From Salcedo Market to Quiapo

by Kiko Matsing

Zialcita Book Quiapo
Wooden Christ Bautista-Nakpil House

Fortunately, I’ve had only mild jetlag on this trip. I usually get extremely sleepy at around 5-6 in the evening, and wake up between 3-4 in the morning. This does not make sense if you convert those times to their US Eastern Time equivalents. I think the 16 hours of dark in the plane on the way here put me in a sleepy limbo that reset my sense of time.

We stayed at The Columns on Friday night. The following morning, my kid brother and I went with my mother to the nearby Salcedo Market, where downtown Makati residents do their weekend grocery. It is like the tented street market at the Rockefeller Center. Well, sort of. At the entrance, we were greeted by the sight of a roasted cow, skewered along its length with a bamboo pole that turned it over the coals. “Wholly Cow”, the sign says on its tent. I let my mother do her shopping in peace, and went to look for something to eat. I found a tent that sold puto bongbong and bibinka, rice-based cakes popular during this time of the year, especially around the Misa de Gallo, a series of midnight Masses that anticipate the birth of Jesus.

I got a bibinka which is made of rice flour; it looks similar to pancakes but fluffier, more crumbly than gummy. They also throw in chunks of salted duck eggs, an ingenious counterpoise to the sweet, creamy batter. It is typically baked in clay pots on banana leaves over charcoal, then slathered with butter, and sprinkled with shredded coconut. I got coffee to go with it, brewed from the aromatic arabica beans grown in the Mountain Province. I sat down with my younger brother, a special child, on a park bench just behind the bustle of the market, to share this meal. I don’t know what it was–perhaps by having this pastry especially at this time of the year, the smell of its banana leaves and coconut garnish permeating the cake, calling forth memories of the Christmases of my childhood, or, perhaps, by having to share it here with my kid brother whom I have not seen in more than three years–but, suddenly, I was gripped with such longing, my eyes welled with tears.

That same morning, I was to meet up with my friend, Vince, who teaches a class on modern poetry. He takes some of his students on a walking tour of Quaipo in Old Manila in the context of discussing poetry and the city. Today, he was going to give me the same walking tour. We planned to meet up with another friend, Cez, in a bead shop near Quiapo Church. It was teeming with people. Hawkers took over the streets, selling anything from fruits and vegetables, dried salted fish, healing herbs, amulets and talismans, and plastic wares from China.

We happened to pass by the Nakpil-Bautista House, ancestral home to Butch Zialcita, a socio-anthropologist from Ateneo. His grandfather, Julio Nakpil, was one of the original revolutionaries against Spain, a self-taught pianist who wrote Katipunan marches. He later married Gregoria de Jesus, the widow of the Supremo, Andres Bonifacio. The house, still alive with memories of the Katipunan–as the revolutionary movement was known–is now a museum, and has a shrine to “Oriang”, as Gregoria was fondly referred to as Mother of the Philippine Revolution.

The house, however, did not have any indications it was a museum, nor a shirne, nor even that it was open. We simply pushed the door that was slightly ajar, and asked permission from the folks inside if we could see the place. We did not expect to be let in. The woodcarvers who were busy working on a huge statue of the crucified or risen Christ (I was not sure), in what must have been the driveway where the karitelas pulled up, did not seem to find our intrusion odd. Perhaps the fame of this house preceded itself. There, we got a grand tour from the curator herself, a spunky manang, who still seem to be a card-carrying member of the Katipunan. She showed us a facsimile of the Doctrina Christiana–Spanish Catholic catechism written in old Tagalog script (baybayin)–and played a dramatic reading of Oriang’s autobiography on cassette. To remember this moment, I got a copy of Butch’s recently published book Quiapo: Heart of Manila before we left.

We then proceeded to one of Quiapo’s glorious architectural landmarks, the San Sebastian church. Built in the neo-Gothic revival style, it was pre-fabricated in Belgium, shipped lock, stock, and barrel, and assembled here. The stained glass windows are German, like the ones I saw in Charleston and Savannah. The Augustian friars, tired of building churches after fires and earthquakes, decided to build one made entirely of steel. It is said (by Ambeth Ocampo) that even Eiffel had a hand in its design.

We had lunch at a halal cafeteria in nearby Arlegui, the muslim trading district where pirated DVDs are sold right next to the Golden Mosque–the ultimate Third World revenge on big Hollywood media companies. We had to cut our coffee short when Cez got too uncomfortable from the stares she got from muslim men, perhaps unused to their women bearing even a little skin and, worse, accompanied unsupervised by men. We moved, instead, over to Mini Stop, a local version of 7/11, where we spent the rest of the afternoon coming up to speed with what’s been going on in our lives.

Shortly before I left for the US, I joined a walking tour of the San Miguel District of Old Manila, given by the Heritage Conservation Society. Carlos Celdran was our ebullient guide trough the Machuca Tiles Company, the San Miguel Church, the Benedictine Church (a bona fide best kept secret of Manila), and the Legarda Mansion turned La Cocina de Tita Moning in San Rafael Street. It was made more memorable by the company of friends who were with me, and a looming sense of nostalgia in anticipation of my impending departure. Vince was there, as well as Ada, and BJ Patiño, who now lives in Davao. Butch Zialcita was also on that tour, and privately added his sober scholarly annotations (the chrysanthemums on the eaves were due to Japanese craftsmen drafted to work on the mansion) to our tour guide’s more colorful embellishments (this is where Imelda probably snorted cocaine with the likes of George Hamilton and van Cliburn).

I took the river ferry with Vince on the way back. On the way to the dock, we passed by Escolta Street, the former financial district, where Vince took pictures of the sad run-down façades. The ferry ride was about an hour long, and took us through the length of the Pasig River, bearing south east, to Guadalupe. When it passed by Malacañang Palace, the presidential residence, children took out their ₱20 bills and put these up against the real thing. The coast guard in the boat warned us not to take pictures. “Perhaps the President doesn’t want us to see what she’s up to,” I quipped.

I came home just in time to join my family at the Christmas dinner sponsored by the condo management, but had to retire right after the meal, as I was extremely tired. I browsed at my Quiapo book for a little bit, thinking about my day, and fell asleep. I woke up, again, at 4.