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.”

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Penman No. 387: Wallace Stegner in Manila

Penman for Monday, May 11, 2020

LIKE MANY of you, I’ve spent much of the lockdown opening boxes and sorting out files I haven’t touched in years. As a certified pack rat, I keep papers and other effects going back to my grade school years, so my periodic shakedowns inevitably turn up things I never knew I had, or that I’d completely forgotten about. Last month’s haul included our wedding pictures from 1974, a huge picture book of Paris from 1890, and prints from artist-friends like Orly Castillo, Joel Soliven, and the late Lito Mayo. 

So amusing and engrossing were these finds that I almost missed a frayed copy of The Literary Apprentice1951, published by the UP Writers Club and edited by two young writers, Raul R. Ingles and S. V. Epistola. I had the privilege of knowing both men when they were still alive back in the 1980s, by which time they had become venerable professors in UP. In 1951, Ingles was only 22, Epistola 26, young bucks who were already rendering literary judgment on their peers and seniors (such as Ingles’ estimation of Zoilo Galang, our first novelist in English (Child of Sorrow, 1921) of whom he writes: “The other novel (of 1950) was For Dreams Must Die by Zoilo Galang, who blundered into the literary scene. Galang was a romantic novelist of the 1920s. His mushy prose dates farther back….” That pungent style of commentary was apparently the order of the day, as elsewhere in the issue we find Homero Ch. Veloso, touted to be “UP’s most renowned poet of the past decade,” being hacked at the knees by the expatriate Jose Garcia Villa, who writes that “I think he is completely valueless; however serious he was in his esthetic and intellectual life, his writing is utterly inchoate, unformed, and ill-written….”

But what really caught my eye in this issue (where also, incidentally, Villa’s “The Bashful One” appears, among other, uhm, essentially wordless poems) was a report on the recent visit to Manila of Wallace Stegner, who had been brought over by the Rockefeller Foundation in January 1951 to deliver eight lectures, one of which touched on his impressions of Filipino writing (but only in English, of course).

Very few people, even among writers, would recognize the name these days, but Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) was a renowned American novelist who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. His name rang a bell because of two things. First, starting in 1946, Stanford University has offered the two-year Stegner Fellowship in creative writing, among the world’s prize fellowships for writers, whose recipients have included at least three Filipinos: the poets Valdemar Olaguer (1950) and Fidelito Cortes (1985) and the Fil-Am fictionist Lysley Tenorio (2000). Second, as luck would have it, I actually met Stegner when he visited my graduate writing class at the University of Michigan in October 1986; sadly I don’t remember much of that visit beyond an old man in a tan overcoat, as our classes had barely begun and I was still dizzy with loneliness and awe. 

Stegner’s 1951 sortie to Manila also fell in between visits by two other notable writers from America. The first was Ernest Hemingway, who came twice in 1941, in February and May, on his way to and from China with his third wife Martha Gellhorn. I received a note last month from my friend and fellow history buff in Washington, Erwin Tiongson, who found a report from The Tribune of May 13, 1941 about Hemingway being so moved by a huge fire in Tondo that he donated P500 to a fund for the victims.

Another prominent visitor was William Faulkner, who came to Manila in 1955. I recall a small poster commemorating that visit on the wall of the UPICW in the old Faculty Center before it burned down. There are records of what Faulkner did and said then—elsewhere, so I still have to find them. In the library of Stanford University is an 18-page illustrated document from 1956 published by the Philippine Writers Association titled “Faulkner on Truth and Freedom. Excerpts from tape recordings of remarks made by William Faulkner during his recent Manila visit,” but it’s only available on-site. More tantalizingly, there’s an article titled “Faulkner in Manila—1955” in Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962 edited by James Meriweather and published by Random House in 1968.

So what did Wallace Stegner have to say to his Filipino audience in 1951? He deplored the lack of novelists, for one thing. “The situation is understandable because writing a novel requires the investment of about a year’s labor, the loss of productive activity in other directions, and an attendant publishing risk,” noted the article, which went on: “The Filipino short story, Dr. Stegner observed, is more on the side of the sketch: it is a slice or cross-section rather than a well-rounded whole. Sometimes the story ends; sometimes it just stops…. The Filipino writer rushes to print because he has no other alternative. He gets published easily, even on the second draft, and gets paid just the same. The result is an early sense of maturity which deceives the writer: there is nothing more to test him, to give him obstacles to get over and sharpen his writing ability. Thus, currently published stories need to be run ten times more through the typewriter to straighten out the diction and the style, to fill out the sketchiness, to clarify the characters and the moods, to smooth out all the things that make a short story.”

Funny, I thought, finding that in a 70-year-old journal, when I’d been telling my students the same thing.

Penman No. 383: Crash Landing on Me

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Penman for Monday, March 16, 2020

 

I SHOULD have better things to do—and Lord knows I do—but I have to admit to splurging an inordinate amount of time and attention last week on a Korean confection strangely titled “Crash Landing on You.”

It was my wife Beng’s fault. I was snug in my La-Z-Boy, pecking away at my laptop on a book project, figuring out how best to explain how iron ore becomes high-grade steel, with the TV open to “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” on Netflix. That’s how I often work, toggling between the job and entertainment, with one foot on the ground and another stepping on the gas, Walter Mitty-like, for Scuderia Ferrari. She came up to me and said, with the sweetest smile she could muster, “Can we watch ‘Crash Landing on You’ instead?”

“Can we watch what?”

She went on to explain that it was currently South Korea’s most popular telenovela, and as soon as I heard that, I knew that my Formula I viewing was done for, at least for the evening. For the past 46 years of our marriage, Beng has endeavored to get me to try things I passionately abhor—like cheese, artichokes, alugbate, and sappy movies—and while she’s gotten nowhere on the food front, now and then I relent on the entertainment, because it gives me a bargaining chip, and I can play poker all I want. Besides, International Women’s Day was coming up, and it seemed like a good present to mark the occasion.

That’s when I remembered that I could’ve scored more points by bringing it up myself, before she did. I was waiting last month for an important meeting with a high university official; on the sofa beside me sat a friend, the director of our Korean Studies Program, whom Beng had met before. We had all once been at a big party to celebrate Philippine-Korean relations, where Beng and I found ourselves seated at the same table with the very affable Korean ambassador and his wife. Beng struck up an instant friendship with the madame, upon discovering that they were both telenovela fans. My friend remembered that, and on the sofa whispered instructions to me that might as well have been a state secret: “Please tell your wife to watch this new show called ‘Crash Landing on You.’ Right now, it’s the biggest hit in Korea.” Of course, I promptly forgot about it—until Beng told me to hit the switch-channels button.

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that “Crash Landing on You” is about—take a deep breath—a rich and stylish South Korean heiress who somehow accidentally lands in North Korea and who falls in love with her savior, a soldier who also happens to be (aside from a concert pianist) the son of a high-ranking government official, and who follows the heiress back to Seoul, trailed by an assassin and supported by a posse of faithful North Korean friends. Makes total sense, right?

As Beng settled into her show with a bag of chips, I continued working on my steel-industry epic while keeping one desultory eye on the unfolding TV drama. Soon I was sucked in by what I had gleefully expected—absurdity galore, silly coincidences, the ridiculousness of towing a piano dockside for an impromptu concert and of a girl (yes, another Korean on the same lake in Switzerland) on a boat gliding by and memorizing the melody at one pass, and so on.

By Episode 5 I was making snide remarks, like “Why do these Koreans always argue then kiss in the rain?” But alas, by Episode 8, I was laughing like crazy over the five North Korean operatives reconnoitering Seoul like country bumpkins, taking in the wonders of fried chicken, soft beds, and vending machines. Even worse, I got teary-eyed when Ri Jeong-Hyuk told Yoon Se-ri, “I want to see you with gray hair, and wrinkles…. I want to see you grow old.”

I began setting up post-dinner watch parties with Beng, and because we seniors doze off after an hour even if there’s a war or a volcano erupting outside, we’ve been able to hold off watching the two-hour finale for our quarantine treat.

Meanwhile, I had to chuckle when the BBC reported that the North Korean media went into overdrive denouncing “Crash Landing on You” as an attack on its cherished values:  “Recently, South Korean authorities and film producers have released anti-republic films and TV dramas that are deceptive, fabricated, absurd and impure, putting all their efforts into making strategic propaganda. The South Korean government and production houses will pay the price for making and distributing such movies and programs which are full of manipulation and fiction that insult the reality of the bright situation of the North.”

Even some South Koreans were equally unhappy, accusing the show of making North Korea look good: “tvN’s ‘Crash Landing on You’ has been accused of violating the National Security Act for glorifying North Korea. On January 22, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency revealed that they were reviewing an accusation made by the Christian Liberal Party against tvN on January 9. In a statement released on January 10, the Christian Liberal Party explained that ‘Following the National Security Act, one should not praise or follow any anti-national organizations that compromise the existence of South Korea.’”

Come on, guys, drop the missiles and watch the show! See each other grow old!

 

 

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.