Culture History Philippine History Tsinoy Culture

The case of Chieng Liang-un: Buddhist, laborer, undocumented

19th-century rare prints and photographs on the Philippines, with barefoot Chinese vendors included. (Right photo) A gobernadorcillo and a Chinese water carrier. [Bahay Tsinoy Museum Collection]

First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest, September 20-October 3, 2016 | vol. 29, No. 8 issue | Originally titled “Buddhist, Laborer, Undocumented: The Case of Chieng Liang-un in Leyte, 1891.” |

The case of Chieng Liang-un is contained in one of the Chinos bundles (SDS 13044) at the National Archives of the Philippines. His story, though brief, can be supplemented with data from two other bundles (SDS 13076, SDS 13123) and related secondary materials, and is interesting as it can serve as a window to the socio-political interactions, or “power” relationship between the colonial administrators and the Chinese in the Philippines, during the late 19th century.

The authorities imposed various restrictive measures on the Chinese, who found ways to evade them. The term “power” then refers to negotiations between the “powerful” colonial state and the “powerless” Chinese laborer. “When he found out that he was being pursued, he tried to escape by hiding in a cabin of the ship Luzon bound to leave Tacloban,” the governor of Leyte reported on Sept. 16, 1891.

The “he” was Chieng Liang-un, a Chinese arrested by the guardia civil for two unrelated offenses. The first was for clandestinely conducting some Buddhist rites which were prohibited in the colony. Second, upon apprehension, he failed to present a passport required of all Chinese traveling to and within the islands. He was detained for almost three weeks in the provincial jail while awaiting a final resolution.

Chieng’s case illustrates how political and religious authorities dealt with ordinary Chinese when it came to religion, immigration and registration, and how the latter found ways to evade rules imposed upon them.


A reconstruction of Chieng’s story leads us to Palo, a pueblo south of Leyte’s capital Tacloban. The town’s parish priest (most probably a Franciscan father) reported him to the police. According to the report, the priest learned Chieng was conducting Buddhist rites with a number of Chinese within his ecclesiastical domain.

The priest claimed Chieng’s religious activities were only a pretext to exploit Palo’s Chinese laboring class. In fact, Chieng was soliciting funds to build a temple in Chieng’s native Tong’an (Tangua) in Southeastern China. The priest was further alarmed when he discovered some native helpers in the area also attended the rituals. He believed the natives, who had “a penchant for Chinese customs,” were being enticed to Chieng’s forbidden “gentile cult” (culto gentilico).

The role the priest played in Chieng’s case deserves highlighting. The friars, during the Spanish regime, held a lot of power in the administration of the colony, a condition aptly termed by M. H. del Pilar as “frailocracy.”

As representatives of the church, friars were responsible not only for evangelizing the colonized populations but also protecting their converts from being “contaminated” by the teachings of other faiths such as Buddhism. Chieng’s conduct was seen by the priest as a direct challenge to his authority. Chieng was thus considered a dangerous troublemaker who must be arrested and prosecuted.

Chieng concealed his identity so he could reach out to those of the same belief. By claiming to be a wage-laborer (jornalero) and infidel (infiel), similar to many lower-class Chinese immigrants of the period, he initially did not arouse suspicions. He also secretly used a storehouse (camarin) as a meeting place for his religious activities to elude the authorities. The participation of some natives in the rituals suggested that Chieng must have had some familiarity with the local language – a vital fact that eluded the priest.

A chocolate maker (left) and textile fabric manufacturers in Manila during the late 1890s.


Chieng’s attempt to conceal his actual religious orientation by disguising himself as a jornalero, as well as his conduct of soliciting funds from his compatriots, are also noteworthy. The first implies that there was a need for Chinese laborers in Leyte, while the second suggests that there was a considerable number of Chinese laborers in the province during the period.

During the late 19th century, Leyte was one of the Philippines’ major abaca-producing provinces, as the colony had been actively participating in international trade since 1834. As hemp production was labor-intensive, a ready source of labor was required, which made cheap contract laborers from poverty-stricken areas like Chieng’s Tong’an very necessary.

Based on the official tax record of 1891, more than 10 percent of the Chinese in the colony were located in Leyte, Albay and Samar, where previously no significant number of Chinese lived. Despite the fact that colonial policy on Chinese immigration was relaxed in 1839, the massive volume of immigrants into the colony occurred only from the 1850s onwards. Historian Edgar Wickberg points to improved transportation as a fundamental stimulus for the arrival of Chinese immigrants, particularly coolies.

In the 1870s, Manila was linked to Hong Kong via a regular, direct steamship service. Poor Chinese peasants who wanted a better life would go to Hong Kong, either voluntarily or involuntary (usually kidnapped by unscrupulous brokers and agents), and from there they were sent abroad to work in plantations and mines. Also in the 1870s, an inter-island steamer system in the colony was established. It facilitated the movement of Chinese immigrants from Manila to Leyte, whose port of Tacloban was opened to world commerce in 1873.

A copy of China and Manila Steamship Company advertisement 1907 which appeared in Hong Kong newspapers back then.


For preaching Buddhist teachings and not having a passport, a violation of Article 18 of the Superior Decree of Sept. 26, 1888, Chieng had to pay a fine of 30 Mexican pesos. The report further insinuates that Chieng must have secretly boarded the ship that transported him to the province, as the vessel’s captain was also fined 50 pesos for possibly unknowingly bringing the Chinese to Tacloban without the necessary documents.

The colonial government’s major purposes in requiring the Chinese to possess passports and other documents of identification were for the efficient collection of taxes and to track and regulate the movements of these “necessary outsiders.” Passports of Chinese coming to the islands were issued by the Spanish Consulate in Hong Kong and Emuy (Amoy or Xiamen). These were then checked at Manila, the port of disembarkation. Immigrants would then be listed in the capital’s general registry (padron general de Chinos).

Permits to travel to the provinces, on the other hand, were granted by the governor general upon the request of the highest official of the Chinese community in the colony, the Gobernadorcillo de Sangleyes. Upon arrival in the provinces, the Chinese would have to register again in the provincial capital’s registry. Chieng’s number in the Tacloban registry was 24615.

Chinese immigrant Lao Chua Seng’s landing certificate, 1908. [Bahay Tsinoy Museum Collection]

Finally, after deliberations, the court decided to deport Chieng back to China as “his permanent stay was detrimental to the islands.” He was deported on Oct. 14, 1891 aboard the vessel Yiksang. The government paid the contractor Don Manuel Jacinto 5.40 Mexican pesos for Chieng’s fare.

In addition, the Gobernadorcillo de Sangleyes was ordered to conduct thorough investigations on the backgrounds of Chinese contract laborers who wanted to go the provinces. Such procedure would help the said official to distinguish genuine laborers from those who had a different agenda.


Chieng’s story was not an isolated one. For instance, there were 330 other undocumented and indigent Chinese who were deported with him. These individuals were considered “criminals” because they challenged the government’s direct political control and financial stability at various levels of the colonial administration.

His case, however, not only shows how the authorities controlled the ordinary laboring Chinese but how the latter employed covert ways to evade them as well.