Chinese New Year in the Philippines

Chinatown in Manila Philippines

 

I remember my grandmother once told me that every Filipino somehow has Chinese blood in them. This used to be a puzzle for me; not everyone has fine skin, cute eyes and a solid business somewhere in the city.

Now that I have grown a little wiser, I realized that the Chinese in us does not just manifest in physical attributes and outstanding business management skills. It shows in our cuisine, traditions and even lifestyles. Case in point: the entire Philippines celebrates the Chinese New Year.

A Little History

Chinese communities in the Philippines go as far back as the Spanish era. Even before that, natives have kept healthy trading relations with our business-savvy Asian neighbors. The communities started to grow all over the country and the settlements became recognized a Chinatowns. The Chinese population increased due to intermarriage with natives and other races. They were eventually known as Filipino-Chinese or ‘Tsinoy’ (chi-noi) and are now very important members of society. In fact, most successful companies in the Philippines are owned and run by Tsinoy businessmen.

Chinatowns in the Philippines

There is one largely recognized Chinatown in the Philippines located in Metro Manila. Established by the Spaniards in 1594, the district of Binondo is known as the oldest Chinatown in the world. Most of Tsinoys in the country trace their roots to Binondo and to date old families still reside within the enclave.

Once you step inside Binondo, you’ll know that you’re entering a different world in the Philippines. Almost everything in the enclave is Chinese; from the store and street signs to the people who speak Mandarin. It would be quite difficult to convince yourself that you’re just in Metro Manila. The streets of Binondo are lined with old buildings that house businesses and restaurants that serve authentic Chinese cuisine. Its most widely-known streets are Ongpin, Arranque, Escolta and Caravajal. The Plaza San Ruiz and Binondo Church are two places that should not be missed during a visit.

Chinatown Entrance Davao City
There is another Chinatown in the country located in Davao City which is considered one of the biggest Chinatowns in the world. It is, in fact, the largest in Southeast Asia. The entire area covers about 44 hectares which is clearly delineated from the rest of the city through elaborate Archways on its borders. The Davao Chinatown is home to large shopping centers frequented by bargain hunters, hotels, restaurants, temples and even its own sea port, the Santa Ana Wharf. There are also several schools in the district where Mandarin is taught as a secondary language.

There may be other small Tsinoy communities all over the Philippines but they are not as concentrated as those in Metro Manila and Davao City. Some families have built their homes in residential areas shared with locals and some expats.

Chinese Influences

The most obvious influence of the Chinese on Filipino culture is on food. In fact, it is hard to tell which dish is authentic Filipino from those that have Chinese influences. Filipinos are extremely fond of Chinese food, especially dim sum specialties like siopao (Chinese bun), siomai, dumplings and stir-fried vegetables. The favorite pancit is actually a variation of the Chinese noodle dishes that have been altered to suit the Filipino palate.

Another influence of the Chinese on Filipino culture are the superstitions. Filipinos are innately superstitious and the Chinese have a lot to do with it. It was the Chinese who introduced the idea of gathering round fruits for the New Year to attract wealth, preparing sticky food to make families stick together and the list goes on. As the Chinese New Year approaches, Filipinos head to the malls and Chinatowns to purchase charms and trinkets that attract all sorts of positivity.

Feng Shui has also become a major part in most Filipino households, especially the wealthy ones. Every year, experts provide advice on where to place what in homes so attract good luck and drive away sinister forces. Filipinos are also rather attached to their Chinese Zodiacs, often consulting charts to predict whether the year will be good for them or not.

Chinese New Year’s Traditions

Celebrating Chinese New Year in the Philippines has little difference with the rest of the world. The grandest festivities are of course held in Mainland China and you can safely say that the celebrations in the Philippines are just miniature versions.

As soon as the Christmas décor are taken down, red Chinese decorations are placed in homes, public areas and shopping malls all over the Philippines. Kiosks and stalls begin to sell all sorts of trinkets and amulets including jade and rose quartz jewelry, golden Buddha images and dragon figurines among other things. Tikoy, a popular sticky pastry, also sell like hotcakes alongside hopia and other delicacies.

Chinese New Year Lions.

 

Almost every Chinese celebration especially the New Year is highlighted by the iconic dragon and lion dance, a lively dance accompanied by gongs. The dancers parade all over the streets of Chinatowns, met by revelers and Chinese businessmen hoping to imbibe in the luck brought by the lion and dragon. The dancers are usually given ang paos (red envelopes containing lucky money) as they go along.

Placing blooming plants around the house is also a popular tradition. Plants symbolize life hence their importance. Making your house spotless as you greet the New Year is also a plus. There should be designated areas where plants should be placed but I am no Feng Shui expert so I really can’t give any advice. What I do is surround the house with potted plants!

When it comes to money and fortune, there are plenty of traditions followed. One very sensible one is to settle all debts before the New Year to start afresh. Another is to have an eight-coin amulet hanging somewhere, be it by your window or your purse. It is also good to give away ang paos; giving means everything will come back to you tenfold or maybe even more. I also heard that having a red wallet is good too!

Eating tikoy (sweet sticky cake) is also a very popular. The sweetness of the cake is said to bring peace and harmony for the year and the stickiness will bring families and friends closer. Tikoy is sold all over Chinatowns in the Philippines as well as in malls and supermarkets. Aside from eating tikoy, placing 13 round fruits on a table is also an important custom. Serving fish whole (with head and tail intact), duck, chicken and meat is also said to bring good luck.

There are still many customs and traditions practiced not just by Tsinoys but also Filipinos who have come to learn and love them. The Chinese are important members of Philippine society; that much I can tell. I don’t have any physical attributes that say I am Chinese but I follow most of their traditions. So yes, I think my Lola was right. There’s a Chinese in every one of us.

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