Popular sentiment in Southeast Asia has long linked Chinese individuals and populations with ethnic networks of commerce and trade, and the Philippines is no exception. Nowadays, in fact, “‘Chineseness’ is no longer identified simply or necessarily with mercantile capital, but is now associated with large-scale strategies of accumulation the scope of which extends beyond the territorial bounds of the Philippine nation-state,” observes Southeast Asian Studies scholar Caroline Hau.
Hau examines the national position of Chinese Filipinos in the early twenty-first century by revisiting Filipino box office hits, the Mano Po (2002) and Crying Ladies (2003), both of which featured Chinese Filipinos. These movies, she argues, are a product of “the confluence of national, regional, and global forces and circuits of cultural commodity production, marketing, and circulation” of the period. Besides economic changes in the Asian region, cultural works like the Mano Po and Crying Ladies also reflect the impact of the mass naturalization of Chinese Filipino citizens in the 1970s. These late immigrants make up a generation of “new Chinese,” most of whom had lacked “substantial contact” with China, as distinguished from colonial-era migrants and “Chinese mestizos.”
Mano Po, which spawned multiple sequels, is a multi-generational saga about a “new Chinese” family conglomerate in the Philippines. The family members’ accrual of wealth is shown in the sequel Mano Po 2 (2003), in what Hau describes as a “magical” montage that jumps from patriarch Antonio Chan’s arrival in Manila’s Chinatown, to shots of a loan from a Chinese bank, a “Golden Dragon” storefront, and a warehouse of goods destined for abroad. The very scale of the capitalist accumulation depicted in the film, all of which began after an immigrant arrival, reveals a wealth and consumption far beyond of what a colonial-era “Chinese” merchant working in the retail trade could have managed.
In Hau’s interpretation, Mano Po marks “new Chinese” as distinct from other elite groups in society, by emphasizing their purported access to “cosmopolitan but also specifically regional social capital produced by cultural and economic flows originating from East Asia.” Connecting to East Asian neighbors, especially those that are economically out-performing the Philippines, opens up trans-national opportunities for other Filipinos.
Meanwhile, Crying Ladies is a drama about Stella, a down-on-her-luck Filipina who is part of a trio hired to act as “professional mourners” at an affluent Chinese Filipino’s funeral wake. Analyzing the plot, Hau comments that the film “attempts to defuse the class tensions and nationalist resentment ignited by ‘Chineseness’ by turning deterritorialized ‘Chinese’ flows and connections into sources of Filipino self-advancement.” Rather than emphasize the importance of an economic attachment to the Philippines, Crying Ladies “suggests that the value of being Chinese Filipino lies precisely in its ability to mediate connections with the outside […] and in so doing provide capital and opportunities that Filipinos can tap.”
Hau notes that these narratives about Chinese Filipinos persist despite the fact that “the fabled ‘Chinese networks’—routinely invoked in accounts of Philippine Chinese economic success—across the Asian region do not really hold conceptual and empirical water.”
At the same time, Hau points to one plot element in Mano Po—heiress Vera’s fear of targeted kidnappings and her mistrust of the police—as a marker of
the extent to which the Chinese—historically identified with money—have relied on money to speak and act for them precisely because the nationalist rhetoric and practice of citizenship and belonging are not just inadequate to shield the Chinese against harassment but often serve as the very instruments of extortion.
Ultimately, films like those in the Mano Po series and Crying Ladies are different from earlier anti-Chinese narratives “not because Chinese ethnicity is no longer conflated with capital (on the contrary, the identification is closer now than ever),” Hau writes, “but because the kind of commercial ethos that prioritizes capital accumulation and consumption has become a lot more pervasive.”