Hindsight No. 18: Wisdom from Suffering

Hindsight for Monday, May 16, 2022

(Image from tunedinparents.com)

THERE’S A line I remember from a college course in Greek drama—specifically the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus—where Zeus memorably explains why the gods bring pain and torment to humans, when they could just as easily shower them with joyful blessings: “Justice inclines her scales so that wisdom comes at the price of suffering.” Man suffers, so he will learn.

I kept going back to that line this past week as I tried to comprehend the enormity of what had just happened: by what appeared to be a huge majority, our people had chosen a dictator’s son to lead this country for the next six years. Despite reports of massive vote-buying and irregularities at the polling stations, I wasn’t even contesting the overall results—I was never much of a conspiracist—but asking myself how and why the masses of our people keep making poor choices at the ballot box, voting against their own strategic interests. (Am I being presumptuous to sit in judgment of our average voter? Yes, and I make no apologies, having lived through martial law, all three EDSAs, Garci, tokhang, and Covid.)

Did we not suffer enough over the Marcos years and from the plunder and repression enabled by martial law to have learned that unbridled authoritarianism is a curse on everyone, both despot and citizen alike? Clearly not, or we would not be here today, facing the restoration of that rapacious regime. And it will be because—going by the moral logic that informed the Athenian stage—we have brought it upon ourselves, by casting more votes for the very same people whose greed we continue to pay for, and will pay yet more for, all over again.

In that case, should we flog ourselves over that seeming poverty of collective wisdom? Shall we call ourselves stupid and even hopeless, to have gained the freedom to vote, only to squander it for the benefit of those who took it away in the first place?

Of course, the right to vote never came with any assurance of voting wisely and responsibly, with democratic values foremostly in mind. For those whose lives have never changed regardless of administration, it can simply be another source of easy income. For others, it can be a form of personal revenge for injustices suffered daily, for the sharp tongues and heavy hands of otherwise pious employers. Still others might simply want, for once in their lives, to be part of what they think is the winning side. 

From these “winners,” we can expect a barrage of gloating and taunting, which has already begun. The cynical will remind us that we were wrong to have even hoped and tried; this was all foreordained by the numbers, which are the only thing elections are ever about. Some will even trot out that hoary quote, “Vox populi, vox Dei,” to stamp divine approval upon this outcome. In other words, we were all just exercising our free will, our freedom of choice, which after all is central to democracy. Only sore losers cry.

But then again, free will has never guaranteed critical intelligence. Which leads me—not being a political scientist—to ask these questions of those who might know better:

What if that “freedom” had been subverted and compromised by massive and deliberate disinformation? Was it still a free citizen who willfully cast a ballot for someone provably inimical to democracy, or a wound-up robot executing a series of plotted motions? Can we blame the desperate and the misled? Can we still call it a “free, fair, and clean election” if the fraud already started many years before, in the distortion of history and the rehabilitation of unpunished convicts? 

If and when voters elect a buffoon and a bully president—like they did with Donald Trump, among other such demagogues we know—does that validate buffoonery and bullying, and make them acceptable? Does it wipe the slate clean, erase all liabilities, and establish a new norm for political behavior? Most simply—as millions of us must have been thinking these past few months—if the president refuses to pay his lawful taxes, can we be morally compelled to pay ours? 

Vox populi, vox Dei—if this was God speaking, what was he saying? This is what I’m hearing: “By your own choice, I am giving you this man to be your president—so you will learn.”

I wonder how much more suffering we shall have to endure for our people—especially the generations post-martial law—to learn that voting has personal consequences, that the Marcoses do not represent “moving on” but sliding back into the dismal past, and that this election was their best chance in ages of creating a true “golden era” of humane, honest, and progressive governance, instead of the tinsel fantasy they’d been sold. How and when can we value the truth once more?

Again, Aeschylus—writing half a millennium before Christ—throws us a line from Prometheus Bound, spoken by the hapless girl-turned-cow Io. Hounded by a gadfly, Io is in constant pain, and tells Prometheus her tale of woe; but she insists, at the end of her story, that she wants to know her future, however difficult it might be: “If you can say what still remains to be endured, tell me; and do not out of pity comfort me with lies. I count false words the foulest plague of all.” This campaign saw innumerable “false words” rain down on our electorate, not just words of spite but also of artificial sweetness. 

I am angry and dismayed, but not without hope. In Io’s case, despite her terrible travails, she learns that her future is much brighter than she would have expected—she will be restored to human form, and would count among her descendants the great hero Hercules. 

We can yet be the progenitors of our best selves as Filipinos. We just need to endure, to learn, and to endure some more.

Hindsight No. 12: The Color of Danger

Hindsight for Monday, April 4, 2022

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, I took on the first of what would become many biographical assignments: the life story of the Lava brothers. In many ways, they remain the most fascinating of my subjects, brilliant men with PhDs and other advanced degrees from such schools as Columbia, Berkeley, and Stanford who, despite their upper-middle-class origins, were counted among the most dangerous subversives in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Three of them—Vicente, Jose (Peping), and Jesus—became general-secretaries of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas. Never Party members, Horacio and Francisco (Paquito) were nationalists and civil libertarians who served in high government positions—Horacio as one of the new Central Bank’s top economists and Paquito as chief legal counsel of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which he helped organize. (A sixth brother, Pedro, also became a Party member in the US but died before the war.) 

I remembered them last week when I read the reports of bookstores being splashed with red paint and of a certain government official spewing the same substance out of her mouth. No, I’m not going to defend Vicente, Peping, and Jesus Lava against Red-tagging; they were proud communists to the end. 

What has stuck in my mind from the many interviews I held with Peping and Jesus in their home in Mandaluyong was a moment with Peping—who, when I met him in the mid-1990s, was a frail and white-haired old man. Peping had graduated salutatorian from the UP College of Law in 1937 and his thesis, hailed by Dean Vicente Sinco as the best they had ever received, was published by the Harvard Law Journal. In his dotage, Peping seemed stiff, dour, and humorless, but as a young man he had played the banjo, with “Always” and “Five-Foot-Two” among his favorites.

At some point, I asked Peping: “Among all the figures in history, whom do you admire the most?” Without batting an eyelash, sitting ramrod-straight in his wooden chair, he answered: “Stalin and Marcos.” 

The mention of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s brutal dictator for over 30 years until his death in 1953, was disturbing but not surprising. The PKP looked up to the Soviet Union as a model, and some of its members had been trained there, although the Lavas themselves downplayed the connection, citing the Philippines’ greater affinity with the Chinese experience. Upon his release from prison in 1970, Peping had gone to Moscow, and then to Prague, where he and his wife lived for the next 20 years. Clearly, even if Stalin had long been officially repudiated in Russia, he left a deep and positive impression on Peping. 

What I didn’t expect—although it would make sense in retrospect—was his admiration for Ferdinand Marcos, whom he had never personally met. Why would Peping Lava, a hardcore Communist, admit to being a fan of yet another dictator, whose martial-law regime was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of so-called “enemies of the State,” many young and idealistic revolutionaries among them?

The answer might be found in the relationship that Marcos cultivated with the old Left, including a meeting between Marcos and representatives of the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism (MAN) in 1968. Negotiations between Marcos and the PKP leadership reportedly followed, resulting in the release of Peping in 1970, and of Jesus Lava and Casto Alejandrino in 1974; Luis Taruc had been released even earlier in 1968. (The PKP had been decapitated by the arrest of Peping and many leading members in 1950, followed by the arrest of Jesus in 1964.) 

The Lavas were convinced that, despite all his liabilities and abuses, Marcos was a nationalist at heart who was aware of, and opposed to, American imperialist control over the country’s economy and politics. The Americans, not Marcos, were the main enemy. (Peping believed that the Americans were responsible for the deaths of Ramon Magsaysay, Claro M. Recto, and Ninoy Aquino.)

They were attracted by his “independent” foreign policy, especially his diplomatic overtures to China and the Soviet Union. Citing international sources, they even surmised that their release had been a precondition attached by the Soviets to rapprochement with the Philippines. Jesus Lava would contend that as of 1974, the PKP had entered a “negotiated political settlement” with the Marcos administration and had therefore been legalized. (Meanwhile, breaking away from the old PKP, Jose Ma. Sison had “re-established” the CPP in 1968, and it would be his CPP-NPA-NDF combine that Marcos would go after under martial law, as would Marcos’ successors.)

If any of this sounds familiar in light of our recent history, you win no prizes. When Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, my old friends on the Left bubbled over with excitement, believing they had found a trustworthy ally who was prepared to unfriend America in favor of rosier relations with China and Russia. I was dismayed then by what I thought was fatal naivete, or miscalculated opportunism; he played them, not the other way around. 

Today, with such instrumentalities as the NTF-ELCAC and even education officials at the vanguard, going against the Reds is back in fashion. The “threat” they pose is allegedly serious enough to warrant billions in the budget for anti-subversion programs, never mind that the CPP-NPA’s military significance has been severely diminished over the past 40 years, and that we need that money for more pressing concerns. 

Never mind, too, that Russia and China—the erstwhile centers of the global Red revolution—are now universally condemned as oppressors of their own people and aggressors beyond their borders. Stalinism is back with Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping is trying to out-Mao Mao. (And another Marcos threatens to return to Malacañang. Peping Lava could feel right at home today.) Our government says it hates communists with a passion, and yet the best it can do is remain “neutral” in Putin’s war on Ukraine, and “realistic” in dealing with China’s encroachments on Philippine territory. 

All this leads me to conclude that the old Marxism-Leninism—which is barely recognizable in today’s Russia and China—is no more than a bogeyman, and even the government knows that. Red-tagging just happens to be a convenient cover to attack the real enemy: the liberal middle forces now at the forefront of reform and of democratic regime change. The color of danger is pink, not red. 

Penman No. 436: A New Blooming at Milflores

Penman for Sunday, March 6, 2022

CHAIRMAN MAO’S dictum about letting “a hundred flowers bloom, a thousand schools of thought contend” must have been on the mind of former activist, writer, retired UN official, and later gentleman-farmer and entrepreneur Antonio “Tony” Hidalgo when he founded Milflores Publishing in 1999 to publish books that would “meet the needs and wants of the Filipino masses.” His wife, the celebrated author Cristina Pantoja “Jing” Hidalgo, could not have been more pleased. Aside from building a lovely heritage home in San Miguel, Bulacan with a cock farm for Tony behind it, the Hidalgos were eager to do their part for Philippine literature beyond teaching and writing. 

Milflores would go on to publish 80 titles on such varied subjects as suburban living, cockfighting, and 20th-century masculinity, on top of the usual fiction. It was beginning to make a mark as a small but quality press—and then Tony sadly and suddenly died in 2011, leaving a devastated Jing to carry on with distributing their titles. Busy with her own professional life, Jing soldiered on as far as she could, until 2020 when a white knight entered the picture in the form of Andrea Pasion-Flores, who had been her student (and mine) at UP many years earlier. 

Since graduation, Drea—a fine fictionist in her own right—moved on to become a lawyer, then executive director of the National Book Development Board, then our first international literary agent, and until 2020 general manager of Anvil Publishing. Post-Amvil, Drea was looking for fresh challenges and opportunities, and she found it in Milflores. Her husband Javi, also a lawyer, put her up to it: “Javi and I thought about starting a new publishing company, which might’ve been cheaper. But Javi gave me the idea of buying Milflores. First, because of the name—it fits with ours. Second, it already had some goodwill that would be a shame if it were forgotten. Third, it wouldn’t hurt to ask Jing if she had any plans for it. In a heartbeat, she said yes.”

Since that takeover, Milflores has already come out with an impressive list of titles that herald a new blooming for both the company and Philippine literary publishing as a whole. Against all the odds thrown her way by the pandemic, the tenacious Drea managed to secure publishing rights from top-drawer Filipino authors such as Charlson Ong, whose wild and wacky novel White Lady, Black Christ became Milflores’ flagship offering in May 2021. As Charlson’s agent, Drea had already sold an earlier novel of his to a Malaysian publisher, so this was a natural follow-through.

This was followed by a new edition of Nick Joaquin’s Rizal in Saga. Drea had also sold NJ to Penguin Classics. “I wanted this book more than anything because, as Ambeth Ocampo said, the book went out of print the moment it was published because the government gave it out as a souvenir during the centennial of Rizal’s death in 1996, and was never reprinted.” Drea pulled out all the stops, and went for a hardcover edition. “If I was to deserve this book, there would be no cutting corners. I had to make people realize the value of this book. It had to be an object to be desired. And, as Ambeth told me, we both made sure it came out well because we both felt NJ deserved no less. When I die and go to book heaven, I want to hear Nick and Rizal tell me, I did well by them, haha!”

Simeon “Jun” Dumdum’s Why Keanu Reeves Is Lonely and Why the World Goes on as It Does, a small collection of poetry, was another risk worth taking. “Knowing I wouldn’t be raking in millions with this book, why did I want it? Because anyone who reads his poetry will be uplifted. It’s a book to treasure, really. Jun Dumdum was so game with whatever we did with it, even if we said we’d like the book to be neon pink and green. He was onboard! I like those kind of writers.”

Writer and noted bookseller Padma Perez brought Milflores its biggest book yet, Harvest Moon: Poems and Stories from the Edge of the Climate Crisis, co-published with the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC). Most books with a political agenda tend to be preachy and off-putting, but Harvest Moon is unique in its concept and execution. Twenty-four writers from around the world were given evocative photographs as prompts, with the further stipulation that they were to avoid buzz words and phrases such as “sustainability” and “climate change.” The result is visually and textually moving, investing the project with deep personal insight. This book is being sold at a deep discount, thanks to a subsidy from ICSC.

Drea Pasion-Flores has followed these up with other provocative projects, including many more in the pipeline. Robby Kwan Laurel’s Ongpin Stories is a timely reprint; former Sen. Rodolfo Biazon’s biography by Eric Ramos is a gripping narrative of a man who rose from doing other people’s laundry and selling in the market to become a general and senator, and one of the heroes of EDSA 1; David Guerrero’s The Crap Ideas Book is an inspirational book on creativity; the bedridden Nick Carbo’s new book of poems, Epithalamion, is, says Drea, his “shot at immortality.”

Milflores also has something lined up for younger readers: Kat Martin’s debut novel At Home with Crazy is the story of a 14-year-old girl dealing with the stress of living with a mother with a mental illness. Internist-oncologist William Liangco’s Even Ducks Get Liver Cancer and Other Essays is a hilarious romp through the travails of med school in a charity hospital. Drea will also publish two graphic nonfiction books by the feminist Swedish graphic illustrator Liv Stromquist and a cookbook by artist and cancer-fighter Robert Alejandro.

“I have big dreams for Milflores,” says Drea. “I want to try to bring a Philippine company out there, not just here. I’m guessing it’s not going to be the next Coca-Cola Company. It’s going to take time and lots of good books, but I have no doubt I can get there—or somewhere close to it.” (More information at milflorespublishing.com)

Penman No. 435: A Dying Swan at Midnight

Penman for Sunday, February 6, 2022

YOU’VE BEEN reading about some of my book-buying adventures and the most unlikely places I’ve found some of my most valuable books—like a 1551 book of English essays under a lamppost in Cubao, a signed first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart at Jollibee on Commonwealth Avenue, and an 1868 two-volume facsimile of Don Quixote at a McDonald’s on that same road.

Now here’s an incredible story that happened to me one night a couple of weeks ago—very late that night, just as I was about to go to bed. Beng had just finished another episode of another interminable K-drama, and I was too sleepy to switch to my own program (typically some violent crime show, which gives me a good night’s sleep). And then as I always do, I checked my messages on my laptop before moving from the La-Z-Boy to the bed, and I saw something that instantly woke me up again.

Let’s backtrack a few days earlier to another idle moment when I was poking around the usual FB sites for garage-sale and Japan-surplus flotsam and jetsam—the “antique” Coke trays (probably China-made), the Ambassador furniture sets, the bobblehead figurines, the wooden fruit bowls, etc. And then I came across a rack of paintings being sold for just P1,000 each—most of them quite awful and not even worth the price, even to a bottom-feeder like me.

But then I spotted a painting that had rather intriguing lines and colors, one that was clearly different in theme and treatment from the nipa huts and carabaos that populated the other canvases. 

In the foreground was a young woman in a white dress—a dancer immediately came to my mind—set against what first seemed to me a backdrop of the sea, a huge curling wave threatening to envelop her. But there was another element, aside from the strange shape of the “water”, that didn’t make sense: an orange something near the woman’s face.

And then it all snapped into place: the background figure was a swan with one wing outstretched and the other practically smothering the woman, and the orange thing was its beak. What sprang to my mind was Leda and the Swan, the old Greek myth that has been one of art and literature’s most reinterpreted and most referenced stories (where Zeus, in the guise of a swan, rapes or seduces Leda, and has two children by her). 

This could not have been done by a naif painter; it took some education and sophistication to take on a subject like that, and to represent it with both grace and power. This painting could not have been a recent work; its strokes and colors belonged to another age. It felt old, in a good way. I thought that it had to be decades old, possibly even pre-war.

I immediately messaged the seller to reserve the painting for me. For P1,000, it was a no-brainer. Usually the seller would respond within minutes, and we would do the GCash and Lalamove song-and-dance within the hour. But the day passed with no response. I messaged him again that night, and next morning I still heard nothing back. Another day passed; I had saved the picture of the painting on my phone and returned to it now and then, stewing inside, increasingly annoyed by the seller’s silence.

And then I got the message: did I want it? Of course, I messaged back quickly. It will cost you P1,000, he said. Sure, I said, give me your GCash number. I hope you can book it for pickup now, he said, because I’m leaving very early tomorrow morning—unless you want to get it in the afternoon. No, no, I said—I’ll book it right now. It was 11:30 pm, and Beng was sound asleep. 

And so it happened that just past midnight, a Lalamove rider roared up to my gate to deliver the painting, which I examined immediately. It had been very badly framed, with ragged edges of the painted canvas hanging over the back. Since the edges had been pulled over, I could find no signature. Still it was every bit as powerful as I had thought it to be, the colors laid on in a thick impasto. 

So the mystery was, who painted it, and when? I posted it on FB the next morning, and immediately the writers and artists in my group identified it with Leda and the Swan. I felt vindicated. And then my Toronto-based friend, the poet Patty Rivera (whose husband Joe also paints), posted a link to a story from South Africa, where a painting by a Russian-born artist named Vladimir Tretchikoff was up for auction. It was titled “The Dying Swan,” from the ballet by Mikhail Fokine; Tretchikoff had even persuaded the great ballerina Alicia Markova to pose for him in 1949, when he began the work (one of two he gave that title).

So my midnight acquisition was a copy done by a local painter in the 1950s, possibly by an amateur or even a student. Was I disappointed? How could I be, especially for the price I paid? Tretchikoff’s original was clearly much finer and more radiant; but my rougher copy, in Patty’s words, showed more “torment and despair.” When Beng restores this and we have it reframed, it will have its own life and energy, and the swan will die, over and over again, which means it never will.

Penman No. 432: In memoriam, FSJ

Penman for Friday, January 7, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell, Manong!

Penman No. 431: Restoring a Binondo Landmark

Penman for Monday, January 3, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 429: Becoming Miss Demeanor

Penman for Monday, December 6, 2021

(Photo from Pageanthology 101)

IF YOU’RE still wondering what to give your teenager or 20-something this Christmas (older folks can count as kids), I can recommend a highly unique book that came into my mailbox recently from a former student, titled A Creativity Mix Book by Hilom Pagasa. 

We’re often told—and it’s true—that Filipinos are a highly creative people, full of ideas and passions waiting to be expressed in some artful way. But even the most creative persons sometimes need help to turn that spark into a flame—something wondrous and illuminating, without burning down the house. This book can be immensely helpful in making that happen, even for people who may not think of themselves as being creative. There’s an artist and a poet in you, and this book will help you find it.

Written for these challenging times, it’s full of exercises, artworks, essays, poems, and other materials meant to make our Covid-benighted world bright and exciting again. The author describes herself as “just a housewife who wants to heal,” having battled bipolar disorder, but the book is about you, not her. Check it out on Lazada and other places online.

ALTHOUGH NOT much of a beauty pageant fan, I was dismayed to read about the recent experience of Ms. Gianna Llanes, a lovely young Filipina who flew to Mexico to represent the country at the coronation night of “Miss Glamour International 2021”—only to realize, along with five other candidates, that the whole thing was bogus, with no judges and no sponsors to be found for the big event. How anyone could dash the hopes of these ladies so summarily is beyond me, and I can only wish better luck for Gianna in her future endeavors, whether or not they involve chasing after a glittery tiara.

That sad episode also piqued my interest in “Miss Glamour International” and all these other new and relatively little known pageants that seem to have appeared all over the planet since I last took a long, hard look at Miss Universe in 1994. A quick check of Wikipedia turned up a lot more contests I’d barely or never heard of: Miss Global, Miss Globe International, Miss Grand International, Miss Heritage, Miss Model of the World, Miss Supertalent, Miss Supranational, and Miss Intercontinental, among others. As it turns out, the Philippines has figured prominently in many of these pageants, which should come as no surprise.

Back in the day, there were really only three big beauty contests to speak of—Miss Universe, Miss International, and Miss World (or four, if you add Miss Philippines, which was something of a prerequisite to all of the foregoing). It was, of course, Miss Universe that first captivated the Pinoy in 1952, when Armi Kuusela won the title and was promptly captivated by a Pinoy. (An aside I can’t resist making is the fact that Miss Kuusela, or Mrs. Hilario—she’s since become Mrs. Williams—attended a lecture I gave on the Philippines at the University of California San Diego fifteen years ago. We were introduced by a mutual friend, but I guess I was too starstruck to take a selfie.) 

I don’t need to reprise the long, illustrious list of Filipina beauties who’ve won titles at these pageants, major and minor, especially as I’m familiar with only the older ones, who enlivened my juvenile fantasies and who must be grandmothers by now. I guess what fascinates and also depresses me is how something that used to be a happy-go-lucky joyride—a pretty girl gets nudged or cajoled into joining a pageant, which strikes her as a ridiculous idea that the Mother Superior would surely object to, but she does it anyway just to see what it’s like—has been turned into a full-blown industry, with fashion designers and coaches for every quarter-turn. It’s no longer enough just to be fresh-faced and wide-eyed; you’ll need to be trained like a Marine recruit at boot camp so you can sashay in high heels beneath a canopy of feathers for which a whole ostrich farm died and answer questions about climate change and racial discrimination like a PhD candidate.

Online, there are even sites like missacademy.com that promise to turn you into Miss Demeanor, or whoever it is you dream of becoming: “We apologize for interrupting your stereotypical programming, but news flash… pageantry is getting a MAJOR makeover! Say goodbye to the trends of yesteryear and hello to MISS Academy–the future of pageants. Our training will get you primped, primed, polished and prepped in every aspect of competition. The skills you develop at MISS Academy are sure to give you an edge above the rest, in any arena of life, long after you retire the crown.” Not to be outdone, crowndiva.com offers private lessons in ten areas of training ranging from “wardrobe and accessories consultation and selection” to “pageant-specific makeup and hair lessons” for the price of $175 per hour. 

I have absolutely no doubt that our ladies have been prepared well enough by life in the Philippines to surmount any hurdles on their path to international (or universal) fame. I’m more worried by the possibility that, the way things are going, pageant organizers will soon run out of names for their ventures. Well, there’s still Miss Multinational, Miss Globalization, Miss Galaxy, Miss Cosmos, Miss Supernova, Miss Milky Way, Miss Constellation….

The Real Subversion

(Image from The Washington Post)

A Statement by UP Professors Emeriti on the Banning of “Subversive” Books

November 11, 2021

WE, PROFESSORS Emeriti at the University of the Philippines, express our strongest support for the University Council of UP Diliman in its protest against the recent memorandum issued by the Commission on Higher Education in the Cordillera Administrative Region urging libraries in that region to remove “subversive” books and materials from their collections. 

Far from being of tangential concern to us in UP, this memorandum is an assault on academic freedom in all Philippine universities, as it sets the stage for further and possibly even more repressive measures in schools across the country. Any threat to academic freedom in any Philippine school or university is a threat to the whole system and has to be confronted instantly and squarely, regardless of whether individual institutions choose to deny the threat or to acquiesce to it. While the memorandum seems to present the removal of “subversive” books as non-compulsory, we all know how such directives, in the culture of our bureaucracy, can have coercive and chilling effects. 

We are appalled by the CHED Chairman’s subsequent statement describing the compliance of some state universities with the CHED memorandum as an “exercise of their academic freedom.” This is disingenuous if not perverse. Academic freedom is neither exercised nor asserted by submitting to its suppression. It is not the bureaucratic freedom of corporate bodies to do as they wish. It does not mean that academic leaders can invoke the principle as a personal right of administrators to define and delimit the intellectual endeavors of their entire constituencies. It is a transcendent principle that implies preserving sources of history and ideas for present and future scholars, even if these are currently unfashionable or politically incorrect. Its enshrinement in our Constitution prevents the State or other institutional bodies from restricting the rights of academics and limiting them in their intellectual pursuits.

The CHED Chairman also decries UP Diliman’s response to the CHED memorandum as a form of “disrespect” toward other institutions. But indeed the greater disrespect manifest here is that of the fundamental and constitutionally protected right of all Philippine institutions of higher learning to academic freedom. This is the real subversion taking place—the takeover of academic administrations and governance by political appointees more intent on executing some external agenda than performing their duty to defend academic freedom and excellence against all incursions.

Many of us still recall the darkest days of martial law, when our campuses and offices were raided by soldiers in search of “subversive” books. Professors and students were imprisoned for their beliefs, and books were burned for their content. Never again should the military or the government itself determine which books we can read and teach. Never should academic freedom be compromised in the name of national security. 

Again we must emphasize that academic freedom is prerequisite to academic excellence, which cannot prosper under conditions of political repression or oversight. As repositories of knowledge, university libraries must remain open to all books, so their ideas can be critiqued and contested in the classroom and laboratory, in the crucible of truth and reason. To ban books is to promote ignorance and intellectual servility, and to condone its practice is to betray one’s sacred calling as a producer and propagator of knowledge. 

We call on the CHED to revoke this ill-conceived memorandum and on our Board of Regents and university administrators to resist any efforts from within and outside UP to curtail academic freedom. We reaffirm the primacy of the faculty in all matters of academic policy and practice, of which our libraries are an integral part. To defend books and libraries is to defend democracy itself, whose strength derives from a diversity of ideas and beliefs. To that end, we recommit ourselves, and urge our colleagues in active service to do as well.

Signed:

Gemino H. Abad

Jasmin Acuña

Florian Alburo

Virgilio S. Almario

Violeta Bautista

Apolonio Chua

Ma. Cecilia Gastardo-Conaco

Gisela Concepcion

Lourdes J. Cruz

Virginia Cuevas

Jose Dalisay

Randolf S. David

Emmanuel S. de Dios

Ma. Serena Diokno

Erlinda Echanis

Cecilia Florencio

Cristina P. Hidalgo

Angelito Manalili

Ma. Lourdes San Diego-McGlone

Manolo G. Mena

Evelyn Mae Mendoza

Flora Elena Mirano

Solita Monsod 

Francisco Nemenzo

Epictetus Patalinghug

Ernesto Pernia

Rafael Rodriguez

Emerlinda R. Roman

Ramon Santos

Gerardo P. Sicat

Guillermo Tabios III

Michael L. Tan

Nicanor G. Tiongson

Amaryllis Torres

Lina Valcarcel

Corazon Villareal

Roy Ybañez

Rosario T. Yu

Penman No. 426: A Provinciano Comes Home

Penman for Monday, October 25, 2021

THIS THURSDAY, October 28, a small and socially-distanced book launch will be held at the Development Bank of the Philippines in Makati to honor one of the DBP’s guiding lights, and one of the most distinguished and accomplished economists and diplomats of his time. I was privileged to have been asked to write this book, titled O, Ilaw: The Life and Legacy of Leonides S. Virata, by the late Leo’s son Luis Juan or Buboy, himself a highly successful businessman.

Few people below 65 will remember Leo Virata now, which was one reason why the book, published by the Cavite Historical Society, was written. For Buboy, it was to make sure that his children and grandchildren will know his father the way he did, and to introduce Leo to a new generation of Filipinos now sadly too used to seeing government officials and businessmen as crooks. 

Leo Virata was, in various phases of his life, both a public servant and a pillar of the business community. Born in Imus, Cavite in 1918 to the family that bred his eldest brother Enrique and Enrique’s son Cesar, Leo was an academic standout from grade school to college, graduating cum laude in Business Administration from the University of the Philippines before being sent on to Harvard, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University for graduate studies. Caught by the war in the US, Leo then became Gen. Carlos P. Romulo’s indispensable aide, all the way to the United Nations. 

He returned to the Philippines after the war to set up the research department at the new Central Bank, a convergence point for the best and brightest young economic minds of the time, including Horacio Lava, Benito Legarda Jr., and Sixto K. Roxas. He then moved to Philam Life in 1952 as financial vice-president and vice-chairman of its investment committee, spearheading the company’s support for vital economic projects, including Filoil, Far East Bank, Bacnotan Cement, and Manila Doctors Hospital, among others. 

After almost two decades in the private sector, Leo was taken in by President Marcos in 1969 as Secretary of Commerce and Industry, before being appointed chairman of the DBP in 1970. The bank was then saddled by bad loans, but Leo cleaned up the mess as best he could and reoriented the bank to support countryside development. Tragically, he died in 1976 aged only 58 of lung cancer, and was universally mourned for his brilliance, his dedication to public service, and his integrity (when he took over the DBP, he explicitly ordered his relatives not to visit him at his office).

When Buboy asked me to write his father’s biography a few years ago, I had heard of the name but knew very little of the man himself, and immediately I realized how difficult it would be to reanimate the character of a subject who had been gone for over 40 years. Almost always, in my previous assignments, I had had the luxury of working with subjects who were still very much alive and blessed with elephantine memories (as Wash SyCip was) or had roomfuls of catalogued materials gathered over the decades waiting to be sorted out (as Ed Angara did). Family members are a great resource, and Buboy and his wife Libet gave me all the help they could, but sadly Leo’s wife Bebe Lammoglia Virata—a renowned art collector—and Buboy’s sister Vanna had passed on. 

Thankfully, some luminaries whom Leo mentored or influenced were still around—among them, the journalist Jake Macasaet, and businessmen and public officials such as Manny Zamora, Louie Villafuerte, Cesar Zalamea, Titoy Pardo, and Johnny Litton—from whom I was able to get the most interesting vignettes about Leo and his times. (Among other things, Leo did not let his relationship with Marcos intrude into his decisions, and could say no to the man; the Viratas had lost land to the Marcoses, recovered only after EDSA.)

Writing a biography requires more than fleshing out someone’s Wikipedia entry. I always remind my clients that I’m a novelist rather than a professional historian, so my interest lies in capturing a character inside and out, trusting the story to reveal the subject’s strengths and weaknesses without having to editorialize on his or her behalf.

My writing stalled for about a year as I struggled to fill in gaps about Leo’s professional and personal life. Impossible as it seemed, I wanted to hear the man himself; Leo was a prodigious speaker and crowd-pleaser (the title of the book adverts to his favorite kundiman, which he would sing at the drop of a hat). I got a terrific break when Buboy unearthed two scrapbooks bulging with Leo’s memorabilia and notes from his years in the US, as a student and as CPR’s right-hand man. Finally, in this collection of postcards, concert tickets, restaurant menus, and such ephemera—alongside his correspondence with CPR—the person emerged, standing on the verge of an outstanding career, finding his footing in a world wracked by war, thousands of miles away from the groves of Imus.

Despite having traveled the world and having married an Italian mestiza, Leo remained a provinciano at heart. When Leo died, hundreds of townsfolk and schoolchildren lined the road leading to his grave in his hometown, which considered him a hero. I wonder how many of our leaders today will deserve that kind of farewell.

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.)