Ayala Musuem's 'Chinese Diaspora: Art Streams from the Mainland'

Ayala Musuem's 'Chinese Diaspora: Art Streams from the Mainland'
By Walter Ang
March 21, 2007
Philippine Daily Inquirer

When I invited a Filipino friend of mine to my clan's annual new year's reunion party a few years ago, it struck me at how amazed he was at the proceedings.

To me, it was nothing out of the ordinary. It was our usual thing, a lauriat lunch at a Chinese restaurant with lazy susans and chopsticks, everyone wearing something red and speaking a mix of Chinese, English and Tagalog, the little kids scampering to the aquariums to look at the fish, things like that.

To my friend, it was out of this world. "I need subtitles! It's like 'Mano Po' the movie in real life! " he exclaimed. I was happy to have shared the occasion with my friend, giving him a glimpse into the world of Tsinoys. It occurred to me that a lot of my Pinoy friends don't really get a chance to know more about what it is to be Tsinoy. More to the point, did I and my generation knew enough of our own histories as well?

Whenever my friends ask about my family history, I can usually go as far back as my paternal grandparents' story of how they came over in boats from Fujian province just a few years before WWII, of how my father and his eight siblings grew up in Tondo.

Growing up, I didn't ask about the reasons why my grandparents and, I assume, a whole wave of other mainland Chinese decided to settle here. It was something I took for granted. After all, watching Sesame Street was more fun than asking about how difficult life must have been back in my grandparents' hometowns to make them want to leave. How scary it must have been for them to stray so far from home, how brave they must have been to start a new life in a strange new world.

These thoughts filled my mind when I visited the Ayala Musuem's current exhibit entitled "Chinese Diaspora: Art Streams from the Mainland," a six-part collection that "celebrates the extraordinary achievements of syncretic Chinese cultures in Southeast Asia."

"The Peranakan Legacy," on loan from Singapore's Asian Civilizations Museum, shows the objects and furniture of Chinese who settled in Singapore. Peranakan is what Singaporeans call their Tsinoys, so to speak. I think this will appeal to Tsinoys the most because it mirrors our own experiences and attempts to hold on to our "old" culture while blending in with our "new" culture.

I liked it because it showed "ordinary" stuff -- everyday things used around the house like slippers, garments, altars, ceramics, etc. I found an intricate silver case for chewing betel nuts (apparently, something people used to enjoy doing) fascinating and funny at the same time. I wonder if a hundred years from now, museums will feature bejewled cellphone cases.

Closer to Philippine shores, the museum shows what Pinoys used to buy and trade from the Chinese before the opening of 168 mall: a collection of close to two hundred pottery and other trade ware from the Roberto T. Villanueva Collection.

On the other hand, "Tsinoy: Mestizo Art of Colonial Times" features jewelry and sculptures created by Tsinoy-Mestizos artisans and craftsmen of the 19th century. My favorite is actually some ornamental silver clips used for hanging mosquito nets. It seems a little silly now to have such beautiful pieces hung together with something as mundane as mosquito nets, but there you have it!

The exhibit also features the paintings of Damian Domingo, regarded as "The First Great Filipino Painter." Domingo was a Tsinoy-Mestizo who did miniature portraits and albums of Philippine costumes. When I saw his painting of two Chinese women, their disproportionately small feet made me think of my very own grandmother whose toes are bent out of shape. She had to suffer foot-binding when she was much younger. Thank goodness for my grandmother, it was discontinued because it had already started to go out of style and, according to her, her family was too poor to keep up with it. Besides, it hurt a lot, she'd tell me and my siblings.

In "China Gaze," Filipino-Catalan artist Valeria Cavestany showcases her mixed-media artworks inspired by her love affair with the Chinese culture. So enamoured is she that Cavestany has studied Chinese history, Chinese painting, and the Mandarin language. Cavestany's artworks gave me a glimpse of how someone who is from another culture views my own.

From the serene halls of the museum, I moved to the vibrant streets of Binondo to see how the past has morphed into the present. In conjunction with the exhibit, which runs until May 27, the museum had partnered with Ivan ManDy for a special combo-walk incorporating his regular eating tour and historical tour (www.oldmanilawalks.com).

Even though I grew up in Binondo, I still took the tour to visit old haunts and to see if there were new things I could discover about my hometown. We began at a Roman Catholic church that was, ironically, the focal point of Binondo's beginnings. ManDy informed the group that the Spanish colonists had spurred Chinese migration because of their need for cheap labor, in short, they needed Chinese OFWs to work in Manila. We came full circle as we ended the tour in a hidden, back-alley Chinese temple.

In between these bookends, ManDy took us up and down and all around the streets of Binondo, with stops at a Chinese drugstore, a family association hall, a Chinese wedding store, a combination Catholic/Taoist altar, and, yes, a Chinese factory making Spanish chocolate. He fed our bellies with Chinese food from hole-in-the-wall joints and fed our minds with stories of scandal, tenacity, rumors, perseverance, and love affairs. With his hilarious sense of humor and theatricality, it was a fun (and delicious) way to complement the museum exhibit.

It doesn't matter if you're Pinoy or Tsinoy or Whatever-noy, take a trip to the Ayala Musuem to see this exhibit. In a time when the world is truly getting smaller, it's a good thing to learn something about another culture or rediscover your own. Besides, it's only a few feet away from the Ayala malls, so it shouldn't be too hard to fit it in your weekend schedule. Plus, the jackfruit sans rival in their café is to die for.

The museum has a series of talks until May: March 23 features Ditas Samson, curator and Valeria Cavestany, artist, of China Glaze; April 28 features Rita Tan, curator of the Roberto T. Villanueva Collections of Chinese and Southeast Asian Trade Ware; and May 23 features Dr. Luciano Santiago, curator of Damian Domingo: His Life, Art & Times.

Ayala Museum is at the corner of Makati Avenue and De la Rosa Streets, Makati City. Call 757-7117 to 21 or visit www.ayalamuseum.com

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