MANILA -- The Year of the Rabbit hopped in with the hope that the Philippines is easing back to the "old normal" or life prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the Lunar New Year weekend on January 21 and 22, tens of thousands gathered at the world’s oldest Chinatown.
The celebration marked the end of the two years of curtailed festivities under the shadow of the new coronavirus.
According to Manila Police District (MPD), the crowd in Binondo on the eve of Chinese New Year peaked at around 600,000.
In Jones Bridge alone, about 5,000 filled the stretch to watch the grand fireworks that rang the year of the rabbit at the stroke of midnight.
"Nakaka-excite kasi meron nang ganito, nag-back to normal na. So sa mga experience namin ngayon sobrang saya," Alton Cañares, who went all the way to Binondo from Pasig City to welcome the Year of the Rabbit, said.
With the activities back in full-force after 2 years of stringent health protocols, Rachelle Ng, a Filipino-Chinese, meanwhile felt the now vibrant and bustling streets signal a new beginning.
"Wala na masyadong restrictions and may mga events na ganito that actually opened up more experiences for the Filipino-Chinese community," she beamed.
MPD public information officer PMajor Philipp Ines, said the count neared pre-pandemic crowds.
"During pre-pandemic maraming tao talaga. Parang ganon ulit. Malapit na. Bumabalik na,” the officer said.
On Sunday, even as the holiday was coming to a close, the store of an ubiquitous franchise of Chinese delicacies in Binondo, was still flocked by customers. At around 8 p.m., the line still spilled into Ongpin Street.
"Still not the same to pre-pandemic numbers, but may improvement,” Gerick Chua owner of Eng Bee Tin, said.
Among the best-sellers, Chua said, is tikoy, the Lunar New Year must-have. "Pinakamabenta pa din 'yung original tikoy, ube tikoy din. May bago din kami mango sticky rice tikoy,” he noted.
Meanwhile, Edwin Lagasca, who sells charms at Ongpin annually during the lunar season, said his revenue nearly matched his earnings prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lagasca admitted he was overjoyed because it was the first time in two years he will be able to set aside some money. Prices of his lucky charms range from P150-270.
"Ngayon lang ako nakabalik. Noong pandemic saktong pang kain lang ang kita," he recalled. "Dati kasi online lang dahil bawal dito. Wala pa kalahati sa bago ng COVID-19 [ang] kita."
"Malakas ngayon bentahan. Nakakabawi na, magandang-maganda. May ipon pa,” he enthused.
Those who visited Chinatown admitted the throng of visitors that jammed the stalls, restaurants, and stores in the area made it difficult to participate in the activities.
Nevertheless, they welcomed the sight of seeing more people outside enjoying themselves.
Jeff Funeras, who annually celebrated New Year in Binondo, said life again felt "normal."
"Maraming tao. Di ka talaga makakain dahil sa haba ng pila, Pero kung na tiyaga ka okay naman… Masaya makita," he said.
He went on: “Sobrang masaya… Kahit ma-traffic, kahit alam mo na maraming tao, pupunta pa din ako... May mga bagong pakulo. May mga street performance, street food. Ang dami na. bumabawi na kami. Lahat gala na nang gala."