Last Saturday, finally, I made it to the Bahay Tsinoy museum in Intramuros. The tour was very informative, and we had such a nice knowledgeable tour guide. It was the very first time I learned about the Sultan of Sulu who went to Beijing during the Ming dynasty to visit the Chinese emperor, and about the Filipino-Chinese who joined Mao Zedong's revolution and became a confidante of the Great Helmsman and served in a Cabinet position during Deng Xiao Ping's term.
After the tour, we attended University of Massachusetts Professor Richard Chu's lecture on Strong(er) Women and Ineffectual Men? Negotiating Tsinoy Identity in the Philippines at a Time of Transnationalism. The lecture's take-off point was the portrayal of strong Tsinoy women and effete Tsinoy men in the films Mano Po 1, 2 , 3 and in the Crying Ladies. Chu's contention is that the films accurately portray a facet of social reality among the Tsinoy community, that power is currently being re-negotiated in Tsinoy families with the rise of its women and the decline of its men.
Are Tsinoy women really getting stronger at the expense of the men? One can, of course, argue that this power shift is the general trend in society at large, not just in the Tsinoy community. I remember my sister telling me that in their STS class at UP, their professor, a man no less, announced in rather triumphant tone the coming obsolescence of males in the propagation of the species (hmm, disturbing shades of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge, don't you think?).
I really have nothing significant to say about this gender power relations, except that Professor Chu may be reading too much from films that portrayed strong women rather than strong men simply because of commercial considerations: Actresses, not actors, have the bigger drawing power in Philippine box office. It could very well be that the proper title to Prof. Chu's lecture should have been Strong(er) Actresses, Effete Actors. Well, I honestly do not know.
What I know is that I immensely enjoyed listening to the exchange of views that followed the lecture. There was an eldery Chinese man who was telling us how sexist the Hokkien language is. There was a Japanese lady in the crowd who asked exactly what are the marks of masculinity among the Tsinoys in the Philippines. After an exchange of views, the group seemed to have reached the conclusion that for the Tsinoys in the Philippines the number one mark of masculinity is success in business. The effete Tsinoy man is one who is not in business and is exerciing a profession instead. At this point, former Dean Aurora Roxas- Lim of the Asian Center interjected and asked, "How about being a senator? Does this mean the Tsinoy community does not consider being a senator honorable and manly?"
After this rather dismal point of impasse in the discussion, Teresita Ang See, who was then staying in the sidelines reading Amy Chua's World on Fire, joined the discussion to point out the many inaccuracies with which the Mano Po films portrayed the local Tsinoy community. She said she was also disappointed that the Mano Po films overshadowed the more excellent Panaghoy sa Suba and Dekada Sitenta. Our tour guide Ivan also pointed out that no Tsinoy, or very few, actually wear cheongsam in special occasions, contrary to the wedding scene in Mano Po. Of the actors in the films, it was also pointed out, it was only Kris Aquino who resembled the Tsinoys' way of speaking: Tagalog, English and Hokkien all jumbled in one sentence.
Given the inaccuracies of these films, a friend asked whether the Tsinoy community really needs films depicting them. Do films like Mano Po do the Tsinoy community any good ? The possibility of an unintended backlash was raised. Prof. Chu said that it was only of late, after the Mano Po films, that he experienced racism in the Philippines, when the taxi driver refused to make a U-turn to bring him nearer his gate to avoid a downpour. By portraying Tsinoys in the stereotypical mercantilist way, films like Mano Po could actually be building resentment among the Filipinos rather than building cultural gaps beyween Pinoys and Tsinoys.
All in all, that Saturday was quite a new experience for me. Everytime I've been with exclusively Tsinoy gatherings, the discussions were invariably about loans that hadn't been repaid, absconding business partners, and, in the rare event that discussions veered toward the personal, disappointing daughters who marry their Filipino boyfriends. It is therefore infinitely refreshing to see and listen to intellectually conversant Tsinoys discuss gender, globalization, racism, alll things you very seldom hear from a community that is always preoccupied with practical matters.
I highly recommend the Bahay Tsinoy tour. If you're bringing some friends with you, call the museum beforehand so they could provide you with a guide.