“It might be cat,” is the joke or rumor that has always followed the siopao around the Philippines. A few generations have passed, but like any good urban legend, it stuck. Of all the rumors to have come and gone, why this one? And was there any truth to it at all?
Rumor Has It
Some guess that it was a slight towards the Chinese who settled in the Philippines and introduced the snack. Early Chinese immigrants lived in Binondo, which was, and still is, a dense neighborhood.
Stray cats were not unique to the area, but fueled the imagination of suspicious locals when the siopao caught on as a popular street snack. As siopao and Chinese food became integrated with Philippine cuisine, the rumor persisted. While people grew to be more enlightened as time passed, it was not so much a racial slur but a cautionary tale of, “You get what you pay for.”
When asked about where they first heard the rumor, about ten people—two as old as eighty while the rest in the mid twenties to mid thirties range—weighed in on how they first heard the rumor. Two respondents were warned about the siopao in the streets of Binondo, especially those sold on Salazar and Ongpin. One respondant who attended a local Chinese school heard that same rumor related to the siopao sold at her school’s canteen. An eighty year old respondent recalled that being said in the 1940s about the streetside Chinese food stalls when she went to college in Manila.
While the younger respondents simply know it as “cats in siopao”, those closer to thirty and above heard it nicknamed “siomeow” or “ngyaopao”.
But several respondents remembered two particular restaurants that were said to be infamous for their use of siomeow. Out of the seven, two swore that they browsed a report on one of them from “a local newspaper back then”.
The two restaurants? Kowloon House and Ma Mon Luk.
Are you being served?
Should a history of the rise of Chinese food in the Philippines ever be written, Ma Mon Luk would be mentioned in the early chapters.
As the restaurant’s story goes, Ma Mon Luk emigrated to the Philippines from China to seek his fortune in 1918. He got his start by peddling chicken noodle soup to college students in the old Manila area. They even say that “mami”, the Filipino term for cheap Chinese noodle soup, was originally his, with “Ma” being his first name, and “Mi” as the Chinese word for recipe.
Ma Mon Luk eventually earned enough money to open his own restaurant in Binondo, where he was said to have “introduced” siopao. His restaurant saw tremendous success, and opened additional branches in Cubao, Quezon Avenue, Quiapo, Kamias, and Pasay.
A number of other Chinese restaurants and eateries popped up in hopes to replicate the success of Ma Mon Luk, but for the longest time, none came close. Ivan Dy, tour operator of Old Manila Walks and the Big Binondo Food Wok, theorizes that the siomeow rumor may have first taken root from there, in an attempt to bring down Ma Mon Luk.
The craze for Ma Mon Luk did subside, but most likely due to struggling with restaurant management amidst labor disputes, as suggested by Masuki Binondo. While Masuki is considered as Ma Mon Luk’s revamped Binondo branch, it was renamed in light of problems with former employees of Ma Mon Luk Binondo.
Kowloon House bears a similar story, being the Chinese comfort food of choice in the eighties and nineties.
Back then, Kowloon House was a full-fledged restaurant that could also be booked for special events such as parties and baptisms. Their Makati branch back in Glorietta 1 was also one of the first few restaurants that was open twenty-four hours, long before the BPO industry was even conceived. A number of Kowloon House restaurants remain to this day, especially in the Quezon City area, though most have trimmed down to serve as twenty-four hour cheap siomai and siopao kiosks. Also like Ma Mon Luk, they also saw their share of labor disputes, such as the 2008 strike after seventy-three workers were dismissed without cause.
When respondents were asked when they first heard about Kowloon House or Ma Mon Luk being a hotspot for siomeow, they placed it at a time when the restaurants’ popularity was at their peak. Most heard of Kowloon House’s siomeow in the nineties, while the rest who named Ma Mon Luk placed it around the late eighties or early nineties.
Cats Out of the Bag
For a legend that persists to this day, one wonders if anything was done about it. I took a trip to the Philippine Food and Drug Administration, (FDA) in Muntinlupa to find out.
The FDA is a regulatory administration of the Department of Health (DOH). However, even with food, inspection of certain goods is divided among different government departments and local government units.
FDA, as clarified by Esther Pastolero of FDA’s Public Affairs division, is mostly concerned with regulation of drugs and packaged foods. For fresh food, that may be inspected by agencies such as the Department of Agriculture’s National Meat Inspection Service.
In the case of siopao, FDA may regulate and investigate complaints pertaining to pre-packaged siopao. Concerns regarding fresh siopao are handled by local government units and the area’s health office.
Andrew delos Reyes, from FDA’s food division, has been with them since 1994 and had also done rounds as a food inspector. He confirms that there were a few reports of suspected cat meat in pre-packaged siopao, but upon inspection, no cat meat was ever found. In his time at the FDA, he has also not found any “slaughtering practice” of cats.
“It’s a myth,” He says with a small, tired smile, “I think it’s what they call a slur? Because some of them believe that the Chinese are cheap and won’t buy real meat.”
While it took several years and a trip to the far end of the city to confirm it, others have already called it bluff. Over a quick phone interview, Ivan Dy gave a chuckle when asked about the legend of siomeow, “It’s not in the Chinoy culture to eat cats. Also look at the cat, it’s a small creature, now how much meat can you eat there?”
To some people, the enduring legend of siomeow has challenged local Chinese restaurants to prove that their food is fresh and good, even for the price. Jon Sideno, a longtime resident of Binondo, observed that as more people talked about siomeow in the eighties, more neighborhood eateries set up large, clear display windows with a view of their kitchen so customers could see their food being prepared. They also outsource less, preferring to make their own noodles and siopao for everyone to see.
Meanwhile, siopao is still available everywhere, with even more variants than asado and bola-bola.
Ma Mon Luk is still open for business. Their remaining branches are in Quiapo and Quezon Avenue, and are still filled with people ordering up their siopao and mami. Kowloon House still has presence in some major malls, and they also have a large restaurant not too far from Ma Mon Luk’s on Quezon Avenue.
If it was a legend meant to discredit these restaurants or the product itself, it clearly failed, but the story continues to be told. Its cleverness lies in how it strings together a commonly-found living creature and the universal need and joy of eating, while creating that air of disbelief. The fun of this urban legend is not in the truth, but in being so outlandishly good, that it just has to be told.