Gems of History

Chinese veggie farmers in the 17th-19th c

Metro Manila is so urbanized today that only a few people know or can imagine that its capital, Manila, was once surrounded by a “Metropolitan Garden Ring.”
When we talk of the metropolis’ vegetable supplies, what almost always comes to mind is the produce transported from the provinces, especially Baguio. But just a century or so ago, the Metropolitan Garden Ring around Manila had supplied the city’s vegetables and fruits.
Daniel Doeppers’ Feeding Manila in Peace and War: 1850-1945 devotes one chapter to “Vegetables, Fruits and Other Garden Produce,” including a section on the Metropolitan Garden Ring.
Father Buzetain 1850-1851 describes Pasay as a place of “delightful jardines and fruitful kitchen-gardens filled with fruit trees of several species and vegetables that are carried to the market in Manila on a daily basis.”
Parañaque, where there were beautiful gardens with fruit trees such as lemons, oranges and bananas, as well as uncommon specialty products that also came from garden here.
On the eastern margins of the city, the cluster of Sta. Ana, Mandaluyong, and San Juan del Monte is depicted as producing considerable fruits and vegetables; and from Pandacan, along the river, came freshly-cut sugarcane stalks – the ordinary sweet of the day. To the northeast, parts of Sampaloc district… it was said, “All the houses have their garden with fruit trees and different vegetables.” …Beyond Sampaloc, the jurisdiction of Caloocan then included much of the large territory that became Quezon City, vegetables and legumes were part of the produce from sitios and estates here.
Tondo, on the northern margin of the city, also played part in the daily supply of vegetables and fresh maize and produced good oranges as well. Farther out, Malabon is mentioned for its vegetables and fruits.
Beyond these most immediately accessible jurisdictions lay some well-watered alluvial areas with easy access to Manila by dug-out banca or casco. Here, too, commercial production of fruits and vegetables came to play an important part in local economic specialization…
From Pasig municipality came fine fruits and vegetables; from Pateros and Taguig came watermelons, in addition to an everyday flow of duck eggs and rice. Stretching north of Pasig town the alluvial and rice-rich Marikina Valley became a prime locale for supplying Manila with fruits.
A lot of vegetables and fruits that supplied the markets and households of Manila in the 19th and early 20th centuries were grown on the immediate urban margins.
Within the Tuason estates, there were sections with substantial vegetable gardens. The Hacienda de Sta. Mesa included territory extending from Sta. Mesa in eastern Sampaloc northward to include the Diliman Estate, now in Quezon City.
In the 1890s, there were widespread vegetable gardens in the lands, from which local youths carried vegetables into the city in baskets slung on balance poles.
Outside the Tuason lands, legumes and vegetables were grown in other portions of the city margins, including the alluvial riverside in Pandacan and Sta. Ana. Those included eggplant and ampalaya or bitter gourd, grown on trellises… Tomatoes were raised in eight localities of Navotas and also on land near the lake of Taguig.
Using small watercraft, people in both places could really move such perishables to the great public markets of Manila.
With this historical context in place, we now share the most important and interesting part: the Chinese connection with these vegetable and fruit supply to Manila.
The stereotype of the Chinese among Filipinos is that they were all businessmen. But few people – Chinese themselves included – know the following:
By the mid-17th century, there were perhaps 2,000 Chinese market gardeners and numerous orchards along Pasig River stretching from the city to Laguna de Bay. Even after the expulsion of many Chinese in the mid-18th century, this tradition remained, to be renewed by the new wave of 19th-century immigrants.
Chinese methods of leafy vegetable gardening generally worked well in the Philippines. In the 1920s, Hokkien horticulturists north of Tondo, between Maypajo and Caloocan, and also in Paco, were known for intensive soil preparation by means of hoeing and the use of raised beds…Chinese gardeners developed a reputation for hand watering three to five times on sunny days to avoid wilting, using pairs of buckets slung on a balance pole.
With crops grown in rapid succession, the local gardens of Chinese farmers produced cabbages, onions, Chinese cabbage (petchay), lettuce, Chinese celery (kinchay), mustard greens, tango herb, spinach and peppers, with one crop seeded in rows and another broadcast in between on the raised beds.
Doeppers concludes, “Horticultural production by local Chinese market gardeners was certainly important in provisioning the city, although we lack a basis for estimating how much of Manila’s supply they accounted for at any particular time.”
The Metropolitan Garden Ring of Manila and its Chinese connection had been part of history that few people know nowadays. Let us keep this in mind and make our future generations know this important piece of history.
As a famous proverb goes, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makararating sa paroroonan.”