FOND REMEMBRANCE OF CHRISTMAS IN MANILA
By CESAR TORRES
January 11, 2007
After 20 years of
spending his Christmas in America, a close friend spent his
Christmas in Manila last month. As he relates it to me, the
experience was a bewildering array of sights and emotions. But in
general, it was a moment of fondness and admiration of the
resilience of the Filipino people.
On arriving at NAIA,
there was a string band composed of three musicians. The band played
some Christmas Carols for the arriving passengers, making them smile
and providing some lighter moments for the passengers after a long
trip. The Immigration and Customs staff members were courteous.
There were no intimidating whispers of “Pamasko diyan, ha, pamasko!”
And the Customs people did not threaten to open the baggages of the
passengers, or else.... They were very, very courteous. And your
heart would go out to them because we know they are not adequately
compensated because of a poor government of a poor country. The
Customs and Immigration people symbolized the proud and dignified
Filipinos. You would be proud of them as a Filipino.
My friend was met
by a top official of the Presidential Commission on Good
Government. There was also his good friend from his college days,
someone who was very influential during the regime of President
Estrada. He was surprised that his friend was lugging a laptop with
was invited to a
hour-1:00 AM breakfast at the Aristocrat Restaurant before he could
drop his luggage and a balikbayan box of stuff toys for the
children in Bicol in the place he was staying, the house of his
brother. This was the beginning of that sumptuous Filipino repast –
bulalo, other delicious foods, a coffee concoction which the
waiters said was “Brewed Coffee”, but was served and tasted like a
Cappucino. Of course, they discussed Philippine society, politics,
and government. They parted after 3:00 AM. Outside, Roxas Boulevard was
glittering with Christmas lights and decorations. The ambiance was
very beautiful, especially at that time of the night when the sky
was clear, the stars were twinkling, and the temperature was a bit
like San Francisco’s along Manila
The succeeding days
were spent in visits, reunions, discussions, and consultations of
relatives, former colleagues in the academe, and other concerned
Filipinos. Our balikbayan was not the ordinary
bakasyonista who will ogle at the pulchritudinous and voluptuous
lovelies in Boracay or Panglao. In the first place, he does not
have the wherewithal to go to those places. So there was that visit
to a cousin who was taking care of numerous nephews and nieces who
could not find employment in the provinces. Then a dash across Taft
Avenue to Ayala via “Buendia” for an appointment with the Solicitor
General to ask for his help so that the case of a brutalized mother
and her two-year girl child is resolved. Along Taft, they kept on
looking for “Buendia Street”, but the street name has been changed.
It was very frustrating. Finally, through the massive and
continuous use of cell phones and texting they arrived at the Office
of the Solicitor General.
Over coffee, the
visitors gathered more details about that assassination of one
Assistant Solicitor General Nestor Ballacillo and his young son. It
was also learned that cases brought to the Office of the Solicitor
General are almost growing at an exponential rate. There are not
enough underpaid lawyers to attend to them.
and his son were treated to a sumptuous Japanese dinner at Diamond
Hotel. The room was exclusive. All glasses with a panoramic view
Fit for the discriminating tourists from the First World. Courtesy
of Diamond Hotel manager, Yogie Ramos who, with his two children,
were the balikbayan’s guests in California several years ago.
He was simply repaying a favor and more.
There was the visit
to the Farmers’ Market. The fish and the crustaceans were so
fresh. Our bakasyonista bought a whole yellow fin tuna for
about $15. In contrast, it is sold in San Francisco for $9.90 per
Fin Tuna, $15 for the whole fish at Farmers Market in Cubao.
They sell at $9.90 per lb in San Francisco.
While waiting for
his fellow marketers, he watched a team of bibingka makers
prepare their bibingka. He asked them to pose and took their
picture. These simple folks – not handsome, not lovely, not reeking
of imported perfume, and not garbed in ornate attires – personify
the millions of patient Filipinos, trying to survive with dignity.
I compared them to the bibingka that they were preparing.
The oppressive elite are on top of them, and the metas metas
progressive groups are supposed to be propping them up from below.
They are sandwiched between two contending forces, like the
bibingka they were preparing.
There were meetings
and consultations at Sulo Hotel where the food was cheap and the Red
Wine so tasty and the waitresses were lovely and statuesque and the
music was heavenly. There were dinners at Treehouse in Diliman.
Again, the food was cheap, and delicious and fresh, especially the
broiled head of a tuna. The servers were young and very courteous.
One young waiter told us that his brother, a graduate of PMA and the
UP College of
is incarcerated because he was associated with a group suspected of
attempting a coup d’etat. His family was going through difficult
Then there were the
lunches and an unforgettable dinner with former colleagues in the
academe. Their opinions on Philippine society were very
enlightening and revealing, almost unbelievable coming from them.
They have become less forgiving. In sum, it was sad, but not
Then shopping for
pasalubongs at ShoeMart (SM). Our friend could not stop
asking the salesgirls who were so pretty why they were so thin.
“Bakit ba ang papayat niyo?” Initially, they just smiled.
Finally, one girl exclaimed: “Kasi walang makain dito sa Pilipinas.”
(“Because there is nothing to eat in the Philippines.”) When he paid
for the merchandise that he had purchased with his credit card, it
was less than $100. If the items were bought in San Francisco, they
would cost in the neighborhood of $500. He did something that he
has never done before in his entire life. He took out P600 and gave
P100 tips to the salesgirls at SM. It was Christmas after all.
Of course, it was a
season of good cheer, of Christmas Carols, and hope for a better
world, especially for the children. The proletarian UP Staff
Chorale Society, some 20 of them, sang Christmas carols where our
balikbayan was staying. If one recalls, of all the world-famous
chorale groups in the University of the Philippines, it was only the
UP Staff Chorale Society that performed a mini-concert for the
children of Payatas on February 14, 2004. Theodore Makabulos Aquino,
President of the UP Alumni Association of America, Ching Torres,
Irene Nobleza, and Roger Bantiles beheld how the UP Staff Chorale
could sing like Seraphims and Cherubims, like they did in San
Francisco in December 2001. This time, they did it all over again.
But this time, there was a difference. Celeste Castillo came with
her two-year old girl child who was almost dancing in front of the
Chorale group when they were singing Christmas carols. Music of
hope, uplifting music that soared to the December stars in Pilipinas
bibingka bakers, struggling to survive with dignity and honor
[Published in the January 2007 issue of
The Filipino Insider, a monthly supplement
of the San Francisco Chronicle. The author was a former faculty
member of the University of the Philippines Department of Political
Science. He can be reached at