A Chinese-Filipino family history

My grandfather died, so I read his memoir.  It had been published when I was 11. You will not be able to find this book, and anyway it’s not the sort of thing that is of interest to people outside of his family. But I found it valuable to understanding my heritage, and there are some interesting historical bits I’d like to share.

My grandfather was born in the Philippines in 1929. He was part of the Chinese-Filipino minority, which entailed going to a separate school that used Chinese as a primary language. Like many Chinese-Filipino people, he came from a Fukien background.

When he was 6, he moved to Shanghai. This was because of Chiang Kai-shek’s “New Life” campaign, which (among other things) sought to attract Chinese expats back to China to build its industry. My great-grandfather owned a tobacco company, so he moved to China to start a Chinese branch. The cigarette packs explicitly advertised that they were made by returning overseas Chinese—a patriotic cause.

The knowledgeable reader may have noticed that Shanghai is not in Fukien, and is in fact quite a bit north. They speak a different language there. Now the funny thing is, is that I’ve always known my grandfather to speak Cantonese best, which is spoken neither in Fukien nor Shanghai! Apparently he had gone to a Cantonese high school in Shanghai, and also later married a Cantonese-Filipina woman.

During his schooling years, he lived through the Second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945). He briefly went to the Philippines with his sister to stay safe from the war. He said that the teacher in the Philippines had a bulletin board ranking the kids based on how much they donated to Chinese war efforts.

Later during World War II, he would escape with his whole family further inland, to a place that I cannot find on any maps. It seems he stayed there only for one summer.

His high school was blacklisted by private universities for “leftist” (read: communist) activities among students, and he didn’t want to go to a national university.  So he ended up at the Far Eastern University in the Philippines—which he was eligible for because he had been born in the country. There he met my grandmother. They were going to return to Shanghai, but their family told them to stay in the Philippines to avoid Mao Zedong’s “Three-Anti” and “Five-Anti” campaigns in 1951 and 1952 respectively. As you might imagine, the communists were not kind to families that owned cigarette factories. So he stayed in the Philippines, working as an insurance salesman, and helped the rest of his family immigrate there.

His sister had gone to an American university and became a Hollywood actress. I once heard how she got that job—she didn’t know how to act at all, but she was an extreme rarity, a Chinese woman with a college degree, so she was hired immediately. She went on to help the family immigrate to the US. So that’s where a lot of my family is now.

What struck me most about my family history? First of all, I come from a great deal of privilege. My great grandfather owned a multi-national cigarette company (and I didn’t even get to the other multi-national company in the family). He had been college-educated, and every single one of my grandfather’s generation (over a dozen, including women!) were also college-educated. Ultimately the reason we immigrated to the US was political instability in China—and brain drain. If you’ve ever wondered why Asian-Americans appear to do so well academically (emphasis on “appear”), it’s because of families like mine.

Second, I was surprised to learn just how cohesive Chinese-Filipino people were as a group. In the US it all feels very nebulous… I’m a second-generation half Filipino American, but also Chinese by ancestry? But in the Philippines, this was an identifiable group with their own schools and culture.

Third, I realized just how trans-national my family history is. My grandfather lived in the Philippines at three separate times during his life, and I’m unsure whether to classify him as a first- or second-generation immigrant there. He immigrated three times to three different countries. He spoke at least 6 different languages—although he was not fluent enough in English to speak freely with most of his grandchildren.

So there you have it, a tiny slice of 20th century history. I am privileged to have this with me.


  1. says

    I’m sorry your grandfather died. Thank you for sharing some of his memoir with us. I think family histories are interesting. I wish my grandparents had written memoirs.

  2. bubble says

    Sorry for your loss.
    Some add-on information from what I learned.
    prior to 1945, Shanghai(also Hong Kong) was the place for everyone to find their opportunities, somehow comparable to San Francisco during gold rush. It was a very diverse place during the chaotic time.
    Cantonese was and still is the most popular language among all those who were from China and moved to southern Asia – Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, etc. There are a decent amount of Fukien families still speak their language. Both Fukien and Canton people started to explore the opportunities down South since centuries ago, and brought their tradition to these South Asian countries. I often find culture/tradition overlap with my friends from these places.
    It is very lucky that some families left mainland China before the 50s. 50s and 60s were the darkest time for those who stayed there, especially the family with wealth, education, or Nationalist party background (my family, for example). People from these families were publicly humiliated, forced to donate their wealth to the government, and sometimes, tortured to death by the angry and irrational public, simply because of the government was encouraging that people from these backgrounds were evil and should be ‘defeated’.
    Even until recently, all South Asian countries are more or less against Chinese inherits. Using Malaysia as example, the college entry standard for Chinese inherits is way higher than the one applies to Malays and other ethnicities; government positions are in favor of those who are not Chinese inherits. That is one of the reason why Chinese inherits in Southern Asian countries are successful in business, however limited in other fields.

  3. says

    as a prole descended of proles my side is predecided in a war between commie scum and capitalist scum (opposite yr family’s of course), but why does it always have to be like that? chiang kai-shek and mao were both nightmare trash bastard murderous fucksmiths. the human species just can’t do shit right at the level of nations, and it’s down to individuals, families, local communities to survive that however we can. it’s what stories from that part of the world always make me think.

  4. says

    The family history is a reason to read some history, but I don’t consider it a guide to politics. Mao was bad news, but that’s true independently of his impact on my family. My grandfather talks more about how he hated the Japanese when he was a kid, that’s no reason for me to hate the Japanese. And I can’t feel pride at the tobacco company either.

  5. says

    Sorry to hear about your grandfather. And thanks for sharing this, I think it’s really cool/important to learn about history and how it affects people now. (And I’m interested in immigration and how it affects people, because I’m an immigrant in China.)

    Also in mainland China we call it Fujian instead of Fukien (I had to google that), probably the word Fukien is from a different Chinese language other than Mandarin, or it’s an older romanization before the pinyin system became the standard way to romanize Chinese words.

  6. says

    Yeah, there are a few variant spellings, and Fukien is probably non-standard in mainland China–kind of like spelling Beijing as Peking. I used it because my grandfather’s memoir spelled it that way.

    The memoir is in both Chinese and English. I think he wrote it in Chinese and translated it himself.

  7. says

    Yeah, another fun fact is that the code for the airport in Beijing is PEK, which I always thought was weird because no one who lives there calls it Peking……. it must be because of historical reasons I guess.

    And I’ve noticed that, for people of Chinese heritage, the ones whose families left China 1-2 generations ago might have their last name spelled (when written in alphabet letters) in a way that reads as odd to me because it’s not using the pinyin system- because back then, pinyin wasn’t the standard way to transliterate Chinese characters yet. But now Chinese people from mainland China all use pinyin when they have to convert their name to alphabet letters. (Though there must be some exceptions to this, like Chinese minority groups whose primary language is not Mandarin, so they have some other system besides pinyin.)

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