(Top row) The Ty Family: (from right to left) the author’s girlfriend, her parents and her Chinese grandfather. Her father, who has always been the author’s inspiration, is the only one in town who he knows had constant contact with his kin in China. (Second row) The author’s grandfather Chan Bon Ge 曾文藝 (left) with his elder siblings and his eldest sibling Chan YioNio 曾養娘 and Chan Bon Teng 曾文呈 (middle and right, respectively). (Third row) The author (left) with his friend and neighbor, William Ingco; Jose Chan曾明亮 (died in 1980s), eldest brother of the author’s mom. (Right) Author’s second cousin Zeng Jian She 曾建設. This is the first photograph sent to him after re-establishing communications with his Chinese kin. (Above) An old envelope from China. At the background is a letter the author’s mom kept. (Below) A copy of the envelope with the address written by Ingco and one of the drafts of the author’s first letter to China.
By Eduardo Chan de la Cruz Jr.
Published by Tulay Fortnightly
Chinese Filipino Digest – February 7-20, 2012 ~ Volume 24 ~ Issue No.17
I am a software engineer from Northern Samar. I am 12.5 percent Chinese. I am no-read-no-write where the Chinese language is concerned. I am a “Chinese relative finder” and because of this, I have come to love my Chinese heritage. A relative finder was not in my vocabulary before. It is not in any Odd Jobs listing. I certainly do not earn any money being one. Yet, having become one, I find it a learning experience, a unique hobby, and a calling. I grew up unaware of my Tsinoy roots during elementary schooldays. I even denied having Tsinoy ancestry. Then one day, when I was 12, my mom was sorting through her cabinet and found an old letter written to my grandfather from his half-brother in China. Fascinating! This is related to my own heritage. I am a Tsinoy after all! The letter looked fragile, the paper thinned and yellowed with age. It was in English, written with perfect penmanship. The message conveyed a simple farmer’s life and the longing of siblings long separated by space and time. Apart from a few letters and black-and-white photographs, very little is known of our Chinese kin. My mother’s brothers have died at a relatively young age and it seems no one else in the family bothered to ask my grandfather about his life in China. Grandfather, Papay Bon Ge to me, does not talk much about it anyway. So I set out on a quest to trace our Chinese roots.
Searching Between study, play and family gatherings, I talked to a wide range of people: friends, classmates, relatives and elders of the Chinese community. When the Internet became widely available, I posted questions in blogs and on discussion boards. But I did not get any significant lead from these first attempts. Then my search went on the backburner in 2001 as I began college life in Manila. Years later, a feature report on “Magandang Gabi, Bayan” television news magazine program rekindled my interest. It discussed origins of Tsinoys and the opening of Bahay Tsinoy, a museum of the Chinese in Philippine life, in Intramuros, Manila. In an interview with the family of Tsinoy musician and businessman Jose Mari Chan, I learned that people in Chinese villages often shared the same surname. Everybody knows everybody! I told my girlfriend – a close friend at the time – about the report: she was one of many I spoke to during early attempts to find my Chinese roots. I was so envious because she had just visited her uncle in Jinjiang (Fujian province). She said Jinjiang is also called Chinkang, a place mentioned in the old letters I found. I resolved to ask her Chinese cousins for help, on the slim chance that perhaps this may lead to locating my relatives. When I compared her cousin’s address with that on the old letters, I found that the Chinese characters near my grandpa’s Chinese name looked identical. Could it be that these characters indicated a village name? If so, then it is highly probable that someone in that village would know my relatives. I needed to meet someone who could read Chinese cursive characters. It was November 2002. While wandering around our neighborhood in Sta. Mesa, Manila, I smelled incense from a sari-sari store. “Tsinoy po ba kayo?” I asked the store owner (William Ingco). He seemed about to laugh at my question. He asked why I asked. I showed him letters I brought along and told him about my quest. I asked him for confirmation if there is indeed a village indicated in the old envelopes. He confirmed there is and encouraged me to write a letter. He would write the Chinese address for me. Excited, I rushed home and wrote my letter, including putting my email address and some recent family pictures. I mailed my letter and hoped it will find its way to our relatives. Jan. 7, 2003. I was home from school and checked my email. I was about to delete one email with unreadable characters on the subject line. I thought it might be spam. But then on second thought, I decided to read it. “…It is very happy to receive the letter, we that abroad that you also know afar have the relatives, but we address that have no you, can’t make the contact with you… am your elder brother (曾建設).” It was from my second cousin in Jinjiang. It was the happiest day of my life!!! I did have apprehensions if the email was authentic. But the doubts quickly faded when they started sending pictures. These photographs literally gave meaning to the term “look-alike.” Grandfather died without having the chance to visit his siblings in China. It saddened to know from my newly-found family that my grandaunt and granduncle have passed away as well. In 2004, my sister made a surprise visit to our ancestral village. This finding and our families’ eventual meeting, in a way, fulfilled dream of the elders: that one day they will all meet again.
Branches meet Christine, my second eldest sister was in Shanghai on business, sent there by the multinational company where she works. I emailed one of my Chinese cousins to let them know. After several days, I heard from them. Christine was already with them in our hometown hundreds of miles from Shanghai! A relative flew to Shanghai to fetch her. When she arrived in Jinjiang airport, at least 15 relatives were on hand to greet her. They travelled to our ancestral hometown in a convoy, first stopping to visiting our ancestor’s tomb. Then, she was toured around the ancient city of Quanzhou. Female relatives held on to her arms all throughout. I thought we Filipinos are the most hospitable people, but my Chinese relatives, by far, surpass us. They literally squabbled among themselves for the chance to play host to my sister. She had a full-day, instant Chinese cultural immersion! For one, she had an overdose of the local pipa fruit and an unusually sweet soup with boiled eggs. Four households gave her the same snack when she visited each one. I learned it was a Chinese tradition to offer that to a relative one meets for the first time. The round egg represents smooth relationship and the sticky soup symbolizes close family bond. How would you decline such noble gestures? My relatives encouraged her to finish up each meal, but at the last household she was so full she had to beg off! Just like me, my sister does not know any Chinese so my relatives used a Tagalog interpreter. When night came and the interpreter went home, she was alone with my cousins. Between hand gestures and facial expressions, they made it through the night. Thank goodness for non-verbal communication! The next day she returned to Shanghai, but not before relatives gave her more than a suitcase full of pasalubong that we never saw before: more pipa fruit, herbs and preserved candies. Talk about excess baggage! It was a heartwarming experience for her; she almost cried on departure. Even though it was their first meeting, there were no apprehensions. She was welcomed as though our relatives had known her for long time. Such is the importance of having strong family ties in Chinese culture. And this mirrors how close our extended Filipino family ties are here in the Philippines too.