A Tale of Two Cultures

One can describe Philippine Culture as something like a mosaic. If you go around various parts of the country and see people go about their lives, you would observe a mixture of habits, some gained from indiginous local traditions, and some gained from other cultures – through historical ties, colonization or simply through cable TV. One can see this in the way people would pour all they have at “fiestas” inherited from the Spanish, believe in having round objects during new year like the Chinese, and stick with basketball like the Americans while the rest of the world goes bonkers over football.

Due probably to the fact that Filipinos in general are such a welcoming bunch, it is fairly easy for us to take bits and pieces of other cultures, and mix and match them like nowhere else in the planet. As an example, this is perhaps the only place in the world where mixing spaghetti with catsup makes sense, or where seeing paella and chop suey in one plate would not seem too revolting.

Still there are cultures that have been more deeply imbedded than others, and perhaps nothing runs deeper than the influence of the Spanish, and what is perhaps Spain’s most enduring legacy in the country – religion. The Catholic church was a dominant figure throughout the country’s colonial history, not just in propagating the faith, but also in matters of the state.

Having been a colony of Spain for over three centuries, this legacy is visible not just in the religion that the majority practice, but also in the way towns and citites were built. The most prominent structure of most old, Spanish-era towns in the country, is a church or a cathedral. The fact that towns revolved around a church and not the municipal hall, or any other symbol of government authority, speaks of the power of church at that time.

Perhaps the best example of this is the town of Taal in Batangas. It is by now just a small backwater town in the region, but history says that it had a more prominent past, and the most recognizable remnant of its former status is it’s church, the Basilica de San Martin de Tours (or simply the Taal Basilica), said to be the largest Catholic church in Asia (we are talking about the building here). The Basilica sits at the highest point of the town, giving a commanding view of the surroundings, like a castle in medieval Europe.

Today the basilica still stands high over the town, like a sentinel watching over it, and in some ways it is still a sight to behold, especially if you choose to climb up the steps  from the park in front of it and watch it loom over the horizon as you move upward (versus conveniently parking right at its doorstep). The facade of the church though already looks like it has seen better days, and gives the impression that we haven’t exactly given it the care and attention such a heritage site deserves, but it is still an imposing structure nonetheless. The interior though is relatively well maintained, and looks somewhat similar to the more popular San Agustin church in Manila’s Intramuros.

Beyond the church, the town of Taal has something more to offer to curious travellers. Owing probably to the fact that most economic activity in Batangas has shifted to other areas of the province like Lipa or Batangas City, the old town itself has managed to keep its old world charm. While it may not be as popular as Vigan up in the north, the streets of Taal, especially the areas around the basilica, also provide a picturesque glimpse of the country’s colonial past. Here, old houses, narrow streets and a rolling terrain provide for an old but pretty little town that would have been a delight to take photographs of. Too bad the weather was foul while we were there, with rain tending to fall in a deluge every now and then, forcing us to stay under the car’s roof most of the time and preventing us from roaming around as much as we would have liked to.

Another, more subtle, yet also very visible influence to us is the Chinese. This time it’s not due to colonialism, but rather, due to commerce and proximity to the “Middle Kingdom”. The bunch of islands that the Spanish called “Las Islas Filipinas” may have already been in the charts of Chinese traders long before Magellan and Lapu-lapu drew first blood in the shores of Mactan, and such is their influence that they figured in Jose Rizal’s books, which were “literary mirrors” of Philippine colonial society. Nowadays you only have to see how “siopao”, “pansit” and “mahjong” figure prominently in contemporary Philippine society to see how deep their culture runs in our consciousness too.

The Chinese are known for engaging in commerce wherever they are, and anywhere there is a sizeable population of people with Chinese ancestry – from Malaysia to San Francisco, there sure will be a locale where most of their commercial activity are situated. These are generally known as “Chinatowns”, and Manila has one of its own in the Binondo District.

To the naked eye, Binondo is an endless cluster of buildings, of which the lower floors are filled with shops of all sorts, squeezed densely one after the other and bordered only by narrow streets and alleyways. Packed with people and under the heat of the tropical sun, Binondo is one of those places that might repel people who can’t stand a bit of discomfort, but for those who know what’s in there and know what they want, the place could be a treasure trove. People come here to get all sorts of stuff, but perhaps the most popular product of the place is its food. Yes, you’d be insane to go to Binondo and not eat.

Of all the things that Filipinos have adapted from the Chinese, perhaps the most visible and widely appreciated is food. To cite an example, hardly any birthday goes by in the country without a serving of “pansit” – the Filipino adaptation of the Chinese noodles. Locals have come to like Chinese food as much as their own, and in fact it no longer feels “foreign” to most average Filipinos. We may have been governed by Spain for three hundred years and believe in the same God as the Spanish do, but a Pinoy will pick “siopao” and “siomai” over “tapas” anytime.

Nowadays you will find chinese food (or “chinese-inspired” ones) just about anywhere – be it stalls that serve watered-down but inexpensive “mami”, Chinese fast food joints, or proper sit-down dining ones. Binondo though is still the epicenter of Chinese cuisine in the country, and everyday there are people who would brave the crowded roads and sweltering heat, just to get bites out of the culinary treasures hidden in this place.

The Siomai, one of the most familiar adaptations of Chinese cuisine. It is now a popular snack food or viand in many parts of the country.

The Hakaw “Shrimp Dumplings”, one of my personal favorites.

Chicken Feet, another chinese delicacy adapted locally and renamed, in typical Filipino humor, as the “Adidas”.

Chinese “noodles” of various varieties have also been widely adapted locally and “converted” into various types of “Pansit”. This one though is in its original Chinese form called “Ho Fan”.

Beef with Broccoli in Garlic Sauce, other personal favorite.

Sweet and sour dishes like this have also been so widely adapted in Filipino culture, it would not be surprising if some locals would think of it as a traditional Filipino dish.

* Photos were taken last July 2012, with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5.

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