Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Writer's 'Racist Slur’ Offends Filipinos

By Danilo Reyes
Column: Point of Action
UPI Asia Online, March 31, 2009

Hong Kong, China — A journalist in Hong Kong who described the Philippines as a “nation of servants” in his column may have written his article as a satire, and perhaps his insults were “not intentional,” but the Filipinos’ reaction demonstrates they could not take it lightly. Such comments are deeply hurtful, satirical or otherwise.

The article entitled “The War At Home,” written by Chip Tsao, was published in HK Magazine on March 27, but the publishing company, the Asia City Publishing Group, had to pull it from their website three days later. Massive condemnation of the article in both Hong Kong and the Philippines forced the company to make an apology on Monday.

Before Chip Tsao’s article came to light, another local newspaper, The Standard, had published a report on Feb. 25 claiming that Filipinos were carriers of an infectious disease, a “superbug,” quoting an expert from the Center for Health Protection. Considering this a serious issue, I personally wrote to the CHP asking for clarification, only to find out the report did not “express the views of the CHP.”

But unlike HK Magazine, The Standard did not apologize, nor did its editor, Ivan Tong, reply to my letter or email. The journalist who wrote the article, Patsy Moy, stands by her story despite the disclaimer in the CHP’s letter to me.

In searching for a remedy to the problem of articles that misrepresent the Filipino community, I was told that the newly passed Racial Discrimination Ordinance in Hong Kong, though it has provisions to protect ethnic minorities from discrimination, applies only in the workplace. There is no redress for an ethnic group that is offended by published articles or reports.

Thus Filipinos in Hong Kong, for lack of other options, must resort to issuing statements and press releases to protest against discrimination or offensive and false comments. The Filipinos’ reaction to Chip Tsao’s supposedly “satirical” column is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that Filipinos collectively protested against comments they thought offensive.

I recall a controversy over Hollywood actress Claire Danes, who was declared “persona non grata” in the Philippines and whose movies were banned in the country after she commented, following filming in the city, that Manila was infested with cockroaches and rats. She later apologized. There was another case of a Canadian mentor who was condemned over her offensive comments about a Filipino toddler for not being able to use spoon and fork at a primary school.

The Filipinos may be fragmented and divided in some ways – by social class, ethnic group, dialect and ideology – but if their identity as Filipinos is shaken, if they are humiliated or offended, they come together. Perhaps this is a byproduct of their historical colonial past and oppressive regimes.

Let’s take Chip Tsao’s column as an example. He may argue that his article was intended as a satire; however, he touches upon the very reasons Filipinos have to come to Hong Kong to work as domestic helpers. They come not by their own choice, but are forced to do so by the lack of opportunities at home. This is due to both the abject failure of the Philippines government to develop the country’s economy and to the policy of exporting labor set up during the Marcos regime in the 1970s.

Therefore, it is not the Filipinos’ choice as citizens that pushes them to serve foreign households as “modern slaves.” This is the product of a policy, crafted by a dictatorial and oppressive regime, that has lasted to this day. It impacts the whole range of Filipinos, which actually includes different ethnic minorities scattered in more than 7,000 islands in the archipelago.

Writings and literary articles that are satirical in nature are not a monopoly of any group of people. This approach is nothing new to Filipinos. In fact, satire was widely used in works by Filipino nationalists like Jose Rizal in his novels, and others who inspired the Philippine revolution against colonial Spain in the 1800s. Thus, to argue that the Filipinos, in reading Chip Tsao, could not “read between the lines” is not accurate.

Filipino domestic workers are often better English speakers and writers than their employers, as English has been their medium of instruction from grade school through college – once again a product of a colonial American past imposed in the 1900s that continues in the education system to this day. It is not accurate to say they cannot grasp subtle meanings.

But in Rizal’s writings, in his politically charged satirical novel “Noli Me Tangere,” he used as his objects of ridicule the Spanish friars, the oppressors and plunderers – not those who were suffering due to oppression, the Filipinos. This is what makes Chip Tsao’s approach condemnable. His objects of satire were the domestic workers who are already suffering, forced to separate from their families and to serve foreign households.

The problem with some writers is that they know full well what is offensive but they nevertheless test the waters. Journalism also entails responsibility. When U.S. President Barack Obama was elected, a Filipino-owned newspaper headline read: “Black in White House,” and not “Negro in White House.” In our modern times, not only Filipinos, but everyone knows how deeply it hurts for blacks to be described as Negroes.

In conclusion, I would like to borrow the late Filipino nationalist Jose “Pepe” Diokno’s words from an essay written in 1984, in which he described the Philippines as “a nation for our children,” not a nation of servants as Tsao described it. Building a nation for our children has long been the aspiration of all Filipinos, including me.


(Danilo Reyes is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission, a regional human rights NGO in Hong Kong. He is responsible for the organization’s work on the Philippines. Previously, he worked as a human rights activist and journalist in the Philippines.)

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