Mention mami and siopao in my family and the words will evoke not only the memories of very satisfying afternoon snacks but also of the people associated with them as we were growing up. Most conversations about these food items inevitably veers away from them and instead turns to reminiscing about the people we as a family had come to associate with them from childhood recollections.
Bring up the topic of mami, Chinese noodles in a clear chicken or beef broth base, and you will also predictably talk about Jok, a rail-thin Chinese man, who peddled it from a small cart on the side of the road. I am sure there were various reasons for the cart: it would have been cheaper than paying rent for a regular stall in the market; he could open and close up shop whenever he felt inclined to do so and also push the cart in another area once the demand has died down at a particular spot.
Except that the last part really never worked out that way. As soon as he sets up his cart, people just flock around it to get themselves either a small or large mangkok (soup bowl) of what could possibly the best tasting mami in town then. That the cart was really nothing but a primitive rolling kitchen no one really seemed to mind. On one end of the cart was a huge tin vat of already boiling soup stock, stoked by a charcoal fire underneath. Along one side of the cart would be the pre-cooked noodles and all the condiments to garnish the soup: finely chopped green scallions, toasted garlic and onions in oil, and occasionally, puto (rice cakes) to buy as separate items to eat with the mami. He also had in that cart, I must add, another big vat full of water to wash the bowls and soup spoons with, which he keeps a big pile of on the bottom of the cart, as people usually eat standing right on the spot. Washing is probably not the right word, as everyone can plainly see that after a customer is done with the bowl and spoon, Jok really just dipped the utensils in the water, sloshed them around a couple of times, and they are then deemed clean enough for the next customer. As demonstrated by the popularity of his cart, no one paid any attention about the lack of hygiene this may have presented. His mami was just that good!
I am not sure what made it so delicious, for it was always, undeniably so. Most afternoons, should anyone really care to look, Jok could be found at the local slaughterhouse at the eastern part of the farmers’ market, gleaning over the discarded bits of carcasses from butchered animals that day. A bit of a pig’s tail, a few chicken feet on the ground, a part of a skull from a cow, all of these were picked up and dropped into a bag, ready to boil and no doubt flavour tomorrow’s stock. It was a relatively smart move that probably kept his overhead low and his price affordable; as far as I know no one ever got sick from eating his soup, and so all was well and he made an honest living off his cart. Years later, perhaps when he grew frailer to actively tend the business, he trained his teenaged son and daughter to give him a hand, but he always showed up for work along with them.
The siopao man, who also peddled his Chinese steamed buns on the street, was always, to me, a more intriguing character than Jok ever was. He only peddled his siopaos in the afternoons, and would always be seen walking around with two large covered tin containers balanced from both ends of a balagwit, a long wooden pole, which he carried on his shoulders. He was not a younger man by any stretch, but there he will be most days, walking non-stop with these great weight literally upon his shoulders: for under the tins that housed the steam buns would also have been another layer of steaming water to keep the buns moist, and below that would have been a metal container with charcoal fire to keep the steam going. Occasionally he would park himself at one spot and wait for customers, but otherwise he would be walking around his route all afternoon.
He sold buns filled either with red bean paste or filled with meat. The red bean paste buns everyone in my family agreed was safe enough to eat, but we always stayed away from the pork meat filled ones, so uncertain were we of the provenance of the so-called meat fillings. My father always joked that they were actually not filled with mamoy (the way he would jokingly call baboy, or pork) but instead were actually musa (for pusa, or cat). And so true or not, the legend stuck and we stayed as far away from the meat buns as we could.
But that is not the real story here. The real fascination came from the man himself, whose name we never knew: for he was missing his two middle fingers all the way to the palm. All he had on his left hand were the thumb, the pointing and the baby finger. We kids always got a thrill from seeing him expertly balance the buns on the three remaining knuckles, and with a knife held by the right hand cut the bun in half, as usually that’s all the money we had, enough for half a sweet red bean siopao.
Speculations abound as to the reason for the missing fingers, including this most fascinating one: that he was an expelled Chinese criminal whose punishment was the severing of the missing fingers, but that was really all it was; a rumour never substantiated, but which kept everyone mesmerized and no doubt kept this rather ordinary man in everyone’s mind for a long time.
The last on this list, but the one I find most mysterious, was another Chinese man who has nothing to do with noodles or steam buns at all. How we came to know him came much later than the other two, and only through the childhood game of taguan, or hide-and-seek.
He must have lived in the neighbourhood for quite some time, but we never truly ever had any reason to know nor have any dealings with him until later, when some of us have run out of places to hide. Given that the game was a free-for-all as far as hiding areas were involved, my friends and I roamed all over the neighbourhood for the perfect hiding spots, and by doing so stretched the game well into the late afternoons, or until the taya, or the searcher finally got board and eventually gave up altogether.
The old man lived on the ground floor of the house right next to the local pharmacy. He had his own storefront, but what he actually sold from there, if anything at all was always a part of the mystery. I remember he had boxes of nuts and bolts and some wiring, twine and such, but it was not really what I would have called a hardware store. The fact that no one really seemed to come and actually buy anything was also a big part of the question, and the old man, dressed in a dingy sando (sleeveless undershirt) and cotton short pants, sat in front of his shop most days, not exactly Buddha-like, fanning himself furiously. Every now and again we’d observe him talking to another Chinese man from the nighbourhood, but otherwise he was just always alone and completely by himself, with no other friends or relations to speak of.
I distinctly remember how it all started, how a hide-and-seek buddy and I went past him and ducked into his store and hid behind a counter, bold as that, without permission or a second glance at him. He didn’t seem surprised, as I am sure he had been watching the kids at play all along, and he didn’t shoo us out, so it was a tacit understanding on both sides as far as I was concerned. We never got found that day, so I knew that we had just stumbled across a perfect hiding spot.
The next time my buddy and I were much bolder than the first. Not content with hiding in the shop, we went further into the back where he lived in one small room, smaller than the front. It was dark, with nothing but a hot plate for cooking, a sink piled with dishes, perhaps a bathroom tucked away someplace. On one corner was a bed, the mosquito net permanently hanging over it ready to be lowered down at any time necessary. A chair perhaps completed the room, but not much else. We never really knew who he was, how he managed to live in this little room that were it not attached to a larger building would really be nothing but a poor man's shack. He never seemed to mind this ongoing intrusion, or if he did, took it good-naturedly. No words were ever exchanged between us and him that I could remember, probably because he didn't really speak our language. But regardless of all that, in those days so much different from the way things are now, none of the children ever felt uncomfortable in the presence of this wordless, smiling old man, who he accepted us briefly into his life as if we had all known him forever.
It was probably on the second time around that upon leaving, I spied on the counter out front a huge glass jar of something I didn’t know what, but it looked like broken up pieces of clear glass, not quite as jagged but distinctly crystalline. I must have stared at it long enough that the old man came up, opened the jar and gave me and my friend a piece each of what turned out to be clear candy, not quite as sweet, but distinctly made of sugar.
Of course it was just a matter of time before all my friends wised up to this, and soon enough we all ended up in front of his shop for another piece of what we ultimately started referring to as bubog, or broken glass. We never had any money, and judging by the look of things neither did he, but he never, as far as I know, ever refused. For days, maybe weeks afterwards we would come, eating off this old man’s uncomplaining good humour, until the contents of the jar dwindled down to almost nothing. And children that we were, our fascination with the old man, the glass candy and the perfect hiding spot faded away just as quickly as the glass jar emptied until we finally stopped going altogether.
© August 2007