A CARRIER’S PLIGHT: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF CHINESE CARGADORES

Contrary to the long-held stereotype of a widespread affluent Chinese community in the nineteenth century, the majority of the Chinese population actually belonged to the lower strata of the Philippine colonial society. In fact, Chinese cargadores (stevedores and transporters), who were situated at the lowest stratum of the labor hierarchy, were rather a “common sight” in the urban and commercial setting of nineteenth-century Manila. They roamed the docks, streets, and alleyways, carrying and transporting goods and providing the necessary services to the residents and inhabitants of the city. Indeed, these Chinese laborers played a vital role in the everyday life and business of the port-city of Manila.

However, despite their economic significance, these Chinese laborers remain hidden and obscure in Philippine historiography. How did they live their everyday lives? What were the economic, political, and social conditions that they faced? Unfortunately, earlier scholars have glossed over these questions, which have thus remained unanswered.


In response to these historiographical deficiencies, Jely A. Galang, assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of the Philippines Diliman, seeks to reconstruct the lived experiences of the Chinese cargadores in the nineteenth century. In his article titled “Living Carriers in the East: Chinese Cargadores in Nineteenth-Century Manila,” published in our March 2021 issue, Galang examines how these working-class Chinese “lived and conducted their trade amid certain restrictive colonial policies.” Using previously unexplored archival materials, he focuses on the lives, activities, and experiences of these marginalized people “within the changing urban, commercial, and economic milieus of the Spanish port-city” during the nineteenth century. In this “history from below,” Galang argues that despite the Chinese cargadores’ crucial economic role in the urban commercial environment of nineteenth-century Manila, they generally worked and lived in precarious and dismal conditions.


Chinese cargadores had already been part of the colony even prior to the nineteenth century. The liberalization of the economy, towards a more export-oriented and cash-crop economy, at the latter half of the eighteenth century provided various opportunities for working-class Chinese. For instance, the burgeoning commercial activities in Manila, as the colony’s main entrepôt, increasingly demanded cheap and readily available labor that the Chinese cargadores were “more than willing to do.” Indeed, Galang remarks that “being a cargador was the most common occupation available to the Chinese,” as the work did not require any prior training or specialized skills. It only required youth, physical strength, and a certification of “good moral character.”

However, the highly growing number of Chinese cargadores concerned the colonial administration. In light of the Chinese revolts in the seventeenth century and their cooperation with the British in 1762-1764, the colonial administration saw the Chinese laborers as a threat to Manila’s peace and order. Thus, as early as the 1780s, an occupational guild or gremio, the gremio de cargadores de Manila, was established to formally organize the cargadores’ employment and perhaps more importantly, regulate their movement. Nonetheless, as Manila became highly urbanized, the number of Chinese cargadores significantly increased.

Galang classifies three general types of Chinese cargadores. First was the common cargador who conducted all kinds of carrying and transporting of goods, typically with a pinga (shoulder pole) that hangs two baskets from each end of the pole. Second was the carretonero who used a carretón or carreta, a small two-wheeled wooden cart, to transport goods. Some carretoneros used a carabao to pull their carretón with larger and heavier loads. And last was the aguador or cargador de agua (water carrier) who carried and transported water in a tinaja or tapayan (large earthen jars), which were loaded in small boats called bancas aguadoras specifically used for this purpose. Galang notes that these aguadores were “important for the daily distribution of water in Manila.”

Chinese cargadores for tobacco factories in Manila. Image from the University of Michigan Library, Digital Collection.


Galang further identifies two types of labor arrangement that governed these Chinese cargadores. First, some cargadores worked as part of cuadrillas (labor gangs) assigned by a cabecilla (headmen) to a company or individual. Second, other cargadores worked as “independent laborers,” and Galang subdivides these laborers into two categories: (1) cargadores who worked under a cabecilla for their entire stay in the country; and (2) cargadores who worked independently, also called jornaleros (day laborers), freely choosing the type and amount of work they preferred. Evidently, companies favored Chinese cargadores who belonged to cuadrillas and a cabecilla, as they could be easily managed and negotiated with. On the other hand, independent cargadores were typically hired on an irregular basis.

A Chinese cargador’s daily routine depended on whether he worked as part of a cuadrilla or worked independently. Cargadores who belonged to cuadrillas followed a rigid schedule set by the government. Before six in the morning, the cabecilla’s capataces (foremen) required cuadrillas to gather in a designated place where the cargadores were accounted for. The morning work lasted from six in the morning to twelve noon, and the afternoon work from two in the afternoon to six in the evening. Meanwhile, independent cargadores were not bound to a strict schedule as they had “far more liberty to move in search of work,” but they often had to work more just to meet their daily needs.


Although the Chinese cargadores’ work and daily routines varied, they all shared a common circumstance: low and insufficient wages. Galang notes that “a Chinese laborer in Manila received lower wages than what a native laborer was paid.” Aside from meager wages, Chinese cargadores also had various financial obligations (e.g., transportation fees, taxes, guild membership fee, and the commutation of corvee labor) to the cabecilla and state authorities. Thus, their wages were barely sufficient to provide for their basic necessities and sustain themselves in the city. As a result, stealing, illegal overcharging of customers, tax avoidance, and other violations of regulations became common among cargadores. Many cargadores were then “arrested, fined, imprisoned, or even deported to less populated frontier areas of the colony or to China.” Moreover, sickness and old age were also “added burden” on Chinese cargadores.

Their miseries were even exacerbated by their squalid living conditions. The Chinese cargadores’ dwellings or accesorias (apartments), managed by the cabecillas, were extremely cramped, overcrowded, and unsanitary. Police reports in the 1880s state that “in many instances fifty to sixty laborers occupied a room that could not even accommodate seven individuals.” Hence, cabecillas who acted as landlords profited enormously from these lodgings as they could determine the number of occupants and the monthly rent. Besides, the lodgings were “dirty, blackish, and full of cobwebs” and the laborers slept together “with repugnant and nauseating smell.” Toilets were shared with many other tenants, so other workers disposed their bodily wastes in earthen jars or containers. Rats proliferated and invaded these dwellings, prompting one late-nineteenth-century commentator to consider the Chinese to exist “like rats and with rats.”

Due to the Chinese cargadores’ vile living environment, non-Chinese people in Manila discriminated against them by stereotypically viewing them as pigs and comparing their lodgings with “dirty pigsties.” Galang notes of a common trabalengua (tongue twister) that the children pejoratively shouted on the streets whenever a Chinese laborer was around:

De dónde vienes? De Emuy (Where are you from? From Emuy [Amoy, Fujian])

Que traes? El Chino babui (What do you bring? A Chinese pig)

The state authorities and the church also considered the Chinese laborers’ lodgings as a “breeding ground of immorality.” They thought that these young and single male laborers had sexual urges that forced them to engage in sodomy, which referred to “any non-normative and nonprocreative sex practices.” Although the natives also engaged in these kinds of practices, Galang states that sodomy was generally linked with the “deviant behavior” of the Chinese.


From the unsanitary dwellings to the immoral acts of sodomy, the colonial administration thus found the need to further regulate the Chinese laborers’ housings. In 1871, Gov. Gen. Rafael Izquierdo prohibited the Chinese “to live in small and unsanitary habitations, which proved detrimental to public health and morals.” Unfortunately, the inspections that were conducted following the decree were of little success. In addition, they also became avenues to arrest undocumented laborers.


Undoubtedly, the plight of being a Chinese cargador inevitably affected their mental well-being. According to Galang, after a day’s work, “feelings of loneliness and misery would sometimes engulf them as they lay down on the bare floor that served as their communal bed.” A good night’s sleep was particularly difficult for cargadores as the thoughts of home and family back in China would keep them awake. Consequently, because of these negative psychological effects, many cargadores engaged in “drinking, opium smoking, and visiting gambling houses and brothels.” These vices allowed the Chinese cargadores to temporarily escape from their miserable lives.

Marginalized groups, such as the Chinese cargadores, are often excluded from the historical narrative. Theirs is a history-less history. However, Galang sheds light on a previously anonymous people whose work and services had been integral to, and perhaps even carried, Manila’s economic development.

Read the full article of Jely A. Galang in Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, volume 69, number 1, 2021.

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