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Old but gold: Why the Manila Chinese Cemetery is still relevant

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat eis. (Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them.)

Today, All Souls’ Day, people around the world remember the faithful departed. We celebrate the good they have done while still around, and we honor that memory dearly.

For many Chinese-Filipinos, the Manila Chinese Cemetery in Santa Cruz, Manila serves as a remnant and living relic. Thousands of people visit the place every year during the Undas season.

 

A short Chinoy history

Philippine history has not always been kind to the Chinese who resided in the Philippines. Dr. Jely Galang of the University of the Philippines history department once gave a talk on how many ‘troublesome’ Chinese—those who couldn’t pay taxes and the like—were labeled as ‘vagrants’ and ‘outcasts’ in society in the 19th century.

There were richer Chinese, however, and since non-Catholics were denied burials in Catholic cemeteries, the Manila Chinese Cemetery came to be. It still stands strong today, a literal living remnant of Philippine history.

Image from Airpaz Blog

A marriage between old and new

The Manila Chinese Cemetery may be older than anyone today, but it has adapted, no doubt. One will find very visible signs of the Chinese culture: a temple (that has been rebuilt recently), incense urns, Chinese characters on the tombs of the dead, and Chinese-designed mausoleums.

Besides that, however, any visitor, even if he or she may only be a tourist, will notice one thing: modernity, to some extent, at least. Many mausoleums are equipped with air conditioning, lights and fans, running water, bathrooms, tables, and chairs, and the like. Almost like houses.

Why are these modern aspects in the Manila Chinese Cemetery very interesting? For one, it shows how dedicated Chinese-Filipinos are towards their beloved ancestors: they want the best that’s around for their final resting place. Second, it shows that what was once before, the old, and that which is now, the new, can co-exist. Not everything has to be about replacing the old with the new: continuity is possible!

What’s next for the Manila Chinese Cemetery?

That’s up to us, the young generation, to decide. As long as what we do is alright and moral, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that most of us are “more Westernized.”

However, the past shouldn’t just be forgotten. We must always remember that while we love everyone regardless of ethnicity, our identities as Chinese-Filipinos should always be in our hearts. After all, no other community in the world can claim to be both Chinese and Filipino, not just one or the other!

Recognizing the presence of the Manila Chinese Cemetery on this Undas season may be a great step towards that. And yes, while we do have our own beliefs—not all of us, after all, follow Buddhism like our ancestors did—recognizing the presence of the Manila Chinese Cemetery serves as a great step in being knowledgeable about our roots.

 

About the author of this article:

Aaron is currently a Junior Multimedia Producer for CHiNOY TV. He is a constituent of the Ateneo de Manila University Chinese Studies Program, a member of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, and a Documentation and Publications Associate Vice President for Ateneo Celadon. He enjoys watching Chinese dramas and (occasionally) making TikTok videos!

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