Wednesday, March 21, 2007


CHILD’S PLAY: Kapampangan kids pose with their favorite toys in these 1930s portrait sittings. The girls are shown with a U.S.-made composition head (made of sawdust, glue and paper) doll while the boy giddyups on a mohair-covered plush horse, of English make.

Iniang malati ku..”
What better way to start reminiscing about the “good old days” than by remembering the years of our childhood? And memories of our youth often revolve around the games children played, and the toys that we amused ourselves with—in school, at home every Saturday morning, after siestas or oracions--fun moments that thrill our imagination while testing our competitiveness.

Back when I was an elementary student in Mabalacat in the mid 60s, our after-class hours were devoted to playing games of catch like maro and tambubung. It took very little to have great fun then—you dig holes on the ground and you can play holen for hours. Or take 2 bamboo sticks and you’re ready for siyatung. We also played piku, using a batu from old bathroom tiles, pebble or flower pot shards. There were even exciting variations of this hopscotch game—pikung ocho and pikung sampaga, where the playing field was drawn like a figure 8 or in the shape of petalled flower, respectively.

After a while, our games assumed a sense of Western sophistication, blame it on our stateside second-hand Dick and Jane schoolbooks discarded from nearby Clark. Pretty soon, we were singing and playing “Jump partner, and skippy domino” and “London bridge is falling down”. The latter game, as it turned out, was an ancient juvenile game that even had a 19th century Spanish counterpart called “A La Viva”, which, long before the Americans came, was already being played and sung in our Islands along with “Pen pen de sarapen, cucillo de almazen..”

Home on week-ends, it was back to native games: salikutan (hide and seek), sisingle ( akin to “Pussy, pussy change corner”) , tumpang preso and tukupan similan (blindman’s bluff). It was also on Saturdays that we brought out our precious toys like the trusty tirador, meticulously whittled from the branches of our backyard biyabas tree or our pasi (tops), bought from the corner store—a whirling, spinning toy wonder that rotated on the sharpest of nails, that often damaged our polished concrete floor. For added visual delight, we often painted the heads of our tops with crayons, so that they spin in technicolor. Philippine indigenous tribes like the Maranaws also played with tops called “kuti”, carved from heavy wood and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. These prized tops were spun by hand. The Bataks of Palawan also have their version, their tops mimicking the shape of a kasuy (cashew).

My father was forever tinkering with his Sarao jeepneys and his garage proved to be a happy hunting ground for metal washers, which, wrapped in papel de japon (thin Japanese paper) became high-flying sipas. Old bolts, nails and toggle heads became perminante rocket darts, with the help of rubber bands and chicken feathers. On some days, we held babagwa (spider) fights, labulan goma (rubber band blowing games) or shook our sampalok tree to catch salagubang and salaginto. With one leg tied to a sewing thread, the hapless insect was transformed into a droning airplane!

For those into less physical play, sungka was the sedentary game of choice. Played on a wooden sungkahan with 14 holes, the objective was to transport by hand the most number of sige shells into your “home”, bigger holes carved at the end of the wooden board. Sungka is actually known in other Asian countries as “chongka” , and is familiar to children in Indonesia, Malaysia, India and even in parts of Africa and Arabia. The sungkahan itself is a work of art, often carved with mythical figures like naga or dragons. I have seen antique sungkahans decorated with lizard and alligator carvings and even one example featuring carved human hands cupping wooden bowls. The Maranaws also have polychrome sungkahans locally known as tidora, embellished with traditional “okir” pattern.

Western toys reached the Philippines only in the 19th century, and even then, these were often very expensive. Dolls, manufactured in France, Germany and England, were created from porcelain, bisque, Parian or composition. So fragile were these dolls that they were taken out to comfort the child only when she became sick; otherwise, the dolls stayed securely inside escaparates. Boys, on the other hand, rode on toy pedal cars and velocipedes, wheeled vehicles that took the form of ponies, camels and other animals. It is no wonder then that the appeal of Shirley Temple dolls, Schwinn bicycles and Buck Rogers tin ray guns did not catch on with parents. Instead, the more affordable clay kurang-kurangans, newspaper burarul (kites), acrobatic whirligigs and feathered pasandirits created from milk cans and sold in front of churches after Mass, struck our childhood fancy.

The age of computer technology has all but obliterated these toys of our endless leisure and amusement. Millions of children now sit transfixed before computer screens, eyes unblinking, nimble fingers on the joystick, ready to bombard the enemy with laser weapons and rocket blasts in games like Counterstrike, Tomb Raider and Wizardry. Technology has indeed changed the rules of the game and the way we play. With realistic and often violent action scenes, today’s toys leave very little for the imagination as well as opportunity for human interaction. Call me technophobic, but I still find the raucous laughter of kids as they outwit and outplay each other in tambubung, more genuinely refreshing than the ear-splitting, high-decibel roar of PlayStation, Atari and Nintendo games combined.

I bet all my teks cards on that!
(13 July 2002)

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