Southeast Asia

Halo Halo: Thoughts on the Philippines

San Augustin Cathedral with Chinese guardian lions in the front, because #THEPHILIPPINES (taken on my phone)

Up until now, the most diverse country I’d been to in this corner of the world was Taiwan. Compared to Japan and Korea, where most people speak Japanese and Korean, Taiwan is way more diverse. My parents call home to their parents in different languages; my mother in Hokkien, and my father in Hakka. To me, they speak Mandarin. Then there are the languages of the more than ten aboriginal tribes in Taiwan. And that’s just linguistic diversity. But little did I know that venturing just a little to the south of Taiwan would bring me to a whole new level of diversity—the Philippines!

I went on a fantastic tour of Intramuros, the historic walled city in Manila, with Carlos Celdran—a local cultural activist and performance art tour guide–who compared Filipinos to the local dessert, “halo halo,” literally “mix mix” in Tagalog. “There’s yam, fruit, jelly, ice cream, kidney beans, tapioca, shaved ice, milk….” The list went one.

Halo Halo (source)

But basically his point was, only in the Philippines will you find someone with Chinese eyes and Malay skin, attends Mass, has a Hispanic surname, and speaks English like an American. I’ll talk about each of these elements of the Philippines below and also touch on historical similarities between the Philippines and Taiwan:


Even though one of my Filipino friends already told me that I wouldn’t really stick out in the Philippines, I was still surprised to find that in my four days in Manila, taxi drivers and bus conductors would speak to me in Tagalog. Being Chinese-Filipino is apparently a totally normal thing.

The (in)famous Amy Chua is also of Chinese-Filipino descent! (photo)

The history of Chinese people in the Philippines dates back to the 10th century. Chinese here, being people from regions in southern China, such as Fujian and Guangdong. During the Spanish colonial times, they played an integral part of the China-Philippines-Mexico-Spain trade route and were quartered in Binondo, the oldest Chinatown in the world!


The official term for this ethnolinguistic group is “Austronesian” or “Malayo-Polynesian” apparently, and the most recent scholarship traces their roots back to the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, who now only comprise 2% of Taiwan’s total population 😦 So it was a huge shock for me to be in a country where the majority of people are dark-skinned!

The Catholic Nation of Asia

Me at Xavier School, a Chinese-Filipino Catholic private school. For more photos of the popemobile at Xavier: link

I would never have guessed that right next to Taiwan, where Christians are 2% of the population, is the world’s 3rd LARGEST CATHOLIC COUNTRY. About 80% of the population is Catholic!(with another 10% being Protestant!!).

In fact, even the Chinese-Filipinos are Catholic! My mind was blown when I went to the prestigious Xavier School—a Catholic, Chinese-Filipino all-boys school, founded by Catholic missionaries who were expelled from China following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The PRC’s state ideology discourages religion, especially Catholicism, as Catholics are loyal to “a foreign influence,” meaning the Pope in Rome. To this day, Catholics in China can only legally be a part of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. But clearly that is not the case in the Philippines! Some even say that Chinese-Filipinos are the most-assimilated Chinese population in Southeast Asia, because they adopted Catholicism.

Spanish Influences

While Spanish is no longer spoken in the Philippines (and apparently wasn’t ever really, because Spanish missionaries learned all the local languages), the effects of Spanish colonization are still evident today, the most obvious influence being the predominance of Catholicism in the country. Other than that, the name of the country comes from the king of Spain, Philip II, during whose reign the Spanish empire reached its peak. And other remnants of Spanish rule remain in the food (mmmmmm) and the Hispanic surnames of many Filipinos (You may be surprised that their former president, “Ferdinand Marcos,” does not look Hispanic…).

American English

The day before I left Seoul for Manila, my friend and I made a call to a Sprint service center. When the friendly call center agent learned that we were in Seoul, he said, “oh so we’re basically in the same time zone!” Intrigued, my friend asked him where he was, so he told us he was in the Philippines. He spoke such perfect English, we couldn’t tell.

When I got to the Philippines, I learned that it was the largest call center in the world. Despite a population 1/10th the size of India, it surpassed India as the country with the most call center agents in 2011. Even though the wage is higher in the Philippines, Filipino call center agents are more popular because they speak American English (it is taught in schools and the accent of Tagalog is not that different from that of English, so at most they only have light accents). There, I befriended two very nice women, who were both call center agents.

But how did the Philippines maintain English? While it was an American colony for roughly 50 years (1898-1940/46), this can’t be the only reason, as neither South Korea nor Taiwan retain Japanese as a language despite 35 and 50 years of Japanese colonization. The Philippines took it upon itself to retain English as a second official language that is taught in schools. Also many Filipinos follow the NBA (basketball is the most popular sport there) and watch American TV shows (When I told people I was from New Jersey, they recognized it from Jersey Shore).

Now some parallels between the Philippines and Taiwan!

Besides the above, I was also surprised at a number of similarities between the Philippines and Taiwan. On my first night, I had “Chicken Adobo” that tasted almost exactly like Taiwan’s “Three-cup chicken.” The main ingredients in both are soy sauce and sugar, with adobo using vinegar and three-cup using rice wine. This helped me feel that the Philippines was not really as foreign of a country as I had imagined. 

On a heavier note, they both had extended periods of martial law under dictators (Ferdinand Marcos and Chiang Kai-Shek/Chiang Ching-Kuo) who were supported by the United States under in its effort to contain communism. I happened to be in Manila on the 29th anniversary of the EDSA/People Power Revolution that brought down Marcos. The lifting of martial law in both countries happened within one year of each other—in 1986 (Philippines) and 1987 (Taiwan).

Going even further back in history, I found another interesting parallel. In 1899, after the Philippines Revolution against Spain, Filipino leaders declared independence and established the first Philippines Republic. Unfortunately, at the same time, Spain lost to the United States in the Spanish-American War and sold the Philippines (along with Cuba and Puerto Rico) to the U.S. in the Treaty of Paris in 1898. By 1901, U.S. forces forced the surrender of the Philippines and that was it for the infant Philippines Republic. Similarly, in Taiwan, after the surrender of China’s Qing Dynasty to the Empire of Japan, the even-shorter-lived Republic of Formosa 臺灣民主國 was established in May 1895 only to be defeated by the Imperial forces in October the same year. Within 3-5 years of one another, both Republics were transferred to a new colonial master. The main difference being that the Kingdom of Spain no longer lay claims to the Philippines, whereas the People’s Republic of China still claims Taiwan as its “unalienable” territory, since “antiquity.” Hmmmm.

Before going there, I knew so little about the Philippines… Thanks to people whose names I won’t mention here for privacy reasons (but you wonderful people know who you are :), I left with a great appreciation for the history and culture of the Philippines.

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