Thursday, January 15, 2009

Virtual Ethnography 101: A Tour to Asia's City of Life

Copyright © 2009 by Chester B. Cabalza

Rainy June when we visited Hongkong for a five-day vacation, but as fate would have it, when we arrived to this affluent erstwhile British colony, my dad got sick. Mom and dad quickly quarantined themselves in their hotel room for a day but with an instant medication from my physician brother. After a quick recuperation from mild fatigue, he later enjoyed the remaining trips.

That week the weather turned gloomy in the city. Thick gray clouds roofed the islands, while showers of rain dripped over the windowpane of the classic yet modern elevating tram, when we reached this breathtaking famed zenith. The tram was designed elegantly to transport tourists atop Victoria Peak – acropolises of the rich and famous denizens in Hongkong.

The islands of Hongkong and Kowloon, 693 miles away from topsy-turvy Metro Manila, sparkled beautifully. It magically coated the sky with rainbow colors that surely awed us. From Victoria Peak, overlooking handsome skyscrapers and green mountains, flanked by panoramic harbor and opulent condominiums, the view transformed into a postcard shimmering in our weary minds.

It eased my childlike admiration of a megacity and virtually massaged dad’s body aches; becoming therapeutic for a weakening soul. From blue to orange painted sky, it magnified the glaze of sunset.

At dusk, steel and glass edifices and numerous ultramodern architectural wonders, reverberated with glowing bright colors. Atop was windy yet full of merry sightseers while looking at the towering skyline. Then, we chatted with friendly people and heard fine testimonials from fellow tourists. We laughed and shared inspiring tales at the center of this global city. And for me, that moment was a perfect setting for us as family.

There was magic at the harbor.

Light rain sprinkled but raindrops soaked us.

Nevertheless, the harbor’s natural beauty, entwined by eastern and western cultures, incessantly gleamed. This reflected China’s gem as one of the continent’s truly dynamic and uniquely Asian tiger. Dancing lights glistened and wavered the way a dragon play with firing balls when excited. Neon lights extendedly surprised almost all travelers. It was only then when I knew the essence of HK’s slogan as the City of Life!

Buildings here are designed and constructed following the primordial influence of feng (wind) and shui (water) to cast away bad spirits and welcome luck. This is a belief of putting things into equilibrium, or in perfect harmony, making Chinese people generally superstitious. They love every single drop of rain. Having been appropriated this blessing with prosperity and money. Remember shui?

The next day’s tour was in Ocean Park and Hongkong’s Disney Land. But the couple had been arguing, especially for dad who wanted to buy Chinese herbs to increase his sex hormones. For an old man seduced at enhancing his ego in bed.

“Stop mimicking me when I say these words to all of you…China cures everything!” dad admonished us, “then you start laughing at me! Why? It is true when I say that medicines in China are miraculous!” dad’s words to mom.

“I thought you had already taken your viagra,” mom would instead tease him.

At night, my three brothers and me would go out for a stroll and shopping spree in Mongkok. A known flea market where a plethora of bogus branded goods is for sale. There we shopped until midnight and practiced briefly how to haggle and bargain - the Hongkong style. Although, buying stuffs here were differently done in Manila, silently, we refused to entertain noisy and aggressive vendors.

Some would mouth us over if we refused to buy their goods. Unfortunately, I even experienced to be embarrassed and shouted at by an angry old woman when I tried to wear a fake Rolex watch from her store, and helplessly, had done nothing to refute myself. In my astonishment, I just kept quiet. Not even appeased by my rough kuya Carlo, who remained urbane, to the rude and aged female Chinese hawker!

Again, glowing and brightly colored billboards, emblazoned with Chinese characters, were massively hanged all over the merchandises. Young and slim sultry fashionistas ramped gorgeously in their posh glossy attires, yet in my amusement, they also knew how to haggle for lower prices at the open-area stalls.

A throng of shoppers made me goofy of buying too many pirated items. The mass wave curled the aisles of the crowded streets while my brothers sought for remembrances and souvenir gifts. Walked here and there. Shortly, my adventurous feet dragged me off in a hoop of shops to search for a laptop, but I ended at an unimpressive restaurant, blowing my hot braised noodles and congee.

The four of us rushed off to the packed Mass Transit Railway, and suddenly, I felt woozy of the mass wave. We emerged from the subway and continued our window-shopping along Nathan Road at the Kowloon side.

Kuya Ian invited us for a drink, so we stopped at Seven Eleven convenient store, where Chinese male chauvinists bought and drank San Miguel beer. As a proud Filipino yuppie, enjoying a vacation in this tiny yet vibrant city, I felt proud for a Pinoy brand going global. I also heard that gorgeous local Hongkong celebrities endorsed this well-loved Filipino beer.

The next day, Filipino families, honeymooners, travelers and groups congregated at the hotel lobby. A petite tour guide head counted, checked the vouchers, explained restrictions and replied at queries on our trip to Guandong.

As I stepped on the shuttle, immediately, I occupied the first row with kuya Ian who sat beside me; behind us were kuya Carlo and Christian who were seated on the second row; and behind them were mom and dad.

“A friendly reminder,” I heard a high-pitched voice said.

“Avoid buying medicines when we arrive in Shenzhen,” uttered the tour guide in her mangled English, “they may be cheap but a lot of complaints have reached out travel agency. Please let this be a secret, though,” she said or otherwise she would be reprimanded from Chinese authorities.

Warning is a precaution!

“But China cures everything,” in dad’s heartbreaking words but we just laughed at him.

Christian had been talkative, while at the same time excited, as some tourists eavesdropped to the tour guide, on our way to the station. After a smooth travel on the Kowloon Canton Railway, we fell in line again when we reached China’s southern gateway. This time around, we were paired by two's. While we stood up and watched Chinese people come and go at the sprawling immigration, unfortunately, a snake-like queue bored our zest at the stiff immigration rules.

Hongkong and Shenzhen denizens have been abiding astringent rules even when Britain turned over the prosperous island to Mainland China since 1997. This was the product of one country, two systems policy imposed by current government of Red China.

In a sudden haste, all of us turned like obedient pupils to our tour guide, in an excursion to Shenzhen. The perception of a Chinese communist, iron-fist discipline, innately prevailed in us as we stepped into the newest megacity of China.

We listened in then chuckled at the intonation of native speakers here as they spoke Cantonese, the lingua franca in Guandong province. After long hours of waiting, another mass wave welcomed us again. However, even with sophistication reflected through massive skyscrapers in this young industrialized southern city, Hongkong remains to be the city of life.

In Shenzhen, men spit around and street children either slept in pavements or under the bridges, which were unseen in Hongkong.

As we toured around, it was recounted to us by the tour guide, that Shenzhen started as a simple and meager fishing village. And now it ascended to become the next mighty city of China; still growing and booming, compared to its giant capitalist neighbor Hongkong.

Subsequently, we smelled the scent of China. The aroma of the favorite lychee was everywhere. Until now, the place is known for this special fruit. As early as June, lychee trees bore this sweet produce. But every July of the year, it is always proclaimed as the Lychee Festival in this fertile region.

Native people are pompous of their delicacy. Even ancient emperors and empresses from Beijing had commanded their men to harvest lychee fruits from this southern province, gifted with fine weather. The richness of soil suitable for the delicate pink fruit to grow here is also the chief ingredient for making lychee teas. For many ages, it was said that this concoction was used as a beauty secret of a beautiful empress, who in her old age, her youthful beauty had encompassed more other concubines. Because of that fantastic story, ladies in the tour, hurriedly bought packs of beauty secret.

Apparently, part of our tour was a free acupressure – purely electric transmission, and not the acupuncture with needle on it. Colossal oriental Chinese herbs and wildlife species, preserved in huge bottles, are used inside the experimental room. And perhaps, aimed at broaching to foreigners, and launching to tourists, the power of ying and yang (the balance of nature).

Dad was ultimately gladdened of what he saw and experienced.

Midday, after a series of trips to the museum, orchards and lychee teas, and laureate lunch from a world-renowned Canton cuisine, we opted to stop in another landmark of the city. Shenzhen’s factories. Shopping never elapsed from the minds of our fellow Filipino visitors. After all, China is the world’s factory, and the adjacent special economic zone, is known as one of its manufacturing bases.

Midnight when we arrived at the immigration. A multitude of visitors to Hongkong awaited their chances to cross the border. All of us felt tired after a hectic day, of touring and watching cultural shows, shopping, and picture taking in mainland China.

Afraid that something might happen to us, in her kind act to accompany us to the other side’s territory, and turn over us safely to her counterpart tour guide in Hongkong, our brisk petite tour guide from Shenzhen, also took her chance to cross the border, yet she was restrained of entry. In the end, she bid farewell to us in her melancholic face, right after, when stern officers barred her. But nothing we could do about, not even enough for the small amount of tip, given by the few of us.

When we reached Hongkong – Asia’s city that never sleeps, as they said, we were worn out but filled with joyful reflections. In a few minutes, the twinkling lights of Asia’s New York kicked our spirits alive again.


Three years after my family’s tour in the coastal cities of China, out of the blue, I enrolled for basic Chinese Mandarin at the National Defense College of the Philippines. I told myself that I really needed to study the current number one spoken language and future tongue of the world. I tried my best to learn, grasped new words and sentences, with proper intonation, which I deemed would be useful to me, when I will visit again southern China and other Southeast Asian countries, with assimilated Chinese minorities. As well as, dreaming to wander around in Beijing and Shanghai, sometime.

I thought learning mandarin Chinese was fun!

Actually, it is not difficult learning Chinese. Only the stigma attached with it makes it thorny! As I recalled, this foreign language uses morphemes to represent characters with corresponding meaning. It requires simple logic. Unlike other romance and austronesian languages which are more syllabic. In mandarin Chinese, it needs neither particles nor prefixes. Somehow, this is the reason, why most Tsinoys speaking Tagalog, can utter choppy sentences.

According to my laŏshi or teacher, upon studying mandarin, I also needed to understand their culture. Chinese people are very welcoming to outsiders who eagerly want to learn their language and appreciate acculturation to their customs. Although, I myself had to admit that calligraphy writing and reading characters were the hardest thing to do in any Sinitic language, which I suffered the same fate when I learned Nihonggo. Good thing now in Chinese mandarin, pinyin or the romanized characters of standard mandarin, based on the Beijing dialect, are easy to follow.

It was said to me, that in the realm of communication, an average person in China needs to memorize at least 2,000 characters to be able to read and write efficiently. In the Chinese kinship system, one needs to recognize a relative based on the latter’s seniority and position within a chronological sequence of kinsmen. In other words, Chinese society is very hierarchic. More so, the traditional Chinese numeration system is a base-ten system employing nine numerals and additional symbols for the place-value components of powers of ten.

I deemed that practice is so important for any language proficiency.

Every after classes, I tried to pronounce tonal queries with right intonation to my two-year old son, so he could mimic some Chinese words. I repeatedly ask and say words like - Nĭ haŏ ma? Nĭ hĕn haŏ! Bàba yě hĕn haŏ. Wŏ aì nìmen? Shì, xieixe! Qin wĕn? Nĭ hĕn haŏ kãn! Bàba hàn mamå aì nì (How do you do? You’re fine! Daddy is also fine. Do you love me? Yes, thank you. Can I kiss you then? You look very good. Daddy and mommy love you so much).

In August of 2008, Cathay - Marco Polo’s name to China, shone with the much-celebrated summer Olympics showdown, and blasted with über and mammoth spectacles. Yet, it was dubbed as a belated kick-off party for the Middle Kingdom, as a major power in today’s world affairs.

In my reading, the last time the People’s Republic of China was featured in Newsweek, its editor Fareed Zakaria, bashed Cathay as a fragile superpower, which didn’t know it was already a superpower. China looked like a confused great actor who won a grand prize award on the stage and couldn’t believe that it had achieved an award.

I heard that it took only 10 years for this dragon power to double its economic output, which bested other Atlantic superpowers such as Britain to develop for 58 years, and the United States to progress for 47 years. Faster than a fellow powerful East Asian neighbor Japan, which built-up its economy for 33 years. China defied all the odds and gauged its power as the world’s factory. And more promises and surprises will come its way, reviving its former elegance and wealth, during the peak of the mighty Han, T’ang and Ming dynasties.

My paternal grandparents once said to me when they visited Macau last year, after their long vacation to Las Vegas, the later place is getting bigger and promising. The face-lift of the ex-Portuguese colony is more handsome than the deserted and sinful city of Las Vegas. Surprisingly, my lolo said that Ivy league universities in the States are luring bright and wealthy Chinese students to study in the US. And in many instances, these elite Chinese scholars even tops their chosen fields, mostly, in engineering and hard sciences.


It was during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when the Philippine-Chinese friendship reached its peak. In one of the accounts of Sino-Sulu relations narrated in the Ming Annals, it was recorded that the Sultan of Sulu, Paduak Patara, visited China in 1417 where he was royally received by the Chinese emperor. But the sultan was stricken ill and died in the city of Dezhou at Shandong province. The benevolent emperor honored the Muslim king with the title of Kong Ting (brother) and ordered the construction of a handsome mausoleum to mark the tomb of a Filipino monarch.

Based on scholastic readings, the above story has often been cited, as the origin of our country’s diplomatic relations with the Middle Kingdom. However, everytime I enter the halls of the National Defense College of the Philippines, I always sight a massive mural, depicting the roles of Chinese soldiers who rebelled against the oppressive colonial rule during the Spanish occupation.

Filipino historians would later refer to the series of revolts as the Chinese Uprising.

In 1953, Chinese rebels led by P’an Ho Wu killed Governor Luis Perez Dasmariñas. The illustrado or bourgeois class, which led the Reform Movement, and the Philippine Revolution, contra the Spaniards and Americans, was basically of Chinese-Filipino mestizo class. Worth mentioning was Jose Ignacio Paua, the full-blooded Chinese general in the revolutionary army. He was in charge for building a munitions factory in Imus, Cavite. Later, he was chosen as the revolutionary army’s main fundraiser who led many battles against the Spaniards.

In the war of resistance opposing the Japanese, the local Chinese organized eight guerilla groups to fight side by side with the Filipino guerillas. Most notable was the Philippine-Chinese Anti-Japanese Guerilla Force, popularly known by its Chinese name as Wha Chi or Squadron 48. The group, composed mainly of Chinese blue-collar workers, was linked-up with the Hukbalahap.

Even in modern times, I thought some Filipinos with well-known Chinese lineages, who are strongly integrated to the mainstream Pinoy culture, have triumphantly succeeded in leading the different sectors of Philippine society. Some even believe though, that Tsinoys in the Philippines, are always partners of Filipino people in the fight for freedom.


Three years ago, I had seen China grow so fast-paced during my last visit to the newest economic superpower in the world. Many more spectators are now convinced that the dragon is truly awake, stretching its muscles, flapping its wings, and soaring high, but perhaps would soon puff potent fires, when intimidated. After all, the Chinese were the first makers of important inventions, the world had ever treasured, such as the paper, compass, gunpowder, block printing, silk and the government service.

I deem that for our archipelagic country to maintain good relations and to maximize its diplomatic skills with the emerging power of China; it must learn how to strategically bandwagon with the Middle Kingdom, but at the same time, to smoothly engage with the United States, which stands still, as the Philippine’s longest ally in modern times.

China’s challenge now is how to effectively convince the Philippines and our neighbors in its intention to stay as a benign power. Although, it has presently adopted the principle of a “peaceful rise”, however, there were still doubts if it would continually rise peacefully in the future.

In my view, uncertainties associated with ‘misunderstood’ China, might still trigger regional or maybe global apprehensions. But now, as a major Asian power, and eventually as a potential rival of the lone superpower in the world, which is the United States, in the near future, some countries would want China to behave well and exercise its power responsibly.

Slowly, China is learning from its past lesson as a claustrophobic, sleeping giant country, and now assimilating itself in the world, to foster its economic and trade, security and culture, around Asia and the deterritorialized globe of the 21st century, in attaining a similar path of prosperity and order.

When it rains it really pours for China.

Did you remember shui?

More glories to Zhongguo!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The dragon (China) is now awakened and learns now how to puff potent fires! China's gems include Macau and Hong Kong, now wants to claim the Spratlys Islands. China is learning the ways of the west. Trying to be aggressive today and acting like a superpower, when in fact in the past, they just nurtured trade and diplomatic ties when they first circumnavigated the world - which was the best strategy they did so far unlike the west that conquered and divided the world. I hope China will redeem its values...