Starweek Magazine

The Matriarch of Pabalat: Nene Scissorhands

- Catherine Jones -

Hunched in a chair with her razor-sharp cuticle scissors, Nene Luz Ocampo transforms colorful Japanese paper into exquisite wrappers for pastillas, pillow-like confections made from fresh carabao milk and sugar. As she moves, petals of paper languidly float to the ground like cherry blossoms in a gentle gust of wind. Her hands work from memory, leaving her thoughts to roam and pray, she says.  

At 85 years old, this petite widow, mother of four, grandmother of eleven, and great-grandmother of two, is one of three remaining dinosaurs in Bulacan who still makes paper pastillas wrappers – called pabalat – by hand, the time-honored way. And, Aling Nene won’t accept extinction without a fight. She is one of only a handful of “cutters” left from third- and fourth-generation pabalat artists. 

Under Aling Nene’s seemingly gentle, almost frail exterior, a resolute force not only keeps her cutting paper wrappers daily, but inspires her to hit the road, by rickety pedicab and wobbly bus, to lecture and give paper-cutting demonstrations at museums, schools, universities, hotels, women’s clubs, garden clubs, or television studios. She’ll go anywhere there is an audience willing to listen and learn.

My first sighting of these sweets with their stunningly intricate paper tails cascading off epergnes was at a formal state dinner in Malacañang in 2006, hosted by President Arroyo to honor the President of the Republic of Korea and Mrs. Roh Moo-hyun. Only after four courses – which included a tasty smoked salmon crab roll accompanied by a yogurt-dill sauce and caper relish, a zucchini soup veiled under a foamy basil-pesto froth, medallions of veal with sautéed wild mushrooms and grilled polenta cakes, and a zesty crystallized ginger cake alongside toasted macadamia nut ice cream – did the REAL star of the show arrive: pastillas! 

Waiters paraded around the palace hall, their hands filled with bouquets of frilly, fluttering, paper-covered candies, which they gently planted on tables around the room. Enthralled, I took a candy, studied it, and then gingerly opened it, not knowing what I would find inside. The haute-couture wrapping concealed a delicious pastillas. Before leaving the table, I discreetly stuffed a few sweets into my evening clutch.  

As we chat on Aling Nene’s lanai, her hands won’t keep still. Moving deftly, with the precision of a Swiss watch-maker, she transforms a ten-inch long rectangle of canary-yellow Japanese paper into a masterpiece – a bahay kubo with two palm trees swaying in the breeze bordered by a garden of flowers. 

Picking up a piece of pink paper she asks me: How do you spell your name? I write it down, and the next thing I know, in less than 15 minutes, my name is masterfully carved into the paper. Later, I have this souvenir laminated for a bookmark.  

Seeing my wide-eyed amazement, Aling Nene begins to explain her craft. “First you take your paper and fold it in half, then fold it again. Then you take a stencil, whatever pattern you want, and trace it on the rectangle, then you cut, starting with the interior patterns and moving to the edges. You have to have patience when you start. It’s not easy.”  After a few incisions, she tells me, “In San Miguel we use a stencil. The Malolos style does not, which is much harder.” 

“Where did this art form originate?” I ask. 

“Probably China,” she says, “but no one is sure.” A little research tells me that pabalat could indeed be a product of the ancient art of Chinese paper-cutting brought to the Philippines during the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade. Or, it could have morphed from Mexico’s papel picado, perforated layers of paper strung into bunting and festooned on churches for festive occasions.  

“What is the hardest part of cutting?” I inquire. 

“The tiny circles in the center of the flowers, and the folds on the Spanish dresses,” she says showing me cut-outs of these two patterns, which are simply stunning. The silhouette of a Spanish maiden waving a fan is surrounded on the top and bottom by three seven-petaled flowers and an ornamental border. Another wrapper has seven flowers interspaced with intricate designs, and a third portrays a young man pounding rice. Long-tailed adarna birds soaring through the air, tinikling dancers, and felicitations – Mabuhay, Maligayang Pasko, Happy Birthday, and I love you – adorn others. 

“I learned to make pabalat when I was twelve, in fifth grade,” Aling Nene continues. “The whole class learned. Today, they don’t teach it anymore, and kids aren’t interested anyway.” I sense frustration mixed with sorrow in her voice. 

Aling Nene grew up as an only child. After school, hot afternoons in Bulacan were spent tracing and cutting paper with her mother. And, if she wasn’t cutting paper, she was decorating fruits for canning, her other passion. Aling Nene tells me that she associates fruit carving with the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during the early 1940s. She describes those years as the most difficult of her life. “We lived underground. Any girl who was pretty had to make herself ugly. You did not want the Japanese soldiers to notice you. If you had rice, the Japanese would take it away from you and eat it themselves. It was hard for everyone.”

Awestruck by Aling Nene’s hands and stories, it finally dawns on me to ask where the pastillas de leche that fill her paper art come from. Turns out, it’s all in the family – her niece owns the largest pastillas de leche factory in San Miguel. Thirty-year-old Ocampo’s Sweets (about forty-five minutes away) produces a standard daily order of 300 kilos of pastillas de leche and other condensed-milk confections made with ube, yema and macapuno for stores in Manila and surrounding provinces.  

“Would you like to see the factory?” she asks.  

“Sure, why not,” I answer. Within minutes, we hit the road. I admire Aling Nene’s spunk! 

As we drive, Aling Nene tells me about her customers. “I cut for hotels, weddings, special parties, and The Palace.” I ask her if she was the one who cut the pastillas wrappers I sampled at the Korean President’s state dinner. “Probably not,” she replies. “But Imelda Marcos ordered pastillas from me for all of her dinners.”

From the factory gates I can smell the sweet milk boiling. A kind woman named Lulu gives us a brief tour of the sweltering kitchen where six men stir huge, wok-shaped cauldrons of fresh carabao milk mixed with sugar over low heat until it is thick enough to stand a spoon. This pectoral-muscle-building labor takes about three hours. A finished batch of ecru-colored cream sits off to the side to cool.  

In another room, seven women form the thickened cream, the consistency of Play Dough, into tablespoon-size candies by hand, then coat them with fine granulated sugar. Two other people wrap these candies in white business-card-size pieces of paper, then in very thin tissue paper, carefully tucking the edges. The end product is a white, two-inch long cylinder. It is these sweet cylinders that are delivered to Aling Nene’s home to primp for balls, dinners, and other glorious occasions.  

As I bid farewell and thank Aling Nene, I take her hands in mine. They are beautiful – strong, steady, and delicate, just like the woman attached to them.– 

Contact information: Luz M. Ocampo, #83 Inang Wika St. Malolos, Bulacan, (044) 791-5657.  The author is a freelance food/travel writer who enjoys exploring the Philippines. Visit her web site at www.staybalanceddiet.com. 

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