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Celebrating Chinese New Year in Cebu Philippines

Taking you back to Southeast Asia, Philippines for another festivity every February. Umm, not Valentine’s day but there will be a lot of red colors! Here is another culture trip about the Chinese influence in the Queen City of the South, Cebu. Our culture is a mix of Spanish and Chinese heritage. Hence, this is a continuing story about the West meets the East in Southeast Asia! This time celebrating Chinese New Year in Cebu Philippines!

Kong Hei Fat Choi!

The greeting above means congratulations and be prosperous! In other words, Happy New Year! Spoken in Hokkien language which comes from the southeastern part of Fujian Province China. This is the common language by Chinese settlers in Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and some of the neighboring countries.

Key cities around the world have Chinatowns like San Francisco, Toronto, London, Paris, Singapore, Melbourne, and Manila to name a few. Therefore celebrating Chinese New Year is well known internationally. Chinese decors in red are visibly hanging and of course, you can hear the drumbeat for the dragon dance.

What is the Chinese New Year?

The Chinese calendar is based on astronomical phenomenon. Aside from the beginning of a new year in the Chinese calendar it also signifies the start of spring and the end of the winter season. In other Asian countries, it is known as the Spring festival. The dates vary as per the new moon between 21st January and 20th February. Usually the second new moon after the winter solstice.

According to myth, a beast named Nian, hiding in the mountains or seas usually comes out once a year and eats the villagers. Then the villagers decide to hide in the mountains. One man courageously appeared to them and said he will fight the beast. No one believed him. To scare the beast, he put red colored papers and set off firecrackers. The following day, the villagers noticed no destruction and the beast never came back since then. This was how the mythical story of the start of the Chinese New Year.

Now we know, why red is the color and the lighting of firecrackers!

2021 – The Year of the Ox

The Chinese calendar is also based on the lunar calendar. Each year, an animal sign is represented on a 12-year rotation (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig) and each has five elements. (Earth, Fire, Water, Wood and Metal). These elements signify connectivity and interdependence of all things, the Wu Xing theory (from the yin yang theory). For sure you have come across the Western zodiac signs according to your birthdate such as Aries, Capricorn, Leo, Virgo, and so on. With the Chinese calendar year, starting on New Year’s Day represents an animal. For the year 2021, it is the year of the Ox.

What does it mean?

Before I start, let me say that these beliefs are auspicious, considered as signs of prosperity, happiness, or sometimes an omen. In most corners of the world, many cultures have their own beliefs similar to these. Have you heard about planning wedding dates at a certain date? Probably as per the alignment of the stars or selecting a date with a number preference? Or you can’t marry the one you love because your birth signs are not compatible! Oh no!

The year of the Metal Ox starts on February 12, 2020, until January 31, 2022. So it says that this year will be lucky and will be perfect to focus on relationships! Wow, so promising right. I think we need to hear this as a breather from not so good things these past few months. But then again, I always believe that one has to make an effort and commit to how you want your life to be. Just my two cents! If you want to know more about the metal ox and curious about 2021, click here.

Chinese Settlement in The Philippines (Image by OpenEdition Jounal)

Chinese Migrants in the Philippines

The Chinese have a very strong presence in the Philippines. Their arrival is brought about by trading centuries ago, even before the Spanish colonization in the 15th century. According to history, the Chinese already traded with the locals long before the Spaniards found us. In Cebu, there was already a maritime trading link with China. In fact, the island of Cebu, referred to as Sok bu appeared in one of the Chinese maps. Cebu is also fondly called sugbu, meaning strong wave or current. And if you have read about our festival, Sinulog, the name also refers to strong current or wave.

Cebu Part I: Sinulog, A Grand Celebration in Cebu Philippines

Archaeological excavations in Mactan Cebu found porcelains during the period of Song and Tang Dynasty, that is 100 years before the Spanish colonial period.

With all this in mind, the presence of the Chinese is an indication of economic progress. Moving on, by the 17th century, Governor-General Simon de Anda ordered the expulsion of the Chinese in the Philippines. As a result, the economy declined until the 18th century. Only then by the 19th century, free from the Spanish rule, that the Chinese returned and commercial districts began to rise again.

Reference: The Tsinoy Sugbuanon

The Tsinoys

Urban cities in the Philippines like Manila, Iloilo, Cebu, Davao were the Chinese trading points. Due to Chinese migration and mix marriages with Filipinos, the Filipino-Chinese or locally know as Tsinoys share a pie in the Philippine population. (Pinoy for Filipino and Intsik, a local term for Chinese).

My grandfather (mother’s side) is from Peking, China now known as Beijing came to the Philippines sometime mid-1930s. Though my mom has only a few recollections because he passed away when she was a child. For us, we grow up in a Filipino household, yet around us with tsinoy neighbors and friends the Chinese culture weaves through our daily lives.

My childhood memories are dining in Chinese restaurants on special occasions or Sundays, along the streets of Colon (near the Basilica) a number of Chinese shops where we go for shopping, and the very first school trip is to Taoist Temple; a worship place for Taoism religion. The temple is one of the famous landmarks in Cebu decades ago.

Taoist Temple in Cebu (Image Credit to Cebu Site)

Cebu’s Chinatown

But where is Cebu’s Chinatown? Actually, we don’t have one! As quoted by the previous mayor of Cebu, “There is no Chinatown, because Cebu is Chinatown!” The Chinese have integrated themselves with the community and now an inseparable part of the culture.

Further Reading: Cebu’s 5 Historical Chinatown Landmarks

Chinese New Year Traditions

The traditions vary depending on the regions and respective cultures. Yet there are shared traditions that unify everyone during the Chinese New Year.

Here in the Philippines, Filipinos look forward to the Chinese New Year too. It doesn’t matter if you have zero Chinese blood on your veins. We all take part in this festive occasion and the Chinese are always generous and more than happy to celebrate with everyone. Here are some of the traditions I observe while growing up.

CNY in Cebu

  • House Cleaning. One of the major preparation before the New Year. Sweeping of the dust and de-cluttering. Saying goodbye to the old year and welcoming the new year with a clean slate. This also removes bad lucks or say bad energies.
  • Offering to Ancestors. An offering to the ancestors, like the food prepared during the occasion. The ancestral spirits are believed to protect the descendants and help them to become prosperous. In most homes, you will find photos of their beloved ancestors.
  • Family Dinners. Of course, this occasion brings the family together with a bountiful feast. Usually, big families gather together with the grandparents, children, and their spouses, grandchildren; and also distant relatives.
Goodies for CNY (Image credit to: La Fortuna Bakery)
  • Tikoy. A sweet and sticky Chinese cake made from glutinous flour. In Hokkien it is called tikoy or Nian gao in Cantonese language. These cakes are often given to friends and business partners. Some are homemade and they can be also bought in a variety of flavors. The sticky-ness of the cake signifies togetherness and also for prosperity, like money or business deals to stick.
  • Round Fruits. Do you know why we say have a fruitful year? It simply means abundance. The round fruits also symbolize completeness, wholeness, and unity. Oranges are always present which in Mandarin language sounds like gold. Hence, isn’t it worthwhile to attract gold?
  • Dragon Dance. This dance is performed by skilled dancers, usually in business establishments as it brings good luck and prosperity. This has a wavelike movement from the head of the dragon, midsection, and tail.
  • Lighting of firecrackers. It goes back to the myth of driving away the beast, Nian. Also believed that the louder the firecrackers, will bring more luck!
  • Angpau. Or the red money envelope! Because red is lucky, then you will receive lucky money! Children usually receive money envelopes.

And lastly, don’t forget to wear red outfits!

Eating Out in Cebu

In Cebu, there is something unique and distinct to the flavors of Chinese cuisine. I can only say, only a few places can match, as far as my travels took me. So here, I am your local guide, what and where will you eat for the ultimate Chinese dining experience!

  1. Grand Majestic Restaurant – One of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Cebu, more than forty years. Popular for events and luncheons, a round table for 12 persons, serving one dish at a time. We call this banquet for special occasions, Chinese lauriat. Eat slowly because the dishes keep on coming. Most food on their menu is incredibly delish from noodles, roast duck, patatim and more.
  2. Visayan Restaurant. – Situates at the heart of Cebu’s downtown in Manalili Street. Serving homegrown Chinese dishes to Cebuanos for decades. Their noodles are very popular and let me add also my favorite beef maki me soup. (Beef in hot noodle soup)
  3. Harbour City – If you are craving for dim sum, from steamed dumplings or siomai, chicken feet, steamed rice (rice with beef or pork stew toppings), and more! They serve you in a trolley with various dim sum plates, the restaurant can be a little bit overwhelming with the noise during peak hours. Also, the company has a chain of Dim Sum restaurants such as Dim Sum break or Ding Qua Qua, and any of these restaurants are recommended for a dim sum experience.
  4. Tin Gow – If you want to have a 5-star experience check out this restaurant at the Waterfront Hotel Cebu. It’s always been one of the best dining experiences with mouth-watering Chinese dishes. I say roasted Peking duck is excellent. But since it is a 5-star just be ready with your pocket$$$$.

These are just a few of the restaurants, and over the years so many have opened which you can find at Cebu’s supermalls. Other recommendations are The Ching Palace, Tsim Shat Tsui, Manila Foodshoppe, Ding Haw and how can I forget the White Gold Restaurant!

Dim Sum (Image credit to Harbour City)

Our Chinese Cuisine

While reading restaurant reviews, I realized that people have diverse expectations of the Chinese food. What we have is a combination of Chinese and Filipino flavors which makes it authentic from where we are. The recipes are handed down from generation to generation. Add to it that most of the ingredients and some spices are locally sourced.

To put it simply Hongkong dim sum and Cebu’s may well be different in taste and so does the many dishes that may seem so similar. And whenever you go around Asia and even in mainland China, there will always be a contrast of flavors. For us, our Chinese cuisine is something we are very much proud of, and to miss home means also missing our Chinese food. And I hope your palates will agree with ours too.

New Year’s Eve Dinner

Final Thoughts

Just like every major celebration, it calls for gathering of family and loved ones. With the new year, it brings an anticipation of a promise for a better year and as for the Chinese wishing one another luck and prosperity.

How lucky can we be lucky this year? And by the way do you believe in luck?

Yet luck comes surprisingly and out of the blue. It’s quite nerve-racking to keep on waiting for luck. Oh well, I’m shedding my two cents again, with that success or say prosperity in life entails action and hard work. Thus by giving in anyway you can returns a hundredfold. And that return can be in a form of luck. Who knows?

Happy new year once again. Wishing everybody a fruitful 2021 and maybe we can do something to make this more eventful despite of the pandemic. How’s that?!

As always don’t hesitate to share your feedback. It can be about your Chinese New Year experiences, your insights about my hometown Cebu or additional info are highly appreciated as well! Thanks πŸ˜‰

P.S. My sincere thanks to all my friends who shared inputs for this post! JoAnne, Jonna, Ninz, Rica, and Diane. Kong Hei Fat Choi!

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39 Comments

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I love tikoy! And receiving angpau when I was a kid! Also enjoy watching the lion and dragon dance I usually see at the mall during Chinese New Year.

As always happy to share our culture. Thank you for dropping by. All the best for 2021! May all things be favorable for you. πŸ˜‰

Happy New Year! My area in Canada also celebrates Chinese New Year. I’m sad for everyone that the celebrations won’t be as big this year again. It’s always fun to learn about different cultures and celebrations. Thanks for sharing about CNY in the Philippines!

Hi Alison, unfortunately, due to the pandemic things have slowed down. I hope things will have a better turn the soonest. Take care and Happy New Year too! Thanks πŸ˜‰

Hi Vinn,

Kong Hei Fat Choi!

Thank you for your description of New Year from the perspective of the Philippines. It looks as though it is a very popular celebration. Take care, and let’s hope that this year is better than the last!

Some areas celebrate Chinese New Year as a spring festival, even though it may happen in January, which is still winter?

How come the only rotate 12 animals for Chinese New Year?

Yes, it may be still winter but as per the Chinese calendar, the start of the spring festival is at the end of the winter solstice. As for 12 animals, it was based on a legend that a Jade emperor wanted to select 12 animals. to be his guard. Hope my answers suffice you. πŸ˜‰

Hi! Yes, I did some research especially about the history of Chinese migration in the Philippines. And yes I did learn several things too! Thank you so much for reading.

Hi Carina, thanks for coming with me to Cebu’s culture trip. My hometown really loves celebrations, beginning January if you have read my article. The city is one of the liveliest in the Philippines, hope you’ll get there someday. πŸ˜‰

Happy New Year! I really enjoyed reading this. One day I’d like to visit both Hong Kong and the Philipines and see how their dim sums are similar and different. It’s always fascinating to see how cultures meld together espeicially when it comes to cuisine.

Hi, Happy New Year too! I am very interested to know your final verdict of the Dim Sum. Though I also enjoyed HK Chinese cuisine during my trip. πŸ˜‰

Knowing festivals are enjoyable and it can be synched to future trips. Also, it’s a way of sharing culture and history. Thank you! πŸ˜‰

Fantastic post! I studied Asian migration in college, so I really appreciated the map of Chinese settlements πŸ™‚ I’m a huge nerd! As someone with Chinese heritage, I loved seeing my favorite holiday celebrated in a new place – would love to visit cebu sometime!

Wow that’s so cool Lannie. I have to admit that my interest on history came later in my life. Now I am fascinated with migration and how it influences many cultures. This is making travelling more exciting! Thanks and I hope you can visit Cebu πŸ€—

CNY celebration in Philippines is quite similar to CNY celebration in Malaysia. Reading this post makes me learned about Chinese immigrants in Philippines. Thank you for the knowledge sharing.

Happy New Year! Chinese New Year isn’t celebrated in Denmark, so it was nice reading about how it’s celebrated in the Philippines & all the food looks delicious!

Hi Karalee thanks for checking out this article! The food is really yummy and I really missed home while writing this. Happy New Year and cheers! πŸŽ‰

Interesting post. The Philippines is somewhere that is high on my list of places to visit so I’m always extra interested to read about it. I have to admit I don’t know all that much about the country so it’s all an education πŸ™‚ Belated Chinese New Year!

Hi Martin! I wish you a wonderful trip to the Philippines. With our history and blend of cultures, it is definitely worthwhile to visit this part of the world. Any cities/spots you have in mind in your itinerary?

Thanks for the feedback. Having numerous Chinese restaurant and schools are indeed a sign of Chinese influences in the Philippines.

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