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Buried in Riches

A Cemetery For Wealthy Chinese

May 21, 2004


MANILA, Philippines -- Beyond the noise and chaos of Manila's city streets, behind a security gate with its guard, is a neighborhood of posh two-story houses surrounded by blooming foliage and nearly empty streets.

This desirable piece of Manila real estate has thousands of occupants, all of them dead. Welcome to the Chinese Cemetery, where even toilets and Jacuzzis are not too luxurious for the dearly departed.

Covering more than 130 acres of gently sloping land just north of Manila's Chinatown, the cemetery's opulence is a testament to the success of the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines -- and an embarrassment of riches. Its granite and marble tombs stand in stark contrast to Manila's shantytowns and garbage dumps, where some of the poorest citizens live.

"It's not exactly good for the image of the Chinese Filipinos," said Joaquin Sy, president of a Chinese civic group called Unity for Progress. "It paints an image of (being) too ostentatious. Considering many Filipinos live below the poverty line, it enhances the image of the Chinese as being rich."

When Chinese first arrived in the Philippines in large numbers about 150 years ago, many were poor and illiterate. Discrimination was the reason the cemetery was established towards the end of the 19th century. The Spanish colonial rulers wouldn't allow ethnic Chinese to be buried with them because of religious differences and because some had died of malaria, feared to be a "Chinese epidemic."

But now the ethnic Chinese have become the elite, even though they make up just 1.5 percent of the population of 84 million. Chinese businessmen such as Lucio Tan, owner of Philippines Airlines, are among the richest and most powerful men in the country.

They've built some of the biggest companies and shopping malls in the Philippines -- and they've built some of the biggest mausoleums.

Many are done in traditional Chinese architecture, decorated with intricately painted eaves and guarded by stone lions and dragons. Some are built to resemble churches. One has an all-white exterior and resembles a Mediterranean villa.

The larger houses have toilets and kitchens for visitors and staff, staircases leading to the upstairs and small gardens. One has a stainless steel crypt and fish ponds in the front yard, but lately the water supply has been unreliable.

The cemetery has street signs -- there's Mabini Road and Lim Hap Road -- and the mausoleum doors have mail slots. A few have electric fans on the walls. Several have altars with incense and canned fruit, a substitute for the fresh fruit usually offered to the dead. One is adorned with campaign posters from the recent election.

Mario Ong of the Philippine Chinese Charitable Association, which manages the cemetery, said he has no idea how many people are buried there, but says it's upwards of 10,000.

What about reports of swimming pools for the dead?

"That's an exaggeration," Ong said. But when pressed, he did admit, "yes, one has a small hot tub."

Ong said the cemetery has no space for newcomers. One of the main services now is cremation, of which they perform several dozen every week.

"The cemetery is full, full house," he said. "Now it's a question of protection."

One caretaker at the cemetery said a plot of land costs about $6,000 for 25 years; on top of that, owners usually spend about $30,000 on construction.

The digs are so nice even the not-yet-dead have tried to reside at the cemetery. Squatters have climbed fences to get in. Until the 1960s, many families employed grave watchmen to stay at the mausoleum around the clock. But when the guards started bringing their families to live on the grounds, the practice was banned.

"The Philippines has a lot of squatters. If we let them in, they'd take over," said Ong. "Because of tensions in relations between Filipinos and Chinese, we try to be flexible. We've tried to prevent the problem from becoming a social issue."

The cemetery is a tranquil oasis in the city. One recent Sunday, the only sounds were birds chirping, leaves rustling and the occasional crowing of a fighting cock.

Several hundred caretakers work at the cemetery. Some stay at the job generation after generation, passing it onto their children.

Although squatters no longer spend the night at the cemetery, the caretakers and their families find it a nice place for a picnic, and even a nap. They stretch out on the cool marble floors or even on top of the crypts.

Nonito Mangilo and his wife have been caretakers for more than 25 years. Doesn't he find the surroundings a bit too ostentatious?

"For rich people, it's no problem," he said matter-of-factly.

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