BEFORE ANYTHING else, let me put in a plug for a show that my wife Beng is curating on behalf of Kasibulan (Kababaihan sa Sining at Bagong Sibol na Kamalayan). Founded in 1989 by such stalwarts as Imelda Cajipe-Endaya, Brenda Fajardo, Ana Fer, Julie Lluch, and Ida Bugayong, Kasibulan has since gone on to engage a new generation of leading Filipino women artists. Those women—older and younger—have come together in a major exhibit titled “Malakas at Maganda,” a celebration of the power of female artistry. The show opened last Friday at the Executive House at the University of the Philippines, and will run for a month. I’ve seen it, and I can guarantee—especially to my fellow men—that it’s a marvelous eye-opener.
AS THE minders of an empty nest, Beng and I can be excused for being foolishly footloose—running off to unlikely destinations like Melaka and Ho Chi Minh City on budget tours, leaving our daughter Demi with little more than a clutch of leaky old fountain pens for an inheritance. But we’ve never forgotten the fun of finding even cheaper thrills right here at home. Indeed, for all the traveling we’ve done, Beng and I inevitably come to the same old conclusion: it’s more fun in the Philippines.
A couple of weekends ago—after both of us had slogged through a particularly tough week of work—we decided to blow the weekend off on our favorite pastime: shopping for ukay-ukay bargains. For many years now, the two of us have been shameless and ardent ukay-ukay and thrift-shop habitués, partly out of necessity but more, I’d say, for the sheer adrenaline rush of getting something for next to nothing. Now and then I need to put on a blazer for business, and two of my favorites—a Zegna and a Ferragamo, brands whose posh boutiques I’d never think of stepping into—were both Cubao ukay-ukay finds, for about P150 each. (And, of course, being the inveterate tourists that we are, we’ve carried the habit overseas, scoping out and revisiting our favorite resale shops in New York, Virginia, and San Diego. The highlight of my shopping year is our October jaunt to the flea markets of Manhattan—a treat I’m going to have to forgo this year, my semestral break already consumed as of this moment by other commitments.)
This time we had a special address on our weekend itinerary: the old Berg department store on the Escolta, where a group of young artists had organized a Saturday market. Beng spotted the notice on Facebook (she’s on it, I’m not) and it took little to convince me to go. I still remembered the Escolta of my youth, and how swanky it was back then. And they didn’t get much swankier than Berg, which was there before Rustan’s, before the malls, before eBay. (I have this recurrent dream of time-traveling to the past and walking into a store like Berg to the pens section, and, seeing row upon row of pristine Parker Vacumatics, picking out a blue and red Senior Maxima or maybe even a gold Imperial—the grandest of the ‘40s Parkers—and paying no more than P40 for each, a princely sum at the time.)
When we got there—from our parking spot in front of the iconic Savory Restaurant on Plaza Goiti—we saw that a crowd had begun to gather in the concrete cavern that was all that remained of the old store. Vendors—about 26 of them, I would later learn—had claimed their 2 x 2-meter squares on the bare floor and had laid out a cornucopia of books, clothes, shoes, trinkets, records, old bottles, cameras, bags, and other staples of the flea market trade.
The people behind the event were the members of 98B, a “collaboratory” of young progressive artists led by Mark Salvatus, one of the brightest new names in the contemporary art scene. We had a happy reunion with Mark, whom we had come to know purely by chance almost ten years ago when we strayed into the Salvatus home and folk-art shop in Lucban during one Pahiyas. He was just starting out then, and we were glad to see him again—in old Escolta, of all places. His collective thought of the Saturday market as a way of revitalizing Escolta, a shabby relic of its old stylish self. “We’d like to encourage local businesses to grow,” said Marika Constantino, another 98B member, “which is why we didn’t bring in any food concessionaires, so locals could set up food stalls outside.” Another familiar face we ran into at Berg was that of Jason Moss—for many years now, Beng’s personal favorite and mine, another brilliant artist whose rise we’d predicted and followed. “He’s one of our guiding spirits,” said Mark. We gathered that 98B would look into regularizing the Saturday market—a great idea, going by the inaugural turnout.
Since we were in the neighborhood, Beng and I then availed ourselves of the opportunity to enjoy a hearty lunch of machang and pancit at Polland in Binondo. We walked off all that starch in our stomachs by following Ongpin all the way to Avenida Rizal (passing by another culinary landmark, the Ramon Lee fried chicken place in Sta. Cruz). Benighted as it may have been by the LRT overhead, this avenue—another childhood paradise—still contains many treasures for the bargain hunter. (I remember when, back in the early 1990s, I picked up a trove of gorgeous vintage pens—sold as new old stock—from the shops on Avenida for 1960s prices.)
This time, we plunged into a succession of ukay-ukay stores—one turned up a smart herringbone Ralph Lauren blazer (P380)—culminating in the three-story Japan surplus shop that we had visited years earlier and were glad to see was still there. The usual racks of clothes occupied the first floor, but on the top floor—the houseware section—were all manner of china and cutlery. Beng pounced on the bowls and teacups, but I took away a lovely lacquered bento box (P180) that I would use for my ink bottles. The floor also yielded possibly the day’s best score: two good-as-new Japan-made titanium eyeglass frames (P200 each) that Beng and I are now wearing with prescription lenses.
As if Escolta wasn’t enough, we took to the road the next day for more good food and cheap fashion—in Tagaytay, which has some of the best roadside restaurants and ukay-ukay palaces in the country. I suppose we use one as an excuse for the other—the eating and the shopping—but no one really needs an excuse to spend a lazy Sunday in Tagaytay, a treat we shared with Beng’s mom Juliet and her caregiver Meann, and our driver Vic. Food took priority, and our great discovery of the day was an unassuming restaurant along the ridge (turn right at the junction) called Tootsie’s. We had never been before, and were taking a chance since the usual suspects (bulalo at Leslie’s for me) were full to the brim, but we got lucky. Much to my mom-in-law’s delight, Tootsie’s proved to be something of a Visayan oasis in the Tagalog heartland, offering such delights as kansi bulalo (P485, soured with Bacolod batwan) and sus kadyos (P335). The crispy daing na biya (P137) was a terrific appetizer, and the roast chicken kawi (P305)—described by Chef Ed Quimson as an “unexpected, unintended chicken concoction on the way to a busy day” was a big hit, with its subtly smoky flavor.
Then we were off for a quick run to the ukay-ukay shops near the junction—I came away with a linen Giordano blazer for P200, and Beng picked up a straw hat for herself, rubber sneakers for Meann, and a cap for Vic—before dessert of halo-halo, turon, and mais con hielo at Ming’s on the way home. I tried not to eat too much, mindful of the inevitable connection between food and fashion. (The most visible beneficiary of my recent weight-loss program has been my waist, which dropped from a salbabida-size 40 to a more manageable 34. I had to send all of my pants to the tailor for alteration, but that’s easier to do with pants than shirts and jackets, so it’s also given me a great excuse to refurbish my wardrobe—all, of course, in the ukay-ukay. For the first time in years, I’ve been able to wear shirts marked L—without the X or XX—or even M. And thank God I didn’t throw or give away my linen Ferragamo, whose buttons I could barely close; today there’s room to spare.)
And so a fun weekend was had by all for not too much; we would morph back into working stiffs come Monday, but as we patted our stomachs and surveyed our haul from our forays that Sunday evening, Beng and I could only look forward to that long and endless weekend upon retirement, to be spent in the city’s and the world’s finest junk shops and food stalls.