CHRISTMAS is the most-awaited and most-loved holiday in the Philippine because it is all about family.
It is that time of the year when the simplest Noche Buena brings entire clans together for a thanksgiving meal, or when the grandest reunions bring relatives from faraway places to celebrate the birth of the Lord, Jesus Christ.
In these modern times, however, there are over two million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) scattered all over the globe, many of whom are unable to go home for Christmas. (Philippine Statistics Authority, 2014)
Among this number are many Filipino performers who comprise a large part of Hong Kong Disneyland’s (HKDL) prized cast members. Despite longing for home during the most wonderful time of the year, these professional artists know their responsibilities for their employer. Be it behind the scenes or on the stage, they are committed team players, most especially now that the “happiest place on earth” is celebrating its 10th anniversary in time for the holidays.
The Sunday Times Magazine witnessed the Filipino artist’s dedication to his craft in November, as one of the international media outlets invited to cover HKDL’s important milestone. Among the many exciting events the theme park prepared for their first decade in the former British colony (see sidebar), management did not forget to acknowledge their Filipino cast members for their valuable contribution.
On the evening of November 17, HKDL generously hosted an early Noche Buena for them who were encouraged to invite their loved ones, even from as far from the Philippines. This multi-family reunion was held at the enchanting Cinderella Ballroom of Disneyland Hotel.
Together, families enjoyed a sumptuous buffet featuring Filipino dishes like adobo and lechon, among others. The night was also filled with music from live performances of Tagalog Christmas carols that later on turned to “Pinoy karoling” as everyone joined in the merrymaking with improvised musical instruments.
Overall, the Filipino Christmas spirit was successfully replicated at the theme park albeit all the way at Hong Kong’s Lantau Island.
Amid the uniquely situated Noche Buena, The Sunday Times Magazine sat down with four cast members who best exemplify how Filipinos flourish in HKDL.
Making music for everyone
In February, The Sunday Times Magazine first met Rony Fortich, current music director and one of the pioneers of Hong Kong Disneyland’s cast since its opening in September 2005.
Fortich composed the now familiar song “Find the Light,” with Filipino and English lyrics, especially dedicated to all the Filipino performers at HKDL. (“Filipino pride in Hong Kong Disneyland,” The Manila Times, February 28, 2015)
As expected Fortich is a valuable member of the creative team that put together a special anniversary musical for the park’s 10th anniversary titled, Mickey and the Wondrous Book. The show brings together some of Disney’s most memorable stories for different generations on one stage, namely The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, Tangled, Brave, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, and Frozen.
Asked why the team chose these specific Disney movies for the special musical, Fortich, explained, “That was not an easy decision for us to be honest but we chose songs that we believe would resonate today, as well as songs that we could give a contemporary twist.”
Included in the show’s repertoire are: “Let It Go” from Frozen, “When Will My Life Begin” from Tangled, and “Touch the Sky” from Brave. On the other hand, classics from The Jungle Book were modernized with Bollywood influences and a hip hop twist; while songs from The Princess and the Frog were given jazzy updates.
“We went through all the songs [from these movies]and chose ones that would best express Mickey and Wondrous Book,” Fortich noted, adding that it took them several years to complete the show in time for the anniversary.
It is precisely in staging such shows that the Filipino music director finds fulfillment working far from home, and specifically in Hong Kong Disneyland. He enthused, “To make music and present it in a place where it is able to touch a great many people’s lives is an awesome happily ever after in itself.”
Fittingly, HKDL recognized Fortich’s hardwork, dedication and passion at the special Noche Buena. They surprised him with his family who flew all the way from Manila.
Overwhelmed and teary eyed, he was greeted by his sister, nephew and niece, and fiancé.
“I was part of the all the planning for this dinner so I really did not see this coming. They just told me now that every time I left a meeting, they would hold another one to plan the surprise,” he told The Sunday Times Magazine and other media outlets after the party.
Indeed, Christmas came early for Fortich who remains grounded despite his tremendous success at HKDL.
“They say, love your job and you never work a day in your life. I love what I do and that is why every day, I am just filled with this sense of gratitude to work with different singers—be they Filipinos or other nationalities,” he said.
Singing from the heart
From the show Mickey and the Wondrous Book, Filipino pride reigns strong as the anniversary theme song “Happily Ever After” is performed by principal singers Gian Magdangal and Raki Vega.
Both are grateful for having been trusted to impart the park’s anniversary theme, which is all about giving “happily ever after” memories to everyone who walks through Disneyland’s gates.
When asked what they consider a happily ever after, Magdangal ang Vega both agreed, “Being with family.”
Magdangal, who started working at HKDL only in 2014 after leaving behind a showbiz career in the Philippines, expressed, “It’s being with my son who is arriving tonight. I live and work here now so a visit from my son is already a ‘happily ever after’ for me. If you are a parent, it’s something you really look forward to, kahit makasama siya sandali [even you can only be with him for a short while].”
He is grateful for technological advancements that now allow him to talk to his son everyday over the Internet.
For Vega whose family lives in Cebu, she shared, “When it comes to our families, we really get emotional because we keep thinking about missing Christmas at home with everyone we love.”
But instead of letting homesickness get her down, Vega explained how she uses the emotion to motivate her more. She continued, “We have to make it work. We make sure that families here enjoy Christmas. We give it our best every day, with all our hearts, and to see them happy somehow make us feel closer to our families at home.”
Thankfully, Vega will have time with her Cebuano parents soon as they will also visit HKDL for the holidays. For sure, they will be filled with pride as they watch their daughter perform in Mickey and the Wondrous Book.
Asked what Filipinos offer the HKDL stage, Magdangal was quick to reply: “‘Yong pinanggalingan namin [Our roots].”
Elaborating, he said, “Growing up in the Philippines, iba ‘yong kinalakihan natin sa nakikita naming buhay ng mga tao dito o sa ibang first world countries [Growing up in the Philippines is very different from what we see here and other firs world countries].”
This is also what makes him strive to be the best that he is whenever on stage. He said, “Iba na dala mo ‘yon sa dibdib mo. Kahit mataas itong kanta, aabutin ko. Kahit uhaw na uhaw ako, kakantahin ko ‘to [It makes such a difference when you keep your roots in your heart. For when we perform, we give it our best—no matter how high the notes, even if we’re tired. It’s hard to describe but it is what goes on in my head whenever I sing in another country].
Agreeing with her co-singer, Vega added, “This is what makes us palaban [fighters]because you are not only representing yourselves but the whole country.”
Dancing for the family
For choreographer and dancer Marvin Naadat, working for HKDL is both a privilege and sacrifice.
He shared his inspiring story after he received an early Christmas gift from the theme park: his lovely wife Lhedda and two beautiful daughters surprised him as well at the Noche Buena.
The surprise was due for Naadat who had been a cast member at the park since 2005—the very year when he had just started a family. His eldest Mavie is now 11, and his youngest Maya is 7.
A former member of the Douglas Nierras Powerdance, Naadat started as a Flights of Fantasy dancer upon joining HKDL in 2005. Since then, he slowly made his way to the top, and is now the dance captain for the theme park’s spectacular Lion King show.
Asked how he kept his family close despite being away from them, Naadat replied, “Communication and trust are the keys.”
“Call your family no matter how busy your schedule is. If you have at least two minutes of your time, [call them]and ask how they are, especially now that we have technology. There is Facetime or Facebook,” he related.
His ever-supportive wife, Lhedda added, “I work in Singapore and live there with our daughters. People ask me how I can handle being away from my husband who has a life of his own in Hong Kong. Yes, I know we have the tendency to grow apart but our rule is to call every day and thankfully, that hasn’t happened.”
Naadat rejoined, “Also, make sure that there is always trust between you and your partner, and if misunderstandings happen, always forgive.”
Looking forward to their time together at Hong Kong Disneyland, the happy husband and father said he is excited to watch Mickey and the Wondrous Book with his girls.
“My daughters love Tangled, Brave and Frozen so I am sure they will love it,” he enthused.
Lhedda agreed, “Disney has always been part of our family. But every time we come here to watch him perform, or even just go around the park, it always feels like the first time for us.”
Truly, this is Disneyland’s magic for every family.