Friday, October 23, 2009

Sinawali comes to America

Here in California it is officially Filipino American History Month. The celebration is also observed by Filipino organizations throughout the United States.

One important contribution of Filipino Americans to American culture is in the area of martial arts. And there is an interesting link here that we can tie in with the subject of this blog specifically to the towns of Macabebe and Masantol in Pampanga. Both these towns were previously one town known as Macabebe.

The old chronicles of Zhao Rugua (Chao Ju-Kua) mention cotton and silk material that was imported into Sanfotsi, but does not tell us how these fabrics were used. In Ma Tuan-lin's geographical encyclopedia of the Sung Dynasty, he mentions several instances of fabrics sent to the Chinese emperor as gifts from Sanfotsi.

In 962, the king Li-si-lin-nan-ni-ji-lai sent "beautiful fabrics" along with his envoys to the emperor. In 975, hats, belts and silk garments were sent as gifts, and in 1082, the Sanfotsi king's daughter sent textile gifts to the maritime prefect who refused to receive them until he had permission from the imperial palace.

Zhao Rugua mentions mats coming from Sanfotsi, Sansu and Tanjungwulo. The mats from Sanfotsi were considered the best in quality. These mats were said to be made from a plant resembling the rattan palm.

Macabebe was a famous center for the silk and cotton weaving and for the production of mats and sugar sacks (bayones). The town held a monopoly on the production of rayadillo military uniform. The Philippines in general has long been famous for mats, and Macabebe was considered a prime source of high quality mats that were made of the fiber of the wild banana, known as abaca, of sasa palm leaves, and other materials. The sasa palm may be the rattan-like plant mentioned by Zhao Rugua. Abaca was also spun into thread for clothing and such cloth was called sinamay and was very popular with the natives but too coarse for most foreigners. Weaving in Macabebe was done with a native loom made of wood and cord.

A rattan palm (Source: Hort Log,

Sasa palms (Source:,

According to Hugo H. Miller in the late 20th century, the Macabebe cloth traders, mentioned by Leo Giron in the video above, were often small landowners whose families 'tended the farm' while they were gone. Only a minority had any investments in their own business and most borrowed money at high interest rates from a few wealthy Macabebe families. Some also took loans, often unsecured, of goods from Chinese merchants.

When my father was young in Masantol, the children would help make mats from sasa leaves that my grandmother would sell to supplement the income of my grandfather, who was a Philippine Scout. So, this activity was still thriving up until World War II.

The fabrics, mats and other products were traded all over the Philippines from northern Luzon, where Giron hailed from, to Mindanao in the South. The merchants usually sold the materials to families with whom they had developed special relationships who in turn sold them to others in the area.

Giron and Filipino martial arts in America

Giron created his own style of Filipino martial arts that incorporated the two-handed Estilo Macabebe and Sinawali forms of fighting. The rods used for this martial art form in the Philippines were often made from fan palm trees. The first graduate of Giron's style was Dan Inosanto.

Inosanto was one of the few students of the fighting style of famed martial arts star Bruce Lee, which is known as Jeet Kune Do. He was the only student granted the right to teach the highest third level of Jeet Kune Do. But Inosanto is also famed as the man who taught Lee "how to wield the chuks," i.e., the Okinawan weapon known as the nunchaku. Inosanto used the nunchaku in a two-handed style known as double nunchaku.

Inosanto uses double nunchaku starting at 0:27 in the video.

Inosanto had many noteworthy students including his daughter Diane Lee Inosanto, who is also a martial arts star; the late Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee; Paul Vunak; and even Denzel Washington trained with Inosanto for the movie "The Book of Eli." The stick fighting organization known as The Dog Brothers was formed at the Inosanto Academy in Marina Del Rey.

Often when one sees any type of double weapon fighting in Hollywood movies there is an influence from the double sinawali or "weaving" style of Macabebe. For example, Filipino martial arts were used as models for the Star Wars franchise through the influence of Roel Robles and Jonathan Soriben. The use of two blades in Star Wars is known in the story as Jar'Kai.

Anakin Skywalker uses double light sabers briefly against Count Dooku (starting at 1:40) in Star Wars Episode II.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Hamm, Margherita Arlina. Manila and the Philippines. London: F.T. Neely, 1898, 59-60.

Mendel, Bob. "The Nunchaku," Black Belt Aug. 1994, 19.

Ma, Duanlin, and Léon Hervey de Saint-Denys. Ethnographie des peuples étrangers à la Chine: ouvrage composé au XIIIe siècle de notre ère. Atsume gusa, 4. Genève: H. Georg, 1876, 559-564.

Maclennan, Marshall S. The Central Luzon plain. 1980, 78.

Miller, Hugo Herman. Economic Conditions in the Philippines. Boston: Ginn and Co, 1920, 423.

Philippines, Ignacio Villamor, and Felipe Buencamino. Census of the Philippine Islands Taken Under the Direction of the Philippine Legislature in the Year 1918. Manila: Bureau of printing, 1920, 236.


"the Dude" said...

I haven't done the 2 stick style of martial arts. I took a beginners karate course while in Malaysia, the sensei was from India. Here in Eureka at the art gallery/studio, there is a group that handweaves fabrics using wooden looms, I've woven paper sepak takraw balls by hand, but never thought of it as related to self defence.