Penman No. 10: Laurels for the Lyceum

Penman for Monday, August 27, 2012

LAST JULY, a school that has done more for Philippine education and public leadership than most Filipinos realize quietly celebrated its 60th anniversary. Tucked away in a corner of old Intramuros, the Lyceum of the Philippines University—known to generations of Manileños simply as the Lyceum—may seem to outsiders to be just one of the many private colleges and universities that sprang up in the metropolis in the 20th century and managed to stagger into the 21st, dazed and confused by the challenges of globalization and the daunting economics of higher education.

Not quite. Today, the LPU is a progressive six-campus university system, with full-grown offshoots in Batangas, Laguna, and Cavite, and a law school in Makati. Its original and main campus in Manila is home to 13,500 students who are enjoying the benefit of an education anchored squarely on one foot in the classical tradition and, on the other, in new, responsive programs designed to give them an advantage in today’s economy.

I rediscovered the Lyceum in the course of writing the biography of the Lyceum’s longtime president and moving spirit, the late Sen. Sotero H. “Teroy” Laurel, the son of the school’s founder, former President Jose P. Laurel.

There’s no question that the bigger, better-known schools—UP, Ateneo, La Salle, and UST, in particular—dominate Philippine higher education and the preferences of Filipino parents and their wards. These are universities that have produced most of our presidents and heroes, big-name artists and athletes, cutting-edge scientists, business tycoons, and government leaders. They have traditionally catered to, and have also helped to form and strengthen, the Philippines’ intellectual and economic elite. And need we add that these schools, their titanic rivalries, and their alumni (both illustrious and otherwise) hog the media’s attention.

But what we don’t appreciate as much is the fact that so many more of us went to smaller schools that have also offered a good and (importantly to many) an affordable, accessible education that prepared our young people well for productive and gainful lives.

This was the vision of former President Laurel when, close to retiring from a long career in government and politics, he thought of setting up what he called “an Alexandria for the masses,” drawing its name from Aristotle’s school, the lykeion. In a book that he wrote around the same time, Laurel lamented: “How can our schools develop moral character among the young, when the schools themselves have become the centers of shocking scandals in such matters as the procurement of supplies, the selection of textbooks, or in the case of private education, the diploma mills? And where will both teachers and pupils get the inspiration for developing moral character, when they see all around them high officials who have been involved in all sorts of irregularities?

“… The truth is, the wonderful institution established by mankind, known as education, can have only one function and this is the pursuit, in the words of our Mabini, of truth, honor and justice. It can have only one sublime and overriding purpose: the recognition and dignification of the human personality.”

The “old man” Laurel, as was often called, was well positioned and prepared to assume the academic mission that his fellow Tanaueño, Mabini, had effectively bequeathed to him. He himself had a prodigious intellect, capped by a doctorate in law from Yale and honed in service with all three branches of the government—as senator, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and Justice Secretary—before his service as wartime president.

The Lyceum opened in July 1952 on a 1.3-hectare lot that used to be the site of the old San Juan de Dios Hospital in Intramuros, acquired for the family by Laurel’s indefatigable wife Paciencia. Teroy Laurel, who had returned from his studies in the US and who was running a law practice with his good friend and compadre Jovito “Jovy” Salonga, joined the school as his father’s executive secretary, perhaps little knowing then that the Lyceum would be the great labor and crowning glory of his own life, apart from his work in the 1971 Constitutional Convention and the Cory-era Senate.

“Jovy used to tell me that he and Teroy would go to Intramuros in the evenings to watch the construction of the school. Jovito was, I believe, the one who drew up the corporation papers, as his line was corporate law,” says Teroy’s widow Lorna.

The new Lyceum may have been a tiny school compared to its well-established neighbors, but it had one thing going for it, something that the Laurel name (the wartime charges of collaboration—eloquently disputed by Salonga, who had suffered torture under the Japanese—notwithstanding) was able to invite: prestige. As I note in my forthcoming book, “The new school had assembled the most formidable array of legal luminaries that one could put together in the Philippines at that time. These were men who would lend their names to Manila’s major streets after their time. Jose P. Laurel was the school president, the dean of the law school was Claro M. Recto, and on the Lyceum faculty were such men as Law Vice-Dean Ambrosio Padilla, Sen. Pedro Sabido, Jorge Vargas, Leon Guinto, Eusebio Lopez, Ramon Avanceña, Aguedo Agbayani, Justo Albert, Isagani Cruz, Marcos Herras, Neptali Gonzales, Roberto Concepcion, Arturo Tolentino, and Gil Puyat—men who had been or would become senators, congressmen, mayors, Cabinet secretaries, and Justices of the Supreme Court.”

Not surprisingly, the law school became one of the Lyceum’s bastions. This was accompanied by very strong programs in Journalism, Foreign Service, and Political Science, with the likes of Jose Lansang Sr., Francisco Lava, Emmanuel Yap, and Jose Ma. Sison on the faculty roster. They instructed and inspired a generation of young nationalists who included Journalism majors Satur Ocampo and Tony Zumel.

The Lyceum would go on to produce a veritable rainbow of luminaries including at least 17 ambassadors and eight Justices, three generals, three senators (Jinggoy Estrada, Ernesto Herrera, Panfilo Lacson), Speaker Sonny Belmonte, Gov. Grace Padaca and three other governors, media men Isagani Yambot, Fred Gabot, Gus Abelgas, Gerry Baja, and Deo Macalma, actor Cesar Montano, film director Joel Lamangan, Philamlife president Rodrigo de los Reyes, and education advocate Milwida Guevara, among many others.

New offerings in such areas as Hotel and Restaurant Management, Computer Science, and (in its Batangas campus) Robotics and Digital Animation and Marine Transportation keep revitalizing the traditional curriculum and assure the Lyceum’s continuing responsiveness to the times.Today, Teroy’s eldest son Bobby is on top of LPU-Manila as its president, assisted by his sister Sallie. Under the watchful eye of their mother Lorna, most of the other Laurel siblings—notably Peter, who serves as president of LPU-Batangas—are also involved in this unique family enterprise, proving themselves worthy of their father’s and grandfather’s name, and giving thousands of young Filipinos a fighting chance for a better future.


Penman No. 9: Battling the Big D

Penman for Monday, August 20, 2012

I USED to boast to friends that I could (and did) eat whatever I wanted with gay abandon—lechon, crispy pata, chicharon, fried chicken, and generally anything that once wagged a tail. I guzzled three bottles of Coke a day, slurped one (or two) cups of ice cream, and feasted on chocolate cake like a condemned prisoner. My excuse was that, by all indications, my side of the family wasn’t genetically predisposed to hypertension and all that jazz, and my last exams didn’t show anything worth worrying about. Sure, I had attacks of gout once or twice a year, and sure, I was overweight by at least 30 pounds—but these minor annoyances weren’t going to kill me, were they? I went back to the buffet table and piled on the pancit.

Not anymore. Two months ago, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes—thanks to my mom, who’d developed the same condition late in life and who badgered me to let her test me with her kit, and to Beng, who dragged me to the doctor for a proper check-up and a talking to. The diagnosis confirmed that I was now in the exalted company of Ernest Hemingway, Mario Puzo, H. G. Wells, Elvis Presley, Thomas Edison, Ella Fitzgerald, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Neil Young, Sharon Stone, Elizabeth Taylor, Mae West, and Gary Valenciano.

Of course I knew something like this was coming. Guys who think they’re so smart will typically predict the future then do absolutely nothing about it, being less interested in the outcomes than in their prescience. In other words, we’re masters of denial, especially when it comes to our own bodies, which we think are the same ones we messed around with when we were 25, give or take a few (dozen) pounds. Of course I’d read up on diabetes long before I heard the word from my doctor’s mouth. Of course I knew that diabetes was a serious disease—at least for other people.

What jolted me into confronting cold reality were the figures that turned up on my mom’s tiny tester—three-digit figures that, no matter how I finessed the argument, kept telling me that “You’re going to lose your toes and die a slow, horrible death—unless you do something about it, now!” Guys will believe blinking statistics before they believe their wives, so those figures hit home, and hit hard.

That grim refrain kept running through my mind as my good doctor walked me through what I already knew but never quite believed was going on inside me—things about glucose and insulin and aerobic-this and Metformin-that. “Studies have shown that the best way to deal with Type 2 diabetes isn’t just medication, but a combination of a healthy diet, daily exercise, and Metformin,” my doctor intoned. Glancing up from my lab test results to my spillover gut, he added, “In other words, Professor, you need to undergo a complete lifestyle change if you want to lick diabetes before it licks you.”

Those were the words I both dreaded and wanted to hear. A gauntlet thrown, a clarion call, a battlecry—or, to put it plainly, a death threat.

I respond well to death threats. I scare easily, so this was exactly what I needed—a push over the railing, but a lifeline at the same time. “First of all, you need to lose weight—at least one pound a week.” The receptionist had weighed me before I stepped in for my consultation and I was entering the ring against the Big D at 218 pounds. There was going to be a requiem for a heavyweight if I didn’t watch it.

In a sense, getting diagnosed with diabetes was a relief. Ever since I turned the corner at 50, I’d always wondered what it was that was going to drag me down in a fight to the finish. A lot of worse things could still happen, but it was good to have a nemesis with a name that I could focus on and use as a reason for that “complete lifestyle change” I suppose I’d been secretly wishing for, but just never found the excuse to undergo.

About seven years ago, I’d lost nearly 40 pounds over several months just playing badminton, and that was the last time I could see clear to my toes without bending over. The badminton stopped—the victim of a long cold spell in the American Midwest, where I went as an exchange professor—and the starches, the fats, and the Coke began piling up again in my midsection, deciding that I was too cozy a host to vacate. My waist size ballooned from the mid-30s to 40, generously measured below the bulge.

The doctor wrote me a prescription and orders for all kinds of blood exams, with instructions to return for another consultation two months hence. I walked out of that clinic brimming with resolve. This was going to be something personal, something very personal, between me and, well, me.

If you’re looking for an ironic twist to this story, there isn’t any—yet. Those two months are nearly up and, much to my own surprise, I’m happy to report so far, so good. From 218 pounds, I’m down to 202—I even hit 199 one glorious day after walking 10 kilometers. I walk at least 30 minutes or 3 kilometers a day rain or shine (I’m probably the only guy you’ll see around the UP Oval toting an umbrella), and my walking shoes now go everywhere with me, like they recently did in Hong Kong even when a typhoon was blowing. I’m looking forward to losing another 10 to 15 pounds before the year is over.

Best of all, I seem to have tamed my prodigious appetite. I’ve survived—nay, thrived—on a diet of breakfast cereal, fish, kangkong, brown rice, lettuce, fruits, and the occasional slice of lean meat and cup of no-sugar-added ice cream. In two months I’ve had no more than three glasses of Coke, and only when I absolutely needed to. I keep a candybar in my bag or pocket in case I feel hypoglycemic (unfortunately, unlike our former Chief Justice, my diabetes doesn’t come with a huge dollar account), but so far it’s remained unopened. Lots of water, and again, lots of walking.

I haven’t become a health nut or an exercise freak; I certainly have no intentions of wagging my finger at other people, telling them to do this and not to eat that—something I’ve always hated being done to me. I’m just offering up this testimonial, for the benefit of all my fellow fat cats out there approaching their seniorhood, to the effect that sometimes the best thing you can get, before it’s too late, is a bad diagnosis. And never mind, for now, the glitter and the cash of the big literary prizes; the only figures I want to see are small ones—on my bathroom scales and on my glucose meter. I’m going to do my darnedest best to make sure that, when I croak, it won’t be because of the Big D.

(Photo from

Penman No. 8: A Hotel with a View

Penman for Monday, August 13, 2012

A MONTH ago, I was invited out to lunch by Bobby Laurel and his sister Sallie Laurel-Lopez, who both help manage the Lyceum of the Philippines University which was established by their grandfather, the late President Jose P. Laurel, Sr., in Intramuros 60 years ago. I’m writing a biography of Bobby’s and Sallie’s father, the late Sen. Sotero “Teroy” Laurel, and we’d set up the lunch to interview some old Laurel family friends.

The interviews went well, as I’d expected. What came as a pleasant surprise was the venue for our lunch—the Bayleaf Hotel, specifically its 9 Spoons restaurant on the 9th floor. Bayleaf is just a few steps away from the main LPU campus. Externally, the nine-story building blends in with the Spanish colonial architecture of the district; it was an old building acquired from the Licaros family, and subsequently and brilliantly renovated by TI Vasquez Architects & Planners. Its interiors and amenities couldn’t be more modern, with five function rooms that can accommodate up to 500 people, and large LCD TVs and wi-fi access all over the place.

I saw these rooms and the Bayleaf’s suites myself, having asked for a guided tour of the place after a sumptuous lunch at the 9 Spoons (so named after the nine children of Teroy and Lorna Laurel; and before I forget, the crowd favorite at the 9 Spoons lunch buffet—the crunchy bagnet—is to die for). The 57 rooms—which start at around P4,000 a night, including breakfast—are very smartly appointed.

On top—literally—of all these is the Bayleaf’s killer feature, which isn’t even in the building itself: the view. The Bayleaf’s roof deck offers a 360-degree view of Manila Bay, Intramuros, and has quickly become the hotel’s choicest spot. The weather permitting, you could do worse than sit here at sunset with friends, sharing a cold beer.

The Bayleaf’s facilities tie in neatly with the Lyceum’s offerings in Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management, among its strongest programs today (historically, the school had been known for its Law, Foreign Service, and Journalism programs). LPU President Bobby Laurel, however, clarified that “We’re running Bayleaf as a business first, and as a training ground second. I’d describe it as a 3-4-5 star hotel: 3-star price, 4-star amenities, 5-star service. We got the best people we could find to run it. This is going to be an investment, a learning experience that we can duplicate in the other campuses if we do it right.” An avid and talented amateur photographer, Bobby also did some of the pictures in the hotel and the Cioccolata coffee shop on the ground floor.

The next time you’re in Intramuros and feel like having a hearty lunch or a cool drink at day’s end, give Bayleaf a try. Better yet, stay overnight and enjoy the view. I never thought I could say this about a city whose infernal traffic and grime I’ve resigned myself to embracing, but from the Bayleaf’s roof deck, Manila never looked so good.

* * * * *

SPEAKING OF Manila, I don’t get my fellow Manileños who’ve been griping about how badly Manila was portrayed in The Bourne Legacy, with its visual emphasis on the city’s poorer districts. I wonder what they were expecting when the Bourne people came over and said they were going to shoot here. Greenery? Bonifacio High Street? They can get that more cheaply—miles and miles of it—in Southern California.

Of course Manila isn’t all poverty (don’t we know that, every time we ride or drive into one of its gated communities, leaving our pedestrian IDs at the guardhouse), and of course it isn’t fair to portray just one side of things. But movies aren’t about fairness, especially action thrillers with the singleminded purpose of pumping more adrenaline into your bloodstream. They’re about achieving a certain effect, a mood or a backdrop against which the plot can move forward without too many distractions.

If there’s anything to complain about in the movie, it’s how the plot—so rich and complex at the beginning—seems to peter out in the end, after the long and well-executed chase scene. I don’t mean this to be a spoiler, but this movie is begging for a sequel (as if it wasn’t already a sequel to a sequel). Since Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz—who turned in very creditable performances—have already sailed off into the sunset (and more literally than you think), I don’t imagine we’re going to see more of Manila in this franchise’s future. Time to hit the slums of Mumbai?

* * * * *

THE RECENT flood—all the more infuriating to many because it didn’t even have a name—reminded me of my own baptism as a reporter for the Philippines Herald back in 1972. I was 18, a freshman dropout who’d wangled his way into a reportorial job at a broadsheet, realizing the dream of my albeit brief lifetime.

I’d been with the Herald for just a few months writing mainly news features when what would be called the July-August floods of 1972 broke over our heads and turned Manila and much of Central Luzon into a giant bowl of mud soup, like Ondoy a month long. That truly was a downpour of biblical proportions.

I did some research at Public Works and realized that the flood plans for Central Luzon hadn’t been reviewed or revised since 1935. I wrote that story up, and got it into the front page—the first time anything I wrote was ever worth the front page, so I’ve kept the clipping to this day.

But more interesting things were in store for me. I reported for work one morning, only to be told to return that evening and to pack a change of clothes. I was going to be sent out on a Navy ship to cover relief operations in Pangasinan, which was still heavily flooded. The ship turned out to be an LST, a Landing Ship Tank, which seemed to me to be a large metal box floating on the ocean—that’s certainly what it felt like when we sailed in rough waters along the coast that night.

The next morning my photographer and I disembarked in Lingayen Gulf, wading into the water like an invading army, and plunged into the wettest excursion of my life. The US bases were still around, and the folks at Clark had sent a big rubber raft along, and I clambered aboard, half-reporter and half-flood victim, to get stories from the flood. We spent a cold night at the governor’s house amidst bags of relief goods, after I’d phoned in my story to a deskman who took it all down on a typewriter with the phone clenched between his cheek and shoulder (ever wonder how newsrooms worked before cellphones and email?).

The following day an American helicopter arrived, a Jolly Green Giant they might have been using in Vietnam, and we hopped aboard—not knowing that its next stop was Clark Air Force Base. Stepping out of the chopper—smoother than any plane I’d ever flown, although I hadn’t flown too many then—I saw and gawked at all those warbirds on the Clark tarmac and imagined for a minute what it would be like to be transported out of this infernal wetness into some place like California; but I settled for the chocolate cake at the commissary (another word added to my vocabulary).

Sunny California would come into my life eight years later. Back in the office the next day, the desk then sent me out to interview Mrs. Imelda Marcos in Malacañang about the Palace’s relief work. She met me in front of a mountain of Nutribuns. I don’t remember much of what she said—charmed witless, I suppose. What can I say? I was eighteen, with hardly a notion that, just a few weeks down the road, an even darker and longer storm was about to fall all over the islands.

Penman No. 7: Creative Writing in Hong Kong

Penman for Monday, August 6, 2012

I WAS honored a couple of weeks ago to be invited to visit the City University of Hong Kong to conduct a workshop for their graduate writing students and to give a reading before a gathering of some of Hong Kong’s brightest writing talents, students and teachers alike.

I’d been to CityU before—two years ago, I attended a literary conference there, then stayed on for the Hong Kong Literary Festival. Established only in 1984, CityU (I kept calling it CUHK, until I realized that these initials were already in use by the Chinese University of Hong Kong) has distinguished itself as one of Hong Kong’s most dynamic and modern campuses, oriented toward the world and the future. Aside from the more traditional disciplines, for example, it has a School of Creative Media which teaches everything from Animation to Computational Art and a newly opened School of Energy and Environment where students can specialize in Climate Science and Energy Technology, among others.

The focus on business and technology is hardly surprising in a place like Hong Kong. What struck me was its apparent bid to become a cultural leader in the region as well—and not just in things Chinese, but in areas dominated and nearly monopolized by Western centers of learning.

A case in point was the CityU program that brought me over—Asia’s first and, so far, only low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (MFA) program. Only in its third year, the program has already attracted many first-rate students and teachers from around Asia and much farther beyond.

At the program’s helm is Xu Xi, a gifted fictionist and essayist who’s the living example of hybridity—she’s Indonesian Chinese, was raised in Hong Kong, and took her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She teaches at Vermont College, but has taken time out to direct the writing program at CityU. Though she’s now an American citizen, Hong Kong is in Xu Xi’s blood and imagination, permeating her fiction. She’s become one of the prime movers of creative writing in the region; we were fellow finalists for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, and she came over as a panelist at the Dumaguete Writers Workshop two years ago.

In setting up their program, Xu Xi and CityU were deftly capitalizing on Hong Kong’s strategic position as an entrepot attracting people from all over the world, with its large expat community and a new generation of Chinese students writing in English. CityU’s English department was built up and strengthened by the likes of language and literature expert Kingsley Bolton (who gave a wonderful lecture on how the Chinese learned and used English, when I was there) who, a few years ago, co-edited a book with Ma. Lourdes Bautista on Philippine English.

The MFA, of course, remains the global standard for advanced studies in creative writing. (In a radio interview, my fellow Distinguished Visiting Writer, the English novelist Jill Dawson, and I were asked the perennial question: “If Charles Dickens didn’t need an MFA to write his novels, why should anyone?” We answered just as predictably: “You don’t need the MFA to write a novel, but it helps you to focus on writing your novel in an age full of distractions, which Dickens didn’t have to deal with. Besides, if painting and music can be taught and learned, so can writing.”)

There are hundreds of MFA and MA Creative Writing programs around the world today—the MFA tends to be longer and more intensive, and is considered a terminal degree—causing us teachers of writing to ask in wonder and consternation: “Why do so many people want to be writers?” The MFA’s low-residency version has been a recent innovation, with Xu Xi’s Vermont College among the pioneers; there are now around 50 such programs in the US, but only CityU offers one with a distinctly Asian orientation.

Under such programs, students sign up for one-on-one distance mentoring with the program’s international teaching staff, recruited from among the world’s best writers (including our very own New York-based poet Luis Francia). Once a year, for about ten days during the Hong Kong summer, everyone gets together on the CityU campus in Kowloon Tong for a series of intensive day-long workshops with the majority of the faculty in attendance. Students are required to produce a creative thesis, a substantial body of work, and the program should be doable in two years. (Two Filipinos—Karla Delgado and Sheree Chua—are in the program; I also met students from the US, the UK, Australia, and, of course, Hong Kong and China.)

There are pluses and minuses to this kind of arrangement, but it’s clearly a boon to those who may otherwise be too busy or just don’t have the option of attending classes and workshops physically in a university, especially a foreign one. It’s less expensive than a traditional campus-based MFA—certainly less than a US or a UK degree—given that one needs to fly in to Hong Kong only occasionally. But Hong Kong being what it is, it’s by no means cheap, especially for Filipinos used to paying UP tuition fees. The costs aside, the international character of the program in terms of both its students and faculty is its strongest aspect, privileging, for once, an Asian sensibility over the usual Anglo-American bias in creative writing in English.

This was something we could’ve done at the University of the Philippines—we’ve had a 30-year lead over everyone else in the region, after all, in offering degrees in Creative Writing—but sadly we just don’t have the funds and the flexibility to attract the kind of international teaching staff you need for a program of this scale and orientation.

But thinking in terms of the region, CityU’s MFA program is a boost for Asian writing and teaching as a whole, the beginning of the reversal of a century-old paradigm where we learned to write in English only in and from the West.