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Extinct weights, measures, and jobs

/ 04:07 AM December 23, 2020

Some effects of the pandemic on our everyday lives are quite positive. This year, there is a conspicuous absence of gridlock traffic on the short stretch of Ayala Avenue from the corner of Edsa and Ayala, where the old Intercon used to be, to the corner of Ayala and Makati Avenue, marked by the Makati Shangri-La Hotel and the Manila Pen. In previous years, it was faster to get off a vehicle and walk rather than wait to be brought to the doorstep of Rustan’s or Glorietta.

There may be less vehicular traffic in the shopping district, but inside the malls, in some stores, it’s Christmas as usual. There are long lines outside Toy Kingdom, the same at the cashiers in Uniqlo. People will gather for Christmas, and we can only hope that by keeping their distance, wearing masks, and washing hands often, we don’t see the expected spike in infections in the 2021 New Year.

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I don’t dare make the rounds to buy gifts this year. I have also resisted falling into the rabbit hole of online shopping. I compared online grocery prices with those in 1881 Manila as listed in Juan P. Gutierrez-Gay’s Manila en el bolsillo (Manila in Your Pocket). It may be an obsolete guide to the city today, but it has useless information for the historian or those afflicted by nostalgia for the Manila that was.

Beef sold at 12 centavos per pound, a price that is beyond our imagination today. Pork was cheaper at 10 centavos. Fish was the same price as beef at 12 centavos. Being an archipelagic country, shouldn’t fish be cheaper? Chicken was classified into layers (P3.75 per dozen), fryers (P2.25/dozen), and broilers (P1.50). Chicken eggs sold for 25 centavos a dozen, and turkeys of regular size, whatever that meant, cost P2.50. Other fowl mentioned: ducks at one peso each, geese at two pesos each, pigeons or palomas at 18 centavos each, and squab or pichones at 12 centavos each.

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Vegans should note that assorted veggies went for three centavos a pound. Potatoes sold at three pesos per picul, a unit of weight used in colonial Southeast Asia that is roughly 60.47 kilos. Picul was literally the weight that could be carried by a man using a shoulder pole. Gabi or yam was cheaper at two pesos per picul. The cheapest staple was camote or sweet potato at one peso per picul. First-class white rice sold at P3.12 per pound, while second-class polished rice sold at P2.12 per pound.

In colonial Manila, there were different weights and measures employed, which made grocery runs complicated. Pounds/libra, picul, kati, ganta, etc. can be quite confusing when we read about them today. One chupa was 3.75ml, and one fourth of a chupa was literally one apatan. Eight chupas was one ganta. Twenty-five gantas is one kaban. In Spanish Manila, probably due to the Chinese traders, a unit of measurement used was called a kati or catty, which was about 600 grams. When I was a boy, I accompanied my mother when she did Christmas shopping in Hong Kong and heard her repeatedly ask: “How much per kati?” In Spanish Manila, a third of a kati was one punto, 12 kati was one chinanta, 48 kati was one laksa, one kaban was 97 kati, one picul was 100 kati, and one jeydon was 1,000 kati.

If you think all that is crazy, try explaining why a caban of rice then was about 60.33 kilos compared to a caban today of 50 kilograms, but a caban of cocoa then was 37.87 kilos.

A list of labor and wages between 1898 and 1902 is trivial. The data are obsolete. However, looking beyond professions we recognize today—accountants, bakers, barbers, fishermen, servants, and tailors—is useless except to remember Gilda Cordero Fernando’s collection of short stories, “The Butcher, the Baker, and the Candlestick Maker.” The list is fascinating because of the professions long gone—carriage blacksmiths, carriage carpenters, carriage leather workers, carriage painters, carriage wheelrights, and harness makers. They’re all gone in the age of cars, buses, and motorcycles.

Book binders, brick makers, candle makers, cigar box makers and fillers, cigar sorters, as well as lithographers, rope makers, umbrella makers, and much more should remind us of a time when the Philippines and Filipinos transitioned from almost four hundred years in a Spanish convent to five decades in the Hollywood dream of the US. The extinct professions depict a world we have long forgotten; they show a country on the cusp of change, and how we came to be.

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