Thursday 22 February 2018

Picture Post 65 - Art Deco in Manila's Chinese Cemetery

Art deco influences can be found in every area of life - architecture, furniture, painting, clothes, transport and industry. It should not be surprising then that the style has also influenced the design of tombs and mausoleums. The Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires contains many art deco structures whilst others can be found in Asmara, Eritrea and Pittsburgh, USA.  I recently toured the Chinese Cemetery in Manila which is full of art deco.

Li Chay Too family mausoleum, built 1948 and recently refurbished 
The cemetery is the second oldest in the city. It was established in the 19th century in response to the Spanish colonial authorities denying Chinese Filipinos the right to burial in a Catholic cemetery. It contains Catholic, other Christian denominations and Taoist graves as well as some exhibiting symbols of more than one faith. Ton Quien Sien, also known as Don Carlos Palanca was responsible for the its establishment and fittingly there is a memorial for him here. It is one of several memorials including one to those brought here and executed by the Japanese during World War Two.  The victims included prominent artists, soldiers and community leaders, many of whom, although not all, were Chinese.

Li Chay Too mausoleum details
Li Chay Too mausoleum metalwork 
The tombs are in a range of styles and sizes. Some are maintained in pristine condition whilst others show signs of neglect or even abandon if the family has moved away or if remains have been removed and placed in a burial plot elsewhere. The dead hold an important place in Chinese culture and ancestors are held in great respect. Visitors to the Chinese cemetery may be surprised to see that some of the structures include bathroom and cooking facilities, air conditioning and even parking space for several vehicles. This is not for the benefit of the deceased but for the living who come to pay their respects and can spend a significant amount of time here during a visit.

Tomb for Bautista Napkil family (close to the nearby Jewish cemetery)
Villa Yu Tuan, Yu Tuan family mausoleum
Deco speed lines and Chinese influenced metalwork, Villa Yu Tuan 
The largest, most ostentatious structures are the plots of the wealthiest families and many of these were built from the 1920's through to the 1950's in the art deco style, which lasted longer in the Philippines than elsewhere. Little is known about who the architects were although a number of the tombs bear the name of the Oriol Marble Works company. Ivan Man Dy is Manila's art deco expert and an aficionado of the cemetery. He led me through its alleys and lanes for two and a half hours  pointing out a range of deco styles including streamline moderne, classic deco complete with speed lines, ziggurats, portholes and stylised lettering and a hybrid style incorporating Chinese influences.  He is documenting these structures as well as working on a book about Manila's art deco buildings.

Ang O Kin mausoleum, 1939.
Entrance to Eusebio Tankeh family mausoleum
Ivan leads walking tours of the cemetery as part of the Old Manila Walks programme and also runs a Facebook group dedicated to art deco in the Philippines. His tours are highly recommended.

You may also like Art Deco in the Philippines - Manila's Magnificent Metropolitan Theatre

Eusebio Tankeh Mausoleum, built 1948
Portholes, sunbursts and curlicues
Many tombs display images of the deceased. This picture is framed by a deco ziggurat.
Koh family mausoleum, streamline moderne!


  1. Very interesting - thank you!

  2. Your article, translated in French :
    Thank you