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This Month's Focus: The Year of the Golden Dragon, the Year of the Dragon, Chinese business and new year celebrations, Chinese New Year in Hong Kong and the Philippines, chinese customs, fortune, and luck.
I never could quite understand the Chinese Calendar, which incorporates both the Gregorian and lunar-solar calendrical systems. After asking some Filipino-Chinese friends here in Manila to explain it, I discovered that they're a little fuzzy about it too. No wonder! There are 24 solar terms breaking the year down into periods corresponding to various changes of nature (vitally important to rural farmers, of course). Starting with the "beginning of spring," then on through "rain water" and the "waking of insects," they go on and on. My favorite is "grain in ear." At the core, naturally, are the 12 zodiac signs, rotating endlessly through five cycles to account for a 60 year "golden" cycle. Not sure how it all works, but I gather it has something to do with Tian Gan and Di Zhi (Heavenly Stem and Earthly Branch).
At the moment, we are on the verge of the auspicious beginning of the Chinese New Year, and a very special one at that. No one is quite sure where it all began, but most believe the celebration of the Chinese New Year can be traced to the mythical Conquest of Nian. The term nian, which in modern Chinese refers to "year," was originally the name of a monster that preyed on people the night of the beginning of each and every new year. He insisted on doing this year after bloody year. Nian had a voracious appetite and ate a lot of innocent folks, and -- not surprisingly, I suppose -- everybody was scared to death of the vicious and powerful beast.
One day an old man entered the village and offered to rescue the people from Nian. Seems he strolled nonchalantly up to the monster, bravely and unafraid, looked him right in the eye, and told him:
Listen, my friend, Why don't you swallow other beasts of prey here on earth instead of innocent people? Anyway, us human beings aren't really worthy opponents for someone of your stature...
Nian took the bait, hook, line, and sinker, as they say. Off he went into the forest, swallowing as many beasts of prey as he could find. The people were overjoyed, as those were the same nasty animals that had often raided the village to eat innocent children and the occasional domestic animal. The old man proceeded to ride off into the sunset, sitting confidently astride Nian, now conquered and in the service of humankind.
The old man was, of course, an important God. With Nian pacified, the people moved on to enjoy a peaceful and bounteous life. Before he left town, however, the old man asked the villagers to put up red paper decorations on their doors at each year's end to scare away Nian just in case the monster tried to sneak back in. Seems the beast was scared to death of red. Later, the term Guo Nian ("survive the Nian") evolved into "celebrate the New Year." All of which has something to do with the bright red paper decorations on all the shops in Binondo (Manila's Chinatown) and the loud fireworks that will inundate us in a few days, all to scare the heck out of Nian.
Anyway, that's one story. Whatever its origins, the three-day Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is a major happening in Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia. Houses are thoroughly cleaned, debts repaid, and hair cut, all in preparation for the renewal of good fortune in the New Year. Doors are gaily adorned with vertical gold and red scrolls inscribed with wishes of good luck and great prosperity, and doors and windowpanes are often given a fresh coat of bright red paint (old Nian, remember?)
Welcome the Golden Dragon
This New Year is particularly auspicious for a number of reasons. We are entering the Year of the Dragon, the most potent sign of the Chinese zodiac, associated with honor and good fortune. The five-clawed dragon, once the symbol of the Chinese emperor, now conjures up images of heroes and mythical triumph of good over evil. The dragon is all-powerful, able to influence the fates, and the Year is welcome news indeed in the Chinese community. (Other beneficiaries included Chinese couples, whose sex lives enjoyed a nice boost last May as they hit the mattresses in an effort to produce a genuine Dragon Baby. Hospitals in Singapore and Hong Kong are gearing up for slam bang business at this very moment).
And we're not just talking any old run of the mill Year of the Dragon here. We're talking the Year of the Golden Dragon, the culmination of the full five-zodiac cycle. In the Philippines, the last Year of the Golden Dragon (1940) featured Manuel Quezon as President, Field Marshal General Douglas MacArthur strutting around imperiously telling everybody what to do, and the whole region holding its collective breath trying to figure out what the Japanese were going to do next.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese community is giddy with excitement about the portents for change and success associated with the Golden Dragon. Folks in Hong Kong are singing "Happy Days are Here Again" for the first time since the end of colonialism in 1997 and the crushing blows of the Asian economic crisis. Things are finally looking up, as symbolized by the abundantly illuminated skyscrapers in the City of Light. Corporations are happily participating in Hong Kong's Millennium Lighting Competition and 400 buildings throughout the city are glimmering with aesthetic and not-so-aesthetic, but in any case colorful and shimmering, lights and special effects. To the great pleasure of merchants, shoppers are also whipping out their wallets and spending cash and plastic money at rates not seen in recent years.
Chinese New Year and the Philippine Context
The Chinese, often referred to as "ethnic Chinese" or "overseas Chinese", play a key role in business and the economy of all Southeast Asian nations, and the Philippines is no exception. As early as the Sung dynasty in the 10th century, Chinese entrepreneurs established operations in the coastal villages of the major Philippine islands. In 1405, the Ming emperor Yung Lo arbitrarily appointed a "governor" of Luzon. The name "Luzon" actually originated in the Chinese characters Lui Sung, a transliteration from a Tagalog phrase meaning "land of rice mortars." Although the political rule never stuck past the time of Yung Lo, the Chinese stayed and prospered. Indeed, when the Spanish first reached the little village that was to evolve into Manila, they found a small community of Chinese merchants actively plying their various trades.
The Chinese business families were originally known as sangleys, derived from xang lai, meaning "trade and barter" in the Hokkein dialect. By the eighteenth century, Chinese outnumbered the Spanish in Manila by four to one. They supplied the Spaniards with food, and served their economic needs as tinkers, tailors, and candlestick makers; the Spanish were far too aristocratic to work at menial jobs (for more historical context, you might want to check out my earlier columns An Oversimplified History Lesson and/or Cronies and Booty Capitalism). Indeed, the Catholic Church owes them a great deal -- they were the masons and stone cutters who built the majestic cathedrals, churches, and forts that stand to this day in Intramuros and at various outposts around the islands. Chinese artisans were also the ones who sculpted, gilded, and painted the wonderful works of religious art, the finely crafted marble and wood icons that still adorn many of the older Catholic churches here.
Most importantly, Chinese merchants traveled relentlessly and tirelessly around this scattered archipelago, at a time when transport was a lot less easy than it is today. They worked their way up from humble peddlers and brokers to medium scale retailers to major capitalists. Much like the Jews in medieval Europe, they basically cornered commerce and trade. According to Virginia Benitez Lucuanan, a well-known historian of Filipino financial institutions, "scratch a Filipino banker and you will find a Chinese grandfather." Even a family like the Lopezes, fabulously wealthy owners of ABS/CBN television network and many other enterprises, aren't Hispanic as their name suggests. Nope, they are of Chinese extraction, the original name being Lo, one of the commonest Chinese names. Ferdinand Marcos was part Chinese, and Cory Aquino's grandfather Josť Cojuangco was a penniless Chinese immigrant. According to one knowledgeable estimate, the Filipino Chinese, who account for less than 5% of the population, may account for as much as 40% of total domestic economic activity.
All of which is not to say much, other than to provide context for the fact that the Chinese New Year will be celebrated with just as much gusto in Manila as you'll find anywhere else in the region. The big parade will be in Binondo, featuring the Manila Chinatown Millenium Dragon, 228 feet long with 25 men hunkered down inside, brightly decorated with the colors of the Philippine flag. Right behind will be two smaller dragons (still 168 feet and 70 feet long respectively), two Southern Lions, two Northern Lions, nine Carps, two Unicorns, and a Phoenix.
Feng Shui Note and Yankee Filipino Family Plans
Come Friday night, we're headed down to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for a somewhat commercialized but more-or-less authentic celebration entitled "Follow the Golden Dragon in the Circle of Prosperity". We plan on joining in a parade around the Makati financial district intended to attract just the right chi with colorful lights, plenty of noisy racket, and the right spiritual scents. Hope I don't forget my incense. There will of course be mucho fireworks and midnight ceremonies featuring dances by dragons, lions, carps, and the irrepressible phoenix. At the close of the festivities, Citibank will announce the lucky "dragon baby", the first kid born after the toll of midnight in Manila, to receive a prize savings account.
Back home, we'll have an altar set up to honor our ancestors and lost loved ones. Under burning incense, my wife will place some Filipino delicacies and jelly beans, the favorite junk food of her beloved late aunt.
Me? Well, although not generally superstitious, I am making an exception in this promising Golden Dragon year in honor of my late brother Paul, born in the Year of the Rooster 1957, taken away from this earth by HIV/AIDS in the Year of the Monkey 1993. Paul was a pretty good martial artist and tough street fighter and worshipped the work of Bruce Lee, born in an earlier Year of the Dragon. Paul's favorite movie was Enter the Dragon. I watched it on video with him just before he died, which was about the millionth and sadly the last time he ever got to watch it. I shall forever-after have images of the Shao Lin temple and Bruce's whirling dervish fists of fury clobbering the evil drug lord's henchmen embedded somewhere deep in my neurons. I will therefore place a few of his favorite foods on the altar should he feel like a Chinese New Year's snack. Unfortunately, I know that his favorite recreational substance was a certain type of verboten weed, but I cannot provide such an offering given my own straightness in old age and the rather negative view the authorities would take of possessing such a thing. Nevertheless, I will place an imaginary joint right there beside the incense burner and flickering candles.
My favorite Feng Shui expert (my wife), tells me that certain astrologers are calling this particular year the "Year of the Angry Dragon" and that one must exercise great caution in business in the year to come. Dragons are tremendously powerful, and an angry one can do some really serious harm. There will be a lot of under-the-surface tension, like a volcano waiting to erupt. At the same time, though, the general karma is definitely on the positive side. I myself plan to get rich and famous! (Been planning on it for some time, but I'm hoping my old buddy Nian will pitch in this time around). Here's wishing all the readers of the Asia Pacific Management Forum a Happy and Prosperous Golden Dragon Year!
Comments, questions?... Post a note to the APMF discussion board (See left hand sidebar) or email Clarence direct
|...from Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas|
|Clarence Henderson Henderson Consulting International Manila Philippines|
|Clarence has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. He brings to the forum many years of experience in the Philippines and his monthly column integrates the experience of working in the Philippines with business tips earned the hard way! You can learn more about Clarence by clicking on his photo.||
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