Hindsight No. 1: A Time for Telling

Hindsight for Monday, January 17, 2022

IT WAS with great shock and sadness that I received the news of Manong Frankie Sionil Jose’s passing two Fridays ago; my recollections of him appeared online later that day. But just as jarring a surprise was a call I later received from Millet Mananquil, my editor in the Lifestyle section, and then from Doreen Yu, our Op-Ed editor, informing me that I had been chosen to take over FSJ’s column-space on this page.

It was a great privilege, of course, and I accepted it gratefully. But it also carried with it an awesome responsibility—to be honest, to be fair, to know enough about an issue to speak with some legitimacy about it, and also to be modest and open-minded enough to remember one’s inescapable fallibility. I don’t think that last one’s going to be a problem, because I’ve made mistakes often enough to know that—well, I make mistakes, some of which may have hurt people badly.

But last Saturday I turned 68, and with that age comes a keener sense of doing right, of accountability for one’s choices and judgments, as well as a greater tolerance for the shortcomings of others, though not of evil or of wrong itself. I intend to maintain those bearings in this new capacity.

Some readers may wonder how a Lifestyle writer like me—obsessed with fountain pens, old books, Broadway showtunes, and digital gadgetry—ends up doing op-ed, which seems a far more serious and consequential calling. A brief self-introduction might be in order.

I dropped out of UP as an engineering freshman in 1971 and, against all odds (not having spent one day in Journalism class, and being all of 18), landed a job as a features writer and general assignments reporter with the Philippines Herald in 1972. My first task was to fill up half the Features page every day—something that schooled me forever on the importance of deadlines and of resourcefulness, because I had to come up with the topics on my own. I moved to Taliba as a suburban correspondent; was arrested for my activism shortly after martial law was declared; spent seven months in prison; and upon my release joined the information staff of the National Economic and Development Authority, where I would work for the next ten years, picking up a diploma in Development Economics along the way.

I returned to school, finished up my academics all the way to a PhD (more for teaching than for my writing), and taught full-time while writing stories and film scripts. In the mid-1990s, thanks to my friend and now fellow-columnist Jarius Bondoc, I was hired as an editorial writer for the newly opened newspaper TODAY. Being busy with other aspects of management, our boss Teddyboy Locsin trusted me to do about three editorials a week, including the newspaper’s very first one. 

I discovered that opinion writing was exhilarating—but also, again, fraught with responsibility. It got to the point that I found myself wishing I could write something less driven by analysis and conscience—small things like my rickety VW Beetle, double-knit pants, and my love of crabs, instead of ponderous topics like prison reform, the defense budget, and Philippines 2000. (I still have 113 editorials that I wrote on my hard drive.) So I asked for—and got—a Lifestyle column called “Barfly” on the back page, which helped me decompress and kept me sane, reminding me that life was much more than politics and that beauty and fun were as important as anything else to happiness.

I’m going to keep that escape valve open—I’ve promised Millet that I’ll continue contributing my “Penman” column every now and then—but I’ll approach this new task with the loftiness of mind that it deserves (although you’ll excuse me if I sometimes prefer to take a more comic tack, as the best criticism is often served up with a smile). 

Unfortunately I’m not a political insider; I don’t make the rounds of kapihans and have become something of a happy recluse over the Covid lockdowns. You’ll see my politics soon enough—unabashedly liberal (with a small L), middle-force, intensely uncomfortable with both Right and Left extremes. (I came out of the Left and worked briefly for the Right as a sometime speechwriter for five Presidents—but not the last two.) I thank God every night for my family’s safety and for our blessings and for the well-being of others, but I’ve had my differences with Church dogma and would rather spend my Sundays reflecting on human frailty and redemption by reading a book or writing a story.

But I do have a deep and abiding love of history, of which I have so much more to learn. This is why I’m keeping FSJ’s “Hindsight” for this column’s title. (When I returned to UP to resume my undergraduate studies, I dithered between English and History, and chose English only because I was likely to finish it sooner). I agree with Manong Frankie, among many others, that one of the greatest obstacles to our nationhood is the fact that we have a very poor memory—much less an understanding—of our past. We’re reaping the bitter fruit of that amnesia now, in the prospect of electing a dictator’s son to the presidency, a full half-century after the father plunged this country into political and moral darkness by declaring martial law to perpetuate himself in power.

There—it’s when vexatious thoughts like that cross my mind that my fingers begin to itch and I want to editorialize, the complete opposite of my impulse as a fictionist to show and not tell. (I often begin my fiction-writing classes by comparing an editorial on, say, justice for the poor with a short story dealing with the same concern, but without once mentioning “justice,” “poverty,” and such abstractions.) But even as I remain a fictionist at heart, there’s a time for telling, for gathering up the threads of an unfolding narrative and declaring, in plain language, what they mean. That’s what I hope to do.

Penman No. 433: Finally, Facebook

Penman for January 16, 2022

My Lifestyle column in the Philippine STAR, “Penman,” has now been moved to every other Sunday, to avoid the awkwardness (and extravagance) of having two of my columns appear in the paper on Mondays. My takeover of F. Sionil Jose’s “Hindsight” on the Op-Ed page debuts tomorrow.

I WAS sixteen years late to the party, but I finally gave in and opened a Facebook account last June under my name, initially just for family. A few weeks ago I began accepting “friends,” of which I now have about 600, and I don’t intend to add too many more, although time and tolerance could change that reticence as well.

I resisted joining Facebook all those years for all the reasons some of my real-life friends remain staunch holdouts. Foremostly, it seemed to diminish and commodify the idea of friendship, replacing what should have been forged over conversation, coffee, and even conflict with a few keystrokes. Even now, looking at the roster of my newfound “friends,” I know—and do not really regret—that less than half of them are people I have actually broken bread or raised a toast with.

Honest to God, not being a politician, I don’t need 5,000 friends; I wouldn’t even know what to do with 1,000 of them. If they all pledged to buy my next book, then maybe I’d reconsider and lower the bar by a foot or two, in the cause of promoting literacy and my Fountain Pen Rescue Fund.

And then of course Facebook is a total timesuck, defined by the Urban Dictionary as “the void that gets created by engaging in an activity that seems like it will be short but ends up taking up huge amounts of time.” It’s just not human not to read and then not to respond to comments on your posts, and then not to read the posts of others and not to react to them.

Every “tag” might as well be a distress call; somewhere out there you’re being praised or reviled, and you just have to pause that report you’re drafting for the Board of Regents or that article you’re refereeing for the Journal of Linguistics to see what Cookie has been saying about that encounter in Boracay or Chef Dodo’s opinion of your dinuguan recipe.

As it is, even deciding who gets to be your Facebook “friend” or not raises all kinds of vexing and time-consuming moral dilemmas. I don’t know how others do it, but I review nearly every request I receive, going through that person’s profile—and not just our common “friends”—to see who and what’s behind the name. My rule of thumb is, if I really know you—and like you—then you’re in; if I know you by reputation, I might even feel honored, and click “confirm.” If I’ve never met or heard about you at all—which isn’t your fault or any fault for that matter—then I evaluate your application for virtual “friendship” using my shamelessly subjective criteria.

First, I check to see if you’re a real person, or that you are who you say you are. Early on in this “friendship” game, I received a slew of requests from impossibly pretty and shapely ladies, which made me wonder why I had waited sixteen years to enter paradise. (They all seemed to have one or two common “friends” with me, always the same persons, so I know who’s been extraordinarily amiable out there.) Out of curiosity (I swear!), I accepted one such request, and almost instantly got a private message that invited me to become her digital pen pal, because she was lonely and unoccupied in some far-off country. I wanted to tell her to buy my book of funny essays, or even my short stories, to relieve her boredom, but I had an inkling that creative nonfiction wasn’t going to be the bridge between us.

I checked out her posts—all of them suggestive of her good health and weight maintenance, and of her preference for clothes that did not consume too much fabric (kudos for sustainability)—only to notice that they had all been posted on the same day! My wonderment quickly turned to dismay, realizing that I, among other papas of the world, was being suckered into hell by this honeypot, who was very likely some ugly fellow like me named George or Brando. And so I sadly punched “delete,” as I did for the many others who would follow in Ms. Lonely’s wake.

Second, I check to see if you’re interesting and if we’ll get along. If all you can show me are endless updates of your profile picture—here’s me on the beach, here’s me with my dog, here’s me with a balloon, here’s me lifting weights—then we really don’t need each other, thank you. I have a soft spot for all kinds of artists, and I don’t necessarily just go for the famous or abundantly talented ones; I’ve signed in struggling young people because I admire honest effort.

If you’re a benign plantita proud of your grandkids, your succulents, and your muffins, you’re in—the world needs you! If you became my friend just to sell me something, you’re out (unless you buy my book first). Now here’s a killer: if I see even the slightest sign of you supporting dictatorship, book-banning, EJK, and fake news, you’re out. (I know we’re supposed to make friends across the political divide, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya,” but I didn’t join Facebook to get my daily dose of aggravation.)

Penman No. 432: In memoriam, FSJ

Penman for Friday, January 7, 2022

TO THE chorus of voices mourning the passing of Manong Frankie Sionil Jose, let me add my own.

For a very long time, Manong Frankie and I were not what could honestly be called friends. I had said hurtful things about him and his work, and I could feel that he took that to heart. 

But we did begin on a very high and encouraging note. In 1983, he selected me and a few other Filipino writers—Rey Duque, Marj Evasco, and Fanny Llego among them, as far as I can remember—to attend a writer’s seminar in Bali that he and his friend the late Takdir Alisjabanah had organized to bring young Southeast Asian writers together. It was my first big international conference, and it was exhilarating to be talking literature on the fringe of a crater lake. I deeply appreciated that gesture on Manong Frankie’s part; through him I met such luminaries as Edwin Thumboo, Shirley Lim, and Cecil Rajendra. At that point I had read and appreciated The Pretenders and many of FSJ’s short stories.

Some years later, I was in America studying for my MFA in Michigan and then my PhD in Wisconsin, and at some point I was interviewed by National Public Radio about Philippine literature—I can’t recall why, or why me (it was probably just after EDSA, when the world’s eyes were upon us, and I was conveniently available)—and when FSJ’s name came up I indelicately repeated what I thought was the prevalent opinion then (and until much later) of his work among my fellow writers in English: that while he wrote about all the right things, his prose was far too plain and lacking in certain qualities. (It was an opinion that would understandably provoke a backlash from FSJ’s supporters who valued his substance more than his style.)

That must’ve gotten back to Frankie because—whether I just imagined it or not—I felt that I got the cold shoulder from him from then on. It didn’t help that he seemed to have a bone to pick with UP and creative writing workshops, and held the notion that we were out to create clones of our snooty selves, detached from the harsh realities of life on the ground. I (and many others) continued to be exasperated by his cantakerousness (I even called him “cranky Frankie”) and groaned at his propensity to lecture young writers to the point of scolding them for one shortcoming or other.

But even so no one could deny his massive and meaningful contributions to our literature and to the idea of a literature grounded on history and social reality. When I happened to serve on the preliminary committee vetting candidates for the National Artist Award the year he eventually won it, I had no problem putting my minor misgivings aside and voting for him.

I’m not sure when the thaw in our relationship began, but it must have been when we were both invited in 2017 to an NCCA-sponsored seminar in La Union where I was asked to give a talk on Manuel Arguilla. I knew he was going to be listening, and I have to admit that I wrote my lecture with him specifically in mind, wanting to reassure him that I wasn’t some city-boy snob who didn’t know one end of a carabao from the other and who couldn’t write about anything but professors sipping cappuccinos at Starbucks. Through Arguilla, I wanted him to know that I felt and understood—and indeed wrote about—his concern for common and unarticulated lives.

Later that year, when I spoke at the annual Palanca Awards dinner about how writers in our society often have to write for others for a living but also need to redeem themselves through their art, he approached me from below the podium and extended his hand to congratulate me, and I knew we had reconciled.

We were brought even closer when he and the late Sen. Edgardo J. Angara founded the Akademyang Filipino, asking me to serve as a trustee along with such stalwarts of civil liberties as former Justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio Morales. He would remind me, among the most junior members of that board, to make sure the Akademya survived him, pleading his age. (His daughter Jette, who sadly died just weeks before Frankie, was our very capable executive secretary.)

He and Manang Tess would invite me and Beng for dinner, and he was very happy and surprised when I presented him once with a copy of the maiden issue of Solidarity, which he had lost. In private, he told me something that assured me that we had, again, become friends.

Still, for all that, his mercurial politics continued to confound me. Separated by the Covid lockdown, our meetings stopped, although even if we had met I probably would not have been able to ask him to his face how he could reconcile his loathing of dictatorship with his approval for Marcos’ successor. Not I nor anyone else could have changed his mind. It was sad to see him savagely reviled for his contentious remarks about ABS-CBN and Maria Ressa, among other issues, but I suspect that there was a part of him that courted and reveled in the notoriety.

And that was what I learned about F. Sionil Jose: you had to take him as he was, all of a package, or reject him outright, which would also be a pity. Nearly all great writers had their quirks and imperfections, but it’s their work that survives and surpasses all our momentary misgivings.

Farewell, Manong!

Penman No. 431: Restoring a Binondo Landmark

Penman for Monday, January 3, 2021

THERE’S A charm and a mystery to old Manila’s Binondo district that even casual passersby can’t miss, an appeal compounded of centuries of history, commerce, and the daily lives of one of the country’s most industrious and yet also least understood communities, the Chinese Filipinos (the usage Teresita Ang See advocates over “Filipino Chinese,” given that the second term denotes their political and geographical home). 

Having been established in 1594 by the Spanish as a settlement for Catholic Chinese, Binondo (among other contiguous districts) became the world’s oldest Chinatown, evolving down the centuries into one of Manila’s most thriving business centers and choicest real estate locations. Here, all within hailing distance of the 425-year-old Binondo Church, hardware shops selling everything from portable generators and electrical equipment to automotive spare parts and screws of all sizes stand cheek-by-jowl with seafood restaurants and, inevitably, banks.

One of those banks has been an economic and cultural landmark not just in Chinatown but in the country’s history for a century now, and the restoration of its old Binondo headquarters is a fitting capstone to the bank’s centennial celebration.

The bank is none other than China Bank, which set up shop in 1920 in the same general neighborhood—at No. 90 Calle Rosario (now Quintin Paredes St.). It didn’t take too long before the bank realized that it needed more space for its growing business, and by 1924, it had moved into its newly built, five-story (later extended to seven) building at the corner of Juan Luna and Dasmariñas streets. It had been designed by the German architect Arthur Julius Niclaus Gabler Gumbert in the Neoclassical style then in vogue, with Beaux-Arts touches. Later known as the Binondo Business Center, the building served as the bank’s head office until 1969, when China Bank moved its key operations to Makati.

No one could have walked up to that building pre-war and remained unimpressed. It was the physical manifestation of China Bank’s high ambitions, but grounded in the realities and challenges of operating in an environment that in some ways remained suspicious of if not hostile to Chinese businessmen. The young visionary Dee C. Chuan, already a lumber magnate in his twenties, was quoted to have said around 1911 that “Many Chinese known by their countrymen to be worth half a million pesos are unable to get credit from the present banks.” 

The answer was to form China Bank, with the help of such highly respected co-founders as Guillermo Cu Unjieng, Carlos Palanca, and Albino SyCip; it was to be a bank that would combine Eastern values with Western banking know-how and cater to the underserved community of Chinese businessmen and entrepreneurs in the Philippines, many of whom would move on to be become taipans in their own right. And from early on, through the Depression and the Second World War, the bank relied on its close relationship with its clients—among whom xinyong or word of honor was paramountly important—to retain their business, paying off its obligations even when other banks had defaulted on theirs. A century later, China Bank has moved far beyond its Chinese-Filipino niche market to serve a much broader public, achieving its target milestones of P1 trillion in assets and P100 billion in capital by the end of 2020. 

But the bank didn’t want to celebrate its centennial just by counting its money. According to China Bank SVP and Centennial Committee chairman Alex C. Escucha, as early as 2016, the bank’s leadership under its chairman Hans Sy had already decided that the restoration of the old Binondo headquarters would be the centerpiece of their centennial. 

Not only would the building undergo a thorough and historically authentic renovation led by Architect Manuel Noche, former secretary of the Heritage Conservation Society; a bank museum would also be built, curated by Marian Pastor Roces, for the public to appreciate the business and culture of banking through memorabilia, art, and mementoes. Sonia Olivares Santiago & Associates and Maja Olivares-Co would work on the contemporary design aspects of the Binondo branch. This was realized last December 21 with the unveiling of two historical markers for the restored Binondo Heritage Center and the China Bank Museum by the National Museum and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.

The bank also published a comprehensive coffee table book, 100 Years of Trust: The China Bank Story, a substantially new version of its 90th-anniversary book written by the late Raul Rodrigo, updated by his wife Nancy Pe Rodrigo; edited by me, with the invaluable assistance of Alex Escucha (the bank’s encyclopedic institutional memory), Ann Ducanes, and Hershey Villegas, among others; and handsomely designed and produced by Perez NuMedia. 

But it’s the Binondo Heritage and Restoration Project that the general public will likely appreciate the most, because it visibly connects past with present and shows the way forward for institutions with similar forms of heritage to protect. At a time when cultural treasures and landmarks are being demolished wholesale to make way for new malls and condos, China Bank proves that history can be a continuing concern (in all its decades of operation, the Binondo office never stopped being a bank). What’s needed is vision and commitment, which China Bank Chairman Hans Sy and President William Whang have proven to have in abundance.