Chinese Cemeteries: A reflection of Chinese-Filipino Heritage

Written by Andrea Chan and Patricia Ann Jose

Photos by Nicole Teng and Andrea Chan

 

After arranging the set of dishes, fruits, and other offerings on the Altar, Nicole’s family lights up the incense and prays to her great-great grandparents for good fortune, health and happiness. Her great-great grandparents are buried in the Manila Chinese Cemetery, particularly in an old, dusty mausoleum that seems to have too many cracks on its walls. Nicole muses that the mausoleum isn’t striking to her at all, although its architecture has its own charm.

For many Chinese-Filipinos whose relatives or ancestors are buried in mausoleum-type tombs like Nicole’s, Chinese cemeteries in the Philippines seem unremarkable at first glance.

 

However, when we compare them to other countries with a big Chinese diaspora, it appears that our Chinese cemeteries are unique in the way that these have developed a distinct mausoleum architecture that is uncommon, as Chinese cemeteries in other Southeast-Asian countries usually follow the traditional Chinese mainland architecture of memorial steles or turtle tombs. Surrounded by a U-shaped ridge, turtle tombs look similar to the outer shell of a turtle, and where the head of the turtle would be, the engraved name of the deceased would appear. This is rarely seen in the Chinese cemeteries in the Philippines. Our distinct mausoleum architecture, and the development of the local Chinese cemeteries, such as Manila Chinese Cemetery, reveal much about the history and culture of the Chinese-Filipinos in the Philippines.

 

During the Spanish colonial era, burials used to be done in church parishes and the courtyards surrounding it; however, they were eventually relegated into more remote areas due to increased sanitary concerns. One such example is the La Loma Cemetery, which was said to be built partially in response to a cholera outbreak that struck Manila in the 1800s. Interestingly, Chinese cemeteries were usually where rebels, non-baptized individuals, and others denied burial in Catholic cemeteries, were sent to.

The Sangleys, or pure-blooded Chinese during the Spanish period, were seen by the Spanish as inferior. They were also asked to pay higher taxes and were not given the same rights or privileges as Filipinos. In the Jose Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tángere, it was even alluded to that being buried in a Chinese cemetery was an insult to one who was a prominent member of society.

 

However, as the Chinese and Chinese-Filipinos became wealthier through intermarriage and trade, the perception towards the Chinese and Chinese-Filipinos changed to reflect their newfound status and socio-economic prominence in Philippine society. It was likely that the Chinese-Filipinos wanted to affirm their socio-economic power in the country, and building better burial tombs was part of that.

 

As the Americans took control of the Philippines from Spain, they were influenced by Western culture which carried over to the funerary architecture of the Chinese-Filipinos in the 1900s, wherein we can see traces of neo-classicist (emphasis on the walls), neo-gothic (use of pointed arches on windows & doors), and art deco inspired mausoleums. Modernist, bauhaus, and postmodernist  mausoleums flourished after the Second World War. It can therefore be said that the Chinese Cemetery and its funerary architecture reflect the cultural hybridity of the Chinese-Filipinos in the Philippines.

 

In a fast-paced, growing, and changing city like Manila, destructive climate and re-development threaten the caretaking of these historic treasures. Naturally, with a city that is naturally becoming urban, environmental and hygiene issues become a major concern. The Manila Zoo for example was recently forced to close because it did not have a proper waste management system in place. For certain cemeteries, closure and relocation are heavily-considered options, due to both economic pressure and sanitary concerns. Not only does this contribute to a loss of considerable architecture, but it also contributes to a loss of heritage attached to it, as well.

Death will continue to be a part of every culture. How we see the afterlife, or the possibility of one, depends on our take on religion and what we learn from our surroundings. In their own way, Chinese cemeteries are part of the repository of Chinese-Filipino culture in the Philippines. However, these historically significant sites are not protected by any national agency, such as the National Commission for Culture and Arts.

This isn’t the full sum of Chinese-Filipino culture. There is much to learn about it when you explore the streets of Binondo, and especially when you observe the design aesthetics the culture tends to lean to. Art is able to explain much about what someone believes to be important. This is seen in the details that they choose to highlight, and in the elements that they discard. In the observance of its design, one can better realize that these cemeteries are an integral part, one that a person ought to remember, not only for their ancestors, but also for holding on to the cultural connection.

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