Sunday, February 27, 2011


GONE TO POTS! Clay pots sold by street hawkers in a neighborhood market, a common sight in rural villages all over the Philippines, including Pampanga. Utilitarian earthenware vessels were indispensable staples of everyday life, used primarily in cooking and storing food and water. Ca. 1910.

A favorite plaything from our childhood was a set of little clay kitchenware consisting of a small kalang (clay stove), kuran (cooking pot), tapayan (water jar), banga (water pot) and matching clay plates and tumblers. “Kurang-kurangan”, we called these glazed, functional ware—we actually used them to cook rice and simple viands when we played house in my sister’s ‘bale-balayan’. These earthenware toys were found for sale everywhere—in front of the big church after Masses, in public markets. But to my mind, the best ‘kurang-kurangans’ were those sold during fiesta time, which came in all sorts of colored glazes and finished with painted designs. There were more pieces to choose from, and I remember building an extensive set which we kept in the ‘banggera’ of our play house.

Making pottery was an early art adeptly practiced in old Pampanga. Earthenware vessels were known in our pre-colonial history, and shards have been found in Porac, Lubao, Guagua and Candaba that date back to the 13th to 16th centuries, a period of active trade with our Asian neighbors. Some have been dated to the Metal Age of Philippine pre-history. Indeed, places like Balanga (Bataan) and Iba (Zambales) were derived from pottery terms—and at least one barrio in Mabalacat bore the old name of “Iba”—which, according to local history, was the home of many “maniba”, or clay pot makers.

The basic pot that Kapampangans know is called “kuran”, used for cooking rice. Variations of this vessel include the “balanga”, which has a wider mouth and is used for cooking dishes. For storing water or other liquids, the "banga” is used which has a higher rim. There were, of course, other creations of clay that were used for other purposes like the bibingkaan (round clay deep dishes for cooking rice cakes), pasu (flower pots), tuliasi (2-handled pot), tapayan (water dispenser), oya (rimless jars) and lariu (bricks). In all cases, the same ‘kuran’ technology is employed in their manufacture.

The process of making these earthenware vessels is long and tedious, with many steps involved. First, clay (pila) and sand material had to be sourced from swamps (pinac), open clay fields, riverbanks or even termite mounds. The materials are mixed by hand, foot or by machine. A lump of clay is then prepared for molding, which could be done in several ways—by tampi or pukpuk (by paddling, for ordinary kurans), gilingan ( by foot-powered turntable, ideal for tall vessels) and by moldi (by casting, as in the case of bricks).

Finishing involves incising designs, cleaning, smoothening the surface of the pot and slipping, in which a fine solution of clay and sand is applied to the pot to give it a distinct color (e.g. black sand or ‘kapalangan’ mixed with clay will give the inside of pots a desirable black color, while ‘balintawak’-red pottery is a result of using a red-slip solution of fine red earth and water. When the pots are dried, they are ready for final polishing (buli) using a whetstone or a shell. The last step is firing, through an open fire pit (dapugan) or a closed kiln (tamban). The pots are then dried on a bed of hay, away from direct sunlight.

Today, the art and technology of the kuran is slowly vanishing. Gone are the days when you could find pottery stalls practically everywhere in Pampanga—from Calibutbut-Telabastagan to the barrios of Floridablanca, Sasmuan, Lubao and Tabun in Pampanga. Even the ‘kurang-kurangans’ of my childhood past are getting harder to find—the last time I saw a set was in this year’s Mabalacat fiesta, offered by a vendor whose wares came from Pangasinan. The pieces were very crude and garishly painted with lacquer—which meant that you could not possibly cook in them lest your guests die of lead poisoning!

Happily, the town of Santo Tomas still maintains a flourishing pottery industry, unlike nearby Apalit which once had a dominant pottery business. True, there are more decorative pieces of pottery now than kitchen earthenware—made obsolete by metal pots and pans—but the creative mangkukuran of Sto. Tomas should still be given credit, for in their deft hands, the traditional art of the ‘kuran’ survives.

Monday, February 21, 2011

*238. THE GILS OF PORAC: Acting is All in the Family

ROSEMARIE'S BABIES. The Gils, a family of actors led by mother Rosemarie and children Michael, Mark and Cherie Gil, hail from Barrio Pio, Porac. Their Spanish bloodline is courtesy of Don Felino Gil, founder of the first trade school of Asia and a Spanish military man who became a hacendero in Porac. ca. 1963.

Rosemarie Gil, Cherie Gil, Mark Gil, Michael de Mesa, Sid Lucero, Ryan and Geoff Eigenmann---who has not heard of this talented family of Kapampangan artists who left their marks in acclaimed movies and TV serials like “Oro, Plata, Mata", "Gaano Kadalas ang Minsan", "Bituing Walang Ningning", "Grazilda", “Batch ‘81”, "Miss X", "Pasan Ko Ang Daigdig", "Palabra de Honor", "Unfaithful Wife" and "Selda".

Two generations of Gils continue to liven Philippine cinema arts today and credit should be given to the one who started it all—Rosemarie Gil—who traces her Hispanic-Kapampangan roots from Porac. Though Manila-born (b. 9 March 1942), Rosemarie’s family comes from Barrio Pio. She is directly descended from Don Felino Gil (1804-83), a Spanish military man who was assigned to Porac to prepare the area for the coming friar missions as well as to secure the forests which were a chief source of lumber for the projects of the Spanish government. Gil impressed his Spanish superiors and was rewarded with large tracts of lands which he converted into a profitable sugar hacienda.

Don Felino Gil went on to found the Escuela de Artes y Oficios de Bacolor, the oldest vocational school in Far East Asia, now known as Don Honorio Ventura Technological State University. He married Carlota Aguilar, and his great-great grandson would turn out to be Carlos Gil, Rosemarie Gil’s father.

Rosemarie Gil, like her daughter Cherie, was known for her rich socialite-villain roles, but surprisingly, she was introduced in a religious movie in 1958, in the title role of “Santa Rita de Casia (Patrona ng Imposible)”, opposite Lauro Delgado, who portrayed the saint’s wayward husband. This movie turned out to be a hit, but in the 60s, she married Eddie Mesa (Eddie Eigenmann, in real life), putting her stardom on hold, while her husband, known as the Philippines’ Elvis Presley, enjoyed a flourishing career as a singer and actor. The couple would eventually settle in the U.S., separate and then reconcile

Rosemarie went back to make movies for international release in the 1970s, starting with “Manda” (1970), “Night of the Cobra Woman” (1972), “Master Samurai” (1974), and the remake of “Siete Infantes de Lara” (1973). It was in 1977 that she made her presence felt in the 1977 critically-acclaimed “Burlesk Queen”, starring Vilma Santos. For her role as Virgie Nite, Rosemarie earned a Gawad Urian nomination the following year.

In the 80s thru the 90s, Rosemarie continued to appear in dramatic movies such as “Problem Child”, “Dear Heart” (1980), “Bata pa si Sabel” (1981), “Bagets” (1984) and in the HBO-produced mini-series inspired by the 1986 People Power Revolution, “A Dangerous Life” (as Tingting Cojuangco). In 1990s, she was in blockbuster hits like “Anak ni Baby Ama” (1990), “Maging Sino Ka Man” (1991), “Mulanay” (1996) and “Wansapanataym: The Movie” (1999). Rosemarie was also seen in telenovelas such as “Anna Karenina” (1996), “Sa Puso Ko, Iingatan Ka” (2001) and “Hiram” (2004).

Meanwhile, her children were also making their own mark as actors of note in dramatic movies. Cherie Gil (b. 12 May 1965) is undoubtedly one of the best contravidas of Philippine movies, best known for making life miserable for megastar Sharon Cuneta in the movie, “Bituing Walang Ningning” (1985). As the villainess Lavinia Arguelles, she spewed out the often-quoted put-down line, “You are nothing but a second-rate, trying hard copycat!”, while dousing Sharon with a glass of water. Siblings Mark Gil (b. 25 Aug. 1961) and Michael de Mesa (24 May 1960) are also seasoned actors on TV, stage and the silver screen. The next-generation Gils, led by heartthrob Geoff Eigenmann, continue to thrill Filipino fans on TV and Film.

The Gils have since upped and left Porac—only the controversial Pio Chapel—part of the Gil hacienda constructed in 1861, remains of their once vast homestead. This property has since been sold. The Gils may have already uprooted themselves from Pampanga, but in movies, stage and films, they continue to shine and make their presence felt, in the same league as the Dela Rosas and Fernandezes—actors, thespians, singers, dramatists, zarzuela stars, Kapampangan performers all--who once ruled the golden age of Philippine cinema.

Monday, February 14, 2011

*237. ATBU, ATBP.

SACCHARINE SMILE. A country girl shows of her healthy sugarcane crop that's ready for harvesting in this posed picture. Pampanga's sugar industry powered the provincial economy and made it a force to reckon with during the American regime. Ca.1912.

Give a child a fresh stick of atbu (sugarcane), and he will keep quiet for the rest of the day. For some reason, munching on a piece of sugarcane-- ‘mamangus atbu’—has a calming effect on us kids. Maybe because it took much skill, so we had to focus on the laborious task at hand, using just our teeth to strip off the bark, chewing on the tough cane fiber to extract the sweet juice, and spewing out the sapal (husk) later. Biting the hard, tasteless node off, we then move on to the next juicy part, until we finish the whole footlong sugar cane stick.

Mamangus atbu was a true test for teeth and gums, but the mouthsores I occasionally got were worth my sugarcane taste experience. I’ve always preferred the purple sugarcane variety, cooled in the icebox for an hour before munching. These, I would find readily available in the makeshift stalls lining the way to my elementary school. Another way to get ‘atbu’ free is to run after hauler trucks or bagun (cargo trains) en route to the mills and try to pull a stalk from its harvested sugar cane load.

As my lolo was a modest hacendero with some rice and sugarcane fields, we grew up with the sight and smell of sugarcane. It was a staple product around the house, and I remember using arnibal (thin muscovado syrup) to sweeten our coffee, prepared by my ever so frugal mother. But I guess this was the same familiar scene in many Kapampangan households where, for a time, sugar held such prominence in the province’s economy.

In its heyday, especially from 1925-1927, Pampanga led Luzon in sugar production, with the Del Carmen Sugar Mills leading the way with an output of 45,000 tons annually, followed by Calamba with 16,000 and San Fernando, just slightly behind. Pampanga Sugar Development Company (PASUDECO), controlled by the Philippine National Banks, would later be expanded, becoming the fastest growing Central among all bank Centrals and further improving its output.

Interestingly, of the four varieties of cane originally cultivated in the Philippines, once came from Pampanga—the Pampanga Red or Encarnada de la Pampanga, which produced canes smaller than the other varieties: Cebu Purple (Morada de Cebu), Luzon White (Blanca de Luzon) and Negros Purple (Morada de Negros). Nevertheless, this hardy cane plant had excellent purity and yield, topped only by Cebu Purple, and cementing the province’s reputation as a major sugar producer for the country and the world.

The pleasures of sugar from our “dulce caƱa”, of course, we enjoyed at every opportunity. Parents could easily fix a quick treat for their kids by boiling extracted sugarcane juice in a vat until it turned into molten molasses. A dollop is ladled into a basin of cold water, turning the molasses into a brown, gooey, malleable mixture called “inuyat” which we ate with our hands. With rice drowned in carabao’s milk, “inuyat” becomes an instant ulam (viand)!

A fancy Makati restaurant once offered sugarcane juice coolers in its menu, matched with a fancy price. But we’ve been drinking ice cold sugarcane juice ever since I can remember--and it certainly didn’t cost that much! Maybe bartenders can take a tip from Kapampangan farmers who squeezed cane juice into their alcoholic drinks for a perfect happy hour treat after a day’s hard work.

Goodies made with cane sugar can be had cheap at every corner sari-sari store. We developed cavities eating five centavo ‘balikutsa’, a kind of sugar taffy so sticky delicious. Another favorite is the panutsa, which technically speaking is solid brown sugar sold in ‘baos’, but it has come to mean a kind of peanut brittle mixed with coarse brown sugar and sold with brown paper linings. The same unrefined sugar also found its way into our fiesta desserts like “yemas”—milk pudding balls encased in caramelized brown sugar. In Arayat, a centerpiece in every feast or banquet is the ‘samani’—in which white peanuts dipped in caramelized brown sugar are used to construct an edible sweet basket, a virtual eye candy to foodies of yore.

Of course, it’s not just us that benefitted from the amazing ‘atbu’. Leftover ‘sapal’ was fed to pigs and hogs. To make an instant feeder and a perch for pet insects like ‘uwang’ (rhinoceros beetle), a length of fresh sugar cane was tied on both ends and hung on the porch.

It used to be so common to see cut sugarcane for sale-- piled high like pyramids on fruit stands and sidewalk stalls, especially during the summer months. Nowadays, apples and grapes, it would seem, are even easier to find. Maybe so, but those fruits—so way beyond our reach-- never impressed me the way a stalk of ‘atbu’ could—it’s always ready to eat and ready to please—the sweet stuff that many a childhood pleasures are made of.