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

The Great Wall: Chinoy Corner

IN 2010, he passed away from lingering illness at the age of 87. Being far from home, I can only look at the pictures shared on Facebook by my niece of his funeral. There was incense, candles, flowers, colorful paper money for the dead and ceremonial food offerings (rice, pork belly, whole steamed chicken, boiled eggs, fruit, wine and bread). A saucer in one corner of the offering table contained fresh siling labuyo, shiny bright red and green peppers. The whole affair was well-attended. Much like the other Chinese-Igorot families in Benguet Province, the wake and funeral took place in the bereaved family’s residence, indigenous culture blended with Chinese tradition.

The photos captured both familiar and unfamiliar faces; children who were still in diapers when I last saw them were now carrying their own babies in their arms, cousins who we played with now sporting gray hair and beer bellies or love handles. It was a gathering to honor the old man and a life well-lived. A framed black and white picture of Ah-Pak taken about 30 years ago showed an impish smile. Seeing the grainy photo, I felt a catch in my throat, a lingering sad feeling of regret and loss.

These pictures would bring to mind my memories of their vegetable farm in Ambiong. Here was where my cousins, siblings and I spent many a vacation in our childhood, catching juju (eels), bay-yek (tadpoles), gourami and small edible fish. The gourami and tadpoles were kept in jars, then in the next few days, we wait for the latter to sprout legs, shed their tails and transform into frogs. Some of the fish and eels were skewered with barbeque sticks or strands from the walis-tingting (stick broom or the Filipino version of besom) and grilled or toasted like wiggly s’mores or marshmallows over a bonfire of pinecones, twigs and branches. Within this pine forest, we gathered wildflowers, maidenhair ferns, or the much-prized pitcher plants that we girls used in our play-kitchen after emptying them of trapped insects and debris. We foraged for edible mushrooms amongst the pine needles after thunderstorms.

Being in a watershed, we would drink lavishly from the free-flowing water spouts or ubbug, the sweet, unadulterated, spring water cool and soothing to our parched throats. Mini-waterfalls and shallow pools in the rugged mountainous terrain provided us with endless hours of wading, mudslinging and pure untrammeled wet fun. Occasionally, one would run into a matek (leech), and would notice it only after the parasite had had its fill of young blood from our exposed limbs and skin. We were bitten by insects, stung by bees and mosquitos, scratched by overhanging branches and protruding rocks, but we were happy. At midday, the older folks would call us for lunch, served in tin cups and plates. No food has ever tasted better than when eaten outside the kalapaw (grass hut) amidst towering pine trees, sitting on boulders or tree stumps, the smell of burning wood and resin while listening to a cacophony of sounds made by a cascading waterfall, the northern wind and local birds.

This recollection further triggered a rush of childhood nostalgia: the sight, smell, and taste of youth. I am reminded of how festivities and food played a big part in both our families’ lives: from the simple Sunshine bread from Ah-Pak; to the weekend trips to Asin Hot Springs with my cousins and siblings where we splashed about in warm sulfur-rich water until our skin wrinkled like a prune; to the elaborate events celebrated in their home like the cañao (native ceremonial feasts involving butchered and fire-seared pig and cow, dancing to the beat of gangza gongs and overflowing alcohol); and to the annual Chinese New Year celebration at the Bell Church in La Trinidad where Ahoy’s son Kung Hoi, my own brothers and some of their Chinese mestizo friends would cook up a storm.

Chinese and non-Chinese alike would line up for the abundant (and free!) food they would skillfully prepare: mostly pancit noodles, chicken curry, sweet and sour pork, giant Shanghai lumpia bursting with so much pork filling inside, and chop suey, sweet and tangy because of the freshness of the ingredients. After gorging on these delicacies, we Chinatown kids would again line up for our loot bags, each bag filled with groceries, candy, the odd toy and/or fruit, mostly apples and Ponkan oranges. Next was the obligatory pai-see (or pai-pai in Fookien), kau-tau, bowing before the gods/ancestors with incense sticks inside the temple, and then reading our fortunes from slips of paper provided by the grumpy old Chinese man inside the temple. Afterwards, we would visit every pagoda, admire the lush greenery and red-orange tea roses, feed the giant koi lurking beneath lotus and water lilies, throw coins in the wishing pond and climb each flight of stairs in the compound.

One particularly challenging stairway is on the north corner at the foot of the Ketchup Mountain--very steeply angled, with no handrails and steps built for toddler feet, about size 3. One can only conjure images of cheongsam-clad Chinese women who used these stairs in the past, with their tiny lotus feet bound tightly to prevent their growth. We, kids, had to scale it sideways, one nimble foot at a time, slowly balancing and wishing we wouldn’t fall. This climb and descent is definitely not for the faint of heart, weak-kneed, or those with huge feet.

Ah-Pak was very much a part of my childhood; our families’ lives were so intertwined, having lived under one roof for so long--raising kids together, jointly celebrating special occasions, cheering in each other’s triumphs and lamenting our mishaps and losses. We seldom talked, Ah-Pak and I, owing to the language, generational and cultural barriers all too common to mixed families. Yet the kinship was there, bound by ties only families would know. He was always there in the background when I was growing up, talking in his signature funny accent and gesturing animatedly with his arms to make a point.

The last time I saw him was when I went home to Baguio in December 2005. He was still living in Chinatown then, still working, looking healthy and young at 82. He was showing us a plaque of sort, engraved on metal and mounted on wood. He told my sisters and me, in his pidgin Ilocano/English, that a customer of his, an American from Texas, bought all his chili peppers and brought it home with him. There he used it for a Chili Cook-Off and won the contest. His entry won “The Best and Hottest Chili” award, defeating other participants from so many counties in his region. When he returned to Baguio, he brought the plaque he received and happily gave the token to Ahoy. Ah-Pak hanged it proudly on the wall of their living room.

He was as bright as the little red and green flame-makers he sold, the spice everyone needed and wanted. He is gone but will live on in his children and grandchildren who took after him. And in this niece of his, who will never forget his generosity and how Sunshine bread with Dari Crème tastes like dunked into a cup of freshly brewed Benguet barako. To the countless, nameless customers who had to hike a long way to reach his vending stall on top of the Kayang-Hilltop Street, Ahoy and his Red Hot Chilies, were definitely worth the trip.

Would I remember him for these chili peppers? You bet I will!


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