Renacimiento was a nationalistic weekly magazine, with a Spanish and Filipino section containing lofty literary discourses, anti-American government cartoons, beauty queens in ternos(native dress) from around the country and some light reading. It shut down in 1914, running out of funds after then-Secretary of the Interior Dean Worcester sued it for libel.
Vicente Sotto, a fiercely nationalistic Cebuano writer, contributed for this particular issue an interview with a Chinese cook in Hong Kong. Sotto was in the Crown Colony, publishing a fiery fortnightly called the Philippine Republic. The title alone was deemed seditious by the American colonial authorities in Manila. They requested the Hong Kong authorities to shut it down and extradite Sotto back to Manila. But the British court in Hong Kong refused to send him back, even after three requests.
What sort of anti-American diatribe could Sotto extract from a cook? Ah, this cook, named Asing, was not just any cook. He was in the employ of the ophthalmic surgeon Dr. Jose Rizal, who was exiled in Hong Kong from 1891-1892, and his family.
The journalist Sotto knew the interview was a scoop because “Quien es el Filipino que no querria leer algo inedito acerca del Padre de la Patria?” (What Filipino wouldn’t be interested to read something yet unpublished about the Father of the Nation?)
The interview was held in the Philippine Republic office, and it began with Asing stating his age (46), where he came from (Canton) and confirming he was a cook for the Rizal family. He was 20 years old when he started with them and lasted just a little over a year with a salary of five pesos a month, meals included.
Asing, eager to unburden himself, immediately segued into Señor Rizal, emphasizing how good a man he was and didn’t beat him or shout at him. He fondly remembered the rest of Rizal’s family, which included at one point both parents, three sisters and a brother.
He recalls the family living at No. 2, Rednaxela Terrace (Alexander written backwards) midway to the top of Victoria Peak. Asing would have had to trudge up the public stairs on the hillside each morning or hitched on a carriage for the winding drive up.
He boasted of his employer’s successful practice as an eye surgeon, with an office on D’Aguilar Street down the hill and on a side street a block away from the main Queen’s Road. “Mi amo tenia fama de eminente oculista en esta colonia y personas de diferentes razas y nacionalidades acudian a su consultorio.” (My employer is a famous and eminent eye doctor, and people of various nationalities consult him in the colony.)
Rizal’s renown would follow him several years later to Dapitan, where he was exiled. An American, George Taufer, who was losing his eyesight, was told in Hong Kong to visit Dr. Rizal. With his niece Josephine Bracken, they traveled to Mindanao. It was an auspicious visit since the niece and Dr. Rizal would fall in love and live together.
Both the house Rizal rented on the Terrace and the building at D’Aguilar where he held office have since been demolished, but are remembered today through historical markers.
Asing’s sole responsibility was cooking, since Rizal’s two sisters were responsible for the household chores. At one point, a servant from their Calamba house was sent to help in Hong Kong. Frequent guests to the Rizal house included Sixto Lopez, Jose Ma. Basa, Dr. Lorenzo Marquez and a Mr. Cunha and Mr. Aquino.
Sixto Lopez was a wealthy man from Balayan, Batangas, a very close friend that helped finance Rizal’s novels and extended personal loans from time to time. He was the most frequent dinner guest at the Rizal home.
Basa was a generation older than Rizal, one of the first to be exiled by the Spaniards after being accused of having supported the Cavite Mutiny of 1872. He was a wealthy businessman, wrote anti-friar articles and he admired Rizal, lending him funds including his ship ticket from Europe to Hong Kong. Basa received the firstions of both Rizal’s novels. Along with other propaganda material, he had them smuggled into the Philippines. He convinced Rizal to stay in Hong Kong awhile and not return to the Philippines just yet.
Dr. Marquez was Portuguese and the doctor for Victoria Prison. They may have met since they were neighbors, and Dr. Marquez sent Rizal all his patients with eye problems.
When Sotto asked what sort of dishes Rizal was fond of, Asing answered that Rizal was not picky; he ate whatever was served and in just the right amount. When asked further if Rizal liked bread or morisqueta (a rice dish of Mexican origin), Asing again replied his employer ate a variety of things and that both bread and rice (“pan y arroz”) were served at the table.
Asing was self-effacing about his culinary talents. The Rizal family was able to have native ingredients sent to the Colony, and Asing probably learned to cook Tagalog dishes as well. Being Cantonese, he may have cooked his region’s well-loved dishes, like sweet and sour pork, salt and pepper shrimp, broccoli with oyster sauce, and barbecued spareribs. One clue to Asing’s culinary talent: Rizal once wrote to a friend how his father was so happy to be in Hong Kong and that he had gained weight!
Rizal didn’t drink wine but drank lots of water instead. His sobriety in the crown colony seemed out of kilter with earlier photos of him clowning around with friends in Paris and Madrid at tables with wine bottles scattered about.
In Hong Kong, Asing recalled a more serious person. Rizal was very busy and never took siestas in the afternoon. At home he’d always be holding a book or newspaper. He wrote constantly.
Rizal indeed was a busy man. In the eight months that he was in Hong Kong, he had embarked on writing, but did not finish, a sequel to El Filibusterismo; wrote the constitution for his new organization, La Liga Filipina; wrote an extensive local history of his hometown, Calamba; drafted a lengthy proposal for a Filipino colony in Sabah; wrote essays and discourses including a satirical piece, entitled “Pobres Frailes, ” lambasting the Dominican priests; and contributed more anti-friar pieces to the Hong Kong Telegraph newspaper. There was also constant correspondence between him and his friends in Europe and Manila. Asing did not overstate his opinion of having not met another man as extraordinary as Rizal.
When his family and over 300 other Calamba families were evicted from their homes the previous year, Rizal traveled to North Borneo in March 1892 to scout around for a possible Filipino colony there. He was in negotiations with a British trading company that could lease him land. Rizal’s friends in the Philippines and Spain wanted to join the colony. Graciano Lopez Jaena, embittered and impoverished in Barcelona, was ready at a moment’s notice. Antonio Luna was raring to go. And the townspeople of Calamba were just waiting for the signal. Had this plan happened, Asing would have joined the colony as well.
But the whole dream was scuttled when the Spanish Governor General Despujol nixed the plan, implying that such an action was treasonous. Secretly though, General Despujol wanted Rizal back in Manila to arrest him. Rizal, stung by the accusation of treason and given a false safe conduct promise, felt the call to return home. He wrote two stirring farewell letters, one to his parents and another to his countrymen, leaving both to Dr. Marquez to publish should anything happen to him. A day later, in mid-June, he was on the next boat to Manila. That same day, the Spanish Consul in Hong Kong wired Governor General Despujol, saying, “He is in the trap. ” Several days after his arrival, Rizal was arrested, charged with smuggling the anti-friar pamphlet “Pobres Frailes” and exiled to Dapitan.
Rizal left behind his family and many months of happy memories. He operated on the eyes of his mother and she could see well again. He had a successful practice allowing him to pay off his debts and provide for his family. His parents, who suffered harsh treatment from the Spaniards and evicted from their land, were at peace in Hong Kong. When he was in Hong Kong, Rizal wrote to his friends, saying how much happier he was there than in Spain. Until Rizal’s return to the Philippines, Asing witnessed a family united, free from oppression and elated to be together.
History often forgets the contributions of loyal servants, and in this case, the sustaining magic of a cook that added to a happy and contented life for the Rizal family. Just six months before, Rizal was in dire straits, renting a little room in Ghent, Brussels, half starved and eating biscuits. He tightened his spending, desperately finishing his second and more devastating novel, El Filibusterismo, while frantically writing letters to friends to lend him money to publish it. The bountiful and delicious dishes that Asing prepared, which the family ate on the Terrace with a marvelous view of the bay and the verdant hills of Kowloon, erased those nightmarish months, nourished him to write tirelessly and strengthened yet again the bonds with his family. They would need it for the next unhappy last four years of Rizal’s life.
When Sotto asked for any last remembrances of Rizal, Asing apologized, having forgotten much since his association with the Rizal family more than 20 years before. What he could not forget, however, was that Rizal was a very good employer. When he later heard of the execution, Asing cried, like when his own father died.
“Era tan bueno!” (He was a good man) was Asing’s ending words.
When the Rizal family eventually returned to Manila, Asing moved to the Basa household, working there for 21 years. He had the highest regard for the senior Basa and his children.
We’ve known of Rizal’s personal qualities from family, friends, supporters and even detractors. It’s rare to come across personal observations by people who worked for our national hero. Asing’s testimony, a hundred years ago, affirms, from another vantage point, Rizal’s humanity.
Postcript: Vicente Sotto (1877-1950), named Cebu’s Man of Letters, would later be a Philippine senator and highly regarded as a man of principles. His grandson Tito Sotto, a comedian, musician and actor is currently a senator.
John L. Silva is the executive director of the Ortigas Foundation Library in the Philippines, which has an extensive collection of rare Filipiniana books, periodicals, photographs, maps and documents. He is also an author and a collector of vintage photographs.