Thursday, November 17, 2011


SHE'S A DOLL! A little Kapampangan girl poses with her two dolls--a large American-made baby doll with composition head, hands and feet and a smaller doll also of composition. Dolls like these were rather expensive, so they were brought out only during special occasions--or when a child gets sick and needs comforting with toys. Mid 1920s.

Boys will be boys with their tirador (slingshots), pasi (tops) and teks cards—but girls will always be inseparable from their dolls—models of people made all sorts of materials like wood, clay, leather, cloth, modern plastic, vinyl and even ivory. In fact, old folks in Macabebe and Minalin still call dolls as “garing”, in reference to their similarity to ivory-headed saint figures lavishly dressed like dolls from the Spanish times. Today, of course, they are more commonly known as ‘munika’, derived from the Spanish term for doll-- ‘muñeca’.

Throughout history, dolls were traditionally used not just as playthings but also for folk rituals around the world —like the voodoo dolls of Haiti and the Daruma dolls of Japan that were kept as lucky charms. The era of mass production saw the importation of dolls to the Philippines in the late 19th century, but practical-minded Filipinos considered them more of a luxury. Girls only got to play with them when they got sick or when they sat for their studio portraits. After use, mothers put back the dolls in their boxes and stowed in the aparador.

The earliest commercially-made dolls that reached the Philippines came from large emporiums and Escolta bazaars like La Puerta del Sol, American Bazaar, Beck’s, Brias Roxas Inc., Osaka Bazaar and H. E. Heacock. They carried American and European made dolls of bisque, parian, composition, china, leather and cloth--plus doll accessories like miniature furniture. Well-known 19th century French and German dollmakers were Bru, Jumeau, Steiner, Simon & Halbig, Heubach and Steiff. Shops in Escolta also carried Japanese cloth dolls in their own glass cases, but these were more decorative rather than for playing. American made dolls from Horsman and Ideal Novelty (maker of Shirley Temple dolls) proved to be more popular because they were readily available and affordable by the time the 20th century rolled in.

As visitors flocked to discover our Islands, enterprising Filipinos put up curio shops that sold souvenirs—from shellcraft, abaca products, capiz lamps—and dolls. "Everything Philippines and nothing else but...!" was the come-on of Manila Trading Center and Exchange along Rizal Avenue, a popular shop that sold all sorts of handmade souvenirs for eager tourists--dolls included. The first commercially produced dolls were representations of Filipinos in native costumes, with heads, hands and feet of paper mache, clay or some form of terra cotta. Hand-painted with cloth bodies, they were dressed in native costumes faithfully executed in jusi, sinamay and cotton. Later, the heads and hands were replaced with cheaper composition material, made from wood and paper pulp.

Costumed Philippine dolls continued to fascinate tourists, spawning a cottage industry that prospered modestly in the mid 1920s-30s. Ethnic dolls also seemed to have an international appeal and Baguio-made Igorota cloth dolls with painted faces and dressed in traditional woven skirts were all the rage in those peacetime years. Nationalists in the late 1920s encouraged parents to give Philippine-made dolls as Christmas gifts for kids, this in the face of more expensive, imported dolls that could cry, talk, say “Mama”, sleep, walk and even wet themselves! Philippine dolls were not only cheap, but they also catered to both young girls and boys! Popular during this time were novelty paper mache dolls representing country boys and 'dalagang bukid' with their own paper mache horses, pigs and carabaos that they could actually sit on.

Alta Crafts was the biggest dollmaker in postwar Manila, creating cloth dolls that became the benchmark of other dollmakers in the 1950s. The standing cloth dolls personified the different ethnographic groups of the Philippines, dressed in indigenous costumes. It made Igorot dolls, Ilocana dolls, Visayan dolls in patadyong and even Central Luzon dolls in balintawak. Copied by other dollmakers all over the country, these cloth dolls have become our country’s signature dolls, even finding their way in San Fernando and Angeles gift shops, avidly sought by American servicemen and their families.

Closer to home, I remember a doll that was given by an aunt to my eldest sister in the mid 50s. It was a Saucy Walker plastic doll, which underwent countless horrible ordeals in our hands. In our boisterous games, this doll was kicked, tied and hung, tossed in the air, rolled down the stairs and, with hair pulled out, defaced with crayons until the garbage dump claimed the poor thing. As the years passed, the doll was quickly forgotten and my sister eventually married, settled in the States and we all grew up and led separate lives.

One day, however, while I was having a picture framed in an art gallery, I noticed a doll sitting on a shelf with the familiar auburn hair, close-open eyes and smiling mouth. It was an exact duplicate of the doll my sister once had. One look and I knew, I just had to have it.

Fortunately, the gallery owner didn’t care much about the doll, and it took just a little cajoling and a few hundred pesos for her to part with her doll. More than just a plaything, I have come to realize that this “munika” represented a piece of our family’s past, a most happy time in our youth now gone; when the joys of childhood could be had by simply spinning a top, rolling marbles, folding paper airplanes—and, in the case of little girls—creating worlds of make-believe with their dollies!

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