Fifteen Days in Asia
Manila, Angeles, Subic Bay, Cebu and Kuala Lumpur
Milan and I spent 15 marvelous days in Asia, but more specifically, in Manila, Angeles City, Subic Bay in Olongapo City, Cebu City and Kuala Lumpur. Generically the trip was a family initiated visit, since I was one of the principal sponsors at the wedding of a nephew held in Makati, Manila.
We arrived on time, but late in the evening past 10 p.m. at the Benigno Aquino International Airport via Japan Airline, through Narita, and were met by my beloved cousin, Kristine, whose son was the groom. I expected one of her drivers to pick us up, but as Asian culture dictated, and being what she was, she came herself; a warm and sincere welcome indeed. We checked in at the Mandarin Oriental which was not far from the airport and since it was late at night traffic was unusually manageable. It took no more than 25 minutes to be at the hotel check-in desk. In Manila, just as a point of reference, car travel is measured by time, not necessarily by distance.
One thing unexpected, was the ease with which we went through customs after we retrieved our luggage; in the past there was the expected routine hustle, the routine opening of every piece of luggage, followed by the questions, upon questions and more questions until the inspector had glanced at the likeness of a Lincoln, Hamilton or some local heroes, if one anticipated such an encounter; but there was none of it this time; this was unusual, uplifting and hopeful. Hence, in the past the SOP was to have someone connected to meet you as when deplane, just to skip a prolonged customs reception.
Our stay in Manila was brief, four nights and five days, with a day devoted to the wedding, which was the core of this visit. Besides the wedding, there was the thrust of visits with families, immediate and extended; there was never enough time to see everyone and worse not to be able to accept everyone’s invitation to get together for a meal. This was always a dilemma, and at the end of the visit, one never knew, which relatives were slighted. On this visit, as much as we intended, we did not get to see any of our old friends. Sometimes it was equally prudent not to start with one; otherwise this only unfolds a new layer of similar invites unless one extends the trip indefinitely.
Our stay was best characterized as food-based and families; in the Philippines, dining out was and remained the main venue of entertaining guests; attendant to this was the re-bonding with families and relatives, who made each meal encounter, warm and something to drop in a memory bank.
Speaking of meals, there was no distinction between lunch and dinner when both are Chinese banquets. These consisted of 10 to 12 courses, usually for 12 to 16 persons. With the exception of the wedding day our four nights/five days scenario can best be described as a drive from the HOTEL, then, traffictraffictraffictraffictraffic until we arrived at the destination restaurant, and then from the restaurant, traffictraffictraffictraffic, back to the HOTEL. Normally the traffic going back had eased some, because it was usually rather late at night. Anyway, the traffic was bookended by our hotel and the restaurants. In the states we talked about the weather when there was little else to talk about, in Manila they talk about the traffic.
Day to day traffic in Manila was and still a snarled problem because the city infrastructures are far from adequate; paucity of traffic lights, incessant road repairs, and disproportionate number of vehicles to the roads. The worst traffic scenario however, was in Bangkok, Thailand, before the completion of its underground system. The Bangkok traffic even before the rushed hour, used to be a veritable stand still making the roads look like an endless parking lot. We of course, also experienced our own daily New York City traffic jam; still New York traffic moved at some predictable pace and it was unbearable at certain rush hours or in winter when it snowed. New York City driving can be bad, but Manila driving was far more challenging.
Angeles City (Clark Field)
Our last two nights in Luzon, were spent in Angeles, where Mars, my niece’s husband checked us in at the Holiday Inn, in Clark Field, the former U.S Air Base. I visited the base once, over 40-odd years ago when I was a college student. I can’t say I recognized the place now.
Although the base was officially handed back to the local government, its facilities were still available for R&R use by American military personnel, as judged by the crowd we saw at the Brazilian Rodizio restaurant located on the second floor of the hotel. The Rodizio is only a few months old; it used to be a Mongolian BBQ Place, and way before that, it was the library for the base. The rodizio was much smaller in scale tp the ones I have been to in the states; the meat cuts limited, but overall quality was still good. It was a novelty in Angeles. It had a nice wine list, mostly from Spain, Australia, and New Zealand because of the relative proximity of these countries. We selected a bottle of Shiraz from Australia, where the grapes for the wine originated.
The Clark Field airport, while in use, had not been fully commercially exploited as yet. It remained popular among other Asians, Koreans, Taiwanese and some Japanese tourists because of the beautiful but inexpensive golf courses. On our way to Angeles City, there were large hectares of land leased to Taiwanese and Koreans who grow melons, watermelons and other fruits. The premium produce are exported to the 5-star hotel market in Asia and the rest retailed locally.
We changed our plan to visit Mount Pinatubo, because of the lingering lazar dusts; instead we opted for Subic Bay, a former U.S. navy base in Olongapo City which was a 90-minute drive. Mars and Jimmy Centeno the SUV driver navigated the trip sans map. When Jimmy was hired two years ago, Kim asked if he can be called by another name, because she felt awkward calling him Jimmy, since that was her father’s name as well; yes, he said, James, but then that was her brother’s name. Kim was a great story teller, besides being a good haggler; she further related that her first two house help were named Elsie and Criselda, the nickname and given name of her mother.
I thoroughly enjoyed the ride to Subic Bay, but was not sure if my travel companion, Sleeping Beauty, seated to my left, did or not. As a kid growing up in San Fernando, Pampanga, the names Olongapo, Dinalupihian, Bataan, Zambales, Corregidor, Five Hundred Islands, were names learned in a geography class that seemed so distant; but in this trip driving through them was a piece of cake, because these provinces were small in land size and the main roads were good. Names like Lubao, where the current Philippine president hailed, Magalang, Porac, Florida Blanca, Betis, San Simon, were towns in Pampanga, that I never visited, today these towns can be driven through, which we did, inside an hour. The drive was a fine time to reminisce possibly forgotten memories of childhood.
Sleeping Beauty was well-awaked once we reached Subic Bay. She was just in time, to volunteer for a body massage rendered by two therapists. Meanwhile the three of us, walked around, absorbed the tranquil, beautiful surroundings, looked at the yachts and had drinks at the hotel restaurant.
Subic Bay was cooler, since it was surrounded by waters and some beautiful range of mountains. When I was a child the Sierra Madre Mountains were notorious for being the base and stronghold of the huks (local insurgents) for many years. Like Clark Field it was also used by American military personnel for R & R, since the infrastructures of the old base were still intact, cared and maintained.
Subic Bay showed great potentials as a destination resort, because of its geography and excellent Feng Shui; if permitted to be developed sans local political shenanigans. There were new constructions for housing and support structures for new business. A number of restaurants were doing brisk business, supported by Asian tourists, local vacationers, and U.S. Military personnel. There were a number of casinos in the area. For that matter there were sprinklings of casinos in Clark Field, Manila, and Cebu. For no specific reason, I declined invitations to visit any of them.
The two story hotel was impressive with its wide welcoming symmetric semi-circular staircase; it had excellent facilities, and an upscale looking restaurant that overlooked the waters, the yachts and boats that were nestled in the bay area as well as fine family swimming pools. Judging from the posted weekly schedules at the reception area there were many day and night activities to keep weekenders busy.
Since I suggested local cuisine for lunch, we went to Gerry’s, which I learned later was an aspiring restaurant franchiser in Filipino cuisine. So we feasted with grilled milk fish, dinuguan, (a blood-based stew), palabok, (local noodles) Bicol Express, (assorted native vegetables) snails (native conch), fried pata, (deep fried pork leg), sisid (pork cheeks) and grilled squid. Gerry’s will open its first two restaurants late this year, in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, according to the framed news clips on the walls leading to the restrooms. The rest room was clean but it had a large sign above the two sinks that warned: “Customers must not wash their feet in the sink.” If the proprietors aimed to launch a successful franchise in the states, I hope the sign as designed was not part of a signature marketing slogan.
CEBU CITY, CEBU
If one had traveled this far to Manila, then there was every reason to visit Cebu because it was much nicer, had great beaches, relatively less crowded, and quite progressive and boasted good restaurants. This was our third visit in 10 years, progress and changes were evident everywhere. For one the long bridge connecting Mactan Island and Cebu City was completed and in full use.
In our prior trips, we always stayed at the Shangri La in Mactan Island. The hotel provided a free shuttle from the airport, which was also in Mactan. On this trip I discovered, that there were great savings on the room rates, if the reservations were made by someone locally. This we did through Tina, Milan’s niece. A visit with Tina and her husband Philip, (who flew in from Manila and stayed for about 36 hours, a day after our arrival) was another impetus not to bypass Cebu. And there was Charlie, Milan’s oldest brother and his new family who also lived in Cebu.
Judging by the showroom, factory and personnel, Tina’s furniture business had at least quadrupled since our visit in 2002. Tina showed me the large showroom and I earmarked some pieces that I liked and will likely purchase. She recently expanded into outdoor furniture, but her forte were still the indoors. She made a name in the international market where she exhibits at least annually; very strong in Europe and some Arab countries, but she also maintained her share of the local market. Joseph, her son, a recent business school graduate, who works for her, just landed an account to furnish the new Marco Polo Hotel in the city. Like my cousin Kristine, Tina built her business de novo. Both were christened Cristina.
I never thought that a piece of “furniture” would so excite me until I laid eyes on the most magnificent piano at Tina’s home, which Philip acquired a week before our visit. The piano was heavy and took 10 men to unload and deliver. It was a big black antique upright piano, pristine in condition, and dated back to the mid-1800’s, during the Spanish occupation years. I became more excited when Tina lifted up the cover and there was this large imprimatur of HEINREICH STEINVAY imprinted on a somewhat now faded greenish but still colorful cloth material. The calligraphy was in Old German style. My source told me that Henri Steinway migrated and based himself in New York City in 1853, at which time he anglicized his name, to Henri Steinway. Notice the old V became W. The earliest Steinway in existence according to my other source, that he was aware of, was an 1860 piece, and none earlier; this prompted me to think that the piano was made before Steinway even migrated to New York, which also meant that it was made before 1853 and in Germany.
According to verbal provenance, via Tina’s older sister, who I did not meet, but who sold the piano to Philip, there were only three pianos of this genre that were known to have been shipped to the Islands during the Spanish times, and that two were known to have been destroyed during World War II.
Nina, Tina’s teen daughter played beautifully for us, two pieces from one of Brahms concerto. The sound was impeccably distinct, and the tone and timber of the keyboards unimpaired.
I told Tina to remove immediately all bric-a-bracs that looked like misplaced adornments, nesting atop the piano. This incredible masterpiece of a craftsmanship was until then used as an ordinary everyday piece of furniture and its top was a convenient repository. She quickly cleared everything; soft touched it with a piece of cloth; especially after I told her its potential value in the open market or any market.
To behold a piano this beautiful was to marvel at something from the past that was of quintessential magnificence. The pleasure was multiplied because of my zero degree of separation, as in six degrees of separation with the owners. One can even be inspired to write an ode, but an Ode to a Piano did not have the lyrical assonance as an Ode to a Nightingale or to a Skylark.
A VISIT WITH THE KINGS
Before we left for the trip, Milan promised Elena, a close friend to visit with her father who recently recovered from a vascular condition. The father is 91, his face, free of wrinkles that did not track his age, a bit slow in gait and needed occasional aid, but his mental faculty was lucid and sharp comparable to one younger.
We were warmly received by three generations of Kings, and I believed we met all the sons and spouses, saved perhaps for one, everyone was there. An An, a granddaughter who was as charming and pretty as when we first met in New York picked us up at our Hotel. Her equally charming older sister, Rica, now a mother of one, a cute good looking little clone of the father, handed us some photos taken during her honeymoon visit to Manhattan; where Elena and Gary, her husband hosted the renowned Plaza Hotel Sunday brunch before that restaurant’s closure. At dinner time, Darren, Rica’s husband called to say hello from Japan, where he was on business. The additional good news was that Rica was expecting a second child.
I found Mr. King, who was the ultimate patriarch of the family, very engaging conversationally. We hit it off from the start. We talked in Fookien, which somewhat to his surprise I still speak. He highlighted some aspects of his early life, particularly his early struggles. He owned one of the largest, if not the largest meat packing and processing business in the city; he carefully pointed out that his sons now run the day to day operation of the business and he just listened to their periodic reports. Local meat sources, he said, were unable to meet his company’s produce needs, so that he imports, particularly fresh ham of better quality from Australia, New Zealand or wherever he received a competitive edge in pricing.
The huge gated and walled off compound where he lives was purchased at 10 pesos a square meter in 1924. At 50 pesos to one dollar currency exchange, it translated to 2 cents a square meter. He built his home and business here and had never moved. The Chinese usually remain anchored to a place where they had started and succeeded; and perhaps because of superstitions there was the fear that in relocating, that somehow the luck may also relocate. He did not say this, but from vicarious experiences I find this to be a prevalent belief.
Being a struggling businessman at the time, he built his large house modularly, adding a room here and a section there as his business permitted. He was Catholic, as catholic as the sun, a widower, spoke the local dialect fluently and said grace before a meal.
On a wall in the dining room was a large oil painting by a local artist depicting three rows of three King generations. Even without hearing him say so, but just by watching him when he spoke of his family he was indeed a happy and very proud patriarch, and deservingly so.
We parted, we thanked everyone and we enjoyed our visit for which some fond memories were already etched.
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA
The population of Malaysia was about 60% Malay who were 100% Muslims and controlled most branches of the government. Chinese made up about 30-35% of the population, followed by Indians fewer than 10% and one or two per cent were aborigines.
Malaysia was made up of nine states and each state had a sultan. The sultans elect a king from among themselves every five years on a rotational basis. The elected sultan’s wife was automatically the designated queen. After a five year reign the king stepped down, and replaced by the newly elected king. The old returned to being the sultan in his own state. A male offspring succession was not guaranteed unless by this rotational election unless the rotation turn fell in his prime, which would be every 45 years. The practice of royalty was patterned after the British model but was temporal and rotational rather than a blood line royalty.
The king had no direct say in the day to day running of the government, but the prime minister kept him apprised periodically on state affairs. The royalty as in Britain was purely ceremonial in function. If history be the precedent, the sultans had been perpetually Malays, therefore only Malays can become royalty.
The royal family received from the government a very generous allowance, which was not referred to as salary plus an equally generous pension for life; they lived in the Palace during their reign, and concurrently maintain their own separate home with paid staff. They and their children were however not allowed by the constitution to run for an elective office, but their siblings can and in fact a brother of one sultan is a present congressman.
The government system was parliamentary, patterned after the British, and consisted of two houses, a senate and a congress, that elected the prime minister.
The Malaysian language impressed me as phonetic and therefore not too difficult to learn. It used an alphabet system probably minus some letters like x and c, based on what I had seen in print. I was surprised to note that certain words were similar if not identical to some Tagalog (Philippine language) and Pampango (a Philippine dialect) words, but such words do not necessarily have the same meaning. It appeared purer language than Tagalog, because there were no evident Spanish rooted words, which abound in Tagalog. Still it was not free from foreign words incursions, but these were transliterations. Observe these: university (universiti), restaurant (restoran), cent (sen), coffee (kopi), etc.
Incidentally the preceding were personal observations gleaned from ads and street signs, local papers and watching a few local TV programs and their accuracy was not guaranteed. There were numerous words that I can cite, with minor spelling permutations that existed in the Malaysian, Tagalog and Pampango lexicons and I suspected in the Indonesian language too; again these words do not carry the same connotations in all languages. I suspected that the root of these similarities was their possibly common Malayan etymology.
OUR STAY IN KL
It was late at night when we checked into the KL Shangri La. Transportation from the airport to the hotel, which took 45 minutes was arranged by my cousin, through her friend Esther, a Chinese Malaysian who lives in KL. We were met by MD Nasser as we deplaned, retrieved our luggage then were whisked through the immigration red carpeted Premier Lane, into a waiting private car. This was impressive and efficient, I find saying to myself.
We came down after we freshened up to eat some noodles at what looked like the hotel coffee shop. The savory hot noodles soup instantly hit the spot. From where we sat, we can see and hear the UBR Filipino performers; two young pretty girls and a man about their age, on an elevated stage sing and sway current and old popular songs to the delight of an appreciative audience. At one point the male singer sounded like Andrea Bocelli, when he sang a couple of what he had recorded. Filipino entertainers, singers, and bands, had populated the lounges and stages of hotels and cruises, in Asia and some Arab countries; in Shanghai at the Crowne Plaza in Pudong where we stayed in October of last year, we caught a lounge performance by female Filipino singers who did adequately some Japanese songs.
PETRONAS TWIN TOWERS (KUALA LUMPUR)
The twin towers a modern landmark of KL, had lived up to its name as the tallest marvel of modern architecture and engineering. The towering towers were connected by a bridge at the 42nd and 43rd floors, and with a 10 inch sway independent of the skyscrapers themselves. This sway was tested during the 2002 tsunami calamity, the nature driven holocaust; its effects were felt but the towers and bridge were unscathed.
The bridge was intended as an emergency venue should one building needed to be evacuated. The bridge was pre-fabricated and literally lifted and fitted precisely between the towers, which was both a towering (pun intended) and a monumental feat.
The bridge was the sum of Korean engineering ingenuity, but the twin buildings were constructed by two different firms, Mitsubishi a Japanese company, and Samsung a Korean company. I asked the local guide why two companies, and why a Japanese and a Korean one, especially given the not so harmonious history of the two countries. A subtext of the question was that full and meticulous cooperation of every aspect of data had to be selflessly and candidly shared, which may not less likely with two not so compatible countries. This was obviously not a problem. The reason given was, should one company fail to deliver their part of the project for whatever reason, the second company can take over the entire construction since the footprints were identical. As to why these two particular companies, the response was not convincingly clear.
The tour which lasted 30 minutes was offered free to the public. It included an excellent film documentary of how the towers came about, from the initial concept, the planning, the challenges, which were myriad, and the actual construction itself that needed intricate negotiations along with the complexity of the architectural and engineering details and its final completion.
One had to queue for the free tickets which were limited to a group of about 30; one had to be by the entrance 5 minutes before the assigned time. The process was smooth despite bag checks. I asked the guide why was the tour free, after telling her that in New York we charged a fee even to see a chicken scratch dance for less than a minute. Apparently, the chairman of Petronas, the oil and gas company that built the towers felt that this triumphal masterpiece of modern architecture and engineering should be seen and appreciated by all citizens of the world without having to pay. He felt that the Twin Towers drew sufficient revenues from the all the best branded name retailers in consumer goods from Europe and America; that were anchored on the main floor, along with rest of the leasers to cover costs of maintenance, and then some. The buildings were fully leased, there was no vacant space. This was also his way of saying thanks.
I’ll skip the stores and eateries, suffice it to say it was a shoppers paradise for anything that their hearts desired. And if one fell sick while shopping, there was a large modern medical clinic on the 7th floor complete with a pharmacy that dispensed prescribed drugs, ran privately by 15 physicians, and owned by a cardiologist. Scheduled medical visits were the bulk of patients but walk-ins were accepted.
LINE DANCE, KARAOKE AND LUNCH WITH THE QUEEN
The Queen of Malaysia loved to sing karaoke and loved to line dance. This was one of her avocations. She did this routine every 4-6 weeks at the Berjaya Times Square a new 5-star hotel, with an entourage, who were largely close relatives and friends to lunch, sing and dance while her husband was on the golf course. Berjaya was the largest hotel owned and operated by Malaysians as opposed to the likes of Shangri La, Mandarin Oriental, Intercontinental, Peninsula which were chains owned by Hong Kong hoteliers. I now understood why the hotel did not serve pork in its restaurants.
The Hotel rendered the Queen a red carpeted welcome, arranged a large room that was set-up for karaoke, line dance and lunch. She arrived at noon and generally stayed until 9 p.m. but on this particular day she had a function to attend and thus the party was cut short at 6 p.m.
Milan, Kristine and I did not expect to be invited to this private party, but 10 minutes before her arrival she told Esther, the wife of the hotel owner, that she would like us to be her guests. We rushed down to the lobby, with what we were wearing, I in dungarees and sneakers and became part of the welcome party.
The Queen was addressed as Tuanku Fauziah and the King as Agong Tenku. Her official title in Malaysian was Permaisuri Agong. She, a handsome woman of 60 carried herself well and appeared down to earth and amiable. I shook her hand; spoke to her and each member of the entourage from whom I got the information being related. They were all very friendly and there was an anesthesiologist with the entourage, who led the line dance. Lunch was served when her son and daughter-in-law plus the two grandchildren arrived. A separate table was set up for the two children and their attendants and I presumed some bodyguards. Each guest who arrived genuflected and kissed her hand. Deference to royalty was very visible.
When a server said I can have any drink I want, I took it literally and made a faux pas by asking for a glass of wine, luckily I did not ask for a martini. Alcohol was not served at these functions, but was available for non-Muslims I presumed, at the hotel bar and restaurants. It proved to be a long lunch hour, what with the pleasant exchanges, the sixteen or so courses, exclusive of the side dishes of which there were many. The Palace dishes brought in were very simple but interesting; they included pickled sliced green mangoes with tiny fried shrimps that provided its brininess, small fried fish, and flat bread called roi, which I believed was Indian.
Everyone was expected to line dance with the Queen. It was bad enough that I did not know what to do with my feet,but my sneakers with their rubberized soles made the dance floor even more challenging. Anyway the Queen sang when she was not dancing, and danced when not singing, and all the while she had a bash. A nephew and his wife attempted to leave early and they approached the Queen to say good bye, she looked at them and with a finger pointed to the dance floor; and so back to the floor they danced. More than three hours of line dancing can tire. I looked at it as a needed work out.
When the Queen went back to table, everyone else followed; don’t forget there were still the desserts to tackle. As a final touch to the afternoon, we took pictures with her at which time she presented each nonentourage guest a gift and then we said our good byes.
A totally unplanned and unforeseen delight! That afternoon with the Queen!!
BUKIT TINGGI (65 KM OUTSIDE KL)
This was a beautiful resort area of 16,000 hectares high up in the mountains, and was an hour drive from our hotel, or the heart of the city. The resort was also owned by Vincent’s company, our host. The name meant high mountains. Bukit meant mountains but bukid, in Tagalog was wide field. The Malaysian word selamat when used with another word meant either welcome or goodbye while in Tagalog the word salamat, meant to thank. Although pinto (Malaysian) and pinto (Tagalog) meant door. Jalan (Malaysian), daan (Tagalog) and dalan (Pampango) all meant road, but note the spellings.
Going back to Bukit Tinggi, its highest elevation was 3600 feet above sea level, where the Japanese village strategically sat. We reached the peak with initial personal concern because of my breathing and the altitude. We trekked up slowly and I was fine.
The resort upon its completion was to be a full replication, in concept, structure and operation as the Alsatian resort, in Switzerland which the ex-Prime Minister Dr. Maharkit visited in 1994. He wanted to bring to Asia what he experienced, but in more affordable terms, espec for the Asians. The left time frame for the entire project was 20 years. The French Village (Colmar Tropicale) had 260 rooms with all the amenities of an upscale hotel was fully operational. The adjacent Castilla Italiana, with more units, will open in July 2006. The German and Grecian villages were on the drawing boards. Vincent and a local company were the prime movers of the project.
There were three personnel waiting for us when we arrived, the general manager who introduced herself, Varian the guide and his assistant and a driver with a waiting open cart shuttle to drive and show us around. We indicated to the manager that we’ll be there for no more than three hours, to which she quickly suggested that we should try a Japanese lunch at their Ryo Zen Restaurant after the guided tour.
Varian Saw, our guide and Najib Aris, the assistant covered most highlights in the tour which included, the 18-hole golf course that had its own 21 unit rooms, the Japanese Village, with its own three tatami guest rooms, the Horse trails, donkey trail, Rabbit park, restaurants, the souvenir shop, the swimming pools and the mountain faunas and plants, before we had our lunch.
I bought a golf cap at the souvenir shop, which Varian offered to give as a memento, but I declined. I left this with its blue plastic bag in the open shuttle seat when we ate lunch. The blue plastic bag was gone when we got back and Varian somewhat embarrassed noticed this as well, and he quickly asked the assistant to get a replacement from the same gift shop, which was along our way. As we circled down the mountains, the driver suddenly stopped and I loudly wondered why; he saw a blue plastic bag lying at the edge of the road closed to the mountain. It was my golf cap, blown away by the breeze and landed on our path back, which were almost two circles below. How was that for luck!
I expected Kristine to arrive that afternoon as arranged and she did. She checked in at Shangri La and that same afternoon we met her friend Esther over some drinks at the lobby; Esther was to be our host for the next few days. At the outset my cousin’s intent was for us to be Esther’s guests in her hotel, but this was somewhat discomforting since Milan and I never met her. Anyway, we got comfortable with her after our first drinks, and did check in at Berjaya Times Square the next morning after breakfast.
She provided us with a three-bedroom penthouse duplex, one of seven on that floor, with a clear panoramic view of the entire city. The rooms were large by any standard and fully equipped, and the entire duplex was sleekly furnished with modern furniture, paintings, kitchen tops and appliances. The refrigerator was stacked with edibles and drinks except for items to be cooked. The bedrooms were upstairs and the living room, dining room and full kitchen were downstairs. Our bathroom, again well-appointed, was 13” by 12”based on my tiles count.
Breakfast was served by a butler and his assistant each morning. A guard was on duty at all times on our floor. I found all these somewhat intimidating. I was sure there were people who experienced this as an everyday experience, but they were probably the same people who had no concept of the real world and totally myopic. Anyway, I told Milan to chalk this as a pleasant experience.
The 10-12 course lunch/dinners we had indulged in were all excellent. A series of these gastronomic challenges can mercilessly torture a waistline. Each meal encountered however, had certain dishes that stand out and were unique and worth commenting.
Three banquets were held in Makati/Manila and one in Clark Field, Angeles City. A common denominator was the shark fins soup which was excellent throughout our meal journeys, the subtle differences in the individual preparation notwithstanding. The flavor was enhanced by half a teaspoon of red Chinese vinegar, not Balsamic, stirred into the soup.
The Chinese considered the serving of shark fins soup as the highest expression of esteem to a guest; followed by birds nest soup and then after that, most other soup will do. In the olden days, bear paws was the penultimate symbol of respect and appreciation that was reserved for emperors and nobility. I hear that now, bear paws were hard to come by. I dined on bear paw once, at a local restaurant in Helsinki, Finland but I paid for it.
Trivia on sharks: they were the only known mammals not to develop cancer. No cancer had ever been documented in sharks. The NIH in fact has an on-going study to investigate if a naturally occurring substance was found in sharks that protected them from cancer. Apropos to this, powdered shark bone was available medicinally for a time now, in certain Chinese herbal stores.
Shangri la ESDA (Makati, Manila) was where we enjoyed our first banquet attended by 15 family members and relatives, their spouses, plus a nanny, seated around a large round table; seven of us were visiting from the states, Cynthia and her husband Cecil, Norma, Karen and her husband Gary. Dolores, who was the uncontested matriarch of her side of the family of near-dozen siblings, and her husband Louis whose current foci in life were golf and China trips, hosted the evening. Superstition-wise Chinese favor round tables, which in Asia can be large and accommodative. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, at the luncheon with the Queen, our table started with 15 seats but gradually accommodated 20, as uncounted guests arrived; but still allowed for full elbow room.
The courses were excellent, but I did pass on two, that had teeming garlic. The steamed beggar’s purse dish which contained finely diced chicken was delicately presented and subtly flavored. A fine string of deep green chive knotted the glistening white gluten purse.
The ramen, a green-spinach flat noodle handmade and strung in the premises, was sauteed with seafood and meat ingredients that were purposely left more generous in portion than the noodles.
These noodles were called Ramen. Ramen was universally recognized as a type of Japanese noodles; the use of the letter R, rather than L (omein) pointed to it as Japanese. Based on pure Japanese katakana the letter L, hence its sound did not exist. Thus lomein became ramen. Now some Chinese restaurant wanted to re-introduce ramen as a new type of Chinese noodle, I found ludicrous. To borrow what now a Japanese word which was originally transliterated from Chinese, then taking the same transliteration back and make it Chinese made no sense. Just call it green mein or spinach mein and enjoy it along with the longevity that it symbolized.
Gloria Maris, was hardly your usual, everyday name for a Chinese restaurant, but it was nonetheless the name of this restaurant where we ate excellent traditional and nouveau Hong Kong Cantonese cuisine. This 10-course lunch was hosted by my ever understanding sister Dorothy and her husband Alo. Ramon, attended both lunches, looked well and robust. The shark fins soup was exceptional, because of the generous fins content. The crabs, each had toppings of scrambled orange-red yolks of salted duck eggs, giving each a roe-rich female-crab look, but were really males. The large peacock-shaped dessert that sat on a large plate, consisting of a variety of fresh fruits each intricately sculpted was a hit.
DYNASTY RESTAURANT (MANILA)
This restaurant on Roxas Blvd (formerly Dewey) served the most generous portions of a 12-course lunch. This was hosted by my oldest brother Tony and sister-in-law, Beth. All their children were accounted for, except for two were abroad. Cuisine was traditional Cantonese. The shark fins soup which by now was ubiquitous was rightly thick and savory. The pigeon squabs were as I used to enjoy them, meaty, flavorfully marinated, moist and succulent.
DYNASTY RESTAURANT (Clark Field, Angeles)
Appropriately our farewell banquet was at this restaurant, in my home province, before heading for Cebu. Elsie, an older sister, always sweet, kind and considerate, and her husband Jimmy hosted this despedida. At my constant nudging Elsie promised to get herself a bodyguard, next time we visit. This was a joke, because a bodyguard in the Philippines was some kind of a status symbol. Kim, my niece who can pass for a frisky teen-ager, despite four kids, and Mars, the ever understanding husband, Kim’s parents-in-law, Cathy, my niece by marriage, and her daughter Klarise, who was barely two, but surely was a pure ball of energy, and her nanny, Sita were all there. There was George, nephew of Jimmy, and his wife, completed the table of 12.
Kim and Mars’ four smart, lovely, well-disciplined children were named: Marko, Mikayla, Monika and Maika. My sister told me that the kids in a boot camp, ran by a mother general. Parenthetically I was not sure if ranks go as high as generals in a boot camp, in prison camps maybe. I initially thought that the parents were afflicted by some Russian bug because of the constant letter K,that was visibly in the names of their children. Now, it was obvious M and K reflected the first letters of Mars and Kim. Cute! Cute! Maybe original as well!
The steamed lapu-lapu, a local fish, named after Magellan’s executioner, had sweet thick flaky meat, and the chopped squabs (pigeon) on a lettuce leaf cup and the shark fins soup were excellent.
The above was about banquets, but now let me describe the breakfast buffets served at various hotels. Based on many travels, morning buffet in Asia was comparatively the best. These reasonably priced buffets, can be experienced at 5-star hotels in Manila, Cebu, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bali, Jakarta, Taipeh, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Beijing, Xian, Wuxi, Suzhou, or Tokyo and Kyoto. The latter two and Hong Kong were pricier. The depth and expanse of the sectional spreads were gourmandized with quality not sacrificed.
I was never a buffet buff, but I enjoy the daily breakfast. The approach to a buffet was to pace oneself, because everything was tempting and beckoned to be tried. Before I even pick up a plate, I walked my routine round of every spread section and literally had given everything a once-over, which included peeks of all the covered containers with warm dishes, exclusive of the scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, corned beef hash and potatoes.
As a start, I generally gravitated towards the souse chef who prepared the eggs, either sunny side up or 90second soft boiled with the shells. This section was usually next to a grille; depending on what day, Mandarin Oriental, had lamb chops, thin slices of sirloin, and pork chops and cod, tuna, salmon or milkfish (bangus)fillets.
What made the breakfasts exciting were the fresh fruits and selections of juices. Even a smaller hotel like Holiday Inn at Clark Field, had its abbreviated version of the buffet. Fresh mango, guava, papaya, watermelon juices were some favorites. Then there were the usual orange, pineapple, melon or four season juices. Fresh vegetable juices were also available at the Mandarin Hotel.
The local fresh fruits included my favorite sapodilla (chico),a large plum-size fruit, sugary sweet, with an aromatic after taste, sometimes with a fine sandy texture, brown inside and outside; jackfruit (langka), dragon fruit, a large fruit with bright red purple thich corn-like husk, and inside the peelable yellow core with tiny edible dots(peats0,not too sweet; star apple, guava, miniature mangoes and bananas (in Angeles), peatless yellow watermelon, macopa, balingbing,(star-shaped when sliced axially), pomelo, and the small sweet pineapples from Ormoc, Leyte (in Cebu). We ate durian, at a private home in Cebu. This fruit was not universally appreciated because of its very strong, offensive to many, but characteristic smell. Rambutan, mangosteen, lansones, atis, sineguelas, duhats and santols were not available because of the season.
On this trip, if I were to rate the buffets, Shangri-las in Kuala Lumpur and in Cebu City, would be my choices.
The Shangri-la in Kuala Lumpur had the most extensive line of fine dim sums, shown in an entire long section; three varieties of sweet paos, lotus, red beans and white beans, aside from the pork and chicken, lomaikai, ha cao, and more were served each morning. It had a special section for desserts with a variety of cakes; this was separate from the pastry section; it had a chocolate dripping fountain stand which was usually seen in an affair. There was also this entire row of native Malaysian specialties and delicacies.
The Shangri-la in Mactan, Cebu had daily changing selections of fresh fruits plus the always available small but very sweet pineapples from Ormoc, the fine selections of native dishes, and the tailored-to-one’s preference noodle soup section. There were kimchee, pan chang plates, and porridge to accommodate the now very visible Korean guests who four years ago were not there. The hotel hired some Korean staff as a PR gesture for their compatriots. The Korean tourist was an offshoot of the thousands of Korean students currently enrolled in local schools. They come to study and learn English, eventually they or their relatives started some business and perhaps also, to play golf; golf and academic pursuits were inexpensive based on present currency exchange rates.
Korean restaurants had sprouted in strategic parts of the city. In fact, across our Hotel, what used to be rows of sea food stalls, small restaurants I guess,(since food was served and cooked in the premises), and which used to hawk fresh cornucopia of sea harvest and other edible sea treasures, such as varieties of latok, referred to as arurupsit in Ilocos, now bore Korean ownerships. Latok was a form of seaweed with tiny, or sometimes larger grape-like buds aligned in fine edible stalks that burst in your mouth much like salmon roe. These had to be tried to be appreciated. A type of vegetable caviar, an oxymoron for sure was the best way to describe it.
I already missed the stalls on this visit, because I had twice eaten there, and now they were gone.
Old Manila (Manila) our first non-banquet dinner, which broke mercifully the pattern, is at Old Manila at the Peninsula Hotel. Kristine and George, the parents of the groom hosted the dinner. A foursome dinner in Manila for us is a rarity, and we are two couples, The setting is well-appointed, the ambience elegant, and the place has an aura of old Manila. The large lobby bore the grandeur and colonial Spanish style, and the restaurant which is at the same level reflected the same. The mahogany carved chairs are initially protected with white covers with printed likeness of Filipino heroes in the revolution against the Spaniards. A chair is bared as it is taken. I am not a student of the traditional Spanish decor, since I have strong feelings about the lack of Spanish contributions to the country, despite their 299 years of colonial rule, still I am left impressed by the surroundings.
I started with a martini, and my cousin who remains one of my early martini converts, followed suit. She told George that she only drinks when she is with me, which I believed. The meat entrees were tempting, but then given the task of using New York and Vegas servings as a benchmark, I opted to go with something safer. Ror starter I ordered a local foie gras, complemented by a mango relish which I thought is a variation; and for entrée I ordered two grilled local tiger prawns. These are two large perfectly grilled prawns with their heads and tails intact, live before being sacrificed, as suggested by the firm and sweet succulence of the meat. The size of the prawns prompts Milan to comment that they looked more like small lobsters, than prawns. I agreed but the meat is sweeter even without butter sauce, which is not an accompaniment. The foie gras was excellent; but for some reason was served perfectly rectangular, which meant that the seared liver edges had been trimmed. I will not comment on what the rest ate, but they appeared very satisfied with their orders.
Ah Yat Abalone Seafood Forum Restaurant (Kuala Lumpur)
If the food does not blow you away, the restaurant name will. On a scale of 10 it is a 10. This is probably one of the 10 best Chinese restaurants I have eaten in, if one is partial to Hong Kong Cantonese cuisine, traditional or nouveau. We stumbled into this restaurant because of its name, because of its reputedly modestly priced wine selections, and because it is about 8 minutes’ walk from our hotel. The restaurant is on the second floor of The Swiss Garden Hotel, I don’t remember its coordinates.
Exclusive of breakfasts this is the only restaurant where we ate dinner and lunch inside of 14 hours. The extensive menu accommodates either a party of two or more with the same ease, care and attention. As the name infers, the cuisine is slanted towards seafood, specifically abalone and shark fins.
Abalone is priced by grams, with the country of harvest indicated, as from Mexico, Australia or Africa. A slight price difference, insignificant in dollar terms exists depending on the country of harvest. As late as the mid- sixties Redondo Beach, in California was a leading source of excellent abalone, and I ordered it whenever it is in a menu. SEASONS (now defunct) a seafood restaurant at Bally’s, in Las Vegas used to have it as its prized entrée as late as the early 80’s. It has disappeared because of over harvesting and absent replenishing. The over fishing of our waters is a universal problem. It is said that the fish and crustaceans are 54% over harvested each year. The Patagonia toothless, also known as Chilean sea bass is an example; some upscale restaurants in the East Coast have dropped it from their menus, because it is now considered endangered species.
To go to a place with abalone and shark fins as their signature dishes and not order them is counter purpose of the visit. So we ordered both; the latter twice, as soup with fish lips, and as a runny omelet dish with finely chopped chives. The whole abalone is prepared with large tender goose webs. I added deep-fried frog legs to the list; these are exceptionally tasty because of their plump vasti and gastrocnemius muscles. A vegetable dish called three-way torn-box caught my attention, and this turned out to be poached fine spinach sprouts topped with a combination of yolk-broken century, salted and regular duck eggs Embarrassingly perhaps, but appreciatively each plate served is almost vacuum-cleaned, saved for bones.
Since I could not find a dry Riesling, we settled for a cabernet sauvignon from the Las Palmas vineyard in Chile. This is a satisfying choice, and it went well even with our seafood-slanted dishes; we left half a bottle to be savored at lunch the next day. This is an incentive of sort, to come back, although I did not think that to be necessary.
Betty, the senior server from last night, recognized us as we walked in for lunch. She immediately had another server fetch the half-bottle wine from last night, just as we sat down. There are two small on-thehouse appetizers that quickly found their way to our table; a plate of mildly sweet and crunchy pickled vegetables and some ordinary looking boiled peanuts. I am taken by the peanuts so that I had to ask how it is prepared; Betty patiently walked us through its preparation, at least twice. This apparently is a popular Chinese Malaysian way of serving peanuts
Since it was lunch time, it also meant dim sum time. We were tempted to order the delicately prepared dim sum (known as yam cha in Cantonese) servings, but Betty suggested one of the pris fixe specials as a better choice. She also added that one order should suffice to share, and if this was not enough, we can always supplement with some dim sum as desired.
We ordered the small eight-course lunch which included tapioca and bits of mango swimming in a small bowl of coconut milk as dessert. As ordered we started with shark fins soup, garnished with crabmeat and roe, followed by a small full-size abalone with White Sea cucumber; the latter has perfect texture, not too soft, and not too firm. A large pre-marinated, partly de-boned large fried chicken wing made fuller by the stuffing of glutinous rice is an innovative departure from our ubiquitous Buffalo wings, is a total delight. After the dessert, there is no need for any dim sum supplement.
At this restaurant a list of the orders is kept on the table, and as a dish is served the server crosses it out. I find this a clever yet easy system that tracked the dishes.
What more could I say, it is dining at its best and had we an extra day we would have returned one more time, just to taste the other esoteric dishes in the menu that we managed only to glean. This restaurant is indeed a forum not only for abalone but more.
On our way out I bought a jar of Ah Yat XO sauce, for which we have to wait, because it was to be vacuumpacked when ordered. In New York Chinatown the same jar can cost at least five times more.
ASAHI (Kuala Lumpur)
Our first Kuala Lumpur dinner hosted by Esther and Vincent was at Asahi, which they owned. We were seated in a private pseudo-tatami room. The regular tatami set up where one sat on the floor, as preferred by some Japanese men was hard on the back, lower limbs and joints, and made even worse if one had a capacious midsection, unless one was a devoted yoga practitioner.
We were soon joined by four children of our hosts, the two older boys who were in high school, were home on spring break from Ross, an exclusive boarding school near Geneva. They apparently were home three times a year for vacations and holidays. A younger girl and the youngest, a boy were enrolled in a local school. The oldest, an 18-year college sophomore girl was to join us the next evening for dinner.
Vincent, who we first met that evening, gave his reasons for sending the two boys to this particular boarding school. Primarily for discipline and scholastics, he said. Moreover, they were forced to speak French and based on his research many of the European elite and world leaders were alumni from that school. He added that his sons were the first two and currently the only Malaysians enrolled in the school.
At dinner, I was pleasantly surprised when Esther told us they know Lilian Too. Too, an authority on traditional feng shui and its practice had written several books on the subject. In my book Feng shui, Craps, and Superstitions it referred extensively to her lectures and books. I was again surprised when she told me that they had some business arrangement, I presumed she was referring to the World of Feng Shui stores, of which I saw two, one in the very building as the restaurant, and a second one in Chinatown. I wanted to, but felt not ready in asking to meet Miss Too because I just met Esther.
The sashimi here was undoubtedly of fine quality and the toro (fatty tuna belly) particularly. Esther must have ordered the entire menu because there was something to doggy bag, which was not usual in a Japanese restaurant. Actually it was the youngest son who supplemented the orders with his favorite selections, for their end of the table. This prompted Vincent to say that henceforth he will not be allowed to order independently when he eats out with company.
Ryo Zen (Bukit Tinggi Resort)
This was a Japanese restaurant up at the peak of Bukit Tinggi, the mountain resort, also owned by Vincent and Esther. It had good standard Japanese food, minus the sashimi and sushi probably for practical reasons. The chef was a local, but was said to have been trained by a Japanese sushi chef.
This was a new trendy restaurant, popular among the Cebu in-crowd because of its ambience and continental menu. We had our first dinner with Tina, Milan’s niece and two of her children, Nina, and Joseph, at this restaurant. Now I was prepared for steak and I did order a steak and I was asked by Tina to choose the wine, I came with a full bodied red from Rioja,Spain. Tina saved the cork for her collection, which indicated she loved wine, and she does, possibly more than martinis which she also indulged when she was with me. You can call it my bad influence. My steak was done as ordered; it was tasty, a bit chewy, but which did not detract from its overall quality. The oysters done a la Rockefeller were good, so was the large calamari fritti plate for the table. If given the option, however, I would stick to cuisine native to the place or Chinese cuisine when traveling in Asia, except perhaps in Hong Kong.
LA TIENDA (MANILA)
We spent our second day in Manila with Raymond aka James, aka 0007, his wife Cathy and their daughter, cute, chubby, contented, hyperactive, Klarisse, almost two, but a bundle of energy and Sita, her nanny.
Klarise when confined inside a car would sing, recite what she learned from nursery school; despite her two-year old vocabulary this had not kept her from chattering away. I turned off the car radio, when her father was driving us around Makati that morning, because it cannot compete with her. And if she found herself in a more spacious area, like inside a mall, she just kept running, like the bunny that just kept going, going and going, and never stopped; and Sita was always right behind chasing after her, making sure she did not trip. In Manila, children with nannies were not allowed to fall or trip, the rationale being they might get hurt. At the Rockwell mall, at least trice she sat herself at different fast food restaurants, since it was almost lunch time, and she was ready to eat.
She touched anything and everything on hand. I told Milan to borrow her for a few months, so that she need not use the gym, the sauna or steam bath and still be in shape. At this age she tended to be a copycat. At lunch I reminded Sita, who was focused on feeding her, that she should also eat; moments later she repeated the same to her. When we were inside a shoe store at the mall, I rested my bottled water on a side table; she did the same with hers. When I retrieved mine, she was puzzled because she could not find hers. Sita already took it.
We ate lunch at a restaurant where James took Cathy on their first date and it was therefore memorable moment. To that look-back I ordered a very fine Vina Pomal Reserva 1998 from Rioja, Spain which we toasted and shared. I started with a miniature martini which initially was served as poured vodka, since I requested it straight-up, but this was promptly corrected. We had seafood paella, calamari, tripe, lengua estopada (tongue), grilled lamb chops (excellent), and prawns. I wanted cuchinillo (roast piglet) but it was a pre-order item. Cathy ordered more than enough, so that a doggy bag became handy.
A minor annoyance was the trio of Spanish speaking suited business men, two tables from us, who were boisterous and churlish. I mentioned this, only because this was not an uncommon scenario in public places when I lived in Manila. I guess there were things that refused to change.
MEKENI (CLARK FIELD, ANGELES)
The Pampango word mekeni meant “come in” or “come here.” It was a small restaurant where we shared breakfast with Kim and Mars on our first morning in Angeles. The spreads were smaller versions but were more than adequate and the fruits and fresh juices as always were fresh. There were many native pastries like ensaymada, bibingka, taisan and purple yam cakes, for which the province of Pampanga was known.
North Port Filipino Restaurant
My search for Latok or arurupsit, the vegetarian caviar, as I called it, ended here. This was our only dinner with Philip who flew in from Manila, possibly just to see us. He liked the blue of the Johnny Walkers and so he brought an unopened bottle which we took on ice. We ordered all sort of local dishes and judging from the plates at the end of the dinner the food was good.
It was late but Philip wanted to take us to Mount Busay, which was the acme of the city, and had a panoramic view of the lit City of Cebu. We were there four years ago but it was in the daytime. The drive to the peak was not for the faint of heart, since the road was narrow and not lit.
I would be totally remised if I did not drop some lines about the wedding. The Church ceremony and the reception that followed were both well-orchestrated and it showed in the execution. The nuptials ceremony accommodated the participation of members of both families who were able to enunciate and walk the aisle to plant the seeds of remembrance and then to be able look back as memories on their later years
The friends of Kris, the groom, and the Cassie, the very sweet bride were to be credited for the continuous activities on the stage, the way the program moved and the whole atmosphere that followed during the reception. Both Kris and Cassie played their roles perfectly.
The reception was large, 1000 invited guests. The huge permanent tent off Roxas Boulevard was built for just this kind of a reception. Having been absent from this type of scene for years, I did not recognized the taipans that made part of the guest list. A taipan for the unfamiliar was a local word for a dollar billionaire usually with local political clout.
The reception was festive and friendly and made it easy at least for me to move around and narrow the gulf of my absence to the present. Many extended relatives who I had not seen for decades, came and shook hands. This was touching.
Lastly, George who crooned a song did it with great pizzazz and my cousin Kristine was regal in both the gowns she wore, at the nuptials and at the reception. I end this with her name.