Enchantment has many faces, even in the presence of ghosts.
Cemeteries make visible the evolution of the society that built them—the spiritual and religious beliefs, personal values and world view, its wealth and technological as well as artistic developments. When a loved one passes away, we remember them and honor their life, hold up memories of them by building a resting place which we hope will be more peaceful and beautiful than the one they lived in.
What was considered a resting place of vanished loved ones is today’s catacombs of treasure, of structures that make a solid statement, calling our consciousness with quiet insistence.
Cemeteries are also like museums. When loved ones depart, we keep their presence felt by providing for those who are left behind something that can at least fill the void of their absence. It is with such affection and sentiment that makes us understand why there is a Taj Mahal in India, a masterpiece demonstration of creativity of a husband’s great love for his wife.
Manila has three distinct cemeteries: the oldest is the La Loma Cemetery, the North Cemetery, and the second oldest, the Chinese Cemetery, each with a different origin, layout, and designs involving cultural and religious dissimilarities.
The North Cemetery was built in 1905 under the US-American administration. In 1882, the La Loma Cemetery was built mostly for the Catholics during the Spanish times. The Chinese Cemetery, built in 1843, consists of 54 hectares and is shaped like a trapezoid. It’s a mix of Buddhist Taoist burials, with multi-denominational Christians.
During the early 19th century, intermarriages of Chinese immigrants with local women gave birth to a class of Chinese mestizos. When international trade flourished, mixed Filipinos and Chinese of Spanish ancestry became the foremost class—the new social, political, and economic elite. The newfound power under the Americans was evident in the mansions built, as well as in the grandiose funerary architecture to show a validation of their wealth and success. Thus, luxurious mausoleums in the three cemeteries teemed in the 1920s and 1930s.
Ecclesiastical structures during the 19th century were mostly designed by European parish priests, the Spanish military and civil engineers. On the second half of the 19th century, Filipino architects such as Felix Roxas y Arroyo (born 1820) and Arcadio Arellano (1872-1920), who designed the “Mausoleum for the Heroes of the Revolution” at the nearby North Cemetery in 1915, became the professionals to go to for such services.
New funeral practices and forms of mourning and commemoration during this period and at the start of the 20th century were of European and Chinese artistic traditions, their symbolic meanings and significance. The new rich and upper-middle class of mestizos and Chinese businessmen and women, professionals, and ilustrados opted for the more elaborate funerary architecture and statuary which turned the cemetery over the century-plus years into a repository of a distinct heritage.
There came a new way of defining death, not as the end, but only as an interim, during which the departed is separated from the living loved ones to be reunited later in heaven. This meant doing away with terrifying images of death (crossed bones, skulls, and the Grim Reaper) and replacing them with statues of angels, laurels, and religious images. The blending of Spanish/Catholic, Chinese Taoist Buddhist religious and cultural influences led to a new identity—the Tsinoy—or the Filipino/Chinese community.
In celebrating the memory of the departed, both Filipinos and Chinese observe it in similar ways: the All Souls Day and Qingming Festival; the Virgin Mary vis-à-vis Chinese goddesses Mazu and Guan Yin; belief in the omnipresent spirits, superstition, and the intercession of saints in heaven; and the use of incense sticks, candles, and good luck charms.
From 1870 to the present, various funerary designs were used for mausoleum niches of the “rich and famous,” occupying the main road where the oldest and grandest mausoleums in Art Deco and Revivalist styles are the middle class in the inner roads; and the low-income burials in terraced style on the cemetery perimeters.
The oldest existing burial site in Chinese Cemetery belongs to Pilar Tiaque de Lim-Tuaco, built in 1895. During the early 20th century, the first roof over tomb was built. The oldest existing example is that of a woman named Tiu who was buried in the 1900s. It was styled a la bahay na bato with a combination of Filipino and Chinese elements. The first fully enclosed mausoleum was built in the 1920s in the Revivalist styles of Neo-Romanesque, Neo-Renaissance, and New Baroque, as well as the Neo-Classicism elements of the Greco-Roman architecture evident in the colonnades, porticos, pediments, and acroteria, an example of which is the Sy Mausoleum, built in the 1950s, a Greek temple in miniature.
The Neo-Gothic style with its emphasis on verticality, heaven-orientedness, and mysticism is evident in the Dijiongco Mausoleum, built in the mid-1920s, exemplified by spires, gargoyles, and angels.
A Chinese variation of the Gothic style can be seen at the Benching and Machuca-Gotanco families’ mausoleums, built in the 1930s, with foo dogs guarding the entrance and frieze of birds, trees, and dragons.
The Zigzag Moderne, an early form of Art Deco, can be seen in the Lichay Too Mausoleum, built in 1948 and modeled after an Egyptian temple. The same goes for the Dy Buncio Mausoleum, built in 1930.
Chinese motifs also influenced the Art Deco in the cemetery. The Lim Kong Sui Mausoleum, built in 1938, has the traditional Chinese roof with upturned edges (dougong or corbel). The stylized dougong on the pilasters of the cemetery main entrance is an example.
Art Deco merged into Modernism in the 1950s. The Gocheco Mausoleum, in line with the new style combination, has plain wall surfaces and thin concrete roof.
The Space Age of the 1960s influenced the Chinese funerary architecture and showed more restraint in design.
The classic Modernism style dominates the Saez-Coguangco Mausoleum in its rectangular shape and a tower of black and white planes with a simple cross.
The Courtyard style is evident in the Ongche Mausoleum, built in 1936. It is in concrete, a trio of buildings in an axial, processional order: entrance gate, open pavilion in the center, and burial chamber at the end, with grills decorated with Chinese characters.
The Pagoda style has elaborate ornamentations and sharply bent roof edges with dragons and foo dogs. Example of this style is the Regal Mausoleum or the Mother Lily Monteverde structure.
An east/west blend of design is best exemplified by the Dee Ching Chuan Mausoleum, built in 1941 and considered the grandest of its kind. Dee Ching Chuan is the co-founder of China Banking Corporation. It is a combination of Art Deco and Chinese symbols (carp for prosperity, dragon for power, and elephant for strength).
Turtle tombs can also be found in some portions of the cemetery. Unroofed turtle tombs are mounds in the shape of a tortoise back which symbolizes longevity and the shape of the universe.
These days, the Chinese still bury their dead in the Chinese Cemetery—in air-conditioned mausoleums—styled in the latest design and following feng shui guidance. The Chinese Cemetery is owned and managed by the Philippine Chinese Charitable Association and the Communidad de Chinos which was founded in the 1870s by Lim Ong and Tan Quien Sien (Christian name, Carlos Palanca).
Walkwithchan, with Rence Chan as tour coordinator, conducts a free guided tour of the Chinese and the North cemeteries. Those who wish to join the walk are requested to bring snacks and drinks for the children of the families living in the squatters area outside the cemetery walls.
Photos by Diana B. Noche
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