The Tsinoy Sugbuanons: Cogs in Cebu’s wheel of progress

Colon Street in Cebu, the oldest street in the Philippines

Throughout the Philippine archipelago, from colonial times to the present, the presence of ethnic Chinese is an indicator of robust commercial activity and the relative economic importance of the area.
The presence of parians or pariancillos easily identifies the place as an urban center. Outside Manila, parians and pariancillos were found in Jaro and Molo in Iloilo; Cebu; Cavite; Naga, Camarines Sur; Vigan, Ilocos Sur; Arevalo and Capiz in Panay; Guagua, Pampanga; and Lingayen, Pangasinan.
In many areas in the Philippines, the rise and decline of the ethnic Chinese population is directly proportionate to the growth and decline of economic development in the area.
This highlights the intertwining fate and destiny of our people. Events that affect Filipinos affect Chinese Filipinos, and vice-versa. It was true in early Spanish times, it still is true today.
During the Spanish period, records showed that the colonial economy came to a virtual standstill during periods of massacres and mass expulsions of the Chinese. Thus, the Spanish government was forced to entice them back to the Philippines through various incentives.
This was true in urban cities in Luzon, particularly in Manila, and this was equally true in the Visayas, particularly in Cebu and Iloilo.
In his article, “The Chinese in Iloilo – a brief history,” which appeared in Tulay, April 7-20, 2015 issue, W.H. Wu wrote that the Chinese in Iloilo are closely linked to Cebu, as both were among the most progressive urban centers outside Manila. Sugar – manufacturing and trading – and other agricultural cash crops played key roles.
The local Hokkien Chinese have an oft-repeated saying: “beh pu tio khi Sokbu, beh song tio khi I-long (要富着去宿務,要爽着去怡朗).” It literally means, to be prosperous, go to Cebu, to enjoy, go to Iloilo. The saying shows how the ethnic Chinese perceived the relative status of Cebu and Iloilo.
Cebu’s port gained importance, especially in sugar trading globally. Iloilo, on the other hand, with old-rich hacienderos or sugar plantation owners, had all the necessities for a life of luxury.
But before its period of growth and prosperity, the Chinese Sugbuanos, like the Chinese in other areas in the Philippines during the Spanish occupation, went through bitter struggles, persecution and discrimination. They too were active participants in important events that shaped Cebu history.

Song Dynasty Jing Kang coin

Early contacts
Before the Spaniards settled in Manila, Magellan and his men first landed in Mactan Island in Cebu in 1521, where they baptized 800 native Cebuanos. Magellan was killed by the local chieftain, Lapu-lapu.
When the second expedition returned in 1564 and established the first settlement in Cebu, they found the area far from the trading routes regularly visited by the traders, especially the Chinese, so they opted to move the settlement to Manila in 1571.
But long before the Spaniards knew about the existence of our islands, which they named Philippines, ancient Chinese records and maps already mentioned our many islands, including Cebu.
The 1588 Selden Map of China marks Sokbu (Cebu) and Oktong (now Oton, Iloilo). This signifies that very early during the Spanish occupation, these places in the Visayas region were known among the Chinese.
Maritime trading was the main link between Cebu and China. To this day, the Chinese name for Cebu retains its original Cebuano nomenclature, Sok Bu (束務), for sugbu (meaning strong wave or current). Sug became suk because the Chinese could not pronounce hard “g.”
Archaeologist Karl Hutterer, who published a scholarly thesis on pre-Hispanic archaeology of Cebu for San Carlos University Museum, described the Chinese cultural strata in their Cebu City excavations done from February to June 1967.
Song and late Tang Dynasty porcelain found in the Magallanes-Lapu-Lapu sites of their excavation highlight the importance of Cebu as a trading port with the Chinese at least 100 years before the Spaniards arrived.
Early Ming vessels and other Chinese wares comprise 97 percent of total shards uncovered in Cebu City excavations. This confirmed the Loaisa and Saavedra expedition reports about pre-Hispanic Chinese trade with Cebuanos.

Shoemakers at Cebu parian.

Spanish times
From the beginning of the Spanish occupation, authorities segregated ethnic groups. As early as 1565, Legaspi divided the Cebu port area into the Poblacion de Naturales (the town of San Nicolas) and the Poblacion de Europeos (Cebu City).
Although Chinese traders had long been visiting Cebu, the Chinese settlement was established only later, around 1590, when Cebu briefly participated in the galleon trade.
A parian section, located on Cebu’s north side, was connected to the sea by an estuary. This evolved into a market and trading center during the Spanish occupation.
Cebu maintained its status as the most prominent colonial settlement outside Manila until 1620s.
Even the ecclesiastical or religious districts were segregated. The Pueblo de Indios in the south side was administered by the Augustinians while the Chinese parian district was administered by a secular priest in a parish called San Juan Bautista.
Chinese merchants plied their wares through Cebu riverines using small boats to trade their goods with the natives. The Chinese merchants had silk, cotton cloth, metals such as iron, copper, needles, sinkers for fish nets, ornamental glass products and beads. These they traded for native products like placer gold, cotton and abaca.
It is not surprising that a visit to the Southwestern University Museum uncovered displays of Chinese coins and utilitarian tools like fish hooks and fish net sinkers, which they claimed were found in river banks by fisherfolk.
At a Museum Conference in Cebu in 1990s, Kaisa delegates Teresita Ang See and Go Bon Juan saw the museum display of three ancient Chinese coins in the display cases.
They asked the curator then, Tonette Pañares, to flip the coins so they could read the name of the emperor on the other side. They found the characters Jing Kang (靖康), indicating the reign of Emperor Qinzong (宋欽宗), ninth emperor of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), who ruled over a very turbulent and short period of just two years 1126-1127.
That a coin, rare even in China, could be found in Cebu affirmed the early trade between China and Cebu.
Cebu’s Chinese population dwindled, particularly with Governor-General Simon de Anda’s order for expulsions in 1780. It coincided with the commercial decline of Cebu in the 17th and 18th centuries when Manila ports monopolized the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade.
Growth and development
In the 19th century, when Chinese immigrants began to return to Cebu, they gravitated towards the Ermita-Lutao area (now Carbon Market area), which was closer to the shore. The small Parian river that ran through the district silted up and was no longer navigable.
The Parian area was transformed from a commercial trading district to a suburban residential district where mestizos and indios lived.
The return of the Chinese migrants and the rapid growth of their enterprises again coincided with the tremendous development of Cebu from 1855 to 1860, when new ports were opened to world trade.
Manila lost its single port monopoly when Cebu’s and Iloilo’s ports opened. The three major foreign trade ports vastly stimulated the agriculture industry in Cebu and Iloilo. Export of Cebu products like abaca and sugar, native textiles, hemp and tobacco need no longer go through Manila.
Raising of cash crops and commercial trading of the same brought new economic opportunities for the Chinese traders who capitalized on their direct access to exporting and importing of native products.
The number of Chinese in the city grew steadily from 30 in 1857, to 611 in 1870 and settling at about 1,400 in the 1890s.
The influx of Chinese who came to play an increasingly dominant role in the urban economy sparked resentment from mestizos and Spanish merchants who found stiff competition from the well-known Chinese cabecilla-agent system.
Goods were purchased or obtained on credit in Manila and shipped to Cebu for wholesale and retail. The Chinese were organized into a separate guild called gremio de chinos like those in Manila, and these gremios indirectly served as a network of traders and credit systems across several provinces and Manila.
In fact, Cebu and Iloilo mestizo families argued that the Chinese should be restricted to retail shopkeeping when they discovered that the Chinese, with their cabecilla system, could trade more cheaply. Because of their ability to develop effective business networks, they became wholesalers of export agricultural crops and retailers of European imports like British textiles and other luxury goods.
This effective cabecilla-agent system likewise created links between the port and the countryside that had significant impact on improving the lives of rural folks. Many poor rural Cebuanos were able to send their children off to higher education institutions when they raised cash crops for export.
End of Spanish rule
Toward the end of the Spanish colonial era, the size and economic growth of the Chinese community in Cebu gained ground. Prior to the 1860s, there were only about 20 merchants and artisans living in the port area. By 1894, a large number of Chinese immigrants had settled in Cebu City.
Ninety percent of those in the port area were laborers, working at the docks loading bales of sugar and abaca onto ships bound for the west, as well as unloading imported textiles and luxury goods from arriving ships.
Along with the native Filipinos, the Chinese suffered from increased persecution and repression towards the end of Spanish rule.
In the Chinese journal Lun Shuo Hui (論說匯), there was an entry on Spanish cruelty against the Chinese in attempts to quell Cebuano insurgency and rebellion, which says: “The whole town’s Chinese residents numbering almost 900 people perished, with only two able to escape. I could hardly bear to read the accounts of such a tragic massacre.”
This event could be in reference to the Cebuano uprising of April 1898. The parian was razed to the ground when the Spanish vessel Don Juan de Austria bombarded the city during the uprising.
Governor General Fernando Primo de Rivera ordered all Chinese houses to be burned. With no consular protection like other nationalities, many Chinese died in the fires, from enemy fire power and at the end of Spanish guns.

The Parian Monument, conceptualized by multi-awarded sculptor Eduardo Castrillo, depicts significant moments in Cebu’s history beginning April 21, 1521 in Mactan, where native chieftain Lapu-Lapu killed Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. The monument was purposely situated in Parian, Cebu City to highlight the area’s important role in the country’s history.

American period
Free trade and commercial activities during the American period benefited a number of prominent Cebuano families who could trace the roots of their successes to this era. Carbon became the new Chinese district or parian area that hosted Chinese traders. Many Chinese merchants in Cebu began their economic rise with their small sari-sari stores where they worked almost 24 hours a day, everyday of the week, built up their businesses and became the most prominent families of Cebu in modern times.
Stellar examples of this include magnate John Gokongwei Jr., considered one of the five taipans in the country, who traces his roots to Cebu.
In the 1940s, Gokongwei rode his bicycle to the market every day to sell candles, thread and soaps. Today, his holdings include world-class Filipino products and services like snacks, beverages, telecommunications, real estate, finance and transportation.
Proud sons of Cebu include kings of the coconut industry: brothers Lu Do and Lu Ym. Their success in manufacturing and exporting coconut oil throughout the world has made their names synonymous with coconut oil. Up to the 1990s, Lu Do and Lu Ym Corp. remained the top producer of copra and coconut oil as well as corn starch and cooking oil, 80 percent of which are exported to the United States, Western Europe, Japan, Korea and China.
Today, other contemporary successes include giant retailers the Gaisano family, conglomerate Filinvest Development Corp. founder Andrew Gotianun, furniture designer Kenneth Cobonpue and many others, proving that Tsinoy lives remain intertwined with Cebu’s development as a community and society.
References: Bruce L. Fenner, Cebu Under the Spanish Flag, 1521-1896: An Economic and Social History (1985); Alfred W. McCoy and Ed. D. De Jesus, Philippine Social History: Global Trade and Local Transformations (1998); and J. Eleazar R. Bersales and Ino Manalo, Integracion/Internacion: The Urbanization of Cebu in Archival Records of the Spanish Colonial Period (2017).