Filipino Chinese: A Major Force in the Philippines

modern Filipiniana gown from Michael Leyva
Kris wore a stunning bright yellow modern Filipiniana gown from Michael Leyva during the premiere of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’.
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By Ritchelle Ann Ona

Chinese Filipinos or Filipino Chinese, as they are popularly called in the Philippines, are one of the largest overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, with a population of 1.5 million.

These Filipinos with Chinese ancestry are also called ‘Tsinoy’.

Having inherited the Chinese work ethic of ‘perfection in work’, as well as values of humility and persistence, it’s no wonder Chinese Filipinos are some of the most recognised and successful people in many aspects of Filipino culture.

Here, we take a look at two of the most famous and influential Filipino Chinese in their respective fields.

Kris Aquino: A Scion and Her Very Own Woman

She is a household name in the Philippines. Kris Aquino, the 47-year-old star who played Princess Intan in the recent ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ film, is the Philippines’ Queen of All Media.

She is also the youngest child of the former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino and Philippine hero Benigno Aquino Jr., and the youngest sister of another former Philippine President Benigno Simeon Aquino III.

The Past: Her Family

Before her successful media career, Kristina Bernadette Cojuangco Aquino’s name already resonated power.
Through her mother, former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, she is a member of the Cojuangco family, one of the most influential oligarchs in the Philippines.

The surname Cojuangco is a Hispanised Filipino-Chinese version of the surname Kho. The Cojuangcos made their wealth and power through their influence over several banks and trade houses, as well as in business enterprises, notably the sugar trade. They also produced a handful of politicians, two of whom became Filipino presidents.

Many assume Kris’ success arose from her family’s influence, but the reality is much of it was self-made. Kris’ success as a television host, screen siren, producer and entrepreneur is the result of hard work and a natural entrepreneurial streak. These are traits she inherited from her hardworking immigrant ancestor Jose Cojuangco.

Jose Cojuangco migrated to Manila in 1861 from Hongjian in Fujian Province, China. He was a carpenter whose first job was reconstructing Malacañang Palace. Jose possessed inherent discipline and perfectionism in his work, and eventually became a successful contractor.

Like many entrepreneurial Chinese migrants, Jose later became a trader. He moved his family to Tarlac, a province in the Philippines, chosen specifically for its ideal trading location along the railway. From there, the Cojuangcos’ wealth and influence grew.

The Present: The Face of a New Kind of Power

While Kris comes from a powerful and rich family, her past was no walk in the park.

When Kris was a year old, her father, Benigno Aquino Jr., was jailed by then-President Ferdinand Marcos for seven years. Benigno was one of the opposition leaders against Marcos’ rule.

Aquino with baby
Cory Aquino with baby Kris.

When Marcos declared martial law in 1972, Benigno and many others were imprisoned on trumped-up charges of murder, illegal possession of firearms and subversion.

With her father still in jail during the 1978 parliamentary elections, Kris was tasked to carry the torch for him. No one could forget the smart seven-year-old campaigning for her father, whom she had never had a chance to be with since her first birthday.

Kris — the girl who campaigned for her father in prison.
When President Corazon Aquino rose to power, all eyes were also on her youngest daughter Kris — the girl who campaigned for her father in prison.

The New York Times and Time Magazine featured Kris asking the people to support her father, so that their family could be reunited and her father could serve the country. Sadly, her father lost the election.

To survive, Kris and her family left the Philippines and lived in self-imposed exile in the US.

When her father suffered a heart attack in 1980 in prison, the former First Lady Imelda Marcos allowed him to leave the country for a heart operation. Three years later, when Benigno came back from his self-imposed exile, he was shot dead in Manila Airport.

Benigno’s assassination angered the Filipino people and three years later, the world met the first female president in Asia, Kris’ mother President Corazon Aquino. Marcos was initially declared winner by electoral fraud, but Corazon Aquino was restored to power by the first-ever bloodless revolution the world had seen.

Kris, Her Very Own Woman

When President Corazon Aquino rose to power, all eyes were also on her youngest daughter Kris—the girl who campaigned for her father in prison. Although it was her mother who became President of the Philippines, she was still the girl the Filipino people fell in love with and cried with when her father was assassinated.

As the daughter of parents who had sacrificed much to free the Philippines from a dictatorial government, Filipinos were interested to know how she was doing. And everyone loved the smart, naively frank but polite lady the Aquino family presented to the world.

When Kris was 19, she made her film debut in the comedy ‘Pido Dida: Sabay Tayo’, which became a blockbuster hit. Acting was not a career one would have expected of her, given that she was an honours student at one of the most prestigious and expensive universities in the country; it was also a career scorned by elite families.

But this didn’t dampen Kris’ love of the spotlight. A year later, in 1991, she starred alongside Raymond Wong in a Hong Kong comedy film, ‘Happy Ghost V’.

Kris’ entrepreneurial streak likely made her see the opportunity to earn an income while still studying. After all, in a year or two, she would be graduating from college and would have to earn her own money.

No one could forget the smart seven-year-old campaigning for her father, whom she had never had a chance to be with since her first birthday.

Many expected Kris’ stint in movies and television to be a passing fancy. But Kris wasn’t just there for the ride. Despite her elite status, Kris remained hardworking, professional and down-to-earth. She toiled as hard as anyone else trying to keep a job on TV and movie sets.

She’s known to defy doctor’s orders just to make her entertainment commitments.

During an interview for her endorsement of the bread Sari Roti, when asked why she brings her own food to the set, she said it’s better than having someone bring her what she wants. After all, it’s her responsibility just like any employee not to trouble anyone with something as simple as getting her food.

Even when her mother was no longer president, the fascination of the Filipino people for the hardworking, naively and charmingly outspoken, and good-natured Kris never waned.

The intelligent lady easily connects with people from all walks of life, from politicians to the man on the street.

Kris’ life is not perfect—she has two sons, one of whom was born out of wedlock, and had her only marriage annulled.

While these would be considered serious transgressions in a strict Catholic country like the Philippines, her star and influence never waned.

Notably, when she conceived out of wedlock, Kris was removed from any inheritance even when she was on good terms with her mother. “I was never part of the inheritance,” she said.

Astute with her hard-earned money, when it comes to clothes, Kris is known to find out first where she’s going to wear it, how many times she’ll use it and then decide whether the money she spends will be worth it.

A major endorser of almost 50 products, she never promotes things she doesn’t believe in. In an interview with ABS-CBN Lifestyle, she admitted she’s not that confident in her acting abilities and if she doesn’t believe in something, then she can’t engage her audience.

Lately, she starred in the Hollywood adaptation of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, where she played Princess Intan.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Singaporean-born author Kevin Kwan, the film has broken box-office records in the first two weeks of opening.

Despite her star power, Kris made a cold call to audition for the film because she was not well-known outside the Philippines. To produce her audition tape, she went to great lengths, including tapping on beauty stylists and technical consultants.

Kris also owns many businesses, including Kris Cojuangco Aquino Productions (KCAP). Her current net worth is over a hundred million pesos, all of which is self-made.

A household name in the Philippines, she’s an example of what hard work and humility can yield. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. It’s how you work and make do with what you have that will take you far.

In an interview with Rappler, Kris mentioned the secrets to her success that her Chinese forefather handed down in the Conjuangco clan: Never go into debt, remember that all is temporary, take care of the people you employ and make your children your priority.

But as a self-made woman, she has one additional life lesson when it comes to her success: “Identify your personality and your strengths. And, stick to that,” she said in an interview with ABS-CBN.

“At the end of the day, you know yourself best.”


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