Buling Buling Festival: History with a high

Text and photos by Diana B. Noche

Pandacan in the 6th District of Manila is known for its oil depot located along the banks of Pasig River. It used to be a farming community, mostly inhabited by Tagalog migrants from Bulacan whose rice and sugar produce were sold to the Spaniards in Intramuros.

STREET DANCE FOR THE SAVIOR. Pandacan, Manila’s Buling Buling Festival, held during the third Sunday of January, is highlighted by colorful street dance performances with hand movements hoisting the image of the Sto. Niño, believed to be the savior of Pandacan during the Spanish colonial period. The performing women wear colorful raiment in the old Spanish fashion, while men don barong Tagalog. 
At the turn of the 20th century, the oil depot serviced more than half of the fuel requirement of the country. There now remain three oil companies in the Pandacan depot—Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, and San Miguel Energy Corp. Petron Philippines. Others have transferred to various locations outside Metro Manila.

During the 19th century, Pandacan was known as the “Little Venice” because of the many canals and tributaries in that area leading to the Pasig River. Afternoon siestas by the river banks was a favorite pastime, and the river became Francisco Balagtas’ idyllic mentions in some of his works.

The first modern manufacturing company to settle in Pandacan was the Compana General de Tabacos de Filipinas in 1887 which produced cigars. The high density industrialization of Pandacan became evident during the American period where most of the country’s commercial establishments were located.

Pandacan was home to Apolinario Mabini, and the house where he used to live in has been declared a national historical shrine.

Francisco Baltazar, also known as Francisco Balagtas, came to Pandacan from Bigaa, Bulacan in 1835.  In his honor, the Plaza Balagtas sits atop the Estero de Beata. Several streets in Pandacan were named after the characters from his “Florante at Laura,” there’s also one called “Kapitan Tikong” Subdivision, as well as Flerida and Balagtas Streets.

Pandacan was also home to Lope K. Santos; Ladislao Bonus, the “Father of Filipino Opera;” and Father Jacinto for whom a monument was erected on the spot where his house was. There is also a Zamora Street in Pandacan.

Daniel Romualdez was a Cabeza de Barangay in Pandacan. The paternal grandfather of former Leyte Congressman Daniel Romualdez, the older Romualdez built his mansion, a pre-war residential building, on Jesus corner San Luis Streets, in an intricate façade of grills and floral engravings.  

Imelda Romualdez Marcos, a distant cousin of the younger Romualdez, traces her Manila connection to a house in Pandacan where she resided prior to her marriage to Ferdinand Marcos.

Images of Sto. Niño in decked out carriages are showcased during the fiesta.
The first Catholic church in Pandacan was built in 1732 by Father Francisco del Rosario and was completed in 1760. An image of the Sto. Nino lays on the church altar. 

Legend has it that the Sto. Nino was recovered from a well near the church and that the water from the well had healing powers. The well has since been polluted and sealed to the public. A shrine still stands on the same spot.

Every third Sunday of January, the feast of the Sto. Nino is a cultural and religious festivity celebrated in most parts of the Philippines. In Pandacan, the feast coincides with the district’s fiesta, centering on giving thanks to the child saint for saving Pandacan from the Spanish cannon siege.

In 1896, the Spanish forces learned that Pandacan was the meeting place of Filipino revolutionaries. A “Juez de Cuchillo”—meaning, the town would be bombarded—was declared. Several cannons were set up in Nagtahan and were aimed at the church. A small child, believed to be the Sto. Nino, was seen on top of the cannons. At such scenario, the siege was aborted and not one cannon was fired. 

Pandacan was saved by a child.

Pandacan celebrates its fiesta with the carnival-like atmosphere of Buling Buling Festival, whose highlight are the  street dances characterized by graceful and well-practiced dance steps—four steps, moving the body to the left and right—with hand movements hoisting the image of the Sto. Nino on a three-fourth time signature. 

Colorful and detailed raiment in the old Spanish fashion was the attire for women and the barong Tagalog for men.

The Buling Buling Festival is a street dance for praise, giving respect and offering to the Sto. Nino.  

Buling Buling means “buling buliwell-prepared, signifying something or someone who is well-groomed and all prepped up for an event or an important occasion.  

The festival started in the 1800s and ended during World War II. It was revived in the late 1970s and continues to this day with updated costumes, more rhythmic beats, and a lot more frenzied blasts of street funk.  

In 2005, a city ordinance, City Council Resolution No. 65, declared the “Buling Buling” as Manila’s official dance identity.

Men in barong Tagalog perform graceful, well-practiced dance steps in praise of the Sto. Niño.
Pandacan, in every fiesta celebration, opens its doors wide to all faiths and cultures in a euphoria that saturates its streets like a hypertrophied factory of fun. 

Once sparsely populated, Pandacan’s booming human population has successfully embraced  sustainable tourism with an emphasis on preserving its unique heritage. Traces of the old ways are still close at hand and its historic houses let us take a look at a period we are fortunate today to be accustomed to.

Buling Buling Festival gets our body and spirit harmonize in one euphoric harmony. It’s one big heap of fun, and we don’t have to go to Disneyland.

Topics: Buling Buling Festival , Pandacan , Imelda Romualdez Marcos , Pasig River , fiesta , Sto. Nino
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