Penman No. 341: War and Remembrance

 

James_Scott_collage.jpegPenman for Monday, February 18, 2019

 

FOR FILIPINOS, February is or should be a month of remembering, beyond the commercial confections of Valentine’s Day.

For people somewhat younger than me, February should recall the euphoria of EDSA 1986, and the forced departure of a dictatorship. For myself, the month marks the anniversary of the 1971 Diliman Commune, when we barricaded the university in symbolic resistance to what soon became the martial-law regime. For my parents’ generation, however, February can only mean the closure of the War in 1945, culminating in the bloody Battle of Manila that may have crushed the Japanese but also left 100,000 Filipinos dead in the most horrible ways and Manila thoroughly devastated.

Having been born nearly a decade after that war, I can only look back on it with both relief and, I must confess, morbid fascination, that curious wondering about what I might have done—or even if I would have survived—had I gone through that ordeal. I’ve written plays about the war, read as many books as I could, and visited war memorials, but never seem to have come around to answering how and why war can bring out both the best and the worst in us, sadly more often the latter.

This was much on my mind last week when I attended a lecture at the Ayala Museum by the American author James M. Scott, who was in town to promote his newest book, Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita,  and the Battle of Manila(New York: W. W. Norton, 2018, 635 pp.). James had actually been introduced to me by email before his visit by mutual friends, so I was doubly interested in meeting the war historian, whose earlier book Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harborwas a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

IMG_9369.jpeg

Before a packed crowd that included survivors of the war, James brought the audience back to a time when Manila was indeed the Pearl of the Orient and Asia’s most beautiful city, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and a cosmopolitan culture to complement its charms. The war would change all that, over a few dark years of death, suffering and famine. Despite putting up their bravest front, the city’s residents and the thousands of foreigners interned at Sto. Tomas were in desperate need of food, medicines, and, of course, freedom when the Americans—led by the famous but also famously flawed Gen. Douglas MacArthur—landed in Lingayen Gulf and rolled into Manila. In command of the Japanese defenders, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the so-called Tiger of Malaya, had ordered Rear Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi to withdraw his forces—an order that Iwabuchi, a once-disgraced officer in need of redemption, had no intention of following (records would later show that the Japanese had made no plans for escape).

The stage was set for one of the most hard-fought and destructive battles of World War II. Instead of withdrawing, Iwabuchi directed his men to hold off the Americans with their guns, their swords, and if necessary their teeth. As the fight moved block by block south of the Pasig, the Japanese turned their retreat into wholesale slaughter; 200 Filipino men were beheaded in one house, women were raped scores of times at the Bayview Hotel, and babies were bayoneted; 41 victims were massacred in La Salle, many at the marble altar. Facing certain defeat, many Japanese committed ritual suicide—77 of them in one place over one night, with singing preceding the explosion of grenades. Iwabuchi slit his own belly. After 29 murderous days, the battle ended. Yamashita, who could have stopped his subordinate had he truly wanted to, was later tried and executed.

1LegisBldg.jpg

blogger-image--1666340230.jpg

16358751469_4a4fbdc210_o.jpg

More than 16,000 Japanese soldiers died in the battle, against only about 1,000 Americans. (Contrary to popular belief, Korean conscripts did not figure in the massacres, says Scott.) MacArthur would lament the loss of his family’s Civil War memorabilia and his son’s baby book in his Manila Hotel suite. But as Scott emphasizes, Filipino families paid the dearest price, with over 100,000 civilians dead in one month.

Drawing largely on first-person testimonies recorded soon after the events, the book is a searing account of the horrors of war; it was, says Scott, less a battlefield than a crime scene. A friend who read it told me she had to stop every once in a while to gather herself through her tears. The book takes note of subsequent judgments that the Americans bore as much responsibility for the destruction of Manila as did the Japanese, with their sustained bombardments of entrenched positions, but it’s the persistence of humanity—sustained by such organizations of war survivors as Memorare—that ultimately prevails.

Apart from many private acts of remorse, the Japanese government never formally apologized for their soldiers’ atrocities, and our own government’s recent removal of the comfort women’s statue shows how modern politics can obliterate the past better than a howitzer.

Such is the nature of today’s society—and of a generation obsessed with the present and the future—that many Filipinos can barely remember what happened five years ago, let alone 50, or 70. For some reason, our memories of conflict seem especially faint and fragile. Denial seems easier, revisionism even more attractive, so the despots who sent hundreds if not thousands to their graves and robbed us blind continue to live in mansions and be driven around in armored SUVs.

Meanwhile, we have James Scott’s anguished prose to ponder; I myself fear that if we disregard our liberties, the next Battle of Manila, we might inflict upon ourselves.

Penman No. 340: Wowwow, Mingming, Peepeep

IMG_9007.jpeg

Penman for Monday, February 11, 2019

 

FOR REASONS still not too clear to me, since I had a great relationship with my late Dad, I never really wanted a son, and heaved a huge sigh of relief when Beng popped out a baby girl named Demi 44 years ago. Demi turned out to be everything we could wish for—bright, caring, and generous, an exemplar at her job in a major hotel in California, where she lives with her husband Jerry, another proud addition to our small family.

I may not have minded a grandson, but The One Who Knows Better decided that we were all going to be happier by ourselves, so Beng and I and Demi and Jerry have enjoyed our foursome, traveling together whenever possible and achieving what we could in this life without worrying too much about the future.

We couldn’t have imagined that in our later 60s, Beng and I would have to learn grandparenting a boy—a two-year-old named Buboy, the son and second child of our faithful housekeeper Jenny and her husband Sonny, who have been living with us for many years in our campus home. Beng and I thought that everyone could work better if we kept the family together instead of stranding half of it in faraway Bicol. So Buboy was born here, and has known nothing but our large yard and the falling mangoes, treating our noisy guard dogs as his friends.

Buboy wakes us up in the morning by banging his tiny fists on the door, and when no one opens it, he turns the knob himself and barges in with a ta-da smile. He likes to climb up our bed, which he thinks is his playground—and a trampoline.

He eats breakfast with us every morning, dragging his high chair and clambering on board even before I get to sit. He loves rice and boiled egg, rice and boiled egg, rice and boiled egg. Beng taught him how to pray before meals—something I tend to mutter if not forget, but Buboy’s instruction forces me to do as he does and make the Sign of the Cross with exaggerated flourish, although Buboy seems to think that tapping just one shoulder will do as nicely.

We speak to him in Filipino, just like we did with Demi—we’ve never believed in raising a kid in a foreign language, which school and society will take care of at some point—but he’s picked up a few favorite English words on his own: “no” (often used as in “Nononono!”), “fish” (“pish,” the Pinoy way), and “shoes” (which he can get picky about). He has his own plastic glass, and we make a toast and gulp our water down together, like drinking buddies.

Breakfast is followed by half an hour of cartoons, but what he really wants is for Beng to open his favorite book—one about a forest whose creatures are endangered by bad people.

I’m Tatay and Beng is Nanay. All dogs are Wowwow. All cats are Mingming. All cars and trucks are Peepeep (and he knows how to run back to his Mama when he hears a Peepeep rumbling down our street). When I’m away on a trip, he points to planes when they fly overhead, although I don’t know where or how he made the connection. A true tyke of his generation, he’s pretty good at figuring out how knobs and buttons work—twist this, press that.

When you ask him how old he is, he raises his two pointy fingers—he can’t make the V sign yet. What happens when he turns three? We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. He likes to swipe three colored poker chips from my bedside, and we’re using those to get him to count to three. Some folks expect their toddlers to do calculus, speak French, and play the piano; this boy will not be rushed by us into any prodigious feats, although we see him absorbing knowledge like a sponge. It’s enough that he knows how to do the manowith every elder he meets, to pick up things that fall on the floor and put them in the wastebasket, and to return objects where he got them from. He’ll soon learn “po” and “opo.”

His Ate Jilliane is a special child, years older but just as innocent as he is, and he seems to sense her specialness. They fight, of course, like anything over anything, but he can be sweet and gentle, offering her a share of such goodies as he can finagle from us. He probably doesn’t yet understand what we keep whispering in his ear, trusting in subliminal suggestion to work its magic: “Buboy, be good, be smart and study hard, so you can take care of Ate when you grow up.”

As empty nesters and with our own dear daughter well cared for, Beng and I have pledged to see to it that Buboy gets a proper education, in school and at home, for as long as we can help his family help themselves. Other retirees adopt causes and NGOs; he will be our mission, of course with his parents’ cooperation and support.

When our friend Julie visited recently from the States and had a few pesos left over, she bought a stuffed cat to give to Buboy, which he promptly embraced and named, of course, Mingming. It does take a village to raise a child, but it doesn’t take too much to make one happy.

 

 

Penman No. 339: Dinner in Penang

IMG_9174.jpeg

Penman for Monday, February 4, 2019

 

A FEW days after I retired last month, Beng and I hopped on a plane to Kuala Lumpur on our way to Penang. I’d booked the trip many months ago, as a form of insurance against changing my mind about staying on at my job for another year or two, a very tempting option. Thankfully Malaysia Airlines had a sale on its flights, and that sealed the deal.

Why Penang? Because, about ten years ago, I made a vow to bring Beng to every city I’d ever been, and Penang was one of the few left on the list that was close and affordable, with the promise of a pleasant and relaxed vacation. (In your 20s, you look for bars and ziplining; in your 60s, a soft bed and a nice view of the sunset sounds just about right.) Malaysia also happens to be a personal favorite of ours—I’d taken Beng to KL, Melaka, and Kota Kinabalu before, with happy outcomes in all of those places.

The first and only time I’d been to Penang was in December 1992, when I and a few other Filipinos attended the Asean Writers Conference/Workshop being held there for writers below 40. It’s hard to imagine now that I was only 38 then, with a full shock of jet-black hair and a certain cockiness about the strength of Philippine writing in our part of the world; I’d just returned with a PhD from the US and had confirmed to myself that we could write as well as anyone else. That seemed to be upheld when the conference elected us president—an honor usually reserved for the host country—but our esteem took a few licks at dinnertime, when our Indonesian poet-friend, a man who had made a fortune reading poetry to thousands of paying listeners, dined up in the revolving restaurant, while my roommate Fidel Rillo and I snuck out to the hawker stalls, our precious ringgit jangling in our pockets.

IMG_9051.jpeg

There was, I must say, a sufficiency of ringgit to accompany Beng and me this time around, but we still chose to take the low road, as it’s very often more fun, foregoing the swanky beachside hotels in Batu Feringhi for more modest digs in central George Town, the island’s capital. We stayed at the aptly named 1926 Heritage Hotel, a long building that still displayed the grace and robust masonry of its colonial past. While highrises are beginning to crowd the Penang cityscape, its colonial architecture is the island’s true attraction, the old mansions set back by wide swaths of greenery and bougainvillea.

IMG_9062.jpeg

Not being beach types, Beng and I made a beeline on our first morning for the Penang State Museum (entrance fee, 1 ringgit), which had small but artful and informative exhibits on Penang’s mixed Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage. We always make it a point to master the local bus or metro system wherever we go to save on taxis, and armed with seven-day bus passes for 30 (about P400) ringgit each, we just rode buses from one end of the line to the other, enjoying the view and riding back.

IMG_9124.jpeg

IMG_9126.jpeg

IMG_9109.jpeg

The must-sees for anyone touring Penang are Penang Hill, which offers spectacular views of the city from about 800 meters up via funicular train, and the Blue Mansion, the magnificently restored 130-year-old home of one of China’s richest men, now also a hotel and a restaurant, but open to guided tours (tip: Wife #7 will haunt you). We took it slow, enjoying just one major destination for every one of our four days there, but George Town is full of interesting turns—among them, the old Protestant Cemetery with graves from the 1700s that Beng and I strayed into while walking to the Blue Mansion.

IMG_9166.jpeg

Most of all, Penang is about hawker food (so Fidel and I were on the right track back in 1992), with brand-new Mercedes-Benzes lined up for parking beside stalls hawking Hainanese Chicken Rice for 5 ringgit a plate. Being a creature of habit, I was quite happy to try chicken rice at various stalls, while Beng had her choice of possibilities from congee to char kway teow.

IMG_9186.jpeg

The trip reminded me of a short poem I wrote after my first visit there nearly 27 years ago, and here it is (Elangovan is a prominent Singaporean playwright).

DINNER IN PENANG

 For the second time in as many days

I come to her, and have the same

Two-ringgit dish of hawker’s prawn

Steamed in fragrant both, and its succulence

Competes in joyfulness with the garlic sauce.

 

The next morning, Elangovan says to me:

Those prawns were fatted on the city’s slime—

Look here, it’s in the papers,

“Waterborne diseases on the rise!”—

And while my reason grapples

With the sordid possibilities,

My stomach’s heart has no regrets,

Having loved, without need of asking,

Having departed more complete, in trusting.

IMG_9188.jpeg