A Day In Manila's Chinese Cemetery

October 31, 2010 (Saturday)

Long weekends in the Philippines mean a 3 to 4-day rest from work because of a legal or non-working holiday. This Monday, it is November 1, 2010 (also known as All Saints' Day). In the days before this holiday, people are busy with thoughts of commemorating their ancestors and loved ones who have passed on and hopefully, going on a little vacation on the side. For my part, this is one of those annual relative-gathering opportunities where we perform our duties as sons and daughters born as a Chinoy with numerous traditions

cemetery 1

As we visited the cemetery today, I began to fear that I may not remember the intricacies of this tradition when my mind, as early as these past few years, quickly got bored and shifted to my Ipod or my cellphone every time we were there. While I was growing up, I was taught that there were various ways to show your love for someone. I guess visiting the deceased and preparing a bountiful feast for them at least once a year in their afterlife was one way.

The Chinese Cemetery as a Tourist Spot and Why This is Not THAT Kind of a Blog Post

I am not a fan of ghost stories or horror movies. The cemetery is one of the places I try to avoid because it gives me that uneasy feeling and scary thoughts. The Chinese cemetery is actually a tourist destination for the brave. In this city of mausoleums, the deceased are described to live in better homes than the living. Some would even have bathrooms, kitchens and dining areas inside. 



It was also the designated cemetery for the non-Catholic Chinese during the Spanish period. 



In advance, I just want to say that I do not intend to offend anybody, living or deceased. I merely want to document a story that happens every time the calendar date hits All Saints' Day. This "tradition" has been passed on for generations from descendant to descendant, the facts of which are somewhat blurred to us younger followers. Here are the bits and pieces I gathered together for myself so that I know what to do and remember when it is my turn. It is also for our added cultural understanding. 

The Preparation

In this day and age, we are used to all things pre-prepared in instant pack. This means that we just wake up on the scheduled date to go to the cemetery to set up, help out and eat what our parents brought to the scene. For the "preparer", all of this must be accounted for days or weeks before going to the cemetery because there is that rush when all things become more expensive as All Saints' Day gets closer. Some ask their hired help and graveyard caretakers to clean up and set up tents (for those in the open area) before they come to visit. 

The basics bought (for households with this tradition) include the following:
  • 4 or 5 kinds of fruit (preferably round? - ours was grapes, regular oranges, ponkan orange, round pears, mangoes, 5 each) for the offering
  • offering for earth god (like packaged sweet siopao or red rice crispies)
  • 4 to 8 gold dragon  red candles (i guess it depends on the size of the candleholder) for the deceased
  • 2 small candles for earth god
  • 2 small candles or lights for the offering of the deceased
  • lighter or matches or the longer kitchen lighter for the candles and incense
  • red incense sticks
  • paper with gold, red and people for the earth god
  • paper with gold only for the deceased

  • colorful onionskin-like paper (looks like rectangle banderitas) and children's paste (not glue)
  • flowers (real or fake - the white one costs around P350 on November 1)

  • food to eat (like corn bits, watermelon seeds, nuts, donuts, chicken, spaghetti, rice toppings or anything plus water or drinks) 

The basics usually brought or are already there include the following:
  • scissors for opening the candles and trimming the wicks
  • umbrella for the sun or rain
  • masks (for those who can't take the smoke)
  • fan (for those who can't take the heat)
  • plastic bags or carton for the folded paper
  • food containers or paper plates for offering or eating
  • incense pot 
  • candleholders
  • tin can with holes as burning aid
  • long wooden stick as burning aid
  • chairs
  • banig (straw mats) for the grass or the floor if no chairs
  • tent and alambre for the sun or rain


    There is no exact timing about the best time to go to the cemetery. Just expect the worst - rain (it is still the rainy season), smoke, high prices, roadblocks and traffic. Some people go early, October 30 or 31, because they think people will go on November 1 (on the date itself since it is the holiday). Some people go on November 1 because they think people will go on October 30 or 31 (earlier or later). Some people go on November 2 or later because they think people will go on October 30, 31 or November 1 (earlier). It's the same principle and mind game guiding us every time, i.e. why we choose to leave early or late for a destination especially during long weekends. 


    The offerings start with the earth god after you find the location of your place of visit (I still get lost sometimes). The fruits/food is set in place along with 2 small red candles and 3 incense sticks. The candles and incense sticks are replaced if they run out while you are there.


    The offerings for the deceased come next. The fruits/food is placed in the offering table along with the 2 small candles (usually bought in a shot glass) or lights. The big red dragon candles are placed in candleholders and they burn while you are there. 


    To lengthen the life of the candles, the wick is usually cut through scissors to control the flame. All visitors must offer lighted incense sticks, usually in multiples of 2 (we do 2 or 4) per person per time (we light again per person if they burn completely while you are there). The incense sticks are placed in an incense pot at an altar or is stuck to the ground with the grass (for open areas).

    We would all settle down to our own corners to do the pasting, the folding and the burning after the offerings (or playing with hot candle wax like we used to do...).



    Colorful paper will be pasted on the sides and top of the marble tomb. Small red ones will be pasted in front near the epitaph. I'm not sure about the significance. I think it's between money (looks like money) or making it a joyous occasion with all the color (the thin strips of paper dance happily in the wind).



    The folding and burning of the paper for the earth god (the one with people) will be done first then the paper with gold only for the deceased. The folding can be done in 3 ways and in every way, it represents money for the afterlife for the earth god and our loved ones who passed away.



    The easiest - just fold in triangles, gold on top



    The normal gold ingot shape - roll then push the ends in, gold on top



    The complicated - sometimes I get it, gold in the middle

    The burning can be done in a tin can outside/away from people or a built-in furnace.



    Everything is burned to reach the deceased just as we burn more paper money, cars, mansions, planes and their clothes during the burial rites. It seems like an afterlife is just another destination where we need all our worldly possessions to continue on living. The sky is filled with smoke on this day (and it's bad for the environment and our health...).



    The Cycle Continues

    During the voluminous folding and the combined joint effort, we either exchange stories, eat or retreat somewhere with our Ipods or books. This day starts at around 9 a.m. for us and ends just after noon. Sometimes, we see our friends or schoolmates who also do the yearly pilgrimage to the Chinese Cemetery. The next day is for another cemetery. The same cycle continues next year. 

    This is a story in my life. This "tradition" is one of unknown origin and people around me could barely explain why we do the things we do in this day. I just saw my grandma doing these things for my grandpa (who passed away early) so earnestly when she was still alive. I guess her ultimate plan is to bring us together in a grand family reunion, including those that have passed away and those who are at war, at least in this time of year.