Book Review: A Filipino-Chinese family's saga

In writing what seems like a strictly personalized biography of her eminent Chinese forebears, Cornelia Lichauco Fung has, in the process, produced a fascinating history of Filipino-Chinese connections.

Herself the child of a prominent Filipino-Chinese father, Mrs Fung is married to a Hong Kong resident and has long made the territory her home. Her chronicle starts with the history of the waves of Chinese migration into the Philippines during the era in which scores (mainly from Fujian province) fled famine and the dire conditions of their homeland.

Her great-great grandfather Li Chau Co, left the Tongan district of Xiamen in the mid-1800s to join the exodus, settling in the restricted Chinese section of Manila. There he followed the practice of having a Spanish functionary be his godfather and being baptized into the Catholic faith. In this way, the new immigrants gained entry into the stratified society set up by the Spanish colonials.

In their quest for spices, indigo, sugar and other natural resources, the early Chinese ended up settling in the archipelago across the South China Sea, proving that the intrepid navigators traded with the Philippines "long before Magellan discovered the Philippines for the Western world," as Mrs Fung states.

Setting themselves up as craftsmen and retailers, the new immigrants' commercial activities expanded into dealing in essential goods and services that gradually helped communities around the islands flourish. As the movers and shakers among the native inhabitants, it's easy to see why the enterprising Chinese have been termed "the Jews of Asia." Resourceful and hard-working in the extreme, they have long been wooed by businessmen and politicians, inevitably earning the envy (and sometimes enmity) of the locals. Those lingering feelings have resulted in the spate of kidnappings of wealthy Filipino-Chinese in recent years and earlier.

Mrs Fung's original ancestor, who was christened Thomas, began a retail trade that started with rattan weaving, then dealing in basic commodities and rice trading. His canny wife carried on after his death, expanding into transport and real estate. The Spanish historian Sinibaldo de Mas described the Chinese-Filipino mestizo thus: "Almost all the retail trade is in their hands, and they may be counted the middle class of the Philippines. They are the proprietors, merchants and educated people of the country and dominate public opinion."

Put plainly, Chinese immigrants in the Philippines built their fortunes judiciously and left their families, like the Lichauco clan, very wealthy indeed.

The main character of Mrs Fung's story is her father Marcial Lichauco, a rare man embodying traits which endeared him to many. His copious diaries detail foreign travels with his parents and siblings, education at Harvard University (he was the first Filipino to be accepted in 1919 at barely 17 years of age), his meeting and marrying the beautiful Cuban-born American Jessie Coe, setting up his Manila law practice, his trips with Philippine Commonwealth officials on various missions to the U.S. to press for independence, and the tribulations of World War II.

Marcial and his wife and family lived through the Japanese occupation of Manila and the destruction accompanying the American liberation. Rebuilding their lives, Marcial resumed his law practice while Jessie established charities for war victims. In 1963 he was appointed by President Diosdado Macapagal to be ambassador to the Court of St. James.

Marcial Lichauco himself penned his autobiography called "A Full and Happy Life." He wrote "When I was a teenager, I had five ambitions in life. First, to study and complete my career in a reputable American university; second, to write a book on Philippine independence and to take part in the campaign for the enactment of the necessary legislation from the US Congress; third, to engage in the legal practice of my profession and establish a reputable law office; fourth, to marry a beautiful girl and have healthy children; fifth, to go on a big game safari in Africa. It never occurred to me that I would also have the rare privilege and experience of becoming ambassador to the Court of St. James, not to mention the kingdoms of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. I believe therefore that Providence has been extremely kind to me."

He accomplished all those goals and, on his death at almost 70, the late statesman Carlos P. Romulo spoke of his "impeccable integrity," calling him someone who "served our country with devotion and patriotism (that was) not vociferously displayed (but) was as unalloyed as it was sincere. He had none of the noisy rhetoric of the streets."

Marcial Lichauco's daughter has written a fine tribute to her distinguished father as well as her sterling mother who had saved all the memorabilia on which much of "Beneath the Banyan" is based. The tree in question is one standing by the old family home by the Pasig River – one fine photograph shows 98-year-old Jessie Coe Lichauco with her pet dog under the magnificent tree. Many other priceless photographs of ancestors, family and special events add to this history which highlights the vast influence Chinese immigrants have exerted on the course of Philippine history.