The Arts

An Unflinching Look at Chinoy Life

In Richelle Go (acted by Ara Mina), the movie Mano Po has a character who embodies all the conflicts and contradictions of the current generation of Chinoys (Chinese-Filipinos), who are more conversant in Filipino and English than Mandarin or Fookien [Fujianese], attuned to the ways and manners of modern urban youth, and chafing under the rituals and restrictions of Chinese tradition. In Richelle, the self-confessed black sheep of the wealthy Go clan, the movie also offers a bridge between Filipino and Chinese cultures. Richelle falls in love with a Filipino policeman. In this she defies the pattern set by her sisters, who’ve entered into relationships more out of convenience and business advantage than romance. And then, by turning into a police asset and choosing to testify on what she knows of the illegal drug trade, Richelle takes a battering ram to the self-imposed walls her family built, exposing them not just to the public but to their inner selves as well.

Mano Po is billed as an intergenerational family drama, but it is also a deeply political film. The politics is obscured by the focus on the three Go sisters and their internal wars, as well as by the story of the patriarch Daniel Go and his Filipino wife Elisa, whose courage and industry have brought the Gos to the pinnacle of material success. But in the telling of these stories, the film touches on the status of the Chinese-Filipinos in our society—part of the fabric of life, especially in business, and yet feeling left out and isolated. The scrutiny is evenhanded. Chinese-Filipinos are in for their share of criticism, especially for their indifference to the social realities around them except when these prove to their advantage, and their penchant for buying their way out of trouble or inconvenience.

That the movie was conceived and produced by a Chinese-Filipino producer, the redoubtable “Mother Lily” Monteverde, is itself something to marvel about. Made out of Mother Lily’s desire to tell the story of her own parents, who chose to make a life in the Philippines rather than submit to the feudal strictures of life in rural China, Mano Po is an epic tale that manages to dwell on current sociopolitical concerns as well. Cross-cutting from past to present, the movie examines the Chinese-Filipino experience, showing how, in their efforts to honor their Chinese heritage and to function within Philippine society, Chinoys can tell us Pinoys a lot about our own conflicted feelings about our origins and future.

It struck me, even as the film tends to exoticize the Chinoy community with scenes of ancient rituals like an engagement ceremony and traditional burial, that viewers might forget how “Chinese” Filipinos really are. I daresay that any random sampling of Filipinos today would reveal well over 50 percent of us bearing at the very least a smidgen of Chinese blood. Centuries before Richelle Go, who in her choice of life partner mirrors Mother Lily’s own life story, Chinese and “natives” had been intermingling, falling in love, siring and bearing “mixed race” children, and handing down features that have survived generations.

Most of us are not only at least partially Chinese by blood, but our daily lives, relationships, and values are influenced by Chinese culture. The “very Filipino” trait of putting family before community or nation is something we imbibed from the Chinese. Our filial relationships, ruled by generational authority and following a pecking order based on seniority, are very Chinese, too. So are the many superstitions and beliefs that, however much we profess to be rational, we still pay lip service to, “just in case.”

Still, Mano Po provides a welcome glimpse of Chinoy society, an inner world from which many Filipinos are barred. In Vera (Maricel Soriano), the oldest daughter, we get an insight into the pressures that drive Chinoy first-borns, who must not only preserve family empires but also preside over family affairs, even to the detriment of their own emotional states. And in Juliet (Kris Aquino) we find a Chinoy woman, who in her desire to conform to social expectations, denies herself choices and voice.

Under Joel Lamangan’s direction with a script by Roy Iglesias, Mano Po is sweeping in scope and ambitious in its reach. The film is that rare creation: a commercial outing that manages, at the same time, to say something substantial and contribute to a better understanding of the society it mirrors.
Finally, a word in tribute to Mother Lily, for courage under fire. In these dire times for the Philippine film industry, reeling under the onslaught of Hollywood blockbusters, film pirates, and changing audience tastes, it would have been forgivable for her to have made a safe formulaic entry to the Metro Manila Film Festival. Instead, “Mother” bet big, pouring millions into a movie that is for her intensely personal while also allowing it to tell painful truths about her own people.