Penman No. 260: Meeting Major Kennon

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Penman for Monday, July 17, 2017

 

MY RECENT visit to the University of the Philippines Baguio and its new Museo Kordilerya, on which I reported last week, reminded me of another Baguio-related question which I’d been asking for some time now—in fact, every time I rode up or down Kennon Road, as I did last month. My question was, “Who was Kennon?”

I recall having found the answer to that in pre-Internet days—that he was an officer with the US Army Corps of Engineers who brought hundreds of Japanese laborers over to work on the road—but I didn’t know the details until I actively sought them out online.

 What happened to rekindle my interest was one of those early-morning trawls through eBay, where I typically look for Philippine-related material like old books, maps, and postcards, especially UP memorabilia. Prize finds have included a December 1922 issue of the Philippine Collegian, and the first English edition of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines, published in London in 1853.

I buy them when I can afford them, seeing it as my mission of sorts to repatriate these artifacts from the great indifferent and unknowing void out there, but most of the time I enjoy myself just going over the images on eBay and saving them to my hard drive—postcards of Escolta ca. 1910 and 1950, portraits of Carnival Queens from the 1930s, and press photographs of fleeting personalities like the Huk guerrillas William and Celia Pomeroy upon their arrest.

A postcard of Kennon Road—that 33.5-km stretch of zigzag road from Rosario, La Union to Baguio City—prompted me to ask again, “Who was Kennon?” Some Googling and a quick visit to Wikipedia yielded the information that Lyman Walter Vere Kennon (1858-1918) was a decorated US Army officer, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who was a major when he moved to the Philippines in 1899 after postings in Central America and Cuba. He served as the military governor of Ilocos Norte before going down to Mindanao, where he built the road linking Iligan to Lake Lanao. Then he went up north again to work on what would be called, in its early years, the Benguet Road. He finished it in two years, one year ahead of schedule, but not without much toil and sacrifice.

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The real gem of that Google chase turned out to be an article by Kennon himself—a report he submitted to his superiors in August 1905 and reprinted by the Baguio Midland Courier in September 1957, the full copy of which you can read online here: http://www.baguiomidlandcourier.com.ph/centennial_article.asp?mode=centennial/supplements/kennon.txt.

In that report, Maj. Kennon lays out the scope of the task ahead of him: “The plateau (was) most difficult to access. The first explorers reached it only by following the steep, slippery, dangerous, and obscure trails of the native Igorrote. To make the highlands of Benguet accessible to the white man, the Spaniards, towards the end of the last century, built a horse trail from Naguilian to Trinidad and Baguio and planned an extensive sanitarium and other buildings in Baguio. Insurrection and war prevented the carrying out of the project.

“Soon after the American occupation the manifest need of some such institution was recognized and the Government decided to carry on into effect as soon as practical the plans of its predecessors. Baguio could practically be reached only from San Fernando and Naguilian, necessitating a sea trip of twenty-four hours from Manila and two or three days of horseback travel over a steep trail built by the Spaniards in 1892. In the stormy season, steamers were frequently a week in going from Manila to San Fernando. Evidently, such a trip was quite impossible for invalids and convalescents.”

Less than 18 months after they surveyed the terrain, Kennon could report that “This work had been done between the dates of Aug. 16, 1903 and Jan. 29, 1905—that is to say, in seventeen and one half-months. At the former date, the most optimistic prediction allowed three years for the opening of the road, ‘if it could be done at all.’ Others said it would take 20 years of work, some of the foremen on the road considered that they had ‘a life job.’”

Of course, Kennon’s triumphal report wasn’t the only side to that story. Kennon had imported large numbers of Japanese and Chinese workers to speed things up, and some of those workers stayed on, becoming part of Baguio’s rich cultural heritage. (As the late historian Lydia Yu-Jose would note, however, the real influx of Japanese immigrants would follow later.) Some of those encounters would prove almost unbearably bittersweet. Sinai Hamada’s classic love story “Tanabata’s Wife” draws on that experience, as does this story, recounted here: http://www.filipiknow.net/tragic-story-kato-brothers-benguet/.

Kennon died a brigadier general in 1918, a week after his 60th birthday, unable to join the war in Europe because of poor health, and likely a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic that decimated the global population that year. While a postcolonial view of Kennon Road would have the 4,000 anonymous workers who built the road as its real hero, it can’t hurt to remember or at least know the man who once looked up that mountainside and saw a ribbon of a road in his mind’s eye.

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(Photos courtesy of Erwin Tiongson, Project Gutenberg, and imagesphilippines.com)

 

Penman No. 244: Summer and Sacrifice

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Penman for Monday, March 27, 2017

 

LAST WEEK, my undergraduate class in Contemporary American Literature took up a short story that has never failed to elicit strong reactions since it was first published in June 1948, soon becoming one of America’s most anthologized stories. When Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” came out in The New Yorker, it caused such a firestorm of protest from angry readers that Jackson herself would later write that “Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends. Even my mother scolded me: ‘Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker,’ she wrote sternly; ‘it does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?’”

If you’re not familiar with the story and would want to read it first before dealing with the spoilers in this piece, I suggest you drop this paper for a few minutes and take a quick look here: http://fullreads.com/literature/the-lottery/. It’s an easy read—Jackson made sure that her story, like her mother suggested, would “cheer people up,” at least at the beginning, which is probably American literature’s most optimistic opening sentence: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.”

Set in a small farming town on a brilliant summer morning, the story seems to promise nothing but gaiety and frolic. Instead, it turns into a tale of dark horror and human sacrifice, where the townspeople draw lots to choose one of their own to be stoned by the others—including the victim’s own children—to death, in the name of tradition. (As in many primitive societies, these people have been led to believe that sacrifice will bring a good harvest.)

It’s a masterful piece of storytelling, and one that I often turn to for aspects of both craft and insight. In my English 42 American Lit class, we discuss the stories not only for their literary qualities, but also for their historical, political, and cultural significance. Why did the majority of “The Lottery”’s readers in 1948 react so violently against it?

For one thing, because The New Yorker at that time didn’t specifically identify it as a short story, many readers thought it was nonfiction, and couldn’t believe that something so horrible could take place in progressive, postwar America. (South Africa banned the story, leading Jackson to comment that “At least they got it!”) Most readers simply couldn’t take the idea that “good country people” (the title of another important Flannery O’Connor story) could be so stupid and so evil as to communally murder an innocent person for what was perceived to be the common good.

But this was also the age of McCarthyism, of witch-hunts fueled by the anti-Communist hysteria that swept America after the war. Suddenly your neighbor couldn’t be trusted, and too many people were only too willing to give someone else up in defense of “the American way of life.”

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My students and I talk about tradition and sacrifice, looking at examples from history, literature, and anthropology—from the animal sacrifice practiced by various tribes to the human sacrifice undertaken in massive numbers by the Aztecs. We discuss the reasons why these practices—some of which might now be deemed inhuman or inhumane—have persisted down the centuries into the present, chiefly the need to placate or propitiate a higher being to gain some reward in return.

Of course we discuss our own Filipino experience, like the ritual killing of pigs and chickens, and even tokhang’s communal aspect. But most notably, nothing brings tradition and sacrifice together for Filipinos more clearly than Holy Week and the figure of the crucified Christ who gives up his life to atone for humankind. Enacted in every Mass, but most vividly in the blaze of summer, Jesus’ sacrifice and our Christian identification with it very likely accounts for our fascination with martyrs such as Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino, and with the notion of the hero as sacrificial lamb.

In his study of Philippine literature, the scholar Gerald Burns cites Leon Ma. Guerrero, Rizal’s translator, when he observes in the context of our Roman Catholicism that “Filipinos do not value failure, or for that matter tragedy, for its own sake, but only insofar as these are submerged into the larger end of sacrifice. ‘We reserve our highest homage and deepest love for the Christ-like victims whose mission is to consummate by their tragic “failure” the redemption of our nation.'”

For my undergrads, it’s a lot to digest on a March afternoon, but I can sense that I’ve touched a nerve, especially when I close by asking them, “Should we have to equate heroism and sacrifice with dying? I would hope not. We can live, and not just die, for our country.”

Because of my administrative duties and the fact that I’ll be retiring in two years, this English 42 will likely be the last undergraduate class I will ever teach—a thought that fills me with great sadness and even greater responsibility. And it’s been a wonderful challenge and privilege to use a foreign literature to help my students become better Filipinos.

(For an excellent essay on Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery,” see here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/27/shirley-jackson-in-love-death/)

(Images from shirleyjackson.org and tvline.com)

Penman No. 222: An Education for the Well-Rounded Filipino

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Penman for Monday, October 24, 2016

 

IN A few weeks’ time, several hundred professors at the University of the Philippines’ Diliman campus will gather together for an important vote on UP Diliman’s General Education program—long seen to be the hallmark of a UP education. It’s important because what happens there will determine, to a great extent, what “tatak UP” will mean for the next generation or two, and what being “the national university,” as its charter defines it, entails as far as the quality and the breadth of its offerings are concerned.

The raging battle seems to be over how many units (or class-hours a week) to allot to General Education subjects, which have traditionally covered basic and compulsory courses in such areas as language (English and Filipino), history, math, science, and philosophy.

There’s a menu of options on the table, ranging from a formidable 45 units to a scant 21, and an emerging compromise of 30-36 units in between; the mix of courses in these totals is also under negotiation. Those who want more want to ensure that every UP undergraduate—whether he or she plans to become a lawyer, an engineer, a surgeon, or a painter—can talk intelligently as a well-rounded citizen about the Katipunan and mitosis and perspective and Sophocles and interstellar travel. Those who prefer less want students to graduate from their programs sooner, for UP to remain competitive with other schools, and suggest that students can imbibe some GE skills both from their K-12 add-ons and from their higher-level classes.

I don’t mind saying that I put myself squarely on the 30+ side. We can’t keep complaining that young Filipinos can’t write or speak in proper sentences or don’t know who Apolinario Mabini was—without doing enough to fix the problem, given the chance. Sure, some of these learning points can be addressed in senior high; but subjects like History, English, and Philosophy will still be different when taught in UP’s staunchly secular context and pitched as adult concerns.

But never mind me—let’s give a listen to one of our most accomplished writers, the Leyte-born but now New York-based Gina Apostol, whose novels have won the 2013 PEN America/Open Book Award and National Book Awards in the Philippines. Some time ago, Gina wrote UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan to plead for the strengthening of UP’s GE program, and I got her permission to quote from that letter here:

I am writing as a graduate of the UP English department, 1980-1984, a former teacher at the department, and as a novelist whose work has been indelibly shaped by my education at UP—in particular, by its General Education program, to which I look back daily in my own work as a teacher and a writer.

My three published novels owe their genesis to that program. My current novel, William McKinley’s World, about the Philippine American War, began in a PI 101 class in a classroom at Palma Hall Annex, where my professor taught me about a war I never knew about.

In those first two years at UP, I learned to think. The General Education program made me into a writer. I went to a private high school in Leyte that certainly taught me well (arguably just as rounded as the current K-12 program); but I needed the General Education program at UP to make me whole—a critical consumer, a nationalist thinker, a global reader, and finally, it gave me ground to think honestly and seriously about what education means, it gave breadth of thought to allow me to become who I am—a novelist whose work is absolutely grounded in the questions that UP had asked of me in my first two years at the school.

It is my misfortune (though some call it luck) that I have ended up teaching in the States, living among an extremely lucky group of students: the wealthy enclave of Manhattan’s private schools. But every day, teaching my very privileged, very wealthy students who can enroll in any school they want, I can compare what they have to my education at Diliman, and I am daily impressed by the foundational, long view of knowledge grounded in the breadth of UP’s General Education curriculum.

My experience as an educator and an artist here in America is that the education I gained at the University of the Philippines is equal to and (given the state of America) too often exceeds the quality of education abroad. This is true of my fellow alumni who come to America: we understand how well we were prepared.

I cannot underline this enough: I know that UP provided me with an incalculable, a priceless education. I am writing to state emphatically that the General Education program at UP should be enriched, not reduced.

Even today, having been to and taught at several schools considered the best of their kind in America—so acculturated and mired in the world of the privileged as I am here in America—every day, in my classroom, I still marvel at the amazing comprehensive education I got at the University of the Philippines.

Here in Manhattan, these kids are killing themselves to get into colleges with the kind of education I got at UP. My own daughter went to the University of Chicago, and I will say that I was proud (and fascinated) to know my education as a freshman and sophomore was equal to her own rigorous coursework in the General Education program of the University of Chicago, where highly able freshmen have to go through the GE program. As you know, Chicago’s program still stands as a beacon of higher education in America today.

At UP, as my daughter was at Chicago, I was required to take philosophy, maths, history, sciences, and four rigorous courses in English that made me read across cultures (the stories of Akutagawa and D.H. Lawrence, Marquez and Achebe)—to read across time (Machiavelli and Madariaga, Rizal and Homer)—and to read across disciplines. I noted that just as at the UP in my time, the University of Chicago does not stint its students—my daughter was required to do the full two years of humanities reading before she did her majors, reading Hegel and Homer as a freshman and sophomore, as I was asked to do in Diliman. In my case, much of the knowledge that has stayed with me came in one packet (Dadufalza’s primer). The way UP taught its students to think then remains an incalculable benefit, equal to the best in America.

I repeat: I learned to think at UP, and the General Education curriculum made me into a novelist. It made me into a writer who can hold her own anywhere. It distresses me to think that the university will fail even one child, one student from the provinces, like me, who arrives at the university not knowing exactly who she could be—but now without the bulwark of its tough and extended humanities curriculum to point her to the myriad possibilities that creates not only engineers but also artists, not only scientists but also philosophers. The rigorous General Education program of UP is a boon to the country.

UP should strengthen its GE curriculum, not reduce it.

Please let me know how we, alumni across the world, can help to strengthen our alma mater. We love UP, we love our education, we would love to help.

Gina Apostol, AB English 1984

 

 

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. 183: Why I Choose to Italicize

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Penman for Monday, January 18, 2016

 

ONE OF the more interesting sidelights in our discussions at the NVM Gonzalez Centennial Workshop in Mindoro a couple of weeks ago had to do with the seemingly small issue of whether or not to italicize Filipino and other non-English words in an English text.

The conventional practice, of course, has been to italicize words like utang na loob, bagoong, kaibigan, and so on. That’s explicitly embodied in editorial stylebooks employed by such publications as The Economist, which hews to the policy that “FOREIGN WORDS AND PHRASES, such as cabinet (French type), dalits, de rigueur, jihad, glasnost, Hindutva, in camera, intifada, loya jirga, Mitbestimmung, pace, papabile, perestroika, sarariman, Schadenfreude, ujamaa, should be set in italics unless they are so familiar that they have become anglicised and so should be in roman. For example: ad hocapartheid
 a priori
 a propos
 avant-garde, etc.”

Not everyone, however, feels bound by this rule. Increasingly, over the past couple of decades, writers of color in both the US and the Commonwealth (and, yes, the Philippines) have chosen to resist and reject italicization, believing that doing so represents a form of acquiescence to the dominance of English, and of exoticizing one’s own language, making it appear quainter and therefore more artificially attractive than it should. It’s a political rather than a mere technical decision, a declaration of independence, as it were, from the strictures of style laid down by the old regime.

One of the most quoted sources for this position is the New York-based novelist Daniel Jose Older, who demonstrates in a YouTube video why italicizing Spanish words and phrases in an English text would sound silly in the real, spoken world.

This was brought up again at the recent NVM Gonzalez workshop, where half of the participants were Filipino-Americans who came over from the US. The workshop leader—the very capable fictionist Dr. Evelina Galang, who directs the creative writing program at the University of Miami—discussed the use of Filipino words in a mainly English text, and why glossaries (and, not incidentally, italics) are better dispensed with, leaving the writer with the responsibility of establishing or at least hinting at their meaning in context.

(Evelina has an essay devoted to this concern, and let me quote an eloquent passage from that piece: “As a girl who grew up hanging upside down on easy chairs with a book in her hand, I often read words—English and other words—that I did not understand. I rarely stopped to define them. Sometimes I wrote them down and looked them up later. (I was a geek, after all.) But more often than not, having stepped into a fiction John Gardner called ‘that vivid and continuous dream,’ and driven to know what happened next, I kept reading. Like Angel, I let the words wash right over me, I watched them working next to other words. I listened to them. I tasted them and felt the weight of them in my mouth. I imagined them surrounded by nothing at all. I followed them as they floated down the page, bumping into semicolons, swimming through parentheses, slapping up against em-dashes, evading italics, and falling right off the page. I read the words in context and, right or wrong, I gave the words their meaning.”

I agree perfectly with Evelina as far as contextualization goes. I’ve always taken it as a technical challenge to show what Filipino words like bucayo and manananggal mean without defining them in that direct but clumsy way that glossaries or footnotes provide. Importantly, Evelina went on to emphasize that these choices are, ultimately, for each author to make for his or her own good reasons, and that those choices deserve to be respected by other writers and readers.

As it happens, I’m one of the holdouts in the matter of italicization, and I premise my position on both technical and political grounds. First, in terms of readability, italics may seem intrusive—and if there’s too many of them in the text, that will certainly be true—but my pet theory is that it’s actually easier on the reader’s eye and mind to spot a non-English word coming up in the text and to prepare for it, rather than be surprised by something “foreign”, even if it’s one of our own. (Just imagine the confusion that words like “ate” (older sister), “pain” (bait), and “noon” (then) would make.) Personally, I don’t want my readers—especially in my fiction—stopping to wonder what specific words mean, which is why the older I get, the simpler my vocabulary becomes; I want the reader to grasp whole sentences, paragraphs, and scenes, and not to trip on individual words.

Politically, when I italicize Filipino words in an English text, I also mean to say that these words are special to me and to my culture, and I don’t want them to be diluted by a dominant foreign language, which is English. As far as I’m concerned, the whole book in English is already a translation of Filipino experience; most of the dialogue there was never spoken in English, in the first place.

I suppose it’s different when you’re writing in English as a minority in America, and you feel bound (as I would, in that situation) to claim and establish a parity between your mother tongue and English. And let’s face it—for many hyphenated minorities, especially second- and third-generation writers, English has become their mother tongue. When they write fiction about themselves, their characters will speak in English, and the odd Filipino word will be just that.

Indeed the issue goes beyond italicization; the question of when and how to use Filipino or other non-English words in an English text should be seriously pondered by every Filipino or Filipino-American (and Filipino-Canadian, etc.) writing in English, mindful that there are words and concepts in Filipino without exact translations in English, which might be better used as is. (And as Salman Rushdie once put it, “To unlock a language, look at its untranslatable words.”) However, one also needs to resist the urge to exoticize one’s writing by peppering it needlessly with native words and expressions just to add more “local color,” especially when ready translations are available.

I’ll go at greater length into matters of translation in another column-piece, but I’ll rest my case on this issue of italics for now, hoping that it adds a bit more asim to the global sinigang of language.

Penman No. 182: In NVM’s Footsteps

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Penman for Monday, January 11, 2016

 

 

I’M WRITING this in Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, where I’ve come with a group of writers, most of them visiting Filipino-Americans, for the second and closing leg of the NVM Gonzalez Workshop, organized and led by NVM’s son Dr. Michael Gonzalez. Last year, 2015, marked the centenary of the late National Artist’s birth, and Myke thought that it would be fitting to hold the workshop, now on its sixth iteration, in the place most closely associated with his father, Mindoro.

NVM was actually born in my home province, Romblon (“about 60 kilometers and 40 years away,” I like to say), but he grew up in Mindoro, and wrote most of his works about its hardy people and their way of life, even when he moved to the United States. NVM died in 1999, but his memory remains fresh among his friends, colleagues, and former students on both sides of the Pacific. It was to honor that memory that Myke put this group together for both a workshop and a literary pilgrimage to the Philippines.

This year’s US-based contingent includes Mary Grace Bertulfo, who has written for television and children’s education and who runs a children’s creative writing workshop, Taleblazers, in Chicago; Anna Alves, a PhD student with the American Studies Program at Rutgers University in New Jersey; Chris “Kawika” Guillermo, a mixed-race Asian-American with Chinese, Filipino and Irish roots who has a PhD in English from the University of Washington, specializing in Asian and Asian-American fiction; Lisa Suguitan Melnick, a third-generation Filipina-American, an adjunct professor at the College of San Mateo and a contributing writer for PositivelyFilipino.com; Penelope Flores, a retired mathematician and educator from San Francisco State University; Myke Gonzalez, of course, who teaches Philippine Studies and Behavioral Science at the City College of San Francisco; and Evelina Galang, the workshop director, an accomplished fictionist who directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Miami.

Their local counterparts were Kat Cruz, a UP Business Administration graduate and company executive with a keen interest in writing; Meeko Camba, a young opera singer now studying Journalism in UP; Sarah Matias, a Creative Writing major who now runs Ant Savvy Creatives, a marketing and events company; Marily Orosa, a prizewinner publisher of coffee table books; Timmy Tuason, an expert in instructional design, materials development and project management; Jojo Hosaka, a surgeon and dog-show judge (and, like Timmy, a fellow fountain-pen enthusiast); Claire Agbayani, a graduate writing student at DLSU and PR practitioner; Judith Castillo, a teacher of English in Calapan; and Raul Manicad, an engineer, businessman, and guitarmaker. Myke and Evelyn were backstopped on the teaching staff by veteran fictionist Charlson Ong and myself.

We held the first part of the workshop from January 4 to 5 at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where NVM had taught for many years in the 1950s, in the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room of the College of Arts and Letters Library, which my office—the UP Institute of Creative Writing—administers as a repository of contemporary Philippine and Southeast Asian literature. From January 6 to 9, we moved to Calapan, where NVM used to go from their home in Mansalay to type out his manuscripts at the municipio, on paper that, Myke recalls, NVM apparently “borrowed” from the municipal government, whose stamp it bore.

The mixed composition of the group and the diversity of the participants’ backgrounds led to some very interesting discussions dealing with identity, race, language, and representation. While this was a writers’ workshop focused as much on technique as one’s philosophy of writing, inevitably the politics of writing took the foreground, given the Fil-Ams’ engagement with the issues that come with writing as a minority in America.

We talked about how the writer’s political positions define or feed into craft and technique, and how they shape the story itself. Understandably, given the environment they operate in, our US-based friends were keen on discussing the representation of race, of the Other, and the depiction of character in a racially or ethnically charged environment. We agreed that it was important to be accurate and to be fair in creating characters who will inevitably be seen to represent their race, whatever they may be; on the other hand, I interjected, it was just as important to remember that the character had first to succeed as an individual in the story, and that the character could even—and more interestingly—go against type; while we share many beliefs and practices as Filipinos, not all Filipinos think alike, and thankfully so.

The discussions also became a mutual revelation of what it was like to write as a Filipino and as a Filipino-American, and how we could be so similar yet also different in many ways. It wasn’t just the vocabulary, but the sensibility that came into play. In the end, we took the cue from NVM himself, who once famously explained his use of language thus: “I write in Filipino, using English.”

I learned a new word from Myke, who has a background in the social sciences—schismogenesis, promoted by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the 1930s, which roughly translates into how groups proliferate by breaking up. The context was the oft-made observation of how Fil-Ams and their organizations tend to fall apart because of personal and political differences (by one account I read, there are more than 3,500 Fil-Am organizations in Southern California alone)—a tendency we uniformly deplore. But Myke’s new word suggests a positive aspect, a way by which a race and its culture propagates itself.

We’d like to thank our hosts—the Madrigal-Gonzalez clan, for the use of the reading room in UP; Myke’s sister Selma, who spread out a very generous merienda for us; the Mother Butler Guild of Calapan, who conducted a charming putongan ceremony for the visitors; Florante Villarica, who has written a history of Oriental Mindoro and who had us over for dinner at his home; Anya Postma and the Mangyan Heritage Center, who made a wonderful presentation on Mangyan life and culture; and Chicago-based Almi Gilles, who lent us her their family’s beach house in Puerto Galera for our penultimate day in Mindoro.

And thanks, of course, to Myke and the Gonzalez family, for keeping their father’s flame alive.

Penman No. 175: Filipinos at the Field Museum

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Penman for Monday, November 23, 2015

 

 

AS MANILA got busy with preparations and lockdowns for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Beng and I flew out to Chicago for the culmination of a cross-continental initiative of another kind: the Art and Anthropology project hosted by the Field Museum and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

A few months ago, sometime in August, five Filipino-American artists (Jennifer Buckler, Elisa Racelis Boughner, Cesar Conde, Joel Javier, and Trisha Oralie Martin) came over to Manila to work with their homegrown counterparts on a large mural (technically a free-standing painting) featuring objects from the Field Museum’s vast collection of Philippine anthropological artifacts. That phase was hosted locally by the Erehwon Art Center in Quezon City, on the board of whose foundation Beng (aka June Poticar Dalisay, the painter and art conservator) sits as Vice President.

This October, the five Filipino artists (Leonardo Aguinaldo, Florentino Impas, Jr., Emmanuel Garibay, Jason Moss, and Othoniel Neri) went to Chicago to do the same thing—working collaboratively with the Fil-Ams on a 28’ x 7’ mural at the Field Museum, locating ancient Filipino artifacts in a more contemporary and inevitably globalized context.

The moving spirit behind this project was the indefatigable Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles, a Chicago-based Filipino-American cultural scholar and activist who also happens to be a prizewinning writer and presidential awardee for her work as an overseas Filipino. Inspired by the Philippine artifacts at the Field Museum, Almi—the only Filipino research associate at the Field—had secured a grant from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation for the project, which both the foundation and the museum acknowledged to be groundbreaking in many ways.

Better known for its so-called “genius grants” awarded to outstanding individuals, the MacArthur Foundation rarely provides funding for large institutions like the Field Museum, Almi says, but they saw in her proposal an opportunity to spur not just a trans-Pacific collaboration among artists but also a dialogue with the past. And there was no better host in the US for this project than the venerable Field Museum, whose collection of indigenous Philippine archaeological and ethnographic materials—numbering around 10,000 objects, most of them brought over by museum expeditions to the islands at the early part of the 20th century—is one of the world’s most comprehensive.

The mural produced by the artists in Chicago—which will be on display at the Field for six months since its formal unveiling last November 7—is both a celebration and indictment of our rich and complicated history, invoking all manner of element from the archetypal bulol and the revolutionary KKK (a symbol that predictably sparked some controversy, given its American context) to McDonald’s and Tito, Vic & Joey.

For the artists themselves, the collaboration was a rich, if sometimes unavoidably difficult, learning experience—learning about themselves, about each other, about art-making, about the mutable meanings of “Filipino” over time and space. Prior to the project, some of the Fil-Ams had never been to the Philippines, and some of the Filipinos had never been to America; that alone ensured sufficient provocation in their approach to the task at hand. The collaborative aspect itself was a challenge, given the need to manage and balance each artist’s individuality with some overarching purpose or design. But in the end, as Joel Javier would tell me, despite all the dialectics involved, it was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” that every participant—chosen by a jury in each country—would have signed up for.

Our sortie into the Field Museum—a place I’ve visited quite a few times over the past two decades, but can never exhaust, like the Smithsonian—was made even more special by a private tour arranged for us by Almi Gilles into the heart of the Philippine collection itself, in the underground vaults of the Field. As a certified museum rat and armchair adventurer, I took it as an invitation to die and go to heaven; the closest I hope to get to Indiana Jones was to wear his hat, which I wore on the appointed day.

We were met at the museum by co-curator Alpha Sadcopen, a young Filipino-American woman with roots in the northern highlands; she held the key to the collection, and led us into a large room where shelf upon shelf of tribal and cultural artifacts—baskets, textiles, weapons, utensils, body decorations, etc.—were preserved, most of them never likely to be put on display outside. “I could feel a shiver down my spine,” Beng would tell me later, and I certainly did myself, walking past the priceless objects, and discerning in each one of them a pair of hands, a face, a story.

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As if that peek into our material past wasn’t a treat enough, Almi then led us down a few more corridors to meet with another titan of Philippine studies—the renowned zoologist Dr. Lawrence Heaney, curator and head of the museum’s Division of Mammals. Larry began studying the wildlife of the Philippines in 1981, a lifelong passion that has resulted in the discovery of dozens of previously unknown mammalian species, in many landmark publications, and in the establishment, with Larry’s Filipino colleagues, of the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines.

We often think of world-class scientists as surly, self-absorbed individuals who can’t relate to anything beyond what they see in their microscopes and telescopes, but Larry defies that stereotype. You couldn’t have met a nicer man, and one who chose not only to sound the usual alarm about our threatened environment, but also to emphasize the positive and the possible. “Hectare for hectare, the Philippines is the world’s richest place for endemism,” he told us, cradling what seemed to be a huge rat saved from a 1946 expedition to Luzon, “and there certainly are serious threats to Philippine wildlife, but we’ve also noticed some bright spots. For example, the growth of overseas jobs for many Filipinos—despite its social costs—has also eased the pressures on the environment and on wildlife in many rural communities.” Dr. Heaney is coming over to Manila next year to launch another book, and I’ll be sure to be there.

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And what’s next for Almi Gilles? She’s looking skyward, into the connections between Philippine anthropology and astronomy. Her colleagues at the museum seem thrilled by the idea, and so are we.

For more pictures of the Philippine collection at the Field Museum, see here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/penmanila/albums/72157660699359089.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 170: History Made Personal

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Penman for Monday, October 12, 2015

THE RECENT upsurge of interest in our history occasioned by runaway success of the film “Heneral Luna” is certainly welcome. While the film and its propositions may have sparked a flurry of debates among netizens about what really happened more than a hundred years ago, the important thing—as I noted in one of those “Heneral Luna” threads online—is that we’re having this discussion at all, when not too long ago, very few people cared.

(One of the most salient comments I came across was posted by a viewer who mused that—for all our newfound admiration for the hothead general’s bravery and principled stand—had we lived in Gen. Luna’s time, or were those circumstances transposed to the present—most of us middle-class Pinoys would probably side with the general’s more pragmatic enemies, arguing business to be more important than anything else. That’s a sobering thought, especially these days when many people seem to think of “nationalism” as being too old-fashioned if not downright irrelevant in this age of globalization, conveniently forgetting that globalization benefits some nations and economies more than others.)

There have been many times when I’ve wished that I’d become a historian instead of a literary person, so I could have looked into our past more deeply and more seriously to make better sense of our present. Indeed, when I returned to the University of the Philippines as a freshman after a ten-year hiatus in 1981, I chose between declaring myself as an English or a History major (I had entered UP in 1970 as a prospective industrial engineer).

Were it not for the need to take the easier path to make up for lost time, I would have chosen History in a flash, as interested as I was in stories of “what happened.” In grade school and high school, I read more books dealing with history, biography, geography, and science than fiction; to this day, when people ask me what single book has influenced me the most, I don’t think twice about answering The Forest by William Pomeroy, a lyrical account of an American’s travails as a Huk guerrilla, which I read in high school and encouraged me to become an activist.

Mine was a generation of students who grew up on the enlightened revisionism of Teodoro Agoncillo, Hernando Abaya, and Renato Constantino. I use the word “revisionism” because the standard historical texts at that time were written by such men as Gregorio F. Zaide, a mimeographed and paperbound copy of whose book—my mother’s college textbook, for sure—was as fascinating to me as a boy as any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian chronicles. In grade school in the early ‘60s, I had yet to become aware of the important qualifications and nuances to be made to telling the story of our past, such as the fact that histories unavoidably took sides, and that it was all too easy to be seduced into taking the wrong one.

These days, I content myself with writing commissioned biographies and institutional histories—which, while they pose their own literary and scholarly challenges, do not by any means qualify me as a historian. I remain ever aware that the true study of history involves an appreciation of the grand sweep of things as much as the little details, and I have to admit that it’s the details I’m more often fascinated by, leaving it to larger minds to scope out the overarching logic or the grand design of the human narrative.

As a hopeless dabbler, hoarder, and kibitzer, I find myself irresistibly drawn to old objects and obscure information, and trade these gilded items with such fellow enthusiasts as my Washington-based friend Erwin Tiongson and his wife Titchie, who together run the Philippines on the Potomac website at popdc.wordpress.com. Erwin and Titchie were in Manila not too long ago for a vacation and a couple of lectures before the Philippine Studies Association and at the Ateneo, Erwin’s alma mater, on their most recent research into the colorful life in Washington of the remarkable Sofia de Veyra (you can read Titchie’s wonderful article on her here: http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/the-thoroughly-modern-sofia-de-veyra). My wife Beng and I had a chance to meet over lunch with the Tiongsons and with Sofia’s granddaughter Teresa “Binggay” Montilla and her aunt Rita Damian, and the look on Binggay’s face when the Tiongsons showed her pictures of her grandparents she had never seen before was priceless.

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Shortly afterwards, back in the US, Erwin wrote me to say that he had been able to track down an article in the May 20, 1921 issue of the Great Falls Tribune (published in Great Falls, Montana), about the protest launched by Fiipino Chinese businessmen, led by the banker Dr. Albino Z. Sycip, against a new bookkeeping law that apparently discriminated against Chinese merchants. Sycip had taken his case to the US courts, and was on his way to Washington to plead his case there. While he was in the States, on June 30, a son was born to his wife back home, a detail I recounted in a biography I wrote of the man who was that baby boy: “Albino decided to commemorate that visit by naming his new son ‘Washington.’ ‘Up to now Wash has semi-annual recurring bad dreams about what might have happened if the old man had been in Tallahassee or Vladivostok,’ the impish Alex [Wash’s brother] would write.” Erwin relayed the news item to Wash, who gratefully wrote Erwin back to say that he had never seen that article before (and another one reporting on his father’s victory in court).

More recently, Erwin and I have been exchanging clippings we’ve dig up on another outstanding Filipino, a Jesuit icon, the late Fr. Teddy Arvisu, and I’ll write up those findings one of these days (“His father wanted him to marry one of the Quezon girls,” Erwin tells me). I’d found an eloquent and impassioned speech against the rise of fascism by the young Teddy, published in a November 1940 issue of the Philippine Collegian; Teddy would become a soldier and join the Death March before achieving his dream of priesthood. At the moment, Erwin’s hot on the trail of Peyton March, the American officer who went after Gregorio del Pilar at Tirad Pass, and who lived in his last years in Washington. You better hurry, I told Erwin, as they’ll be making a “Goyong” movie soon.

Nothing of the kind of trivia that Erwin or I come across will change the big story of our past, but as avid amateurs, I’m sure we’re happy enough to help in making history more personal.

[Top image from the US Library of Congress]