Notes & Essays

The Glory Days of San Juan

In high school, I often glimpsed actress Gina Alajar strolling on the street tangent to ours and felt an aching whenever she passed.
ILLUSTRATOR Elaine Navas
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“They say the mayfly lives only for a day. Pity the mayfly born on a wet day,” writes the bard.

I say pity the mayfly born anywhere in San Juan, Metro Manila, on St. John the Baptist Day. When I was growing up, San Juan was off limits on June 24 to anyone averse to being bathed by exultant strangers. At the crack of dawn, San Juan residents are out in the streets, pails and tabo in hand, throwing water at each other and at passing cars and jeepneys. As a child, this was one day I anticipated with much good cheer and careful planning.

The San Juan I grew up in was a small town of scraggy hills and middle-class residences. Our family had moved to the town in 1962—still considered distant then from Manila—so we kids could go to Xavier School that had a new seven-hectare campus in Little Baguio.

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There we lived among ghosts, dwende, and Spanish colonial style houses with small gardens and duck ponds before the influx of Chinese-Filipino families through the next three decades that turned Greenhills into the posh residence and shopping area it is today. My immigrant Chinese grandmother dubbed Little Baguio “barbarian village” for the Chinese mestiza ladies who played mahjong without let up and a number of “kept women” and “second families.” Our one miserly Chinese sari-sari store owner, later vegetable vendor, Pablo, bald and wiry, gossiped like an old crone in his all-weather sando and shorts, but he showed up at our place one day, in a suit and tie, saying he was off to China for his son’s wedding. It was the first time anyone had thought of him as a family man. He had lived alone in our neighborhood since anyone could remember, later on with a pricey dog that had been abandoned because of a disease. He had tended the animal back to health.

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In time, the vacation homes were mostly abandoned, and we neighborhood kids grew up thinking of them as haunted lairs of monsters and kapre. Then there were all those stories about people killed or buried in the area during World War II. I guess it was partly our parents’ way of keeping us from roaming too far or too late into the talahib. But really, who doesn’t believe in ghosts? After all, there were the occasional skull and bones dug up, and once, a fairly fresh hand.

But Little Baguio had celebrity too. My mom remembers sighting a scion of the late President Quezon every evening during the six o’clock mass at the Mary the Queen Parish Church, beside Xavier School. An apartment block not far from ours was said to be owned by the boxing legend of the day—Gabriel “The Flash” Elorde. In 1969 we had a movie star, Joseph Estrada, for mayor, and another one, Ric Rodrigo, as neighbor. He became ninong to many kids on our street, Maximo Reyes—named after a former mayor—for the year or two, lived there after separation from spouse Rita Gomez. In high school, I often glimpsed actress Gina Alajar strolling on the street tangent to ours and felt an aching whenever she passed.

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Time was when neighbors begrudged us for failing to splash them with water from our batya on St. John’s Day. It was literally good, clean fun. As the years passed, the pails and tabo were replaced by garden hoses that neighbors trained on each other. And then on my tenth year, trouble erupted as some “outsider” threw dank estero water up the miniskirt of a pretty lass. Her grandfather reportedly chased after the offender with his shotgun, though I don’t remember hearing gunfire from our street. That, I reckon, marked the end of San Juan, my San Juan, as a small town. The Baptist’s Day would never again be the same in our neighborhood. It seemed at once that we were among strangers with sinister designs and the old rules no longer held.

Not long after this incident, Pablo, who had recently returned from China with gifts of lychees and tea, went missing for over a week, he had never missed a day of work since anyone could remember. When the cops broke into his home they found his mutilated corpse, hogtied. He had lately hired a young man, another “outsider,” for chores, and suspicion quickly fell on the missing guy with robbery as the main motive. But why the ghastliness? Why the anger or hatred? The investigation never went far as Pablo had no known relatives in the country. His surname association—it was only then we found out he was a Lim—arranged for a cremation, and there was a brief piece in a tabloid about the killing, and that was that. It was the first murder in our neck of the woods since anyone could remember, and we kids missed dousing him the following St. John’s Day.

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For sometime, I thought of the water festivity in our town as peculiar. I tended to agree with elders that, as is often the case, Filipinos had overdone things and transformed a Christian feast into a grotesque orgy. That is, beyond emulating the Baptist’s sprinkling of blessed water among the faithful—he actually dunked them in the river Jordan—we’ve made him the patron saint of firemen and riot dispersal units.

But in Yunnan, China, I witnessed a similar festival among the Miao people. One day a year, members of this community throw water at each other in wet and wild abandon. The festival dates back to antiquity and minorities in Thailand, and other places in East Asia are supposed to have similar celebrations. It is quite possible then that like some other Philippine festivals and traditions, such as the fertility rites in Obando, Bulacan, communal dousing has pre-Christian origins.

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In most religions, water is a sacred purifier. Hindus douse themselves in the Ganges, and Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John. Being island denizens, playing with water was likely the most natural sport among our forebears. Whatever its origins, water throwing and dousing, done without malice, serves to mend strained relationships and to reaffirm community ties. Once a year we can be children again, shorn of our expensive clothes and civic airs, defined not by wealth or social standing, but by a most common, life-giving substance. It’s not too different from teammates splashing cold water or champagne on each other and on their coaches after winning a championship.

But San Juan is far from being a small town these days. It is a city now, a “thoroughfare” through which many from other places in Metro Manila pass. It is home to wealth and celebrity. It is no longer a place where most everyone knows his or her neighbor and where every resident can celebrate the Baptist’s Day. Communal water throwing may be another agricultural tradition that has run up against Big City life.

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Through the years, irate commuters and motorists have knocked off not a few teeth, and I’m almost certain more than one wise guy has been blown away by an enraged grandfather for molesting with water. In the 1980s, water throwing on San Juan Day was prohibited after 10 in the morning. Still, as with alcohol, the pleasures provided by water can be addictive and once unleashed, the demons of wetness must have their way.

We moved to Mandaluyong in 1987, and since then, water throwing has been a thing of the past for me. Little Baguio has transformed into condominiums and chic bistros. But one fine San Juan Day, it would be fun to drop by the old neighborhood to catch some kids perhaps dousing the barangay captain or a bald, wiry vegetable vendor and his pricey dog.

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue. 

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About The Author
Charlson Ong
Charlson Ong is a multi-awarded fictionist who has received, among others: a Palanca award for his short story, The Trouble in Beijing; a second-place Philippine Centennial Literary Prize for his novel, An Embarrassment of Riches; and several National Book Awards for his works across the years. He currently teaches literature and creative writing at the University of The Philippines’ Department of English and Comparative Literature.
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