Wednesday, October 6, 2010


ClOWNING AROUND. Two young Kapampangan lads dressed up as harlequins for the annual 'karnabal' revelry in Manila. Ca. mid-1920s.

The annual Manila Carnival, first held at the Luneta in 1908, was a big national event, unparalleled in spectacle and pageantry. It owes much of its attraction to the fabulous pavilions, exciting rides and shows, the presence of regal Carnival beauties, as well as the rambunctious atmosphere created by revelers that took to the streets in fantastic outfits and costumes.

Indeed, the very first Carnival of 1908, was in fact a one big costume and masquerade ball. The grotesque dances, pageants and processions had participants masked and dressed as harlequins, clowns and allegorical figures. The pageant that involved the Occidental and Oriental royalties featured characters dressed in formal raiments of the richest variety. Following the ceremonies, the evenings were lighted up “to show costumes, masks and masquerades”, leading to the Grand Masquerade Ball of Nations.

The Fancy Dress Balls and the Costume Contests proved to be one of the more awaited events, a showcase of Filipino creativity at it most imaginative. Prizes were given to costumed participants; loving cups were awarded to the most beautiful lady’s costume, the most beautiful gentleman’s costume and to the most attractive group. The succeeding balls were a combination of both a masquerade and costume party, with the traditional unmasking happening at midnight. No one was allowed entrance unless he was suitably garbed in a costume.

Drawn to the wild Carnival atmosphere, Kapampangans took to the big city to participate in the costumed events. One notable Kapampangan joined the costumed capers of the Carnival, and he recounted his Carnival experience in his unpublished 1975 memoirs, “The Story of My Life”. Jose Gutierrez David, the future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court was just 17 when he, together with his friends, attended the country’s much ballyhooed first Carnival. He recalls:

“In 1908, the Philippine Carnival in Manila offered free rides on the train for all persons coming from the provinces who wore costumes. For lack of sufficient money for the fare, I took advantage of this offer. I donned the costume which I had used in one Spanish drama presentation. It was the costume of a Prince together with the wig and crown. I used a mask—as all other costumed participants did—so that nobody would recognize me.

It so happened that Chong (Concepcion Roque, his future wife), her father and sister Amanda boarded the same train for Manila. I learned from Chong afterwards that she had recognized me although I did not greet her. The Carnival Queen then was Pura Villanueva from Iloilo who became Mrs. Teodoro Kalaw. I stayed in Manila three days attending the festival every night. I used to see Chong in the Pampanga Pavilion. I stayed in the house of my friend surnamed Dimacale on Raon Street. I just took my breakfast there and I ate luncheons and dinners in a Chinese Restaurant, the “Panciteria Antigua: at Plaza Sta. Cruz. I ate the same food at noon and at night. It consisted of one bowl of “pancit mike” (noodle) which cost me 10 centavos and two plates of rice worth two centavos each. Fourteen centavos per meal in all. This was what all my budget could afford.

The succeeding year (1909), my friends, Zoilo Hilario, Maximo Vergara, Joaquin Gozun and I went to Manila for two days during the Carnival season, Julia Agcaoili was the Queen. We all slept in the house in Bacolor on the eve of our trip on board of one of the steamships of Teodoro Yangco plying between Guagua and Manila. The fare by boat was much cheaper than by train. We had to be on board at 6 o’clock sharp in the morning, so we had to be awake at 3 o’clock to go to Guagua, negotiating a distance of about six kilometers from our house, to be on time to catch the boat.

In Manila, we stayed in the house of a brother of my friend, Joaquin Gozun, a shoemaker or a ‘zapatero’ who was also from Bacolor and who entertained us during our two-day sojourn in Manila. Once in a while, we took our luncheon or dinner in the panciteria, Dutch treat.
The little money I had to spend in those trips to go and stay in Manila, to attend the joyous season, came from my meager (few pesos) royalty for my ‘zarzuela’, and from petty cash given by my brother Amado.”

The “Karnabal” in Manila was certainly the place to be for a ‘promdi’ teenager in search of new experiences, new thrills. Under a mask, concealed by a costume, he could be another person he wanted to be, free to give vent to his emotion and imagination, as he loses himself to the sights and sounds of an emerging nation on the road to progress—all in the ‘greatest annual event of the Orient”.

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