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Reviewed by:
  • Chinese and Chinese Mestizos of Manila: Family, Identity, and Culture, 1860s–1930s
  • Jerry Dennerline (bio)
Richard Chu. Chinese and Chinese Mestizos of Manila: Family, Identity, and Culture, 1860s–1930s Leiden: Brill, 2010. xviii, 451 pp. Hardcover $179.00, ISBN 978-9-004-17339-2.

In this study, Richard Chu explores the unfolding of the tension between Chinese and Filipino identities over the past 150 years. He begins and ends his book with personal stories that underscore the significance of the problem today, but the study itself is historical. The primary question is, how and why did the boundary between these two identities harden? His differs from previous studies primarily by focusing on legal documents such as marriage licenses, baptismal certificates, wills, and court documents involving disputes over immigration status, inheritance, and business contracts. Following the lead of Edgar Wickberg’s The Chinese in Philippine Life, 1850–1898 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965), he argues that the roots of the problem are in the period before the American colonial regime. Beyond this, like Andrew Wilson, in Ambition and Identity: Chinese Merchant Elites in Colonial Manila, 1880–1916 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004), he rejects the notions that ethnic identities were structurally determined by Spanish colonial attitudes or Chinese ethnic identity alone. Unlike Wilson, he employs a method that is “basically ethnographic, reconstructing and reconstituting individual and family life stories as well as describing particular everyday commercial and domestic practices” (p. 15). His fieldwork, he says, is in the “bundles of baptismal and matrimonial records” (p. 15) in church and state archives.

With this approach, he succeeds in showing a wide variety of ways in which the Chinese and Chinese mestizo merchants and their families pursued social and economic strategies that reflect the transnational and multicultural resources available to them. The flexibility and fluidity of these strategies underscore the basic conclusion that legal and institutional controls were more influential than ingrained traditional or modern ethnic structures in hardening the ethnic boundaries. The Chinese mestizos gradually became Filipino, while the Chinese became aliens, vulnerable to stereotyping and scapegoating that, while it was not entirely new, tended to isolate the self-identifying Chinese in a space where they had fewer options for flexibility and negotiation.

In this review, I will focus on a few key issues of interest to social historians and students of transregional Chinese communities during this period. My own familiarity with the Philippines is extremely limited. My perspective is shaped by my study of family and kinship in the Lower Yangzi region and, more recently, the China-born and Straits-born Chinese communities in Malacca and Singapore during this period. From this perspective, I find the most important contribution of this book to be in its meticulous attention to the details of marriage strategies in relation to family continuity, social networking, and business practices. With these details in place, one can approach what Chu calls the “macro-historical” issues [End Page 43] with a much clearer vision of what the rapidly developing global economy and shifting political circumstances meant for the people who lived in this social and cultural milieu.

The first two chapters offer overviews of the Minnan (Southern Fujian) region of China and the place of the Chinese in late-Spanish-colonial Manila. In the third chapter, the author uses detailed evidence from the archives to show how the most prominent merchants engaged in credit systems, founded joint stock companies, and employed name changing and citizenship strategies while under Spanish rule. In this context, he introduces, among other individuals, Carlos Palanca Tan Quien-sien as “the consummate border-crossing diasporic subject” (pp. 128–141). While Chu wants us to focus on “everyday commercial and domestic practices,” we cannot help but notice that Carlos (Chen Qianshan) was an exceptionally famous, very controversial figure who engaged in high-level political negotiations as well (see also Wilson, pp. 110–139). He did engage in all the activities that could serve to identify him as a typical Chinese rags-to-riches case, but the point here is to shift the focus of attention from what was well known about him, and could, therefore, be used by the...