There is a wealth of Chinese Filipino literature out there, and thanks to Chinese Filipinos who want to make them more accessible, those works do not have to get lost in translation.
For someone who doesn’t understand Chinese, flipping through a Chinese-language newspaper like Chinese Commercial News is like going to a black-tie event in jeans or shorts.
Yes, one can never run out of metaphors and analogies about it. One may even say that it is going to war unarmed. The more that person attempts to survey the newspaper pages, the more pointless it becomes.
A lover of literature, like this writer, however, would be missing out on a lot by not being able to read Chinese. Alongside the news and the full-page social greetings, hidden in those esoteric pages are literary works, and mind you, they are published every day. Unlike most Philippine newspapers where you only get to see the literary section on Sundays, Chinese newspapers in the country allot two to four pages every day for aspiring littérateurs and their works. Some writing groups in the Chinese community even get their own subsections in the literary pages.
The Real Score
The first literary pieces in the Chinese community here in the Philippines were written in Chinese. These were written by Tsinoys and Chinese migrants in the Philippines when Chinese was still widely spoken and before RP President Ferdinand Marcos imposed Martial Law in 1972. Chinese migrants wrote about their experiences as foreigners living in the Philippines.
Multi-awarded Chinese-Filipino translator Joaquin Sy says that these works can’t be considered Chinese Filipino literature. Strictly speaking, this batch of literature is called Chinese literature in the Philippines, or Chinese literature written in the Philippines. What makes literature Chinese Filipino is when it delves into the migrant’s experiences as Chinese Filipinos or as Filipinos of Chinese descent.
With the idea of integration brought to the picture, literature in this category is now considered Philippine literature whether in Chinese, English, or Filipino, or any other languages used in the country. In the 1970s, Marcos ‘Filipinized’ the educational system, even ordering Chinese schools shut down. Sy says that this drove many Chinese Filipinos to think about the disadvantages of being one.
Though not a happy scenario for the Chinese language and the Chinese-school curriculum, the Filipinization of everything has led writers to be more open to merging with mainstream Philippine society. Chinese writers and Chinese Filipinos who write in the Chinese language saw the value of going into the mainstream and started writing poetry and short stories of their Filipino experiences.
Support from the Community
Sy says many Chinese Filipinos also write on the side. Because the Chinese Filipino population here in the Philippines is largely engaged in business, businessmen were forced to leave their love for literature and focus on running their businesses. Some of these businessmen make up for ‘selling out’ by funding annual literary anthologies. This is one factor that sustains Chinese Filipino literature. There are also some small and medium entrepreneurs who find time to write and contribute to the Chinese Filipino body of literature.
Non-government organizations that help in the proliferation of Chinese Filipino culture and in the integration of Chinese into Philippine society like Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran Inc also play a role in keeping the Chinese Filipino body of literature alive. Kaisa has released a number of anthologies since the late 1980s. These anthologies contain poetry, fiction, and non-fiction on assimilation and integration.
Discovering New Horizon (1988), one of Kaisa’s earlier anthologies, features then young student writers R. Kwan Laurel, Caroline S. Hau, and Maningning Miclat.
Not Lost in Transplation
When translating works written in Chinese to English, Sy says that there are really words lost in translation. “It‘s always hard to do a literal translation so you do substitution. Chinese is a language that is very different from English and Filipino. You can only do semantic translation to capture its spirit.”
He says that his creative process involves reading the work of literature a number of times and internalizing the meaning of the work. Ideally, he says, if you don’t understand something, then you ask the writer.
Sy sees translation as a tool for integration into Philippine society. “I see a major role for translation in Chinese Filipino literature. It bridges the gap between the two languages and broadens the audience,” he says.
The Chinese in the Philippines make up only 2% of the population. Other countries in Southeast Asia like Thailand (15%) and Singapore (75%) have much larger Chinese populations. “If you read the translation then you go from [reaching] 1% of the population to 100%. It‘s not every day that a Chinese writer gets translated into Filipino.”
Sy translated Lagalag sa Nanyang (Nanyang Piaoliuji, or Adrift in the Southern Ocean), a novel by Chinese novelist Bai Ren on his experiences as a teenager in the Philippines. His translation won the National Book Award for Translation in 2008. Bai Ren, whose drama Bing Lin Cheng Xia (Soldiers Facing the Wall) was adapted into a Hollywood movie, lived in Negros Occidental, Iloilo, and Cebu before ending up in Manila during his teens. He worked for Chinese Commercial News as a newspaper boy while studying at the Philippine Cultural High School, eventually becoming a reporter and translator for CCN. Bai Ren dedicated the theme of the book to his struggles and experiences as a young adult in Filipino society. Sy says that Bai Ren’s novel was the first Chinese Filipino novel.
Sy was also responsible for translating poetry by James Na, who started the movement of writing free verse in Philippine literature in Chinese. Sy published a collection of his poetry, essays, and translation of Philippine literature in Chinese by other writers under Kaisa.
Reinforcement through Theater
Literature has also been spread through performances by Chinese Filipino theater groups. Early in 2010, a non-profit group called Dulaang Laksambayan Inc organized a community theater group in Binondo called Project Qiao. Their first play, an adaptation of Charlson Ong’s story A Season of Ten Thousand Noses, was staged at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It depicted the struggles of Chinese Filipinos in Spanish colonial times.
Emergent fictionist and playwright Joshua Lim So, who directed the play, says getting involved with the play was significant in his cultural reawakening. A third-generation Chinese Filipino, So always considered himself Filipino. “And I deliberately had ‘Filipino’ names and surnames in my stories and plays in the past because I couldn't relate much to my Chinese [and] Chinese-Filipino culture,” he shares in an e-mail, admitting how he has deprived himself of much of his rich cultural heritage.
While some people might think the Chinese Filipino culture are dying, the case isn’t necessarily so as it is being preserved in ink. And because works are slowly being translated into English, even Chinese Filipinos who can’t read Chinese anymore, can still keep their culture alive.