MY FATHER, MAMONLUK AND PRISON
MY FATHER, MA MON LUK AND PRISON IN MY MIND
For those in their 50s onwards in this 21st century and if they happen to be residents of Manila and its environs, this topic is familiar. It is a topic alright although it is more described as a resto. I am of course referring to the title of this essay, the name of the eatery, Ma Mon Luk. I don’t care whether Jolibee, Mc do, Inasal, Chow King will never, even for a while take a glimpse of their competitor, an aging one and most probably, the first to have moved towards introducing Chinese noodles, which in the 60s is a sui generis kind of eatery. I don’t give a hoot also if these newcomers will charge me for blind advertisement but there is something emotionally and personally significant whenever I think of that bistro.
MaMonLuk is one place that evokes memories. Without it, I would not even define in a good and wholesome perspective what parental concern is. That is what I meant by memories and MaMonLuk, it is better appreciated like mami and siopao, like bihon and service tea, like siomao and softdrinks. It was the first resto where my father brought me. I was a fledging 3 year old troll at that time but I could vividly remember what my father ordered—a bowl of simmering mami and a bulky blob siopao. It was also my first initiation to a life of “crime” because I saw how my father would empty a bottle of toothpicks and would surreptiously pocket it. If you think that it was petty, back home under my father’s bed, there were two sacks tucked neatly and one could find it stacked with millions of toothpicks. I would even venture to say that it amounted to several tree trunks already! It could have been a testament of how dexterous my father’s hand could be. But I was a kid with no orientation yet on what is thievery and what is not. My father actually had a penchant in collecting anything that interests him from tissues to toothpick. It would later progress to books and ball pens. Well, name it and he’s got the collection galore.
No, I never repeated what I saw in my father’s tact, but what stuck to me was the habit of eating at Mamonluk wherever a branch was on site. We would eat at Quiapo branch and it still exists today. It was for me a landmark and a mandatory pilgrimage area. Whenever I am in town, I would forget dropping by the church, which is always close anyway, and would proceed almost automatically to the resto.
Back then, there was a branch of the resto at Cubao, a good 15 minute ride from our residence. Whenever I would win in a game of chess in the neighbourhood, I would immediately loaf around Cubao, where the first malls were introduced and then enjoy the hot soup at Mamonluk. My day would be made after that. I was in high school then. When I was in college, I would frequent also the branch along Quezon Boulevard, a little across the Sto Domingo Church where Ninoy’s badly mangled body would be displayed before the funeral parade. It was a good branch because from the pictures decorating the wall near the cashier one would see famous entertainers having their meals—the likes of Ike Lozada, Richard Gomez, Eddie Garcia, etc. For a while, it was my gastronomic mecca until a friend notified me on a new branch across Ateneo in Katipunan road, quite close to our neighbourhood. I used to play basketball in the playground of Ateneo grade school campus and it was good news to have good old resto just along the fringes.
A few years later, the branch in Ateneo would close down and the one at Cubao would follow suit. Another branch would pop up along EDSA near the junction of Kamuning across the Northern Police District precinct. I would spend quite a time in said branch also and I would come across some entertainers too like Ariel Ureta during his prime in television. The Kamuning branch would later close down too.
The Quiapo branch aside from the Quezon boulevard store is the only remaining edifice that would remind me of the past. It has been the only restaurant my father would patronize. It is also the only eatery I would never tire of ordering its specialty. I won’t mind insinuations that its siopao is great because cat’s meats are used. I wouldn’t mind also if the special flavour comes from the dirty surroundings. All I know is that I have never been sick all those times I would gobble up the entire mami and siopao in one sitting.
My father passed away a few years ago but whenever I would occupy our favourite corner in said restaurant, even if I am alone, I could feel that my father is around enjoying the meal too. Like an instinct, while waiting for the bowl and the extra potage to be served in less than a minute, I would, in dexterous fashion, grab the bottle of toothpick and would place it in front of me, the position my father would situate. Of course, the container will neither move nor empty itself. Just a little exercise in tickling my father’s spirit, some kind of a ritual.
I would recall during meal time and I still could vividly hear how my father would explain to me the secret of staying active. He would coach me to walk regularly and never to use elevator. His strong knees would accompany his dreary days in the hospital after undergoing a series of deadly surgeries. He would survive all of the medical procedures done to him. As a matter of fact, he would even outlive all his physicians who projected that my father will not live for another year. My father would outlast all of them for a good three decades more!
It’s really funny that Mamonluk would occupy a significant part in our domestic life. I have never seen up close my father at home. He would leave early while I was still sleeping and would be home late at night, and I was already fast asleep. It is only when there were no classes and at that time, there were plenty of street demonstrations, when we would be given a chance to have a heart to heart talk, not in the confines of our living room at home but in our favourite corner in Mamonluk. It has become a sentimental part of my growing up. It has been a foyer in my adulthood too.
Even my future employment in the prison service was also served in this eatery. Here my father would indulge his fellow faculty members, all prison officers, introducing me to them and goading me to be one of them also. And these penal authorities would vigorously encourage me to be part of the system. I would hear a lot of inspiring stories about loyalty and friendship and some challenging ones too, like the horrors of riots and tales of violence. These and all over a bowl of hot and flavoursome gumbo.
After a few exciting years as a psychologist in the national penitentiary, I would also indulge my fellow officers over a hot bowl of mami and I would arouse their interest and sustain the same attention in corrective work to my peers. The scent in its dining hall and the tasty soup made up my resolve which later I would reckon as incentive to work harder. It was a bit silly but I was thinking that if I ascend in the prison service, I would have greater time to spend loafing around Quiapo, eating at the resto and completing my day. I even had a ridiculous thought that if I become a top official of the penitentiary I would have the authority to open a branch of said restaurant in my turf. It is not about food actually. It is not about revenues. It is not about a career in culinary arts. It is about being with my father.
When my father passed away, it is not in the cemetery nor in his room at home that I find emotional reminiscence but in a rundown corner of the restaurant. There I could feel my father smiling heartily, laughing uncontrollably, talking loudly, gesturing mightily followed by a deafening guffaw, signifying fullness.
I am always out of town and seldom would I find time to move around in Manila. But if I have a chance, eating in Mamonluk is a fare I direly fidget not because of the exotic taste of its delightful broth but more on the memories I still shared with my father. Having meals in that place is like communing with my beloved patriarch.