Keeping the parol tradition alive

Keeping the parol tradition alive

Ex-OFW’s venture into Filipino crafts draws global appeal

By Miguel Hanz L. Antivola, Reporter

MORE THAN its radiant appeal during the Christmas season, the parol persists as a handmade product etched with passion, skill, and unwritten Filipino traditions, according to lantern maker Rolando S. Quiambao.

“The parol is a tradition, and we play it by heart. Ang isang produktong walang kwento ay walang kwenta [A product without a story has no value],” Mr. Quiambao, co-owner of Rolren’s Lanterns and General Mdse., said in an interview with BusinessWorld.

“The parol characterizes our attitudes and lifestyles as Kapampangan,” he added. “There is no course or book on the parol. It was only passed down to us from generation to generation.”

When Mr. Quiambao retired as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) and returned to the Philippines in the 1980s, he became an electrical repairman, who also offered to make a number of parol for rich households.

It did not take long for his friends to notice his creations and convinced him to sell his work on the street and make a living out of his childhood flair. The encouragement was measure enough for him to give it a shot, officially starting his parol-making venture in 1986.

“I tried it and enjoyed, even if [the parols were] in small quantities. You need big investments to make parols,” he said.

For Mr. Quiambao, the big break for the business came in 1995 when the local government of San Fernando, Pampanga commissioned him to decorate and enliven the city centers with his parols. The greater mission was to lift the spirits of people and traders forced to relocate due to the devastation caused by lahar from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption.
The plan worked and so, beyond the Christmas season, the mayor at the time assigned him and his two craftsmen to make more decorations for the city during festivals, graduations, and other celebrations.

“When our city suddenly became happy and the people returned, that is when we earned our break,” said Mr. Quiambao, who has since been called the “San Fernando Lantern King.”

This allowed him to seek financial support and guidance from government agencies for the business’ next move — hiring contractual workers for its large scale “decorative” arm, serving corporate clients beyond retail.

His brand, Rolren, continued to grow in popularity by traditional means: word of mouth. With the dawning of social media, his works became popular posts by local and international bloggers drawn to the annual San Fernando Giant Lantern Festival — the stage that crowned his business as champion many times over.

“We were suddenly visited by customers and traders who knew us as a legitimate factory where they can get their parols for cheap [prices],” said Mr. Quiambao, even going as far as to export to the United States and Canada. “We don’t stop. Our production is continuous all year round.”
At this point, Rolren expanded its product offerings to table lamps, corner lights, and chandeliers, partnering with architects, hotels, and local government units. His products were now tailored according to requests.

Even with a slight drop in retail sales, Mr. Quiambao noted how the market for the business is too big for them to accommodate, compounded by crunched time frames for orders.

“We pick our clients because we can’t cater to the whole market,” he said. “We don’t even have a website.”

“It is difficult to teach a laborious handcrafted skill — from cleaning and cutting the capiz (shells), to assembling, painting, and electrifying,” he added on preserving tradition and product quality. “It’s hairsplitting!”
A little innovation does offer solutions and Rolren came to adopt modern techniques. “We devise systems to lessen time and cost of production, said Mr. Quiambao. “We use some machines now, but the bending is a long handcrafted process.”
At present, the business has about 25 regular craftsmen — men and women with specific expert skills — for retail orders. It also has over 30 contractual workers for decorative orders and commissioned works.

“We only accommodate what our labor force can handle,” said Mr. Quiambao. “When we can’t [accommodate] any more, especially with decorative orders from LGUs, malls, and private companies, we disperse the tasks to subcontractors, offering them jobs.”
Even for exports, he said he prefers accepting orders from the United States and Canada due to ease of adapting to its supply voltage.

“It’s also difficult because the exporter or buyer sometimes chooses to get all the stocks of one design, so you don’t have anything to show for the next customer,” he said.

“What we do is we just keep stocking and never stop. We choose to see it as planting rice to harvest for the next season, per se,” he added.

More than its business component, Mr. Quiambao is keen on honoring the rich history behind the parol, even being researched and interviewed as a historian of such a tradition.

“It grew from small and simple candle covers during a religious activity we called the lubenas,” he said of the nine-night procession before Christmas, involving the patron saint of each barangay.

According to Mr. Quiambao, this parol display later evolved into the “royal rumble” called Ligligan Parul, or today’s Giant Lantern Festival, where the lanterns are bigger and more intricately designed.

“Our story is deep, from the shapes and parts of the parol, to its overall architecture, symbolic of the well-defined practices, attitudes, and colorful lives of the Kapampangan,” he asserted.

“The terminologies of the elders for the different parts make sense,” he added, noting the parol’s center star as siko-siko, named after the star-shaped angle of the elbow.

He also noted parol components such as the palimbon — from the word “procession” and is the part surrounding the main star like a procession; and the puntetas (from the word “end”), the decorative outer layer signifying the non-conformist attitude of the Kapampangan.

“There is a story and tradition behind the parol, which is why I think it persists even up to today,” said Mr. Quiambao.