MANILA – The influential Chinese-Filipino community celebrated on Tuesday the Lunar New Year with a blend of Chinese, Christian and Creole traditions in Manila’s Binondo, the oldest Chinatown in the world dating back five centuries.
Evelyn Xi, a 47-year-old Chinese-Filipina whose paternal grandparents were born in the neighborhood, told EFE that she never missed the New Year celebrations in Binondo and this year they were wishing that the Pig – the Chinese zodiac associated with this year – brings them prosperity and abundance.
Xi had brought her adolescent daughter to see the traditional parade on the Ongpin street – the main thoroughfare of Manila’s Chinatown – which was full of red lanterns, food carts and Chinese good-luck figures, often featuring a pig.
The mother-daughter duo first visited the Binondo Church in Manila, decorated with lanterns and red ribbons, to pray to the patron Saint Lorenzo and the Virgin of the Holy Rosary for light and good fortune in the Year of the Pig. The Roman Catholic faith – an imprint of the Spanish empire – also forms an important part of the identity of the local Chinese mestizo community.
Although a flourishing Chinese settlement already existed in Manila centuries before the Spaniards arrived in 1575, Binondo was established in 1594 by Spanish governor Luis Perez Desmarinas on the other side of the Pasig river from Intramuros – the walled Spanish capital – as a settlement for the Chinese immigrants, mainly traders of silk and spices.
The Sangleys – as the Chinese were known to the Spaniards – had to convert to Christianity to please the Spanish colonizers. They also treasured a large part of their cultural heritage and the legacy is still visible in the neighborhood, which has become impoverished despite having been the financial center of Manila well into the 20th century.
For the New Year celebrations Binondo recovers some of its ancient splendor and on Tuesday around a million people visited the district from the early hours to see the parade, which included fire-eating performances and the traditional dragon dance.
However, the beats accompanying the dance are distinctive due to the absence of the Chinese gongs. They include drum sounds clearly inspired by Spanish rhythms.
Weaver Go, a 15-year-old participating in the parade, said it represented her culture and it was important for Filipinos to not forget their Chinese roots.
The teenager added that she was happy that many people turned up for the parade despite not having Chinese origins.
Go was accompanied by her classmates from the Tiong Se academy – a private school in Binondo which runs classes in English, Mandarin and Tagalog, aimed at ensuring that the young members of the Chinese-Filipino community do not forget their origins.
Go was born in Manila, but her parents are from Fujian, the southern Chinese province which is the native place for of most of the Chinese diaspora in the Philippines, the biggest Chinese-origin population in Southeast Asia.
Lester, a street-vendor who takes his cart around on the Ongpin street and sells amulets, talismans and Chinese charms at 25 pesos ($0.5) each, said on Tuesday had been a good day for business.
Although he does not have Chinese roots, Lester has grown up in Binondo immersed in the culture and consuming a staple diet of the typical Chinese food: dumplings, wontons and noodles.
Since 2018, the Chinese New Year has been declared a holiday in the Philippines, an initiative by President Rodrigo Duterte to acknowledge the widespread influence of the Chinese mestizos in the country.
Many people saw this as kowtowing to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Duterte’s biggest political and economic ally who has pledged investment worth $24 billion and favorable loans for the large-scale infrastructure projects proposed by the Philippines government.
“The friendship and cooperation forged between the Philippines and China have not only led to greater prosperity and economic growth for both our nations, but also gave rise to a unique culture that is nurtured by harmony amid diversity,” Duterte said in his message greeting the Chinese-Filipinos on the occasion.
The members of the community include powerful tycoons, such as the Sy family, which controls the supermarkets and malls chain SM, and whose founder Henry Dy died last month at the age of 94 as the richest man in the Philippines.
Other notable figures include Lucio Tan, chairman of the LTG group which is involved in banking, hotels and real estate, apart from owning the Philippines Airlines, and the famous Andrew Tan, who chairs the construction company Megaworld and runs the McDonalds franchises in the Philippines.