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  • Ambition and Identity: Chinese Merchant Elites in Colonial Manila, 1880-1916
  • Richard T. Chu (bio)
Andrew R. Wilson . Ambition and Identity: Chinese Merchant Elites in Colonial Manila, 1880-1916. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004. xi, 304 pp. Hardcover $55.00, ISBN 0-8248-2650-7.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese studies scholars, mainly anthropologists and sociologists, focused their attention on the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia as a template to study Chinese identity, since China was closed off to them. They were interested in identifying enduring Chinese cultural values and organization and in analyzing the way the new nation-states in this region affected the "Chineseness" of these people through various nation-building strategies.1 Underpinning these questions on identity was in part the concern for security that reflected the competing ideologies of Cold War politics. Communist China was perceived as a menace to the "free world," and scholars sought to determine whether the ethnic Chinese in this region constituted a "fifth column" in their host societies.2 By the 1980s, when it was clear that the "overseas Chinese" communities in Southeast Asia had taken roots in their host communities rather than returning en masse to China, scholars, especially from the region, began to focus on their identities as Southeast Asians, that is, as Malaysians, Filipinos, Thais, or Indonesians.3 Their goals were to demonstrate to what extent these Chinese were "assimilated" or "integrated" into their societies and how their Chinese-ness could help explain their economic success. Their writings constructed the Southeast Asian Chinese either as "modern Asians," "successful entrepreneurs," and "Confucian capitalists" or as "stigmatized, undesirable, or disloyal Others."4

In the ultimate analysis these scholars accepted the constructions of a Chinese identity by nationalist states and other dominant groups, neglecting a crucial [End Page 273] aspect of identity, namely the self-ascriptive dimension of identity. In other words, the central question has become: what does being Chinese mean to these overseas Chinese. For such a question, the case of the Philippine Chinese offers much food for thought. Their history of interaction with the indigenous populations of the Philippine Islands can be traced back to the tenth century, when traders and merchants left the southeastern shores of Fujian Province to engage in trade with the other peoples of Southeast Asia. Since the sixteenth century the Philippines had been colonized, subjugated, or ruled by different entities (e.g., the Spanish, American, and Japanese colonial governments; the Catholic Church; and the nationalist Philippine government), which had various ways of classifying ethnic identities, including that of the Chinese. Thus, the study of the ethnicity of the Philippine Chinese—especially when viewed from the perspective of these people themselves—offers potentially rich, new, and important insights into the meanings and complexity of being a "Chinese." Such a perspective allows us to see a Chinese identity that is at once multifaceted, flexible, and constantly being negotiated. With a few exceptions, however, most of the works done on the Philippine Chinese are still based on the concepts of assimilation and integration and tied up with nation-based discourses on ethnicity.5 Andrew Wilson's Ambition and Iden-tity: The Chinese Merchant Elites in Colonial Manila, 1880-1916 is a welcome addition to the small but increasing number of studies trying to "salvage the history of the (Philippine) Chinese . . . from the nationalist historiography of both China and the Philippines" that tends to cast these people either as "loyal Chinese" or "disloyal Filipinos."6

Wilson chooses to focus his study on the period between 1880 and 1916, for this was a time of significant economic, political, and social change in the Philippines. Among the important changes during this period were (1) the growing identification of the Philippine Chinese merchant elites with China, as the Qing government (and later on the Republican government) began reaching out to the huaqiao (overseas) compatriots in Southeast Asia, and (2) the shift from Spanish to American colonial rule. Wilson's aim is to show how the Chinese elite in Manila manipulated its identity in order to "maintain its control over the ethnic enclave and to expand its influence with external sources of authority," specifically the Chinese...


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