I wasn’t sure the organization was real, but on my way home from a conference in Stockholm a few weeks ago, I found myself stopping over in London to accept an invitation to speak before the NPA – the National Pampangueno Association.
The NPA, one of 2 ethnic associations from my home province operating in the United Kingdom, is led mainly by intrepid adventurers who run the key hotels, restaurants, bars and nightclubs of London. Jay Miguel, its president, comes from Guagua. He is the chief bartender of the London Embassy Hotel and represented the UK in the last European bartenders’ championship. Diplomats on embassy row regularly come to his bar on Bayswater for his original cocktails.
The assistant bartender, Mon Layug, is from Porac. He is also an original NPA. He and Ben Alvarado came to meet me at Heathrow airport. Ben, who is from Lubao, is the group’s vice-president. In London, he is better known as the king of the most expensive parking lot in Mayfair, where he works as the head doorman and assistant concierge of the Holiday Inn’s flagship hotel. The assistant doorman of this hotel is the debonair Boy Castro, who drove me around in his BMW.
Surrounded by these province mates from Pinatubo land, I began to wonder whether this was England. The England I knew as a student 25 years ago was predominantly white, stiff and more or less culturally homogeneous. The immigrant population at that time, consisting mainly of Chinese, Pakistanis, West Indians, Spaniards and Italians, lived on the margins of British life. Today, one encounters a pleasantly multicultural Britain, where tens of thousands of Filipinos appear to have carved a niche for themselves in the country’s thriving service sector.
Emerging from Immigration and Customs at Heathrow, I must have looked distinctly famished. Ben decided I should have a proper lunch at his house before checking into my hotel. Lunch was a juicy sirloin steak with chopped tomatoes on the side and rice. Thus began my unforgettable journey into London’s Pinoy hybrid cuisine.
“Would you like me to lend you a tie for tonight,” Ben asked, as he surveyed me in my faded jeans, corduroy shirt and crumpled blazer. “We’re all coming in our uniform,” he said. “Uniform”, as it turned out, was strictly formal black tie. This was a mild culture shock for me, for I had just come from a conference in Sweden, where in celebration of summer and late sunsets, people came to meetings in their most comfortable jeans and informal jackets.
My task was to give a dinner speech on the national situation – in Filipino, they explicitly requested. This was followed by elegant ballroom dancing, which was the main reason they came in gowns and black tie. The food, served by Spanish and British waiters, was accompanied by carefully chosen wine.
The evening was unforgettable. I met townmates, schoolmates, relatives and childhood friends I hadn’t seen in decades. It wasn’t an easy speech to make. That same evening at around the same time, President Ramos was telling the good news about the country before another group of Filipinos in a nearby hotel.
In the following days, different families hosted me for dinner. On these occasions, I saw how the men controlled the kitchen while their wives and children kept me company in the sala. Mang Cesar Sarmiento and his wife and children live in what must have been a former typical bed-and-breakfast place on Earls Court. They were my first hosts. I cannot forget how his grown-up children, raised in London, greeted me not by shaking but by pressing my hand on their forehead.
Their manners were distinctly provincial Pinoy, their English was British, but they conversed in fluent Kapampangan. I cannot forget the taste of Mang Cesar’s way with the legs of turkey. The succulence was unusual for turkey and the subtle flavor was neither English nor Pinoy. His grilled bangus, stuffed with minced pork, bagoong and spring onions, nearly floored me. This was a scent from my childhood, and it was disorienting to find it in London.
Mon Layug’s family had me over the following day. From his cramped kitchen, he first brought out the most crispy sitsarong bulaklak I’ve ever had in my whole life. This pulutan was accompanied by a smooth Sancerre red wine. Unlike the Pinoys in the US who cannot live without beer, these London Pinoys are strictly wine and whiskey drinkers. Mon’s main dish was truly an epitome of hybrid cooking – sinigang na ulo ng salmon, steaming with labanos and English leeks and lemons, and served with boiled rice. The only flavor missing was the pungent sourness of our local kamias.
My principal host, Big Ben Alvarado, unelected lord mayor of Mayfair and friend to Michael Caine (who deposits his car everyday in Ben’s parking lot), was not to be outdone. His specialty is tahong in white wine and double cream — definitely French in origin, but perfected in practice in the home kitchens of the London NPAs.
I was very proud to be in the company of these fellow Filipinos. Theirs is no longer the discourse of marginalized ethnicity. One detects a deliberate effort to anchor their identity on something vernacular, yet by no means do they live as an inward-looking enclave fearful of assimilation in the host society they have chosen. By their ingenious hybridity and selective appropriation of elements from the host culture, they are inventing a Filipino identity abroad, that is no less authentic than the one we have at home.
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