By JOHNNY R. LEE, Ph.D
Like much of this country’s premiere urban or metropolitan districts, Chinese migrants dominate commerce at every level of society, particularly here at the Municipality Bongao.
The Chinese—or at least the first-generation migrants that came from China to the Philippines and spread to the islands (including Tawi-Tawi) shortly before the war—were steeped in the Confucian values of industry, frugality, self-discipline, and respect for their elders. They came here hardy and ready for hard work. No work was too menial that they wouldn’t take. They did not mind long hours, measly wages, or inhospitable working conditions.
The early Chinese migrants who arrived at Tawi-Tawi traced their roots from the Southern Fujian of China. They call themselves Hokkien People or in English Fukienese or Fookienese people. Their migration route was believed to be from neighboring Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore. From thereon, they reached Jolo, Sulu which was then a vibrant trading center in southern Philippines. That time Tawi-Tawi was still part of the Sulu Province when some of the migrants spread out to many island municipalities like Sitangkai, Tabawan in South Ubian, Latuan in Sapa-Sapa and even in Cagayan de Sulu now Cagayan Mapun.
The island of Bongao in the 50’s, with only a small docking pier, was merely a transit point of neighboring municipalities who ship their agricultural products of mainly copras, salted and dried fish to Jolo and Zamboanga City. There were only patches of residential wooden houses along its narrow one-way road going to the pier. There was no water source and residents had to rely on rainwater or buy their supply from an ambulant vendor who had to cross the sea and fetch water from a far-out sitio called Malassa.
But some entrepreneurial Chinese from neighboring islands saw the potential of Bongao as a future trading hub because it has a deep harbor and sheltered bays on both sides of the island. The initial inflow of few Chinese merchants who started as small retailers of dry goods and grocery items and buyers of marine products triggered the business activity of the small town.
(To be continued on the next issue)