Manila, the Philippines
January 21, 2012
Dancing dragons seemed to have taken leave. In their wake, fruit sprouted by the sidewalk. Tied on red ribbons, they festooned the length of Quentin Paredes Street in Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown. It was my first Chinese New Year in their turf, and I had not expected to see a virtual orchard.
Parking a corner shy of the Filipino Chinese Friendship Arch that marked the gateway to Binondo, we started off on foot. My friend Ki led the way for my mother and me, both tourists in Chinatown though we could well be mistaken as Chinese. It came as a surprise that Mom was not entirely alien to the area. Half a century before and pregnant with my sister, she regularly visited Hap Hong Building in Binondo for prenatal care. By this time, my sister had already turned 50, but the building where my mother’s ob-gyn held clinic still stood at the corner of Dasmariñas Street.
Wreathes of pineapples and kumquat, both considered as money magnets by the Chinese, lined the streets. Each eye of a pineapple resembled a coin, as did the shape of a kumquat. Apparently, the tradition had originated before the invention of paper money. In a case of homophone punning – the Chinese (perhaps Hokkien) words for pineapple and kumquat sounded like “royal riches arrive” and “fortune,” respectively – both fruits had become symbols of wealth heralding an auspicious new year.
Fruit aside, fish was likewise considered a bearer of luck and wealth by the Chinese. The ultimate auspicious symbol was the arowana; its elongated and sinuous body resembled that of a dragon, its name a homophone of “abundance.” Over at the famous pastry shop, Polland Hopia, known for their round or square mung bean cakes (hopia), we were amused to find an arowana-shaped hopia, which was rather pricey. We settled for ube (purple yam) hopia and wintermelon hopia (hopiang baboy in Tagalog), my dad’s and mom’s favorites, respectively.
Still, fruit ruled. In the place of colorful banderitas, Mandarin oranges hung above our heads as we strolled down Carvajal Street, an esquinita (narrow alley) crowded by a slow procession of pedestrians and hawking vendors, a scene made familiar by movies set in any Chinatown. An odd-shaped pineapple dangling at the door post of Quick Snack compelled us to choose this hole in the wall over others in the esquinita. Tucked deep in this alley, the restaurant promised authentic southern China cuisine.
It was mid-afternoon, an opportune time for that eponymous quickie merienda (snack) of machang, a triangular clump of glutinous rice stuffed with pork cuts and shitake mushroom, wrapped in banana leaf. One order was a complete meal in itself: rice, meat, veggies, egg, and the slight sweetness of sticky rice.
How lucky we were to get lucky 8 as our order number. The word sounded like “wealth” in Chinese, the number written like the infinity symbol. Nothing could be more auspicious than eternal wealth.
On our way back, we chanced upon a money tree decked out in angpau (red envelopes). Truth to tell, the concept of a money tree seemed too utopian, an antithesis to a practical truth – that money did not grow on trees. To clarify its meaning, a Chinese student of mine related a folk tale about a rich man who had bequeathed his wealth to his three sons upon his death. The two elder brothers, however, deprived the youngest of his inheritance. The disenfranchised son then toiled the land to earn his own fortune. The gods blessed his efforts by turning a tree he had planted into a coin-bearing one. The money tree was not a fool’s paradise, after all. It bore the fruit of one’s labor.
At face value, these symbols of wealth betrayed an obsession with superstition and materialism. Nevertheless, these symbols offered an insight into the psyche of the Chinese. Not only did they seem to believe that visualizing wealth made prosperity come into fruition, but that the spoken word was a self-fulfilling prophecy. They visualized wealth with semiotic objects, they professed it with words that sounded like the many synonyms of abundance, and they put in hard work to earn material blessings – this must be the Chinese recipe for success and good luck.
No wonder Binondo, historically an enclave of banished Chinese merchants and artisans outside the Spanish-controlled walled city of Manila, had flourished since its humble beginnings some 400 years ago. Today, the top 10 list of richest people in the country was almost exclusively occupied by Filipino-Chinese businessmen, the economic dragons of our time.