Chewing ‘buyo’ | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Chewing ‘buyo’

When you look at a painting by Pablo Picasso, what do you see first? Is it the picture itself or its multimillion-dollar price tag? When you look at Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium,” what do you see first? Do you see dead gladiators in a bloody scene from ancient Rome or Luna’s comment on the condition of the Philippines under Spain, or its multimillion-peso price tag? One of the unfortunate effects of the current frenzy in the art market is that it makes people buy names rather than pictures. As a historian, I am happy that many hidden masterpieces are making their way to the auction block because there is a chance to document these pieces and add to our knowledge of Philippine art.

Last September a large painting by Jorge Pineda depicting women enjoying “buyo” (betel nut) was sold at auction in Manila. The painting came from the estate of the late National Artist Alejandro R. Roces, a Macapagal-era education secretary, and was believed to have been the same one awarded a bronze medal at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. The Inquirer ran a story regarding two more paintings of the same subject allegedly in the possession of Pineda’s heirs, insinuating that the painting sold at auction wasn’t what it was supposed to be. With no documentation and high-resolution pictures from the Pineda camp, we are left with an unsolved “mystery”—except that artists like Fernando Amorsolo and even Juan Luna are known to have made duplicates of their own work.

Let’s forget the Pineda “mystery” for a while and just look at the picture(s) he painted because buyo-chewing is one pre-Spanish practice now nearly extinct in the Philippines. It left us with many beautifully crafted betel nut boxes from Mindanao sold as antiques and collectibles today. These boxes are still made for tourists in Mindanao and are usually bought for their decorative rather than functional use. Made of worked silver or brass and decorated with silver, these boxes have inner compartments that were used to hold betel nuts, the leaves of betel piper vine, and lime. At times an odd-shaped pair of scissors or kalukati comes with the box to complete the set.

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Betel nuts (Visayan bonga or fruit) come from areca palms and are cut up into small sections, sprinkled with lime (nganga) from ground shells (usually talaba), and wrapped neatly in the betel piper leaves. The tiny package is then placed in the mouth and chewed. The blood-red juice or quid is not ingested but spat out, preferably into a spittoon. The betel chew produced a slight narcotic effect, a tingling in the mouth, or sometimes giddiness.

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The preparation and use of betel nut chew used to be an important social act from the pre-Spanish times to the turn of the century. Men usually carried their chew in the especially made boxes or pouches, in the same way that smokers would carry their cigarettes on their person. Buyo-chewing, like smoking today, was the prelude to all types of conversation that led to business, gossip, romance, etc. Betel nut chewing was part of bonding.

From ancient times until the turn of the century, betel nut chew was prepared by women and served to visitors. Depending on the importance of the visitor, the chew would be prepared and served by the slaves, the daughters of the host, or the lady of the house. In large gatherings, a large betel nut container, sometimes in the form of a boat, would be rolled on a table to service all guests.

Buyo-chewing was not confined to Mindanao alone but was also widely used in the lowland Christian areas of the Visayas and Luzon. The Panay epic of “Humadapnon” has a long description of the preparation of betel nut chew by women. In upper-class nineteenth-century homes in Luzon, buyo was daintily wrapped, also by the ladies of the house, and served on elaborate silver buyeras.

Harper’s New Monthly of February 1852 noted:

“In Manila everyone smokes, everyone chews buyo—man, woman, and child, Indian or Spaniard. Strangers who arrive there, though repudiating the habit for a while, soon take to it, and become the most confirmed buyo eaters in the place. Two acquaintances meet upon the paseo, and stop to exchange their salutations. One pulls out his cigarrero and says, ‘Quiere usted fumar (Will you smoke?)?’ The other draws forth the ever ready buyo case, and with equal politeness offers a roll of the buyo. The commodities are exchanged, each helping himself to a cartridge and a cigarrito. A flint and steel are speedily produced, the cigars are lit, and each takes a bite of buyo, while the conversation is all the while proceeding. Thus three distinct operations are performed by the same individual at the same time—[chewing], smoking, and talking! The juice arising from the buyo in [chewing] is of a strong red color resembling blood.”

Buyo chew was so much a part of Philippine life that the ritual of its preparation was raised to the level of art. The boxes and containers for buyo became more than functional pieces and turned into prized heirlooms. In downtown Kuala Lumpur you can still buy hand-wrapped betel chew, which I was sorely tempted to try because it is now nearly extinct in the Philippines and remains mostly in art and literature, as in Jorge Pineda’s painting(s) of women chewing buyo at the turn of the century.

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TAGS: Alejandro R. Roces, Fernando Amorsolo, juan luna, Philippine art, Spoliarium

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