Whenever I’m asked to share a fact about myself at dinner parties, I have a go-to that shocks any crowd. My Papa, who comes from a Chinese family in the Philippines, kept his three children and wife a secret from his parents for 12 years, all because my Mama is Filipino.
Growing up, I never quite understood my family situation. My parents were married but my Papa didn’t live with us, even though he was just 10 minutes away. The only reason I was given was that my Papa’s parents only wanted him to marry a Chinese woman and my Mama didn’t have a drop of Chinese blood.
Though my family’s case is quite extreme, it is not unique in the Philippines. Many Chinese-Filipino couples experience complications in their relationships due to their ethnicity. We call it “The Great Wall,” a term that was coined around the mid-2000s.
So what is The Great Wall, exactly? It’s an allusion to the Chinese landmark that represents the invisible obstacle Chinese-Filipino couples face when getting involved romantically. Chinese families in the Philippines are known to prevent their children from getting married to people who don’t have the same ethnic and cultural background.
But according to Edward Ofilada, a Filipino scholar studying interracial marriages between Chinese and Filipinos at the University of Massachusetts, it isn’t that simple. The Great Wall exists in a spectrum, with some families only seeing it as a preference and others treating it as a requirement.
“It’s hard to [make conclusions] about what The Great Wall is, because it can mean different things to different people. When you look at [all the available literature], they say very different things. Some say that The Great Wall is about keeping Filipinos out, while some say as long as you’re part Chinese, that’s fine. In other cases, if you’re half Chinese, it’s even worse than being Filipino,” Ofilada told VICE.
Twenty-two year-old Ariana, whose family is a mix of Filipino and Chinese, described the complexities further. “I grew up practicing Chinese culture… I lived in Binondo [Manila’s Chinatown], my siblings and I are not full Chinese—we don’t even speak Chinese. It’s highly recommended for us to be with someone Chinese, so I often joke that I have a fence, not a wall,” she told VICE. Ariana requested the use of a pseudonym for her family’s privacy.
Chinese-Filipino romances weren’t always considered taboo, Ofilada said. During the Spanish occupation of the Philippines, intermarriages between Chinese and Filipinos were even encouraged in order to convert Chinese nationals to Catholicism. Most Chinese migrants at the time were men who did manual labor and had limited choices in terms of romantic partners, which meant they often paired up with Filipino women.
The strain between Chinese and Filipinos began around 1902, when the United States extended the provisions of the Geary Act (also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act), restricting the migration of Chinese nationals to its territories Hawaii and the Philippines. At the time, there was already a significant Chinese population in the Philippines, which explains why the implementation of the act felt so personal.
Despite the restrictive provisions of the Act, there was an exception made for Chinese merchants. They were permitted to bring their families to the Philippines, which led to a noticeable increase in the number of Chinese women in the country. This exception sheds light on the complex historical relationship between the Philippines and its neighboring countries, as well as the impact of immigration policies on shaping the country’s demographics.
Tensions continued to escalate in subsequent years after the institutionalization of the Retail Trade Nationalization Act of 1954, which limited the operation of retail businesses to Filipino citizens and allowed for the termination of licenses for aliens, a euphemism for Chinese businessmen during the post-war period.
In order to work around this, some Chinese men resorted to marrying Filipino women and placing their businesses under their Filipino wife’s name, as they ran operations backstage. This caused tension on both sides—nationalistic Filipinos and Chinese families alike started to oppose these marriages, albeit for different reasons. Filipinos believed that Chinese businessmen were taking advantage of their citizenship, while Chinese people felt that Filipinos were taking advantage of their money. Filipino women who married Chinese men were even subjected to derogatory terms like “hopia,” a popular Chinese delicacy considered an inexpensive version of moon cakes, implying that they were just after their husband’s money.
Of course, there could be other unidentified reasons for the conflict aside from socio-political events, but these contribute to the persistence of the issue to this day, though it has become much more implicit.
The existence of The Great Wall is a controversial topic among Chinese families. Some see it as an issue rooted in racism, classism, and misogyny. The image of rich Chinese families wanting to keep Filipinos or foreigners out of their business contributes to these notions.
Ariana had to navigate the challenges of dating a Filipino man. As the eldest daughter, she felt the pressure of setting a standard for her family. “What really hurt me is that my dad did not give his blessing [to the guy I was seeing] when he asked them for it, and it was over things he could not change—his family background, how much money he has, and his culture,” Ariana recalled.
Similarly, Patrick, a Filipino who was dating someone with a Great Wall, noticed very early on in the dating stage of their relationship that appearances mattered not just to the woman’s family, but also to her Chinese friends. “The first night I got to meet her friends—they were asking me questions like: Where did I study? I [could also tell that they were trying to gauge] what was my socioeconomic status,” he told VICE. Patrick also requested the use of a pseudonym to protect his identity.
In most cases, both Chinese and Filipino parties enter the relationship knowing that they will have to face challenges. Some even enter it headstrong with all the willingness to prove themselves, as seen in Patrick’s case. “I wanted to get to know [her parents]. I was so ready, and a part of me was really prepared to face the criticism,” he said. But since his partner wasn’t ready yet, he respected her wishes to keep it a secret. They dated each other in blissful secrecy for almost a year. However, as is often the case with these kinds of stories, they eventually got caught and had to begin thinking about how this would change their relationship dynamic. As much as Patrick was willing to fight for what he and his girlfriend had, the resistance was so strong that he wasn’t even given the chance to meet his girlfriend’s parents.
“[All of a sudden], we had to think: How will we live through our relationship now? But now that they know, they’d be suspicious of everything you do. You’d go out, you have to ask permission. There was just suddenly a cloud of disapproval looming over our heads.”
Keeping things secret is not unusual for Chinese-Filipino couples. Katrina, who requested the use of a pseudonym to protect her family’s identity, is a product of a Chinese-Filipino marriage, but the road to her parents’ families coexisting was difficult. She told VICE: “While he was already in a relationship with my mother, my dad’s parents would be sending him to dates, and he would always go on these dates because he couldn’t say no, since they would suspect he was dating someone else. They would kaishao (a Chinese term that means “to set someone up”) him to people somewhere far, and he would go on these dates, then right after, he would visit my mom.”
Being on the other side of the spectrum can hurt just as much. When Ariana chose to cut ties with the Filipino guy she was dating, she said he had his well-being in mind. “His life would be much easier if he was with someone else… and admittedly, the same goes for me… but [more than anything], it hurts me knowing that I was giving him a lot of burden. Before me, he didn’t have to think about his family and social background, and he didn’t have to feel as if he always had to prove something. So it was better to let it go,” she said.
Tradition is very important for many Chinese families. They believe these customs should be kept alive in future generations, so welcoming someone who is unfamiliar with these traditions might seem like a threat.
“[A common reason] among Chinese parents [when it comes] to their disapproval is that they are worried that the culture might die out. For them, being Chinese means keeping the traditions alive, and you stand a better chance at doing that if you’re both Chinese,” Ofilada, the scholar, explained.
However, many families are also now more open to change. A good number of Chinese people who were born and raised in the Philippines now identify as Filipinos, signaling a shift in dynamics for mixed-race couples.
Katrina’s Ama (grandmother), who initially disapproved of her parents’ marriage, later warmed up to her mother. As for my family—My Papa’s parents eventually welcomed all of us, including my mother.