Rise of the taipans

Rise of the taipans Featured

Second of 3 parts

PRIOR to Spain’s arrival in what is now the Philippines, trade with China was flourishing in the 10th century or even as early as the 2nd century. Artifacts date the presence of Chinese for 2,000 years during the Song and Ming dynasties. It was perhaps to the credit of both ethnic groups, the pre-Hispanic Filipinos and the Chinese, that relations were protected by diplomacy where its abundant natural resources were never subject to conflicts — except perhaps internecine clashes among local tribes. Historical records also show that tribal leaders regularly visited the Chinese capital; perhaps to pay homage to the Chinese emperors.

Not until after we were colonized were the social structures demarcated along racial lines. Natives were classified into indios, indigenous Filipinos, a somewhat derogatory appellation; mestizos, Filipinos of mixed blood; insulares, Spaniards born in the islands; and peninsulares, Spaniards born in Spain. The Chinese were in a class of their own, referred to as Sangley (businessmen or migrants) or Intsik (venerable uncle) and those that intermarried as mestizo de Sangley, not pejorative at first though it assumed racial undertones over time.

Parian 1500s
The first true overt act of racism was in the 1580s when the Sangleys were forcibly relocated outside Intramuros and assigned to Parians — ghetto-like quarters. These in time became the thriving Sangley markets, precursor to the present Binondo, Tondo and Baybay areas. Residents were not allowed within the gates after dark except for those domestic staff of Spanish households and other exceptional professions (cooks, bakers, etc.). The intent was not to assimilate the Sangleys.

Historical records show the Sangley shops growing to around 1,000 in less than two decades. And even in the labor sector, they provided important services “as gardeners, carpenters, bakers, butchers, painters, smiths and goldsmiths, or produced bricks and lime,” working for the “encomenderos, landowners, merchants, bureaucrats or ecclesiastical authorities.”(www.opinion.inquirer.net/119247/the-chinese-of-spanish-era-manila); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binondo)

But more importantly, having earlier involved themselves in silver trading, they segued into moneylending, virtually capitalizing merchants investing in the Galleon trade, the yearlong route to and from Mexico.

In retrospect the Sangleys/Intsik were hardened by the underlying discrimination imposed by the Spanish colonials and planted the seeds of what would later morph into the typical segregated Chinese business mores of hardworking people keeping to themselves and their tightly knit clans. It is also a sad episode in our history that during these decades “23,000 Sangleys were massacred by the Spanish colonials as they were becoming too numerous and too rich.”

This was only eclipsed by the Chinese pogrom in Indonesia in 1965-1966 which killed an estimated 500,000 Chinese supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) during an attempt at a coup similar to a “RevGov” encouraged by President Sukarno himself. Indonesian intellectuals and political scientists also attributed this to a widespread distrust and racism fueled by the successes of the Indonesian Chinese.

Rise of mestizo de Sangley, sari-sari stores
It has always been a misconception that the humble sari-sari was a native original invention. Historians point out that even at the start of the Spanish colonial period, the Sangleys were already thriving in the local business scene. Their relocation to the Parians stripped them of their lands forcing the enterprising Intsik to set up roadside stalls hawking their wares even within Intramuros during the day when they were allowed inside walls. But the phenomenon that helped propel business to thrive in the islands is the later emergence of the mestizo de Sangley through intermarriage. It is noted that Sangleys were not allowed to own land, but their native wives could. Playing a crucial role, they shaped the economy from an agrarian to a light industrial one. Richer than most of the natives, they had access to education and travel overseas, broadening their perspectives and helping to frame the concept of Filipino nationhood and emerging self-identity. Our revolutionary pantheon of heroes had Chinese blood or were mestizo de Sangley — Rizal, Bonifacio, Mabini and del Pilar, among others.

Despite their contribution to enrich our society, racism was always seething underneath. And this is replicated in Southeast Asia where Chinese came in droves, settled and became more successful than the natives.

The American century brought with it the cultural baggage of racism toward the Chinese. These were their experiences too in California gold-rush mines and the great opening of the west when Chinese emigrants were needed to do the menial jobs in the railroad constructions.

As the mestizo de Sangley were reluctantly slowly assimilated, the waves of emigrants from Fujian and adjoining provinces in China due to China’s civil wars, were not. The inability to distinguish these migrants from the Tsinoys — Chinese Filipinos — who were becoming dominant in business persuaded the government to pass a “Nationalization of the Retail Trade Law” which forbade Chinese sari-sari store owners from passing their businesses on to their children, driving many to abandon the sari-sari stores, impelling fixed intermarriages and perhaps the birth of the system of front men and dummies. Thus, acquisition of Filipino citizenship by naturalization or otherwise became imperative, causing bureaucratic corruption and scandals in government particularly in the 1950s to the 1970s.

PH industrialization
This proved to be a blessing in disguise. Curtailment of merchant activities, breaking their affiliation to the sari-sari store, hawking wares, and agricultural goods, etc. spurred Tsinoys and the other Chinese merchants to take risks and move to alternative livelihood to survive, outside of the traditional sugar and tobacco processing into manufacturing, agribusiness, and exports.

Raising capital from the predominantly Spanish and European banks was restrictive. Access to credit for the Tsinoys were made possible by their age-old clanship network where trust and traditional family ties were more important than formal written contracts. This Confucian ethos in fact gave the Tsinoys their biggest advantage. Their word were their bond and reputation, their collateral. And the critical fact that profits were frugally plowed back into the local economy rather than stashed abroad.

Thus, the advent of the original taipans, borne out of the crucible of adversity, deprivation and latent racism but fortified by their Confucian values. Henry Sy from Xiamen who started with his father a sari-sari store transforming this into the biggest conglomerate in the country. John Gokongwei Jr., born rich of a family from Fujian but later became destitute but fought his way up as a trader from Cebu and formed a business empire, the JG Summit Holdings. And Lucio Tan, also from Xiamen, was a factory worker who built a tobacco company parlaying this into a “liquor, tobacco, aviation, banking and real estate” empire. Other taipans no less extraordinary came into their own, George Ty, Ramon Ang, Andrew Tan and Tony Tan Caktiong completing the list of the wealthiest Tsinoys.

These are the taipans — the core of the Tsinoy oligarchy who dominate business, perforce the economy. By definition those who control the economy control the levers of political power. Do they? And are they instruments for the country’s good or only of their family and clans. And in this regime where the political leadership has shamelessly flirted with, and is now dangerously in the arms of, Xi Jinping, where will we find ourselves in the coming years. In the vernacular, “Saan tayo pupulutin!”


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