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The Dragon Arises in the East (Review)

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Caroline S. Hau. 2014.
The Chinese Question: Ethnicity, Nation and Region in and Beyond the Philippines
Singapore: NUS Press
ISBN 9789971697921

On page 283 of Caroline Hau’s multifacetted analysis of The Chinese Question, we find President Corazón Aquino, the King of Thailand, Prime Ministers Kukrit Pramoj and Thaksin Shinawatra in the company of President Abdurrahman Wahid and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. Bien étonné ? Strange bedfellows? What ties them together, including the illustrious Zobel de Ayala family of the Philippines, is that all of them ‘have come out’ about their Chinese ancestry; simply said, in the past three decades it has become ‘chic’ to showcase one’s ‘Chinese’ connection.

This has not always been the case and, similar to her approach to nationalism in her dissertation under the aegis of Ben Anderson, the cultural politics of Chineseness and hybridity in the postwar Philippines are subjected “to constant revision, to being made, unmade, and remade over and over” (Patricio N. Abinales, Benedict Anderson in the Philippines, in B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Pasig City: Anvil Publishing Inc., 2003, xi). At present, with the inexorable rise of the dragon on her doorstep, state imperatives in the Philippines stand more than ever in need of being rethought which, in the public discussion, involves the highly controversial issue of the country’s so-called special relations with the Big Brother on the far side of the Pacific Ocean.

Whereas the prospects of the present, such as adumbrated by Chinese assertiveness and claims in the South China Sea, and more saliently in the opinion that ‘neither Spain, nor the United States, or Europe or the Catholic Church will have as much impact on this country as will China’ (p. 272), surface in the narrative, the book basically presents and analyzes the language, logic, and pratice(s) of selective inclusion and exclusion, of appearance and disappearance, of mixing and discrimination, of rejection and acceptance of ‘Chinese’, ‘Chinese mestizo’,  and the related changing meanings of being ‘Filipino’ itself since the Philippines was ‘granted’ independence in 1946.

This post-independence period witnessed the most dramatic reversal of policies on the Chinese, from a period of nationalist protectionism that constructed the Chinese as the preeminent foreigner, Other, and ‘alien’ of the Philippine nation, to a period of integration of the Chinese into the Philippine national community and nation-state, to a period of resignification of ‘Filipinoness’ to highlight the ‘Chinese contributions’ to its making, to a period of revival of Chinese identification among mestizos and Filipinos wishing to forge regional connections with rising East Asia and mainland China (p. 13–4).

In tracking the contingencies of history, the book mines the treasure trove of literary and cinematic works on the Chinese by Chinese/Filipinos that situate The Chinese Question in particular time and context, at the same time that this procedure generates insight both into everyday life and its wider political-cultural setting. Whereas this approach is not necessarily representative of the thinking of the majority of the Chinese and Filipinos in the Philippines, it does reveal the creators’ sentiments and experiences of attachment and belonging, of a moving within, between, and beyond Chinese and Filipino imaginaries, not just within the country and between the Philippines and China, but also across the Nanyang region, America’s Asia, and the world.

With these preliminaries, we arrive at a crucial station to see beyond Hau’s persistent use of quotation marks, namely, the issue of hybridity, of mestizo and mestizoness. Not only did mestizos play an important role in the making of the Filipino nation, they even are a key product and agent of historical transformation, and neither mestizo, nor Chinese nor Filipino can be understood without the other. Moreover, the very fact of metizaje fuels the Filipino elite’s claim to cultural hybridity, i.e. claims of access to, and the ability to mediate and bridge the Philippine, Chinese, Spanish and American elements of contemporary national discourse, and so it is fair to note that the mestizos’ political and economic clout is matched  by their cultural, social, and intellectual capital (15–6).

In terms of Hau’s problématique, the challenge of her book is to understand how the boundary between Filipino and Chinese was constructed as a basis for imagining the Philippine national community and the changing definitions of Filipino nationness. These, and the struggles and stakes they entail, are substantiated through a series of vignettes of a postcolonial Philippines, with some comparisons with other Southeast Asian countries. These glimpses into person-centred, experience-near events remain fraught with ever-unresolved issues, for in the act of erasing certain social boundaries new boundaries have sprung up. In other words, the process of inclusion and exclusion of Chinese in the national imagery, in citizenship and self-identification, in step with geopolitical transformations, is played over and over again and defies any straightforward answer to The Chinese Question.

Hau’s way of leaving no stone unturned, of jumping back and forth over time and place, while repeatedly claiming that there is more to say, brought the anecdote of the one-handed planner to mind. His principal, tired of the eternal “On the one hand …, yet, on the other …” wanted clear-cut solutions, and a planner that would tell him in no uncertain terms how to proceed. With Hau we deal with an octopus with an alternative possibility in each and every tentacle. Her style of working makes for a very rich read that is stealthily expanded upon by 38 pages of elaborate footnotes that often offer new asides, and documented by an equally long list of documents cited. Even so, and in spite of its multitude of individual trees, the forest remains in sight. My compliments on a very accomplished work, Carol!

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