Salazar’s 1590 report on the Manila Chinese
Domingo de Salazar was 69 when he set foot in Manila in September 1581, to take possession of the See of Manila as its first bishop. Of the 20 companions he sailed with from Spain, 12 died before reaching Acapulco, and only one remained to accompany him to Manila.
Upon arrival, Salazar found the colony in a sorry state: Natives had been taken from the fields of Central Luzon to work in shipyards, reducing rice production; what was left of the yield, barely enough for survival, was bought cheap by the Spanish and sold high, making life miserable for natives and even Spanish soldiers and petty bureaucrats who did not receive their pay.
During his term, Salazar railed against Spaniards who had taken natives as slaves against the king’s orders. Royal orders from Madrid took a while to get to Manila, and when these did, the governor general had the authority to suspend the order with the words “obedezco pero no cumplo” (I obey but I do not comply).
Salazar’s candid reports on life in 16th-century Manila should be better known, except that he is left out of our textbooks, particularly those that paint the Spanish period (1565-1898) as the darkest in our history. Salazar’s long and detailed reports to the king from Manila give us an idea of life in his time. Salazar’s most quoted text concerns the Chinese in the Philippines, estimated by the Dominicans to be from 6,000 to 7,000 in the Parian and Tondo, increasing by around 2,000 when traders arrived.
Salazar credited the Chinese for improving infrastructure and life in Manila: “… while in España, stone masonry is so expensive and difficult to produce, here through the diligence and industry of the Sangleys, we are able to build fine houses of hewn stone at low cost; and in so short a time that, in one year, a man has been able to complete a house, all ready for habitation… They also made very good bricks and roof tiles at low cost. At first, lime was made with stone as in España but now the Sangleys are using a kind of pebble, called ‘white corals’ which they find on this coast; and also shells of large oysters, of which there is a large quantity.”
Chinese artisans made religious images, the oldest and most famous being the venerated Virgin of the Holy Rosary—La Naval de Manila whose ivory head and hands, as well as the whole ivory image of the child Jesus, were made by a Chinese in 1593.
Salazar described their work as marvelous, adding: “I think nothing more perfect could be produced than some of their marble statues of the child Jesus which I have seen… The churches are beginning to be furnished with the images which the Sangleys make… reproducing the images that come from España. I believe that soon we shall not even miss those made in Flanders.”
A Chinese worked for a local bookbinder from Mexico, learned the craft, opened his own stall, and drove the Mexican out of business: “His work is so good that there is no need of Spanish tradesmen. At the time I am writing, I have in my hand a Latin version of Navarro bound by him; and in my judgment, it could not be better bound, even in Sevilla.”
The Chinese manufactured chairs, bridles and stirrups and sold them so cheaply that merchants wanted to export them to Mexico. Almost everything, including split wood, could be sourced from the Chinese. They sold pork, venison and carabao meat; they cultivated fowl and sold eggs; they sold fish so cheaply because they caught so much that surplus was just left in the streets.
Then there was bread and credit: “Many bakers make bread with the wheat and fine flour which they bring from China, and sell it in the marketplace and along the streets. This has much benefited the city, for they make good bread and sell it at a low cost; and although this land possess much rice, many now use bread… They are so accommodating that when one has no money to pay for the bread, they give him credit and mark it on a tally… This has been a great help for the poor of this city, for had they not found this refuge they would suffer want.”
There is a lot to rediscover about the Chinese in Philippine life, and those who have no patience to read primary sources like Salazar’s report of 1590 can experience a lot from the Bahay Tsinoy museum in Intramuros, or taking an Ivan Man Dy food and heritage tour of Binondo.
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