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The history of Chinese burial grounds in the Philippines

The Chinese burial grounds in Manila is seen as a window to the world of the Chinese community during the Spanish regime. In the first two and a half centuries of the Spaniard colonization, the Chinese were buried in church or temple grounds, which shows the implied social status that the Chinese once had during that time. With the rise of the Chinese population during the 19th century, establishments of Chinese public cemeteries started sprouting here and there.

In the year 1592, the Spanish bought and assigned the island of Binondo for the Chinese. This is also partly the reason why a handful of the Chinese community are living in Binondo today. As the Chinese are particular with where they will be buried, most of them have requested to be buried in their hometown in the Philippines or have asked to be transported back to China for a proper burial.

The La Loma Cemetery is considered as the oldest Chinese cemetery in the Philippines. It was built during the 19th century and has an area of over 50 hectares. This cemetery is interesting as tombs here are not like the normal tombs. Some are actually grand mausoleums that appear like a chapel or a three-story building with a mix of intricate architectural style of both the Chinese and Spanish culture. It was further enlarged in 1863 by Lim Ong, Mayor of the Chinese community in Binondo, to provide a cemetery for the Chinese whether they were Catholics or not.

Another one of the most popular Chinese cemeteries is The Manila Chinese Cemetery (華僑義山 hôa kiâo gī san). It is the second oldest cemetery in Manila after La Loma Cemetery which used to be the burial place for the Chinese who were denied in Catholic cemeteries. One of the significant people that were once buried here was Apolinario Mabini before his remains were transferred to Batangas in 1956. According to a study of around 30,000 gravestones in this cemetery, approximately 89.26% were from within the Minnan region in Southern Fujian province, while 9.86% were from Cantonese regions in Guangdong province.

The cultural blending of both the East and West is the cause of the gradual emergence of these ornate mausoleums for the Mestizos and Chinoys. An example of an architectural style of a mausoleum in the Philippines is a tomb called the Turtle Tomb. It is a Southern Fujian-style burial mound that is shaped like a tortoise’s back, enclosed by a low omega-shaped wall with a stele in its center. Moreover, it’s surrounded by walls that form an artificial ridge to protect the tomb from calamities. Aside from unforseen calamities, the way a turtle tomb is built was also prescribed by feng shui practitioners as it symbolizes longevity and the shape of the universe.

Turtle Tomb | Photo: Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC), Ateneo de Manila University

The architectural style of the Chinese cemeteries in the Philippines are indeed unique compared to other Chinese cemeteries in Southeast Asia. The funerary architecture of the Filipino-Chinese has its roots from both the Eastern and Western traditions therefore it creates a unique blend of art that encapsulates the identity of the Chinoys. 

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