2013: Year of the Snake (Chinese New Year in the Philippines)

I remember how we would celebrate the Chinese New Year when I was a kid.

My parents would take me and my sisters, all dressed in red, to the temple early in the morning. We would light an incense, pray for good health for the family and for blessings for the year to come. The temple would be a sea of red-garbed Chinese people engulfed in fragrant smoke from all the incense. My mom couldn’t see her friends through the thick smoke  until they were face to face, then with a start they’d  clasp each other and say their greetings in unison over the din of the crowd: Kiong hee!” (This is Fookien to the Cantonese “Kung hei!” and the Mandarin “Gong xi!”, which is a general congratulations to use for different occasions).

There’d be vendors outside selling little birds in bamboo cages so people could release them back into nature. Fruits, all kinds of home-made food, little toys, colourful balloons (the ones with mickey mouse ears were always a sight to behold for my young eyes). We would buy sampaguita (jasmine) leis for our statues of Buddhas on the altar at home, and the fragrance would permeate the whole house, even after a couple of days you could still smell lingering traces of the jasmine scent. Sometimes we’d buy suman – a Filipino glutinous rice cake, then we’d go home and my mom would cook a good, hearty meal for us. Everything was simple back then.  Rarely do we go out to eat on the first day of the new year.

The Filipino-Chinese are very low-key, and we’d celebrate the new year in our own quiet way. Besides, since the lunar calendar is different from the Gregorian calendar, the first day of the new year falls on a different day of the western calendar every time, so if you’re not Chinese then chances are  it would’ve come and gone before you know it. Filipinos are very accepting and appreciative of other cultures, and with the recent influx of new immigrants from China in the past two decades, they are becoming more familiar with this most universally celebrated of all Chinese  celebrations. There is keen anticipation even a week before the big day. Now familiar what astrological sign they fall under, many non-Chinese are interested in what their astrological forecast is for the coming year. TV programs compete with live telecasts from Chinatown, there’s a fireworks show at midnight to bring in the new year, and last year, it was even declared a national holiday!

It is, therefore, only apropos that the celebrations are centered in Ongpin, Binondo, otherwise known as Chinatown, purported to be the oldest Chinatown in the world. (To think I never knew this!) The old Ongpin is a paradox of identities, its resident Chinese culture blending with its Spanish roots and Filipino heritage. It’s a Chinatown that used to have (and some still have) Spanish street names like Azcarraga, Misericordia, Nueva, Carvajal, Dasmariñas, Rosario, etc. And nowhere is the traditional Filipino mode of transportation – the kutsero-driven kalesa  – more a ubiqituous sight than in boisterous and busy Ongpin.

In the pre-megasupermarket days (now lorded over by SM and Robinsons), “Ongpin” to me meant I get to tag along as my mom shops for authentic Chinese ingredients, picks the freshest veggies, haggles over Chinese black chicken, or buys canned goods like the hard-to-find fried dace with preserved olives from an obscure little Cantonese store in an obscure little alley just along the outskirts of Ongpin. It’s like our backyard (if we had one, that is) – to me every sight and sound is familiar. Nowadays I go by myself every so often.

This is only the second year that I am going to Ongpin to watch people celebrate the Chinese New Year after getting into photography some 3 years ago. I’d hoped to get some nice photos of the dancing lions and dragons, but I the moment I realized I’d overslept I knew it was going to be tough to get any. I accompanied my dad to the temple first (yes, we still go), parted ways, and it was almost noon by the time I got to Ongpin. Most of the lion dance troupes were preparing to rest or go home for the day. Needless to say I missed the dragon dance… 😦

Unlike last year when the city government coincided the 1st Pedestrian Day with the Chinese new year and closed off the streets, this year the streets remained open to vehicles. Ongpin is in an old part of the city and composed mostly of narrow, and some hilly, streets and alleys more suited to foot  travelers than those with four wheels. On a regular day there is mild to heavy traffic. One can imagine how it was on Chinese new year: cars are crawling along at snail-like speed, and foot traffic was not much better.


Le crowd…crikey!

With a crowd like this, I’m glad I didn’t bring my telephoto lens. At my lamentable height, either I’d have damaged it or I’d have hurt other people with it.


It was very nice to see whole Filipino families going there together to take part part in the revelry.


Vendors of Chinese-themed things on both sides of the street


More Chinese trinkets. 


A little marionette pink lion patterned after the lions in the lion dance.


A young boy curiously checking out Chinese trinkets.

Lions at last! These lions look tired… -___-


The lion preparing to dance its entrance to a store.


I was surprised to see that the drummer of one of the lion dance troupes was a young apprentice, banging away vigorously and setting the tempo to the dance!


A young apprentice.



A moment of rest for the lion head wielder.

This is what I call business-minded. This vendor sells balloons not only for the new year but also for Valentine’s Day!


Balloon vendor and a mother choosing one for her kid.

In the midst of all the revelry, the poignant look on the old man’s face makes me feel unaccountably sad. (Passing by on the street behind is the symbolic kalesa.)


An old man selling lucky greens.


People love to have their pictures taken with a lion!


The lion’s rear end…


Someone’s coming out…

It’s the young apprentice again!


It’s the young apprentice again!


The lion was very popular with kids!

Another photo that gives me mixed feelings.

The two kids in the photo aren’t more than a few years apart in age, but the differences couldn’t be much more apparent. While the little girl is out on a day of fun with her family, the young apprentice is out with his master on a day of work…



A purple lion. Lions go with the fashion too!


Someone brought a mini version of the lion’s head for children to try on and take photos with.


A mini version.

Here he is demonstrating to a kid on how to put on the head.


Teaching a kid how to wear the lion’s head.

It was a very nice gesture that brought smiles to many kids’ face that day!


The wonder on the kid’s face says it all!


Here come the lions!


Lion looks tired…or drunk XD



Standing a few heads above the others

A famous Chinese store-chain selling tikoy (nian-gao), sweet rice cakes cooked and eaten during the new year. Traditionally tikoys are only available in a few flavours –  the plain one (white sugar), brown sugar, and red beans. This store pioneered the flavoured tikoy and made it popular among non-Chinese who were eager to have a taste of an old and foreign tradition. Now the tikoy comes in a multitude of flavours: corn (yellow), pandan (green), strawberry (pink), and their trademark ube (purple yam). I’m not sure, but I think they also have chocolate flavoured tikoy? Hmmmm…


Tikoy, anyone?

Round the corner of a busy street, beside the longstanding Shopper’s Mart, is the shrine to Santo Cristo de Longos, where you see a blend of Catholic and Chinese tradition. This is where Filipino-Chinese would stop by to pray, lighting candles and incense at the same time. Hanging on the large brass cross are giant sampaguita leis, which I assume, are donated by devotees.


The shrine of Santo Cristo de Longos besides Shoppers Mart.

Traditionally, whole families would gather together for a meal on new year’s day. In these modern times, more families gathered together in restaurants rather than at home. It was no wonder that all the Chinese restaurants in the area were jam-packed that day (fancy restaurants, small restaurants, old ones, new ones), and people who cannot squeeze in those establishments head here instead to the Estero Fastfood, a  strip of open-aired Chinese restos alongside a canal (estero means canal).


The Estero Fastfood

Was surprised to see a couple of senatorial candidates…



Small animals. A staple during new year’s day and on other auspicious days.

This is called “放生” (“fang-sheng”), which means setting a life free. The principle of “fang-sheng” is deeply ingrained into Buddhist beliefs of showing compassion, and that all things have a right to life. Inevitably, some people saw this as a business opportunity, and well, in my opinion, this practice has since become somewhat distorted. Kind of defeats the purpose of the whole thing…





And lastly, some lucky charms for the Year of the Snake!




To the Manila City Government: Next Chinese new year, please please please close off the roads to cars again and leave it free for the pedestrians!

Last year’s photos here: https://theincoherentellipsis.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/19/


76 thoughts on “2013: Year of the Snake (Chinese New Year in the Philippines)

  1. It is nice to see how this is celebrated in different areas of the world. So colorful and awesome. You take wonderful digital pictures! Thank you for sharing. I look forward to seeing more from you.

  2. thank you for sharing. great pics. a little suggestions: the background style for the webpage is not very suitable for the words, hard to read. Forgive my forthright comments.

    • For birds I’ve seen people actually set them free on the spot as soon as they buy them. For the little chicks I think usually when kids buy it some of them keep them as pets, though I guess they’d still have to keep them in cages.

      When I was a kid they didn’t dye-colour the chicks. I only started seeing it in recent years. Sad, isn’t it?

  3. They normally do a celebration here in Reno, NV USA. But this year they are not because of it being the Year of the Snake. As a Fire Snake myself, I am incredibly bummed about this. I am also not Chinese but the Lunar Zodiac fits my personality more closely than the Western one. Thanks for sharing your photos. I miss the Lion and Dragon dances this year.

  4. Must go to China. I definitely need to add that to the bucket list. I think I was born in the year of the snake, 1989. At least I think so. I’ll have to check. Great post!

  5. Kind of weird allowing cars in such a busy area on a busy day. I don’t know much about Chinese diaspora in the Philippines. So thx, for the descriptions about fusion culture, etc.

  6. thank you for the insight into your Chinese tradition…loved the pictures…very vibrant…as is the narrative and glimpse into your life….
    sorry to overstep the line but if i could request you to darken the font colour or something, it would ease the reading…hope you dont take it as offensive..
    thank you

    • Thank you for the suggestion! No I don’t mind it, on the contrary ! I’m glad because it means that somebody is reading the text, at least, haha! Maybe I should darken the background? Hmmm… *thinks*

  7. i love the color of red as Chinese new year comes. we always dress all red when it comes and visit our Chinese friend in my country. Happy Chinese new year. Be blessed 🙂

  8. These celebrations are really wonderful! I like festivities so much that I get so excited anticipating for the day and the Chinese New Year is one such special day! Kung hei fat choi everyone! :=)

  9. Here in Canada we are very aware of the Chinese New Year. I love the colorful costumes and the energy of the outdoor markets in your photos. Happy New Year, this year of the Snake, and welcome to the Golden Age!

  10. So so glad to see another Filipino to be Freshly Pressed!!! We in the same click now. 😉 Congrats. I was just thinking about this. Philippines had a lot of issues with China last year esp. with island territories and other things. It’s so nice to know that the comradery is still in tact.
    I recently joined the Chinese New Year here in LA Chinatown. I gotta say, your pictures are whoasome. And it really shows how the celebration can be so so much fun!

    • Thanks! So nice to hear from a fellow Filipino! I think on the whole, it’s the governments who are more at odds than us the common people. I do hope it gets resolved soon, in a peaceful and mutually acceptable way. It was really very gratifying to see both Chinese and Filipinos coming together on a happy occasion. Fusion culture! 🙂

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