Qwertyman No. 17: A Crying Boy

Qwertyman for Monday, November 28, 2022

WE ALL cheered two weeks ago when nine-year-old Bince Rafael Operiano—a boy from Oas, Albay—came home with medals from the 6th Eastern Asia Youth Chess Championship in Bangkok, Thailand, where he finished on top of the Under-10 category and sixth overall. 

But then we were saddened by the news that Bince had had to struggle not just with his opponents in the early rounds, where he lost, but also with loneliness, because his father was not around, having had to wait for his plane ticket from the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC). Bince was said to have been crying. Fortunately, according to Albay Rep. Fernando Cabredo, Bince’s father caught up with Bince just in time to cheer him on to victory. 

So all’s well that ends well, right? Not according to an anonymous “Grandmaster” (possibly an alias) who posted on Viber that things were even more complicated than that. This “GM” alleged that Bince’s parents had received donations for the kid, but that the money had been spent on paying off debts and other expenses. The Operianos, he said, were “making drama” to raise even more money; Bince, he added, wasn’t even that great a player, and that other Filipinos had performed even better in the tournament, to much less publicity. 

I don’t know who “Grandmaster” is, or if he is even a real GM (we now have at least ten Filipino GMs on record, all of them male, which is why I’m defaulting to “he/him”); the post strongly suggests that he’s someone on the inside, in the know, the guy with the goods.

All right, that he may be. But even assuming that everything he says is true, my question is, so what? The journalists (and the “Mariteses”) in us might respond to the possibility that the boy and his story are being manipulated for money with dismay if not righteous outrage, and demonize the parents for their greed, or for being what we Pinoys would call “mukhang pera.”

But honestly, who isn’t “mukhang pera” in this society of ours, where profit-seeking—quite often at someone else’s expense—has become the accepted norm? Of course, when developers buy farmland on the cheap from desperate farmers, they don’t get called out for being “mukhang pera”; they might even get voted to high public office. When someone secures an apologetic write-off for billions in unpaid taxes, that’s not being “mukhang pera.” When favored government offices get billions in “intelligence funds” with nary a question, that’s just business as usual, nothing to do with “mukhang pera.”

But let’s get back to Bince and his story. Clearly the family was in dire straits, or they wouldn’t have used whatever cash they raised to pay off debts. Clearly the father wanted to accompany his son, or he wouldn’t have followed him to Bangkok, albeit too late for the opening round. Someone out there will almost surely berate them for not handling their donations “responsibly,” and they could be right, but poverty and sudden money can addle the mind and one’s priorities (so can huge wealth, for that matter).

These are matters of adult concern. I suggest that it will be better and more fair to put ourselves in young Bince’s shoes. You’re nine years old in a foreign country, probably on your first plane ride overseas. You know some people on your team and you know how to play chess, but everything else is strange and bewildering. You’re looking at your chessboard and at your opponent who’s just as old as you are—the two of you should be playing in the sun outside but you’re here to demolish him or her. The other kids have their parents watching on from the gallery, and you can see your opponent’s eyes dart now and then to his or her parent, for comfort if nothing else. After the game, they will share hugs, maybe even an ice cream, and tour a mall. 

You think of Papa, whom you left at the airport. He promised he’d follow, but there’s still no sign of him, and you panic; you feel like crying but you can’t do that while you’re playing. Your opponent can feel your distress and seems torn between pitying you, or killing you outright. He/she moves his/her rook to c4 and you know you’ve lost. You quickly shake hands like you’ve been trained to do, then you run away and go to a corner and cry. It doesn’t bother you anymore that some people can see you crying. They probably think you’re just a sore loser. You want to tell them, it’s not the game, it’s Papa, I miss Papa, and Mama, and our home in Oas. I know they told me not to think about them too much, I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it, I really tried. Please don’t get angry with me. I’ll do better when I see Papa, I promise.

That’s the issue, from Bince’s point of view. Whatever other people may be making of his case is beyond him, and should be. As he grows older, he’ll begin to feel and understand the real pressures he’s under—to succeed for his family’s and country’s sake, with little support; he will have to get used to being alone. 

Some will say, that’s par for the course, that’s the way champions are made; you forge them like steel in the hottest of fires. His very hardship will be the source of his power. But still I have to ask, must it always be this way for the children of the poor? As fortunate as the Operianos may be to even have the option, why must Bince see sport as a way out of poverty than just a wonderful game to play? 

But to end on a happy note, let’s report as well (with thanks to Rappler for the data) that Christian Gian Karlo Arca topped the Under-14 and gained a Master title; Lexie Grace Hernandez won the Under-18 crown and took a Woman International Master title while April Joy Claros placed second but was the top Under-16 player, winning a Woman Master title and one Woman International Master norm. Jemaicah Mendoza topped the girls’ Under-12, and won a Woman Master title. (Bince is supposed to get a Master title when he turns ten.) May the best of futures come to you all.

Qwertyman No. 14: An Oppa for Pinoy Culture

Qwertyman for Monday, November 7, 2022

THE HON. Victor M. Dooley was in a quandary once again. He had struggled with his maiden speech, but thanks to the timely assistance of his rumored girlfriend and sometime girl Friday Yvonne Macahiya, he had delivered a brilliant address on “Culture and the Environment: Shared Survival through Values Education,” which the footnotes failed to say had been Yvonne’s term paper for her Political Science 104 class at the Western Aklan Institute of Technology. 

It didn’t matter that most of his esteemed colleagues were absent or nodding off when he gave his speech with all the passion he exuded back when he was “Mr. Disaster,” the TV-radio hero of the typhoon-flooded, the earthquake-shaken, and the fire-singed. When Yvonne’s press release came out, it was just like he had spoken before the UN General Assembly, the world’s grandest stage; never mind that some audiences there weren’t too hot, either. 

“We are the world’s most disaster-prone country not because we are weak,” he said, thumping his fist on the lectern before letting his gaze travel across the gallery to turn up the drama, “but because disasters visit other countries less. The Lord Almighty has brought these disasters upon us to test our faith, to strengthen our spirits, and to breed true champions of the desperate and the dispossessed!” Again he paused for dramatic effect, but all he heard was the snorting of a venerable gentleman from a northern province, dreaming of Lamborghinis landing in his Special Economic Zone.

Still, something from his speech must have registered in someone’s mind—the word “education”?—because Sen. Dooley found himself appointed to the Committee on Basic Education, Arts, and Culture, which to him sounded like the wimpiest assignment anyone could get. He had expected to be named chair of the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Climate Change (that went to a real estate developer), or the one on Public Information and Mass Media (that went to a retired general), or to something that could have used his mestizo heritage, like the Committee on Foreign Relations (that went to a Chinoy movie producer). 

Basic education? Other than passing grade school, what did he know about classrooms and curricula? But then the committee also covered Arts and Culture, so, hmmm, maybe that was what they saw in him, his stellar career as a singer-dancer-TV show host, the way the ladies swooned when he winked at them at the end of his “Buchikik” song. Arts and Culture was entertainment, right? It was about keeping people happy, so they could smile through Covid, unemployment, EJKs, 60-1 peso-dollar rates, and P300/kilo pork. 

There wasn’t much he could do about those things—blame it on the pandemic, on Ukraine (he did have some important foreign-policy views: those darned Ukrainians should just have given over some potato fields to the Russians instead of endangering world peace with their silly resistance), and on troublemakers who even won Nobel prizes for having nothing good to say about hardworking despots.

But now, the Hon. Victor M. Dooley had to come up with a program that would leave his indelible mark on Philippine culture, and he convened an ad hoc committee composed of himself, his chief of staff Roy, the indispensable Yvonne, and a special guest who sashayed into the room and planted wet kisses on both of Vic’s cheeks, much to his embarrassment and to Yvonne’s utter surprise. 

“Ms. Terry! I never thought you would respond to my invitation!” 

“Why ever would I not? How long has it been, dearie? The last time  I saw you, you were still a struggling singer trying your best to hold your note—so I held it for you, hihihi.  And look at you now, an honorable Senator of the Republic!”

“And who, may I ask, might you be?” interjected Yvonne.

“Ah! Yvonne, this is Ms. Terry, who sponsored my entry into show business many years ago. I asked him—I mean her, ahaha, we better get our preferred pronouns right, especially after that gender-sensitivity workshop we all had to take—to come and help us devise a program for our country’s cultural revival.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” said Yvonne. “I could’ve called on some of my National Artist friends—”

“What’s a National Artist?” asked Vic.

“Never mind. Welcome aboard, Ms. Terry—oh, I get it now, mystery herself! I’m Yvonne, the congressman’s Chief Political Affairs Officer. Can we offer you some coffee?”

“If you have low-acid coffee with non-dairy creamer and gluten-free scones, I’d much appreciate it. But I’ll take what you have.”

“Our Chief of Staff here makes an excellent three-in-one and I’m sure he hasn’t finished all the Sky Flakes.” Yvonne cocked an eyebrow at Roy, who slunk away muttering. “Now let’s get down to business. The senator wants a new program with strong popular appeal that will raise our people’s spirits, promote national unity, and put Philippine culture on the global map. You said you have some ideas?”

“I do! Two, in fact. One, boy bands. We should undertake a nationwide search for cute mop-haired boys from the age of six up and train them in a camp for singing and dancing. Two, a cooking competition for girls, who don’t know how to cook anymore. We’ll have regional and then national contests for the best pinakbet, sinigang, and adobo. We can even have a Fil-Am edition, but let’s do it in West Covina so I can visit my cousin there. What do you think?”

“Nice, but I have an even more inspired idea!” said the senator. “To promote our own, let’s ban all Korean shows for a year. Tama na mga K-drama, P-drama naman. Nakakainis na, e!”

Yvonne groaned. “Are you crazy? Do you want to bring the wrath of the BTS Army down on you, not to mention my mama who’s in love with Hyun Bin?” Yvonne turned to their guest. “I like your ideas, Ate! I think you and I will make a great team—between you and me, we can make Vic Dooley the oppa of Philippine culture!”

“Thanks, but what’s an oppa?” asked the senator.

Penman No. 439: New Looms for Old

Penman for Sunday, June 5, 2022

WHEN WE first met Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores at the University of the Philippines Baguio five years ago, she was already the director of the new and fascinating Museo Kordilyera that had just opened to showcase the culture of the northern highlands. Ikin graciously took Beng and me on a tour of the exhibits, which UPB had painstakingly put together from its own collections and from the donations of such patrons as National Artist and Baguio resident Bencab. 

But going beyond what was on display, Ikin brought us to the museum’s laboratory—research is the other important part of its mandate—to show us their growing collection of rare Philippine textiles. Some of these were a century old, retrieved and repatriated from collections abroad by Ikin herself, or donated by collectors. This, she indicated, was going to be a vital aspect of the Museo Kordilyera’s mission—to gather and preserve the threads of the past for the appreciation of new generations of Filipinos. 

Indigenous textiles have a long history in the Philippines, having been woven long before the Spanish came—indeed, more than a millennium before the Christian era. They were used for clothing and also for ceremonial purposes such as the burial of the dead. They come in a wide range of materials, designs, and uses, from the abel and Bontoc of the north to the hablon and piña of the Visayas and the Yakan and tinalak weaves of the south, among many others. Using local fibers and dyes, native weavers employ hand looms to turn their traditional designs—animals, celestial objects, humans, deities, and geometric shapes—into not just functional clothing but works of art and visual bearers of their tribe’s or community’s culture.

But these traditional weavers and their products are under threat from many factors, and unless proper and timely intervention is undertaken, cultural advocates like the Oxford-trained Dr. Salvador-Amores worry that they could decline further if not vanish in this digital century. She points to four major reasons for this decline: the advanced age of master weavers and the lack of young people willing to take their place; the scarcity of materials for weaving such as cotton; new technology, cheaper mass-produced substitutes, even fake “ethnic” fabrics; and ready-to-wear clothes and ukay-ukay, reducing demand for traditional textiles.

Enter the Cordillera Textiles Project or CordiTex, which Ikin is also directing, aimed at finding and employing new technology to revive the ancient art of weaving and train and engage a new generation of weavers. The technology comes in the form of the Universal Testing Machine that analyzes the internal and external characteristics of Cordillera textiles so they can be technically described, and the digital loom, which—with the help of software—can recreate old designs and fabrics, especially those that weavers can no longer make, and assist those weavers in doing them on their traditional backstrap or foot looms.

Before the machines come into the picture, however, much research has to be done. CordiTex is a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving anthropology, ethnobotany, ethnomusicology, ethnomathematics, physics, chemistry, ergonomics, economics, and geography. (I’ll bet some of us didn’t even realize these disciplines existed. And if we wonder why “ergonomics” is important in weaving, it’s because weavers often suffer from musculoskeletal problems of the neck, shoulders and lower back; strain from incorrect posture; and chronic lower back problems.)

Ikin’s team has conducted research not just in the Cordillera region, but also in weaving collections in the US, Germany, and Austria, where samples gathered a century ago by expeditions to the Philippines are kept. In the US, for example, much material and information can be found at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, the Field Museum in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Newberry Library.

Mathematical symmetry analysis figures out the math behind traditional designs so they can be rendered into formulas, followed by 3-D modeling, to take the physical properties and the weaving structures of the fibers into account. 

Now enter the digital loom—the Thread Controller 2 or TC2—a machine designed, developed and made by Digital Weaving Norway (DWN) to turn design ideas into woven fabrics. Rolled out in 2012, the TC2 is a hand-operated electronic jacquard loom, capable of producing both traditional and contemporary weaves for industrial and artistic purposes. The University of the Philippines has acquired two of these machines—one for UP Baguio, and another for the College of Home Economics in UP Diliman. Six researchers from UP led by Ikin went to DWN to study the use of the machines, and workshops have since been conducted in Baguio and Diliman, assisted by a visiting expert from DWN, to introduce the TC2 and its technology to local weavers and researchers.

Dr. Salvador-Amores is emphatic that their work in CodiTex is not aimed at replacing hand looms. “While CordiTex can now replicate and reconstruct traditional extant textiles through digitization and digital loom weaving, we are doing this so that the younger generation can re-weave these in their traditional looms,” she said. “Hopefully this will empower local weavers, engender ethnic identity, and sustain Cordillera weaving.”

The next time you visit Baguio, take a side trip to the Museo Kordilyera to see what the fuss is all about. You might get lucky and catch Ikin—or if not, then her pioneering book Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Kalinga Society (UP Press, 2014), yet another fascinating topic altogether.

(Photos courtesy of Analyn Salvador-Amores)

Penman No. 431: Restoring a Binondo Landmark

Penman for Monday, January 3, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 428: Wenchworld

Penman for Monday, November 22, 2021

OKAY, SO The X-Files assured us “The truth is out there,” CSI showered us with “epithelials” and impressed “blunt force trauma” into our noggins, Narcos made it cool to be a “patron,” and The Blacklist (or what I’ve seen of this nine-season, 178-episode epic so far) keeps sending us back to the “post office” or some other “black site.” K-drama, on the other hand, will forever be memorable to me for its wanton use of the word “wench.”

I’m not confessing that I’m a K-drama addict—for that, you can indict my wife Beng, who also happens to be my bedmate, which means that whatever she watches, so must I. Vicariously, therefore, I have learned that it is possible in the K-Universe to go back and forth between North and South Korea by parachute or tunnel, and even to go back and forth between Joseon and the present by holding on to a pretty girl and falling over; that a family’s most precious heirloom, on which everyone’s happiness depends, can be its secret kimchi recipe; that tall and tiny hats maketh the man; that Korean mafiosi travel with at least 300 OOTDs, to be worn just once—plus, of course, someone to keep them immaculately pressed; and that kissing in the rain is better than kissing under energy-saving light bulbs.

But most of all, the K-Universe is peopled by men (half of whom seem to be “unfilial sons”) and women (the younger half of whom are “saucy wenches”). It’s the “wench” part that gets me, because it’s a word I haven’t heard since I was slogging through my grad-school classes in Elizabethan Drama more than thirty years ago. 

Most famously, of course, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio woos the intemperate Katherine: “Why, there’s a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate!” From Love’s Labours Lost, we get “The tongues of mocking wenches are as keen / As is the razor’s edge invisible.” The word is all over English in the 1500s and 1600s, embedded in Shakespeare and his contemporaries; Christopher Marlowe, in The Jew of Malta, has his character Barabas trying to brush away his sinful past when he is accused of fornication: “But that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead.”)

While we’re in this sort-of-scholarly mode, let’s look up “wench” to see what it was supposed to mean then. Etymonline.com gives us this block of information: 

“Late 13c., wenche ’girl, young woman,’ especially if unmarried, also ‘female infant,’ shortened from wenchel ’child,’ also in Middle English ‘girl, maiden,’ from Old English wencel, probably related to wancol ’unsteady, fickle, weak,’ from Proto-Germanic *wankila- (source also of Old Norse vakr’child, weak person,’ Old High German wanchal ’fickle’), from PIE *weng- ’to bend, curve’…. The wenche is nat dead, but slepith. [Wyclif, Matthew ix.24, c. 1380]. In Middle English occasionally with disparaging suggestion, and secondary sense of ‘concubine, strumpet’ is attested by mid-14c. Also ‘serving-maid, bondwoman, young woman of a humble class’ (late 14c.), a sense retained in the 19c. U.S. South in reference to slave women of any age. In Shakespeare’s day a female flax-worker could be a flax-wenchflax-wife, or flax-woman.”

Perhaps more helpfully, vocabulary.com tells us that “Wench used to mean young girl, so if you find someone describing a lovely wench in Shakespeare, it means a lovely girl. Wench comes from Middle English, and was a common word for girl, child, or servant. Over time it came to mean mainly serving girls, as in a bar wench, who serves drinks at a tavern. Eventually it came to mean prostitute. If you find wench in a love poem from the 16th century, think of it as an informal version of maiden. But if someone called you a wench last week, you should be insulted.”

Now, in the K-Universe, the use of “wench” transcends centuries, being equally useful in the period of the Three Kingdoms as it was under the Joseon dynasty, under Japanese annexation, and after the Korean War. (At a certain point, when you’ve watched hundreds of hours of K-drama—only because your wife is watching, mind you—you become something of an expert on Korean history, politics, and culture. I’ve even developed a taste for japchae, which I like to think of as Korean sotanghon.) It’s entirely possible for a Gangnam goon to call a confederate on his Samsung phone to say “Get rid of that insufferable wench!”

All that is probably because the Official Association of K-Drama Translators, at a crucial conference in Jeju, sat down to take up the word nyeon (“a term that refers to a female person in a degrading/derogatory manner”), with partisans debating fiercely between “bitch” and “whore.” The argument entered its second day, with tempers flaring and steel chopsticks dangerously stabbing the air, until the revered Dr. Sung Hyun-Lee, a fruit grocer by day and Confucian scholar and acupuncturist by night, woke up from his soju-assisted meditation and proposed the word “wench.” He had come across the word while watching Pirates of the Caribbean, and thought it perfect to describe a passing ship in the night.

Since all K-drama heroines can be wenches (as long as they have doe eyes, porcelain skin, and wispy hair—but wait, doesn’t that sound like all K-boys as well?), “wench” seems to have lost its pay-for-play connotations on Netflix, and now simply means “any pretty and young Korean woman who attracts and then annoys a nasty man—a cruel Joseon prince, a North Korean general, or a Seoul crime boss.” Problem solved.

Penman No. 425: Red Light, Green Light

Penman for Monday, October 11, 2021

THOSE OF you who smiled when you read the title know what I’m talking about: none other than Squid Game, which is set to become the most viewed Netflix production of all time.

I’m still groggy from two nights of binge-watching, after making sure that my wife Beng was already asleep. She’s a Korea-novela fan—and I guess you can call me a reluctant convert, having little choice but to follow the travails of star-crossed lovers getting wet in the rain, slurping ramyeon, or running slow-motion into each other’s arms on a beach at sunset. But for some reason, Beng likes romance, not gore, and she steadfastly refused to reciprocate my constancy by watching Squid Game with me. 

She can’t understand it when I explain that violence relaxes me, releases the lion in my pussycat, exhausts my latent desire to pulverize my enemies and split a few skulls, and leaves me refreshed for another day of, well, typing. Beng’s favorite expression—which she uses several times a day, usually when watching the news or some TV drama, or when we’re driving past a mangy dog—is “Kawawa naman!” If she were a street in UP Village, it would be “Mahabagin.” 

That’s why, you see, she couldn’t possibly get through even one episode of Squid Game. The violence hadn’t even begun—Gi-Hun was just getting warmed up as the quintessential loser, trying to play good dad to his 10-year-old daughter—when I heard Beng mutter her first “Kawawa naman!” Rather than subject myself to a night-long litany of laments for pitiful souls, I agreed to switch channels and watch contestants try to outdo each other in applying hideous makeup onto hapless models. Beng couldn’t see me wincing in the dark, my tender aesthetics feeling the vicious assault of mascara wands and lipstick applicators.

But let’s get back to the show. After its release less than a month ago, Squid Game became a global sensation in no time at all, and it’s easy to see why. Even the venerable Washington Post intones that “Squid Game (is) much more than a gory dystopian thriller. It’s a haunting microcosm of real life, unpacking the many implications of inequality, which has in some way drawn each of the players to this battle for their lives.” 

Parents will be horrified to find that their kids can buy Squid Game soldier outfits online, complete with black masks and pink track suits, submachine guns optional. (When I clicked the link, I got a message saying “Sorry! This product is no longer available.” That can mean only one of two things: first, that the seller developed a conscience and pulled the item out, or second, that stocks were sold out—you win a prize of a trip to Busan if you guess the correct answer.)

So let’s get this clear, especially if you’re thinking of gathering the family around the TV for some quality time watching people’s shirts turn a splotchy red: Squid Game isn’t for kids, okay? The whole point of it is that it wants people to think they’ll be playing kids’ games—which is true, except that (this is hardly a spoiler now, after all the publicity), the losers die.

I’m not going to go into the kind of sociological soul-searching that will be the stuff of dissertations over the next five years, with titles like “Competition Theory: Neoliberalism, the State, and Squid Game in the Philippines, 2016-2022.” (If you want an honest-to-goodness, semi-academic chat about the show, the UP Korea Research Center will be hosting an online forum on Squid Game on Friday, October 15, at 3:30 pm.) 

I’m tempted more by the idea of staging our version of the game here, with life’s “winners” instead of losers as players, for a change. The reward will be—let’s see, what might the rich and powerful still want that they don’t already have? More money? Too easy; they have enough stashed away in the British Virgin Islands (legally, mind you—they did nothing wrong) to last three lifetimes. More happiness? Which means what—more likes on Instagram, more cover shots in the glossies, Ivy League placements for the kids, one mistress more, a new Lamborghini Huracan, another Patek Philippe, a new calling card saying “Senator of the Republic,” or something even loftier? Eternal life? Some families already have that—35 years after EDSA, you-know-who are still around.

How about this: the prize will be absolution for one’s sins, which technically will qualify one for entry into heaven, no matter what terrible things one may have done in life—stolen billions, murdered thousands, lied 90 percent of the time, cursed God and half the saints, you supply the rest. 

It could be voluntary, of course, because most of the players we’d like to nominate will never admit to sinning nor to needing forgiveness; they have willfully accepted damnation, and their choice must be respected. But I think it will be more fun if, in the 2022 elections, we took a special poll to vote for 456 politicians, public officials, generals, bigtime drug lords, profiteers, car-loving pharmaceutical executives, troll masters, and other crooks to constitute the players. 

How thrilling it would then be to put on a black mask, look over the track-suited multitude, appreciate the anxiety in their puzzled faces, and announce: “Green light!… Red light!” Boom. Boom. Boom. Sorry, Beng, hindi sila kawawa, and I could watch this all day.

Penman No. 423: From Poetry to Treason

Penman for Monday, September 13, 2021

AS A COLLECTOR of old books and other objects of interest more ancient than me, I sometimes stumble across manuscripts and documents that turn out to be a bit more private than the usual accounts of travels to Sulu or the history of Negros sugar. I’ve found ardent and very carefully composed love letters (apparently never sent), poems to the departed, and receipts for unmentionables. Coming from a past where people wrote with physical ink on physical paper, these inadvertent mementoes of lives lived and loves lost convey emotion and meaning in a way that digital ones and zeroes never will.

Some of these discoveries have been particularly poignant. A few months ago, I wrote about finding a typewritten collection of essays written by Lyd Arguilla in the 1950s, where she stoically recounts her husband Manuel’s execution by the Japanese; tucked into that folder was a love poem she wrote in his memory after the war, in New York.

Last month, a bookseller offered me three items that had to do with one subject, from whose personal library they likely came. One was a scrapbook of sorts by this Filipino author, another a short biography—also typewritten—of the man and samples of his most popular works, and the third a published play written by his illustrious mother. The writer’s name was vaguely familiar to me: Aurelio S. Alvero, otherwise known by the pseudonym he adopted after the war, “Magtanggol Asa” (he himself spelled it “Magtanggul”), a play on his initials and on his ambition to become a lawyer—as well as being, of course, a self-descriptive epithet as the defender of hope. He was born in 1913  in Tondo to illustrious parents—Emilio Alvero, an artist and interior decorator, and Rosa Sevilla, writer, suffragette, and educator who founded the Instituto de Mujeres, a pioneering school for women in the Philippines.

Generations of Filipino schoolchildren have known him for his poem “1896,” written before the war, a favorite piece for choruses, because of its hypnotic rhythm and refrain. It begins:

The cry awoke Balintawak

And the echoes answered back…

“Freedom!”

All the four winds listened long 

To the shrieking of that song…. 

“Freedom!”

Just by this piece, no one can be faulted for thinking of Alvero as a patriotic poet—or in the very least a writer of patriotic poetry, and that he was. Indeed he was lauded by his peers and even later by scholars such as Grant Goodman and Augusto de Viana as a “brilliant” intellectual, one who could write equally well in Tagalog, English, and Spanish. He was a star student at the Ateneo and UST, winning a raft of medals for his scholastic achievements. 

But he was also described as a “complex” artist, a rather evasive and much kinder term for what his harshest critics would call him: a traitor to his people, convicted and imprisoned for wartime collaboration with the Japanese. The charges brought up against him by the postwar court were formidable: up to 22 counts of treason, from his active role in such pro-Japanese organizations as the Kalibapi and Makapili to selling war materiel to the enemy and participating in the destruction of Manila. The most outrageous offenses were damnably detailed: among them, that within one year, his trading firm—capitalized at only P15,000—earned a whopping P2,000,000 from sales to the Japanese (shades of Pharmally!), and that he personally directed the burning of a part of Pasay toward the end of the war. For these, and despite his spirited protestations, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in Bilibid, cut short by an amnesty granted by President Quirino in 1952. 

How could the same man, so gifted and so promising, turn out so badly? Even before the war, Alvero had railed against American imperialism, and—like Gen. Artemio Ricarte, among others—saw Japan as a friend and liberator. But unlike more rabid pro-Japanese Filipinos like Benigno Ramos, he opposed the atrocities of the Makapili, although he urged his countrymen to resist the Americans to the end. Complex indeed. Arguing that neither “patriot” nor “traitor” could fairly describe him, Dr. Goodman calls him “a romantic opportunist” who thought he could achieve his ideals by casting his lot with the devil.

Despite his early release from prison, the ordeal took its toll. While other writers accused of helping the Japanese like Camilo Osias lived on and even prospered, Alvero died of a heart attack in 1958 aged just 44, leaving a stain on his family’s name (his mother, Rosa Alvero, continues to be honored with a street in her name in Katipunan, Quezon City). Hardly any pictures of him can be found today, even on the Internet.

A letter from prison to his second wife, whom he called “Silahis,” reveals an inner torment that was probably the greatest cost of all. He writes:

“Makailan ko nang sinabi sa iyo na ang pagmamahal na tunay ay nasasalig sa pagtitiwala at ang di nagtitiwala ay di maaring lubos ang kaniyang pagmamahal? Gayon man, hinahagkan kita nang buong paggiliw, sabay ang dalanging nawa’y pagkaluuban ka ni Bathala ng pag-uunawa at pagtitiwala sa akin. Ang nagmamahal mong asawa, M. Asa.”

(How often have I told you that true love depends on trust, and that one who cannot trust cannot love completely? Nonetheless, I kiss you with all my heart, even as I pray that the Lord grant you trust and understanding for me. Your loving husband, M. Asa.)

Penman No. 412: CPR and the Art of Autobiography

Penman for Monday, April 26, 2021

TWO WEEKS ago, I gave an online lecture sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the University of the Philippines Baguio on the subject of Carlos P. Romulo as a National Artist for Literature. I was frankly surprised to have been asked to speak on CPR, or “the General” as he preferred to be addressed. I am no expert on Romulo, and while our lifetimes coincided for about 30 years, I never had a chance to meet the man, not even at the University of the Philippines, which he served as President from 1962 to 1968.

I did have a brush with Romulo’s writing in grade school when, for reasons I now forget, my declamation piece was his exuberant essay “I Am a Filipino.” Of course I already learned from our Social Studies class that he had been the President of the United Nations General Assembly, so I had a sense of the man as a Filipino who had proudly made a name for himself and for his country in the world.

Like many of you I also remembered Romulo as the diminutive figure sloshing through the surf in Leyte Gulf behind the hulking Douglas MacArthur. But indeed he was someone whose physical stature, at five-foot-four, was often preceded and magnified by his towering reputation. 

Romulo’s was unquestionably a long and stellar life, stretching from the start of the American occupation in 1899 to the last year of Marcosian rule in 1985. He was a participant in and witness to many of the most dramatic moments of the 20th century. Even his association with President Marcos in his later years as Foreign Minister—an appointment clearly meant to lend credence to the martial-law regime, as CPR himself realized and later regretted—has now largely been overlooked by scholars and critics. 

But of all the tributes paid to CPR, the one that seems to have escaped the public imagination is that of Carlos P. Romulo as National Artist for Literature—a fact that many Filipinos, including writers, appear to be ignorant of. I must confess to wondering myself how Romulo’s literary achievements stack up alongside those of Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, Jose Garcia Villa, Virgilio Almario, Amado Hernandez, and so on.

Romulo was declared a National Artist, along with the film director Gerardo de Leon, by virtue of Presidential Proclamation No. 2207, signed by President Marcos on June 10, 1982. He was only the third awardee for literature, following Amado Hernandez in 1972 and Nick Joaquin in 1976.

We are not privy to the deliberations of the awards committee for that year and to what procedures were followed. But somehow there arose the suspicion that CPR was summarily given the National Artist Award by Marcos, whom he served as Foreign Minister from 1978 to 1984, as a political favor or reward. Putting politics aside for the time being, the niggling question remains: what exactly should Carlos P. Romulo be recognized as a National Artist for Literature for? What can he teach contemporary Filipino writers?

That Romulo was a prodigious and talented writer cannot be disputed. He is on record as having published 22 books, including one novel (The United, 1951) and a book of plays, but comprising mostly what we would today call creative nonfiction—autobiography, biography, and historical reportage. While his novel—set in the US, with American characters—achieved some success, I strongly doubt that this was or could be the main foundation on which his literary reputation rests. 

Rather, I propose that it is Romulo’s nonfiction reportage that distinguishes him most strongly as a writer of and about his time, and one of the most articulate chroniclers and propagandists of the Philippine midcentury. 

Much of this achievement has to do with Romulo’s uncanny ability to position himself in our history as witness and party to some of its most momentous events. He lived an extraordinary life that led him from Camiling, Tarlac to Columbia University and then back to the Philippines, where he became a teenage reporter, then editor, then university professor, presidential adviser, aide-de-camp to Gen. MacArthur, US Army general, “the last man off Bataan” as one of his book titles says, postwar diplomat, presidential candidate, university president, foreign secretary, and international statesman. 

That life and his encounters with the world became the raw material for his books and his reportage, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for Correspondence in 1942. If you want to know Romulo and his times, look no farther than his 1961 autobiography, I Walked with Heroes. It best displays him as a master of what could be a vanishing literary form in these days of Twitter, Instagram, and generally abbreviated and instantaneous commentary.

I was not expecting to appreciate the book and its author as much as I eventually did. It is a pleasurable, engaging, and instructive read, written by someone who has a story to tell and knows how to tell it. The problem with Romulo, to be plain about it, is, well, Romulo. Like most people whose reputations precede them, he invited the impression of possessing a well-nourished ego, which the armchair psychoanalyst might say was likely a form of overcompensation for his short stature. 

What we get at the end of I Walked with Heroes is, to be sure, a varnished portrait of CPR and his contemporaries, but not incidentally we also follow a nation in progress, emerging from colonialism to a fragile postwar independence. And therein, I suggest, lies its value and Romulo’s strongest claim to literary fame, in his ability to interweave the personal with the public—not on the tiny frame of selective memoir but on the wall-sized tapestry of comprehensive autobiography, a diminishing art for many reasons. Our writing has become increasingly smaller in scope and ambition. Accustomed to tweets and Facebook tags, our writers and readers today think of time in terms of fleeting seconds, and lack the memory and capacity for historical reflection.

And then again perhaps we simply lack the kind of larger-than-life personas (pun intended) that CPR and his contemporaries represented. With or without ghostwriters, our Presidents no longer write their autobiographies, or even their memoirs, as Quezon and Elpidio Quirino did. Perhaps they fear that the written word will return to haunt them. But then again why should autobiographies be expected to tell the whole truth and nothing but?

Subjected to scholarly interpellation, Romulo’s reportage on himself and the history swirling around him will surely raise many questions about whether this and that really happened the way he recalls it. But he is a master of narrative, and as fastidious as he was about his suits and uniforms, he clearly sought to portray a positive image of himself as the avatar of his people—“a small man from a small country”—for which no autobiographer in his position can be faulted for attempting.

Penman No. 411: In Praise of Pack Rats

Penman for Monday, April 12, 2021

ANOTHER LONG reminded me, not unpleasantly, of a fact that could be a vice to some and a virtue to others: I’m an incorrigible pack rat—have always been and, given the brevity of the life remaining, will likely always be. 

Having loads of boxes stacked around the house—from floor to ceiling and under the beds—I couldn’t resist making a physical check of what was in them, as if I didn’t know: Instamatic snapshots and other photographs going back half a century, newspapers from under martial law, test papers (my students’ and my own), scripts for movies that never got shot, drafts of cringeworthily bad stories, receipts from restaurants long closed, Love Bus tickets, tourist maps of Hong Kong from before the handover, multi-coupon airline tickets, and certificates of attendance for this and that seminar. 

Some of you will be smiling, because you’re probably just as bad as if not even worse than I am. I don’t think I qualify just yet for one of those “Hoarders” episodes on TV, where tears get shed and egos get smashed as truckloads of trash depart from excavated homes. But I do identify with those grass-chewing farmers in overalls on “American Pickers” with barns full of glorious junk behind them—except that instead of cars and oil cans, I have boxes and suitcases full of old papers (and yes, fire extinguishers all over the place).

That’s not even the side of me that’s the formal, organized collector of vintage pens, typewriters, antiquarian books, old Macs, and midcentury paintings. Those go into real shelves, cabinets, and mylar sleeves. I’m talking about the sheer detritus of time, the flotsam and jetsam that get washed up on the shores of our home in UP Diliman, and never quite leave. 

So the logical question is, why not just throw those useless things away? And the logical answer is, because they may not be useless after all.

Never mind that there’s a growing market for old papers, or what collectors and dealers grandly call “ephemera,” things that come and go. Nostalgia can have a price tag, and people will pay for objects that remind them of simpler and happier times. Others seek out historical connections—signatures of the high and mighty, books from a precious library, a president’s or a general’s juvenilia. 

But pack rats don’t really save bagfuls of stuff to sell them decades down the road. They—we—do so because of sentimental value, because of the personal and intimate associations that even the slightest and commonest articles can carry. They tell stories we like to hear, perhaps over and over again.

This came to mind last week, as I pored over a pile of scrapbooks once kept by a long-departed gentleman whose biography I’ve been working on for the past few years. The first draft had been finished some time ago, but both I and the man’s son who commissioned me to write the book felt that something was lacking—the spark of familiarity, the regular guy, the granular character behind the suited portraits. I urged the family to locate his letters, and they did, sending me a large plastic tub full of scrapbooks, albums, envelopes, and papers from as long as 80 years ago, just before and after the war.

I should do another piece sometime on the vanished art of scrapbooking, but the oldtimers reading this will recall how we used to fill up picture albums not just with photographs but notes, cards, cutouts, clippings, and so on. This was the trove suddenly made available to me—several scrapbooks that the man had diligently kept over two decades, chronicling almost every important phase and point in his young life. 

This was a man—I can’t tell you who just yet—who became one of our most renowned economists and foreign policy experts, a business icon, and civil servant, a provincial boy who made it to the world’s centers of power, acknowledged by his peers to be among the best of them. There are scholarly and journalistic sources enough to narrate his life, but that’s just reportage, not biography.

What I found and appreciated was a 23-year-old sailing on a ship bound for America, on his first trip abroad as a government scholar. (He’s a smart guy—I go over his college transcript, where I see he barely passes English his first semester, but retakes it and gets a “1” the next term.) He saves his receipts for his suits, shirts, socks, ties, pomade, and toothbrush, and the customs pass that allows his mother “and a party of eight” to see him off. 

When the ship docks in Yokohama, he seeks out and visits a famous Filipino exile there, who gives him and signs a revolutionary pamphlet that’s also in the scrapbook (and I later confirm with a historian-friend that the scrawled signature is, indeed, Artemio Ricarte’s). When he arrives in San Francisco, he dashes off a breathless eight-page letter to his sister, exclaiming how beautiful, large, and busy the place is. He keeps and pastes his train schedules and tickets as he travels eastward to his destination, Harvard. 

And so on, and so on—tickets to Broadway, to nightclubs, restaurant menus, hotel receipts, Christmas cards, and then the war comes, and he attends patriotic rallies where the attendees sing “Land of the Morning” and “Philippines, My Philippines,” the mimeographed lyrics of which he keeps.

Suddenly my subject came alive for me—because he was, like me, a pack rat, a savior of the little things that sometimes tell great stories.

Penman No. 390: Faulkner in Manila

Penman for Monday, June 22, 2020

 

A FEW weeks ago, I wrote about the visit to Manila in 1951 of the American writer Wallace Stegner, mentioning that ten years earlier, he had been preceded by the even more celebrated Ernest Hemingway. I also said that they were followed in August 1955 by yet another titan of American literature, the 1949 Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner—a visit I’d first learned about by staring at a small poster from that event on the wall of the old Creative Writing Center in UP back in the 1980s.

That poster, wall, and center sadly burned down with the Faculty Center fire four years ago, but I’ve always been intrigued by what brought these big-name authors over to our shores, and what they possibly could have told their local counterparts (there’s a picture somewhere of a very young and very short NVM Gonzalez getting the autograph of a hulking Hemingway).

Hemingway was stopping over on his way to China; Stegner was brought over by the Rockefeller Foundation; and—thanks to a clipping and other materials sent by my Washington, DC-based friend, Dr. Erwin Tiongson—we know now that Faulkner came here courtesy of the US Department of State, which sent their prize author on a tour of Asia, presumably to foster peace and goodwill during the Cold War. (Interestingly, Faulkner’s wife Estelle had visited Manila the year before, and would write:  “The artificially induced gaiety of the Far East is very pronounced here—a feverish clutching at nothing that is little short of terrifying—As I sit here now, looking out on Manila Bay with its warships and carriers—every one of them ready for instant action—I feel insecurity verging on panic.”)

William Faulkner may have been a giant in his time, but to young readers today weaned on Gaiman and Murakami, he might as well be as remote a figure as W. Somerset Maugham or Henry James. Some may have come across his classic short story “A Rose for Emily,” and a luckier few his novels The Sound and the FuryAs I Lay Dying, and Light in August. As a fictionist, he was chiefly known for his use of the “stream of consciousness” technique that gave even his lowliest characters an ability to articulate their deepest and most complex thoughts and emotions.

But what did Faulkner have to say to his Filipino audience? I found the answer by locating the book Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner 1926-1962 (New York: Random House, 1968, edited by James Meriwether and Michael Milgate), which has a whole chapter on “Faulkner in Manila,” based on transcripts of Faulkner’s talks published earlier by the Philippine Writers League. 

There’s a short but charming documentary on YouTube  where you can see him at home in Oxford, Mississippi in 1952 and listen to his soft, somewhat cigar-burnt voice, and you can imagine yourself sitting in the audience in Manila in 1955, as he imparts these notions, among many others:

“I think that there is a great deal of beauty in any national language, national literature. But that tradition of literature must still be furthered more so that it can meet and can give and take from other national literary traditions. But by all means develop one’s own because there is a certain portion in the legends, the customs of any people, that are valuable, and the best way to get them into a universal literature is to bring them first into a national literature…. Nobody should turn his back on his own tradition, his own language, his own culture, to assume a foreign one. Let his own and the foreign meet and produce a universal one.”

“The writer must believe always in people, in freedom; he must believe that man must be free in order to create the art; and art is in my opinion one of the most important factors in human life because it has been art, literature, folklore, music, painting which have been the record of man’s rise from his beginnings. It is the writer’s duty to show that man has an immortal soul…. A writer’s job is not simply to get books printed but to find the truth, the fundamental truth…. I think that the setting of a novel is just incidental, that the novelist is writing about truth. I mean by truth the things that are true to all people, which are love, friendship, courage, fear, greed; that he writes in the tongue which he knows, which happens to be the tongue of his own native land…. I write about American Mississippi simply because that is what I know best.”

“There is a responsibility that goes with the privilege of saying what one thinks. One must have integrity to know the truth, to believe the truth, to speak the truth, for the sake of truth, not for the sake of aggrandizement or profit or policy, but the truth because it is true.”

Faulkner2