Sunday, January 27, 2013

Celebrating Chinese New Year's in the Philippines: a Political Interpretation

The Chinese New Year's decorations in the local mall in Makati becomes gaudier and gaudier every week the author goes for his weekly grocery shopping.  In the run-up to this year's official February 10th countdown when a new year begins on the lunar new year, the mall has introduced Qing-dynasty Manchu uniforms for its employees, 1960s Taiwanese romantic ballads for its repetitive theme music, and of course, bright red and golden signage for every floor and department to make sure any passers-by know exactly what this fuss is all about.

But amid the sheer hilarity of historically anachronistic decorations and self-conflicting stereotypes of China that echos similarly head-scratching images elsewhere, one thing is still very much open to questioning.  That is, for whom and why exactly is this mall (and other shopping destinations around the country) putting in so much effort to decorate itself for Chinese New Year's?  Could it be for the Chinese-Filipinos?  Not really when they only represent 1.5% of the total population, and many have assimilated into Filipino culture enough to not celebrate Chinese New Year's seriously (at least from consumption standpoint)

Could it be for the Filipinos themselves, but they love diversity and foreign cultures?  From the utterly poor job the mall has done to represent "China" truthfully, it is fair to say that locals here have little knowledge of what China or Chinese culture is in a modern context, nor do they have enough enthusiasm to do some basic research to find out exactly what modern Chinese culture is.  If anything, the over-the-top decorations at the mall would evoke a painful grimace on the face of the Filipino locals seeking a clean, comfortable environment just as they would to any visitor of Chinese ethnic origin.

Well, then, there really is only one possible explanation left: the mall is trying to entice visits and spending from ethnic Chinese who are not Chinese Filipinos.  And of course, the overwhelmingly largest segment of such, at least in the mind of the mall-operator, would be tourists from mainland China.  Curiously, Chinese New Year's 2013 will arrive this year in the background of increasingly hostile Sino-Filipino relations due to ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  Harsh words from Chinese media have met with fierce protests on the streets of Manila.

Recognizing a strongly loop-sided commercial relationship, with China (plus Hong Kong) as Philippines' largest trading partner (24% of Filipino total trade) and the Philippines not featuring in China's top 20 largest trading partners, China has quickly cobbled together economic weaponry to punish Filipino defiance.  Filipino agricultural exports (especially bananas) are rotting in Chinese ports after being denied entry by customs officials, while Chinese travel agencies and airlines have cancelled Philippines as a destination, depriving the Filipino tourist industry of a quarter of million foreign visitors a year.

So, with this in mind, we ask again the motivations of the Filipino mall-operator to decorate his mall for Chinese New Years.  Is s/he choosing to ignore the political conflict and its economic consequences, or simply politically ignorant with respect to China as is the case in the grassroots level of many other countries?   Or, more optimistically, is s/he trying to use such decorations as some sort of personal initiative to generate (currently severely lacking) goodwill with the remaining few mainland Chinese businessmen and workers residing in the Philippines?

No matter what the true motivation is, to think of the Chinese New Year celebrations in the Philippines as a straightforward marketing gimmick by businesses to boost consumption may be oversimplifying the complexity of modern-day Chinese-Filipino relations and ignoring many non-economic factors that play into that relationship.  And certainly, for every mall-operator that highlights Chinese New Year, there will be plenty of agricultural workers in the country that will express anger and frustration in the same occasion.  The populist remarks of politicians in response only serve to further increase anxiety of the Chinese here.

But for a moment, for this peaceful moment, lets just enjoy that hilarity of Chinese-style mall decorations here in Makati.  No shopper has yet to make vocal complaints on the presence of such in-the-face gaudiness or its underlying political or economic meanings.  Lets just be blissfully ignorant and not care about whether the mall is displaying weakness of the Filipinos by vainly seeking Chinese money that is dwindling amid conflict.  After all, this is the first rule of politics: anyone who points something out obviously is bound to draw attention and ire, at the end only harming him- or herself.

4 comments:

  1. Let it be, let it be.

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