Pampanga's lanterns transcend Christmas with Catriona Gray, digital marketing

Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 13 2019 06:15 AM | Updated as of Nov 13 2019 08:08 AM

A woman walks past a strip of lantern shops in San Fernando, Pampanga. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

SAN FERNANDO, Pampanga -- From Miss Universe Catriona Gray's costume to wedding-party decor in Austria, one of the oldest makers of Christmas lanterns here turned a seasonal business into a year-long enterprise thanks to digital marketing.

Four years since receiving their first order on Facebook, mostly from homesick Filipinos, the Quiwa family now ships as many as 500 of the colorful, sparkling pinwheels at a time, said its 72-year-old patriarch, Ernesto Quiwa.

"Madali ang transaksyon d'yan kasi makakausap mo iyong kustomer mo (Transactions are easier when you talk directly to your customer)," Quiwa told ABS-CBN News at his workshop here.

Businessmen should learn how to engage their customers, Quiwa said, adding, "Hindi lang umaasa na may o-order sa kanila (You can't just sit down and wait for orders)."

Ernesto Quiwa, one of the oldest parol makers in San Fernando, Pampanga talks to ABS-CBN News in front of a 20-feet parol, his entry in the city's Giant Lantern Festival several years ago. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

FILIPINO CHRISTMAS

Lantern-making is among many handicraft industries in Pampanga, north of the capital, which is also known for furniture and its rich Spanish-influenced cuisine.

San Fernando's capiz and fiberglass parols are typically patterned after pinwheels, snowflakes, stained-glass windows and batik fabrics. In a nation of 100 million where nearly 9 in 10 are Christians, the parols symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, where Jesus Christ was born.

Sherly Gary, who works at a US military commissary, browsed the lanterns along a San Fernando highway for something to give this year's decor at her California home a Filipino touch.

"Sa [United] States, madalang kang makakita ng parol talaga. Ang Christmas nila, kain lang. Kung may ganyan ka, nafi-feel mo iyong pagka-Pilipino mo," Gary told ABS-CBN News.

(In the United States, you’ll rarely see a parol. They only celebrate Christmas by eating. If you have a parol, you feel that you’re a Filipino. That’s our only remembrance from here.)

A man prepares a bar of steel for a lantern. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

FAMILY BUSINESS

A worker cuts strips of yellow plastic at Noel Velasco's lantern workshop. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Quiwa said he learned parol-making from an uncle who in the 1950s invented the rotor, a mechanism made of steel barrels that synchronized music with the twinkling of thousands of lightbulbs. 

His son, Erik Quiwa, collaborated for free with Pampanga-based fashion designer Mak Tumang for Gray's Miss Universe costume. While the fiberglass lantern failed to light up on stage, it brought the Filipino lantern to the world stage. 

Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio tapped Erik this year to create a giant Christmas tree for the southern metropolis and parols for its highways and town hall. 
 
The Quiwa family also made the lanterns for San Fernando's highways and city hall this year. They will also compete in the annual Giant Lantern Festival, where ad revenues are used to fund a credit line for parol-makers.

Miss Philippines 2018 Catriona Gray poses during the 2018 Miss Universe national costume presentation in Chonburi province on Dec. 10, 2018. Lillian Suwanrumpha, AFP

There are around 70 parol business owners in San Fernando and many of them take bank loans to keep going, said Noel Velasco, who owns 2 parol stalls and supplies lanterns to Divisoria market in Manila.

"Kung walang nagpapautang, kaunti lang nagpaparol dito, iyong mga may puhunan lang talaga,” Velasco told ABS-CBN News, sweating as he bent metal poinsettias for a lantern.

(There are just a few lantern makers, only those who really have capital.)

The Velasco family earns up to P150,000 daily in the run-up to Christmas, enough to pay off a loan in 4 months, said Noel's brother, Roel.

DEBT-FREE CHRISTMAS

Sonny Manapsal (R), who has been making parols for more than 30 years, tests the lights of a lantern in his shop. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Father of three Sonny Manapsal said he held off on a price increase this year due to tight competition and high cost of raw materials.

"Iyong mga nagtitinda rin, ‘pag dikit-dikit na ganyan, bumababa. Iyong mga kasama namin, dumadayo sa Cebu, Davao. Gusto ko rin, kaso ‘pag dumayo, malaki, lalo ang puhunan," said the 52-year-old.

(When vendors are clumped together, the prices go down. Some of our peers transfer to Cebu, Davao. I also want to do that, but it needs bigger capital.) 

Parol shop owner Mary Joy Matic helps a customer choose a Christmas decor. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

In 2 other roadside stalls, sellers Mary Joy Matic and Loyda Cayanan said they hoped sales would pick up in November.

"Taon-taon nababawi naman (We break even every year)," said Cayanan, 62, who refused to let an earthquake earlier this year hold her down. 

"Ang mga Pinoy, kung anong nakikita nilang maganda, kahit mahal bibilhin nila kaya kahit ilang taon pa ''to, hindi nawawala sa uso, hindi nalalaos," she said.

(Filipinos buy beautiful things even if these are expensive, that’s why parols will never get outdated.) 

Quiwa lanterns light up a highway in San Fernando. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

San Fernando’s parols trace their roots to the "lubenas" or nightly processions honoring Christ’s mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, for 9 days before Christmas.

The parols gradually got bigger and more intricate, giving birth in 1904 to the Giant Lantern Festival, where barrios pooled resources to create the best lantern. 

The first parols were made of bamboo sticks and coconut fiber, which were eventually replaced with Japanese paper and lighted with batteries in the 1940s, said Quiwa, the great grandson of San Fernando’s first lantern artisan, Estanislao Francisco. 

THE FUTURE OF PAROLS 

Lanterns light up behind parol maker Roel Velasco at a roadside shop. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

In Roel Velasco's stall, his 9-year-old son slept off the afternoon heat, his face illuminated by a wall of lanterns. The boy knows how to cut capiz shells, but his father prefers that he finish school while learning about the family business.

"Gusto kong matuto siya pero mas gusto kong mag-aral siya. Iyon ang importante e. Sandali lang naman pasukan ito, iyong pag-aaral, makapagtapos ka, iyon ang kailangan," he said. 

(I want him to learn making parols, but I want him to stay in school. That’s important. Lantern-making is easy to venture into, but finishing your studies, that’s necessary.) 

A worker glues polyethylene plastic to the frame of a star lantern. ABS-CBN News

Quiwa, the 72-year-old artisan, said Pampanga's lanterns would grow bigger and more intricate due to the talent of the province's craftsmen.

"Kailangan huwag ipagkait ang nalalaman, i-share niyo sa kapwa niyo… Kailangan talaga dedikado ka sa trabaho mo, dibdibin mo ang trabaho para malaman mo talaga kung ano ang magiging kahulugan," he said, addressing his younger peers.

(Don't be selfish with your knowledge, share it with others. You also need to be dedicated to your work, put it in your heart so you’ll know its meaning.)