2016: Year of the Fire Monkey (Chinese New Year Celebrations in Manila)

[16.02.08]

Growing up in the Philippines, the Chinese New Year usually means getting up early and going to the temple with my whole family, all of us wearing red in some way. It was more of a secular thing, though, since it was celebrated only by the Tsinoys (Chinese-Filipinos). With new year’s day itself usually falling on a weekday, we still go to school and to work just like any regular day.

In 2011, it was proclaimed a special non-working holiday. This allowed the Filipino community to actively participate in the celebrations, and boy, did it make the whole thing more festive! Filipinos are some of the most open-minded people, embracing Chinese culture and traditions with curiosity and bringing the same passion they have for celebrations of any kind. So every year on Chinese new year’s day, throngs of people would swarm Binondo, the center of the Chinese-Filipino community and the oldest Chinatown in the world.

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Lion dances are a common sight during the new year festivities. Some are professional lion dancers, and some are mini kiddie versions complete with appropriately-sized lion’s costumes wielded by kids who looked not more than 10 years old, with their own drum squad banging on drums and cymbals. Some of the street children play along, imitating and swinging empty cardboard boxes above their heads with their own DIY lion dance.

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Street performers abound. Fire-breathers, fire-eaters, and the pounding drumbeat that accompany them are always a draws a good crowd.

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Ongpin Street, the entrance to Chinatown, is directly beside the more than 400 year-old Minor Basilica of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz and Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish. (Or, as we call it – Binondo Church, for short.) Religious items and native delicacies are sold side by side with Chinese new year staples like coloured chicks and lucky charms. You can start your trek through Chinatown on this side, or if you want to escape the crowd for a while you can slip inside the church and listen to the mass being held, say a prayer or light a candle. (A little trivia: Chinatown is actually bookended by two Catholic churches. Binondo Church on one end, and Santa Cruz Church on the other end. 🙂 )

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Amidst the happy faces, this sad little one caught my attention. Another photographer tried to get him to smile but he wasn’t having any of that.

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Mid-afternoon, we went to a nearby mall because I missed my morning coffee and I was craving for some, and they had cosplayers (in theme with the Chinese new year, of course) on stilts!

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I remember Chinese new year 2012, the first year it was being celebrated as a holiday here, the City government then really took measures to make it a closed street event in Chinatown. Everything was very organized. Cars were not allowed in, and there were programs, activities, dragon and lion dances in different parts of Chinatown. This year the people came, but I didn’t see anything special organized. It was a little disappointing. (On hindsight, maybe the lion dances came out after we went to the mall. -_- )

The mall was likewise crowded, but the festivities were better organized than in Chinatown itself. They had a new year countdown program with celebrites and fireworks the night before on new year’s eve with the City Mayor attending. This is a Chinese-themed mall on the outskirts of Chinatown, not just during CNY. For Chinese new year they went all out with the decors: rows and rows of red Chinese lanterns and yellow banners with auspicious wishes written on them, and a huge hanging fire-monkey lantern that supposedly gives you good fortune if you pass under it.

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They also set up a “food street” in the street behind the mall, with vendors selling…well, not necessarily Chinese food. XD  Apart from a couple of nods to Chinese cuisine like dumpling with noodles and lumpia, there were people selling finger foods, barbeques, takoyaki…

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…and Filipino street food staple isaw (barbecued pig or chicken intestines) and even a boneless lechon (roast pig)

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Back in the “Chinatown Walk” (the strip of walkway between the mall buildings), there were a slew of activities set up. There’s a wishing well, among other things,with a money tree in the center and two monkeys hanging from it. There’s also a statue of Buddha on an altar where people lined up to light an incense and pray to Buddha for good health. You can also write your wishes for the new year on wooden wishing plaques (called ema in Japan) and hang them up on the Wishing Wall. Some people wish for good health, love, doing well in exams and career, and good fortune in general.

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As we pass by one of the numerous Chinese restaurants, the noodle master put on a show making pulled noodles (la-mian). A crowd gathered at the window to watch him. Not a few (including me and my friend) were taking photos and videos of him. The crowd was riveted as he twirled, twisted, pulled and stretched the dough over and over until – with one last flourish – long, fine strands of evenly thin noodles were magically looped in his hands, and dropped them into a large boiling pot of water.

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I had to pass by Chinatown again on my way home. The crowd was still pretty thick from what I could see. There were a few dragons and lions still doing their dances, and families were still out and about enjoying the festivities. It was very heartening to see, because in the end, it’s all about family and the friendship between the Chinese and Filipino communities that really gives meaning and hope to having a wonderful start to a new year.

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So, Happy Chinese New Year, everyone! Gong Xi Fa Cai (恭喜發財)! If you’re interested in Chinese horoscope, here’s a list of predictions for this year.

Click here to check out your Chinese horoscope!

Scroll down and you’ll see a list for each sign. These are mostly dos and don’ts and what to be careful of this year. (Hey, no harm in taking precautions, right?) You can also find your sign on the website if you don’t know it yet.

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