Penman No. 377: A Harvest of Singaporean Fiction

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Penman for Monday, December 23, 2019

 

WRITING ABOUT Singaporean short fiction in the Malaysian literary journal Tenggara in 1990, the highly respected Singaporean poet and teacher Robert Yeo observed of his country’s short story writers that “They prefer the relative safety of naturalism or realism and have learned to construct the short story in terms of traditional ways of having a well-defined plot, a single moment, clear characterization, and a resolute or indeterminate end. There are no innovative tales like the surrealism of Franz Kafka, the magical realism of Marquez or the labyrinthine mazes of Borges, writers who have responded to the urgings of their personal visions of the worlds they inhabit and make….” At the same time he remained optimistic, and opined that as poets had lorded it over the previous decades, the time for fictionists had come.

Prof. Yeo’s self-criticism reminded me that, years earlier, I spotted a remark in the introduction to an anthology of Singaporean short stories that Singaporean writers had much to learn from their Filipino counterparts, who had explored the territory with both talent and audacity.

Two weeks ago, as I attended the awarding ceremonies of the Golden Point Award at the National Library of Singapore, I reflected on those comments and was happy to conclude, on my hosts’ behalf, that those days of cautious apprenticeship were over: Singaporean fiction had fully come of age. Indeed perhaps it had done that much earlier than I had noticed, but this time I was staring it in the face, in the form of the superlative pieces that won prizes in the GPA competition.

Begun by the National Arts Council in 1993—perhaps precisely to encourage the risk-taking and innovation that Robert seemed to be missing—the Golden Point Award is Singapore’s biennial version of our much older and broader Palancas, focused on discovering and encouraging new writers in Singapore’s four official languages (English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil) in the poetry and short story categories. I was the sole international judge in the English short story, a task and privilege I shared with two distinguished Singaporean writers, Meira Chand and Balli Kaur Jaswal (who had also been a David TK Wong Fellow at Norwich, and who lived for some time in Manila).

The judging that we did online over several weeks was exciting but exhausting. Of the 1,200 entries submitted this year to the GPA in all categories, more than half went to the English short story. We plodded patiently through the digital pile, and were pleasantly surprised to find, when we finally met in Singapore for the final deliberation, that our top-six shortlists were practically the same, save for one or two pieces.

The stories submitted covered an astonishing and also very revealing range of themes and concerns that created (especially for me, as an outsider looking in) a comprehensive image of Singaporean society today. They included the following, in no particular order: migrant workers; Chinese grandparents; filial piety; competition and conformity; the generation gap; Western education, the English language (Oxbridge and British accents), and social status; arranged marriages; racial disharmony; sexual liberation; Singaporean history and nationhood; the Singaporean future; utopia and dystopia.

Addressing Robert Yeo’s earlier plaint, the entries also came in full range of genres, from realism to fantasy and science fiction, horror, young adult, even erotica.

In my judging, I looked for the human in the Singaporean, and the Singaporean in the human. While it may not have been explicitly stated in the rules, I tried to see how the works represented both contemporary Singaporean society and also the state of writing in Singapore.

The best stories for me displayed complexity, subtlety, intimacy, and insight; they had a palpable narrative and emotional impact, and took their time to develop their tensions and arrive at their subliminally earned conclusions. I was especially taken by our second-prize winner, “Little Fears” by Lauren Ho, which drew on the tension between a Singaporean mother and her Filipino nanny, who had clearly won over her child’s affections.

The least successful ones bore many of the hallmarks of amateurs, which I see often enough in our own workshops and the Palancas: a plethora of literary quotes and allusions, hurried summaries of situations, essayistic discussions of their subjects, revelatory titles, one-dimensional characterizations, and predictable plots.

Nevertheless, the enthusiasm of all participants—the courage of writing and submitting a story for judgment—should be commended, as I could sense that the GPA was as much about encouraging effort and expression as it was about recognizing excellence.

At the awards ceremony, I also had the opportunity to meet and chat with Singaporean publisher Edmund Wee, whose Epigram (epigrambooks.sg) imprint has been championing local literature and writers. Now Edmund is looking beyond Singapore itself for the best new works by sponsoring the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, which offers the largest prize money in the Singaporean—indeed Southeast Asian—literary circuit: S$25,000 (about P933,000) plus a publishing contract; three other shortlisted finalists will get S$5,000 and a publishing contract. Starting this year, the competition was opened to ASEAN authors, and Edmund made a point of asking me to encourage more Filipinos to join. The next deadline will be in August 2020, with the winner to be announced the following January. Check out their website, folks.

With incentives like the GPA and the Epigram Prize, Prof. Yeo can rest assured that Singaporean fiction will be alive and well for many decades to come.

 

Penman No. 375: Delightful Turkey

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Penman for Monday, November 25, 2019

 

AS 2019 draws to a close, it’s struck me that the year I turned 65 and retired has also been the busiest travel year of my life. Since I shut the door to my office for the last time in January—and thanks to my retirement check—my wife Beng and I have been to Penang, Tokyo, Scotland, London, Singapore, Turkey, the US, and Macau, doubling down on a pledge to keep moving while our knees can take it, which may not be for much longer. We’re also empty nesters, so with no fixed schedules and domestic responsibilities, it becomes that much easier to pack a bag and vanish for a few days. (Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that I have no work to worry about—I just carry half a dozen book projects with me all the time, on the road, in my trusty laptop and backed up to the Cloud.)

Among all those places—most of which we’d already been to before—the pick of the year has to be Turkey. Like many Pinoy seniors standing at the pre-departure area, I’d long nursed a Turkish trip on my bucket list—and it’s hardly just me: Turkey, specifically Istanbul, remains the world’s top tourist destination, attracting some 30 million visitors a year.

Why Turkey? Because why not? The very name conjures exotic adventures in a landscape swept by history and culture. Mosques, muezzins, and markets all come to mind, in a gaudy parade of images and tropes shaped as much by Hollywood as by the TV news. Indeed my earliest acquaintance with Turkey came with a movie I saw at the Leleng Theater behind Pasig’s public market as a boy in the mid-‘60s. It was titled “Topkapi” and starred Melina Mercouri, and it had to do with jewel thieves going for an emerald-encrusted dagger on exhibit in the palace of that name, and I remember how far away Turkey seemed,  in that lice-infested darkness, from the fish scales and pineapple peels of my reality. More than fifty years later, I was going to be the jewel thief, and the precious dagger was none other than Turkey itself, which I was going to see and hold for myself.

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The immediate trigger for this sortie was an irresistible offer we heard about from the Makati-based Rakso Travel agency, which sells package tours to Turkey for less than $2,000 all-in—and by “all-in” they mean exactly that, inclusive of flights, hotels, all meals, tours, tips, and visas. We thought it was an amazing deal, given that the trip would cover ten days and eight nights (the extra days would be for the flights) and cover all the major cities and sites you’d like to see in that country (with the exception of Mt. Ararat on the eastern side, off-limits because of political tensions). The itinerary included Istanbul, Cannakale, Troy, Pergamon, Kusadasi, Ephesus, Cappadocia, Konya, Amasya, Safranbolu, and Istanbul again—a 3,000-kilometer romp. Rakso also took care of the visas, which are now easier and cheaper to get if you have a US visa, in which case you can receive an e-visa online.

Despite being seasoned travelers, this was the first time Beng and I joined a group tour, and we were relieved to see, as we assembled at the airport, that our all-Pinoy group of 38 was composed mainly of mature professionals and bright young people eager to explore the world. The most senior member of our group was a jolly, still sprightly, and beer-loving 88-year-old we all called “Tatang,” whose very presence offered hope that we had some mileage still ahead of us.

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The 12-hour flight from Manila to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines was timed perfectly to arrive in Istanbul at dawn, with the city’s towers rising about the mists, heralding a whole new day of discovery and adventure. And that’s what awaited us for the next eight days, starting right off the bat after a quick breakfast with the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, two of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks.

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I’m not going to bore you with a blow-by-blow, scene-by-scene account of all the sites we visited; there’s often nothing more annoying than to have to leaf through someone else’s travel pictures, which also tend to look like, well, everybody else’s. There are only so many “evil eyes” (the virtual logo of Turkish tourism) you can look at, only so many Turkish delights you can nibble on.

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I’ll just say that aside from Istanbul itself, with its majestic domes and labyrinthine markets, the highlights of the tour for me were those on the quiet side: driving past the muted batteries of Gallipoli; standing on the ramparts of Troy, overlooking what would have been a tableau of both courage and carnage; stepping into the ancient library at Ephesus; watching dozens of multicolored balloons lift up into the early morning sky at Cappadocia; having lunch in Amasya with a waterfall cascading behind Beng’s shoulder; and stumbling into a sidestreet in Safranbolu, canopied by grapevines.

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Hats off to Rakso for the package—the hotels and the food were excellent, the tours were fascinating (if fatiguing for the slow-footed), our guide was wonderful, and we emerged with three dozen new friends. I still keep two precious boxes of Turkish delights in the fridge, which our guide said would easily keep for six months; Turkey itself will surely linger longer in the memory.

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Penman No. 366: A Little Learning

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Penman for Monday, August 12, 2019

 

I KNOW and can appreciate the effort (and maybe even the talent) that it takes to add two or three little letters to your name, which are supposed to suddenly make you look ten times more learned than you were before. For the record, I picked up my PhD in English back in 1991 when I was 37, a few years after I got my MFA (or Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing).

Why am I parading these academic credentials? Because it’s something I hardly ever do, or need to do—except when… but I’ll get to that in a minute. Let me just say, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that among the real, practicing writers I know (even those with PhDs), a PhD is worth about as much as a flyleaf or an empty page in a book. You can get a PhD in English or Literature or Creative Writing after a lot of patient study and writing a ton of intelligent-sounding papers, but the degree won’t guarantee that you can or will write an outstanding novel or book of poems.

Some of us spend an extra five to six years after the master’s anyway to go after the PhD, basically because nearly every university today requires it if you plan on teaching in college as a career besides writing, and because, well, some of us just want to study and write some more under pressure. You could call it the love of learning, which has become strangely irrelevant to many people in this age of tunnel-vision efficiency. At least that’s how I remember my own time in graduate school in Michigan and Wisconsin, when I would madly read two books in one day, exhilarated more by the obscure and bloody excesses of Elizabethan revenge tragedy than by any kind of practical expectation.

I recalled those heady moments when, a few weeks ago, I stumbled on a post in a forum I belong to, one devoted to collecting vintage typewriters, from a fellow we’ll call Dickie. Dickie shared an interesting note about his icon—the famously abrasive science fiction writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018; that’s him in the pic, c/o Variety)—who used typewriters well into the age of laptops, and who supposedly asserted, as some typewriter folk are wont to do, that using computers to write was BS, because computers produced bad, lazy writing. Dickie presented himself as a writer—a claim I’m happy to accept and respect, until proven otherwise—and took Ellison’s word as proof positive that, well, people like him who used typewriters were therefore better writers than the rest of mankind (I’m using a bit of hyperbole here, but you get the point).

Maybe I should’ve known better, but I submitted a gentle rejoinder to say that, with all due respect to Mr. Ellison, that was BS, too—good writers adjust to the tools at hand, and I was willing to bet the house that 99% of all the best novels of the past 20 years, going by anyone’s list, were written on computers. I myself had gone through the whole gamut from handwritten manuscripts to typescripts to computer printouts, and while each technique had its advantages, nothing allowed revision—so essential to good writing—as easily as the computer. Tut, tut, Dickie messaged back: I had better rethink what I just said, because “I’m better educated about literature than you.”

That was kinder than what he told another forum member who queried him about the precarious quality of his own prose, which he promptly withdrew from public viewing, remarking instead on his critic’s mammaries. Still, it set off a little explosion in my head—not because it couldn’t possibly be true (I’d be the first to say that I know zilch about literary theory, for example, which went in one ear and out the other, and that I’ll take Maugham over Murakami anytime), but because he could make statements like that with absolutely no idea whom he was talking to. I was on the forum using a pseudonym (to avoid having to deal with “friends”), and even if I had used my real name, I doubt that it would have rung a bell in his insular brain. I could’ve been TS Eliot, Chinua Achebe, or Susan Sontag, and he would’ve said the same thing.

Again, I have an extremely modest estimate of my own erudition, and I’m not given to flame wars, but in this case I just had to let fly a salvo of demurrers to put a presumptuous, uhm, Dickie in his place: “If,” I said, “you took your PhD in Literature before 1991, published more than 35 books, and taught literature and creative writing for more than 35 years, then indeed, sir, you are very likely better educated about literature than I am. Back to typewriters, shall we?” After a pregnant pause, he huffed: “English is NOT my second language.” I imagined a worm retreating into its burrow, but before it could vanish completely, I posted: “Ah, yes, it’s only my second language—but there’s a third, and a fourth.”

I was tempted to ask, “Pray tell, and please correct this second-language learner if he’s wrong, but would ‘puerile asininity’ best describe your attitude?” But I let it go at that—the moderators kicked him off the forum shortly afterward, for more egregious misbehavior.

Once, as an exchange professor in an American liberal-arts college, I attended a welcome party where a kind-looking lady walked up to the obvious foreigner to make him feel at home. “So what are you teaching?” she asked sweetly. “The American Short Story,” I said. Her eyes widened in utter disbelief. I smiled and excused myself.

It really doesn’t mean much, but maybe I should trot out that PhD more often.

 

Penman No. 363: A Singapore Swing

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Penman for Monday, July 22, 2019

I’VE BEEN visiting Singapore nearly every year for one reason or other, usually for a conference or at least passing through Changi on my way elsewhere, but this month Beng and I decided to fly there just to have a little fun.

I did have an official excuse, sort of, for this particular swing—the 3rdSingapore Pen Show held at the Marina Mandarin on July 13, which brought together the country’s and region’s premier sellers of pens and related products. I thought I would drop by for a look-see as the “old man” of Philippine fountain pen collecting, and happily I was accompanied by a small but very knowledgeable Pinoy contingent that included adwoman and artist Leigh Reyes (who also happens to be the new president of our Fountain Pen Network-Philippines), medical executive Joseph Abueg, and avid collector Micah Robles, among others. We were all proud to see two major Filipino companies represented at the Singapore show and generating brisk sales and inquiries: Jillian Joyce Tan’s Everything Calligraphy, which was showing off its new line of Philippine-made Vinta inks, and Arnold Ang’s Shibui leather pen cases, which can easily compete in quality and design with the world’s best.

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I’ve been to many other pen shows around the world, chiefly in America where they happen year-round, and while Singapore’s may be relatively smaller because newer, it also showcased Asia’s strengths as the producer of some of the world’s finest pens—the high-end Japanese Nakayas, for example, which are rarely seen in the West. Eurobox, which has a formidable collection of vintage pens, came in from Tokyo; and André Mora of the renowned Mora Stylos flew in all the way from Paris with a bevy of their coveted Oldwins. Pen shows are as much about people as they are about pens, and I was delighted to see some old friends like Lai Kim Hoong of Malaysia’s PenGallery, as well as make some new ones like Tan Fong Kum of Singapore’s Aesthetic Bay and Ng Lip Sing of Singapore’s Straits Pens.

So did I buy anything? I normally step out of pen shows with a wild man’s stare, clutching four or five precious finds in my fists, but the great thing about having too many pens is that you know when to stop and to just enjoy the scenery, which is what I did. I came to Singapore to talk pens with kindred spirits, and brought a selection of 12 of my most interesting vintage and modern pens, and had lively conversations about a few of them. Unlike our Manila Pen Show—the next one of which will take place November 16-17 this year—which is far busier and which features more side events like lectures and demos, Singapore’s was still more of a market than a community, and I would’ve liked a longer chat over coffee with our local counterparts, but maybe next time.

Our other objective for this Singapore trip was to visit the National Gallery, which somehow doesn’t figure on most tourist itineraries like the Marina Bay Sands or the Gardens by the Bay. Built where the old City Hall and Supreme Court stood, the National Gallery is both an imposing but also welcoming structure, with guides and docents ready to walk you through the exhibits. Aside from Singaporean art, of course, the gallery’s strength lies in its collection of Southeast Asian art, which is breathtaking in its range of styles as well as in its commonality of themes—nation, nature, people. Filipino talent is well represented throughout the exhibit—from the ground floor, where Mark Justiniani’s mind-blowing (and, for the vertiginous like me, unnerving) “Stardust” bridge obliges the visitor to take a literal walk through bottomless space, to the succession of galleries on Levels 3-5 where “Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia since the 19th Century” is on show.

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A trio of less-known 1940s Amorsolos is flanked by the orchestrated chaos of a Purugganan; an early and dark Edades exudes primal energy; elsewhere are exemplary pieces by Galo Ocampo, Arturo Luz, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Napoleon Abueva, Bobby Chabet, Ray Albano, Santy Bose, and Imelda Cajipe. But the piece de resistanceof Filipino modernist representation is H. R. Ocampo’s Dancing Mutants, encountering which made our whole Singapore trip worth it. And the curators themselves must have been aware of the specialness of this stunning work from 1965, according it its very own corner in the gallery, almost altar-like. I’ve seen many Ocampos (with Beng restoring quite a few of them), but this one made me want to fall on my knees in praise of its creator.

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And purely by serendipity, when we stepped out of a mobile-phone shop on North Bridge Road, I noticed that the building across the street was none other than the National Library, which I’d visited as a journalist on a previous assignment. Let’s go in, I told Beng, I want to show you something. So we did, and there on the 11thfloor was a permanent exhibit on “Singapore’s Literary Pioneers”—featuring not only the books of the country’s best writers, but also their pens, typewriters, and even their eyeglasses. This, I told Beng wishfully, is how writers should be revered. Always better than a pen show is seeing what comes out of those pens, at their very finest.

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Penman No. 353: Our Very Own Indiana Jones

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Penman for Monday, May 13, 2019

 

IT ISN’T every day that a Filipino scientist captures the imagination not only of his own people but of the world, but last month, this amazing feat happened, putting Filipino science squarely on the global map.

The “feat” wasn’t just one event but the culmination of many years of painstaking work, research, and analysis, culminating in the publication of the results in Nature magazine of a cover article titled “Out of Asia: A newly discovered species of hominin from the Philippines,” attributed to an international team including Filipino archeologists Armand Mijares, Eusebio Dizon, and Emil Robles. The article announced the discovery of what the team named Homo luzonensis, a new and previously unknown hominin or human-like species. (For a laymanized version of the article, see here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01152-3.)

The discovery consisted of about a dozen small bones found over several years in Callao Cave in Peñablanca, Cagayan, which taken together indicate that an early form of man lived here at least 50,000 years ago. Dr. Mijares, an associate professor with the University of the Philippines’ archeological studies program who led the international team, had been excavating the area since the early 2000s. In 2007, the digging paid off with the discovery of a foot bone “dated to 67 thousand years ago  (which) provided the earliest direct evidence of a human presence in the Philippines,” according to Nature. The discovery radically questions and reforms previous theories about human migration in Southeast Asia.

As exciting as the unearthing of luzonensis was, almost just as important was the fact of Mandy Mijares—a UP Manila graduate who took his PhD at the Australian National University—getting published in Nature, which stands at the very pinnacle of scientific publishing. As another well-known UP scientist and a good friend of Mandy’s, the geologist Dr. Mahar Lagmay, puts it, “It is every serious researcher’s dream and struggle to publish in this journal. Out of the 15,000 manuscript submissions that the editorial board of Nature receives a year, only 1,000 or approximately 7% are accepted for publication. Only 2% of science journals have an impact factor of 10 or higher. In 2017, Nature’s IF was 41.57—equivalent to publishing 40 articles in most other scientific journals.”

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Mandy also happens to be a brother of mine in UP’s Alpha Sigma fraternity (that’s him in the middle, with me and Smart founder Doy Vea), and last week, the brods honored our very own Indiana Jones in a public program at the Asian Center, where he also presented his findings. I was asked to say a few words, and here’s part of what I said:

I had been hearing about this discovery from Brod Mandy in my private conversations with him over the past two years, and I knew he was sitting on something literally groundbreaking but even I had no sense of the magnitude of his project until I saw it on the cover of Nature. In my lectures on science journalism, I often refer to Nature as the one of the summits of scientific publishing. It’s hard enough to get published in, and much, much harder to land on the cover of. That’s what Mandy Mijares has been able to do.

But bragging rights aside, the joy I share with Mandy comes from seeing scientific inquiry and intellect recognized and rewarded in an environment that has become increasingly indifferent if not hostile to intelligence, indeed to the search for truth. Sophistry and opportunism have overtaken scholarship and honest labor, and political hacks purport to know and dispense the truth better than scientists and artists remote from the centers of money and power.

The discovery of luzonensis reaffirms the role of a university not just in its own country but in the world at large—in spearheading and supporting the pursuit of knowledge, even knowledge that will probably not add one percentage point to GDP or have any practical application we can think of at the moment, but which enlarges our understanding of ourselves as humans.

The question that luzonensis poses for us in the 21st century is, how much farther have we truly come along as humans from our hominin ancestors, and what have we done with our humanity? Are we any less crude, any less brutal? Could it be that luzonensiswas more caring for its own kind than we are today with ours? What have we done with our larger brains, our gift of language, with which we have become so facile that we can now distort the truth without batting an eyelash and even look smart and smugly smile and be praised by others for how cleverly we get away with murder? Faced with a creature that may have had no appreciation or even need for truth, reason, and justice, what does it say about us today, many millennia later, at a time when a good many of us seem to be in the same position, and let me repeat—with no appreciation or need for, and perhaps just a flickering memory of, truth, reason, and justice?

I’ll stop here before my sadness gets the better of me and beclouds the brightness of the hour, which properly belongs to Homo luzonensis and its brilliant discoverer. I’ll end with our fraternity’s exhortation to seek excellence in all endeavors—or I should say, in all good and just endeavors. Mabuhay ka, Brod Mandy!

Penman No. 349: Pen Hunting in Japan

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Penman for Monday, April 15, 2019

 

MOST TOURISTS visit Japan, sensibly enough, for the sushi, the sakura, and the swords. I like all of the above, and chased after all of them during our recent trip to Tokyo (a highlight was seeing a 13th-c. Masamune katana at the Tokyo National Museum). But I had one more item on my personal agenda that I couldn’t possibly leave Japan without—or at least, without looking for it.

That desideratum, of course, was the fountain pen, and there’s a very good reason why fountain pens should be on the discriminating tourist’s Japanese shopping list. Just as they’ve excelled in practically all the arts and crafts, the Japanese have made some of the world’s best fountain pens, many with uniquely Japanese materials and production processes, and some very special nibs.

With fountain pens undergoing a global resurgence in both the corporate and personal spheres as instruments of individuation—a means by which you can literally leave your own signature on a stack of digitized documents, and set yourself apart from the ballpoint-clicking herd—many Filipinos now know familiar American brands like Parker, Sheaffer, and Waterman. Lawyers and doctors typically want German-made Montblancs, and might even try Pelikans, Lamys, and Faber-Castells. But a growing number of mostly young professionals have discovered the Japanese Big Three—Pilot, Sailor, and Platinum—as well as newer brands like the Taiwanese TWSBI. They’ve been helped along by the emergence of local fountain pen, ink, and stationery specialists like Scribe Writing Essentials, Everything Calligraphy, Noteworthy, and PenGrafik.

The Japanese pens I was looking for in Tokyo exist in a whole other realm of connoisseurship. These are artisanal masterpieces, the culmination of centuries of fine workmanship. I’ve often said that pens fascinate me as the perfect fusion of art and engineering, and nothing exemplifies that more than the best Japanese pens. You’d think that the Japanese would be more inclined toward brushes—and they still may be—but a fine pen is considered a personal treasure, as distinct as the swords carried by the samurai of old.

In 2002, Pilot Pen Company—one of Japan’s pen pioneers—opened a pen museum at its headquarters in Kyobashi. Beng and I made a beeline for it, walking the couple of kilometers from the Tsukiji Fish Market, only to discover to our dismay that it had closed a few years earlier. But Tokyo’s fabled pen shops are in themselves museums, and more, so armed with a 72-hour subway pass, we made the rounds of the usual suspects. (Earlier, at the Tokyo City Flea Market in Shinagawa, I had treated myself to a defective but repairable Pelikan M805, a Pilot Custom 74, and a prewar Pilot with a flexible shiro steel nib.)

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A fountain pen tourist’s first stop in Tokyo should be Itoya in Ginza. Japan’s oldest stationery store, Itoya has a whole floor devoted just to fountain pens, and not just your everyday Sheaffer either but the very finest examples of Japanese penmaking. The Japanese pride themselves in the art of maki-e (literally, “sprinkled picture”), which involves creating intricate designs with gold dust and hand painting on ebonite or hard-rubber barrels and caps, on which many layers of hard urushi lacquer are applied. In the 1920s, Pilot—then known as Namiki—partnered with Dunhill to create exquisite examples of urushi/maki-e pens, which have since sold for over $250,000. These urushi and maki-e pens—now also produced by such makers as Nakaya, Danitrio, and Hakase, aside from the Big Three—are hand-made by master craftsmen in small shops, and are typically ordered months ahead. Or you can go to Itoya (or online, to www.nibs.com or www.penchalet.com, among others) to find yours.

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A couple of blocks away from Itoya is Eurobox, a small room on the fourth floor of an old building stocked full of vintage pens, mainly Western, very well chosen and sold at competitive prices. Another must-see is Maruzen’s large pen section at the basement of its Nihonbashi store. And no Tokyo pen visit would be complete without stepping into Kingdom Note in Shinjuku, which specializes in used but top-tier pens, both Japanese and Western. One pen store that takes and ships orders for Pilot urushi pens with special nibs like the so-called Waverley and Falcon nibs is Tokyo Pen Shop Quill in Kugahara, which unfortunately we missed because we took an express instead of a local train on our last full day in Tokyo.

That diversion turned out to be serendipitous, because Beng and I got off on a whim at Sengakuji Station, only to realize that we were within walking distance of the graves of the famous 47 ronin who had attacked and beheaded a despotic ruler in 1702, paying for their deed with their own lives. As we paid our respects to these noble warriors under the cherry blossoms, I seemed to hear voices urging me to “Buy a big Japanese pen to fight evil overlords!”

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So off we went to our last pen stop, Komehyo Ginza. Komehyo is a resale chain that sells mostly high-end used goods but also some new items, including fountain pens, and this was where I found my “grail” pen, by which I was going to remember Japan this time around—a large, new, and thankfully affordable urushi Platinum Izumo pen, its deep red undertone sheening through the rich lacquer. As with many things Japanese, it’s simplicity itself, but breathtakingly elegant. Unlike some places we know, Japanese stores accord their customers extraordinarily solicitous service—you can hold and try out any pen you want for as long as you want without any dagger looks from the staff—and even Komehyo lived up to that standard, processing my 8 percent tourist rebate without any fuss (a few stores ignore it, or require you to collect it at the airport).

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As we flew home with the Izumo sitting smartly in my pocket, I munched on my 100-yen rice crackers from Daiso, and dreamed about whipping out my pen and slashing a few bile-filled throats in the name of truth, beauty, and justice.

(Top pen images from http://www.nibs.com)

 

Penman No. 348: Transience in Tokyo

 

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Penman for Monday, April 8, 2019

 

MY WIFE Beng and I have been to Japan—on our own and together—a few times, but not until last week did we go there just to immerse ourselves for seven days in one place, not trying too hard to see or do or buy too many things. The place was Tokyo, which Beng and I last visited as a couple almost 20 years ago, a depressingly downscale sortie from which Beng can only remember living off the nearby 7-11 and slurping rice gruel with construction workers beneath a bridge. With my retirement then looming, I booked this trip last year, well in advance of the 2019 cherry-blossom season, which Beng had expressed a longing to catch. I thought it was a chance to make up for that sorry first outing and for making new memories.

Wherever we travel, Beng and I always have two sure targets in mind: museums and flea markets. The museums provide an intimate feel of the history of the place, and the flea markets—well, they a have a bit of the museum in them, bits you can actually buy and bring home. (Indeed, we often remember cities—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Beijing, Seoul—less for their landmarks than for their flea markets.) For this Tokyo trip, we also resolved to enjoy the cherry blossoms and to look into as many fountain-pen shops as we could.

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The Japanese fascination with cherry blossoms—that perennial signal and reminder of the transience of beauty and of life itself—is well known. As our friend Julie Hill puts it in her book Privileged Witness, “Cherry blossoms are a punctual miracle, a well-rehearsed event in the annual Japanese calendar. They first appear in the southern part of the archipelago, around the subtropical islands of Okinawa. As the weather gets warmer, cherry trees flower in central Japan; and in two weeks, depending on the weather, they will make their presence in Tokyo, achieving their full glory in the parks—Ueno park is a famous spot—and the gardens bordering the Imperial Palace.

“For weeks preparations have been underway in Kyoto; paper blossoms have been fluttering off lampposts and major downtown stores; newspapers and television channels have run elaborate charts of the sakura zensen—the cherry blossom—as part of the daily weather forecast. There are many varieties of trees, some occurring in the wilds of Japan, featured in gardens and parks as a cultivated tree. Others are bred as flowering trees with over-large, over-pink and over-endowed petals. The most popular are those with small pink flowers held in compact clusters.”

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The sakura bloomed early this year—the weather in Tokyo was nippy to almost chilly—but we caught showers of them in pink and white around the Imperial Palace, along the Meguro River, and in Ueno Park. Most fortunately, we stumbled into a bank of them in Chidorigafuchi Park just as it darkened, and suddenly the trees were lit up, lending ethereal magic to the scene. The only downer with these hanami or flower-viewing walks is that you’re doing them with several hundred other people looking for exactly the same thing—that perfect pose or shot under the same trees.

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A quieter time can be had exploring the sakura in context, such as you might do at the Tokyo National Museum on the far edge of Ueno Park, fittingly at the end of a long walk under the flowering cherry trees. There the blossoms figure in everything from Hiroshige’s Edo Road prints to exquisite kimono and lacquered boxes and bowls—indeed, a recurring theme that can only resonate more poignantly in these times of fleeting joys and affections.

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Speaking of fleeting joys, we had our fill of them at the Tokyo City Flea Market beside the Ohi Racecourse in Shinagawa, where we spent most of our Sunday morning. Beng and I are Japan surplus-shop regulars, and this was the mother of all of them, hawking everything from used clothes and vintage electronics to ceramics and scientific instruments. We walked away with a handsome thermometer/hygrometer, which Beng needs for her art restoration studio, for 100 yen (50 pesos) and a big leather bag to carry our stuff for 300 yen. My big find—adrift in a sea of bags and blouses—was a newish Pilot Custom 74 fountain pen, which normally retails for between $100 and $150, for less than P2,000.

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That was before I ran into the mother lode of vintage pens at one stall, where the owner had kept them in translucent plastic boxes, not thinking that anyone would be interested in them, and not thinking that a persistent Pinoy with X-ray vision would spot Montblanc stars in a galaxy of caps. It was a real treasure trove that I would have gladly sold a car for were I a younger and hungrier collector, but after much dickering, I picked out just two prize pens, about which you’ll hear more in another report on pen hunting in Tokyo.

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This time around, we had chosen a better hotel, well located near the Imperial Palace, small and rather expensive but impeccably clean as Japanese hotels go. We still found ourselves subsisting on the prepackaged rice-and-fish dinners at 7-11 (actually, they’re good and cheap!), so Beng and I celebrated the day (and yes, the transience of money) with a grand dinner at a steakhouse in our neighborhood in Chiyoda. A good time was had by all.

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Penman No. 347: The Master of Commandante Street

 

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Penman for Monday, April 1, 2019

 

COMMANDANTE STREET branches off Evangelista in Manila’s Quiapo—a downtown district a poet-friend endearingly described as “the armpit of the city.” It’s an area teeming with shops selling generators, compressors, engine parts, filing cabinets, and cheap guitars and stereos, not too far from soft-porn moviehouses and restaurants offering Chinese noodles and dumplings. You wouldn’t know it, but on one side of a hole-in-the wall along Commandante works one of the world’s most highly regarded craftsmen, known to his clients and admirers only as “Gerald Cha.”

Gerald repairs and restores typewriters—yes, those noisy machines your grandparents used to write letters and fill out forms with—catering to a small but fiercely dedicated community of typewriter collectors and users, not only in the Philippines but worldwide. He’s not alone—there are still many master repairmen out there who can make a 1912 Blickensderfer or a 1955 Smith Corona Silent Super work for you (check out Duane Jensen’s Phoenix Typewriter videos on YouTube, for instance)—but Gerald has acquired near-mythical status in the online community, as much perhaps for his skills as for his mystery.

As one member of our Antique Typewriter Collectors group puts it, “Gerald Cha was a quiet man. He lived among the pines in seclusion. His family and friends knew him as a gentle soul, but the typewriters feared his name. Legend has it that Gerald Cha once carried 16 desktop typewriters, using 8 fingers and 8 toes, crawling on his elbows and knees. He stood 5.6 meters tall, weighed 10 stone, and could throw a VW Beetle 270 feet. His shoes could hold 23 gallons of water, each. Gerald did not seek attention, but attention found him.”

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On the day that I and two other collector-friends—Toastmaster Dennis Pinpin and lawyer Javi Flores—visit Gerald at his shop, he’s poring over an 1880s Caligraph shipped in from the States. The Caligraph is a large, black Rube-Goldbergian contraption with a plethora of screws and bars. Like many early models, it’s an upstrike typewriter—meaning, the keys strike the platen (the rubber cylinder on which the paper is rolled) from under, instead of from the front, as in normal typewriters. In other words, you’re typing blind, not seeing what you wrote.

Gerald’s job is to see how everything hangs together, and to fabricate parts that no longer exist. He does this with the help of local artisans, including someone who custom-made the one-inch-wide ribbons used by the Caligraph (the standard size is half an inch). Most of the Caligraph’s key caps were gone, so he had to have a whole period-correct set of letters, numbers, and assorted characters printed out, along with the machine’s emblem—normally a decal, “but for now I’ll have to do with a sticker” that he had made. Gerald’s in the right place for any kind of copying—C. M. Recto Avenue, just around the corner, has a decades-old reputation, predating the Xerox, for being Manila’s Forgery Row, where you can order anything from a birth certificate to a diploma from the university of your choice.

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Our requests seem easy by comparison—Javi is having a ca. 1910 Oliver No. 5 restored, I need new rubber feet for my 1938 Royal O, and Dennis (he with the 90 typewriters) always has something or other for Gerald to mind. The man who attends to all these is no bearded guru, but a slightly built, soft-spoken guy in his early 40s. “Cha” is really his wife’s nickname. “There were too many other people with my name, so I had to find something different,” he says. Another signature is his impossibly weathered Nokia, as if to suggest how far behind the times he is, like his machines. But you can find him as “Gerald Cha” on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger, urged by the likes of Dennis to share his uncommon expertise not just with fellow Filipinos but with the world. He’s been online for only a few years, but in that short time he’s risen to legendary status among the typerati (yes, I just made up that word).

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Incredibly enough, he was born on the same street where he now works. “I was a helper in an office machines shop in my teens,” he explains as he looks over Javi’s Oliver. “That’s how I learned to do this. I never went to college because I was already earning good money!” That was then, of course, and while he still rules the roost, he’s had to make concessions to changing tastes to make ends meet. Aside from the tough specialist jobs he does for collectors, he refurbishes and repaints typewriters for an online outfit that sells the spiffed-up machines to millennials angling for a taste of vintage, including set and fashion designers looking for props. “They like their Olympias in hot pink.” His top sellers include chromed Royal QDLs and Olympia SMs.

Sadly, Gerald says, kids these days are more interested in computers, and no one will be taking over from him. “You can still find quite a few typewriter repairmen in Metro Manila,” Dennis tells me, “but Gerald is different. He loves his machines, loves to figure out how they work and how to get them back up to speed.”

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If you need Gerald, you can text him at 0916-7761268, landline 733-4896—unless you want to take an interesting trip out to 1691 Commandante Street, in the armpit of Manila.

 

Penman No. 342: Have Beng, Will Travel

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Penman for Monday, February 18, 2019

 

MOST MILLENNIALS will probably miss the title’s reference to that 1960s TV show “Have Gun, Will Travel” starring Richard Boone as the soft-hearted gun-for-hire Paladin, but I’m happily appropriating it for this week’s piece on travel, given that summer is practically here and many of us are packing our bags for the year’s big sortie to parts unknown.

Global travel has become such a big part of the Filipino lifestyle that it’s changed our culture in all kinds of ways, from our food and fashion preferences to our outlook and attitudes. Of course we can’t forget that most Pinoys still travel for work—for back-breaking jobs far away from home and family—rather than for leisure.

Indeed my wife Beng and I were too poor when we got married 45 years ago to go anywhere farther than Baguio, and come to think of it I can’t even remember when we sat side by side on a plane for the first time to see a bit of the world together—it certainly wasn’t on our honeymoon, because we never had one. But we’ve since made up for lost time by traveling up a storm, especially since I made a vow a decade ago to bring Beng to every place I’d ever been, having had more opportunities to get around as a writer and academic. Except for Myanmar and Brunei, we’ve now been all over Southeast Asia, parts of Europe, Australia, and of course the US.

I was filling up our visa application forms for the UK a week ago—I love the UK, where Beng and I lived for almost a year in 1990-2000 when I was a writing fellow at Norwich, but Christ Almighty, their forms are a pain to fill up, being 12 pages long and asking for your travel history for the past 10 years. That’s when I realized that I’d traveled more than 50 times since 2009—most often in 2012, when I took nine trips, mainly to conferences.

I know people will ask, how could we afford all this on a professor’s salary? Well, more than half the time, it’s someone else paying when I’m invited to conferences (I pay Beng’s way, of course, when she tags along). Also, we’ve been empty nesters for the past ten years since our daughter Demi got married in California (another good reason to save up for a US visit every year). We never had much by way of savings, except for emergencies, because Beng and I decided long ago that money was better spent on having fun together now.

And when we travel on our own, it’s strictly on a budget—meaning boutique hotels, 7-11s, and local buses and subways all the way. I plan out our flights months in advance on Skyscanner.com.ph, and find our hotels on Booking.com. No room service, no Michelin restaurants, no High Street shopping, just museums, flea markets, and hawker stalls. That’s why I love traveling with Beng, because she’s easy, and between the two of us, I’m the picky one, in an odd way—she’s adventurous and will try anything, but I’m a creature of habit and insist on having my noodles and canned sardines, even in the middle of Europe.

Beng’s going to be a septuagenarian soon (though she doesn’t look 60, but for the white hair), but she still clambers up scaffoldings to restore huge murals (most recently a 36-foot-long one by Manansala owned by a big bank). I’m beginning to feel the aches of age and have to stop and even take short naps on our museum tours. But the fact that we’re seniors, and that we could be on canes and wheelchairs not too long from now, only intensifies our desire to go see places together while our knees and feet can take it.

Some young people going out on their first trips recently asked for travel tips on a forum, and this was what I shared with them from all those years of gallivanting. I may be an old guy, but I’ve been a big fan of digital travel since the world went online.

  • I take pictures of all important documents—passports, visas, prescriptions—and store them on my phone. I take pics as well of hotel addresses and vicinity maps, just in case I can’t make a live online connection.
  • I always carry a spare unlocked phone and buy a local SIM at the airport.
  • Since 1999, I’ve been using a free app called Metro (regularly updated) for using the subway or metro in any city I visit. Mastering the local transport system saves on Uber, Grab, and taxis.
  • I usually just withdraw cash from the local ATM and forget about money changers—there’s a surcharge, of course, but it’s safer, more convenient, and easier to track. At the end of a trip, I don’t convert foreign currency back to dollars or pesos, but keep it for my next trip. It’s always good to land with taxi fare in local money, and small bills for hotel staff. I always check Google about local tipping practices.
  •  I always take out travel insurance (online) for long trips. I’ve thankfully never had to use it, but you never know.
  • Like I mentioned earlier, I always look for cheap or good flights on Skyscanner.com.ph and book my hotels on Booking.com. Remember that in booking flights or hotels, cheapest doesn’t always mean the best bargain. Times and locations matter. That said, happy trails and safe travels!

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.

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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.

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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.