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History in a Chinese New Year meal

By: Ambeth R. Ocampo - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | February 12,2021 - 08:00 AM

My search for hopia and history in Chinatown last weekend required prior research, curiosity, and imagination. I learned, for example, that what we outsiders know as Chinatown is composed of Binondo and San Nicolas—two districts separated by a polluted estero. To cross from Binondo to San Nicolas, one has to take the San Fernando or other bridges along the estero.

In one spot between San Fernando and Divisoria, there used to be a raft that ferried people across, a short route marked by a rope tied from one bank to the other. I saw this raft in a prewar photograph, and was surprised to learn that it was still in operation till the 1980s. I boarded it once and was amazed that passengers dropped their fare, or even dropped a bill and collected their change, from a box in the middle of the raft. An honesty system was in place, because the boatman was busy pulling the raft to and fro. That raft is but a memory now, but I see that something similar still remains for people who need to cross the Pasig from Makati to Mandaluyong. To cross for free, you take the Guadalupe Bridge, the JP Rizal bridge, or the new one near Rockwell. Or you can cross on a banca for a minimal fee. This mode of transport in the 21st century reminds us not just of life in earlier times, but also of the fact that, as an archipelagic nation, we live in a land connected, rather than separated, by water.

My classroom history is livened up by stories from my experience. I encourage students to connect past and present with their research and imagination to find relevance that makes our lessons memorable. I am worried about the growing trend of requiring videos in lieu of the formal academic term paper with footnotes and bibliography. The formal term paper teaches research, documentation, and clear expression. Students doing a video don’t even research in the library or the internet; rather, they will message a “resource person” for an interview and get their work done without effort.

Chinese New Year always reminds me of a home economics major in my UP Diliman Rizal course in the 1980s who came to class not just with a solid research paper, but also with a whole lauriat he had cooked (or bought) based on a Chinese New Year meal that Rizal partook of in Hong Kong in 1888. This meal was recorded in his diary as follows:

“February 17 Friday. Chinese tea. U-long tea is bitter and it is one of the best [at] P3 a pound.

“The table is ready; three saucers in front of every guest; the empty one is the largest—8 centimeters (in diameter) with a porcelain spoon; another, a smaller one, with soy sauce; and the third, still smaller with a little cup for the wine; the tiny cup has a content of five to ten grams. There is a table cloth and a fork with two prongs. In the middle of these there are small oranges, salted eggs, almonds and other seeds.

“As each guest arrives he is offered a cup of U-long tea, the superior tea. Chasan P10 a pound.

“When the Chinese grow a moustache they can no longer shave—60 years.

“They begin dinner with tea: then dried fruits. Goose. Shrimps. Eggs. Meat. Shark’s Fin. [Bird’s] Nest. Tender Duck. Chicken with champignon. Ray (fish). Chicken with ham. Shark’s Belly.

“Tea with four saucers. Chicken with ginger. Fish Head. Mushroom and pork with two plates of rolls and tea.”

The student provided plain, Jasmine, and U-long tea, explaining the qualities that made each tea good or better than the others. He didn’t have the plates and cups for show-and-tell, but explained what these were like in his paper. He wasn’t let off easily, and was stumped when I asked why Rizal did not mention chopsticks. I also inquired if the salted egg noted in the menu was a black gooey century egg, a brown tea egg, or the native salted egg with the red shell.

Going into the significance of each dish, why did Rizal have two chicken dishes? Chinese friends have a whole chicken (with head and feet) for Chinese New Year, but Chinoys insist chicken means hardship, as in “isang kahig, isang tuka.”

As we sampled the student’s cooking and listened to his report, I saw how he made Rizal relevant to the subject of home economics, and how he learned about food in Chinese and Chinoy culture. Food is not only for eating. Scratch beneath the surface, and we can appreciate food as a marker of culture, history, and identity.


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TAGS: Chinatown, Chinese New Year, history, San Fernando, San Nicolas

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