The Todos los Santos of my early childhood was as merry and solemn as the Christmas that followed in its wake.
We lived on Lavezares Street, between Ilang-Ilang and Elcano, in the old district of San Nicolas. To the east lay Binondo and to the north and west, Tondo, though cardinal points figured little in the mental map I used to navigate our neighborhood.
Instead, we oriented ourselves by landmarks left and right, up ahead and behind. We crossed the street to buy puto–the traditional kind, consisting of rice stone-ground, soaked in water, steamed with coconut milk, and packed between banana leaves–from our neighbor. We ordered lomi and taro guisado at the Ilang-Ilang Restaurant. We smelled the cinnamon, licorice, ginseng, tree bark, and angelica root, and the dried sea cucumbers, seahorses, and velvet antlers that my teacher’s brother dispensed at his Chinese drugstore as we rounded one corner. We listened to Imelda Papin and Eruption sing the blues on the jukebox of the karinderia that the cocheros patronized on the other corner. We dreaded the sight of the little lambs that cluelessly trailed Mary across the darkwood wall of our pediatrician’s waiting room.
The landscape, redolent of horseshit from the kalesas that plied the streets, was cluttered with history: Jose Rizal’s mother died in a house on Calle San Fernando, Antonio Luna was born on Calle Urbiztondo, Pio Valenzuela lived on Lavezares, and the second issue of the newspaper of the Katipunan, Kalayaan, was put to bed on Clavel. Too, the landscape was thick with ghosts, peering out of the capiz-shell windows of old bahay na bato, clambering over each other and staining the streets where they had fallen during the last big war, materializing out of the corners of adobe and brick walls on which the names of streets–Sevilla, Jaboneros–were spelled out in tiles.
In the last days of October, my parents would take us to the Chinese cemetery in La Loma, Santa Cruz, to clean my grandfather’s tomb.
The most affluent among the Chinese had their grand mausoleums, multi-storied, clad in marble, jalousied and fretworked and filigreed, equipped with air-conditioners and refrigerators. Ours was much smaller and simpler, in keeping with our modest means. A square of whitewashed concrete with a roof and an iron gate, it housed the sarcophagi of my grandfather and one of his brothers.
The things I know about my grandfather I can count on the fingers of my two hands. He was tall and bald and quick-tempered. He loved children and was unfailingly gentle with them, a courtesy he did not always extend to adults. He had been a guerrilla during World War II. His family and his closest friends called him Soup (Ah Teng), his brother Hammer (Ah Tui). He grew up so poor that he didn’t wear pants, short or long, until he was twelve. He came to the Philippines in 1927. Typical of his generation, he dreamed of retiring in China, had dutifully sent money to refurbish the ancestral home in Fujian, but he never did return to China. He died of a heart attack while taking his siesta.
It is a fitting irony that while various other relatives reposed in roofless tombs, some of which were shaped like turtlebacks to signify long life and the universe, my grandfather, dead at fifty-two (his brother was even younger when he died), had no cause to complain of his plain rectangular slab or the minimalist modern style of what would be his final, permanent home. Years later, my grandmother arranged a Buddhist ritual to ferry his spirit back to China. Chinese migrants likened their dream of returning to their homeland to fallen leaves returning to their roots. Yet they were well aware of the reality that roots could just as easily sink into the new soil of their adopted country. My grandfather’s soul may have been guided back to China, but his remains remain in Manila to this day.
In the mausoleum, we would chase away the dust bunnies, replenish the stocks of red candles and incense sticks, and pile fruit and flowers–the scent of mandarin oranges and kalachuchi has stayed with me all these years–before my grandfather’s stern photo. We were careful not to neglect the To-Ti Kong, the earth deity, he of the flowing white beard and red shoes, who sat in his niche in a corner and smiled benevolently as we offered him siopao, hopia, steamed brown-sugar cakes, and burned incense.
On the first of November, we would offer home-cooked food–chicken simmered in ginger, scallions, and pandan leaves, and rubbed with sesame oil was my grandfather’s favorite, along with longevity noodles, festooned with artery-clogging chicken liver and gizzard and dyed quail eggs–to the dead as well as the living. We also burned joss paper to remit funds to my grandfather in the afterlife. People with time on their hands folded the ghost money in the shape of ingots; we folded ours in half, gold foil visible, and burned it in a large fluted batya. My father snorted at the ostentatious who made bonfires of papier-mâché cars and houses. “Your grandfather would not have allowed anyone to choose the car model and architect for him, not in this world, not in the next,” he said.
It was a custom for friends and relatives to drop by and partake of snacks and drinks, catch up on each other’s lives, talk business and politics, and retail gossip. In those days, people kept an open house throughout the day and well into the night. To avoid the traffic gridlock on November 1, some people lodged in the cemetery days, even up to a week, ahead, and stayed on beyond All Souls’ Day.
It was the traffic congestion that brought our feasting to an abrupt end. Cemetery officials had banned cars from entering the cemetery, but their edict did nothing to dissolve the jam outside. The last Todos los Santos we observed, we were stuck for six hours on the short stretch of road leading out of the cemetery. My father, furious, vowed never to come again on November 1. He opted instead to schedule our visits in early October. In later years, we came in late September or late November, doing all that was required of us, far from the madding crowds.
By then, we had moved out of Chinatown to Parañaque, the first of the relocations that would settle us in Makati and Pasig before our family scattered to Brunei, Singapore, China, Japan, the United States, and Canada. Our move out of Chinatown corresponded as well to a radical shift in my parents’ careers, as they gave up the flour business my grandfather had bequeathed them to became professional artists and teachers of Chinese brush painting. My parents now live in Calgary, but like migrating birds, prefer to stay in Manila and Xiamen to escape the harsh winter, to keep in touch with relatives, good friends, and the art scene in Asia, and to find inspiration for their art.
I have often thought of how my father’s decision to forego a proper Todos los Santos and with it, the life we had lived in old Manila as part of the Chinese-Filipino community, prefigured a major decision to integrate our family into the larger Filipino world within and beyond our shores.
Save for the occasional brief forays, I have not lived in Chinatown since my eleventh birthday. Yet I have returned to old Manila time and again, not necessarily in person, more often in dreams and memory, lately in research and print, and always in hope that understanding the history of my family is a way of understanding the history of the country I still call my own.
About Caroline S. Hau
Caroline S. Hau is Professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University. She is the author of The Chinese Question: Ethnicity, Nation, and Region in and Beyond the Philippines; Recuerdos de Patay and Other Stories; Elites and Ilustrados in Philippine Culture; and Interpreting Rizal. Her second book of short fiction, Demi-Gods and Monsters: Stories, is forthcoming from the University of the Philippines Press. She carries a Philippine passport, and no other.