Street vendors in old Manila
by  Ambeth R. Ocampo

STREET vendors are people we see every day, but we hardly notice them unless they are selling something oversized (beds), or cute (a Sto. Niņo in full costume), or they arrive in an ox-cart filled with chairs, hammocks and other handicrafts.

As the malls slowly become part of life in the 21st century, vendors become scarce as antiques. Street vendors are still to be found in some parts of town but totally absent in more affluent parts, a casualty of changes in the lifestyle and livelihood of the Gen X.

When I show my students photographs and watercolors of old Manila, a lot of that old world is alien to them. I ask them to guess what the vendors are selling and while they can identify fruits, vegetables, fowl, etc. smokers are surprised that tinderas sold tobacco in bilaos to be cut up and rolled by the buyer.

Today, cigars and cigarettes are bought ready to smoke. In an age of lighters where matches are close to Jurassic, they find it hard to imagine a sulpakan or Philippine lighter in use in the 19th century.

When I ask why most of the vendors photographed are women, they reply (correctly) that the photographers were male and immortalized partially the extremes of beauty or ugliness.

Male vendors are photographed because they sold water or milk in a distinctive container--these look like big upo carved out and dried.

Another vanishing trade are ear cleaners--usually Chinese--photographed at work in old Manila.

However, the photograph I would most want to see are those of snake vendors who are mentioned in travel accounts written at the turn of the last century.

Pythons or sawa were sold on the streets in an age that was environment-friendly. Rats were a common household pest but people did not use poison on them because if they died in some hidden nook they would stink up the house.

Mousetraps were not popular either because these, more often then not, broke the little fingers of curious children. I know, from experience, what a mousetrap feels like.

Cats were not a viable option either because they reproduced so quickly they later became a problem rather than a solution.

Foreigners describe how a live snake was chosen from an assortment coiled on a long bamboo pole carried by a vendor. The python was let loose in the ceiling where it needed no batteries.

Up in a ceiling the python fed on rats and slept most of the time. With a python one was rodent-free, though most foreigners who could hear it moving about often worried that it might come down for a snack while they were asleep in bed.

In 1924, Russian violinist Mishel Piastro made headlines in New York due to a performance at the Manila Grand Opera House. It was not so much the quality of his performance that made the news but that his appreciative audience included two diamond-back boa constrictors.

The newspaper account reported that two-thirds into the program, while Piastro was playing Grieg's "Lonely Wanderer," a woman in the audience screamed.

A snake was facing the empty orchestra pit swaying to the music as it would in front of an Indian snake charmer. Unfazed, Piastro continued playing as firemen entered the building, beat the poor snake to death with axes and carried it off.

So the concert continued and while Piastro was in the middle of "Spanish Serenade," another woman screamed because another snake was in the aisle.

This time Piastro paused one measure, and continued playing till the firemen came in again and repeated what was done to snake No. 1. After the performance he was quoted as saying:

"I knew when I saw each creature just below my feet in the aisle, that the safety of thousands depended on my keeping any suggestion of change from the sort of music that drew them in. The soft winding notes were soothing. If I stopped suddenly, or if more stimulating sounds had taken their place, the creatures would have been frightened. They might have attacked the people on either side of the aisle, with damage and loss of life."

Of course, I don't believe this news item. How can thousands fit in the Manila Grand Opera House? Pythons are not aggressive or social enough to spend a night in a full theater.

Piastro was a publicity hound who had accomplices bring the snakes in a bag and let them out during the concert.

In one of my classes, one group did a presentation on the pre-colonial Philippines. At one point, during what was a religious ceremony, a girl in the back of the room started to scream. I thought it was part of the report.

When another girl shouted more hysterically than the first, I wanted to give the group a good grade for eliciting audience participation. I was to find out later that a 15-foot python was brought into the room as part of the report!

To my horror I was told a few days later that the snake was put in a gym bag and deposited in the air-conditioned university library for the rest of the day!

Many Filipinos harbor a fear of snakes and I find it amusing that something brought out of the wild can be domesticated in colonial
Philippines and used as a rat-catcher and today be treated as a pet.

The way we look at snakes changes over time as we do as a people.


Philippine Daily Inquirer
October 24, 2001

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