Even Down Under, Culture calls

- Ann Corvera () - August 21, 2011 - 12:00am

TOWNSVILLE, QUEENSLAND – Filipino culture is thriving in Townsville, a place little known back home but where migrants have gradually been flocking to over the years.

A host of well-attended festivities in recent months is a testament to the growing Filipino community in this northern city in the Australian tropics.

We live for tradition and that is what organizers bring to life each year through sporting, religious and cultural events. The homesick and those quite sick of the laid back lifestyle in Townsville get to enjoy the kind of festive atmosphere Filipinos are accustomed to.

And where there’s a Filipino occasion there’s food.

There was quite a spread during this year’s Filipino Festival, offering the usual cravings of Pinoys overseas like sisig, isaw, lugaw, balut, puto, even brazo de Mercedes.

Now on its third year, the two-day event coincides with our Independence Day and showcases what else but Filipino talent and culture.

Aussie families came in droves to sample Filipino food and catch the program, which featured Philippine music and folk dances such as rondalla, maglalatik, itik-itik and dugso.

Adobo Unlimited performs (top). Filipinos and Australians alike flock to the stalls to enjoy Filipino food.

A touch of teen spirit balanced the event with a group of Fil-Aussie youngsters, calling themselves Adobo Unlimited, taking the stage to perform Pinoy hits from 70s icons like Sampaguita and VST.

What also caught the eye of Queenslanders were the Filipino lanterns lighting up the showground at the Riverway Centre. Filipino Harvey Surla took his hobby of creating Christmas lanterns to showcasing them at the event and soon enough, Aussies were seen buying some of his creations.

This year, the organizing committee of the Filipino-Australian Affiliation of North Queensland (FAANQ) brought to Townsville Filipino balladeer Marco Sison, who traveled from Sydney down south all the way to North Queensland to perform for Filipinos here.

“I was in Sydney for a concert and they invited me here as a guest. This is my first time here and I think Filipinos here are doing well,” said Sison.

Filipino community leaders like FAANQ’s Bong Aceret, Celi Reyes and Thez Hamilton are hard at work all year round to make sure it maintains its reputation as one of the largest community events in the city while promoting proud Filipino traditions and serving as a venue to bring the Filipino community as close to the feeling of home as possible.

Aside from holding cultural presentations, the organization aims to assist Filipinos as they adjust to a new life in Townsville, serving as a point of contact for temporary residents, including contract workers. In last year’s Filipino Fest, Consul General Alan Grummitt of the Philippine Consulate in Queensland was invited and spoke to Filipinos on their citizenship and business related queries.

Hamilton, a long-time resident who works as a client service officer at the Townsville Intercultural Centre, said more people came to this year’s Filipino Festival. “I am definitely sure we have more people this year. This would be at least 3,000.”

Even young children take part in the activities and performances (top). The iconic Filipino lanterns have made their way down under.

There are between 600 to 800 Philippine-born residents of Townsville based on available 2006 census figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Not a large number compared to well-known Australian destinations like Sydney or Melbourne or even Brisbane which are, after all, capital cities.

But Hamilton believes the numbers have increased since then.

“Skilled migration had really added to the numbers with 457 (temporary resident) visa holders becoming permanent residents,” said Hamilton, adding that family and partner sponsored migration are also factors to the growth.

Hamilton said there could be as many as 3,000 Filipinos living in Townsville and nearby districts of Ingham and Bowen.

In Australia’s sparsely populated tropical north, Townsville is the self-proclaimed capital with Cairns in the far north also vying for the title.

Migration to Townsville – interstate and overseas – accounted for nearly three quarters of the city’s total growth over the last five years, according to a report on population and residential development trends in North Queensland released by the regional government’s Department of Infrastructure and Planning in 2009.

The Philippines ranked fifth in the report’s Top 10 birthplace countries for settler arrivals in Queensland, closely behind India. New Zealand remained at the top of the list.

In the 2006 census, a total of 18,741 Filipinos were recorded to be residing in Queensland, with the capital city of Brisbane having the largest share of over 6,000 Philippine-born residents. Usual occupations of Filipinos here include skilled workers, engineers, registered nurses and motor mechanics.

With the 2011 census soon to be underway, new figures are bound to show more Filipinos in Townsville either as temporary residents, newly permanent ones and those on student visas. The jump in numbers, however, may not be as high in view of recent changes to Australia’s immigration programs, particularly on temporary entrant requirements, as reported by the Office of Economic and Statistical Research (OESR).

Still, there always seems to be a new Filipino face when you go from one gathering to another. Even in the remote parts of Queensland, you are likely to bump into a kababayan.

When we went on a dinosaur trail adventure in the Outback, we wouldn’t have thought that a Filipina would welcome us at the motel where we were booked, which she owns with her Australian husband.

In the 2006 census on Queensland, over 8,000 of the responders born in Australia were of Filipino ancestry.

It was good to see Filipino-Australian teens not losing touch with their roots, as they actively participate in events from sports to celebrations of the Catholic faith.

The Flower Month of May saw a small but meaningful gathering of Filipinos in Townsville for the Santacruzan, with children of Filipino migrants dressing up to represent the various characters involved in this Catholic commemoration of the search for the Holy Cross.

During PASCO’s Independence Day party, Fil-Aussie teens performed traditional Filipino songs and folk dances, even adding a modern touch to the tinikling by mixing hip-hop music to the national dance, much to the delight of Pinoy and Aussie families in attendance.

Some of the youngsters joined the women’s volleyball tournament, which for the first time was included in the Filipino sports program of Philippine-Australia Sports and Cultural Organization that already features men’s basketball.

There was a bit of festival lull in July but Filipino community leaders are hard at work as they prepare for this month’s 17th Cultural Fest, which organizers at the Townsville Intercultural Centre dub as “the largest community-based event in Australia.”

The five-day event held every third week of August promotes “unity in diversity” and will bring together more than 450 community and cultural groups from indigenous Australians to Filipinos. 

Filipino food and culture will be showcased once again in the gathering, along with a wide array of cultural offerings from Spanish to Ethiopian, German to Thai. 

It’s no secret that Filipinos love gatherings. Whether it’s for a Manny Pacquiao fight, a religious event or someone’s birthday, we are there. Regardless of census numbers, we are a close-knit community that will make our cultural presence felt no matter where we are.

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