YOKOHAMA CITY, November 14, 2005 (STAR) By Tanya T. Lara - Early autumn in Yokohama City, Japan, is a quiet time. Save for the ongoing avant-garde exhibit Art Circus, the International Triennale of Contemporary Art, at Yamashita Park, nothing jumps out of the ordinary. At Isezaki-cho Plaza last October 23, however, the silence was broken by the loud thumping of drums by an ati-atihan group and the colorful display of a Philippine summer tradition: Flores de las Islas or sagala, a 400-year-old Christian festival commemorating the finding of the cross by St. Helena and her son Constantine.

The district of Isezaki-cho is like Yokohama’s version of Malate. It is a series of paved streets closed to vehicular traffic and flanked by trendy shops, bargain stores, high-end department stores, flower vendors, restaurants, coffee shops, and bars with just the right amount of sleaze to make the area interesting. It is here where local officials turn up to campaign on their makeshift stages, where retailers hand out flyers to disinterested people, and street performers play for yen. Past midnight in Yokohama, Russian vendors are out peddling knockoffs on improvised tables, and much later, around 4 or 5 in the morning, the entertainers come out to, well, entertain themselves in karaoke bars specifically for bar and night-shift workers.

It was here where Flores de las Islas was held, a project of the Manila International Sister Cities Association Inc. (MISCA) to bring part of Manila’s culture to its sister city Yokohama. While most cities have only a handful of sister cities around the world (Yokohama, for instance, has eight), Manila has 31, including three in the United States and Japan; Nice, Bangkok, Brazil City, and Cartagena. According to MISCA chairwoman Sylvia Lacuna, Yokohama is one of the most active sister cities of Manila. For one, both are port cities, and second, Yokohama has the second largest Filipino population next to Tokyo. It is also significant to the Philippines because Dr. Jose Rizal stayed here and fell in love with a samurai’s daughter, Usui Seiko or O Sei San, on his way to the United States in 1888. Also a significant historical figure with stronger ties to Yokohama, but mostly glossed over, is Artemio Ricarte, who lived there for more than a decade.

"MISCA was started during the time of Mayor Villegas," Sylvia Lacuna says. "We normally make an offer, and then it is passed by both city councils as a resolution. Once you’re a sister city, the formal ties are forever. The relationship is purely cultural but given the circumstances back home, I think we should venture into economic tie-ups as well."

Yokohama is funding over 2,000 scholars in Manila, from grade school to college, and regularly invites Filipino students to visit and observe. What does Manila give in return? "We’re only now giving something back, like the . We will have an exchange starting next year where Japanese students will come to the Philippines for three weeks."

Of all the Filipino traditions to highlight its cultural programs, MISCA zeroed in on the sagala after it held talks in June with Yokohama’s Filipino community. "It was actually requested by the Filipinos here who miss the celebrations and fiestas. We wanted to stage it in May as is traditional, but then we would have competed with Yokohama’s own festivals."

According to Sylvia, the P3 million budget for the project "came from the Philippine Tourism Authority, several agencies and Japanese individuals. Yokohama gave half a million pesos for the event as well."

The biggest challenge of staging a sagala on foreign shores is obviously the logistics. Designers Barge Ramos, who did the barong tagalog, and Steve de Leon, who did the gowns, brought 38 pieces. Both Manileños, the two had previously worked with Sylvia in 1988 for an international exposition in Yokohama. "It’s a homecoming of sorts after 16 years," says Barge.

The barong and gowns featured Philippine symbols such as ethnographic prints, Philippine stamps, and indigenous materials. Barge’s barongs were mostly hand-painted jusi while Steve’s intricately designed gowns (packed in five huge suitcases) featured symbols in embroidery and headdresses.

Production designer Ulay Tantoco had an even bigger challenge: how to transport the heavy props for the sagala. "We wanted to use bamboo and props that we really use in the Philippines. We had collapsible kubols and arkos and had them shipped ahead of time."

Hirokiy Maeda, one of the escorts for the sagala, came to Japan last year to live with his Japanese father and Filipino mother. For the past 15 years he had been staying in the Philippines and would see his parents only when they came to visit. "It was weird at first, and difficult since I couldn’t understand the language but my mom enrolled me in Japanese language courses and now I’ve adjusted to life here."

According to Barge Ramos, one of the girls they flew in from Manila was going to meet her Japanese father for the first time during the sagala.

Stories like this are not uncommon among Fil-Japs or Japinoys. For the sagala, several such boys acted as escorts, along with Filipinas working in Yokohama. It was, as most Pinoy information is disseminated, through word of mouth that they got to know of the event. Rose, a department store worker, was the "abogada" in the sagala, and was invited by a friend of a friend who saw an ad on WINS channel about the event needing Filipinas to participate in the sagala.

It was truly a spectacle to see Flores de las Islas. With the sagala preceded by the ati-atihan group of Pandacan, whose enthusiastic and high-decibel performance grabbed everybody’s attention, the parade was received with applause by Filipinos and Japanese onlookers. As one Pinay put it, "it’s something I miss about the Philippines – the high spirits that accompany such fiestas."

Unfortunately, not all the Japanese onlookers or expats in Yokohama comprehended what was going on. Lacking flyers about the event, it was mistaken for a Thai or Indonesian festival, even though part of the sagala featured patriotic symbols such as the Philippine flag. Without a backgrounder, what is a foreigner to make of a group of 10 boys with their faces and bodies painted black and symbols from the Quezada tribe dancing and beating drums on the streets? Or why some ladies were carrying a cross, a scale, a Bible, and sword? Or the colorful paintings and embroidery on the gowns and barong? It resembled, to some extent, some of the performance and avant-garde art at the Art Circus exhibit – to foreign eyes, it did jump out of the ordinary in a somewhat beautiful and bizarre way.

Barge explains, "The original concept of Flores de las Islas is like an offering of the Philippine islands to our Blessed Mother. At first, we wanted to tie it in with the Japanese culture and bring a statue of Our Lady of Akita, but unfortunately, we couldn’t find one in Manila. I doubt that the Japanese could understand what it is about, but I think it’s enough because the message has been conveyed: that we value the friendship between the two countries."

This year being the 40th year of the relationship between Manila and Yokohama, MISCA plans to launch commemorative stamps featuring Jose Rizal and to commission a statue of Rizal to be placed in Yamashita Park. They’ve also donated a santacruzan tableau of dolls by Patis Tesoro to replace the old doll in Yokohama’s Doll Museum.

With MISCA planning to hold annual events in Yokohama to strengthen the ties between Filipinos and Japanese, perhaps in the future when foreigners see our Filipino costumes, something will click in their minds right away, the way an Indian sari or a Chinese cheongsam does, that this is a Filipino festival – that it is a celebration and an offering of life, love, faith and all that makes our islands unique.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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