The  Rice  Riot of 1983
- Carmen Guerrero Nakpil () - April 13, 2008 - 12:00am

It all really started because of a torn, brown paper bag. Ernie, a ten-year-old urchin standing near a truck at the corner of Zaragoza and Asuncion streets in Tondo — the most congested and poorest district of inner, ancient Manila — clutched the bag too tightly. It began to tear, scattering its contents on the pavement.

The truck was one of two fielded by the National Food Authority that evening to carry rice to the Divisoria Market. It was parked in front of the shop of Carding Peña. “Licensed Grains Dealer,” said the blue-lettered sign on his storefront.

The rice shop had been closed for three days and was still boarded-up. Carding had appeared on the sidewalk, dressed in red shorts, rubber Japanese slippers and a dirty white undershirt to supervise the unloading of the rice consignment. Now that the rice had arrived he felt that he could face his neighbors, the plump women sitting in their deck chairs in front of great baskets of papayas and pineapples, the men pushing carts of folded banana leaves, the jeepney drivers and their loads of patient people squashed in among chickens, bananas, pigs’ feet and coconuts.

It was late evening, close to ten o’clock. The market vendors were getting ready for the long, sleepless night of preparation for the morning’s customers. The talk was of the rice shortage. The air was rife with rumors of the most absurd kind, things like the government cornering the rice deliberately to create panic and to send in tanks.

One of the sacks on the half-filled truck had developed a slit. Perhaps it had been deliberately slashed with a blade by one of the hundreds of men who had walked and driven by the rice truck in the last half hour that it had been parked on the street. A trickle of rice began to drop from the torn sack and Ernie noticed it. He ran inside, took a brown paper bag which had contained their breakfast bread that morning, and began to scoop the rice droppings a few grains at a time into his paper bag.

It took him several minutes to collect a fistful of rice, but he thought it worth the trouble for he had not eaten rice in a week—only bread rolls and a sugar bun to go with some tinned sardines and his fill of the overripe pineapple which the fruit vendors had readily offered him from the afternoon’s unsold stock. Some of the grains were wet from the muddy gutter, and after a few more minutes of scooping, Ernie noticed that the bottom of his bag had become soggy and torn. The rice he had painfully collected dropped with a plop on the street.

Ernie screamed, “Kuya!” calling his older brother—a wiry boy about sixteen years old—to come and help him. The older brother, thinking some harm had come to Ernie, turned abruptly from the evening’s chore of half-pushing, half-lifting a cart with a pile of coconuts. Relaxing his grip on it, he let his corner of the cart drop. The coconuts slid into the street with a loud tumble. Someone bellowed. Perhaps the man whose foot was caught in the corner of the cart Ernie’s brother had stopped lifting. At the same time Carding, the rice dealer, who had been feeling threatened the whole of last week by the lack of rice deliveries and by the ugly mood of his neighbors, jumped on the truck on top of the three rows of rice sacks. He blew loudly on the whistle which he had acquired when he had first received his license as grain dealer.

Ernie began to weep hysterically in a mannered soprano voice over the loss of his rice hoard.  At that moment, something almost audibly snapped in the air. Ernie’s wails struck a raw nerve in the crowd. Hot, nervous people were pressed around the market in several layers of want, cupidity and aggressiveness. Suddenly there were half a dozen men on top of the rice truck, and they quickly pushed Carding out. He fell with a roar onto the street below. The women vendors screamed and clutched their crocheted shawls and their aprons full of small bills and coins. Someone shouted, “The rice! Son of a whore, let’s get the rice!” Here and there men began to yell and jeer, to pick up stones and pieces of wood and brick.

Instantly there were fifty men on top of the truck pulling and heaving at the sacks. Two of them quickly brought down a sack and dragged it along the street. Other men, still on top of the truck with many a glance at the successful looters followed suit. The fallen Carding continued to blow his whistle through the pandemonium which now overwhelmed the street corner. The sharp sound of it only aggravated the hysteria. The row of jeepneys trying to make its way through the narrow space of street still left unclaimed now stopped. The drivers and passengers got off and jumped onto the truck. It was mass assault on the rapidly diminishing pile of rice sacks.

Through the narrow inside corridors of the market, the frenzy swept like a hot wind, rattling the women’s throats, clattering up the board along the stalls, shaking the counters of the grimy shops, driving the men and the boys to the truck.

The commotion soon reached the police station nearby. The patrolman on duty stopped talking on the phone, stood up and looked around. Something was happening. Pulling up his trousers over his rice belly, which in the last week had decreased somewhat since there was no rice to be had at home or in the various cafes and restaurants in his beat, the patrolman beckoned to his partner. Both of them walked towards the source of tumult, handguns at the ready.

By this time the rice on the truck was exhausted. Every last sack had been dragged away, opened in the alleys and fought over by a dozen men and women armed with clubs and bowls. More men were coming looking for rice and shouting at the top of their lungs, “Rice! Rice! Bigas!” as if the two-syllable Tagalog word were a battle-cry.

Seeing the empty truck, they turned to the United Bakery, which held trays of loaves and buns within its glass cases. There was a sound of glass breaking and more screams. The men went on and rampaged through Edna’s Beauty Shop, where the beautician, whose business had been very bad lately, had a few sticks of octopus broiling over coals. They overthrew that. The men kept coming, a wild, amorphous mass of greasy heads; sweaty, half-naked torsos; and flailing arms and legs. They swept through the Constant Auto Supply, the St. Jude Pharmacy, and half a dozen other nameless shops which held nothing that the crowd wanted. Piles of bananas, pineapples and papayas lay crushed and damaged at the feet of the screaming and gesticulating women. The crowd did not want fruit. It did not want bread or barbecued squid. It wanted rice. It was tormented by an immemorial hunger for only one thing: the boiled white grains which fed both their bodies and spirits.

The rampaging horde jumped across the street to the other market, the Arranque, which was cleaner and more orderly. The stalls were boarded-up for the night. Those too were demolished as the fury escalated. The policeman and his mate had long ago retreated to their telephone to call headquarters. Now the whole width of the main avenue, C.M. Recto, was filled with men inexplicably lunging at each other, overturning the light pick-up trucks, Fieras and Minicas. Small fires glowed in the middle of the street. Loud explosions rocked a corner. An old wooden structure, in front of which a couple of cigarette vendors were hastily collecting their wares, caught fire.

A siren sounded in the distance. People’s heads popped out from the windows of the large buildings on C.M. Recto. Someone fired what sounded like New Year’s Eve firecrackers—but the policemen knew it was an Armalite. Where in hell had it come from?

In front of the Tutuban railway station the crowd was thickest. People climbed the railings and ran down the tracks. Disheveled men, wild-eyed and flushed, stopped all the trucks and vehicles in front of the station.

Knees trembling, pushing against each other, back to chest, hundreds of men—dock workers and stevedores from the nearby North Harbor, thieves, gangsters, waterfront fixers and shop-keepers—joined the fray, grappling and cursing each other without knowing why. After the first frenzied half-hour it was no longer just rice they were asking for. It was a vast, unnamed psychic need for solace, for justice, for a hot meal, for meaning, for a roof over their heads. Who knows what, in the end, the mob was looking for.

The only shop spared was the bank branch of the Rizal Commercial, which escaped because its grilled doors, although repeatedly rattled by the looters, kept its premises out of their reach. Other shops were not so lucky. Their merchandise was carried out by the mob except when, displeasing or useless, it was burned right on the spot. Men carried on their shoulders or dragged behind them sides of beef, car tires and batteries, a bedstead, an ikon of the Child Jesus, bolts of cloth, rolls of sleeping mats, bundles of mosquito netting, used shoes, piles of T-shirts and second-hand jackets, with sleeves and coattails dragging in the dust.

Through the dense smoke, bodies lay on the curbs. One of them was still impaled by an upright pair of scissors purloined by one of the rioters from a nearby barbershop, where above the mirror a photo of Elvis Presley was still held up for emulation.

The little boy Ernie had started a riot that was to be long remembered as one of the worst since the looting of Manila at the start of World War II. The waterfront looked like a battlefield endowed with a surrealist quality. Furniture dropped over wrecked walls and burnt trees; smashed cars tipped into a church. Tondo had become an eerie wasteland.

It took three units of the Metrocom police to subdue the riot. They came in on army trucks and were armed with tear gas canisters, plastic shields, and rubber bullets. Ten city blocks were razed, twenty-six men dead, and scores injured. The police estimated that P100 million pesos worth of property, mostly precious foodstuffs, had been destroyed. Ernie and Carding were among the dead, but no one remembered until much later their role in Metro Manila Rice Riot of 1983.

It was only when the riots had been duplicated again and again in Canton and Fukien and Shanghai , and Vice-Chairman Deng, the architect of American-style modernization of the People’s Republic of China, had been swiftly replaced by sixty-year-old Zhao, that people remembered Zhao, a dedicated party-liner who in a few short months accomplished the unthinkable feat of traveling to Moscow and signing a new treaty with the Kremlin. Only then did first a journalist sitting in Paris and then, one after another, scholars and historians, begin looking into the Chinese-Soviet thaw to trace its beginnings. Then people remembered the rice truck and Ernie’s brown paper bag.

* * *

Excerpted from The Rice Conspiracy, a novel published in December 1990

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