The Story of Sy Qia

Crossing the South China Sea
In 1834, twelve-year-old Sy Qia sailed from China to the Philippine archipelago, a
voyage that would forever alter the destiny of his descendants and the generations that followed. Sy Qia was traveling with his cousin Sy Cip, and though the reason behind their voyage is not precisely known, the situation in China under the Qing dynasty was dire. The major result of China’s declining social and political atmosphere during that period was emigration from China in large numbers.

At the same time, the Philippines was thriving under Spanish colonial rule. Even
though the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade had ceased in 1815, the effects of that economic boom were still reverberating in Manila. Some historians believe this is the reason Chinese immigration to the Philippines was commonplace at that time. Others believe that “the most decisive factor in the expansion of Chinese emigration to the Philippines was neither improved opportunities in the archipelago nor the urgency of the situation in China but simply the improvement of transportation,” (Wickberg, 61). Travel by sea had improved with the invention of the steamship during the Industrial Revolution. Expedited travel between South China and Manila meant several trips could take place in on month, decreasing steerage fairs and increasing the volume of Chinese coolie emigration. Such was an influx of Chinese immigration to the Philippines overlapping with Spanish conquest that both parties fell into a pattern of distrust and hostility. The root of this pattern was a prevailing desire for economic independence coupled with seemingly irreconcilable cultural differences (Wickberg, 9). It is into this cultural and economic situation that Sy Qia and Sy Cip arrived when they reached the thriving port city of Manila in 1834. 

New Beginnings in 19 th Century Binondo
In the 16 th and 17 th centuries, Chinese merchants occupied the Parián, a marketplace adjacent to the Spanish administrative and government centre of Intramuros. When the Parián’s walls were torn down in 1790 to make room for the expansion of the walled city, Chinese merchants scattered into Tondo and Cavite. By the 18 th century, most had moved to Binondo and Santa Cruz and by the 19 th century, Bindondo was the center of national and foreign commerce. It is unsurprising that Sy Qia made his way to Bindono, as it was a bustling town where resident Chinese, mestizos, and indios rubbed shoulders with newcomers from China (Wickberg, 23).

Within the growing city, one could find government offices, banks, and doctor
clinics. Entertainment and consumerism thrived with an abundance of cafes, bazars,
grocery stores, drugstores, liquor wholesalers, hotels and inns. The presence of shops
belonging to hatmakers, blacksmiths, bootmakers, clockmakers, and candlemakers stood
testament to the city’s strong craft and trade industries. It was within this tapestry that Sy
Qia worked as a clerk and salesman, employed by an older relative with a growing business
as was often the case with young Chinese immigrants in the Philippines.

In an effort to develop agricultural industries in the region, the Philippine Governor
General’s 1839 decree granted Chinese “complete liberty to choose the occupation that
best suits them” regardless of their city of residence (Wickburg, 52). With the rest of the
Philippines now open to him, Sy Qia traveled to the old colonial city of Vigan in 1848—he
was 26 years old.

What unfolded during Sy Qia’s early years in Vigan is not well-recorded, but some
seven years later, he was a baptized Catholic with a hispanized name, a Chinese mestiza
wife, and a self-started business. His reason for choosing Vigan is not known, but the most
probable answer is that he had a relative or clan member who lived there. In Sy Qia’s case,
it is possibly a man who took the hispanized name of Jose Garcia Lecaroz. During this time,
both political and economic policies were in Sy Qia’s favour.

Business Opportunity in Vigan
By the time of Sy Qia’s arrival, Vigan was already an established port city with a pariancillo
or kamestisuhan. A combination of its geographic features and pre-existing Chinese trade
made Vigan a popular transshipment point; a close look at a map of South China and the
Philippines will show that coastal provinces like Fujian are a stone’s throw away from the
seaside town of Vigan.

The Philippines had developed an agricultural export economy where crops such as sugar, abaca, almaciga, sapanwood, sea cucumbers, wax, tortoise shell and coffee were being exported to Europe and the United States. Sy Qia saw this lucrative economy as an opportunity to establish his own business. Starting anew, Sy Qia worked for Chinese mestizo and kinsman Jose Lecaroz Garcia, who was also likely responsible for arranging the meeting and marriage between Sy Qia and his wife. Sy Qia was considered a sangley, a term used to define a Chinese immigrant and likely derived from shan-lu (‘merchant traveler’). As a result, he was required to convert to Catholicism as part of Spain’s Chinese policy, one designed to manage the Chinese population within the colonial regime and built upon three pillars: taxation, control, and conversion. For the Chinese, conversion was merely a shrewd business move and not a fervor belief in the Catholic religion; it allowed them many privileges like reduced taxes, land grants, and freedom to move around and reside permanently anywhere within the bounds of the colonial territory.

The Syquia Family
On June 8, 1852, Sy Qia was baptized in the Church of San Vicente Ferrer in San Vicente, Ilocos Sur. For his new Spanish name, he took Vicente (after both church and town) Ruperto (after his future mother-in-law Ruperta) Romero (after his godparent, a clerk of court) and Syquia (a hispanized version of his former alias). A year later on June 9, 1853, Vicente Ruperto Romero Syquia wed Petronila Singson Encarnacion, a Chinese mestiza from Vigan. Vicente had taken the first significant step towards assimilation for himself and
his heirs.

Almost nothing is known of his wife, Petronila Singson Encarnacion—only that she is the daughter of Gil Encarnacion and Ruperta Singson, and that she seemed to have an equal role in building the family businesses and prestige. In fact, it was her dowry of 5,000.00 pesos (a royal sum at that time) that was the seed of their fortune, which grew to ~1 million pesos at the time of Vicente Romero Syquia's death in 1894. Vicente and Petronila eventually moved back to Binondo and occupied a house they called Casa Grande. It is not clear whether Vicente moved back to Manila when his oldest son Gregorio took over the businesses in Vigan, but it is possible that he returned to Manila around 1875, when Vicente was 53 years old and Gregorio 20. Vicente and Petronila had four other children: Apolonia, Pedro, Juan, and Maria, all of who remained in Manila and inherited properties there.

The only portrait of Vicente Romero Syquia shows him as an old man dressed in his
changsan or formal Chinese robes including the Chinese silk hat that allowed for the long pigtail to show. It can therefore be assumed that he thought of himself as Chinese or sangley until the day he died. Whether or not he returned to China or sent money to his relatives in Am Thau during his lifetime is unclear, as a discussion of the court case lodged by his alleged grandsons will show.

On March 19, 1920, 26 years after Syquia’s death, a case was filed before the Philippine Supreme Court by Sy Joc Lieng, Sy Yoc Chay , Sy Jui Niu, and Sy Chua Niu (the alleged grandchildren of Vicente Sy Quia from his Chinese wife Yap Puan Niu) claiming that they were his “only legitimate heirs” and were to rightfully inherit all the wealth he had accumulated in the Philippines. This case was significant as it would set a precedent affecting all future sangleys. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that all of Vicente Romero Syquia’s wealth and assets would remain in the Philippines; one of the compelling reasons cited for such as decision was that it was his grandson Tomas Syquia who wore the nine silk robes of mourning.


Written by Carla Pacis


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