Chinese New Year in World’s Oldest Chinatown
January 31 this year is the beginning of the Chinese lunar calendar and the start of the Year of the Wooden Horse.
The Philippines, being one of the countries near China and having a long history of ties with the Chinese, has a significant population of Chinese and their descendants. In fact, the oldest chinatown in the world is found in Manila. Chinatown is an area that covers Binondo and parts of neighboring districts of the city of Manila. It’s main street, Ongpin Street, extends from Sta. Cruz Church to Binondo Church.
A jampacked Ongpin St.
January 31 was declared a national holiday here in the Philippines (due to large number of Chinese descendants. Our President, Noynoy Aquino, is in fact of Chinese descent). On that day, I and my friends, Eman, Ellidel and Myra, went to chinatown to experience the festive mood there. I knew there were be many people in Binondo but I did not expect it to be full of people. Red is the dominant color of the day – Chinese lanterns hanging from houses, buildings and streets and people dressed in red for good luck.
Binondo is very much alive on that day. Though a holiday, shops are open (to take advantage of the huge number of people visiting the area). Restaurants are full and stores are well-staffed, particularly those selling lucky charms.
There are several groups of dragon and lion dancers going around the streets and doing their performances in front of stores and entering the stores to bring luck. Each store owner chooses a dragon/lion dance company and pay them to do the ritual in their stores.
A long green-colored dragon.
Dragon dancers carry sticks which hold the head, tail and sections of the body of the dragon, which looks like a long shiny serpent. Length of the dragon varies with each company (with one very very long red dragon during the parade). The dragon is chasing a ball (pearl) representing a continuing search for knowledge. Each company also has two lions of different colors. Lions are just two dancers each (one for the head and one for the body).
Based on what I’ve seen, the dragon and lion dancers will perform outside the store, circling and circling around the store to the beat of drums and metal gongs/cymbals. They will then enter and exit the store a couple of times. The store owner or his staff will then light a very long firecracker (really hurts the ear being near the firecrackers). The two lions will then dance around the firecrackers, even playing with it. To my eyes, they look like my two shih tzu dogs playing. After the firecracker is spent, the dragon and lions will enter the store for one last time before moving on to the next store.
A man laying down a long firecracker * Eman posing with a red dragon.
There is a community parade (called Solidarity Parade). This is a long parade featuring restaurants, schools, products or companies within the chinatown. There are also floats carrying winners of the Mr. and Ms. Chinatown Pageant. The runners up ride in kalesa, horse-drawn carriages decorated with flowers while the grand winners ride on top of a truck with Manila Mayor Erap Estrada and Vice-Mayor Isko Moreno. Also in the parade is the longest dragon I’ve seen (carried by probably 30 men).
Despite having to elbow our way through the crowd (both Chinese-Filipinos, pure Filipinos and a considerable number of foreigners) and having our feet and legs ache due to long walks, we had a very good time. I even got to buy a mah jongg set that I’ve been planning to buy for a long time. It was great and I’ll definitely consider going back here in the future chinese new year.
To our Filipino Chinese countrymen and to all Chinese everywhere:
Kung Hei Fat Choi! (Gong Xi Fa Cai!)