Hindsight No. 8: Who Owes What to Whom

Hindsight for March 7, 2022

A COUPLE of weeks ago, an unattributed article in another newspaper titled “National artists owe it all to Marcos” berated five National Artists—Bencab, Virgilio Almario, Alice Reyes, Ramon Santos, and Ryan Cayabyab—for proclaiming their support for VP Leni Robredo’s presidential bid. They were, said the unnamed writer, ingrates for forgetting the fact that the National Artist Award had been created by Ferdinand Marcos, implying further that they owed their fame and fortune to Manong Ferdie, without whose patronage they would be nobodies hawking their wares at streetcorners. “Prior to his being named national artist in 2006, Cabrera was not as well known as he is today in the national art scene. Today, his paintings sell in the millions of pesos.”

That’s odd because as far as I knew, Bencab, along with the others, was already famous within and outside Philippine artistic circles well before he was proclaimed National Artist. In fact, didn’t he become one because of his impressive body of work? Or did I get it wrong? According to that article, it was the NA Award that made these people, and since Manong Ferdie established it, then, well, they were forever indebted to him for their professional success. That should go as well for such luminaries as Jose Garcia Villa, Vicente Manansala, Amado Hernandez, F. Sionil Jose, Jovita Fuentes, and Atang de la Rama, among many others. 

The article dutifully reminded the reader that “To recall, on 27 April 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Proclamation 1001 creating the Order of National Artist of the Philippines, to recognize outstanding Filipino artists. Under the Marcos proclamation, a national artist is entitled to a cash award of P100,000, a handsome monthly stipend, yearly medical and hospitalization benefits, life insurance coverage, a place of honor in state functions and national cultural events, a state funeral, and burial space at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.”

Wrong. There were no such benefits under that proclamation, only the honorific title. (Go on, look it up.) The emoluments came later, in the form of the aforementioned one-time cash award and a P2,000 monthly stipend, raised much later to P10,000 and then P50,000 (on the government pay scale, equal to about Salary Grade 19, just one grade above sub-professional supervisors). Since National Artists typically get chosen in their 70s or even posthumously, that’s not much of an outlay. 

I would have been more enthralled by Manong Ferdie’s magnanimity if it had been his personal finances that paid for the package. But that was always the people’s money. And even his personal finances had a way of being traced back to some public source.

Where else did our taxes go? Why, to the recipients of the CCP International Artist Award, which I’ll bet most of us never even heard of. The book Musical Renderings of the Philippine Nation by Christi-Anne Castro (Oxford University Press, 2011) chronicles how the First Lady instituted this award—which came with an unspecified life pension for such laureates as Van Cliburn and Margot Fonteyn—in June 1973 “as a personal gift from Imelda Marcos as well as a small incentive for international performers to make the long journey to the Philippines to perform at the CCP.”

(Photo from philstar.com)

The article chides “anti-Marcos” creatives for dreaming of becoming National Artists and for accepting its conferment. But since when did the award—or any credible award for that matter—require fealty to its originator or sponsor? Were the victors at the 1936 Berlin Olympics expected to genuflect before Hitler? Should Nobel Prize winners espouse arms sales, as Alfred Nobel once did? 

I don’t dispute the claim that the Marcoses supported the arts and culture through the creation of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Folk Arts Theater, and the Manila Film Center, as controversial as they were (and in the case of the Film Center, as tragically ghoulish, with as many as 169 workers’ bodies reportedly entombed in the concrete). Favored artists were set for life. 

But cultural patronage is a PR expense. The art shows decorated and sanitized the regime, and made it appear to whoever cared to look that the Philippines was one big, colorful, glittery stage. For the National Artist Award to be taken seriously, they had to recognize serious artists—even those who weren’t Palace toadies, like Nick Joaquin (who accepted the award in 1976 only on condition that his friend the journalist Pete Lacaba, then in prison after being brutally tortured, be set free). After the Marcoses, the NAA was revived and expanded—the National Scientist and National Social Scientist Awards were also established—but it never quite shook off the stigma of political favoritism. Most notably, in 2009, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo played dagdag-bawas and anointed four of her personal choices NAs, prompting a suit from the real NAs and many other petitioners, which ultimately prevailed. 

If you want to get political about utang na loob, even Rodrigo Duterte acknowledges that it was Cory Aquino who jumpstarted his political career when she appointed him OIC mayor of Davao after EDSA 1 when his mother “Nanay Soling”—among the few staunch anti-Marcos activists in Davao—declined the offer. He later said in an interview that he was not going to dishonor his mother’s memory “by following the persons that she helped shut down.” But then in 2016, against widespread opposition, he allowed Ferdinand Marcos to be interred as a hero. That should have earned him a cache of pogi points with the Marcoses, who then jumped the gun on Inday Sara’s own presidential ambitions—or whatever Tatay Digong had in mind for her—by pushing Junior for No. 1. Of course, my pro-Sara friends (I do keep a handful, for our mutual entertainment) insist that Sara is going her own way and isn’t answerable to her dad. So this puzzle of who-owes-what-to-whom gets more and more difficult to figure out. Does it even matter in Pinoy politics?

And if we’re serious about debt collection, how about the P125 billion in ill-gotten Marcos wealth that the Philippine government still has forthcoming? Sounds more like the Marcoses owe it all to the Filipino people.

Hindsight No. 6: A Cultural Agenda

Hindsight for Monday, February 21, 2022

(Botong Francisco’s “Pista sa Angono”)

NOTABLY ABSENT from the platforms of nearly all candidates for the presidency is any mention of culture and the arts as a vital element in our quest of nationhood. Everyone has an opinion about the economy, the pandemic, corruption, peace and order, foreign relations, infrastructure, the environment, and countryside development, but you can hardly hear anyone speak—beyond the usual generalizations and platitudes—about what makes us Filipino, what it means to live as an archipelago with over 100 languages, and why and how we can be so similar in some ways and yet so different in others.

These are all matters of culture, which are often given tangible expression in the arts—the songs that make us weep, the paintings that brighten our walls, the stories that make us wonder about what’s important to us, the dances whose gestures take the place of words. At their best, culture and the arts rehumanize us, remind us of our truest, noblest, and also most vulnerable selves.

Unfortunately, we have been brought up to see them as little more than adornments, passing entertainments, intermission numbers to play in between presumably weightier and more consequential concerns. On an official level, culture has been treated as an adjunct of other ventures such as sports and tourism, culminating in beauty contests and street dances. 

The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) have had active programs for funding the arts and for sponsoring performances and exhibitions, but despite many previous initiatives, efforts to set up a formal Department of Culture to oversee a broader cultural agenda have failed, again because of the low priority accorded to the sector.

Many studies have shown, however, that the arts—transposed into the creative industries that produce cultural products covering everything from books, movies, and TV shows to music, food, advertising, and advertising—create a large economic footprint.

Citing UNCTAD figures, a report commissioned by the British Council some years ago noted that “Depending on how they are defined, the Creative Industries are estimated to represent anywhere from 3% to 12% of global GDP.”

In 2010—the last year for which I have solid figures—copyright-based industries or CBIs contributed more than P660 billion to the economy, according to the Intellectual Property Organization of the Philippines. In GDP terms, the economic contribution of CBIs climbed from less than 5 percent in 2006 to more than 7 percent in 2010. Core CBIs comprising companies in the arts, media, and advertising largely accounted for this surge. A corresponding rise in employment occurred in the sector, from 11 percent of the total number of jobs in 2006 to over 14 percent four years later. Surely these figures have risen much higher since then.

But the most important argument for a clear and strong cultural agenda remains the moral one. Culture is an essential element of national growth and development, as it helps define our national identity and our national interests. Without culture, we have nothing to stand on except our territory. Culture is a dynamic description of our commonalities and differences, without understanding which we will be moving forward blindly, guided only by the political and economic interests of our elites.

That understanding of who we are and why we think and act the way we do should be the end-goal of our education, grounded in an appreciation of our history. But as recent questions have highlighted, the DepEd’s decision to integrate Philippine history into other areas of learning effectively diluted and diffused its teaching in high school, a critical period in the formation of young minds.

For these reasons, a group of Filipino artists, writers, scholars, and cultural workers have organized the Katipunan sa Kultura at Kasaysayan (KKK) to present the leading presidential candidates with a cultural agenda for the next administration. The key items on that agenda include the promotion of a liberative, creative, and innovative culture; support for the study, appreciation, and critical interpretation of Philippine history; the promotion of cultural and creative industries, and Filipino products; the promotion of democratic education and programs to raise literacy nationwide; and serving the health and welfare interests of cultural workers. (Full disclosure: I work with National Artist Virgilio Almario in this organization.) We presented that agenda to all the leading candidates but heard back from only one, who endorsed it warmly: VP Leni Robredo. We were not surprised.

It’s not surprising, either, that those who understand Filipino culture best are those intent on exploiting its fractures and contradictions. The manipulation of public opinion and political outcomes thrives on knowing how people and groups behave, what emotional levers to pull, and which buzzwords to propagate. 

The confused and fragile state of our culture can be easily seen in how susceptible our people are to fake news. A recent SWS survey showed that 51 percent of Filipinos—every other one of us—find it difficult to tell real news from fake. The traditional sources of what most people have deemed the truth—the government, the Church, the traditional media, the schools, law enforcement, and even scientists—no longer carry the same trustworthiness they used to. Their places have been taken over by social media, cable TV, and micro-networks that can spread disinformation at lightning speed.

When I heard the New Society theme “May Bagong Silang” being played at Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s proclamation rally, I recalled how music, theater, and art were harnessed by the martial-law regime to create spectacle, a key instrument of enthrallment and intimidation, from imperial Rome’s circuses to Nazi Germany’s torchlit parades. That’s culture at the service of dictatorship, belying Leonard Bernstein’s claim that music was one art “incapable of malice.” 

I’ve often noted, in my talks on this topic, how ironic it was that the only presidency that put culture and the arts at the forefront was Marcos Sr.’s, and today even the staunchest of Imelda’s critics will grudgingly acknowledge the value of the CCP. But there was an ulterior agenda to that, which makes it even more urgent to promote a culture that will uphold truth, reason, and justice as a basis for national unity, instead of being used as a glitzy curtain to mask wanton murder and thievery.

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. 434: Wanderlust in Quarantine

Penman for Sunday, January 30, 2022

(Image from the Philippine STAR)

YOU KNOW that the pandemic has gone into triple overtime when you realize that it’s been two years since you got on a plane and did something more exciting than checking your temperature and waiting for Season 9 of The Blacklist on Netflix. For a guy who splurged on visiting nine countries right after he retired in 2019—something I will forever be happy to have done when I could—this long period of immobility should feel like prison. 

In some ways, it seems like it. I’ve worn nothing but a pair of Crocs flip-flops all these months. I’ve been to Makati no more than four, five times, and to Los Baños once for a wedding. My leather shoes have gone moldy, and my blazers musty. I have a couple of shirts I put on for Zoom meetings and replace on their hangers afterwards, and I wear long pants maybe once or twice a week.

To be honest, however, I’ve found the long lockdown more than bearable. The misery and depredations of the pandemic aside (and I acknowledge my uncommon position of privilege as a retiree), I’ve been able to use the time and enforced confinement to catch up with long-standing deadlines and get some new writing done. I know how lucky I am to be alive and functioning at all, and I can’t see any fun or relief in traveling under this regime of nose swabs and quarantines.

But that hardly means that my wanderlust—and that of my fellow footloose—is gone. Where the feet can’t go, the mind travels, imagining vistas yet unseen, horizons uncrossed, gateways opening to new adventures. Before the pandemic, Beng and I had been planning on visiting St. Petersburg, which was then offering free eight-day visas online, to see its famous Hermitage; that will have to wait for kinder times. But we can always revisit the past and take consolation in happy memory of journeys completed and challenges survived.

So I went on a daydreaming binge last week, going over my digital albums, posing a question that each of us will have a different answer to: “What’s the most beautiful place in the world you’ve ever been to?” Curious as to what other people had in mind in this respect, I put out an informal survey among my FB friends, and gathered an interesting and colorful list of places that might as well be a bucket list for others seeking their post-pandemic Shangri-la.

For National Artist for Music Ramon Santos, it had to be Petra, Jordan, “where we listened to a live symphony concert at the steps of the temple facade.”

For UK-based travel writer Wendy Daw, it was remote Tetiaroa in French Polynesia, where she stayed at The Brando, described as “the world’s most luxurious eco-resort.”   (Prices begin at $3,500/night for a standard room—I think I’ll have to stay on the beach, or the canoe.)

For children’s advocate Naida Pasion, Old Bagan in Myanmar exuded “an otherworldly beauty” she couldn’t forget.

For writer Alma Miclat, following in the footsteps of Jose Rizal to Litomerice in the Czech Republic in 2019 was bittersweet, as it would be the last trip abroad she would take with her husband Mario, before the pandemic set in and before Mario passed away shortly after.

For calligrapher Lorraine Nepomuceno, Carcassonne in southern France, with its medieval citadel overlooking the countryside, was the pinnacle of her many travels. 

For writer and professor Gerry Los Baños, Florence gave off a certain frisson, an electricity in the ubiquity of its art. (I know the feeling—you hardly know where to look—having had just a day to spend in Florence with Beng, after also just a day in Venice.)

The view of Lake Como from Villa Serbelloni.

For poet Joel Toledo, Oxfam regional director Lan Mercado, and—yes!—myself, it was Bellagio in northern Italy, where I woke up every morning for a month to a breathtaking view of Lake Como, silvered by the overhanging mist. (I was on a Rockefeller writing fellowship at the Villa Serbelloni as was Joel, after Krip Yuson, the late FSJ, and many other Filipino writers, but to tell the truth I got much less writing done than I would have in our humble abode in Diliman. Beauty can overpower the senses and I spent much of my time just enjoying the scenery—but for writers and artists, that qualifies as work.)

Of course, many others preferred settings much closer to home, if not home itself. For musician and Kontra-Gapi founder Edru Abraham, nothing can take the place of the Callao Caves in his home province of Cagayan; for writer Bebang Siy, Ermita’s sunset will never lose its charm; UP professor Roli Talampas met sublimity at the summit of Mt. Pulag at daybreak.

The number and range of responses I got suggested that I had released a wave of longing from friends who understood, as I did, that the world we knew had changed forever, and that the magic we felt in those encounters with ethereal places would have to last us for the rest of our lives. 

There will be other opportunities, for sure, after the pandemic, especially for the young. But we’re happy and fortunate to have seen the past, such as it was. Every life deserves a brush with beauty—whether under a shower of cherry blossoms in Tokyo or under the stars in Antipolo—and we had ours.

Villa Balbianello, across Lake Como.

Penman No. 433: Finally, Facebook

Penman for January 16, 2022

My Lifestyle column in the Philippine STAR, “Penman,” has now been moved to every other Sunday, to avoid the awkwardness (and extravagance) of having two of my columns appear in the paper on Mondays. My takeover of F. Sionil Jose’s “Hindsight” on the Op-Ed page debuts tomorrow.

I WAS sixteen years late to the party, but I finally gave in and opened a Facebook account last June under my name, initially just for family. A few weeks ago I began accepting “friends,” of which I now have about 600, and I don’t intend to add too many more, although time and tolerance could change that reticence as well.

I resisted joining Facebook all those years for all the reasons some of my real-life friends remain staunch holdouts. Foremostly, it seemed to diminish and commodify the idea of friendship, replacing what should have been forged over conversation, coffee, and even conflict with a few keystrokes. Even now, looking at the roster of my newfound “friends,” I know—and do not really regret—that less than half of them are people I have actually broken bread or raised a toast with.

Honest to God, not being a politician, I don’t need 5,000 friends; I wouldn’t even know what to do with 1,000 of them. If they all pledged to buy my next book, then maybe I’d reconsider and lower the bar by a foot or two, in the cause of promoting literacy and my Fountain Pen Rescue Fund.

And then of course Facebook is a total timesuck, defined by the Urban Dictionary as “the void that gets created by engaging in an activity that seems like it will be short but ends up taking up huge amounts of time.” It’s just not human not to read and then not to respond to comments on your posts, and then not to read the posts of others and not to react to them.

Every “tag” might as well be a distress call; somewhere out there you’re being praised or reviled, and you just have to pause that report you’re drafting for the Board of Regents or that article you’re refereeing for the Journal of Linguistics to see what Cookie has been saying about that encounter in Boracay or Chef Dodo’s opinion of your dinuguan recipe.

As it is, even deciding who gets to be your Facebook “friend” or not raises all kinds of vexing and time-consuming moral dilemmas. I don’t know how others do it, but I review nearly every request I receive, going through that person’s profile—and not just our common “friends”—to see who and what’s behind the name. My rule of thumb is, if I really know you—and like you—then you’re in; if I know you by reputation, I might even feel honored, and click “confirm.” If I’ve never met or heard about you at all—which isn’t your fault or any fault for that matter—then I evaluate your application for virtual “friendship” using my shamelessly subjective criteria.

First, I check to see if you’re a real person, or that you are who you say you are. Early on in this “friendship” game, I received a slew of requests from impossibly pretty and shapely ladies, which made me wonder why I had waited sixteen years to enter paradise. (They all seemed to have one or two common “friends” with me, always the same persons, so I know who’s been extraordinarily amiable out there.) Out of curiosity (I swear!), I accepted one such request, and almost instantly got a private message that invited me to become her digital pen pal, because she was lonely and unoccupied in some far-off country. I wanted to tell her to buy my book of funny essays, or even my short stories, to relieve her boredom, but I had an inkling that creative nonfiction wasn’t going to be the bridge between us.

I checked out her posts—all of them suggestive of her good health and weight maintenance, and of her preference for clothes that did not consume too much fabric (kudos for sustainability)—only to notice that they had all been posted on the same day! My wonderment quickly turned to dismay, realizing that I, among other papas of the world, was being suckered into hell by this honeypot, who was very likely some ugly fellow like me named George or Brando. And so I sadly punched “delete,” as I did for the many others who would follow in Ms. Lonely’s wake.

Second, I check to see if you’re interesting and if we’ll get along. If all you can show me are endless updates of your profile picture—here’s me on the beach, here’s me with my dog, here’s me with a balloon, here’s me lifting weights—then we really don’t need each other, thank you. I have a soft spot for all kinds of artists, and I don’t necessarily just go for the famous or abundantly talented ones; I’ve signed in struggling young people because I admire honest effort.

If you’re a benign plantita proud of your grandkids, your succulents, and your muffins, you’re in—the world needs you! If you became my friend just to sell me something, you’re out (unless you buy my book first). Now here’s a killer: if I see even the slightest sign of you supporting dictatorship, book-banning, EJK, and fake news, you’re out. (I know we’re supposed to make friends across the political divide, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya,” but I didn’t join Facebook to get my daily dose of aggravation.)

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….

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. 424: The Analog Revival

Penman for Monday, September 27, 2021

TWO YEARS ago, just before the Covid pandemic turned the world upside down, another and much less noticed reversal took place. Ending a 33-year trend, vinyl records outsold CDs—1.24 million records toting up $224 million in global sales, according to Music Times. You’d think that grandparents the world over had launched a conspiracy to buy out the remaining stock of Mantovani, The Lettermen, and the Ray Conniff Singers, but no—70 percent of the buyers were millennials under 35.

Audiophile Eric Teel says that “Music lovers have long treated vinyl with a kind of mysticism, using terminology like ‘warmth’ to describe a special intangible quality that some say eludes digital recording technology. Getting the most out of a vinyl record requires more effort than the simple huff of warm breath and a wipe on the t-shirt that many of us (shouldn’t, but do) give a CD to wipe off fingerprints before sticking it in a player.” In other words, there’s the sound, and there’s the ritual of choosing, cleaning, and playing the record—all before putting one’s feet up on a stool and sipping coffee.

Even earlier, in 2014, someone named Alex Lenkei wrote an essay on medium.com about another kind of hole he had fallen into—manual typewriters. Explaining why he found his way back to typewriters in the age of the Internet, Alex said:

“Like people, no two typewriters are the same. Each one feels distinctly different and has a different history of grade school assignments, covert love letters, prose and poetry, government propaganda, and wartime memos. The coldness of the keys under your fingers feels like the only truth in the world and the smell of metal and grease when you dig your nose into the typebars, the cavity of the machine, feels like the home of a serious writer.

“A typewriter is a miraculous tool for disconnecting in a time when we are all constantly connected to our smartphones or tablets. When I’m sitting down at a computer, I don’t know what I’m going to do next; I can get distracted very easily. In today’s increasingly connected world, production and focus in writing are being sacrificed for Facebook updates, tweets, and blog posts. There are a thousand distractions. But with a typewriter, I know I’m writing.”

The third analog instrument that’s made a comeback is—you guessed it—the fountain pen. According to the Washington Post, “In the 1990s, high-end, limited-edition pens took off…. The recession of 2008 dried up the ink on those for a while. The current fountain pen revival, penfolk agree, has been driven by an unlikely group: millennials. Yes, a generation that wasn’t taught cursive and whose members do most of their writing on a keyboard or smartphone screen has breathed new life into the old-fashioned fountain pen.

“’There’s less writing now, but when they do write, they want a good experience….’ That means premium pen, nice paper, unusual ink—stuff that looks good on Instagram…. A lot of the pens are used for keeping something called a dot journal or a bullet journal, which is basically a fancy to-do list.”

It’s obvious from these testimonials what’s been happening, aside from the fact of genuine oldtimers like me hanging on to their tools and toys: a whole new generation has reached far into the past for a new experience unavailable in the digital world—something tactile, something hands-on, something requiring more personal investment than a keystroke or tapping on “Play.” 

That’s nowhere more evident than in our local pen fanciers group, Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (fpn-p.org), which since its establishment in 2008 now counts over 11,000 members online. I’d say at least 70 percent of active members are below 40. The group’s original focus was fountain pen collecting, especially vintage pens, and old guys like me were happy just to ogle our pen-filled boxes and occasionally write some lines with black or blue-black Quink.

Our newest and younger members are clearly more excited by swatching colorful inks that shimmer and sheen, by learning calligraphy and journaling, and by just getting together as a community to enjoy a newfound passion. In other words, it’s not so much the object but the experience that matters most, asserting oneself in a digitized universe.

I also help moderate the Filipino Typewriter Collectors group on FB, and we’ve passed more than 1,000 members in less than a year. As with pens, most of our members are young, artistically inclined, expressive, and fascinated by using old tech to do 21st-century tasks. Again, I’m the crusty hardware guy who appreciates the machines as artifacts (having written books with them ages ago), while our newbies can still be thrilled by the clatter of keys on a platen and by the words they can form on a blank sheet of paper.

I grew up with vinyl, but came relatively late to the collecting party. We have a small, private Viber group that exchanges tips on where to find certain LPs cheap. We’re not learned enough to consider ourselves audiophiles fussing over “curve” and “coloration”; we just want to relive our youth by listening to the Beatles, Brasil ’66, and Marianne Faithfull. What’s surprising is, we have some teenage members who are discovering this music for the first time on vinyl, and liking it. Suddenly, their lolos and titos are cool again. There’s hope for the future yet!

Penman No. 418: Hello, Goodbye

Penman for Monday, July 5, 2021

YESTERDAY, JULY 4, marked the 55th anniversary of the controversial visit of the Beatles to the Philippines in July 1966. 

I was 12, in transition between grade school at La Salle Green Hills and the Philippine Science High School, when the Beatles came to Manila. I can still remember that day, the 4th of July, quite clearly. We were living in Pasig, and my mom and I took a bus to Quiapo, from where we were going to take a jeepney to go to the Rizal Coliseum. She was going to take me to see the Beatles, perhaps as a treat for having made it to the PSHS, a school for smart kids. I certainly felt smart. I knew all the Beatle songs by heart. We didn’t have a record player, but I listened to them on the radio, and sometimes on our neighbor’s TV, when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. We didn’t have tickets, but I was sure we could buy them at the gate. 

We got off at Quiapo, in front of a new theater that had just opened: the Cinerama, which boasted something called “Sensurround,” guaranteed to make you feel an earthquake in your seat. The theater’s inaugural offering was a war movie titled “The Battle of the Bulge.” My mom stopped on the sidewalk, looking up at the marquee. “Let’s watch this instead,” she said. And so we did, and so I missed seeing the Beatles; you could say that I almost saw them standing there.

I was in grief, although to be fair to my mom, the movie was fun, full of tanks and military mayhem.

Not long after came the news that the Beatles were being chased out of the airport by an angry mob, and the story I got was that they had failed to show up at Malacañang for what would have been a command performance. I could imagine Bongbong—three years younger and a few grades behind me at La Salle—standing forlorn on an empty stage, waiting for the stars that never came. I felt torn between sympathy for him and my allegiance to the Fab Four. I thought that the rude send-off was too much, but I also couldn’t understand why the Beatles couldn’t have swung by the Palace and sang a song or two. How hard was that? 

Today, more than 50 years later, I think I can understand that ambivalence. In 1966, Ferdinand Marcos was very much the good guy—heck, he was the guest of honor at our graduation in La Salle! (Incidentally, the sons of his presidential opponents—Diosdado Macapagal and Raul Manglapus—were also in the same school.) He had just assumed the presidency, and still exuded the charisma of a winner. While a private impresario had brought the Beatles over, they were—in some fuzzy official sense—guests of the Republic, hosted by no less than the President of the Philippines. They were ambassadors of goodwill, of the Republic of Liverpool or wherever they came from, and it would have been a normal courtesy to pay a visit to Malacañang for some polite chit-chat and indulge their hosts with a song or two. 

John could have leaned over to ask the young Bongbong, “What’s your favorite song of ours?” while Imelda looked on with a glowing smile, and Bongbong could have shyly answered, after some prodding, “She loves you ye-ye-ye….” Whereupon John would have winked at Paul, who would have protested “But John, we didn’t bring any instruments with us,” leading Papa Ferdinand to pull a curtain aside to show a full array of Gibson and Rickenbacker guitars and Ludwig drums. And that would have led to one, two songs, the obligatory encore, with Imelda and Ferdie launching into an impromptu dance, and cheers and laughter all around, culminating in a Rajah Sikatuna award or some such for the quartet.

But of course none of that happened. The Palace invitation went unanswered, the catered leche flan cooled and curdled, and the tapping of Ferdie’s and Imelda’s fingers on their hardwood armrests telegraphed disbelief, then irritation, then anger. A dejected Bongbong might then have muttered, “I like the Rolling Stones more, anyway….” Ferdie would have whispered a few words to an aide; Imelda would have stood up, and with a wave of a hand ordered all the dish covers and warmers shut—“Serve it to the dogs!”—and retired in a huff to a drawing room. Meanwhile the Palace aide would have gone down to the Beatles fans gathered at the gates below, and ordered them to go home: “They’re not coming. They snubbed the President!… Who do they think they are?”

“More popular than Jesus,” of course, John had said in an interview with a London newspaper just four months earlier, commenting on the general decline of faith in modern life more than anything else, but now was a perfect time to lift that out of context and expose the Beatles as heathen ingrates. Southern Baptists burned their records and the Ku Klux Klan picketed their US concerts. Some Pinoys chased them to their plane—as many others wept, just to make that clear; to them, the Beatles were certainly more popular than Marcos.