‘The Iceman Cometh’ | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

‘The Iceman Cometh’

Someone should write a PhD thesis tracing the context and origins of everyday sayings like “panahon pa ni Mahoma” to describe something very old; or “sa bundok ng tralala” to refer to some faraway place; or “bahala na si Batman,” an updated funny take on the old-fashioned “bahala na” (come what may). A small historical dictionary can be compiled with all these phrases and, if possible, each phrase can be dated or traced to the first time it was used and when it faded from disuse. This seems to be another project where the thrill of the chase will provide more adrenalin than the finished product.

Too bad Nick Joaquin isn’t around to contribute to this dictionary of slang because he took much of his knowledge of Manila and its street language to the grave. Joaquin once explained that the phrase “mabilis pa sa alas cuatro” (faster than four o’clock) was connected with the siren or whistle of the old Insular Ice Plant that used to be close to the Pasig River, in an area where the present Metropolitan Theater, Quezon Bridge and Manila Post Office now stand. The ice plant’s siren sounded thrice daily: at 7 a.m. to signal the start of work; at 12 noon to signal the lunch break; and at 4 p.m. to signal the end of work. Manila was less noisy then, so people who heard the ice plant’s siren worked their days around these signals, too. “Mabilis pa sa alas cuatro” referred to the 4 p.m. siren.

The Insular Ice Plant, built in 1902, provided a regular supply of ice and constant cold storage for the American colony until it was destroyed during the Battle for Manila in 1945, leaving the tall smokestack that was a Manila landmark for close to 80 years until it was dismantled to make way for the LRT in the 1980s. The Philippines didn’t have a constant supply of ice until the 19th century, when huge blocks of crystal-clear ice were cut from Wenham Lake in the United States and transported all the way to India with a stopover in Manila. Many years ago, while analyzing the lavish banquet held in Malolos in September 1898 to celebrate the ratification of the June 12 declaration of independence in Kawit, I wondered aloud how it was possible to have mocha ice cream and other iced goodies on the menu. Answers have since been provided by Bob Couttie and Lou Gopal.


There are two documented ice plants in 19th-century Manila: One was run by Julio Witte on Calle Barraca, Binondo, starting in 1881, and the other was Fabrica de Hielo de Manila on Echague established in 1894. San Miguel later acquired the Fabrica de Hielo, so unknown to many, the company long associated with beer had ice as one of its principal products in its early days. In the early 20th century, there was an Oriental Brewery and Ice Factory in San Miguel that was also acquired by San Miguel that turned the ice plant building into a factory and bottling plant for Royal Soft Drinks.


When I went out of my grandmother’s kitchen in Pampanga last Sunday in search of traditional buko sherbet, I saw the wood-and-metal containers but forgot to ask the cook how the contraption works. I got my fill and only remembered Bob Couttie, who explained how ice cream and sherbet could be had in the late 1890s in the Philippines:

“The answer lay in a bit of clever chemistry well known at the time but largely forgotten today: Some chemicals react with water by producing heat; it’s called an exothermic reaction. Others get cold, called an endothermic reaction, which can get cold enough to freeze water. The trick was to put something like ammonium chloride into a bucket-shaped container, put the stuff you wanted to freeze in a second container made of metal, and put it inside the first container. By adding water to the chemicals then stirring—there was a lid on top of the whole assembly with a handle to keep things moving—the stuff in the inner container would get cold enough to freeze…”


Couttie provided more leads I have yet to follow up on, like the memoirs of US Army Maj. William Henry Corbusier, who attempted to build an ice factory in Manila in 1899. In these memoirs are references to ice plants in Cavite and Iloilo before 1900, and to a time when, during a shortage of ammonia, Corbusier loaned his supply to San Miguel Brewing Co. to keep ice production moving.

Ice is a staple of everyday Philippine life. We get it easily from our fridge or even from a sari-sari store, but it has a long and interesting cultural history that should be written about someday. I still remember huge blocks of ice covered in rice husks delivered by husky men in rubber boots from ice trucks. My mother didn’t think this was clean, and I was often sent to the tube ice plant along Quezon Boulevard to buy bags of the stuff for table use. Cold storage for food reminded me of the time when the well-heeled and well-connected stored their winter furs in the cold storage of the French ambassador’s residence on Flame Tree Road in South Forbes Park, before the move to Elvira Manahan’s home on Anahaw Road in North Forbes Park that had no cold storage.

All these engaging bits of information on ice and cold storage will be a welcome addition to the cultural and social history of the Philippines. The title of the monograph can be borrowed from the 1939 Eugene O’Neill play, “The Iceman Cometh.”

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Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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TAGS: insular ice plant, MANILA, nick joaquin

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