Saturday, February 8, 2014

No galloping down Ongpin St during the Chinese New Year 2014!

Note:  A slightly different version of this photo essay was published in the07-13 Feb 2014 issue of the weekly FilAm Star ("The newspaper for Filipinos in mainstream America")."  This blogger is the Special Photo/News Correspondent of the said weekly, which is based in San Francisco, CA.

A frequent visitor of Binondo exclaimed that he had never seen Ongpin Street, the main artery of Manila Chinatown from the Plaza Sta. Cruz entry point to Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz in front of the historic Binondo Church , heavily clogged with Pinoy, Chinoy and Chinese celebrators the whole day of January 31, first day of the Year of the Wood Horse.

One could not have cantered astride a horse through that thick crowd.  At best, one could have held the equine tightly by the reins while walking in cadence with the flow of human traffic. The horse-drawn wagons or kalesas of Intramuros had all been commissioned for the celebration, but they were all parked around Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz, and the only time they traversed part of Ongpin was during the parade. 

It was a special non-working holiday, the first time the Philippine government declared a joint celebration of the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year to manifest solidarity with “our Chinese-Filipino brethren who have been part of our lives in many respects as a country and as a people,” as Proclamation No, 655 of President Benigno Aquino put it.  It began a long weekend for the large holiday crowd that invaded Chinatown for entertainment in a different cultural environment.

The merry-makers were almost all in “selfie” mode as they took pictures of themselves with ceremonial lions of various colors--yellow, red, green, orange, violet, or with other festival markers along the way.  There were also scenes to watch or shoot:  lions making the rounds of stores; and dragons slithering around breathing fire, represented by a prancing colorful ball in front of its head.  The longest dragon was 300 meters long, all in red, the color of prosperity.  The joint lion and dragon dances, accompanied by the loud rhythmic beating of drums and clashing of cymbals, were capped by the popping of a long string of firecrackers, all these sounds to drop evil spirits away. 
The lions and dragons are believed to invoke blessings for the house and store owners.  But before they can dance in public, they must first go through an eye-dotting ceremony called Kai Guang.  By chance, I witnessed this ritual during the opening program at Lucky Chinatown Mall the day before the New Year.  The eyes of the lion and dragon were symbolically opened to the light with a painted dot.

Souvenir hunters and feng shui believers flocked to stores and sidewalk stalls selling good-luck charms to be worn (bracelets), stuck on doors or placed on tables (chimes, sheaves of rice, pineapples ringed by citrus fruits, and, of course, horse figurines). 

There were long queues too at famous Eng Bee Tin bakery for the tikoy, the round glutinous rice cake now in a variety of flavors, a must to be served during the new year feasts or given away as gifts to friends.  People also lined up for the Shanghai fried siopao at another favorite Ongpin store even if one senior Chinese vendor said, if there’s anything that must be on the new year’s dining table, it’s the prosperity cake.  Mooncakes, I learned, are not for new year but for another festival in August.
This year’s celebration was billed as the First Dragon and Lion Festival, highlighted by an afternoon parade led by City Mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada and his vice-mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso.  2013 Miss International Bea Rose Santiago joined them in the lead float in tossing candies to the spectators along the parade route.

This first festival consolidated all the separate celebrations and parades organized by various groups in the past years. This is part of the city government project to rehabilitate Binondo, which dates back to 1594, making it the oldest Chinatown in the world outside of China.  The plan calls for its general facelift as a business district, highlighting its historical significance and its Chinese character as a tourist destination.

Historical landmarks are found around the Binondo Church, where Supremo Andres Bonifacio married his Lakambini Gregoria de Jesus.  Plaza Binondo was renamed Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz, and his statue was built here, to honor the martyr saint who was born in this district.  A few meters away is the monument to Tomas Pinpin, the “prince of Filipino printers,” who printed the first Tagalog dictionary in 1613.  Between the Ruiz and Pinpin monuments is the memorial to Chinese-Filipino soldiers who served and died during the second world war in defense of the country against the Japanese.  At the corner of Quintin Paredes and Ongpin streets near the church bell tower of the church is the monument to nationalist and patriot Roman Ongpin who supplied Filipino revolutionaries with arms and other needs, and was imprisoned by the Americans.  It was in his honor that Sacristia St. was renamed after him in 1915.   Ruiz, Pinpin and Ongpin were of Chinese vintage.

This leads us to remember the time in our history when the Chinese were not allowed to celebrate their new year even if, through the years, there came about leagues of Chinese mestizos in the archipelago who elected their own gobernadorcillos separate from those of the Filipinos.  

In his testimony before the Philippine Commission in July 1899, the merchant Carlos Palanca (Chan Quiensien, Cheuy Long) narrated that during the Spanish times there were about 10 to 12 thousand Chinese who came here each year; and around 7 to 8 thousand would go home but would generally return to work here.  “They come back again to Manila in the Chinese eighth moon of the third after spending the feast of the seventh moon of the Chinese new year,” he explained.

Thus, in the early years of the American regime, the immigration division of the Philippines customs service would be deluged with applications for return certificates from the Chinese workers who intend to come back. 

Times have indeed changed. More than a century after Palanca's testimony, the Filipino is an overseas worker in mainland China, among other destinations. During these past 11 years, the mayors of our town are pure-blooded Chinese born in the Philippines.  President Aquino's genealogy on his father's side can be traced to an Eng Son (Henson today), and his mother Cory's maiden surname certainly is Chinese. Many descendants of the imported Chinese laborers have truly settled as Filipinos. Some have become financial and business tycoons. We ride their planes, shop at their malls, keep a savings account in their banks, eat at a Chinese restaurant, and our writers in English and Pilipino dream of receiving an award given out annually in memory of Carlos Palanca.

Kung hei fat choy! May the Year of the Wood Horse bring prosperity for all! 

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