarin Chinese at home. My family once lived with Taiwanese neighbors who worked in the Taiwan Embassy in Santa Ana Avenue in the 1970s. They spoke Mandarin to my elder sister, which carried on when I was born. 

So, if I had a chance to speak to that mayor, what will I say? I think I will ask her that we go sail to WPS, then I’ll listen to what she will say first when she faced those vessels. If she utters “Fei chang kao xing…” Alams na.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Tyrone A. Velez is a freelance journalist and writer.)

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