Sunday Lifestyle

Why are Filipinos so superstitious?

- Wilson Lee Flores -
Why do we frown on taking pictures when there are three people in the photo?

Why isn’t it okay to sing while cooking and why shouldn’t people change seats at the table while eating? Why do they say that a single guy should not agree to become a godfather to a wedding? Why do people knock on wood, make the sign of the cross, or cross their fingers to ward off bad luck?

Why are Filipinos so superstitious? Being an ethnic Chinese whose family has been in the Philippines for two centuries, I have a multi-cultural perspective to objectively assess our fascinating and sometimes absurd society.

As a writer genuinely interested in all things and also as my modest contribution to the survival of the dying Philippine movie industry, I recently forced myself to watch Regal Entertainment’s latest movie Pamahiin before the onslaught of Hollywood’s Mission Impossible III, Poseidon and The Da Vinci Code.

I didn’t regret watching this film. It’s not a masterpiece, but it was entertaining. It’s the tale of a balikbayan who flies to the Philippines from America to find out why his best friend died. He brings his clairvoyant girlfriend and learns from elderly people various superstitious beliefs on funerals, death and ghosts. Not a superstitious guy, he nevertheless encounters restless souls who challenge his skepticism and endlessly makes his life chaotic.

Dennis Trillo can act but he isn’t really cut out for horror flicks; Iya Villania is cute and has nice hair, and that’s the most I can say about her. The film has its funny and scary moments. The direction was fine, but the story could have been improved further in terms of character development and plot. Surprisingly, despite my general bias against locally made flicks, which I think habitually debase the masses intellectually, morally and culturally, Pamahiin isn’t the horrific disaster that I thought it would be. The public should watch it for fun and the producer can draw lessons from here to hopefully make better horror flicks next time for international export like other Asian filmmakers do.

Now, why are Pinoys so superstitious? I have three hypotheses: first, many of the Filipino superstitious beliefs hark back to the pagan beliefs before Roman Catholicism was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors half a millennium ago.

Second, it’s the influence of the ethnic Chinese starting with our immigrant ancestors who traditionally practiced so many colorful, superstitious beliefs. Many Chinese beliefs are harmless and delightful. For example, if a parent of a boyfriend or girlfriend dies, the couple has to rush marriage within 100 days or wait two years after to do so – isn’t that great for us guys? An example of this ancient belief being practiced by us Philippine-born and western-educated Chinese was the 1948 marriage of Columbia University-trained Washington SyCip after the death of the mom of his girlfriend, Smith College-educated Anna Yu. Coincidentally, Washington’s banker dad, Dr. Albino SyCip, and Anna’s dad, Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc. founding president Yu Khe Thai, were both Protestants who were not supposed to indulge in any superstitions!

My third hypothesis is a conspiracy theory. Perhaps the ruling political and social elite of the Philippines (whether Spanish or the local datus and later the ilustrados) concocted and spread all sorts of superstitions as well as numerous aswang/kapre/dwende/tiyanak/manananggal/tikbalang/multo horror tales as part of social control, to manipulate and mesmerize the oppressed masses into acquiescence.

Whatever the real reasons for this pervasive popularity of superstitions, amulets, gayuma, folklore ghouls and feng shui, one main cause that I am certain of is the apparent weak hold of Christian faith over the hearts, minds and souls of most people. A lot of superstitions are rooted in inchoate fears, confusion and anxieties about the future. How can these negative sentiments and thoughts take root in our popular consciousness if we are true Christians whose hearts and minds are filled with God’s grace and the unwavering assurance of His blessings and divine protection?

Being a cultural Christian is only skin-deep. It is shallow and superficial, because being a true Christian should be a life-changing experience. This explains why many are still susceptible to all sorts of superstitions. It is ironic that the Philippines calls itself "the only Christian majority nation in Asia," but many in our power elite are the most thick-faced, corrupt and un-Christian beasts on the face of the earth!

Why are many Filipinos so superstitious? Is it because our Christian faith is not strong enough and many of us are still incorrigible pagans at heart, including this sanctimonious columnist?
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Thanks for writing, all messages will be answered. Comments, suggestions, jokes and criticisms are welcome at [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected].

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