Heo: Ah-Pak and his chili pepper (part one)

The Great Wall: Chinoy Corner

Heat Grows’

A branch begins to swell,

A sight we love so well.

Grow and grow you delightful thing,

We love all that you’re about to bring.

—Chili Lover


AKO punta Pakyo. Ikaw sama?

All the elderly Chinese men in my community spoke Tagalog or Ilocano like that—defying correct grammar and intonation. They frequently miss their conjunctions and articles, all the while interchanging their letters “R” with “L” or “B” with “M.” It’s like hearing Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan (“You, Jane... Me, Tarzan.”) speak in the vernacular. We knew that it should have been said as: “Pupunta ako sa Baguio, sasama ka ba?” meaning: “I’m going to Baguio, do you want to come with me?” Yet, we hardly noticed these errors. It was the norm.

Uncle Ahoy, on the other hand, pronounced Baguio as Pikyu and “generator” as sinyulator. His version of Ilocano or Tagalog is so far off that even his contemporaries found it difficult to understand him, oftentimes switching to Cantonese or Mandarin in their conversations for more clarity. For the rest of us, who only knew a few Cantonese words—but can swear loudly in it—we can only guess at what he was saying, and being naughty kids, we imitated his unique pronunciation gleefully. Despite, or because of this particularly funny accent, people found my Ah-Pak (uncle) very approachable and friendly. It helped that he had a cute, crinkly-eyed smile, distinct close-cropped hair and well-toned physique. He looked 20 to 30 years younger than his actual age.

Selling was where Ah-Pak was at his element. Charming to a fault, his reddish baby face stood out in an area that is so vibrant and colorfully busy with so much activity, clutter and noise in the bustling, tourist destination that is the Baguio City Public Market. This place is well known for its fresh vegetables, strawberries, peanut brittle and souvenir items. But the locals who know better go to the Kayang-Hilltop area, less touristy, it is a bargain hunter’s dream place.

Amidst the disorder and chaos of kumboys (cart-bearing muscled delivery men/boys) shuttling to and fro with their two-wheeled contraptions heavy with sacks and bags of veggies piled high and weighing half a ton, shoppers going in every direction, and police running after ambulant vendors fleeing with their baskets of produce and merchandise, there was Ah-Pak and his chili peppers. Needless to say, he was a fixture, an institution, in that area.

On makeshift and portable counters set up and dismantled every single day, my Aunt and Uncle displayed vegetables, some coming from their farm in Ambiong, others bought from wholesalers to interested buyers from early morning to late afternoon. Rain or shine, in scorching heat or bitter cold, braving the elements, the couple persevered for over 40 years in that dusty, unshaded spot. Then later when Auntie Lucina died of cancer, Uncle Ahoy and his daughter Ma Lin took over the task. Still much later, with the vegetable farm gone, he would carry mostly or sometimes only chili peppers. Dried or fresh, one is guaranteed that his purchase of these crimson and green wonders would be flamingly pungent at a very reasonable price. Ahoy would be the Chinese vendor to go to when one needs “sili.” One would only have to ask for the Intsik or Macau (local slang for anybody who is Chinese) selling chili peppers and any Baguio Market habitué would point or direct the person asking the old man.

He became a part of the prolific Leon/Andiso clan when he married my Aunt Lucina who is the older sister of my mother. My family and he lived in the same house/apartment, occupying different floors, first in Trancoville, then in Chinatown, Camdas for a long time. Both our families were blessed with ten children each. Aunt Lucina, my mother Gâwek and several of their female relatives and friends married young, strapping Chinese immigrants from mainland China who left their home country en masse for different reasons: search for greener pasture, escape from war or adventurism. More than 90% of those who found their way to the Philippines speak Hokkien/Fookien. Baguio’s unofficial “Little Chinatown” is mostly populated with Cantonese, a minority in the Philippines, who married Igorotas from the Benguet Kankana-ey and Ibaloi tribes. Akin to their countrymen, they are hardworking, peace-loving individuals who try hard to assimilate and blend in with the locals with varying degrees of success.

Ah-Pak went through each long day not in tedium, but haggling and joking with his customers on price and quantity. There would be a little difficulty in the bargaining process because of his accent, but with hand and body gestures, some hastily scrawled signboards or a calculator, sales were completed satisfactorily. And at the end of the day when most, if not all, of his chili peppers, were sold, Ahoy would march to Sunshine Bakery located near the flower section and wet market where he would buy their famous loaf bread in bulk. Somehow, some of these would find their way into his married children’s homes for sharing.

I remember this soft white bread, slathered with Dari Crème and washed down with Coke or local Barako coffee. With this seemingly endless supply of Sunny’s Special, Ah-Pak and Auntie made sure everyone visiting their home had food. Sometimes, he would cook and serve pinikpikan (Igorot dish where chicken is beaten with a stick in the neck and wings until its blood coagulates, then burned, feathers and all, over an open fire and stewed with chayote, lots of ginger and etag-salted, cured pork meat). These were savored, appreciated by our ever-hungry tummies. Of course, there’s the familiar red chili on the side for the gustatorily brave among us. No children, grandchildren, niece or nephew and their playmates ever went hungry with him around.

Once a month Ahoy would take a day off from work, go to his favorite barber for his haircut then watch a Chinese martial arts film in Plaza Theater in Malcolm Square or catch old, double films at the Garden Cinema. He would later go to Plaza Lunch for siopao dumplings and mami noodles. This simple routine went on for years, without him losing the smile, and the accent, only ending when his exhausted body couldn’t handle it anymore, which was well into his 80’s. His son, Ah Chin brought him home to Beckel, La Trinidad, where he spent his last years. His suki (regular customers) would still come around to his usual spot where daughter Ma Lin took over the selling and trading.

With his simple, relatively quiet, unassuming manner and lifestyle, one wouldn’t suspect he sired world-class athletes, 3 professional boxers who were all so good-looking we cringed every time we saw their faces punched by their opponents. The eldest almost made it to the top, nearly got a WBC title, losing to the incumbent champion Alexis Arguello in a fight marred by politicking and jet lag. Collectively, their trophies and belts would fill and adorn the specially made shelves in their living room, some almost 4 feet tall. Together, they brought fame and recognition to our clan. The youngest girl was a star athlete, member of her university’s Varsity team excelling in basketball, volleyball and track. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren would also follow in their footsteps, excelling both in sports like boxing and competitive judo, as well as academics, using their talents and innate intelligence while pursuing various crafts and professions.


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