Cemetery Manila

Manila Chinese Cemetery - Luxurious Compound for the Dead

Monday, February 04, 2013Ryan Mach

When D, a traveler I met in El Nido, told me he wanted to see the Manila Chinese Cemetery, I wasn't sure I was ready to jump on board. Seemed like a sad, creepy site but after doing some online research about the place, my curiosity suddenly got tickled. D's flight back to Amsterdam was scheduled at around 12 midnight so he had a few hours to spare. He certainly didn't want to spend his free time doing nothing. We met at Robinsons Mall in Malate where we deposited his stuff. From there, we took a cab to the cemetery.

[An elaborate mausoleum]

I initially planned on going to the Chinese Cemetery by taking the train, so D can also experience how Manila trains work but a little hiccup he encountered at Terminal 1 took some of his precious time so we opted for a much faster transport option. En route to our destination, D shared with me his awesome experiences traveling in the Philippines (mainly Palawan and the Visayas region). He only had great things to say about the country - friendly people, great beaches and cheap but decent accommodations - which made me so proud about my homeland that I almost cried (kidding).

[Millionaire's Row near the entrance]

We arrived at the cemetery at around four in the afternoon. Ideal time of the day to do a visit, in my opinion. The sun isn't too hot during this time so you'll feel comfortable roaming around. After paying Php100 for the entrance fee, we were given permission to go inside the gated necropolis. As we were walking along an empty street, we were approached by a guide who offered his tour services for Php700 an hour. My companion thought this was a bit expensive so we said no. The guide lowered his rate to Php500.

Second Oldest Cemetery
One interesting fact about Manila Chinese Cemetery is it is the second oldest cemetery in the metro, the oldest being La Loma Cemetery. It was founded in 1879 and used to be the burial site of Chinese immigrants who were denied in Catholic cemeteries during the Spanish regime. The cemetery was referenced in Dr. Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, in which Padre Damaso sent an order that the remains of Crisostomo Ibarra’s father had to be dug up and transferred here for being a heretic. It is one of the only two cemeteries (along with Paco Park) that had survived the World War II.

Most Expensive Cemetery
The compound, occupying a large piece of land in Sta. Cruz, features a pageant of handsome and expensive Chinese mausoleums, memorials and tombs built with various architectural styles that were in vogue for the last century. Some of these mausoleums have crystal chandeliers, air-conditioners, even hot and cold running water, kitchens and -beat this - flushing toilets! Our guide, Lakay, told us that such stuff aren't for the dead, but for the living who visit their loved one who passed away.
Descriptions of some of the streets like “Millionaire’s Row” and “Little Beverly Hills” go to show how expensive burials here are. The entire property is rife with Art deco-style architecture and according to Ivan Dy of Old Manila Walks, the cemetery has perhaps the biggest Art-deco collection of the funerary-kind, anywhere in the country.
"This row right here belongs to the millionaires," Lakay told us, pointing to the mausoleums in front, "You need at least 50 million pesos for the land."

"Only for the land?" I interjected, looking incredulously surprised.
"Yes, sir. It doesn't cover the construction," Lakay explained.  Take note that it is only good for 25-year lease. Once the contract has ended, the lease has to be renewed, otherwise the remains have to be exhumed and transferred to another tomb.

I glanced at the slum area nearby and was momentarily distraught by the fact that this burial compound has way better homes for the dead compared to the living.

Not Exclusive for Chinese
Contrary to what I have initially thought, the cemetery isn't off-limits to people who are not Chinese. Christians and Chinese Buddhists are in fact welcome here, assuming they want to be buried here, when they're dead of course. This explains the tombs that are pre-dominantly Catholic in architectural designs. Mormon and Protestant tombs can also be spotted in the area.

Famous Deceased
Here lies the remains of famous deceased people such as Ma Mon Luk (1896-1961), whose grave is marked by a crown; Girl Scouts organizer Josefa Llanes Escoda; Boy Scout of the Philippines founder Vicente Lim; and literary geniuses Rafael Roces and Manuel Arguilla. Also, Apolinario Mabini (1864-1903) was originally buried here before he was transferred to Batangas for being a Freemason.

The Importance of Having a Guide
Our walking tour would have been reduced to looking at the mausoleums and tombs if we didn't have a guide. The compound is too large that it will probably take you at least half a day to visit every nook and cranny. I'm not sure if our guide was one of the official guides at the cemetery but he seemed authentic anyway. He knew what he's talking about and gave loads of information that covered history, architecture and Chinese culture. Despite his not-so-perfect English and delivery, we thought he did quite good. (He kept on saying 'difficult' to refer to the poor).
When our time was up, the guide left us virtually alone. Save for a roving guard on a bicycle, we hardly saw any living soul around the area. It can get awfully quiet inside but as long as you stay on the lane, you won't get creep out. Try not to stay late as well. Although the compound is open until 7 in the evening, you don't want to be wandering around after sundown.

A Different Experience
As we were leaving the area, D commented that he has never seen anything quite like it. He said it's impressive. I'm not sure either if you will find something similar in other countries. This alone makes it an interesting visit. Apparently, the Chinese have high respect for their deceased family members hence the luxurious tombs and mausoleums. Some even look like mansions and villas! If anything, the walking tour inside the Manila Chinese Cemetery has given me insight on how the Chinese value their dead.

How to get to Manila Chinese Cemetery
The cheapest and fastest way to get to Manila Chinese Cemetery is to take the train - LRT-1 and alight at  Abad Santos Station. Once you've gone down from the station, take a left turn and head to the southeast direction, walk until you reach the South Gate of Chinese Cemetery. Alternatively, you can ride a tricycle from Abad Santos station (Php30). Or if you have some money to spare, better take a cab.
They say there is no entrance fee at the cemetery but we were charged Php100. I'm not sure what the deal was. When we asked for a receipt, the guard told us we could have it on our way out but we never got any when we exited. There are no official tour guides in the cemetery but you can hire a caretaker who also serves as a guide. The fee is around 500 to 800 pesos, negotiable, for 1 to 2 hours.

More photos can be found on my Facebook Page.

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