Looking Back

Smell and the Filipino identity

Whenever I see bomb-sniffing dogs in airports or at the entrance of posh hotels, I am reminded of my mother’s highly developed sense of smell that could track down a cockroach that had strayed into her immaculately clean bedroom. When she caught the scent of a cockroach she would not sleep until it had been dispatched by a deftly manipulated slipper. At breakfast she would brag about her successful hunt, such that my father claimed that to make his wife happy he would often bring home a cockroach in a matchbox and release it in their bedroom.

My mother’s sense of smell was perfectly deployed in the kitchen, where she would check on the taste of food simmering in pots simply by taking a whiff, while others needed to take a spoonful to taste. I used to think she was pulling our leg until I heard about Gregoria de Jesus Nakpil, widow of Andres Bonifacio, who was a celebrated cook. I was told that “Oriang” could tell whether something cooking on a stove was good or not simply from its aroma. She took one sniff and knew exactly what was lacking to perfect the dish. This made me wonder in what other ways she deployed her sense of smell during the Philippine Revolution.


But it seems my mother and Oriang would not have been exceptional in 19th-century Philippines, if we are to believe the Frenchman Jean Mallat, who noted in 1846 that:

“Indios have an extraordinarily fine sense of smell; there are servants who recognize the shirts of their master, after returning from the wash, among those of 10 or 12 other persons only by the odor. It is also claimed that if a man finds himself beside a woman of whom he is enamored, she guesses his sentiments from the odor of his perspiration, and vice-versa. As a sign of tenderness, they ask for a shirt which has been worn by the loved person, and when it has lost its odor, they change it with another one; for them it has the effect of a lock of hair in Europe.”


Ferdinand Blumentritt, friend of Jose Rizal, never set foot in the Philippines but wrote a lot about the country and its people. In one of his research papers he said that Filipinos “exchange clothes in order to be near their beloved by smelling the clothes. In cases where the smell of the attire is already lost, other pieces of clothing may be exchanged. According to [Sinibaldo de Mas] from whom I have taken the above information, [Filipino women] are able to find out whether the man near them are sexually excited or not through their sense of smell.”

Reading Mallat reminded me of elderly aunts who greeted us with a different kind of kiss. This wasn’t an ordinary peck on the cheek. It looked like the modern beso-beso (translated from the Spanish as kiss-kiss), where one kisses a person on both cheeks; the same motions are deployed by some who do not actually kiss but merely go cheek to cheek with the other, sometimes making the sound “mwah” with each “kiss.” Elderly aunts performed the second type of beso-beso but they would sniff you audibly, such that you felt they were sniffing away at your soul—or perhaps checking on your sexual excitement? Mallat also reminded me of lovers today who exchange used pillows, towels or articles of clothing when one went away on a trip. I am told there are even websites that cater to this fetish by supplying used socks and underwear for a fee.

As an historian, I have read many travel accounts of the Philippines and Filipinos, from the earliest and most detailed by Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan’s chronicler, who left us with his notes on the country in 1521, to many others in the first decades of the 20th century that historians label the “American period.” Foreigners claim that Filipinos exude a particular scent but cannot describe it, while Filipinos are more descriptive and venture on a typology based on smell: Indians approximate spicy curry, Americans are supposed to reek of beef, Thais exude the aroma of patis (fish sauce), and so on. But ask Filipinos to describe the typical Filipino scent and they will reply that we don’t smell because we bathe every day.

The modern world is filled with perfumes, colognes and deodorants that have changed the olfactory landscape. I would presume that to foreigners, we Filipinos could smell like adobo or sinigang or bagoong. Josephine Craig, sister of the historian Austin Craig, came to the Philippines as a schoolteacher early in the 20th century and in one of her letters home she provides us with what may be the only account I know that documents the Filipino smell: “You may have heard of a brown taste in one’s mouth—Manila has a decidedly brown smell, so I am extra glad that we shall live in a part of the city well aired by sea breezes.”

Craig might have been racist, but what is this brown smell? On her trip from Manila to Calapan that she described as “rough and smelly,” she added copra and coconut to her catalogue of Philippine smells and other “stenches to be avoided.” Her description of the general atmosphere during the Misa de Aguinaldo in Calapan was “very odiferous.” One of her complaints was about Filipino lavanderas (washerwomen) who supposedly returned her clothes tattered “and with an unspeakable odor.”

There is much historical and ethnographic material to keep an anthropologist busy defining not just the concepts of fragrant and foul to a Filipino but also, more importantly, how our smell (what delights or repels us) defines who we are. Smell just might be one way to catch that elusive thing we call national identity.

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TAGS: andres bonifacio, Antonio Pigafetta, Ferdinand Blumentritt, gregoria de jesus, identity, smell
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