They look Chinese, but they aren’t from mainland China or Hong Kong or Taiwan.
As Canadians, they identify their ethnicity as Filipino, although being called Pinoy doesn’t really sum up their complex identity. Because of their Chinese heritage, they’re also Chinoy or Tsinoy, as they are commonly called in the Philippines. And their experiences in a multicultural setting like Metro Vancouver are as diverse as their life stories.
“It’s complicated in the sense that I am never really the face of any nation,” Caroline Chingcuanco said in an interview with the Georgia Straight at an East Vancouver café.
An office administrator in her mid 20s, Chingcuanco came to Canada when she was eight. She was born in the Philippines, where one side of her family arrived from China around a century ago. The other half came about 50 years ago.
“I describe myself as a member of a diaspora,” Chingcuanco said. For the Burnaby resident, growing up in Canada meant speaking less Hokkien, a dialect of the southern Chinese province of Fujian, and more Tagalog and English.
Being Chinese in appearance but not part of the mainstream Chinese Canadian community, whose main languages are Cantonese and Mandarin, can be frustrating at times.
“Here in Canada, sometimes my Canadian-ness is questioned,” Chingcuanco related. “There will be an odd stranger every three weeks or so who will come up to me and say, ‘Ni hao,’ and I say, ‘I don’t speak Mandarin.’ I’ve never lived in that country [China]. I grew up here [Canada]. I’m a product of the elementary-school system, the high-school system, and UBC. And I remember growing up singing ‘God Save the Queen’.
“But then no matter how long I’ve lived here and no matter how long I’ve paid my taxes here, no matter how much I’ve contributed to the communities here,” she continued, “there will always be some stranger who’ll come up to me and treat me like I’m a complete foreigner.”
Ties between Chinese people and native Filipinos are deep and long-standing. Contact predates the 16th-century Spanish colonization of the Philippines. Chinese traders and settlers have come to the Philippines in numerous waves through to the present day.
Chinoys in the Philippines are estimated to number over a million. Though they make up about one percent of the population, many of them belong to the business elite, owning banks, airlines, and shopping malls.
Cherie Wee’s Chinese ancestors lived in the Philippines for many generations. She learned Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, and English growing up in Manila. Now in her early 20s, Wee came to Canada with her family when she was a teen.
“It’s a unique thing to be both Filipino and Chinese,” Wee told the Straight in a phone interview. “I am a lover of cultures, and so to have that diverse background and unique perspective is great.”
Mel Tobias is a Filipino-Canadian community journalist. Based in Hong Kong for more than 20 years until he settled in Vancouver in the early 1990s, he knew many Chinese Filipinos in the former British colony. He’s also acquainted with several here in the Lower Mainland.
“They are a tightly knit group,” Tobias told the Straight in a phone interview. “They help each other in business, and that is a beautiful thing.”
Family and youth counsellor Nathaniel Lim came to Canada when he was eight years old. His parents were born in the Philippines and their forebears came from Fujian.
For Lim, growing up in Metro Vancouver meant speaking Hokkien at home and Tagalog and English outside. He knows a bit of Cantonese and Mandarin, which he says jokingly is enough for him to order in Chinese at a restaurant.
“Having that background allows me to interact with all the different cultures here in Vancouver very easily,” Lim told the Straight in a phone interview.
Lim, who recently turned 32, will be running as the B.C. Conservative Party’s candidate in Richmond East in the May 14 provincial election. While his Chinese background is a plus in the campaign, he said he hopes that voters in Richmond will support him mainly for the principles his party stands for.
Chingcuanco identifies more with her non-Chinese Filipino heritage, but she also observes that some Chinoys push this aside out of class prejudice.
Chingcuanco said that because many Chinese Filipinos who have immigrated to Canada are upper-middle-class, some don’t want to be associated with non-Chinese Filipinos, who are often stereotyped as nannies and low-wage earners. It’s an inclination Chingcuanco doesn’t share, and it’s the reason she’s involved in many volunteer activities in the community that deal with social-justice issues.