Like any society that has evolved as a result of successive waves of invasions, Cebuano society has become stratified with stark differences in terms of culture and ethnic origin between the layers. While not as clear-cut as in England or India, social classes do exist, although no-one ever mentions the concept of class. Foreign arrivals tend to lump all Cebuanos together, and only after many years do they realize that the different social classes inhabit completely different worlds. Life in Cebu will be much easier to navigate if you aware of the demographics and how they stand in relation to each other.
As in many other countries that have suffered successive invasions, social class strongly correlates with ethnicity. On one end of the spectrum are the rural poor. They have been least affected by the successive cultural invasions, and most closely resemble the original Visayan inhabitants of Cebu. They have no capital, speak no English, and are ethnically almost purely Malayan - very dark in complexion, with naturally curly hair. Almost all are peasants and serfs (farmers or caretakers, in politically correct terminology). These folk are often condescendingly referred to as Bisdak - for Bisaya dako, or "very Bisaya" - by city folk. Their language, often opaque to city folk who use a corrupted dialect with numerous loan words from Spanish and English, is termed "deep" Visayan.
At the other end of the spectrum are the old-money Spanish families, who control perhaps one fourth of the economy. They continue to speak Spanish at home, although they are well educated and are thus fluent in English as well. They are almost purely Caucasian in appearance.
Most Cebuanos whom you will meet will be mestizos - a mixture of both extremes - plus a measure of ethnic Chinese influence, and occupy the space in the middle of the social spectrum. Generally, the better one's English ability, the higher up the spectrum one is. In fact, English ability seems to be the defining criterion of social rank. Hence, cliques of Cebuanos will tend to make shockingly cruel jokes about the flaws in the English ability of those they consider socially inferior to themselves (such as waitresses), even though their own English is usually far from perfect.
Another factor Cebuanos rely on to determine social class is dress. You may be hanging out with a friend, and suggest a visit to the mall. The friend, usually quite easygoing and relaxed, will insist on taking a long and arduous trek home to get changed first, even though her attire - clean and brand new - may appear perfectly presentable to you. "I'll look like a yaya if I go looking like this," she'll say. After changing, she'll look little different to you. Cebuanos can tell at a glance whether someone is a servant - i.e. from the lower classes - and are careful to dress in accordance with the accepted norms of their social class.
It is not just females who are acutely aware of the concept of social class. Note the Cebuano's reaction should you ask him to sit in the back seat if, for instance, the front seat of your car is occupied by some luggage: he will be horrifed and cause a fuss, repeating: "But you'll look my driver!" When I first arrived in Cebu, I didn't understand this reaction at all. I'd say things like: "Well, I'll be the one driving so, yes, it is perhaps conceivable that I'll look a driver. Duh!" or "I doubt anyone will notice since the windows are tinted, but even if I do look like the driver, what the heck is the problem with that?" Well, it turns out that drivers belong in the lower social class, and my guest was horrified by the fact that, although equals, I might assume the role of a servant. Hanging out with someone from the servant class is anathema to the Cebuano. Often, Cebuanos - friendly and polite by nature - will struggle mightily pretending not to notice a foreigner having lunch with his servant at the mall.
Then there's the matter of complexion. I'd guess that complexion is a very minor criterion in terms of identifying social position. Someone with any degree of discernable European features is referred to as mestizo (if male) or mestiza (female); if you are dark-skinned the polite description is moreno or morena. There are fewer mestizos amongst the poorer classes; therefore, if someone is mestizo, it is more likely than not that he is from at least a middle-class family. However, it must be said that Cebuanos do not automatically associate complexion with social position, unlike, say, Americans.
Perhaps a hundred years ago, the term mestizo used to define a social class wedged between the occupied native Filipinos and the ruling Spanish elite, and was often uttered with derision by both indigenous Filipinos and Spaniards. However, nowadays mestizo features are much in demand, and to be called mestizo is a compliment. For instance, amongst the mind-bogglingly huge variety of skin-care products purportedly said to whiten the skin - the whitening of the skin being an obsession among Bisdak women - there is actually a brand of lotion called "Mestiza."
Far more important than complexion is money. Unlike in England or India, where you can become wealthy but never gain entry into the upper classes, mobility between social classes is not out of the question in Cebu. If you become rich enough, you can easily insert yourself into a higher social class, by surrounding yourself with servants and hanging out with other wealthy folks. Apparently, there is a tradition to this: I am told that even in pre-colonial days, it was possible for former slaves to succeed financially and hobnob with princes.
Foreign visitors are usually completely unaware of the differences in the social classes in Cebu. Consider the picture at right, which was taken on All Souls Day. While the non-Cebuano visitor may only see
two girls about to visit a grave, to the Cebuano it will be very obvious that one is a Chinese girl and the other is her maid. The Chinese girl is the one with the expensive shoes and handbag, and the servant is the one lugging the flowers.
Existing somewhere alongside the top end of the spectrum is the group which controls three-fourths of the economy. These are the ethnic Chinese, called Filipino-Chinese. The first Chinese immigrants arrived in Cebu prior to the Spanish; consequently someone who may look purely Malayan may have a Chinese surname. Contrary to popular belief, the ethnic Chinese do frequently intermarry with Cebuanos - but rarely with the Spanish. The Spanish are often said to detest the Chinese. For example, the powerful Ayalas - who own, amongst other things, the Ayala shopping malls - go to extreme lengths to avoid doing business with the Chinese, which is hard since the Chinese dominate commerce, especially in Cebu City.
There is no Chinatown in Cebu City. Some wag once remarked that all of Cebu City is Chinatown; the Chinese have integrated well into the fabric of society in society, and do control the bulk of business activity, which has spurred the phenomenal growth of the city. I'd go so far as to say that, if it weren't for the Chinese, Cebu province would still consist of mostly Spanish-owned haciendas, worked by Visayan serfs.
Some of the Chinese entrepeneurs have built up vast conglomerates, rivalling or exceeding those of the Spanish. These are the taipan; Cebu's native taipans are Go Kongwei and Lucio Tan, whose interests include brewing, tobacco, airlines, and hotels.
While the overseas Chinese in the United States speak Cantonese, the Filipino-Chinese in Cebu stem from Xiamen and environs, and speak Amoy, also known as Fukkien or Hoklo.
The Filipino-Chinese of Cebu are not a homogenous group. The stereotype of the Chinese guy with a cellphone on his belt who is always asking for a discount is not true. Not all Chinese own businesses; many are professionals. The majority are Catholic, but some are Buddhist; both groups seem to adhere to traditional Chinese rituals but that doesn't include everyone. Moreover, the Chinese of Cebu do not necessarily stick to themselves, and by the third generation Chinese language ability has often been lost.