“What is that lovely smell?” was a comment heard over and over at the Centennial Square in Victoria, British Columbia, on June 15. Even before the official start at 10 a.m. of Mabuhay, the Filipino Canadian community of Victoria’s yearly observance of Philippine Independence Day, unusual smells, sights and sounds filled the air, enticing people to stay and watch and eat, smile and even dance.
A small city of tents sprouted surrounding the park fountain. On one side of the square, next to city hall, was a food kiosk built like a traditional Filipino village house, or nipa hut, with woven reed mats on the walls.
People lined up for the famous Filipino adobo – chicken or pork stewed in vinegar, soy sauce, and spices; vegetarians had the option of spring rolls, called lumpia, served by officers and volunteers of the Victoria Filipino-Canadian Association (VFCA), one of four organizations serving Filipino-Canadians in Victoria. All served with rice, of course.
The first Mabuhay event in Victoria was held in June 2018 to commemorate June 12, 1898, when Filipino revolutionary leaders declared Philippine independence from Spain – after more than 300 years of Spanish colonial rule.
This year, the Filipino community in Victoria had other reasons to celebrate. They are observing 50 years since a pioneering group of Filipino immigrants, mostly nurses and teachers, came together to formally organize and register the VFCA.
They also joined Filipino Canadians across Canada in marking the first ever Philippine Heritage Month, an observance decreed by a motion of the Canadian House of Commons in November 2018. It is worth noting that 2019 marks 70 years since the official relationship between the Philippines and Canada was established with a trade mission to Manila in 1949.
Further down from the VFCA kiosk, members of the Victoria FilipinoCanadian Seniors Association (VFCSA) dressed in various Filipino costumes – from the malong of Mindanao and brightly-colored tapis, or wraparound skirts, from the north - could not make halo-halofast enough for eager customers. Halo-halo, crushed ice mixed with jello, custard, ice cream and other sweet ingredients, is a treat not easily available in Victoria.
Closer to the parkade, the Victoria FilipinoCanadian Caregivers Association (VFCCA) served up pinakbet, a vegetable stew beloved among Filipinos from the northern part of the Philippines.
All four Filipino Canadian organizations in Victoria - the VFCA, the VFCCA and the VFCSA as well as the Bayanihan Cultural and Housing Society (BCHS) – are run entirely by volunteers. Dozens of them spent hours practicing songs and dances, cooking, preparing promotional materials, setting up booths, and publicizing the event. Presidents Dominga Passmore (BCHS), Agie Myhre (VFCA), Connie Custodio (VFCSA) and Annette Beech (VFCCA) were everywhere, doing everything – from putting up tents to serving food to making sure garbage was collected. Past BCHS president Sid Emmanuel played his usual role of event photographer.
Victoria’s Filipino Canadian organizations draw their strength from the active participation of various individuals and groups. Fewer than 100 in 1969, Canadians of Filipino origin in Victoria now number about 5,000, and the community keeps growing.
It was no surprise to see, at Mabuhay, a number of businesses owned and managed by Filipino Canadians and various social and religious groups. They offered a wide range of goods and services. A group specialized in lechon – roast suckling pig; another, as a salute to Canada, sold hot dogs. There were tables with sticky rice cakes, hats, fans, fabrics and hangers with barongs (the Filipino men’s shirt made from fine pineapple fiber). Services offered included employee recruitment for a caregiving service and ways of sending pasalubong, or gifts, to friends and family in the Philippines, by cargo. The B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union (BCFMWU) and Tim Horton’s, festival sponsors, were a noticeable presence. The BCFMWU and Tim Horton’s count many Filipino Canadians among its members and workers.
Vendors and guests alike craned their necks to see the action on the Centennial Square stage, where the VFCA’s Sampaguita Dance Group and various guest artists presented several hours of song, dance and commentary. The audience cheered as feet flew between clacking bamboo poles and clay jars remained balanced on the heads of colorfully-dressed dancers as they swayed. Brass gongs clanged throughout the afternoon.
Emcees provided cultural and historical contexts for the presentations. Guest dancers in wide skirts who danced to mariachi music made the day not just a Filipino celebration but a truly multicultural one. Audience members danced happily along.
“That was so good!” said a young boy loudly sipping the last cold drops of his halo-halo through a straw.
“I just came back from the Philippines. How I love it there! This is like being back there!” remarked an older gentleman whose wife is from the Philippines.
“I am from Alberta,” said a Filipino woman, proudly sporting a jacket with the design of the Philippine flag. Looking through the directory of Filipinos in Victoria that the VFCA, the VFCCA, the VFCSA and the BCHS had compiled, she commented: “This is such a good resource, and what a fabulous event. Mabuhay ang Victoria!”
Mabuhay indeed! “Long life and prosperity” to the Filipino-Canadian community of Victoria, BC, and congratulations! On to the next celebration on June 2020!