Rizal and Heneral Luna’s Chinatown
Taking advantage of the cool and windy weather last Saturday, I decided to stroll around Chinatown to soak in the commercialized festivity that accompanies the Chinese New Year. All sorts of charms were on offer in shops and stalls. Red and gold dominated the landscape. Rows of ornamental orange trees teeming with inedible fruit made for a pretty sight, and vendors were busy ornamenting huge gnarled ginger roots with ribbons for good luck. One stall, off Ongpin Street bridge, was awash with all types of kamote: local, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. I knew kamote as a “musical” rather than “auspicious” food. Before COVID-19, my friend Ivan Man Dy gave belly-busting food tours of Chinatown that led to long lines outside the restaurants he recommended; today, you can pop in without a reservation.
My mission was to get a box of Cow Label for my favorite niece, haw flakes for a friend, tikoy for my sister, and what to me is the best hopia in town, which comes with watermelon seeds (and egg if you want the fancier type). Thick-crusted and larger than the usual hopia, it is best heated in a bread toaster before being served, quartered, and consumed like mooncake, which I find too rich. My mother used to scold me when I refused special mooncake with lotus seeds and duck eggs, declaring: “Napaka-ignorante mo, kung ayaw mo ng mooncake mag-hopia ka na lang!” So I took her word, preferring plain mongo hopia from Ho-Land or Polland bakery. “Hopia baboy,” by the way, is made from mongo, too, not pork.
I left Lunar New Year shopping to the end of the trip, because I wanted to do some historical research on the side. First, I crossed the San Fernando Bridge in front of Binondo Church to find the site where Rizal’s mother, Teodora Alonso, died in 1911. Located on 478 San Fernando Street, the site has two historical markers you cannot miss, prominently displayed and cared for at the entrance to the Oceancell Building. From here, I walked along the estero in search of Estraude Street; you cannot find it without asking people, because it has no street sign.
Another Rizal family home used to be on this street. I had visited and photographed it two decades ago; it is now an empty lot. Disappointed, I then walked toward the corner of Urbiztondo corner Elcano streets where, across the Raja Soliman School, you will find the old house where Antonio Luna was born. Unlike his elder brother, the painter Juan Luna, who was born in Badoc, Ilocos Norte, the fiery Heneral Luna was rooted in San Nicolas and the esteros fed by the Pasig River. This explains his pen name: Taga-Ilog.
On my way back to Binondo Church, I crossed San Fernando Bridge again. I remembered that in old photographs, the ruined building on the left side, at the foot of the bridge, was the site of a restaurant. A wall used to carry a huge sign that read: “Panciteria Macanista del Buen Gusto” (Macanese Panciteria of Good Taste), which was referenced in Chapter 25 of “El Filibusterismo.” As Rizal described it: “At the center of the sala and beneath the red lanterns were four round tables, systematically arranged to form a square; equally round little wooden stools served as seats. In the middle of each table, according to the custom of the establishment, were laid out four small colored plates with four pastries on each one, and four tea cups with their corresponding lids, all of red porcelain. In front of each stool could be seen a bottle and two wineglasses of gleaming crystal.”
A sign with big black letters was also in that old sala and, translated from the original Spanish, warned: “The manager of this eatery. Warns the public. That absolutely nothing may be left. On any table or chair.” Today that sign would be: “Mind your belongings. Management will not be responsible for misplaced or stolen property.”
I have no idea what the pastries on the plates were, but the four dishes the group had in the novel were pancit lang-lang, “made of mushrooms, lobsters or shrimps, egg noodles, sotanghon, chicken bits and I don’t know what else”; lumpia, fried spring roll, “shining with grease outside and tough pork inside!”, torta, crab omelet that the group could hear being cooked sizzling in lard; and pancit guisado or sauteed noodles.
Chinatown then as now will make many Filipinos feel like a tourist in their own country.
Comments are welcome at email@example.com