A barfly’s view of the kitchen at Fred’s Revolucion Escolta

Fixtures in the old city
ZOETROPE - Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - December 12, 2016 - 12:00am

Down the steps of the Carriedo station in Sta. Cruz LRT are the forgery guys plying their trade in the open, offering services to duplicate or produce out of thin air certificates of birth, marriage, death, the punch line being that they could counterfeit just about anything except money. The guy doing the sales talk had multi tattoos on body, as if operating out of the NBP, while his cohorts manning the stairway stall tried to draw me in, “Daddy! Naalala kita” (I remember you).

What is it that drives people to patronize the forgers? Maybe too much red tape in the bureaucracy, the endless lines in poorly ventilated offices, the dank smell, and you begin to understand that it takes a criminal or at least crooked mind to understand a similarly inclined mind toward crime or crookery.

Walking toward the jeepney stop by the BPI building, the armless blind beggar playing improvised whistle-recorder and pounding on his tin can for percussion, long a fixture behind the Sta. Cruz Church is no longer around, you see the statue of Mayor Arsenio Lacson in the plaza that now bears his name, a pioneer of the high-waist gang whose biography I am currently reading.

A stone’s throw from the stop is the First United Building on Escolta, focal point of a group of architects out to revive this main street in Old Manila. It is like a tiangge in its fledgling state, complete with vinyl records and various arts and crafts as well the occasional performance artist, and somewhere close by is Fred’s Revolucion, south side branch out of Cubao Expo, refuge not only for photographers but for anyone with a virtual movie in her suspicious mind.

About a kilometer northward across the Pasig River is the Ermita district, where on a street either Mabini or M.H. Del Pilar, we always confuse the two, which goes north and which south, is the Hobbit House, further immortalized by the poet Alfred Yuson in his latest novel The Music Child & the Mahjong Queen. In the novel he makes mention of a character clearly based on the folk house’s owner, Jim Turner, who at the time of the book launch had recently passed.

Ermita was never the same again with the invasion of hobbits, and Turner now surnamed Turino in fiction puts in more than a cameo, in serendipitous fashion is in fact a good buddy of the lead character-narrator who is a journalist from the US, and presumably the alter ego of the novelist.

I’d read The Music Child in one of its first incarnations, when it won the first and only Midweek Fiction prize way back when, barely edging out a story in Tagalog by the ambient filmmaker Lav Diaz, which was about street kids inhaling rugby and copulating in underpasses and abandoned buildings, very Familia Ordinario.

Music Child, I later learned, made it to the shortlist of the Man Booker prize, the short story now expanded into a novel. This latest number has a parallel plot running alongside it, that of the Mahjong Queen. And as we read we are introduced to such characters as the Cebuano professor of musicology Cesar Abellana and his Japanese academic counterpart Kazuko Ozawa, who cannot have an affair that lasts more than 13 tumbles.

With one possible exception, though, but that is for you to find out who will be the lucky 14th fool.

Music Child & the Mahjong Queen is one of the more readable — or is it reader-friendly — novels we’ve had the good fortune to savor in years, almost to the point of not wanting it to end. The coda of the music child “Islands of Words” resembles the title of the latest collection of Yuson verse, which perhaps makes the writer a doppelganger of the fictional protagonist Luisito, whose singing prowess should remind one of the voice in the soundtrack of Empire of the Sun, the film version of the JG Ballard novel.

Then further south beside the Malate Church is the Aristocrat Restaurant, the place where my kids had their post-elementary school graduation reception, and the families of at least two of their respective batch mates had a similar idea. Mother was at the celebratory dinner, too, the dark sea breeze hovering, perhaps no longer the same wind which she had told her children to breathe deeply, the salt is good for you, can cleanse your lungs and lift your spirits.

The restaurant celebrating 80 years with a degustacion tour through the years with its signature dishes and a present-day buffet, why Christmas must be well nigh, or is it just my imagination running away with carols oh Carole, the old city like a tumbling dice.

It was from beside Aristocrat where we took a renegade tricycle to get past a wall of humanity at the Luneta during the Sunday Mass of Pope Francis in January 2015, to get to Port Area where a newspaper had to be put to bed, the driver making jagged twists and turns and wild detours through previously unseen parts of the city, by creek and slum and alleyway we found ourselves suddenly at the foot of Del Pan bridge before evening.

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