Laurel’s Ongpin Stories describes the political, social, and cultural elements that make up the changing face of the immigrant Chinese in the Philippines.
Using a teenage Chinese boy as the central narrator of all eight stories, Robert Kwan Laurel describes the colorful lives of the characters in Ongpin Street. Some will seem familiar to the reader; others, caricatures of prominent figures.
In Ongpin, the most obvious representation of Chinatown, no man is an island, everyone knows everyone, and one’s actions affect the whole community.
Among the characters, Grandfather stands out. Based on the author’s real-life grandfather, the narrator’s grandfather binds the family together and provides many observations and beliefs characteristic of traditional immigrant Chinese, such as “When one is young, one believes all roads lead to a pot of gold…”
In The Math Wizard, a young math genius aspires to have a good job in Hong Kong. To reach his dream, he plans to study (Chinese and Math) really hard. The character’s aspirations reflect how many Chinese students strive hard to leave the country in search of greener pastures—similar to their grandparents who came to the Philippines to look for the legendary street of gold.
Author Laurel shows how colonial mentality has pervaded the minds of Chinatown denizens in Sir Jim. The narrator discusses the conflicting views on the Filipino-American War through the eyes of two teachers: one progressive, the other traditional, with a heavy colonial mindset. Despite the stubborn insistence that their children speak proper Chinese as a way to keep their heritage intact, the central characters regard anything American as superior, just like the Filipinos of their time.
All these seem to point the failure of education to mold the next generation of Chinese students into productive citizens of the Philippines. In Ongpin, the narrator asks, “Why do we have to study Chinese when we are in the Philippines?” His question accurately describes the question Chinese students ask when forced to memorize Chinese lessons they consider useless.
Despite the seriousness of its themes, Ongpin Stories is peppered with doses of lighthearted humor. For instance, Laurel observes how some parents give their children English names, like Washington Dee See. The author also pokes good-natured fun at the way some Chinese welcomed a prominent guest by hanging a banner with the words “The Good Citisen of the Philippines Welcome D Great Director and Friends.”
The book is quite successful in making readers see that immigrant Chinese and their Filipino hosts are more similar than either think. Both complain of corrupt government officials who extract “tong” (bribes) from them. Both worship Hollywood idols like branded items. Both harbor racial biases against the other. The Chinese call Filipinos “lazy thieves,” while Filipinos call the Chinese “tsekwa” and make fun of their accent.
Ongpin Stories succeeds in showing how the lives—and destinies—of both Filipinos and Chinese Filipinos are intertwined.
Destinies intertwined is actually the theme of the cover photo showing 1901 Binondo. In the picture, a bridge leads to Binondo Church, the famous landmark that marks one end of Ongpin Street. Rich and poor, Chinese and Filipinos, cross the same bridge. Both come from similar origins, both go towards similar destinations.
Bridging the Gap
The book also serves as a bridge across cultures and generations. It reminds readers of a distant past that is fast becoming obsolete to the present generation of Chinese Filipinos.
Chinatown, as the older generation knew it, has vastly changed. In place of the two-story wooden houses along the bridge are fast-food establishments owned by Chinese billionaires, frequented by Chinese-Filipino youth who no longer speak fluent Chinese. While Chinese students focus on English, the rest of the world is studying Chinese to be part of a global workplace that may soon be dominated by mainlanders.
Yet some parts of the community never change. The location of church and street remains the same. Corruption is still rampant and latent prejudices between Chinese Filipinos and other Filipinos remain. In Chinese schools, students continue to memorize Chinese lessons they consider useless. Aggressive competition in business is still present and Chinese culture is ever-changing.
National Artist NVM Gonzalez, one of Laurel’s writing mentors, said Ongpin lives in his student’s stories. In reality, the saga of Ongpin Street goes on in the lives of Chinese Filipinos, whose ancestors went through hardships to make the street of gold a reality for the next generation.
Print ed: 01/09