The making of a supranational stereotype: Western literary constructions of the Chinese in Manila and beyond

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This essay critiques Orientalist constructions of Chinese-Filipinos in British and American fiction, travel writing and reportage over four centuries. The Chinese as skinflint entrepreneur is perhaps the oldest stereotype in this repertoire, reaching back to Daniel Defoe in 1725, and bearing common attributes with the anti-Semitic modelling of Jews in Europe. A century later, travel writers Charles Wilkes and William Henry Thomes conflate concerns about Chinese migration to the UK and US with disquiet about Chinese economic activity in Manila. While these authors revere the enterprising spirit of the Chinese, they are also anxious that the Chinese are depriving other ethnic groups of jobs and opportunities to prosper. Another paradox came into play towards the end of the century when an ascendant middle class of mixed race Chinese méstizos produced both the wealthy businesspeople who shored up the socioeconomic status quo and the leading personalities of the Philippine independence movement that sought to overturn that status quo. Western writers of the time invest this ambiguity in Chinese characters who are outwardly respectable yet ultimately untrustworthy when dealing with westerners. Although such patent Sinophobia lulled as the twentieth century wore on, geopolitical events intervened to ensure that innuendos about Chinese elitism and money-grabbing survived in the work of Raymond Nelson and Timothy Mo. These texts respond to the rise of the People’s Republic of China to regional superpower status and the consequences of this new multilateral world order for the Philippines. By the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, anti-Chinese sentiment reignited, hypocrisy a crucial part of the kindling. At the same time as overlooking or vindicating the exercising of American “hard” and “soft” power over the Philippines, Jonathan Miller and other liberal Orientalists exaggerate China’s military and economic threat to Manila, Southeast Asia and the West.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages21
JournalInterventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies
Early online date25 Jan 2021
Publication statusEarly online - 25 Jan 2021


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