Penman No. 213: Artisanal Delights at Salcedo

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Penman for August 22, 2016

 

LIKE MANY Manileños, my wife Beng and I had heard of the famous and fabulous Salcedo Weekend Market in Makati but had never gone there, being staunch northerners who refuse to brave the EDSA traffic, even on weekends, if we could avoid it. But curiosity and circumstance finally forced us to relent a few Saturdays ago, the circumstance being a friend’s offer of a room at a nearby hotel that she and her husband weren’t going to be using.

That sounded to us like “Staycation!” so we jumped at the chance. This same friend—she’s in the travel business and gets around—had done us a similar favor a few months earlier as a Valentines’ Day treat for a pair of arthritic lovebirds. Since the room was huge and free, Beng promptly called her sister Mimi and Mimi’s kids and granddaughter Sophie to share the day with us, the idea being to walk a couple of blocks to the Salcedo Market, pick out whatever we wanted for lunch, then lay it all out on the long table and dive in.

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And that’s exactly what happened. The Salcedo Market opens at 6 and closes at 2, so Beng and I decided to take a sneak peek right after breakfast, before the rest of the family arrived all the way from Tierra Pura. Sure enough, even at that hour and with a slight drizzle threatening, scores of vendors had already set up shop under canvas tents spread out on what, on weekdays, is a parking lot close to the Makati Sports Club.

As I often point out in this corner, I’m no foodie—I’m an instant-ramen and canned-sardines sort of fellow for whom a trip to a food market might be like that of a heathen to the Vatican—but I’m addicted to food shows on TV the way some people can’t get their fill of horror movies, and am always curious to see what’s out there. Beng, on the other hand, will try and eat anything short of the rotten shark that seems to be all the rage in Iceland, and she has to catch me in a good mood so I can graciously agree to step into a restaurant where they serve pizza (I hate cheese), so the Salcedo Market sortie was, for her, sheer, exultant liberation.

What immediately struck me, despite what I just said about my aversion for fine dining, was how many options there were for plain-food folks like me on offer—burgers, lechon, smoked fish, pancit, siopao, barbecue, and such familiar staples. What lifted them above the ordinary was the freshness and sometimes uniqueness of the ingredients—many were cooked on the spot—and the assurance that you weren’t going to make hourly runs to the bathroom later in the day. Knowing that I had a mound of work waiting for me in our hotel, I loaded up on lechon, corn on the cob, fresh jackfruit, and breadsticks to nibble on, while Beng chose the fresh Chinese lumpia. Mimi and her brood arrived, and I let the sisters drool over the fish curry, the lamb kebab, the laing with daing, the vodka tinapa, the malunggay pesto, and the other more exotic fare.

That was the Salcedo market scene for the most part—good food done well (and whether I liked it or not was irrelevant; seeing Beng’s eyes light up at the culinary pageant was well worth the trip), and home-cooked and artisanal food you just can’t order from a fastfood joint. I hate to think about what had to happen to produce my take-home kilo of tapang usa—Beng didn’t appreciate my Bambi jokes—but it was heaven on the tongue.

This was where a short walk back to the dinner table rounded out our Salcedo experience. There’s a cluster of tables in the center of the weekend market where you can gorge instantly on your selections, but given how many of us there were and how much food we’d amassed, we appreciated the luxury of a long table with complete cutlery in our lodgings just minutes away.

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That abode, not incidentally, was Fraser Place Manila—and to call it a “hotel” frankly wouldn’t do it justice. Sometimes you just want a room, any room, to crash into for the night. Some other times, you want more than just a hotel—a place not just to stay but to actually live in, for a few days to weeks to months, maybe even years. (I’d learn from the staff that a couple upstairs checked in ten years ago—and liked the place so much they never left!)

The Fraser—part of a Singapore-based global chain—calls itself a “serviced apartment,” and as soon as we stepped into our two-bedroom suite, we could see why: the 180-sqm enclave was really a virtual house, with a complete kitchen, laundry, three toilets and baths plus another john for guests, and quarters for a housekeeper or caregiver. All your needs were attended to by the staff, the wi-fi was free and strong, and aside from the Salcedo Weekend Market, a host of other restaurants and facilities could easily be accessed in the neighborhood.

But who needs restaurants when, like us, you could bring in loads of choice take-out meals and groceries? It made me smile to see a guest cross the lobby with a bag of veggies and what could have been fresh fish—as only a hotel with a full kitchen could allow. (I also heard dogs yapping faintly in the hallways—the Fraser is pet-friendly, but no cobras please.)

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There were a couple of downsides to consider, and it’s best to put them out front. Fraser Place Manila isn’t exactly located in what you’d call Makati’s trendiest corner. It stands across a row of office buildings, separated from them by a parking lot. It doesn’t have a penthouse bar or restaurant with a 360-degree view where you can party with your gang until the wee hours. (Cravings does operate a restaurant on the 33rd floor, beside the pool.)

But it’s these very “minuses” that guarantee peace and quiet, which Beng and I appreciated later that evening after our visitors had left and as I typed away on a book project and Beng worked on a painting for a forthcoming exhibit. It also means (of course I had to ask) that we could’ve gotten our princely suite for less than what we recently paid for a small room at an airport hotel near LAX.

Some days, Makati might as well be as far as LAX for us Dilimanians, but we’ll be sure to be back for more of Salcedo. Watch out, Bambi!

 

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Penman No. 212: A Lovely Place to Be

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Penman for Monday, August 15, 2016

 

IT WAS a few Sundays ago when I joined a group of artists and friends for lunch at a place that has to be on the must-see list of any Filipino art lover, especially those within driving range of Antipolo. We had been invited for lunch by Dr. Joven Cuanang, whose Pinto Art Museum we had visited once before, but this time it was the founder himself who was going to walk us around the place, so we all looked forward eagerly to meeting him and having a chat.

For those who’ve never heard of it or never been there, the best way to describe the Pinto (people, including myself, have been heard pronouncing it as PIN-to, but it’s really Pin-TO as in “door”) is to call it an art complex—mostly gallery, but also museum, restaurant, theater, library, and, apparently, research center. It’s also, quite simply, just a lovely place to be, with its buildings and galleries set on seemingly terraced hillsides leading naturally from one to the other, offering spectacular panoramas of the metropolitan skyline from every high point. Not surprisingly, it can get very busy on weekends, with as many as a thousand visitors streaming in through the gate (admission fees range from about P100 to P200).

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The Mediterranean-styled complex has that pleasing, thoughtfully curated ambience, the visual and sensory assurance of a well-managed experience. But of course, it wasn’t always so. The place began as a rough and weedy wilderness, which a young but visionary Dr. Cuanang bought up, patch by patch, more than four decades ago. “I started in 1972 with 1,000 square meters,” he reminisced. “Real estate prices fell after martial law and I was gradually able to acquire more land in the area.”

After EDSA, Joven fell in with a committee of prominent Antipolo residents and community leaders eager to spearhead the town’s cultural renaissance, but the good doctor soon decided to go it alone after an unpleasant brush with government corruption. He must have seen art and nature as the best cleansing agents, and he began supporting a posse of local artists, buying their work when they needed cash. Those artists later became the Salingpusa group, which considers Pinto its physical and spiritual home. “We didn’t have much then so the artists first exhibited their work by hanging them on a clothesline, and that practice became known as Sampayan,” said Cuanang.

Today that clothesline spans six buildings spread over 1.2 hectares, operated by the Silangan Foundation for Arts, Culture, and Ecology. Designed by Tony Leaño, the buildings blend effortlessly into the landscape, which is no accident because they were built around natural objects like the huge rocks that dotted the hillside. “We observed three principles in designing the place,” Cuanang noted. “First, don’t cut any trees. Second, follow the landscape. And third, minimal maintenance.”

As much as possible, Pinto’s buildings also employ natural ventilation, a notable exception being the air-conditioned library (where I was secretly pleased to find a couple of my books on the shelves). You’re never too far away from being reminded, however, that human whimsy is at work on Nature here, with oversized sculptures of mythological figures such as Icarus, Sisyphus, and Ariadne scattered about the greenery or soaring on rooftops.

While some come specifically for the scenic grounds, which are often rented for wedding shoots, most visitors flock to Pinto, understandably, for the art, which represents many of the most vibrant and brilliant works of our younger if lesser known artists. “You won’t see a single National Artist here,” Dr. Cuanang said, smiling and gesturing at the paintings and sculptures around him. “I keep my Bencabs at home!”

It’s refreshing and encouraging, in a way, not to see the usual parade of Amorsolos, Manansalas, Ocampos, and Botongs on display, and instead to find works by the likes of Elmer Borlongan, Jason Moss, Plet Bolipata, Tony Leaño, and Rodel Tapaya—at no diminution of quality, as these names could well be those of the National Artists of tomorrow. Salingpusa’s breathtaking 40 x 12-foot mural “Karnabal” is arguably the centerpiece of collection.

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Despite the plenitude of art offerings at Pinto and his obvious passion for art, Dr. Cuanang won’t think of himself a collector, the kind who spots and buys fine new work on the cheap for future profit. “I’m not here for the business,” he emphasized. “Too much art and discussion about art today is centered on the market.”

What truly interests the Harvard-trained neurologist, who still practices medicine after serving for many years as medical director of St. Luke’s, is wholeness of mind, body, and spirit, which he hopes to promote through the Pinto Academy of Arts and Sciences, a complex of facilities in a corner of the compound that comprises a large indoor theater, an amphitheater, a library, a function room, open decks, and gardens.

In a manifesto of sorts, Cuanang explained that “In medicine, healing is currently dominated by pharmaceuticals and technology, oftentimes to the detriment of the wholeness of a human being: mind, body, and soul. This perception is pervasive in our society. Fortunately, new knowledge in neuroscience research is affirming that the Arts and Sciences are in fact interconnected and mutually useful in preserving our wholeness, and together are powerful in the relief of our maladies.” The Academy, he added, “was built to promote conversation across disciplines to create, innovate and to pursue activities that celebrate this thought.”

The bridge between medicine and art, he pointed out, is neuroaesthetics, a branch of study that fascinates Dr. Cuanang. One of its chief proponents, Dr. Anjan Chatterjee of the University of Pennsylvania, poses its main concerns thus: “What in the brain triggers aesthetic experiences? And how does knowledge of basic brain mechanisms inform our understanding of these experiences? These questions are at the heart of an emerging discipline dedicated to exploring the neural processes underlying our appreciation and production of beautiful objects and artwork, experiences that include perception, interpretation, emotion, and action…. Neuroaesthetics is both descriptive and experimental, with qualitative observations and quantitative tests of hypotheses, aimed at advancing our understanding of how humans process beauty and art.”

It’s a lot to think about, for sure—but there’s no better place to ponder the glorious if sometimes dark mysteries of the human imagination than Joven Cuanang’s hilltop sanctuary.

Pinto Art Museum can be found on Sierra Madre Street in Grandheights Subdivision, Antipolo, and is open Tuesdays-Sundays, 9 am-6 pm.

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Penman No. 211: From Fantasy to Reality: Comic-Con (2)

IMG_8346.jpgPenman for Monday, August 8, 2016

 

THE SAN Diego Convention Center’s ground-level exhibit hall covers more than half a million square feet—about the same acreage as the SMX Convention Center at the Mall of Asia—and Comic-Con occupied every inch of this territory and more, spilling over to more meeting rooms upstairs and to the adjacent hotels.

The throngs of attendees and kibitzers also fill up the streets and parks outside the venue, all the way to San Diego’s picturesque Gaslamp district, which turns into party town at night after the convention—a mammoth “Star Wars” bar scene, with throngs of costumed characters downing tequilas and exotic cocktails whipped up just for the occasion. You can have your pick of convention specials like the Katniss Kiss at Bang Bang (gin, honey, ginger, rose water), the Kryptonite Martini at Spike Africa’s (Svedka vodka, pepperoncini peppers, olive brine), or the Walking Dead at Searsucker (Hamilton’s Jamaican rum, Bacardi Light, pineapple juice, cinnamon simple syrup, Fee Brother’s bitters, fresh lime, Lemonhart 151, topped with ginger beer).

And you can choose to have that drink with Chewbacca or Captain Kirk, because Comic-Con’s strongest and most colorful attraction is, of course, cosplay, that not-too-subtle subterfuge by which anyone can be a superhero or super-villain for a day.

In this regard, Comic-Con 2016 more than met our expectations. There were Storm Troopers, Trekkies, Ghostbusters, and Batmen galore on the convention floor, even a Hulk, a Dumbledore, and a Silver Surfer or two. And as a couple of plus-size Supergirls demonstrated, you didn’t even need the prescribed physique to indulge your fantasy—just the costume, which the wearers had more than likely sewn up themselves, with a little help from suppliers like BuyCostumes.com (where you could be Spiderman for $44.99, or Queen Arwen for $59.99—Darth Vader will cost you more, with just the mask selling for $149.99). A day before Comic-Con opened, Demi’s nephew Matt was still busy preparing his costume and homemade weapon as the Soldier:76 character from “Overwatch,” with key components being shipped in by express courier from Hong Kong.

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If you didn’t care to dress up as a Sith Lord but had always wanted one to park behind your bar, you could take a life-sized Darth Vader home for about $7,000, for a tenth of which you could get a silicone mask of the Ice King from “Game of Thrones.”

Comic-Con, in other words, was merchandise mania, and it wasn’t uncommon to see hardcore fans staggering out of the venue with huge boxes and bags of souvenirs. Some may have addictions that will seem very peculiar to you and me—like the people who line up at midnight for special editions of the bobble-head Funko figurines—but beyond being a passion, it’s also a business that can see a Funko character that nominally sells for $15 be worth ten times that much on eBay the morning after (more on this later).

In a corner devoted to comic-book auctions, the cover art for an August 1977 issue of Conan the Barbarian had a pre-auction estimate of $12,000—a bargain compared to $20,000 for a Watchmen page. Being oldies and cheapskates, all Beng and I could sport were our black Star Wars T-shirts, which Demi had snapped at a sale (there wasn’t much demand, predictably, for T-shirts that invited you to “Join the Dark Side!”).

 

It’s all about fads and fashions, and those preferences are set on a screen somewhere—the movies, TV, the Internet, the mobile phone, the vast global domain of popular culture (which is to say, still largely Hollywood). The biggest draws this year included “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” “Wonder Woman,” “Teen Wolf,” “Snowden,” “Suicide Squad,” “Aliens” (marking its 30th anniversary), “Supergirl,” “The Flash,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Star Trek Beyond,” but there’s never a lack of fans (and merchandise) for perennials like “Superman,” “Batman,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” and “Ghostbusters.”

But all these blockbusters begin with a writer and an artist—a “creator,” in industry parlance, along the lines of Marvel’s legendary Stan Lee—and as another main feature of Comic-Con, these creative geniuses were gathered at the far end of the hall in the Artists’ Alley. Tipped off by my younger friends at Philmug (who were attending Comic-Con vicariously through their former chairman), I made a beeline for the booth of Whilce Portacio, one of the most accomplished Filipino-Americans in the comic-book industry.

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Born a Navy brat in Sangley Point, Whilce had moved to the States as a baby and had grown up in Hawaii, where his artistic talent was nurtured by supportive teachers. He came home in 1978 and studied Fine Arts at Philippine Women’s University under Ibarra de la Rosa. Not speaking Tagalog and feeling very much alone, Whilce spent the time honing his craft, and by the time he flew back to the US a few years later, he was ready for his big break—where else but at Comic-Con, which was then a much smaller event but already the place to be if you were a gifted young artist with a portfolio to show.

A Marvel editor named Carl Potts (who also had some Filipino blood) took Whilce under his wing and from there on, there was no turning back. Whilce (a shortening of William Joyce) would go on to work on Punisher, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man, Wetworks, and Spawn, among many other major projects, moving up from basic inking and penciling to becoming a creator himself of such characters as Bishop in X-Men and the Pinoy superhero Grail in Wetworks.

Following in the footsteps of such Filipino comics pioneers in the US as Alex Niño (who also had a booth at Comic-Con, but hadn’t checked in yet when I was there), Whilce sees himself as part of a series of waves of Filipinos who’ve excelled in the global industry. In 1995, he returned to the Philippines to set up a studio on Balete Drive, where he discovered and trained the next wave, which now includes such standouts as Leinil Yu and Philip Tan.

Indeed, another booth at Comic-Con featured the works of Philip Tan, Jay Anacleto, Stephen Segovia, and Carlo Pagulayan. While it took lucky breaks and personal contacts for people like him to succeed, Whilce says that “Today, with the Internet, young artists can introduce themselves. The bridges are now connected. The process and pipeline are now set for everybody.” (I know I promised to report on my long and very interesting interview with Whilce, but it would be a pity to summarize, so I’ll save that for another time. Better yet, come and see him in person when he flies in to Manila to grace our version of Comic-Con—the AsiaPOP Comicon, which will happen on August 26-28 at the SMX Convention Center, with tickets starting at just P550 for a one-day pass.)

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To cap my Comic-Con 2016 experience, and by another stroke of luck, our daughter Demi conjured a special pass to a live taping of Conan O’Brien’s show at the historic Spreckels Theater downtown (Conan has been a Comic-Con regular for some years now). Did I want to go? The featured guests were a surprise—the cast and crew of “Game of Thrones,” with Hodor, killed off in Season 6, getting the warmest applause. I’d have to admit that being a documentary and car-show freak, I’ve never been a fan of the series. But I had a great time watching Conan, the total pro, and every member of that audience left the theater with a Funko Conan Storm Trooper doll, which touts tried to buy at the door for a paltry $8.

Were they kidding? The dolls showed up on eBay the next day for as much as $300. I gave mine to Demi, which was the least her Tatay could do thank her for the treat of a lifetime.

 

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Penman No. 210: From Fantasy to Reality: Comic-Con (1)

 

IMG_8370.JPGPenman for Monday, August 1, 2016

 

 

IT WAS a millennial geek’s fantasy come true, except that it happened to a doddering senior with the good luck to be in the right place at the right time. As I reported last week, Beng and I were in the US last month to attend the launch of the foundation behind the prospective American Museum of Philippine Art (AMPA) in Los Angeles, and also to visit our unica hija Demi in nearby San Diego, where she’s been living and working with her husband Jerry for the past nine years.

We save up for these visits, which usually take place every year sometime in October during what used to be our semestral breaks. But with the shift in our academic calendar to the international (okay, the US) model, we timed this year’s trip for July in conjunction with the AMPA event, the sum of which was that we found ourselves in Southern California during the third week of July.

And what’s so special about that week—one marked by 90-degree-plus temperatures, water shortages, and brush fires in California’s sunbaked hinterlands? Well, as every pop-culture-savvy 30-year-old from Pandacan to Pasadena knows, it’s the time when Comics Convention International—better known as Comic-Con—takes place in San Diego, where it began 46 years ago.

So what exactly is Comic-Con, and what’s all the fuss about this annual pilgrimage attended by hordes of Earthlings, as well as presumptive superheroes and extraterrestials? It’s an exhibition, a convention, an academic conference, a parade, a pageant, a marketplace, and a film festival all at once—the world’s largest and best-known pop-cultural mecca.

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You might say that at 62, I had no right to be there at all, and I wouldn’t have argued, even if I’d been a staunch DC Comics fan in the ’60s who battled the Marvel masses in lunchtime chalk fights. I could easily think of half a dozen people just in my department in UP who would’ve given their right arms to be in my place, having followed every twist and turn of “Game of Thrones” and having memorized the names of every Jedi Master and Sith Lord in the Star Wars universes (the official and the expanded). These guys (and gals) take their fantasy seriously, and some of them go on from buying every issue of Batman to writing ponderous academic essays for such tomes as It Happens at Comic-Con: Ethnographic Essays on a Pop Culture Phenomenon, edited by Ben Bolling and Matthew J. Smith (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2014).

In his foreword to that book, Matthew Pustz would recall that “When I got off the trolley in downtown San Diego, I knew just how to find it: follow the guy in the Green Lantern t-shirt. After a short walk, there it was—Comic-Con International, with the huge convention center sitting in the sun. Waiting to enter were tens of thousands of fans—all with their own strategies for making the most of what has become one of the largest popular culture events in the world. This was the summer of 2007, and I had traveled to San Diego all the way from Boston to attend something that I had dreamed about for a long time. I had attended comic book conventions before, in Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis. But San Diego was different, bigger, more important. This was San Diego—the Super Bowl of comic book conventions—and I was on the comic book fan’s holy pilgrimage, the trip that all fans must make at least once in their lives. This was the Gathering of the Nerd Tribes, Fanboy Woodstock.”

“Comic-Con is a fan event, but it is also a money-making extravaganza where all manner of creators, artists, and corporate owners of media products can sell and promote them to their exact target market. And this target market is one that can be virtually guaranteed to take the ‘buzz’ of Comic-Con back with them to to Iowa or Boston or Tokyo so they can ‘sell’ those products to their friends back home. Comic-Con is the ultimate merging of culture and commerce, and that makes it the perfect place to study how popular culture works in the twenty-first century.”

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While there are many other fantasy and pop-culture conventions—Dragon Con, for example, is a big cosplay event that takes place every year in Atlanta, Georgia on Labor Day weekend—Comic-Con is a San Diego original, run by “a nonprofit educational corporation dedicated to creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular artforms, primarily through the presentation of conventions and events that celebrate the historic and ongoing contribution of comics to art and culture.” WonderCon, a comic-book-focused event, is held in Los Angeles.

The first Comic-Con—then known as the Golden State Comic Book Convention—was held in August 1970 at the US Grant Hotel (the grande dame of San Diego hotels, where our daughter Demi works), but it’s since moved on to the sprawling San Diego Convention Center (where Hall H alone, reserved for the biggest events, fills up its 6,000 seats) and to nearby hotels.

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Over its four-day run, Comic-Con 2016 was projected to draw 130,000 attendees from all over the world (and the galaxy), each of whom was also likely to spend at least $1,000 in San Diego, making it the city’s top annual grosser. Movie stars fly in to promote their projects and some celebrities like Conan O’Brien have made Comic-Con a regular item on their calendar.

Getting into Comic-Con used to be a matter of flying into San Diego and walking in through the convention door, but not anymore. According to the organizers, “Although we strive to make attending our show as easy as possible, obtaining a Comic-Con badge can require the persistence of Superman, the patience of a Watcher, the ingenuity of Tony Stark, and the readiness of Batman.” It’s hard to think of any other conference where the rules include the following:

  • All costume props and weapons must conform to state and federal law.
  • Projectile costume props and weapons must be rendered inoperable. Functional (real) arrows must have their tips removed and be bundled and zip-tied to a quiver.

Tickets to Comic-Con were sold out months ago, as were all hotel rooms in San Diego, at peak prices (“Comic-Con attendees book their rooms for next year before they leave,” Demi told us.) You don’t really buy a Comic-Con ticket but a “badge,” and to get a badge you have to pre-register online for a membership ID, with which you can then apply for a badge using a code that entitles you to a slot—well, you get the idea.

So how exactly did we get in? All I’ll say is, it pays to have a daughter in a hotel in San Diego in July. It wasn’t really in our vacation plans, but Demi decided to give a pair of seniors a special treat one morning by announcing that she could get the three of us into Comic-Con. Were we interested? You bet we were!

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Penman No. 209: Coming: An American Museum of Philippine Art

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Penman for Monday, July 25, 2016

 

AS YOU read this, I’ll be winging home with my wife Beng from California where we’ve spent the past two weeks engaged in a pioneering project that should bring the best of Philippine art to a broader American audience, if ongoing plans work out over the next few years.

Have you heard of the American Museum of Philippine Art? Probably not, since it’s still something of a pipe dream, but some people on both sides of the Pacific are blowing very hard on their pipes to make it happen. Those people include businessman Raffy Benitez, president of the Quezon City-based Erehwon Arts Center, and University of the Philippines professor and art expert Dr. Reuben Cañete, who developed the idea late last year after Erehwon’s successful involvement in a binational mural project at Chicago’s Field Museum sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through Dr. Almira Astudillo-Gilles, a Chicago based Fil-Am writer and cultural advocate.

I reported on that project in this column last November 25, noting the warm response received by the participating Filipino and Filipino-American artists for their works—two murals, one at Erehwon and another at the Field—depicting the flows of Philippine culture and history from pre-Hispanic times to the present.

That positive experience encouraged Raffy and Reuben to conceive of a bigger and more enduring project that would bring Philippine art even closer to Americans—not just the huge and broadly dispersed Filipino community in the US, but the American public at large. Raffy and Reuben noted that the Mexicans and the Chinese, among other immigrant groups in America, both had their art museums, but that Filipinos—among the largest and fastest-growing minorities in America—did not.

Reuben recalled the long tradition of Filipino artists going over to the US to study and to work—such as Guillermo Tolentino, Victorio Edades, and Alfonso de Ossorio, among others—and observed that while strong cultural ties remained between the two countries, the connection was overwhelmingly one-way, with Philippine art (and music and literature, for that matter) being little known and appreciated in the US.

“In this age of globalization, art is now a global commodity that is exhibited and collected by various international venues, such as Art Basel Miami. Philippine Art, both in its historical as well as contemporary manifestations, must now be aggressively promoted in the United States, which is a major area of collection and promotion of global art,” Dr. Cañete would say in a concept paper on AMPA.

Karlota I. Contreras-Koterbay, a prizewinning Fil-Am sculptor and Director of the Slocumb Galleries at East Tennessee State University, agrees, writing that “There is a rich and dynamic art practice by Filipino-Americans in the US. However, there is a huge discrepancy in the visibility and recognition with regards to the idea and form of ‘Philippine Art’.

“The Philippines is the second highest Asian country whose citizens migrate to the US. The Filipinos have a long, complex history of immigration and residency in America, yet ‘Philippine Art’ is not as accessible nor recognizable in popular culture nor in the global art world. This statement does not claim that there is lack of talent nor creativity; on the contrary, there are thriving communities of artists, art groups and cultural workers who are making a difference in their respective locales, as well as receiving recognitions for their work in the field of arts.”

To take the first steps toward turning vision into reality, Raffy, Reuben, Beng, and I flew to LA to meet up with some prominent Filipino-American community leaders and artists to set up a foundation that would start the spadework on the museum. The American Museum of Philippine Art Foundation, Inc. (AMPAFI) was formally launched July 12 at the Holiday Inn in Diamond Bar, California, in a day-long meeting attended by a couple of dozen participants from all over the US.

Raffy Benitez will serve as chairman and president, and Reuben and I are joining him on the board, but we know that this project can’t be run from Manila, so the directors will also include art curator Karlota Contreras-Koterbay, physician Jose Botor Regullano, and engineer Ricardo Real Almonte. The officers include Fil-Am standouts Rafael Maniago, Art Zamora, Sal Budz Floriano, Rosie Vinluan Muñoz, Connie Buenaventura, Daniel Gutierrez Bassig, Dennis Martinez, Bobby Halili, Jess Española, Jun Sison, Ninette Tenza Umali, Ernan Ebreo, and Bernadette Escalona-Cooper. During the launch, a group of Fil-Am Artists headed by Paeng Maniago also rolled out a mural that they had executed to celebrate the occasion.

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We all realize that this project will take many years, enormous resources, and tremendous effort and optimism to realize. (Being Filipinos, we expect a lot of naysaying, and I’ve been Raffy’s chief buzzkiller whenever I think someone needs to pull his feet back to earth, but I have to admire the man’s guts and what he’s done at Erehwon, which you can preview here: http://erehwonartfoundation.org.) The museum as Raffy and Reuben envisage it is a mini-CCP, with enough spaces for exhibitions and performances (and even classes in Pinoy cooking), and the renowned architect Conrado Onglao was motivated and generous enough to contribute a prospective design for the building. That may be years down the road, but in the meanwhile, AMPAFI is taking early and doable steps toward building a countrywide arts community—a virtual museum, as it were—in cooperation with other groups such as Bernadette Escalona-Cooper’s Silicon Valley-based Global Artists’ Creative Collaboration for Empowerment (GACCE), whose leaders also attended the launch.

Karlota reports that “Our first two official projects are: ‘Nandito N Ako’ by 11 emerging Filipinx artists from the School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and possible community mural headed by NY-based artist Art Zamora with the Phil-Am organization and ETSU organized by Slocumb Galleries in the Northeast. This will be early October 2016 in time for Filipino Heritage Month. Also on the same month on the West Coast is the proposed Indie Film Showing in LA by special committee on fundraising head Ernan Ebreo. Both are curated programming for awareness campaign and fundraising efforts.”

(Wait a minute, did I read “Filipinx?” Indeed I did—and this trip was the first time I encountered the term myself, which seems to be gaining currency among young Fil-Ams, who define “Filipinx”—which I’ve heard pronounced as “Filipinics”—as an effort “to make the community more inclusive—we changed the O in ‘Filipino’ to an X to remain gender-neutral and recognize all genders that exist in the Filipinx community. There’s apparently been a lot of debate on this issue, which we’ll deal with some other time.)

The AMPA website is up at http://www.ampafi.org. Contributions and donations are, of course, very welcome, but more than that, we need goodwill, prayers, and strength of spirit to see this vision through. Mabuhay at salamat sa lahat!

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Penman No. 208: Back to the Basics

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Penman for Monday, July 18, 2016

 

 

I’M VERY happy to report that on this my last three-year term as director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Creative Writing (UPICW), a number of key improvements in our programs will be taking place very soon that should bring creative writing closer to both its producers and its audiences. Much of this is made possible by support from UP’s Emerging Interdisciplinary Research Program (EIDR), a visionary fund initiated by UP President Alfredo E. Pascual and implemented by the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs headed by Dr. Gisela P. Concepcion.

Most significantly, we will be expanding our workshops to include an annual Basic Writers Workshop aimed at developing new and younger writers, and offering, every other year, a seminar for teachers and another for translators. We will also be holding, every semester, an Interdisciplinary Book Forum to bring together experts from various disciplines in a discussion of vital Philippine issues.

These new projects will supplement our regular flagship activities—the National Writers Workshop, held every summer for mid-career writers; the Likhaan Journal, an annual publication that showcases the best of new Philippine writing; the Akdang Buhay series of video interviews of Philippine literary luminaries; and panitikan.com.ph, the website we maintain as the world’s portal to Philippine literature. The UPICW also oversees the annual Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award and supervises the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room (where our office has been temporarily housed since the Faculty Center burned down last April), and runs the Panayam lecture series featuring our fellows, associates, and advisers.

It’s a lot of work on top of our regular teaching and writing jobs, but it’s what a university-based writing center or institute is meant to do, and the UPICW—established in 1979—is a regional pioneer and leader in this respect, perhaps best known for the UP Writers Workshop that began in 1965 and which has taken place every summer for more than half a century since then. Generations of Filipino writers have gone through this workshop as a rite of passage, and workshops like it have sprung up in other places and universities around the country (the Silliman University workshop in Dumaguete was the first in 1962, and is still going strong).

About ten years ago, the UPICW decided to set itself apart from the other workshops and to perform a unique service to the writing community by focusing our summer workshop on mid-career writers—people with at least one published book or theatrical or film production to their credit—so we could deal with more advanced issues in writing and publishing. It’s been great so far, and we’d like to believe that we’ve helped to sustain the growth of Philippine literature in this time of global challenges and opportunities, but then again we keep remembering how critical the UP workshop’s intervention was in the lives and careers of young writers just starting out, as we all were at one time.

That’s why we agreed to bring back the beginners’ workshop—we’re calling it the Basic Writers Workshop for now, but we’ll think of a better name in the future—to touch base once again with our most promising young authors. And we’re going to do this very soon—over three days, from October 14 to 16, somewhere in the vicinity of the UP campus. Because it’s directed at younger writers—you’d have to be between 18 and 35 years old as of August 15, which is also the deadline for applications.

For our first BBW, we will be looking for works of speculative fiction—a popular genre that can be defined as defined as “a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements.” (Next year, we’ll most likely do young adult fiction). Applicants should submit two original, preferably unpublished stories in the genre in English or Filipino, with each story (which could be an excerpt from a novel in progress) running between 3,000 and 10,000 words. . Applications must be accompanied by a short CV providing the applicant’s contact details, education and employment history (if any), and list of published works and awards (if any). The stories and accompanying CVs must be submitted online to uplikhaan@gmail.com. We’ll be taking in six writers in English and six in Filipino, and successful applicants will receive a modest stipend, as well as board and lodging at the workshop venue.

The Workshop Director is Charlson Ong, with award-winning writers Eliza Victoria, Nikki Alfar, Willy Ortiz, and Vladimeir Gonzales serving as panelists and teaching staff. For inquiries, contact 9818500 (2116) and look for Luna Sicat Cleto, Deputy Director of the UP ICW, or email lcleto9@gmail.com.

We’re still planning out the teachers’ and translators’ seminars—tentatively set for January 2017 and 2018—but they’ll involve upgrading the skills of our high-school and college teachers in teaching new K-12 subjects like Creative Nonfiction, as well as developing more and better translators of texts (not necessarily just literary texts) between Filipino and English and possibly other Philippine languages. These seminars will acknowledge the key roles teachers and translators play in bringing new works and new knowledge to larger and younger audiences,

The UP Interdisciplinary Book Forum, which will start in September and be held every semester over the next two years, is another new project we’re all excitedly looking forward to. The forum will be based on a book recently published by the UP Press on a subject of broad interest, alternating between literary and non-literary titles. What will distinguish the forum will be a panel discussion on the book comprising experts from various fields such as anthropology, law, economics, biology, and medicine.

Our EIDR support runs for two years, possibly renewable for another two, so it’s going to be a very busy and interesting interlude in the history of the UPICW, and by the time we turn 40 in 2019—which is also when I retire from full-time teaching—we should have gone that much farther in realizing our mission of nurturing new writing by Filipinos for Filipinos and for the world.

 

 

Penman No. 207: The Best Student Speech Ever

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Penman for Monday, July 11, 2016

 

 

I THOUGHT that the commencement speech I recently gave before the University of the Philippines’ College of Science graduates (excerpted here last week) was pretty good, but it was the student response given by Isaiah Paolo Lee (BS Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, summa cum laude)—known to his friends and teachers as “Pao”—that blew my socks off. I later emailed Pao to say that it was the best student speech I’d ever heard, and asked him for a copy to share with my readers, so here it is, and I hope this goes viral. (Pao acknowledges that his sister Jillian helped him along with the speech—hurray for sisters!)

My name is Isaiah Paolo Atienza Lee, and I am not your valedictorian. I am not the best, I am not the brightest, and I am here speaking to you right now because all the other summas backed out. I’m somehow supposed to talk to you about honor and excellence, so let me start with my story.

When I was in first year, I almost got kicked out because of Chem 16. I wasn’t even bad at the class. I just had a habit of scribbling on my forearm during exams, which was—in hindsight, understandably—interpreted as cheating. After an unchecked exam and a lot of stress, I ended up with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. On the whole, it was a less than ideal way to get psychological support and an 1.00 in Chem 16, but I didn’t fail the class, I didn’t get dismissed from UP, and I didn’t jump off a bridge. I could have, but I didn’t. That might not sound a lot like honor and excellence to you, but that’s the point.

The College of Science is made up of brilliant people. We can’t deny that. The College of Science is also made up of people who pretend to be engineering majors when questioned about their student numbers and people who tasted their Chem 16 unknown analysis samples out of desperation. We can’t deny that either. And we all answered our exams on bluebooks that might have varied in paper quality and might have shown different scores, but they all had the same message printed on the front: University of the Philippines, 1908, Bird, Honor, Excellence.

Our valedictorian is Mao Leung. He has a weighted average of 1.0375 and a girlfriend. I do not have a weighted average of 1.0375, and most of you won’t either. I’m not going to talk about who doesn’t have a girlfriend, because this is supposed to be a happy occasion. Mao Leung is a great guy, but we can’t all be like him, and that’s okay.

Prodigies are a curse for those who need a curve on the exam to pass and a blessing for the general public; as a whole, people tend to look at the people with the best averages and pin all the country’s hopes on them, leaving the rest of us to wonder what we’re supposed to do. The truth people have difficulty wrangling with is that not only do we not need a messiah, messiahs cannot solve our problems. This country just needs honor and excellence from every single one of us, every single day. Whatever it is you do, do it well, and do it for the people.

Are you going into a career in science? There might be days when you have to run PCRs from 7 to 12. That’s 7 in the morning to 12 midnight, by the way. Do it. There might be times that your graphs would be publication-worthy if only you could get rid of one annoying data point. Don’t do it. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going into medicine despite your teachers’ laments? You might end up spending most of your nights running on adrenaline and Dunkin’ Donuts because you have to stay in the hospital. Stay. There might be an occasional addict suffering from a shabu overdose that you have to tie down to a stretcher because he won’t stop kicking you. Treat him, and treat him again when he comes back. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to get a girlfriend because studies first no longer applies? She might be angry at you for no easily identifiable reason. Stay calm, listen, and talk things out rationally. After an argument about taking relationship advice from some guy who was supposed to give a valedictory address, you might see a book she would like. Buy it for her. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to be a full-time parent because you had a successful relationship? You might proudly send your child to UP only to learn that your precious iskolar ng bayan has turned into a class-cutting, DRP collecting, tuition-burning machine despite your warnings. Wake them up in the morning, give them their allowance, and support them without nagging. See to it that they march and that you get to be with them. That is honor and excellence.

Are you just thinking of going to UPTown Center for a celebratory dinner after this is done? You might have a hard time parking because, wow, that is a lot of people. Don’t hog the disabled parking spaces. You might be hungry because the ceremony was too long and parking was nigh impossible because you left the wheelchair spots alone. Be nice to your waiters. They have names. Address them by name, follow up your orders without snapping at them, and say thank you the way you would like to be thanked for doing a good job. That is honor and excellence.

Are you going to do anything at all in your life? Whatever it is, do it well, and do it for the people. Do it well if doing it well is clocking in 70 hours a week at a world-class research institution. Do it well even if doing it well is just staying awake for five more minutes to finish a chapter or a boring lecture. Do it well when it matters, and do it well even when it doesn’t. And do it for the people. Do it for the people even if you don’t like the people. Do it for the marginalized even when they don’t appreciate it. Do it for the privileged even when they cause Katipunan traffic. Do it for the people whether the person in question is a drug addict in the emergency room or your waiter at UPTown Center or a stranger on the internet or even just yourself, because it’s not about the gratitude, or the credit, or the reward, but about the people, and the work. That is honor and excellence.

The unphotogenic, non-headline-grabbing, narratively-unsupported fact is that large-scale change happens in fits and bursts and stops, and often on a scale you can’t see with an electron microscope. We hold ourselves up to unreasonable standards and are subsequently disappointed most of the time, when what matters is the work we do in increments, the lab hours that we log, and the people we encounter.

You might not make your own transgenic crops, but you can disabuse your family of any erroneous notions they may have about Bt talong. You might not eradicate crime in 3 to 6 months, but you can avoid catcalling. You might not make it to the newspaper’s front page, but you can make it to your mom’s proud parent Facebook post.

We often look to larger-than-life figures to celebrate honor and excellence, from Miss Universe to near-perfect-GWA graduates. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do so, but I believe the first place to seek it is within ourselves.

My name is Isaiah Paolo Atienza Lee. I am not the best, but I am good enough, I am not the brightest, but I am a UP graduate, and I am not your valedictorian, but I am going to tell you all to go out there and show the world what we’ve got.

[Photo from the UP Diliman Information Office]

 

Penman No. 206: Keeping Faith with Science

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Penman for Monday, July 4, 2016

 

 

IT’S GRADUATION season, and in a departure from tradition, the College of Science at the University of the Philippines invited a humanist—yours truly—to deliver the commencement speech before its graduates last June 26. In my opening, I adverted to my stillborn ambition to become a scientist at the Philippine Science High School. Herewith, some excerpts from my talk:

This isn’t really about me, but about how people like me once had a dream like yours, of working in a lab wearing a white coat, finding Nobel-prizewinning solutions to global hunger and disease—in other planets if not this one. I never did become a scientist or an engineer, but I like to think that I’m still doing science—through creative writing.

Within my own field, I often find myself arguing for the importance of being able to adopt a rationalist outlook, of grounding our artistic judgments and perceptions on a concrete appreciation of our economic, social, and political realities. I’ve always urged my creative writing students to take an active interest in history, technology, business, and public policy as a means of broadening their vision and enriching their material as writers.

I like to think that I continue to have—as Edward Hubble told the Caltech graduating class in 1938, “a healthy skepticism, suspended judgement, and disciplined imagination.”

To be honest, I didn’t know that quote until I read it in an excellent commencement speech delivered just two weeks ago, also at Caltech, by the neurosurgeon and public-health researcher Dr. Atul Gawande, who reminded the graduating class that despite the demonstrated power and beneficence of scientific thinking, science today is under attack from many fronts—from pseudoscientists, from politicians, from all kinds of pundits claiming that climate change is rubbish, that vaccines are bad for your babies, that all GMOs are harmful, and that guns keep people safe. Dr. Gawande even titled his talk “The Mistrust of Science,” and pointed to the emergence of alternative “cultural domains” eager to advance their own agenda at the expense of scientific scrutiny and analysis.

This is not to suggest that science is infallible—it would not be science if it were—but rather that science, in all of its negotiability, has become a political football, especially among the impressionable and uninformed. In our recent experience, for example, statistical surveys and voting machines were wholeheartedly embraced when they favored certain candidates, and torn apart when they did not.

More than ten years ago, I shared with another graduating class an observation that sadly remains true if not even truer today: a disturbing strain of anti-intellectualism in Philippine politics and society. The vulgar expression of this sentiment has taken the form of the suggestion that we can dispense with brains and education—yes, who needs algebra?—when it comes to our national leadership, because they have done us no good, anyway. And while we’re at it, let’s dispense with values, with decency, heck, with the law itself, because none of those things really worked, did they?

It is easy to see how this perception came about, and how its attractiveness derives from its being at least partially true. Many of our people feel betrayed by their best and brightest—the may pinag-aralan, as we are called in our barangays—because we are too easily co-opted by the powers that be. Ferdinand Marcos had probably the best Cabinet in our political history, well-stocked with prestigious PhDs; but in the end, even they could do little against their President and his excesses.

In a sense, therefore, we are all culpable and complicit in creating this monster of the anti-intellectual. Call it, if you will, the revenge of the flunkers (among whom I suppose I could be counted)—if accomplished academics can be employed by despots and crooks against the people, then the people can hardly be faulted for distrusting them.

For us UP graduates, the seductions of power will always be there. Power and wealth are also very interesting games to play, and few play them better than UP alumni—the power side more than the wealth, as I suspect that Ateneans and La Sallians are better at making money than we are.

But even these can put you out of touch. I have had friends in Malacañang and Makati who seem to have lost all sense of life, thought, and feeling on the street, beyond what their own commissioned surveys tell them. Worse, they seem to have lost touch with their old, honest, self-critical selves. They forgot all about Sophocles and poetry and mystery and music you can’t buy at Amazon. They see politics not as the opportunity to serve the people but to keep themselves in power. They take the law not as a means of dispensing justice, but as an inconvenience, an obstacle in the way of their popularity. Indeed a drug menace threatens our society, but there is still no drug more potent and more dangerous than power and its abuse.

We—scientists and artists—have to work together to find and to deploy an antidote to this creeping cynicism, to this wholesale surrender of sense and sensibility at the altar of political expediency and popularity. We may work in different ways, but we are both bound by our quest for the truth—which you approach by fact, and we approach by fiction.

You graduates of the UP College of Science have an additional responsibility: to keep faith with your mission and to hold true to your dream, not just for yourself and your family, but for your country and your people. Hold fast to science as a means not just of expanding the frontiers of knowledge, but also of using that knowledge to improve Filipino lives.

We know that science is often a long-term investment with no immediate and tangible benefits, and we can only hope that politicians can respect that, and can trust physicists searching for subatomic particles like the Higgs boson simply because, well, they’re there, somewhere, and could help us understand the universe better. We need brilliant young minds like that of a Nima Arkani-Hamed, exploring supersymmetry, or a Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman mathematician ever to win a Fields Medal.

But we also need scientists who can relate more directly and more immediately to society—scientists who can work for peace, for social transformation, for empowering the poor and the weak, scientists in the service of the Filipino. We need scientists with ambition and vision, but also with conscience and humility.

Let me return in closing to some words from Dr. Gawande: “Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.”

I stand here to attest that even those like me who once dreamed of becoming scientists but chose another path in life know this to be true. In these times, when popular sentiment and demagoguery pose grave threats to reason and to the imagination, we need to remember to keep faith with science, as well as with art, to pursue our work despite and within an environment clouded over by politics, in this hour of great moral confusion. By continuing our work, we assert our freedom and our indomitable humanity.

Science and freedom go indispensably together. Science liberates the mind, and without freedom—without a society and a government open to new and contrarian ideas—knowledge cannot prosper. Science must help light the way forward in the resolution of key national issues. Is there proof that the death penalty really works as a deterrent to crime? Should all mining really be banned? Are nuclear plants and incinerators necessarily harmful? The answers may not always be pleasant or agree with our own beliefs, but only science will yield the truest ones.

 

 

 

Penman No.205: Sojourn in Seoul (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 27, 2016

 

HAVING PLANNED our trip to Seoul months in advance, I made a point of touching base with some local contacts for possible meetings—something I usually don’t do, wary of disturbing people with my unseasonable presence. But with a week to kill in one city and with some longstanding connections in place, I thought it would be even more ill-mannered if I didn’t at least tell them that I was going to be in town.

One of those connections was Dr. Sukjoo Sohn, who teaches English at Dong-a University in Busan, Korea’s big industrial center four hours by train from Seoul. Sukjoo—a specialist in world literature—happens to be married to Catherine Rose Torres, one of our bright new young fictionists who now serves as First Secretary and Consul at our embassy in Berlin. I’d first met Catherine in 2011 when I attended the Singapore Writers Festival and she was with our embassy there, and I was later very happy to write a blurb for her first book, Mariposa Gang and Other Stories (UST, 2015).

It’s really these personal connections that make for global literary networking, the value of which I can’t overemphasize. In 2014, Sukjoo translated one of my stories for publication in Global World Literature, which is put out by some of Korea’s foremost literary scholars and critics in that area. Through Sukjoo, I was also able to contribute an article to the Korea-based journal Asia, in which I wrote about some of our most gifted and exciting younger writers. As a result of that article, one of our best young non-fictionists, Sandra Nicole Roldan, will be visiting Seoul this week to attend the 2016 Asia Literature Creative Workshop.

And so our connections continue and deepen. When they learned that I was visiting Korea, Sukjoo’s organization invited me to a special meeting, so I could tell them more about Philippine literature. That gathering took place at Seoul National University toward the end of our visit, and a very fruitful and engaging encounter it turned out to be. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but their very first question had nothing to do with lyric poetry: “What do you think of your new President, Rodrigo Duterte?”

It will take more than this column to share my answer with you, but suffice it to say for now that we talked about our colonial history, our Catholic predisposition to suffering, the two Joses (not me) by which our literature is best known overseas, class as the key divisor in our literature and society, Korea’s and the Philippines’ shared experience of dictatorship, and the irony of having to deal with a resurgent Park and a resurgent Marcos, and our younger writers’ affinity with Gaiman, Murakami, and Wattpad.

We discussed my translated story, “In the Garden,” which I’d written in the 1980s about militarization in the countryside and the moral duty of a teacher caught in the crossfire. While the topics were unavoidably contentious, our meeting itself was thoroughly pleasant and mutually informative, capped by dinner, shop talk, and, yes, chatter about Lee Min-ho.

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The second highlight of our visit—away from the malls and the flea markets—was a meeting with the Filipino community in Seoul, which had also been pre-arranged by Catherine through her Seoul colleague, the very capable Third Secretary and Vice Consul Ella Mitra.

It was a Sunday—our last full day in Korea—and much to our surprise, the embassy was open and bustling with people, with a wedding taking place right in Ella’s office. (“We can officiate at weddings,” Ella told us, “as long as the two parties are both Filipino citizens. We’re open on Sundays because that’s when most of the community can come.”) There were over 40,000 Filipinos in Korea, Ella informed me, many employed as factory workers in jobs that the locals themselves prefer not to do.

I’d been asked by the embassy to give a reading for the community—something I love to do whenever I’m abroad, as it puts me in touch with ordinary Filipinos striving to do their best in often very challenging circumstances. The Filipino, I like to say whenever the opportunity arises, is the modern-day Ulysses, roaming recklessly to the farthest reaches of the globe, but imbued with an unfailing sense of home. Now here they were, a crowd that filled the room beyond our most generous expectations—professionals, teachers, graduate students, Filipino-Korean couples, even the Ambassador himself, the dapper and articulate Raul Hernandez.

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The embassy had calendared my reading as its second Sentro Rizal activity, and with June 12 coming up, it seemed a good time to remind ourselves of the things that both divided and united us, and of the need to hang together as Filipinos, at a time and in a region of revived nationalisms. Even so I chose to do a very light reading, one that made fun of my own social ineptitude in cross-cultural situations, and thankfully it went over well with the audience. More than the reading, it was the ensuing Q&A and freewheeling chat over pancit and puto that proved most gratifying. I could sense the community’s strength of spirit, its determination to master a new cultural terrain.

I was especially happy to see a former student, Tech Apognol, now doing an MA in International Relations and speaking Korean. She’s hardly alone; the association of Filipino grad students in Korea now numbers 500, I was told, and there were plenty of masteral and doctoral scholarships for those inclined. “We can take classes in English,” one student named Eve told me.

Another grad student named RJ solved a mystery that had been bugging me for 40 years. Back then, I told him, I was a young writer employed by the National Economic and Development Authority, and one of my tasks was to help edit the Five-Year Development Plan, which was thicker than an encyclopedia because of its bloated prose. On the other hand, I recalled, the South Korean development plan that I used as a reference was no bigger and fatter than a paperback novel—and look, I told RJ, where Korea was now. “Ah, that’s easy,” RJ said. “It’s because the Koreans value brevity, and memos are expected to be no more than a page. The higher up the ladder papers go, the more concise they’re expected to be.”

The shopping was fun—just the flea markets for us, please, not the high-end shops—and the streetcorner food delicious, but it was, ultimately, our encounters with the people that added the most value to our visit. Kamsahamnida, Sukjoo, Cathy, Ella, and Tech for these memorable exchanges.

Penman No. 204: Sojourn in Seoul (1)

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Penman for Monday, June 13, 2016

 

 

AS MY regular readers well know by now, I have a habit of taking off to parts unknown with my wife Beng at the slightest excuse, and one such occasion came up three weeks ago when Beng marked her birthday (her 36th, it seemed to me—as it seemed to me last year as well, and the year before). Of course I’d known for months ahead that her birthday was coming up, so as early as January, I booked us a flight to and a hotel in Seoul, for the first week of June. (That’s how Beng and I get our kicks—we jump on early-bird budget fares and commit ourselves to travel months in advance, the better to plot the year ahead.)

Why Seoul? Simply because Beng had never been to Korea, except for stopovers in Incheon, and I’d pledged years ago to take her everywhere I’d ever been. I visited Korea in 2007 on assignment for the STAR, to cover Hyundai’s shipbuilding and carmaking operations, and we stayed for a day or two in Seoul before moving on to Busan and Jeju, but I could hardly remember anything of Seoul except for the stately palaces and the enormous beef-barbecue dinners. I could do with another and more relaxed visit, on my own time and schedule, and Beng’s birthday in early June seemed perfectly timed, with our semester in UP just having ended.

I also suspected that a sojourn in Seoul would satisfy Beng’s yearnings to see, with her own eyes, the locales of her favorite Boys Over Flowers and the birthplace of Lee Min-ho, if not Lee Min-ho himself sauntering down an alley in Myeong-dong.

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The planning was the easy part. Like I always do, I went online—to skyscanner.com for the plane fares and to booking.com and tripadvisor.com for the hotel. AirAsia had a good deal for the period, and I was able to locate a small, affordable hotel at a great location in central Seoul with four-star reviews—the Hotel Kyoung Dong in the Namdaemun/Namsan Park area.

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Because of the fare structure, we signed up for a six-night, Tuesday-Monday stay—a tad longer than our usual four-day getaways. But this would open, as I’ll report next week, more fruitful possibilities beyond sightseeing and shopping. This week, I’ll focus on the personal impressions of a casual tourist, hoping they’ll be of some help when you, dear reader (and dear reader’s husband/wife/partner) make your own plans for Seoul.

Yes, we Pinoys need visas for Korea, but if you’ve done a bit of traveling before or can prove you can pay for your own kimchi, then it shouldn’t be a problem (until the end of this year, and by special arrangement, BPI Gold cardholders practically get a free pass to a three-year multiple-entry visa).

It’s a four-hour flight to Seoul and ours left around 7 am, which was perfect for avoiding the horrendous traffic around NAIA and for arriving at Incheon International Airport at midday (Korean time is one hour ahead). I’d already exchanged my pesos for Korean won at the money changer in NAIA (P1,000=W25,000), so we headed straight for the express bus shuttle to downtown Seoul, a little over an hour away. Immediately Beng was struck by how clean and modern everything looked—no litter, no “informal settlements,” no traffic—and I had to give her a spiel about how it hadn’t always been like that, and how Korea had transformed itself into an economic powerhouse within a couple of generations.

Our bus dropped us off at Namdaemun Market—which was like dropping off Beng at the portals of paradise, shopping-wise. As we would realize not too long after, Namdaemun is like Greenhills multiplied by ten—and it was hardly alone, as there was also Dongdaemun to contend with, among other emporia.

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But first, we had to locate our hotel. I usually roam on my phone, so we would have depended on Waze or Google Maps to get us there, but for some reason, I couldn’t get online, so we had to resort to the old-fashioned way: asking for directions—which, in non-Anglophone Korea, isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do. (And as every wife knows, men would rather walk a mile the wrong way before asking for directions, which is why I always bring Beng along.)

And here we made our first pleasant discovery—that contrary to the notion that Koreans are rude, those we met were invariably kind and helpful. Amid a flurry of gestures and grunts, a parking attendant pointed us in the right direction, and an old man took over on the other side of the street and delivered us to our hotel’s doorstep. On the super-efficient Seoul Metro (the arrival of whose trains are heralded by a trumpet flourish you might hear at the Kentucky Derby), we would routinely see younger commuters yielding their seats to their elders, including us (haplessly incontrovertible proof of our visible age).

The last time I was in Korea, everything had been briskly orchestrated by our hosts, with nary a moment for exploring on our own, but now, with a long, lazy week stretching out ahead of us, we had hours to fill with markets and museums, parks and palaces, porcelain-cheeked nymphets in baby-doll dresses (and sometimes even more smartly coiffed young men), impeccably good food, and streetside bargains that gratified our pedestrian desires.

Beng and I didn’t sign up for any tours, nor did we venture out too far from the heart of the city. This vagabond pair of seniors decided that they would go as far as their subway tickets and their feet would carry them, spend an hour on a park bench just enjoying the scenery while munching on a slice of sweet green melon or a cob of corn (each for 1,000 won, or 40 pesos), and save our energy for the flea markets that, truth to tell and next to the museums, are always our prime targets wherever we go, and Seoul has half a dozen of them on the weekends.

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This, Beng and I acknowledged with a sigh and a smile, was tourism senior-style, punctuated by Zantac instead of ziplines, by moisturizer instead of, well, moisture. Some of our happiest moments were the quietest ones—watching the sunset from the peak of Namsan Hill, and the ducks and the carp at Cheonggyecheon Stream.

This brings up one of our small but vital complaints: as wonderful as the city was, Seoul can be hilly in parts, making for long, punishing climbs. Somehow, that doesn’t seem to deter the posses of ajummas—bag-toting Korean matrons sporting broad-brimmed visors—from marching to the markets for their daily dose of retail therapy, or perhaps even just the company of the similarly disposed. Had we lived there, we might have done the same.

Next week, I’ll report on less geriatric topics: culture, literature, and community.