The Blessing of Cardinal Tagle’s Chinese Roots

Fr Leonard E Dollentas

The Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle is the youngest cardinal in his country’s history and is certainly the most affable. He was appointed as archbishop of Manila in 2001 and became a cardinal in 2012 at the age of 55. He was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples by Pope Francis in 2019. Many describe him as humble, holy and always ready with his sense of humor. His audiences eagerly wait to hear him speak. He has the gift of keeping them glued to his message that usually makes one feel God’s love and grace, delivered with wit and humor.

In a Vatican press conference in 2015, the cardinal said that visiting refugee camps in Greece, Lebanon, Jordan and Bangladesh, reminded him of his migrant roots. He was teary-eyed while he was recalling the story of his grandfather’s migration journey from China to the Philippines as a child: “In them, I saw my grandfather who was born in China, but was forced to leave his homeland as a young boy with his uncle for the Philippines in search of a better future.” In 2017, the cardinal wrote in a letter for Easter that his maternal grandfather was born in China. He was sent to live in the Philippines by his mother (the cardinal’s great-grandmother) because of her poverty. Cardinal Tagle’s grandfather went on to marry his wife, Cardinal Tagle’s grandmother, who was also of mixed Filipino-Chinese ancestry. The cardinal’s mother, Milagros Gokim, and his father are both in their early 90s and still live in the Philippines. Both worked at a bank in their younger years. They raised Tagle and his younger brother Manuel Gokim Tagle Jr. in a devout Catholic home.

The influx of the Chinese into the Philippines

Before the Spaniards reached the Philippines in the early 16th century, there were already communities that had Chinese immigrants, living mostly in trading ports. Technically, the Chinese came to the Philippines much ahead of the Spaniards. When the Spaniards settled in the islands, the Chinese served as the backbone of the Spanish colonial economy. They worked as laborers and artisans for the Spaniards while mostly earning their living as merchants for the locals. They contributed largely to the building of churches, carving religious icons, often decorating them with Chinese motifs, and printing religious books.  The intermarriage between the Chinese and the local ethnic inhabitants in the Philippines would result in a new ethnic group called Chinese Mestizo or Mestizo de Sangley. They were an important component of Philippine society in the 19th century. They played a significant role in the formation of the Filipino middle class and in the formation of what is now known as the Filipino nationality.

Tracing Chinese Roots

Today, most of this Chinese Mestizo segment of the Philippine population is already Filipinized to the extent that they neither practice Chinese traditions nor do they speak Chinese languages anymore. They simply refer to themselves as Filipinos. Cardinal Tagle seemingly belongs to this group. As it is customary for some families of Chinese ancestry in the Philippines to be rooted in their origin, at his grandfather’s request, Tagle studied the Chinese language for a time in his boyhood. Though he claimed, he never persevered in the process and regretted that he did not stick with it. In his book in 2017, he wrote: “I think some Chinese characteristics have passed onto me, even though my grandfather spent most of his life in the Philippines.” Recalling other Chinese practices of his grandfather at home, he added: “I remember certain practices he observed, such as honoring his mother by offering her food, putting it in front of her photograph, with a few sticks of incense, or setting off fireworks to welcome the New Year, or offering a lot of food during family meals.”

Cardinal Tagle’s Filipino-Chinese background is expected to be an asset as the Church continues to grow in Asia. His close ties with the People’s Republic of China is also expected to be an advantage, as challenges continue regarding the Holy See’s relations with China.