Change of Scene (November 15, 1996, Asia Magazine)
by Francoise Joaquin and Anthony Woo

A jeepney bearing an enormous be-ribboned Christmas present. Santa Claus in a carabao-drawn cart.  A manger with coconut-palms being overhead.  In creating designs for the annual batch of Christmas cards that line the racks of his family-owned chain of gift-shops, 32-year-old Robert Alejandro veers away from the traditional Western images of the season and does what a growing number of Filipino graphic artists are doing nowadays - interpreting Christmas through indigenous design.

    He claims that Papemelroti, a 20-year-old chain of boutiques owned by his family, was among the first stores to regularly incorporate a large percentage of Filipino designs into its line of commercial Christmas cards.  The designs were well-received, he remembers, because there were few of their kind available at mainstream bookstores.  "There was no question about making Filipino designs," he says.  "That's what I feel I've alwyas been out to do - make Philippine imagery world class."

    Filipinos have flavoured their celebration of Christmas with a hodgepodge of customs picked up from different cultures, primarily the Spanish.  Few Asian countries treat the Yuletide season as seriously as does the predominately Roman Catholic Philippines, which usually starts preparing for Christmas well before Advent.  The celebrations revolve around the religious aspect of the season, from the misa de gallo or early-morning Masses that the faithful flock to for nine days before Christmas, to the observance of the Feast of the Three Kings in early January.

    "I've always thought that the Filipino Christmas is special - and differnet from those celebrated abroad," says Alejandro.   "How can I capture that?  Why is it special?

    He prefers the use of secular images - families celebrating, whimsical street scenes, provincial tableaus - over the more traditional angels and mangers.

    "I choose mostly secular images; slice of life portraits.  When you've done one manger, you've done them all.  How many can you do?" he asks.

    At the same time, he repeats many symbols, like th parol, the customary star-shaped Filipino Christmas lantern made of capiz, the inner layer of oyster shells.

    "You can't veer away too much from all the traditional icons," he ruefully admits, "because those are the ones that make it Christmas in the first place."

    This year, a third of the 12,000 Christmas cards produced by Papemelroti features a Filipino motif, designed by one of several Alejandro siblings.  Local designs have become much more common, whether produced by the major card-makers or by small independent entrepreneurs with backyard operations.

    The attempt to indigenise Christmas is also clear in giftbooks such as a A Child's Treasury of Philippine Christmas Stories, published this year.  In it, we meet characters like Bamba, a young bamboo tree who wants to Christmas tree; a shy Christmas lantern named Bituin (Star); and an Aeta baby taken in by refugeesfleeing the lahar flows in central Luzon.

    "It's definitely grown," Alejandro says about the industry.  "And the market will continue to grow as the designs improve." 

    The Filipino Christmas is alive and well on cards in publishing houses up and down the country, whether in the colorful lines of children's drawings put out by the Children's Museum or UNICEF, or in the handmade collages typically found in the numerous Christmas bazaars, or in the artwork commissioned by corporations.

    But not everyone in the region is trying to localise Christmas.  In Hong Kong, for instance, the attitude is the opposite to Alejandro's.   Christmas is a Western concept and trying to mix in local images does not work, say designers.

    "Chinese Christmas cards are strange.   People would think you were a hick if you sent them," says designer Andrew Law.

    Department stores and shopping malls are sticking to the same principle.  The upmarket Pacific Place will import all its Yuletide displays from the United States, including Santa Claus.

    "We have never thought about a mixed Chinese and Western theme,"  says a spokesman for the mall.  "Christmas is a Western holiday.  In the same way, we don't think of adding Western elements to our Lunar New Year displays, which are purely Chinese."

    "It would be like replacing the God of Fortune with the Statue of Liberty, or Asianizing Jesus.  It wouldn't do," adds Tommy Li, who heads his own design firm.

    Some companies, however, are experimenting.  Kan Tai-keung has been designing cards for the Macau Bank of China.

    "For cross-cultural card you could employ Chinese calligraphy, "he says.  "You can still use pine trees but execute them in the way they appear in traditional Chinese water colours.  But ultimately, Christmas is a Western holiday."


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