Thursday, 29 January 2009

Enterprising Chinese up in northern Philippines

Marilou Guieb
The Business Mirror

BAGUIO CITY—La Trinidad valley is known as the Salad Bowl of the country, because of the fruits and vegetables grown here and in other parts of Benguet province.

Little known is the ingenuity of early Chinese settlers here and in the province in general when it comes to business, an enterprising spirit that gave rise to what has become the lifeline of industry in this region—agriculture, especially in semitemperate vegetable farming.

The Spring Festival, or the Chinese New Year, which this year fell on January 26, celebrating the Year of the Ox, was celebrated in the city with the traditional dragon parade and a forum on the contribution of the Chinese in Baguio and Cordillera.

Dr. Charles Cheng, recipient of the city’s outstanding citizen’s award for descendants of early Chinese settlers here, delighted a big audience on snippets from his research on the topic.

“When the Americans built Camp John Hay in the early 1900s as a rest-and-recreation area for soldiers of World War II, the Chinese capitalized on the love of the Americans for green salad,” he said.

The Chinese raised semitemperate vegetables and turned areas blessed with an abundance of water, like La Trinidad, New and Old Lucban, Happy Homes, into gardens. They cultivated lettuce, watercress, pechay, celery and others now popularly known as vegetables from the province.

From the Chinese, Cheng said, came the early secrets of producing sweet tasty vegetables. The first Chinese farmers pounded empty pods of soybeans for fertilizer.

In the 1950s, two Chinese well-versed in agriculture sciences bulldozed and made garden terraces along the mountain trails, traversing the towns of Buguias, Sayangan and nearby places. They also found a way to draw water from the rivers and irrigate the gardens.

A Chinese farmer named Rubustiano Choy was known as the Potato King. He produced eight to 10 kilos of potatoes in 1955 and 1956. A certain Mayor Yap of Buguias was also named Celery and Womboc King for his unusually large vegetables.

Even the rose flower industry of Benguet had its roots traceable to the Chinese. A certain story on this is akin to some sort of a miracle. Cheng said a nun gave a certain Ruben Cantala a rose, on which petal he saw the face of Jesus Christ. He then went to the Antipolo church and offered the flower there. Afterward, he dreamed that he must propagate roses. On his return to Baguio, Cantala grafted roses, the irony of which is what we call American roses. Today Baguio-Benguet is also known as the rose capital of the country.

Names of Benguet and neighboring provinces also speak of the early relationship between the Chinese and the regions. Sayangan, another vegetable-producing town in the province, was so named by the Chinese because they saw how the farmers there gambled away their money each payday. Sayang in Chinese, according to Peter Ng, president of the Cantonese Association in Baguio, means to squander money.

Dagupan, Ng said, also comes from the Cantonese word Dai - kupan, meaning big chunks of investment.

Lingayen is really the story of Lin Feng, popularly known as Limahong, written in history by the Americans as a pirate. “He revolted against the Emperor and was thus driven out of China, and found his way to the Philippines with his men, attacking Intramuros in 1574, and killing Martin de Goiti,” said Michael Ang, a professor of the University of the Philippines-Baguio, during the said forum. Limahong then retreated to Pangasinan, where legend has it he was caught by the Spaniards.

Cheng, however, says there was really no testimony to what really happened.

He said he researched the archives of China and found a material that says the so-called Lingayen tunnel was really dug by Limahong and his men to escape the Spaniards. The tunnel was an escape route that led to the Agno River and the Benguet towns of Bokod, Buguias and Kabayan. Ling is a family name, and Ku stands for a person, and Yan for people.

Chinese influence in the Cordillera region, said Cheng, can be seen in the hanging coffins, which can be found in China. “The Chinese buried them hanging from high places as it was believed [the dead] would be nearer to their creator. Also, wild animals would not be able to eat the corpses.”

Cheng added that Igorot houses without pillars are influenced by Chinese architecture. China and the Philippines were once linked and long ago separated geographically by forces of nature.

“[People from] Yunan province look like the Cordillerans. They have the same rice terraces and celebrate rituals with gongs and the same dances,” Cheng said.

Cheng explained that, by heart and soul, those of Chinese descent here definitely like Filipinos. That is why people should “treat us as Filipinos. If the Philippines progresses, so do we.”

He noted there is no written record of any conflict between the Chinese and the Filipinos.

In fact, the Spaniards and the Japanese were not able to penetrate the Cordillera region. An anecdote tells of how the Chinese made friends with the people of Cordillera. A hunter named Chu-gi entered Vigan and found a trail that led him to Bokod, Mountain Province. When he felt hungry, he shot and roasted a deer. The aroma of roasted meat wafted toward the village. The natives came and all shared in the sumptuous roast. “There goes the beginning of the canao,” Cheng said, referring to the traditional communal festivities of the mountain tribes. Chu-gi’s descendants can still be found in Mountain Province.

Ang, citing the studies and writings of Teresita Ang See, said there are more Filipinos of Chinese descent, or Tsinoy, belonging to the younger generation 49 years old and below. Compared with the Tsino, known as the old guards, or those born in China and of pureblooded parents, the Tsinos who live in the Philippines see themselves as pure Chinese and remain loyal to their country of birth.

Tsinoys have Western names and Chinese surnames like Michael Ang, while the Tsino has both given and family names in Chinese. Tsinoys are comfortable in the company of non-Chinese and speak Tagalog or English more than Chinese. They go to Philippine schools and are “Westernized.”

The first wave of Chinese who came to Baguio was the Cantonese from the province of Canton. They helped build Kennon Road. Cheng said around 3,520 Chinese men—not Japanese workers—toiled to build Kennon Road. During this time, intermarriages with local people took place, especially since Igorot ladies cooked meals for the Chinese. Courtship and marriage happened with the use of sign language.

In the 1930s, another wave of Chinese, the Fukienese from Fujien or Amoy, came to settle in Baguio.

Other Chinese who settled in the region taught the Ibaloys—original inhabitants of Benguet—how to pan for gold.

Cheng said from 1910 until before 1945, 85 percent of business establishments in Baguio were owned by Chinese. This has slowly declined, as many of the younger generation have migrated elsewhere.

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