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Tales of Malabon

By VICKY VELOSO-BARRERA, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 25, 2024 5:00 am

What was mainly for me the only opportunity to catch up with my college classmate Gina Consing MacAdam, here on a whirlwind tour to promote her book Houses That Sugar Built, turned out to be an eye-opening and very enjoyable exploration of Malabon’s historical, heritage and culinary riches.

And yes, in between the fascinating talks, cultural vignettes and even ghost stories, my co-literature major Gina and I did manage to fill each other in with two decades’ worth of our work lives, marriages, plans for the year and beyond.

It’s heartening to know that friendships forged in a shared field of interest can stand the test of time. It was just as revelatory to find that Malabon, founded 400 years ago and named for the bamboo shoots that once filled the land, manages to capture time as well. Malabon retains an old-world charm, a genteel spirit, a very appealing air of provincial sophistication. To drive down the roads of General Luna or C. Arellano which are still lined with stately homes, and have the river running nearby, is something you cannot experience anywhere else in Manila.

Facade of the 409-year-old St. Bartolome in Malabon

We were so fortunate to have members of some of Malabon’s oldest families share their love for their hometown with us and despite the inevitable changes, their pride and affection is infectious. You arrive and soon feel you have stepped back many decades, and leave feeling nostalgic for the way of life of a bygone era.

But first, how to get to Malabon, a city that already borders Bulacan. From EDSA heading north you stay on the road as it veers to the left at SM North EDSA, and stay on it past the rotunda, past Caloocan and past the bridge over the Navotas River. The further east you travel the more you feel you are heading back to the past. The first part of your journey will end with the imposing 1614 San Bartolome church on your right.

Our group consisted of (from left) Richard Tuason-Sanchez Bautista, Ferdie Cacnio, Lito Ligon, the author, Isidra Reyes, Monchet Lucas, Gina Consing MacAdam, Carlson Chan, Siobhan Doran and Wabs Consing

When I arrived, our group of heritage advocates, artists, writers and photographers had just finished breakfast at Bessie’s (@betsyscakesmalabon) where some of the best kakanins can be had. It’s a very good way to start a tour of Malabon with delicious pichi pichi, kutsinta, rounds of biko with a darker, mongo-flavored version. The broas and the pianono are the most delicate I’ve ever tried, enclosing the lightest of custard and yema fillings.

Kakanin galore from Bessie’s

Bessie’s is just across the street from the church dedicated to Saint Bartholomew, which was declared an Important Cultural Property in 2015 by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. Impressive are eight huge Ionic columns that form its façade. Inside, our group chanced upon a charming mass baptism of babies that was dwarfed by the massive scale of the church, one of the largest in the metro.

Monchet Lucas, our main tour guide for the day, explained that the church was the first missionary post of what once called Maryknoll (now Miriam college.) He shared that there is a story that the katipuneros gathered at St. Bartolome on the Saint’s Feast Day, Aug. 24, 1896 wearing their bolos. Since the saint himself was depicted with a long knife, it was a way for the katipuner

Interiors of St. Bartolome in Malabon

os to get away with carrying their weapon of choice. Two days after that came the cry of Balintawak.

Pointing at the old photos on the wall, Monchet added that in the 1880s when the Zobels started the tranvias, the first mass transit line, its first destination from Manila was to Malabon. Where the city hall now stands was a circular area where the tranvias would be manually turned for the trip back to Manila.

Paez Cruz mausoleum in Malabon designed by Pablo Antonio

Right beside the church was a cemetery where cultural advocate Richard Tuason-Sanchez Bautista pointed out the resting place of the father of National Artist for Architecture Ildefonso Santos. But the surprise Richard had for me came in response to my query: whether my late grandfather Pablo S. Antonio had any mausoleums in this cemetery. Indeed he did, and here was the blue and white Art Deco structure he built for the Paez Cruz family.

The former Bell Smith trading house

After the church, the first historical house we visited was an 1870s structure in the Belle Epoque style. Originally a trading house operated by the trading company Smith Bell, the house situated amidst greens by the river points to the role Malabon played in the sugar trade. Sugar from Pampanga would come by boat and be unloaded here, and just beyond it was the mill. Sugar also led to Malabon’s having a number of candy factories.

From there we made a stop at JMBS, a Malabon foodie destination for lechon manok and the most incredible grilled liempo. We enjoyed this crispy-skinned, sinful treat at a lunch that followed at Belen’s, which was formerly known to foodies as Rosie’s, the source of some of the very best pancit Malabon.

Pancit Malabon, lumpiang hubad and morcon from Belen’s (formerly Rosie’s)

What makes pancit Malabon unique? In the past, the first answer was always the inclusion of oysters. But alas, there was none on our pancit that day and maybe that’s a better option since these mollusks are so perishable. But I learned that pancit Malabon is made without tinapa or smoked fish in its sauce and that was a revelation to me. Since the pancit was so flavorful sans tinapa it becomes clear that it was made with the rich stock of the seafood and the pork that become its toppings.

The cool and pretty Belen’s is a pleasant break before heading into a full afternoon of house touring, but if Richard had his way, we would have dined at the more earthy Mellie’s, a carinderia that has been featured on TV by host and chef JP Anglo. We instead drove past it as we maneuvered the city’s quaint streets.

JMBS is a Malabon landmark for grilled liempo.

Richard also did not succeed in having us try the Valencia triangle, a local specialty that is somewhat like a turron but with many other ingredients inside the golden pyramids. When we got to a place that specializes in it, we could not persuade the old lady presiding over a large tray of these triangles to part with even just 10 pieces. They were already sold to someone else. Even the famed sculptor and painter Ferdie Cacnio, who told the woman he had been buying from her ever since he was a child, failed to convince her to part with any.

Ferdie then explained that he would bike around this area and somehow one could see it through his eyes—the urban yet rural feeling of streets of his childhood. Malabon is full of old houses built in different decades and you pass so many that you know that a day isn’t enough to explore all that Malabon has to offer.

Next on our agenda was Monchet’s turf, and this was the factory of probably the best known of Malabon’s products, namely, Rufino’s patis. As we stood outside what has grown over the decades from a backyard industry to a factory engulfing their original home within it, Monchet explained how his grandmother Rufina accidentally invented her patis.

She would make bagoong by combining the daily catch of galunggong (round scad) and tamban (herring) with salt and leaving them to sit for a year. Finding out that she had overlooked some of these fermenting vats, she discovered that the mixture had liquified and thus was born the patis that you now find in kitchens across the archipelago.

Monchet led us through his grandmother’s house to another house next door, this now was a modern structure whose floors are devoted to an almost gallery-like display of art. You will recognize the works of famous Filipino artists here but, for me, just as priceless is the view from the third floor.

This overlooks the river dividing Malabon from Navotas and the view of water, sky, boats, houses on stilts, ships, cranes and dock is so picturesque and iconic that Ferdie Cacnio mentioned his father has painted that scene as well.

But food is such a big part of life in Malabon that even if we had just had lunch we were feted downstairs with a spread of arroz caldo complete with toppings, turron and more assorted kakanins and pastries from Bessie’s.

Opulent living room of the Martinez house

Properly refueled (as if we needed it), it was onto the next architectural gem, the Martinez house. This is an American Colonial house built in the 1900s in the style of Art Nouveau, and though they do not live here it is well maintained by its del Rosario owners. You are provided with slippers to wear as you explore the grand rooms with period furniture, some with artwork by Malabon artist siblings Roland, Olan and Ronald Ventura.

Dining room of the Martinez house

The large rooms with their chandeliers and calado woodwork are indicative of the wealth of its owners, who limited visitors not quite of the same social standing to just the landing on the grand staircase! The Zalmir and Zarda balls, Malabon versions of Visayan Kahirup balls, were held in this house.

The structure has gone from being a tobacco factory to a maternity ward and infirmary before the Martinez family, who were known in the fishing industry, used it as a residence. With the house come the resident ghosts as the CCTVs daily capture images of sparks emanating from what would have been the delivery room of this former maternity ward, and one can only speculate why they put on this daily show.

The Art Nouveau Borja Gonzalez home

The next house we visited was the Borja residence in front of the Immaculate Conception church on Juan Luna. It was formerly also a pharmacy. We were welcomed by Dra. Baby Borja Gonzalez and it turns out she was the pediatrician of Ferdie Cacnio! Again, here was a 1900s Art Nouveau house whose staircase and spacious rooms, extended dining table and windows overlooked the neighborhood and, most importantly, the church.

Exterior of the Immaculate Concepcion church on Juan Luna

The church across is also worth a visit and look upwards to see rows of different chandeliers, each donated and maintained by a different family!

The last house we dropped by belonging to the family of Rommel Bernardo featured a room with 1913 paintings of heroes on the ceiling, as well as a curious statue of Lucifer that had been transferred from a descendant’s grave in the cemetery.

Siobhan Doran and Wabs Consing admire the many chandeliers.

From the houses and their history we learned that beyond fishing and fishponds, Malabon made its wealth from trading sugar and tobacco. There were families that became professionals in the fields of medicine and law. Richard Tuason-Sanchez Bautista recalls growing up and seeing so many banks next to each other on the same street, including a Monte de Piedad, which was surely a sign of affluence in a locality.

The affluence translated into stately homes with gracious dining rooms evoking an era of entertaining, of social oneupmanship, of a flourishing of intellectuals and artists. The river that so defined that economic status of Malabon is now a cause of its constant flooding, so that churches and homes fight a losing battle to raise themselves above the persistent waters.

But no matter. For those who consider no place but Malabon their home, who treasure its charms and willingly share them, it seems that one’s spirit can never truly leave the place where one grew up. Likewise, the spirit of home is something you carry with you always no matter where you go.