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Filipinos in China: Bright pulses of a vibrant relationship

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The State Visit to China of President Benigno S. Aquino III draws our attention not only to the deep and age-old kinship between the Philippines and China, but also the vibrant and more contemporary dimensions of our ties.

The present landscape of the relationship is animated by the presence of Filipinos in China, individuals and entities that are in the middle of the transformation of Asia’s leading economic powerhouse.

Filipinos in China - currently estimated at 10,000 -- are in a wide field of professions – manufacturing and property investors, media, hospitality and entertainment, multinational corporations, medical services, creative and engineering industries and teaching. The number has grown steadily as China’s fast-growing economy has required it in the last two decades to absorb foreign talents, alongside investments.

The Filipino men and women in China are not merely bearing witness to China’s changes: they are contributing to the energy of the Chinese society and taking part in its history.

They also attest to the indelible and encompassing associations between the Philippines and China that have evolved throughout the centuries and nearly four decades of formal diplomatic relations.

Many of the Filipinos’ success stories have carved important imprints in the Chinese people’s appreciation of the talents and industry of the Filipinos.

*Outstanding English teachers

Last year, four Filipino English teachers received recognition from provincial governments in Northeast China as “Outstanding Foreign Experts” – awards that have been instituted in China in appreciation for foreigners’ contributions to economic and social development.

Frederick Lomibao who has been teaching for six years in a private school in Liaoning Province’s Yingkou City, was awarded by Governor Chen Chenggao in 2010. The recognition, he hoped, “did not only bring honor to our country, but also gave inspiration to Filipinos at home and abroad.” He relished the pride of being honored with other outstanding foreign experts in Liaoning, representing the Philippines.

According to the Philippine Embassy in Beijing, there are some 400 Filipinos working as English teachers in Northeast China alone. The number could reach 2,000 in the whole of Mainland China.

The frigid winters in this region do not seem to faze the Filipinos, who in fact seem to be thriving quite well. Jilin Province – which borders Russia and North Korea and boasts of China’s ski resorts – awarded three Filipino English teachers in October 2010, in ceremonies to mark the 61st founding of China.

Ma. Socorro Rodriguez, Arnel Genzola and Lileth Mesias Reyes -- all English teachers in higher education institutions -- were among the 59 foreigners recognized by Jilin Province as Outstanding Foreign Experts.

Aside from sending teachers to China, the Philippines has also invested in institutions providing educational services in China, mainly through school-to-school partnerships.

The Manila Xiamen International School (MXIS), founded in 1993 by Filipino educators Roman and Mildred Go, was the first international school in the province of Fujian. Its student population has increased ten-fold since its establishment. It currently has 328 students who are dependents of expatriate and overseas Chinese families, mainly Korean and Taiwanese, and local Chinese. Enrolling just five nationalities at the beginning, the MXIS is a vibrant inter-cultural community with pre-school, primary and high school students coming from over twenty countries.

*Multinational expatriates

Filipino corporate executives and engineers are also making their mark in China, serving the numerous multinational companies that anchor China’s continuing growth to the wider global economy.

It is not unusual to find Filipino engineers in China’s numerous science and information technology parks, running China-based operations of corporate giants like Intel, Nokia, and Mercedes Benz from locations such as Dalian City in the northeast to Shenzhen and Dongguan in China’s borders with Hong Kong and Macau.

Flour Daniel, for example, has over 20 Filipino engineers working in projects in Inner Mongolia, a vast landscape of steppes buffering Mongolia and the Gobi Desert which is benefitting from the Chinese government’s intense drive to develop its central and north/northwestern regions.

*Carrying the torch

A Filipino architect based in Beijing since 2006 has in fact gone beyond just delivering superb performance at work: he has also participated actively in social and community events like the International Bowling community and as a Torchbearer during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

Marcos Torres, an Associate Director at KRA International, has won honors for the country by becoming one of the eight expats in Beijing selected to carry the Olympic Torch. He bested 200 foreigners that vied for the honor, a list that included CEOs and Ambassadors. It was the first time since the 1964 Tokyo Olympics that a Filipino national carried the Olympic torch.

Torres, who studied in De La Salle Greenhills in elementary and high school, and once served as Director of Philippine Jaycees, has been very active in his personal efforts to be a torchbearer for the Philippines in Beijing. He has been promoting Philippine tourism through social networking sites, emails and blogs and he also runs his own lifestyle magazine.

A Korean colleague says that on the strength of Torres’ persuasion, he has travelled to the Philippines “for six times in the last two years,” and “perhaps thousands of Chinese have come to see the country.”

Some Filipino photography hobbyists are also participating in competitions: their works have found their way in exhibitions organized by local governments and communities. There are at least two groups of Filipinos in China bound by their passion for photography – the Pinoy Overseas Photographers (POP) in Beijing and FilKam in Guangzhou.

*Women leaders

The Philippines has long been considered in China as a benchmark for gender equality because it has had two women Presidents. The older Chinese generation can still recall to any Filipino the feeling of being enthralled by the iconic images of power in womanhood that were beamed widely in state television during the landmark 1973 visit of then First Lady Imelda Marcos -- svelte and regal in pink terno and being accorded exceptionally warm reception by Chairman Mao Zedong. The former President Corazon C. Aquino was also feted by another great Chinese leader Chairman Deng Xiaoping during her visit in 1988. Citing her Chinese roots, China was quick to proudly embrace her as its own daughter.

Chinese impressions of the capabilities of Filipino women as leaders are all the more reinforced by Filipino women executives working in China who are being recognized for bringing the highest levels of excellence to their jobs.

The Women in Business Network in Beijing last year awarded Ms. Lara Tiam and Ms. Arlene Bantoto as People’s Choice Human Resource Director and Marketing Director of the Year. Both Ms. Tiam and Ms. Lara’s accomplishments indeed attest to the talents of Filipino women.

Ms. Tiam is the Harvard-educated Country Human Resource Director of Intel China and is responsible for managing the company’s HR organization across all cities and business groups in China. With her leadership, Intel China was ranked # 1 in Employee Brand Proposition in a survey conducted by China HR Executive Board.

Ms. Bantoto, a Magna cum Laude graduate in Business Economics from Ateneo De Manila, is responsible for Nestle’s Mother and Young Child business in China. She carries with her 15 years of experience beginning with her first stint as marketing trainee in Nestle Philippines.

In May 2011, Ms. Judith Los Banos was recognized as Marketing and Communications Director of the Year by the Third Annual Women in Business Leadership Awards. Ms. Los Banos, whose personality epitomizes "the joy de vivre" and friendly character of the Filipino, runs the PR and marketing operations of Hilton Beijing Wangfujing. A graduate of the University of the Philippines, she began her career at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the Holiday Inn Manila before moving to China 13 years ago. She has since taken appointments in her field at Hilton hotels in Shanghai and Sanya.
One of Asian Development Bank’s senior executives in China is a Filipino woman. Ma. Theresa Villareal has been heading Portfolio Management at the ADB Resident Mission since 2010 – overseeing the bank’s numerous projects in the country.

*Uncannily musical

Perhaps the most ubiquitous mark of the Filipino in China are the musicians whose bands have been enlivening the entertainment scene in cosmopolitan venues like hotels and jazzbars for the last decades. With them around, it is hard for China to miss the message about Filipinos’ innately musical culture.

There is also a smattering of Filipino deejays, singers, dancers, and ballroom dancing instructors across the country – sometimes even in unexpected places in China’s frontiers and hinterlands. When the Philippine Embassy in Beijing visited Urumqi in Xinjiang, the consular team met with eight musicians representing two hotel in-house bands. It is not hard to imagine Filipinos thriving in localities such as Xinjiang, China’s Muslim-inhabited northwestern frontier in Central Asia – as Filipinos working overseas are known for their flexibility in adapting to cultures and imbibing languages.
The brand of the Filipino band is so established in China that there is a story that an Embassy official in Beijing received one frantic call one very late evening from a colleague in the diplomatic community, because a visiting Asian royalty wanted to be taken – pronto - to a place where a Filipino band performed.

Recently, Filipino musicians in Dalian established a group called Pinoy Sa Dalian (PISADA) gathering some 200 members that play in various bars and hotels in the city. (One could imagine the fun in the jamming sessions whenever they meet.) Across China, it is estimated that there could be at least 3,000 Filipinos playing music to crowds of locals and foreign expatriates in China.

While many would think this is a recent trend, this is in fact a revival. Records attest that Filipino combos were mainstays in the music scene in 1920’s Shanghai – the heydays of the city’s prominence as Paris of the East. The first Philippine Consul General in Shanghai, Mario Ezpeleta recalls in his memoirs:

“Many Filipinos (in Shanghai) were musicians, for Shanghai had more nightclubs, bars, and restaurants than either New York or Paris. They enjoyed a good lifestyle, the musicians especially earning a higher scale of wages since they were very much in demand and were willing to play any tune. The plush cabarets and bars had Filipinos on stage, though some of the musicians could not even read notes but played with style and feeling. Smaller clubs had bands of five or six, while the big ones had dozens performing all night. Only small private hotels could not afford Filipino bands.”

Consul General Ezpeleta’s arrival in Shanghai in May 1948 via steamer S/S President Cleveland was greeted by a festive reception by four barges of Filipinos in Shanghai -- a truly warm welcome of cheers, revelry and music, naturally. (According to him, the foreign passengers disembarking from the ship “were dumbfounded, not knowing what the noise, the kissing, the din, the music was all about.”)

*Writing China’s story

As in the time of 1920s Shanghai, when Filipinos worked for local and international newspapers, Filipino journalists at present are engaged in writing China’s story.

Jaime Florcruz, CNN Bureau Chief in Beijing, and one of the distinguished Filipino journalists working in China, says: “We have the role of interface between China and the world. It is the role of understanding the perplexing maze of China. It’s knowing where China is coming from and why they do things the way they do. “

Florcruz and his contemporaries, Chito Sta. Romana and Eric Baculinao, have been working in leading international media agencies in China. Their perspective come from long years of in-depth interaction with the Chinese people beginning in the 1970s when they spent their youth in the Chinese communes that hosted them after being barred -- as student activists -- from going back to Manila during Martial Law years after a study tour of China.

Benjamin Lim, who heads Reuters, as well as younger Filipino journalists are following the steps of these luminaries in their employment in English language media institutions. Among them are Tiffany Tan (China Daily), Felicity Tan (CCTV-9), Peter Espina (Global Times) and Ramon Escanillas (China Radio International).

*Rich imprint

The Filipinos in China represent a cross-section of the Philippine society, as well as the diversity and excellence of the Filipino talents, and the natural affinity between the two Asian nations. They are the flesh-and-blood pulses that illuminate the bright landscape of the people-to-people ties between the Philippines and China.

Many are familiar with the fact that the Filipino national hero Jose Rizal is a descendant of Chinese immigrants from Fujian, China; a copy of his statue in Rizal Park stands in his great grandparents’ hometown. Less are aware that one of China’s most beloved revolutionary heroes, General Ye Fei, was in fact born in Quezon and raised in the Philippines by his Filipino mother and Chinese immigrant father. His descendants still pay respects to ancestors and kin in Quezon. These two stories juxtaposed, reveal the intertwined fates and the storied tapestry of connections between the two nations that Filipinos in China undoubtedly enrich. (PNA Feature)

 




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