Interview With Chen

Chen, a Tausug with Chinese ancestry, speaks about his experience living through the Battle of Jolo in 1974. He discusses how the ethnic Chinese in Sulu were affected by the outbreak of hostilities between the Filipino government and the Moro National Liberation Front.

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Chen was born to an ethnic Chinese father and a Tausug mother. Chen’s father had arrived in Jolo via the usual trading routes the Chinese merchants sailed along in Southeast Asia: from Amoy via Singapore and North Borneo. He met his mother in Sulu and married her there. Yet, like many other ethnic Chinese who had migrated from China to the Philippines, he maintained his previously-established way of living, including the practice of Taoism and speaking Chinese at home. Chen and his siblings therefore learnt to converse in Chinese from a young age, although there was little need to maintain his competency in the language after his father passed away.

Chen’s mother clearly exerted a stronger ethnic and cultural influence on him, compared to his father: Chen strongly identifies as a Tausug and was Muslim from birth. Even so, he recognises and embraces a spirit of resilience and adaptiveness that he attributed to Chinese culture. According to him, the Chinese and the Tausug were traditional trading partners and mutually respected each other–even before the advent of colonialism in Asia and the increasing levels of western education in the region. Life was comfortable for people back then, with no significant obstacles to employment or entrepreneurship. The Chinese in Sulu engaged in various fields including baking, restauranteering, tailoring, as well as the provision of other forms of goods and services.

Such a harmonious state of affairs in Jolo was, however, brought to an abrupt end when Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Tensions drastically rose between the leaders of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Filipino government, and led to the Battle of Jolo in 1974. Many Chinese youths in Sulu joined the MNLF. Chen pointed out that the root of the hostility was politics, rather than ethnicity or religion. According to Chen, that was why many of the Chinese decided to participate in the Front against the government. On the day that the Battle broke out, Chen recalled that MNLF forces had snuck into an army camp and murdered a few soldiers. The soldiers fought back with reinforcements deployed from other places, and the MNLF forces retreated a few hours later. Yet the carnage that was unleashed onto the rest of the city by that ambush resulted in many casualties, including his own aunt who was killed by a shrapnel. Chen also recounted how most people were scrambling to find any way out of Jolo. Many ethnic Chinese who had lived in Jolo had also left for other places by the time the Battle died down. Such outflow was in no small part caused by the continued harassment of the residents of Jolo by the military: Chen’s family relocated to nearby Zamboanga as a result of that.


Elgin: Can you trace the origin of your family? How did your ancestors arrive in Jolo?

Chen: We came by the usual trade routes that the Chinese who came to Sulu traveled on, via sea vessels that started in Amoy, China, to Singapore and North Borneo, while sojourning in Sandakan for a while. The reason (for migrating from China)was to look for more opportunities outside Southern China, where farming was mostly the only means of livelihood. Sulu was a traditional trading partner of China, and there were many previous contacts between those two places.  Sulu was hospitable to Chinese men, hence many of them got married with Tausug women, including my own father.

Elgin: Sir, I’m curious. Do you know how to speak Chinese? Where do you use it? Do you still use Chinese in your daily conversation?

Chen: Yes, my father spoke to us in Chinese and Sinug (the Tausug language) when we were growing up. After he died, our family did not need to use Chinese anymore to communicate in the household and with the rest of our friends.

Elgin: Can you describe the culture of Chinese in Jolo?

Chen: My father retained his Chinese-ness in almost everything he did, with the exception of dealing with my mother and her family, who were Tausug. Men from China largely retained their own ways of living, even those living in mixed families. 

Elgin: Do you consider yourself a Tausug?

Chen: Our mother was the central influence in the family. Hence we acquired the Tausug personae in more ways than we ever (acquired the Chinese identity) from our father. We are Tausug and are also Muslims by birth, even though our father continued to practice Taoism, especially for Taoist filial practices.

Elgin: Were there intermarriages between Chinese and native Tausug? 

Chen: Chinese are the most adaptable of all. Intermarriages happened certainly as there was mutual respect and recognition between the Chinese and the Tausug at the time when there was not so much western education and colonial interests in Sulu.

Elgin: Were there Chinese that converted to Islam? 

Chen: The Chinese who came from mainland China did not convert. However, their children became Muslims as a result of intermarriages. Jolo is a picture of this cultural confluence: in the ways people dress, the languages they speak, as well as in other traits and features. 

Elgin: Can you describe Jolo before the Battle of Jolo occurred in 1974?

Chen: Jolo was a town to live in before martial law (was imposed in 1972), and before the Battle of Jolo.  The atrocities ensued as a result of hatred generated by the political motives of leaders in  the government and those in the MNLF. Jolo used to enjoy a vibrant economy from the trading activities of the Chinese merchants,  a harmonious society forged by social interactions of Christians and Muslims. There were manyChristian schools in Jolo with a strong sense of ecumenism, as well as a Muslim community that sincerely tolerated other religions. 

Elgin: Can you narrate your family’s life before the Battle of Jolo. What was your most memorable experience in Jolo before the Battle happened?

Chen: We were living a comfortable life, even if we only belonged to the middle-income group. Commerce and trade were the engines of growth and prosperity. Everyone enjoyed the benefits of barter trading, fruits, and other produce from the farms, and so forth. Educated men and women did not have any problem with employment or in entrepreneurship. Some of our relatives were killed in the battle of Jolo, all civilians. We had to escape army soldiers and military operatives whom did not know who their enemies were. Everyone was a suspect; everyone was a victim of the military reaction to the Battle of Jolo.

Elgin: What was the source of livelihood for the Chinese before the Battle of Jolo?

Chen: Trade and commerce, as well as some services such as baking, restauranteering, grocery-selling, tailoring, etc. Now it is impossible to go back to the pre-martial law and pre-Battle times. Too much hatred, too much misunderstanding.

Elgin: How was the relationship between Christians and Muslims?

Chen: Never at its best like now. Many Muslim families have Christian members or began as Christian families. The Izquierdos are Muslims, the Salinas, the Pescaderas, and others.

Elgin: Are there Chinese Tausug who joined the rebels? What were the possible reasons why they joined the group?

Chen: There were Chinese youths who became rebels. Many became notable leaders in the struggle (with the Filipino government). The struggle was not a class issue; it was a political issue that found common cause among the rebels, regardless of racial origin.

Elgin:  When did you notice that violence began to escalate in Sulu?

Chen: Martial law started the buildup of animosity, and later, armed confrontation. Even the Christian-Muslim divide seemed to have started with that as well. The rebellion was instigated and supported by the Muslims, and destroyed a lot of goodwill that existed before. An enlarged military presence in Jolo immediately after declaring martial law was enough sign to signal that something disastrous was going to happen, considering also that the Tausug had a long history of resistance against aggression and oppression from outsiders. Many saw that coming, and left for safer places like Zamboanga and nearby places in the South. We were in Jolo, not expecting that the Battle of Jolo would happen so soon. We left our residence on the day the Battle broke out. The same day, a large segment of the town was destroyed by shelling from navy ships. The area was no man’s land. We left our place in the nick of time, to secure our safety somewhere. 

Elgin:  Can you describe the situation of the residents when war in Jolo erupted? 

Chen: When the battle started at dawn, it gave the people a chance to move to a safer place. Some went to the mayor’s residence, others to the countryside, and some to their relatives. Saving one’s skin and one’s family was in everyone’s mind.

Elgin: What happened to the Chinese population? Where did you go?

Chen: There was no distinction between Chinese and the rest of the community. Everyone looked for safe places to evacuate to.

Elgin: Can you describe Jolo on the day  the war broke out? 

Chen: At dawn on Feb 7, MNLF forces sneaked into the army brigade and killed some soldiers in their tents. They occupied the roof deck of Notre Dame at Jolo College . Soldiers fought back, with choppers and troops from nearby areas reinforcing them. The actual combat lasted only a few hours, with the MNLF withdrawing their forces before noon. But the effects of that battle extended for a long time. One day after the battle, we saw cadavers in the street, and some in burned houses. My aunt was killed by shrapnel, a friend was hit by a stray bullet while crossing a street to safety, and then some. Tales of missing persons were making the rounds, including the missing driver of the bishop who was killed because he was a Muslim.

Elgin: Who helped you escape the chaos in Jolo? 

Chen: We relied on our own initiative to find ways to get out of Jolo. That was much later. Meantime, the Carmelite Sisters accommodated some refugees in their monastery in Jolo, after which everyone found a way to return to their home or onward to other places.

Elgin: How was Jolo after the Battle in 1974? 

Chen: Life must go on. Jolo took more than forty years to recover from the Battle. Many changes happened both in the place and to its people.. New groups of people settled, who were no longer the same old residents of Jolo.

Elgin: What happened to the Chinese in Jolo after the war? How did your identity as a Chinese help you survive the war?

Chen: Many Chinese families left Jolo for other places, to pursue livelihood opportunities, to lead a more peaceful life, as well as for other reasons. The Chinese are survivors, they have a culture of resilience and tolerance for harsh realities. Harassment from the military forced us to leave Jolo and transfer to Zamboanga as a permanent resident.

Elgin: As a Chinese, do you still recall what happened during that time? 

Chen: Feeling more Tausug than Chinese, Jolo is our birthplace and we will love it till the end. Its history is definitely ours too.

Interviewer: Elgin Glenn R. Salomon

Interviewee: Chen

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Transcript Notes


  1. What would Hussien’s experience and observations living in Jolo tell us about how domestic conflict shaped the Cold War in the Philippines?

  2. The historiography of the Cold War has oscillated between understanding the conflict as being caused by political differences and being caused by socio-cultural differences, among other things. To what extent do you think people like Chen would agree with how the Cold War has been defined and understood by scholars so far?