Penman No. 124: Pinoys on the Potomac

cropped-logo-rizal-washington8Penman for Monday, Nov. 24, 2014


ERWIN TIONGSON and his wife Titchie are in their early 40s, successful professionals and the parents of young sons; they live in Fairfax, Virginia, a pleasantly wooded suburb just outside of Washington, DC. An Atenean from Nueva Vizcaya, Erwin teaches Econometrics at Georgetown University, while Titchie, a prizewinning writer, has chosen to stay at home to look after the children. Outwardly they might seem to be just another Filipino couple living the good American life, steadfastly focused on the present and the future. But their true passion inclines elsewhere, as Beng and I would discover in one of the most fascinating encounters we’ve had in our current American sojourn.

I’d first heard about Erwin from another new Fil-Am friend, Sonny Busa, a retired Marine, a former consul and instructor in international relations at West Point. (Sonny, in turn, had been introduced to me by upstate-NewYork-based Sharon Delmendo, who has done a lot of research on Philippine-American relations—so now you see how the academic circuit works.) Sonny had mentioned to me that there was a Filipino in the community who had taken it upon himself to chronicle the history of the Philippine presence in Washington and the surrounding area—more than a century of visits and residencies by Filipino politicians, diplomats, writers, artists, musicians, and other personages whose life and work, in one way or another, drew them to the American capital.

That’s how I found the website that contained all this information—a WordPress site titled “Philippines on the Potomac: Filipino-American Stories in Washington, D.C.” ( If you’ll take a minute to click on that link, you’ll discover what I did, with a child’s wonderment at the entrance of a carnival: short articles and accompanying photographs tracing the connections between Filipinos and Washington, DC.

As might be expected, the big political figures, especially those from the Commonwealth and postwar period, dominate the reportage: Manuel L. Quezon, Carlos P. Romulo, Sergio Osmeña, Manuel Roxas, and Jose Abad Santos. But cultural luminaries are also well represented: Juan Luna, Jose Garcia Villa, Juan Arellano, Enya Gonzalez, Fernando Amorsolo, and Bienvenido Santos, among others.

Quezon had served as Resident Commissioner—effectively our ambassador—in Washington until 1916, and when he went to the US on his wartime exile and died in New York in 1944, it was at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington—not too far from where our embassy now sits—where his funeral mass was held prior to his interment at Arlington (less than 20 years later, John F. Kennedy would follow the same route; MLQ’s remains were moved to the Philippines after the war, and now lie at the Quezon Memorial).

Carlos P. Romulo and his family lived in a home on Garfield Street for 16 years, CPR having served in many capacities, from aide de camp to Gen. Douglas MacArthur to Resident Commissioner, ambassador, and president of the United Nations General Assembly. (One of the website’s most remarkable images has an old sepia photograph of the Romulos superimposed exactly over the same spot in front of the present house, which has barely changed.)

The site provides a treasure trove of other historical facts—including, inevitably, tidbits of information that serious scholars might dismiss as trivia, but which enthusiasts like me can’t get enough of. The sculptor and National Artist Guillermo Tolentino, for example, once worked as a waiter in Washington, and somehow managed to meet President Woodrow Wilson and to present him with the gift of a small statue, which Wilson kept in his room until his death; Wilson later helped Tolentino get a scholarship to art school. We also learn that Juan Luna and Felipe Agoncillo went to Washington in 1899 to campaign against the Treaty of Paris, and stayed at the Arlington Hotel, where they were spied upon by the Secret Service. (All these stories are properly attributed and referenced, by the way.)

Better than just poking around the website, the Tiongsons invited us to lunch and show-and-tell, and I couldn’t wait. Learning of my current affiliation with the George Washington University, Erwin had pointed me to an article written by CPR’s granddaughter Liana relating how Romulo had coached a debating team from the University of the Philippines in an engagement with the GWU team, over this issue: “Resolved, That the Philippine Islands should be granted immediate and complete independence.” The debate took place on April 18, 1928 at GWU’s Corcoran Hall. “UP won,” said Erwin. “It was the team’s fifth victory, after defeating Stanford, California, Utah, and Colorado. The team would go on to defeat all their other opponents—a total of 14 universities, if I remember correctly.”


Even more interesting were the personal stories that Erwin and Titchie shared with us (after a sumptuous lunch of home-made corned beef and baked salmon, which all by itself was well worth the Sunday visit). I can’t go too deeply into the details now, but Beng and I were thrilled to share Erwin’s elation over his most recent discovery, a book that had been inscribed by Maximo Kalaw, MLQ’s private secretary, to a “Nina Thomas”—who turned out to be the American lawyer the young Quezon had been engaged to (he broke off the engagement after being advised that marrying an American was political suicide). Erwin made contact with Nina’s heirs in Virginia; she never married, but she passed on Quezon’s monogrammed walking stick and their engagement ring to her niece.

Erwin also showed us a movie poster from 1946 of Anna and the King of Siam, featuring Rex Harrison, Irene Dunne, and a little-known actress named “Chabing”—who turned out to be Isabel Rosario “Dimples” Cooper, Douglas MacArthur’s girlfriend (not mistress) between marriages; after MacArthur left her, she resumed her film career (she was notable for having recorded the first on-screen kiss in Philippine movies in 1926), assuming the single name “Chabing,” whose filmography you can look up on IMdb.

It was also a treat to listen to a radio recording of Jose Garcia Villa, made in the 1950s, of him reading his “Lyric 17” (1942) which famously begins with “First, a poem must be magical….” Most moving was the 20-minute documentary of President Quezon’s funeral—directed by no less than the renowned director John Ford—that Erwin had magically retrieved from somewhere in the many university libraries, archives, and museums that he still haunts in search of fugitive Filipiniana. He has begun a collection of war correspondence from the early 1900s and the Second World War; one 1902 letter poignantly retained a swatch of jusi, which the wife of an American official in Iloilo wanted her folks to see.

We could have stayed there the whole day, reveling in our memories of the grand old men of Philippine letters—NVM Gonzalez, Ben Santos, Nick Joaquin, Manuel Viray; I shared my own little adventures in cultural retrieval. But Beng and I had sadly had to trundle out again into the autumn chill, warmed by our imaginations, and in my ears rang a line from Viray’s poem about his old house in Washington, on Cathedral Avenue, which the Tiongsons had also located: “A streak of light aslant / On the screen door creeps up the line of dusty books.”


Penman No. 123: The Power of Panorama

Penman for Monday, November 17, 2014


I’M BY no means a professional photographer, but as a fairly frequent traveler and occasional journalist, I’ve had to take my own photographs to accompany my articles and my blog pieces. Not surprisingly, some of my pictures have been good, some bad, although I would hope that I’ve shot more of the former than the latter overall. I’ve been dabbling in photography, after all, since the 1970s, when we learned to develop and print our own black-and-white film, and were ever aware of how much film and paper cost, not to mention the SLRs and the lenses that we lugged around.

Digital photography, of course, has changed all that. I started toting a 2-megapixel Canon Ixus around 2001—costing me what a new iPhone 6 would today—and instantly I knew that there was no going back to dark rooms and smelly chemicals, at least for an amateur like me. (That Ixus, by the way, took amazingly sharp shots, one of which I still use as the wallpaper for my big iMac—proof that it isn’t all about megapixels.) Since then I’ve dealt with a train of other digital Canons, Casios, Panasonics, and Leicas, all of them rangefinders. And then, a few years ago, I switched to a Nikon DSLR, followed by the inevitable and financially excruciating lens chase that every photography enthusiast knows. Eventually I got those I really wanted—a long zoom, an ultrawide—and happily shot away in sorties to China, the US, Israel, Corregidor, Batanes, and many other places worth toting a heavy bagful of gear to.

And then the iPhone 4 came along. All of a sudden, I had a phone whose camera seemed good and sharp enough for most daily uses (night is something else). More and more, I began taking just the iPhone and leaving the bulky DSLR behind. Aside from and because of its small size, shooting with your phone’s camera has its advantages; you can shoot unobtrusively, within seconds of spotting your subject, and you won’t look like you’re begging to be mugged and to have your precious cargo carted away.

Cameraphones, conversely, have their disadvantages. They’re generally not too good for night shots, unless your subjects are brightly lit, and while the digital zoom can make your subjects bigger, the closer you get, the grainier the image becomes. In other words, for best quality and for mission-critical work, there’s really no perfect pocket substitute for the big cameras and lenses. (Other than the Nikon, my favorite standalone camera for many years was the Leica D-Lux 3, which created razor-sharp images in the 16:9 format.)

But that said, for most uses that don’t require more than a 4”x 6” printout or screen image, an iPhone’s camera will do just fine. My iPhone 5s was the only camera I brought with me on our family’s two-week jaunt across Western Europe last May, and it served us superbly in Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Venice, Florence, and Paris—all places with fabulous photographic possibilities. Sure, I missed the kind of tightly cropped detail that a telephoto lens is great for, but casual tourism is mostly about scenery, which means that wide-angle or panoramic shots are more useful.

This brings me to my topic for the week, the power of panorama. It’s a power that’s been right there in your iPhone since iOS6 (and very possibly in other smartphones as well), waiting to be unleashed. A panorama is a very wide, narrow picture that covers practically everything before you, and maybe even behind you. The built-in Camera app on the iPhone offers several options for picturetaking: time-lapse, slo-mo, video, photo, square, and pano.

We take most pictures with the “photo” option, yielding a regular rectangular frame, vertical or horizontal. If you’re happy with those pictures, fine. But you should know that, especially when you’re in a spectacular tourist spot and need or want to capture as much of that scene to bring home with you, then the “pano” or panoramic option can be your best friend.

It takes a bit of self-training, and there are many guides online to help you take a good panoramic pic (just Google “taking panoramic shots with an iPhone”). What it basically involves is choosing and standing at a good vantage point, opening the camera, choosing “pano”, pressing the button, then moving on your heels in a semi-circle from left to right, following the guide arrow until the full panorama is taken.

Your first shots will likely be misfires, full of unwanted detail, bodies with missing heads, the same person appearing in two or three different spots, very bright and then very dark bands, and so on. But over time, you’ll get the hang of it, and learn to avoid the pitfalls. For example, you’ll learn to generally avoid scenes with lots of moving figures (although the motion blur and duplication of people can also be aesthetically appealing); you’ll learn to pre-visualize the scene, deciding just how much to cover instead of the full 240-degree sweep of the app.

If you’re careful and lucky (you’ll need to be both), you can capture a scene that’s not only visually breathtaking, but also socially observant, like a Hogarth drawing with a lot of interesting detail in the little corners. That’s what I was going for in my pano shot of an afternoon in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol, where an anti-fascist rally literally marched right into the restful mood of other Madrileños in the frame. My shot of the riverfront of Cold Spring in upstate New York seeks to blend natural scenery with human habitation, and that of an early evening in Manhattan’s Bryant Park plays on light and shadow, and the city’s iconic skyline.

Don’t forget that you can and probably should crop and edit the image afterwards, to remove ragged edges up and down caused by uneven shooting (you weren’t following the arrow, tsk tsk), to go for a tighter frame, and to adjust the exposure. Consider, too, other apps like Google’s free Photo Sphere, which yields even more stunning—and seamless—360-degree pictures, for a fully immersive experience approaching virtual reality.

Whether you’re in your office or on top of the Great Wall of China, a good panoramic shot can be your best and most comprehensive reminder of where you were and what it felt like. But you’d have to remember the option. Speaking of the Great Wall, we were there a couple of Decembers ago, all by our freezing lonesome in Mutianyu. Rendered speechless by the majesty, it was only on the van back to downtown Beijing that I realized that I’d been on top of the world—and forgot to take it all in.

Penman No. 122: A Meeting in Manhattan

IMG_5861Penman for Monday, November 10, 2014


BENG AND I were in Philadelphia and New York these past two weekends, so I could do more interviews for my martial-law book project and also get in touch with a few old friends. I normally keep a very low profile and don’t tell or call people when I travel to places where friends are living, not because I’m a snob, but because I don’t want to be a bother, knowing what it’s like when somebody drops in from the blue and throws your schedule out of whack.

But there are always some friends you never mind breaking your routine for, and who never seem to mind, either, if you break theirs. And I was glad to meet up in Manhattan with two such writer-friends, the poet and essayist Luis “Luigi” Francia and the fictionist Gina Apostol, both of whom live and work in New York. Luigi teaches at Hunter College and Gina at the Fieldston School.

The first time I met Luigi, many years ago in a Malate bar on one of his visits home from New York where he has been living since 1970, I remember seeing his calling card, which described him thus beneath the name: “POET. EDITOR. PRINCE.” It seemed cheeky and chic, and I was deeply impressed, being none of the above. (I’ve since written some middling poetry and have done my share of editing chores, but remain utterly unprincely.)


I had the recent pleasure of writing a blurb for Luigi’s forthcoming collection of essays titled RE: Reviews, Recollections, Reflections, to be published by the University of the Philippines Press, and this is what I said:

“Luis Francia knows New York and America better than many of the native-born, but he never loses his moorings, his critical awareness of what it means to be Filipino-American. But these essays are about far more than racial politics, as they chronicle the travails of that most blessed and in other ways most cursed of citizens—the artist, particularly the artist abroad, for whom alienation acts as a lens that magnifies and reshapes every little thing that crosses the eye. The most arresting and delightful reads are his portraits of the expatriate masters who preceded him in America—most notably Jose Garcia Villa, lover of martinis and hater of cheese. Despite the plaints, Francia has been clearly and distinctly privileged to be where he has been and to see what he has seen, and he shares that privilege with us in this well-wrought collection.”

Gina was my batchmate when I returned to finish my undergrad studies in UP in the early ‘80s; I was ten years older than everyone else, so I was kuya to all of them. It was a time when we were all dreaming of finding a way to take our graduate studies abroad—as English and writing majors, we wanted to become the next Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the next Sylvia Plath, the next Ian McEwan, the next Pablo Neruda, and so on; as Pinoys, we wanted to see America. Eventually, we just became our older selves, but we did get to see the States through one ticket-paying subterfuge or other—for me, a Fulbright grant; for Fidelito Cortes, a Wallace Stegner fellowship; for Ramon Bautista, an assistantship at Wichita. But we had to compete for these, while all the brilliant Gina had to do was to lick a few stamps and mail a couple of her typewritten stories off to John Barth, who directed the writing program at Johns Hopkins and who wrote her back forthwith to offer her an assistantship, smitten as he was with her talent. It was pure magic, in those pre-email days.

That brash young woman from Tacloban who flew off to Baltimore would go on to write several prizewinning novels. Gun Dealers’ Daughter, published by W. W. Norton, won the 2013 PEN Open Book Award given by the PEN American Center to outstanding works by authors of color to promote racial and ethnic diversity within the literary and publishing communities. (Luigi himself had won this prize in 2002, the first year it was given, for his nonfiction book The Eye of the Fish.)

Here’s what the judges said about that novel in their citation: “You will read Gun Dealers’ Daughter wondering where Gina Apostol novels have been all these years (in the Philippines, it turns out). You will feel sure (and you will be correct) that you have discovered a great fiction writer in the midst of making literary history. Gun Dealers’ Daughter is a story of young people who rebel against their parents, have sex with the wrong people, and betray those they should be most loyal to…. This is coming of age in the 1980s, Philippine dictatorship style, where college students are killed for their activism. The telling is fractured, as are the times…. Not only does this novel make an argument for social revolution, it makes an argument for the role of literature in revolution—the argument being that literature can be revolution.”

These then were the two literary luminaries who happened to be my friends (or should that be the other way around?) whom I was happy to set up a date with in a coffee shop in the West Village, near the High Line (an elevated garden and walkway that deserves its own story, among other New York landmarks). The coffee place was full, so we brought our steaming cups instead up to the roof deck of Gina’s apartment a few blocks away, pausing for a picture in front of the late Jose Garcia Villa’s old place on Greenwich Street. “This was where he held court,” said Luigi, one of Villa’s acolytes. “Nonoy Marcelo also lived in this area for many years, and I did, too, back when the rent was 65 dollars a month.” Then Gina added, “That white place is where John Lennon and Yoko Ono lived.” And I thought, if they’d stayed here instead of moving to the Dakota, he might still be alive.

We went up to the roof deck and Beng and I savored the scenery in all its 360-degree magnificence, as the sun set in the west and the full moon rose in the east, competing with the Empire State’s tricolor spire. We talked books, life, and loves over Frangelico, bread, and cheese; channeling Villa, I steered clear of the curd. Looking sharp and happy despite a recent illness, Gina said that her iPhone’s Siri had told her, in response to a question, “I’m just glad to be alive!” At that instant, we all were.

Penman No. 121: Souvenirs of Washington


Penman for Monday, November 3, 2014

A COUPLE of weeks ago, walking from my sister’s office in downtown Washington, DC to the library of the George Washington University, I paused at the corner of 19th and I (or “Eye”) Streets, and was overcome by a sense of déjà vu. I vaguely recognized the place, but something had changed—the old Presidential Hotel was no longer there, replaced by the Presidential Plaza, a grayish, nondescript commercial building replicated on a hundred other blocks in the city. It was what had stood at that spot that I suddenly missed: the hotel, built in the 1920s—and me, more than half a lifetime younger and suitcase in hand, looking up at my first American abode.

It was September 1980, I was 26 years old, and I was on my first foreign trip—to the United States, no less, thanks to a generous and visionary boss who thought that a budding writer like me could benefit from some exposure to the outside world. He arranged for a grant that would introduce me to media organizations and practices in various places in the US for three months, and within a month of being told that I was leaving, I was—all gussied up in a scratchy double-knit suit, which was what I thought any Stateside-bound traveler worthy of respect was supposed to wear.

After stops in Honolulu and San Francisco, I arrived in Washington on a nippy autumn morning. My first American mystery greeted me in a sign just outside the airport: “PED XING.” What on earth did that mean, I thought—could there be so many Chinese in Washington? I took a cab to my hotel, the Presidential on 19th and I, and was met by the doorman, who suspiciously resembled—and indeed was—a kababayan. I felt instantly relieved. He seemed happy to see me as well, and after effusive introductions and references to the motherland, he showed me to my room, up on the fifth floor.

Unable to sleep, I stepped out, still in my suit, and surveyed the streets around me. I got hungry and saw a classy-looking restaurant at the corner. I had several hundred dollars on me—partly my allowance, and partly my life savings—in cash; I felt rich. I stepped into the place, and ordered quarter of roast chicken. It cost me eight dollars, and I dutifully tacked on a 15% tip, like the guidebook said. I walked around the corner to K Street, and saw a luggage store; I walked in, and all too quickly fell in love with a saddle-leather Schlesinger briefcase. “How much?” I asked. “One hundred dollars,” the lady said. “I’ll take it!” I said, and forked the cash over; it would be eight years before I would get my first credit card, but that’s another story.

I walked back to my hotel, feeling very businesslike with that briefcase that smelled positively posh, and just outside the hotel, on the bus stop along the sidewalk, I noted my second American mystery: another sign that said “No Standing.” How was one supposed to catch a bus or a cab, I wondered, if they couldn’t stand there, and I couldn’t see any seats, either. I fell asleep that afternoon, with the Schlesinger beside me in bed, only to be woken up by a loud rap on my door. It was my kababayan the friendly doorman, and it must have been past nine in the evening. “Padre,” he whispered, “could you lend me twenty dollars? I have a hot date tonight and don’t want to disappoint her, I’m just a little short!” He winked conspiratorially, and I slipped him the twenty, and went back to bed.

Many more interesting things would happen to me during that visit, but that was the last I saw of my new kaibigan and of my twenty bucks. The next day, I went back around the street to look for a breakfast place, and saw my first McDonald’s. It was my first American fast-food experience, and I felt flustered by the array of comestibles on offer overhead. Forgetting for a second where I was, I glanced at the two Pinoy-looking ladies in the line beside me and asked, in Tagalog, “Miss, paano ba umorder dito?” and they told me how. They turned out to be secretaries at the World Bank. Later that day, when I told the cook at the cafeteria in our sponsoring institute about my eight-dollar lunch, she laughed and said, “You shoulda framed that chicken!” before serving me a full meal for $2.50.

Since I was going to be in Washington just briefly being flying onward to my main destination in East Lansing, Michigan, I resolved to make the most of my visit by touring as much of DC as I could. Our daughter Demi was just six years old, and I sent her postcards and pictures that I took of squirrels running around the White House lawn. Outside the Smithsonian, I lingered before the souvenir carts before choosing a tall ceramic (at least that’s what I thought) mug that said—what else—“Souvenir of Washington, DC” and featured the relief facade of the Capitol building. (I would later discover, back in Manila, that the mug was made of plaster, and made in Taiwan.)

All these came back to me as I stood at that corner of 19th and I, feeling a little foolish but feeling even luckier to be alive at all and back in the same spot, much bulkier from ingesting untold hundreds of chickens and Big Macs since then, but not all that much the wiser. And as it happened, when I walked the other day into the Smithsonian Castle, on exhibit was “Souvenir Nation”—a show of how people have kept pieces of the past to form their own personal histories.

I’m over souvenir mugs, but I still keep that Taiwanese token on a shelf back in Diliman as a reminder of one’s innocence or stupidity—one or the other, although I can be fairly sure by now that there’s hugely far more of the latter in Washington than the former. And I still have the Schlesinger briefcase, all beat up as it should be after 34 years, but still handsome in a rugged way, which is more than can be said for its owner. No, I’m not over fine leather briefcases; I saw the very same case on eBay last week, selling slightly used for $25, and I snatched it up to replace the old one—as a souvenir of this great and wondrous city of Washington, DC.