350,000 throng to Taste of Manila 2016

September 10, 2016 / The Philippine Reporter /

Justin Trudeau wowed the crowds at this year’s Taste of Manila festival, where he talked about the strengths of multiculturalism, took selfies with excited fans, and even donned an apron to barbecue some Filipino meat skewers.

Now in its third year, the two-day street festival, billed as the largest Filipino festival in North America, welcomed more than 350,000 visitors according to Rolly Mangante, Chairman and CEO of Philippine Cultural Community Centre, event organizer. Held in Toronto’s north end on August 20th and 21st, the event welcomed people from as far as New York City, New Brunswick and even Saudi Arabia, according to organizers.

The prime minister’s appearance on Saturday afternoon was one of the weekend’s highlights. Hundreds gathered to hear him speak, chanting “Justin! Justin!” as he walked onto the main stage.

“Every year people come out with families to celebrate this extraordinary Filipino-Canadian identity, eat a lot of lumpia and adobo and pancit,” Trudeau said, wearing a traditional barong tagalog in the hot summer sun.

“But one of the great things as well is this isn’t just a festival for Filipino-Canadians,” he said. “Our neighbours, our friends, people from across Toronto are all coming out to celebrate the extraordinary diversity that makes Toronto one of the best cities in the world, makes Canada the best country in the world.”

After his speech, Trudeau, flanked by handlers and police, stepped offstage and walked along the festival’s main street, shaking hands and taking selfies with people for half an hour.

He also made a planned stop at a booth owned by local restaurant FV Foods, where he put on a visor and apron and manned the barbecue.

Madyn Mendoza, an FV Foods employee working at the booth, said Trudeau was “very friendly,” shaking hands with all the workers and then joining them for a group selfie.

“We were so overwhelmed we didn’t notice what was going on around us,” she said.

Trudeau was one among several dignitaries who attended the Taste of Manila. Toronto Mayor John Tory opened the festival on Saturday morning, while Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne closed the event on Sunday afternoon.

Liberal MPs Marco Mendicino and Michael Levitt, along with Councillor James Pasternak, also attended and offered support to the organizers leading up to the event.

“For them all to be here certifies the festival,” said Teresa Torralba, the event’s entertainment and media director. “As Filipinos, we’ve made our mark.”

The Taste of Manila held its inaugural event in 2014 on Bathurst St. and Wilson Ave., known as Toronto’s Little Manila because of its growing Filipino population and concentration of FIlipino-owned businesses. About 140,000 Filipinos were living in Toronto in 2001, according to the most recent data available from Statistics Canada.

Organized by the Philippine Cultural Community Centre (PCCC), 75,000 people attended that first year, far surpassing their expectations of just 5,000. Since then, the festival has quickly expanded: last year, 200,000 people attended, while this year that number ballooned to 350,000 as per estimate of Toronto Police.

“We did very well,” said Torralbo. “It’s getting better every year.”

Vendors — who sold everything from barbecue and halo halo to clothing and accessories — seemed to be happy with the turnout and were optimistic about business. While some found the event to be slower than they expected on Saturday, by the next day, the mostly-Filipino crowds had swelled and some food stalls had long lineups of more than 50 people.

Chennie Cruz, the owner of Eskenita, which specializes in Filipino street food, said she found the experience “overwhelming.”

Formerly a nurse, she started her business after arriving in Canada just last year because “I miss the food in the Philippines,” she said. The Taste of Manila was her first festival, and she recruited her friends to help her sell her “kwek-kwek” (fried coated quail eggs), “walkman” (marinated pork ears), and “balunbalunan” (marinated chicken gizzard).

It was also the first Taste of Manila festival for Dionna Joyce, the owner of Kanto. The shop has a permanent location near Dundas and Bathurst, which has been running for five seasons, selling sisig fries (boiled and grilled offal meat), palabok (a noodle dish), and lechon kawali (crispy pork belly).

“[The Taste of Manila] is true blue Filipino,” she said, noting that other streets festivals are usually more of a mix of different cultures. “You have the barbecue and the things you traditionally see in the streets [in the Philippines].”

Despite the high costs for vendors — she estimates her two booths cost about $2000 each — she was hopeful that she would recoup her costs by the end of the weekend.

For Raymond Olivero, owner of Serenda, this was his third year selling his jewellery at the Taste of Manila. He said he found this year “busier” compared to previous years, with more people, and said he profits from being there.

For some vendors, exposure matters just as much as profits. Gino Agra, founder of the Filipinas Clothing Co., along with his brother Nikki Harvey Corwin, has been selling his Philippine-inspired streetwear at the Taste of Manila for the last three years.

He said sales are up this year, not just because of growing attendance, but because people are getting used to seeing their booth at the various festivals. “They tend to come back once they are familiar,” he said. “We love it. People are supporting us.”

This year’s festival also featured of variety of entertainment acts. The Aliw Award-winning retro pop group REtroSPECT played for an enthusiastic crowd on Saturday evening. “Everybody was dancing,” says Torralba. “They were up there for two hours straight. They would have gone over three hours.”

Another highlight was the wildly popular Chinese-Filipino actor, model and singer Xian Lim, who energized the crowds by jumping around on stage with backup dancers. “He kept jumping off the stage, and I kept thinking, ‘Oh my god, he’s going to break his leg,’” said Torralba.

The festival also welcomed some new and emerging performers, who were selected by the entertainment committee after watching more than 50 audition videos. The successful acts included a male vocalist trio called The Rides and a pair of young singing brothers named Edward and Quincy Jones.

Charitable and cultural organizations also participated in the festivities. The charity ANCOP, which stands for Answering the Cry of the Poor, held their annual walk early Saturday morning, raising funds to support education and home building initiatives in the Philippines, India and Africa. Meanwhile, organizers for the annual Toronto Paskuhan Festival set up a life-size sari-sari store, complete with nostalgic candies and toys, to promote Philippine culture.

There was also a midway for the first time this year, with a full city block filled with 32 games and rides, including a ferris wheel.

As festival organizers bask in the afterglow of this year’s festival, they admit there are still a lot of improvements they want to make. One is to find more sustainable funding.

Rolando ‘Rolly’ Mangante, the chairman and CEO of the PCCC, estimates it cost about $160,000 to put on this year’s event. Expenses included $31,000 for police services, $58,000 for waste management, and $10,000 each for security, ambulance services and rental costs for tents, tables and chairs.

Like the previous two festivals, their applications for public grants were rejected, and they survived through vendor fees and sponsors, which included One Ayala, ABS-CBN TFC (The Filipino Channel), San Miguel, Fido and TD Bank.

Mangante said they’re still collecting cash and crunching the numbers, but believes they’ve made some money or have at least broken even. Torralba, on the other hand, is less optimistic — saying “I’ve seen the invoices” — but hopes that they’ll be able to secure a government grant next year.

Both want next year’s Taste of Manila festival to be bigger and better. Mangante wants to fill an even longer stretch of road — two kilometres compared to this year’s 1.5 kilometres. And as for attendance, he said, “hopefully, it will be double.”

Torralba hopes that more funding will allow them to have more elaborate stage dressings, like strobe lights, and more festive street decorations. Still, she said the original organizers have come a long way from their first year.

“It was from the grassroots, just a bunch of friends who came together to make a festival,” she said. “They’re good people, good people.”