Tsinoys in Pinoy cinema

From left (top row): Wilson Tieng, Philip Ko; (middle row) Ricky Lee, Robbie Tan, Lily Yu Monteverde; (bottom row) Ruby Tiong Tan, Joey Gosengfiao, On the background is Don Luis Nolasco (black and white photo).

While Tsinoys have been recognized for their contributions to Philippine culture and history, their role in the development of the local film industry is less well known.
In line with the celebration of the centennial year of Philippine cinema, this article highlights the influence of Tsinoys on the growth of the local movie industry. Not only will we celebrate Tsinoy performers and film producers, but we will also learn about how the local film industry collaborated with filmmakers from China and Hong Kong.
The earliest involvement of the Chinese in the local film industry dates back to the early days of Philippine cinema, including the release of one of the earliest movies filmed in the country, “La Vide de Rizal,” in 1912, written and directed by American Edward Meyer Gross.
Film historian Nick Deocampo shared that the film’s portrayal of the Spaniards angered quite a few people. So, a group of Chinese-Filipino businessmen – Carlos Palanca, Jose Tiotico, Jose Lauchengco and Francisco Leongson – commissioned Gross to create another film, “La Conquista de Filipinas,” which was aimed to create a more favorable view of Spaniards in the Philippines.
Deocampo said the probable motive for these businessmen was because all of them made their money during the Spanish colonial period, which explained their more favorable view of the Spaniards. The film was released soon after the Rizal film was shown in cinemas in 1912.
He added that another filmmaking pioneer during the early days of Philippine cinema was Victoria Pictures founder Francisco Lichuaco, who specialized in newsreels and documentaries rather than feature films. Deocampo, however, was unable to comment on when Lichauco started his company or what became of it.
In 1917, Gross retired from the film business and sold his equipment to local filmmaker Jose Nepomuceno, who founded the first Filipino-owned movie studio, Malayan Movies, in 1919.
The studio released its first film, “Dalagang Bukid,” on Sept. 12, 1919. The date is now regarded as the birth of the Philippine cinema.
Luis F. Nolasco, a Chinese-Spanish mestizo and graduate of Ateneo de Manila, was a journalist before Nepomuceno hired him in 1931. In 1937, he left Malayan Movies and helped the Vera brothers start Sampaguita Pictures. Nolasco subsequently produced and co-wrote their initial film offering, “Bituing Marikit,” in 1938. It was a box office hit and helped launch the career of lead actor Rogelio dela Rosa.
In 1937, Chinese businessman Henry Yang opened one of the first Chinese cinemas in Manila. It catered mainly to the local Chinese community and screened films imported from Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Other known Chinese cinemas in Manila at that time included the Star Theater and Rex Theater. There were also Chinese cinemas in towns or cities outside Manila with large Chinese communities, such as the Royal Theater in Cebu and the Liberty Theater in Jolo.
In 1941, Nolasco left Sampaguita Pictures and partnered with his brothers to establish the Nolasco Bros. Pictures.
But when World War II broke out, Nolasco was sent to Fort Santiago and became the personal cameraman of General Douglas MacArthur. After the war, he returned to film production and made the hit movie “Fort Santiago” in 1946.
Nolasco went on to work as an assistant to Doña Narcisa de Leon of LVN Films in the 1950s but still managed to produce and direct his own films. He is also highly regarded as a talent scout and is credited for helping to discover stars such as Rosa Rosal, Lilia Dizon and Norma Blancaflor.
The production and distribution of Chinese films were halted during Second World War, and filming began only after the war.

(From left) A movie poster of “Bituing Marikit;” Danilo Montes and Lola Young in “Sanda Wong” (Cesar Hernando Collection); a scene from “Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi.”

Theater owners and film distributors from the Philippines would commission studios in Hong Kong to make films in Hokkien to cater to the entertainment needs of local Chinese communities. An estimated 400 movies in the Swatow and Amoy (Hokkien) dialects were produced during this period.
There seemed little involvement by the Chinese community in the Philippine film industry between the 1940s and 1960s, although there were some actors and actresses of Chinese descent who signed up as contract performers for the local studio system. Among them were actress Susan Roces and her sister Rosemarie Sonora. There was also the late Dindo Fernando, a multi-awarded actor whose real name was Jose Tacorda Chua Surban.
The Chinese stayed away from show business because of the political mood at the time. After 1946, the Philippine Congress, as a reaction against colonization, pursued a “Filipino First” policy, which stipulated that only Filipino citizens were allowed to practice professions such as medicine, nursing and architecture.
This made it difficult for those of Chinese descent whose families had yet to acquire Filipino citizenship. Those who wanted citizenship had to undergo a long and expensive process. Because of this, there was a sense among the local Chinese that as aliens, they could not participate in activities related to culture and the media.
Such difficulties, however, did not stop some members of the community from finding other ways of joining the show business industry.
Some, like businesswoman Lily Yu Monteverde, participated indirectly by operating cinemas and concessionaire stands. Along with husband Remy Monterverde, she operated a popcorn stand at Podmon Cinema on CM Recto Avenue in Manila.
In 1962, she borrowed money from her brother Jessie to start a film distribution business. She then bought the rights to reissue the Hollywood drama, “All Mine to Give,” which went on to gross P500,000 in box office receipts.
This was the beginning of Regal Entertainment, the longest running film studio in the Philippines.
As the local Chinese community did not participate in the local film industry, Filipino filmmakers worked with Hong Kong film studios during the 1950s.
Their collaboration resulted in three films: “Sanda Wong” (1955), “Hong Kong Holiday” (1957) and “Pagoda” (1958). Out of the three, action drama “Sanda Wong” stood out.
Though the film about the rise of a Ming Dynasty Chinese bandit had a look and feel of a Hong Kong film from that period, “Sanda Wong” was directed by Filipino Gerardo de Leon and had a mainly Filipino cast, which included Jose Padilla Jr., Lilia Dizon and Danilo Montes.
Change began in the 1970s. With the opening of diplomatic ties with China and the granting of mass naturalization, the Tsinoy community felt that they could now participate in the arts and media.
While this did not result in an immediate rush of Tsinoys appearing on the movie screen, it opened up more job opportunities for them, such as minor characters or extras.
But one Tsinoy actor, Dennis Roldan, whose real name is Mitchell Yap Gumabao, took on supporting roles in dramatic films. A former basketball player, he made his film debut in “Kambal sa Uma” in 1979.
He later went to star in sexy dramas of that period, such as “Salome” (1981) and “Hot Property” (1983) for which he won the best supporting actor award at the Metro Manila Film Festival. His acting career ended when he was convicted of kidnapping for ransom in 2014.
Many older studios also began closing in the 1970s, freeing many performers from their contracts. Sensing an opportunity, Monteverde made the switch from film distribution to independent film production.
Through her company, Regal Films, she produced her first film, “Walang Karanasan,” in 1976, which launched the film career of actress Alma Moreno.
Monterverde would later launch the careers of so many Filipino actors and actresses that she would be referred to as “Mother Lily” while her discoveries were known as the “Regal Babies.”
Following the path of “Mother Lily” was stockbroker Ruby Tiong Tan. In 1976, she helped director Lino Brocka finance and produce one of his finest works, “Insiang.”
Tan had one stipulation before she agreed to fund Brocka’s work: no sex scenes or foul language. The film went on to win several awards at the Manila Film Festival and was invited to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
Because it portrayed the squalid side of Manila, government censors took their time approving the film for the film festival. When it was finally released, Tan had to smuggle the film rolls in her luggage to make it in time for its screening at Cannes.
Although she never produced another film after “Insiang,” she was quoted in the Philippine Star in 2007 that she was considering doing a sequel.
Since action films were popular during the 1970s and 1980s, two Tsinoy actors that became known through this film genre were Renato Chua and Tony Candelaria, better known by their screen names Rhene Imperial and Tsing Tong Tsai, respectively.
Imperial made his name by producing and starring in his own action films, such as “Boy Singkit” (1980) and “Ninong” (1982). His acting style and screen persona drew comparisons to another action star, former president Joseph Estrada.
Tsing Tong Tsai, on the other hand, made his name as a martial arts actor. While he was the lead in one movie, “Bruce Volcanic Kicks” (1978), he was more often the henchman in movies opposite Estrada and comedy actor Dolphy. He also played the character of Lim the Chinese trader in Eddie Romero’s classic historical drama, “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?” (1976).
William and Baby Pascual, a brother and sister producer team, also capitalized on the trend for action films. Their company, Baby Pascual Films, either independently produced or collaborated with other producers to make movies such as “Brusko” (1983), “Wanted Alex San Diego” (1981) and “Juramentado” (1983).
When bold films became the trend, they began producing movies such as “Babae sa Ulog” (1981) and “Magdalena” (1984).
William also directed movies such as “Di Mahilom ang Sugat” (1986) and “Chikas” (1984), which was the first movie of actress Jacklyn Jose. The Pascual siblings also involved themselves with movie exhibition and owned the Ocean Cinema in Cubao.
By the 1980s, Monteverde was busy churning out one hit movie after another, with the help of the late director and producer Joey Gosiengfiao. With a background in theater, Gosiengfiao’s films explored themes and topics that were mature and daring for the time. Among them were “Underage” (1980), “Nympha” (1980) and “Bata pa si Sabel” (1981). He was also responsible for directing the cult classic, “Temptation Island” (1980).
While most movies produced by Monteverde during this period were commercial in nature, two are now regarded as masterpieces of Philippine cinema: “Sister Stella L” (1984) and “Scorpio Nights” (1985).
In 2002, Mother Lily paid homage to her Tsinoy heritage, and launched the “Mano Po” film anthology. The series explored the culture and tradition of the Tsinoy community in a melodramatic fashion, and became a hit with local movie audiences.
Another Tsinoy who made a name for himself in the 1980s is screenwriter Ricky Lee. Even though he has been writing since the 1970s, it was only in the 1980s that he became known for his works, such as “Himala” (1982), “Salome” (1981) and “Brutal” (1980).

A scene from “Sister Stella L.” and “Himala” movie poster.

His work can be summed up in a citation given to him by the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, stating, “His films give us a faithful and insightful interpretation of the realities of Filipino society, amidst and in spite of the escapism and commercialism of the film industry.”
After winning over 50 awards, Lee is currently mentoring new and struggling writers through his Philippine Writer Studio Foundation.
The 1980s was also the decade when the Philippines became a popular location for film productions from Hong Kong and China, such as “Days of Being Wild” (1990) directed by Wong Kar Wei, starring Leslie Cheung and Andy Lau (1990), “Island of Fire” (1990), starring Jackie Chan, and “The Story of Woo Viet” (1981), starring Chow Yun-fat.
There was also a collaboration with a Mainland Chinese studio on the historical epic, “Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi” (1987), which featured a mixed Filipino and Chinese cast and crew. Such collaborations with Hong Kong and Chinese film studios began to influence Filipino filmmakers.
In the 1990s, Hong Kong martial artist and film director Philip Ko moved to the Philippines and worked with actors such as Ace Vergel and Philip Salvador on their action movies. The films Ko directed included “Bangis” (1996) and “Huling Sagupaan” (1996).
By the 1990s, comedians Chinkee Tan and Wilson Go entered showbiz, same with dramatic actors Ricardo Cepeda (Richard Go) and Richard Quan. It also became more common for Filipino actors and actresses to openly acknowledge their Chinese heritage, such as Kris Aquino, Ali Sotto and Rico Yan.
Monteverde also faced more competition from other Tsinoy producers who entered the film industry, such as Wilson Tieng of Solar Films. But it was Tsinoy producer Robbie Tan of Seiko Films that followed Regal Films’ formula of escapist and melodramatic fare, such as “Blusang Itim” (1986) and “Natutulog Pa ang Diyos?” (1988).
Then, in 1995, Seiko Films began producing “bold” or sexy films, also known as “Sex Trip” or “ST” films, with provocative titles such as “Patikim ng Pinya” (1996), “Bikini Open” (2005) and “Burlesk King” (2002).
What ended the ST film trend was another Tsinoy, or rather a Tsinoy-owned company, SM Prime Holdings.
In March 2004, SM Prime announced that it would no longer screen R-18 movies at their malls throughout the country, a decision not based on moral values but rather on profit margins. SM Prime claimed that its revenue from R-18 movies was only three percent, and that the bold movies are not compatible with the SM group’s family-friendly image.
In the end, SM Prime’s decision, as well as rampant video piracy, forced film companies that made bold movies to go out of business.
From the year 2000s onward, the number of Tsinoy performers continued to grow. Some of the better-known personalities included Enchong Dee, Xian Lim, Kim Chiu, Katrina Halili (Pe), Dennis Trillo (Ho), LJ Reyes (Hong), Mike Tan and Ken Chan.
A reason for the growing acceptance of Tsinoy performers among the local film audience can be traced to the current popularity of Korean television dramas and movies.
However, the same cannot be said for those working behind the scenes. While we currently have a new active Tsinoy director, Neal “Buboy” Tan, Monteverde is the only Tsinoy producer still active in filmmaking.
The fact that filmmaking today has gone digital, coupled with the rise of various streaming services, should encourage Tsinoy filmmakers to stand up and share their stories with the entire world, through films that will not only be acknowledged by Tsinoys as their own but will also find home in the hearts of audiences everywhere.