Penman No. 287: Mysteries Solved

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Penman for Monday, January 22, 2018

 

AS I’VE been writing and tweeting about recently, my forays into collecting on the Internet have led to all kinds of serendipitous discoveries—people and stories I never knew, places I never visited.

I began telling one such story a couple of weeks ago, when I mentioned coming across letters on eBay written in the 1930s by a young man from Bacolod to sci-fi pioneer Forrest J. Ackerman, then also a precocious teenager in California. We can’t tell how the two of them first made contact, but it likely had to do with the sci-fi magazines both of them were following.

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In a letter dated April 28, 1934 and written in green ink, the Filipino remains deferential to the American, addressing him as “Dear Mr. Ackerman” despite the fact that they were practically the same age and apparently had already been corresponding for some time. “I guess you are pretty anxious for my reply by this time and I am very much sorry that I could not answer your most interesting letter promptly, which I received two or three months ago,” the Pinoy begins. He explains that he’s been busy with schoolwork, then he goes on to rave about the sci-fi magazines and stories he’s been reading.

On another page, the writer talks about movies and their common idol, Marlene Dietrich. “She’s such a charming and exotic personage,” he says. “How did you like her new picture ‘The Scarlet Empress’? I liked Dietrich when I first saw her in ‘Morocco’ with Gary Cooper.” He signs off by sending Ackerman a picture of himself, with “a poor imitation of a Karloff smile,” and jokes that they’ll see each other at “the Far Eastern Olympics” which, of course, never happens.

It’s amusing and a bit astounding to see how up-to-date Filipinos were with American pop culture (as our correspondent was at pains to show) in these prewar days without the Internet, but I had an even bigger surprise in store when a reader who’d met me and Beng before, Sony Ng, wrote me to say that she knew who the writer was.

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I’d read his signature as “J. R. Oyco” but it was actually “J. R. Ayco,” the “J” being “Jess,” who had gone to Ateneo with Sony’s father. “I remember my father borrowing his copy of their yearbook Aegis (Class ’34, if I am not mistaken) and how I enjoyed it very much…. My mother had a friend, Amparo Ayco, whose husband Loth was Jess’ brother, I think. And they are the parents of Dr. Alex Ayco, the doctor of Cory [Aquino],” wrote Sony.

Jess, as it turns out, became an accomplished and quite famous painter in Bacolod. Further research showed that the Manila-born but Bacolod-based Jess studied painting in UP and architecture at UST, had an “avant-garde sensibility,” and won prizes for his works, some of which can be found at the UP Vargas Museum. Critics described him as a “Renaissance man,” being a theater director, performer, and costume and lighting designer at the same time. Sadly, he reportedly died penniless, unwilling to market his work.

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Speaking of painting, I had another mystery on my hands when I picked up a small painting that I saw online—a charming autumnal landscape done in the Western style by a Japanese painter surnamed “Sekido.” That was all I could see from the ad, aside from the irresistible price (for which you could get a throwaway cellphone). A quick run to Caloocan later, the painting—and a mystery—was mine.

Who was “Sekido”? Where was the place depicted? A Google search showed that a Yoshida Sekido (1894-1965) achieved some popularity for his exotic watercolors, but mine was an impressionistic oil, and likely newer; the signature was in Western letters. There was, however, something written in Japanese written at the back of the painting, and I posted an image of it to my international fountain-pen group and to my friends Lita and Fumio Watanabe.

After a day or two I got a tentative response. The painter’s name was Shosaku Sekido, born in 1939, and a member of Hakujitsukai, an association of Japanese artists who had studied abroad. There was nothing further on him online. Only one other word stuck out of the translation: “Kaida,” a place name. I looked it up, and found my quarry, in a series of pictures nearly identical to my painting: popular views of Mt. Ontake in the Kaida Highlands of Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

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Now, I said, to complete the experience, Beng and I will have to go there on our next sortie to Japan—but we’ll have to keep our distance, as Mt. Ontake is an active volcano, whose last eruption in 2014 tragically killed 63 people, including many tourists. The beauty is a beast—the kind of mystery we have few answers for.

(Photo of Forrest Ackerman from Wikipedia; photo of Jess Ayco article from Sun-Star Bacolod; photo of Mt. Ontake from trulyjapan.net)

Penman No. 284: A Passion for the Past

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Penman for Monday, January 1, 2018

 

 

DESPITE THE fact that I write biographies and institutional histories, I’m not a historian and have never claimed to be one. But some days I wish I were. Back in 1981, when I was re-entering UP after dropping out for ten years as a freshman, I chose between History and English as my professed major, and settled on English only because it offered the faster path to follow, to make up for lost time. But if truth be told, in more leisurely circumstances, I would have preferred to study History, and thereby learn Spanish and even some Latin.

That’s because I’m fascinated by the past—by what happened, and by “what if”; I suppose that becoming a writer of fiction satisfies some of that curiosity (one always has to imagine and construct a past that never really happened but could have, for one’s characters). I’ve indulged that curiosity by collecting vintage fountain pens, surmising the words of love, pain, loss, and hope they would have inked for their long-vanished owners.

But more recently I’ve been edging into a new area of interest—old books and manuscripts. I’ve had the odd book from the 1800s and some beautifully handwritten documents from Spanish times, but my passion took a more serious turn with the acquisition, on eBay and elsewhere, of some rather more precious pieces. I often bring these specimens—like my December 1922 Philippine Collegian—to my classes, so my students can appreciate the material reality of the past and understand that the world, time, and society didn’t begin with the Internet and Facebook.

About a year ago, I picked up a first English edition of a book I’ve enjoyed (in paperback) since the 1970s—Paul P. de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines, later expanded into Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines. Gironiere was an adventurer who came to the Philippines from France in the early 1800s and established a large estate in Jalajala, on the shore of Laguna de Bay. He wrote about his exploits, and the original French came out in an English edition in 1853. I found a copy of that book on eBay, from the UK.

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Now, 1853 is pretty old, but that would soon be surpassed by another irresistible find: a book of letters written by the Jesuit missionaries in the Philippines, published in France in 1706. The Jesuits arrived here in 1581, so the book—part of a century-long series called the Lettres Edifiantes, covering their missions around the world—is full of stories. I may not be an Atenean and my French is very poor, but I can discern marvelous adventures and great historical importance in this volume, which I found in California.

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Before this, I actually had something older: a page of a German book from 1632, which I picked up at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. But nothing could top the elation of a discovery I made just this Christmas Eve. I was idly browsing olx.ph; not finding any interesting pens, I searched for “antiques,” and stumbled on what was clearly a very old book in English from 1551, printed in Gothic blackletter. I made what I thought was a fair offer, and the seller texted back quickly to accept it; he’d been trying to sell it for a year with no takers, so my offer seemed timely, given the season. He said he was in Cubao; I said that in that case, I’d just drive over to pick it up. I saw the ad around 6:00 pm and by 7:00 the book was in my hands.

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It’s nothing outstanding on its own—an abridgment by the churchman Thomas Langley of an earlier book, De inventoribus rerum, by Polidore Vergil, an Italian scholar, a kind of history of institutions like the Catholic Church (Vergil’s book got him in trouble with the church, which put it on its index of banned books). But I’m amazed by the fact that it’s survived quite handsomely for its 466 years—the pages are crisp, the leather binding firm—and charmed by the marginal notes of one of its owners, a Hugh Davies from 1650, written in extremely fine point with a quill, using sepia ink. When this book came out, Shakespeare (1564-1616) hadn’t even been born yet; the sacking of Manila was still 20 years away.

And how ever did it travel from London to Cubao across five centuries? My seller told me that his mother was a caregiver in Paris, whose clients gifted her with all manner of odds and ends—old books, Russian banknotes, silver spoons—and so the Pinoy diaspora once again works amazing wonders, bringing the flotsam and jetsam of history to our distant shores.

As I’ve often noted, the most wonderful thing about the past is that it’s over, especially when you think about all the terrible wars, the hardships, and the filth people had to endure just to get where we are today. But in a more romantic mood I can imagine myself strolling down the Escolta in the mid-30s in a white linen suit and straw hat, stepping into the Crystal Arcade or Heacock’s to scoop up the newest Parker Duofolds and Vacumatics. If you visit my office in UP, the magazine you’ll find on my visitor’s table won’t be from last month, but from February 1934. This will soon be joined by another magazine—indeed, the very first publication to use “magazine” in its title—the London-based Gentleman’s Magazine, issue of November 1773, and by a copy of the Illustrated London News, showing Taal Volcano, from February 4, 1860.

The past (or should I say eBay?) is truly inexhaustible; I only wish I could say the same for my finances. Happy New Year!

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Penman No. 283: (Happy (Digital) Anniversary

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Penman for Monday, December 25, 2017

 

IT USED to be, in simpler times, that we marked and celebrated only the most meaningful of anniversaries—birthdays, weddings, the passing of loved ones, and maybe the day when we became a lawyer, a professor, or a boss. In my case, things got even simpler because Beng and I decided to get married on my 20th birthday (44 years ago in a few weeks). It’s a decision I’ve regretted since—not the marriage, but the twinning of these events, because it would have been nice to have two separate days and two separate excuses to celebrate.

But in this era, when relationships don’t seem to last much longer than cellphone batteries and when people can instantly “unfriend” each other for the most peevish of reasons, anniversaries have become precious things, with millennials having to invent such clumsy portmanteaus as “monthsaries” or “mensversaries” to find relief in the completion of another month’s tetchy togetherness.

And then there’s the turn of the consumer year that merchandisers won’t let you forget; if it’s September, then it’s not only the start of Yuletide in the Philippines, but also the inevitable announcement of the new iPhone X, Y, or Z (accompanied by a deep intake of breath as the awesome new gadget is unveiled, followed by the gnashing of teeth once the price is mentioned).

And yes, of course, I have the new X, which I was intrigued by but surely didn’t need—people my age could have lived happily ever after with the iPhone 4s, if truth be told—but I felt like rewarding myself for having stuck with the iPhone for ten years since the first one came out. That’s what anniversaries usually do—compel you to repeat a lunatic act. (Those of us now screaming about the X’s price tag will do well to remember that the first one, with all of 16 gigs of memory, cost a princely 45K in September 2007, plus another 5K to hack for use with local telcos. And before anyone subpoenas my SALN as a UP prof, I got my X at a steep discount through my telco, by hocking my soul for two more years.)

The decade-defining X reminded me of two more anniversaries that fell this year, of the kind that makes sense only in the context of our new digital reality, where a few years might as well be a lifetime in terms of changes in the way we think and work.

Last December 17, I marked my 20th year on eBay, which means I’ve been a digital consumer for longer than some of my students have been alive. EBay began as Auction Web in 2005, but it was in September 1997 when it opened shop as eBay, so it turns out that I signed up just a few months after its official launch. My first eBay purchase was a 1950s Pelikan 140 fountain pen from Germany, which stayed with me until I foolishly sold it a couple of years ago; my most recent one this month, again from Germany, was a 1950s Montblanc 234 ½ fountain pen—how odd is that? (But perhaps no odder than another recent acquisition—a book of letters of the Jesuits in the Philippines to the King of Spain, in a French edition published in 1706.)

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Between those two purchases lies a long green trail of about 1,000 other eager buys (my 100%-positive feedback score stands at 869)—mostly pens, watches, and books, but also computers, phones, spare parts for everything, and things you can’t get from any store (like original Apple shirts, the blue ones Apple Store employees wear). Like the cliché goes, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, and I’ve very often been that other man, crazy and willing enough to take your grandfather’s Parker 51 or that weird-looking Hamilton Piping Rock (yes, that’s what it’s called) off your hands.

Friends scared of doing business online often ask if I’ve ever been scammed or burned on eBay. In those hundreds of transactions, maybe two or three times, I either never received what I bought, or got something else; but since eBay has an ironclad guarantee, I got refunded in the end. Presuming you take the right precautions—examine advertisements down to the minutest detail; read feedbacks (although they’re not infallible); know your product; review its price history, etc.—eBay’s safe and easily the world’s largest bazaar open to Filipinos. My only word of caution: it can get addictive, especially since it’s cashless; expect your PayPal/credit card bill to soon read “eBay eBay eBay…”

My other anniversary thankfully came free: last March, I marked my tenth year on Twitter. Ironically, I’m not much of a social-media guy, and that Twitter account (@penmanila), which I must’ve opened in 2007 on a whim, lay dormant for most of that decade until two years ago, when—uhm—a certain candidate in a certain election got me so worked up that I quickly found my meek and gentle self embroiled in a full-scale Twitter war with a vandal army. (“Something wicked this way comes,” I tweeted, quoting Macbeth; it didn’t stay that lofty or that literate for long.)

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I’m now up to 760 tweets, and counting—still nowhere near the many thousands that my younger readers have unleashed upon the universe, but old guys think more slowly and our fingers take more time to travel across the keyboard. That’s actually good for social media and its trigger-happy culture, and I can only wish I were that pokey and that deliberate on eBay.

Still, happy anniversary, and Merry Christmas, all!

Penman No. 279: That Schoolboy Spirit

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Penman for Monday, November 27, 2017

 

UNTIL A couple of Saturdays ago, the last basketball shot I saw in a live full-court game was taken by the greatest of them all—Michael Jordan. This was sometime in 1989 or 1990; I was a graduate student in Milwaukee, and my friend Peter enticed me out of Shakespeare class, waving an extra ticket to the Bucks-Bulls game at the downtown arena. MJ was in town—it was literally going to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch an NBA game, with Michael Jordan playing, for free. Screw Macbeth! MJ did not disappoint; with the Bulls trailing by two in the final minute, he sank a three-pointer in the final seconds, and while we were supposed to be Bucks fans, we all jumped in our seats to cheer him, screaming our heads off.

I’ve never been a huge basketball fan, although I very briefly covered the MICAA for a newspaper in the pre-PBA days and followed the NBA back when Kareem Abdul Jabbar was still Lew Alcindor. But I vicariously enjoy sport in all its varieties, from American football and baseball to boxing and badminton, as much from the game itself as from watching the players and the other watchers. There’s something about a surge going through a crowd that senses something magical about to explode on the arena or the court that lights a long-dormant fuse in me and brings me back to my boyhood, when my father took me to the Besa Boxing Arena and the Rizal Coliseum for an afternoon’s throaty mayhem.

So I could hardly resist when a friend from grade school, who’s so modest I have to call him by his initials JV, invited me and the La Salle Green Hills gang to watch the La Salle-Ateneo game at the Big Dome last November 12. Ever the resourceful fellow (which explains his success in business), JV had managed to secure a certain number of tickets that enabled an impromptu reunion of some guys in our Viber group.

Of course every Pinoy barkada thinks of itself as special, but this one had a genuine claim to fame: our class was accelerated twice, saving us precious time. (And money, for those rarities—destitute La Sallites—like me.) I’ve written about my La Salle sojourn (Prep-Grade 7, 1960-66) elsewhere, the sum of which is, it’s the school I owe my preparation as a writer to, not to mention the supportive friendship of some very fine gentlemen. I went on to the Philippine Science High School, UP, and grad school in America, but I always treasured my schoolboy years in Green Hills and the love of books and language that they left me with.

How much better could it get? One minute I’m watching His Airness drop a game-winning trey, and nearly 30 years later I’m holding a golden ticket to the biggest game of the season so far. (Lest I be accused of treason to UP—which I should be cheering, after all, as a university official—I just haven’t had a chance to attend a live game yet, but was following and rooting for them all the way on the S&A channel, and I promise to come courtside next season.)

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First, we had to dress for the occasion, and while most of my buddies had closets full of green shirts, green socks, and presumably green underwear (JV even wore electric green sneakers), I had to reconnoiter several malls and department stores the week before the game to locate the perfect XXL polo shirt in shamrock green. We assembled four hours before gametime for a long and leisurely lunch in a nearby restaurant—for some of us, our first reunion in over 50 years, a long green-shirted line of seniors who’d last seen each other in khaki shorts, talking maintenance meds over crispy pata and cerveza negra. (Here’s one to us, guys—JV, Billy, Beyey, Dennis, Butch DG, Toffy, Mike, Conrad, and Jun!)

No matter how inured you might be to sports and competition, there’s no way you can escape the peculiar tingle and sizzle of a La Salle-Ateneo game, from the minute the drums unleash their tom-tom thunder from way up in the bleachers to the second the final buzzer sounds and sends half the gallery into hysteria while plunging the other half in utter despair.

It’s a rivalry that they say goes back to 1939, when La Salle beat Ateneo for the NCAA championship for the first time (27-23—sounds more like a halftime score these days). It’s come a long way since, and I don’t know who’s keeping track of the historic score, but every La Salle-Ateneo game feels like the deciding match of a best-of-three finals, going by the sheer electricity around the arena.

The last time I was at the Araneta Coliseum was two years ago to watch a revival concert of the Zombies; well, this was anything but a zombie crowd. Between spotting all the celebrities in the stands, appreciating the, uhm, fine art of cheerleading, and trying to catch up with new cheers and fight songs that I’d never mouthed before, it was sensory overload for a solid hour, an excursion into a culture I’d read about but had never visited.

I won’t bother you with the details of the game itself, which predictably went the cardiac route, with the Archers going down by as much as 12 in the third quarter, only to unload a 10-0 bomb in the closing minutes that led to an extremely satisfying outcome, 79-76, and just like that afternoon in Milwaukee nearly three decades gone, I found myself screaming and shaking like a broken radiator.

On the way out of the coliseum, a foot-wide grin still plastered to my face, I met a couple of blue-shirted colleagues from academia, whose baleful looks I couldn’t (and didn’t really want to) banish with my most effusive greetings.

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Penman No. 275: Listening in Bali

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Penman for Monday, October 30, 2017

 

The first time I saw Bali was 34 years ago. I was a much younger man, then only 29, an eager participant in a writers’ conference organized by F. Sionil Jose, in the company of other Filipinos who included, as far as I can remember, the late Rey Duque, Marjorie Evasco, Charlson Ong, and Fanny Llego. We spent a week in a villa on the steamy banks of Lake Batur, far away from the tourist traps of Denpasar and Ubud, which we would visit only at the very end of our trip.

It was my first time to attend an international gathering of writers, and I was deeply impressed by all the big names I met, aside from Manong Frankie himself—our host, the scholar S. Takdir Alisjabanah, among the pillars of Bahasa Indonesia; the Singaporean poet and professor Edwin Thumboo; the Malaysian poet and lawyer Cecil Rajendra; and the Malaysian-American poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim. I can’t recall a thing I said in the impassioned discussions that took place; that first time, it was all about listening and imbibing the wisdom of the masters in an environment that could not have been more conducive to inspiration.

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The lake was a caldera, which explained the hot springs simmering on its fringes, where we joined the unabashed Balinese in their early-morning ablutions; at night, we argued literature under the spell of the stars and the aptly named Bintang beer, to the faint accompaniment of a gamelan symphony. The one discordant note that I would later write about in a short story was an ill-advised sortie across the lake to a private graveyard, which the locals resented; but even that was a writerly touch, an almost obligatory twist to a near-perfect plot. And rightly so: back home, Ninoy and EDSA had yet to happen, and the country was seething in the darkness.

These memories swarmed through my senses last week when I returned to Bali for yet another literary conference, the tenth annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), the region’s largest and most active literary network. Hosted by the Ganesha University of Education in the city of Singaraja in the northern part of the island, the conference brought together about a hundred delegates from all over, but mostly from Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the US, and, of course, the Philippines, which has always figured prominently in this organization (I sit on its Advisory Board). With me were UPICW Director Roland Tolentino, the essayist and playwright Luna Sicat-Cleto, the poet and translator Randy Bustamante, and my wife the art restorer Beng, an avid observer and fully paid member of APWT.

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Even the most jaded of writers can’t be faulted for flying into Bali and expecting a bit of paradise, and the island and its people can still deliver on that promise in spades. The manicured rice terraces, the monkeys lining the road, the meticulously patterned garlands, the whiskery banyan trees, the uncountable temples and altars—and let’s not forget the scenically smoldering Mount Agung on the horizon—all suggest transport to another realm of blissful serenity. That illusion, of course, was broken fifteen years ago by catastrophic terror bombings that took more than 200 lives, and in the course of our three-day conference, testimonials by our Balinese friends themselves would reveal certain painful realities behind the festive façade.

“It’s very difficult to be a Balinese woman,” more than one of them said (I’m pooling their voices together, as in a chorus). “People expect you just to be a pretty flower. I have a PhD and I make more than my husband, but I still have to appear subordinate to him and to his wishes, and I have to serve him at home, making his coffee and serving his clothes. When I received a fellowship abroad, people congratulated my husband, instantly assuming that it was his achievement and not mine—and I had to smile and say nothing about it. You know why I write in English? Because my husband can’t read English, so English liberates me, allows me to express my true feelings.”

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Another intriguing panel I attended took up “Nostalgia and the Asian City,” and the discussion dwelt on how cities like Hong Kong and Singapore had changed in the literary imagination. But, from the floor, I had to interject the Philippine experience and note how nostalgia in many other places like ours referred to a longing for an unspoiled rural Eden that no longer exists, an unrecoverable if not fact an imaginary past. Over lunch, I pursued the point: nostalgia is being used as a powerful political tool, such as in defense of a mythical “better time under martial law” to support a restoration of that regime.

I was assigned to a panel devoted to protest literature, and found myself grouped with three Australians who spoke on their respective struggles as immigrant, aborigine, and bohemian writers. I chose to speak about our history of protest literature and what a deadly business it was. So, our moderator asked in the end, what were we personally doing to upend the status quo? The status quo for me, I said, was darkness and despair, and it was winning out even in literature, so that there’s nothing easier to write these days than another sad and dismal story. Therefore, I would strive to write happy stories—stories with a believably, hard-won, happy ending—as my form of resistance. We have to fight for joy as much as justice; we have to keep fighting for happiness, hope, and beauty in this age of Trump and tokhang—what else were we persisting for?

As I said those words—which I had not expected to say, but had long been coming around to saying—I felt all of my 63 years, hoping perhaps that some young soul in that audience was truly listening.

 

 

Penman No. 273: A Privileged Friendship

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Penman for Monday, October 16, 2017

 

THE LAST time I saw Wash SyCip was from a far distance. It was his 95th birthday on June 30, 2016, and a long line of well-wishers—businessmen, politicians, and other celebrities—had queued up at the ballroom of the Shangri-La Makati to greet him and have their pictures taken with the icon. I thought for a second about falling in line, just to say hello, but then decided against it, already having spent more time with Wash than most people except his closest associates. He looked more frail than I had ever seen him, even as he kept up a cordial countenance seated in his chair on a raised dais, and I felt content to remember the sprightlier octogenarian I had first met a decade earlier.

Of course I knew who Washington SyCip was well before then; my wife Beng worked as an artist in the communications department of SGV in the 1980s, but I had never met the man himself—not until an opportunity arose to bid for and to write his biography in early 2006, when he was turning 85. I felt very fortunate to have been chosen for the job—and that’s what it was to me then, a job, albeit one involving an illustrious subject. I had no inkling that I was about to enter into a privileged friendship, something that would extend well beyond the writing of a book.

I had already done books for and about other personages in politics and business, and would do many more after Wash. But none of them—meaning no disrespect to or disregard for my other clients—would come close to the biography I would write for Wash, and it had everything to do with the uniqueness of the man, who lived not only an extraordinarily long life but also one far more colorful than you would credit an accountant for.

For months, we met Saturday mornings in his seventh-floor SGV office, and chatted for a couple of hours about phases of his life, proceeding chronologically from his childhood to the key decision to open his own accounting firm, a moment that I would later decide to open the book with. (Wash: Only a Bookkeeper was published in 2009 by the SGV Foundation and the Asian Institute of Management, and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010.) Immediately I felt at ease with his polite formality; no artificial chumminess there or dramatic flourish, just a quiet consistency of well-remembered detail, everything from trying to learn the foxtrot for a graduation dance and breaking Japanese codes in Calcutta to carrying a cold, dressed duck under his arm on the New York subway to bring to a lady friend.

Most readers, I’m sure, were looking for the grand contours, the big business decisions—and there’s all that in the book—but I tried to keep things homely, and was glad that Wash was game for it. He liked to play “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago on his iPod—but not being a techie, often forgot to recharge it.

When he learned that I collected pens, he sent a bunch of them over to my house; I opened the box and saw that he had gifted me with some very nice ballpoints, which I thanked him for. When a perceptive associate gently reminded him that I collected not ball pens but fountain pens, he sent another box of the correct writing instruments—CEOs like him typically received scores of these as gifts and stored them away in drawers—with an apologetic note, even more graciously acknowledged by the ecstatic recipient. And every Christmas we would receive a box filled with some lovely piece of décor handcrafted by a microenterprise he supported in Cebu.

He had a soft spot for Filipino talent of all kinds. He once hosted a party at his home for President Cory Aquino, some ambassadors, and similarly lofty people. After dinner, he sprung a surprise on them. “Just get into your cars and follow me!” he announced with a twinkle in his eye. He led the convoy to a dimly downscale stretch of Boni Avenue, down into the happy maw of Club Mwah, the gay musical revue. Cory had a blast, and I had fun watching Wash garlanded by that feathery parade.

Sometimes I dropped by his office or chatted with him in the corner of a soirée to hear him share his views on current goings-on, both of us probably thinking that they would be useful inputs to the centennial update of his biography, but really just to catch up. It was these unscripted asides, his inviting trust, that I felt most privileged by. I suppose biographers come in through some special door, and with Wash, that door always seemed open.

Last July I received an envelope from Wash, and even without opening it I could feel that it contained a pen inside. “Dear Butch,” said the accompanying note, “This is the only pen that I have come across which may be new to your library. Just note the owl at the head of the pen. Sincerely, Wash.” It was a ballpoint, but I didn’t mind—owls (and turtles) were his trademark avatars.

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His generosity was well known, but it was never the showy or sentimental kind. He believed above all in the capability of the poor to learn and to lift themselves up with a little help. Despite the American citizenship he had to accept in a time of war, he thought and acted as a true global Filipino.

When he passed away last week on a plane above the Pacific—bridging the two shores he knew best, and still on the job at 96—I was requested to draft an obituary, and I replied, choking, that it was going to be my honor. It was the first—and, almost certainly, the only—time I would shed a tear for someone I wrote about.

Penman No. 266: The Pinoy Film Family

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Penman for Monday, August 28, 2017

 

LIKE MANY Filipinos, I really should see more locally made movies than the Hollywood and Netflix confections that have become our staple entertainment. That statement’s even more ironic in my case, having scripted about two dozen movies, mostly for the late Lino Brocka, between 1978 and 2003.

I missed out totally on this year’s Cinemalaya offerings because of a toxic schedule at work—I tried to catch Respeto on its last day only to find all the tickets sold out—so I made sure to make time for the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino the following week. I suppose I more than made up by managing to see four of the PPP entries over as many days: Patay Na si Hesus, Pauwi Na, Birdshot, and Hamog, in that order.

I might have chosen these movies because I’d heard good things about them, but I also wanted to see how they represented the Filipino family—for me an eternally fascinating subject, even from the days when Lino and I explored its complexity in such films as Tahan Na, Empoy and Inay. Filipino society (and politics, for that matter) is nothing if not about family, which seems inextricably connected to our struggles for survival—we survive for family, and also because of it.

Directed by Victor Villanueva, Patay Na si Hesus has a long-estranged wife and now a widow, Iyay (Jaclyn Jose), drive her ragtag family in a minicab from Cebu to Dumaguete to attend the wake of her husband Hesus. Along the way and at the wake itself all manner of misadventure happens: a nun liberates herself, a lesbian relationship crumbles, a boy with Down Syndrome seems to get lost but actually finds his way, a coffin collapses, and a dog dies (curiously—and sorry for the spoiler—the three dogs in three of these movies all die). The dog’s demise has all the characters wailing and shedding the tears they couldn’t muster for the absent dad.

Pauwi Na is another family-on-the-road movie, with Mang Pepe (Bembol Roco) and his wife Remy (Cherry Pie Picache)—crushed by eking out an existence in the slums—transporting their brood back to the Pinoy fantasy of a paradaisical province, not by train or bus but by pedicab. Director Paolo Villaluna’s project is a long and laborious journey that ends in tragic loss, but the family’s dogged faith in a better life elsewhere infuses the film with both power and poignance. Mang Pepe is every Filipino tatay who’s gone the extra mile—many miles—to put food on the table and bring a smile to his family’s faces. (I’ll admit to having teared up remembering my own father, a highly intelligent man who wanted to become a lawyer but never quite got the right breaks, and who at one point had to work as a jeepney barker just to tide us over.)

Directed by Mikhail Red, Birdshot juxtaposes the coming-of-age of young Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) with the brutishness and brutality of political power in the rural hinterlands. The endangered eagle that she shoots dead is precious, but it’s hardly the most grievous loss the place suffers, although there’s little official interest in investigating the bigger crimes.

Hamog is set in another jungle—the bowels beneath and around Guadalupe Bridge, in the city’s slums and tenements where street urchins become almost feral in their predation. The movie is actually a diptych, an exploration of two lives—Rashid’s and Jinky’s—and it opens doors to what to most Filipino viewers would be unusual relationships (a Muslim man with several wives, a woman with a husband and a lover under one roof). While doubtlessly powerful, the narrative needed, I felt, a bit of rounding out, even assuming that its director Ralston Jover precisely wanted to make a point of leaving ends loose, as life often happens.

I’ve already mentioned the 100% mortality rate for canines in these scripts; another interesting parallel was the appearance of phantoms—Jesus Christ, a shadowy forest figure, Supergirl—in three of the films, which seemed more organic and necessary in Pauwi Na but too deliberately cinematic a touch in Birdshot and Hamog.

Their minor flaws aside, all four movies were well worth my time and money, and I was glad to see full houses for a couple of them, and appreciative audiences who clapped as the credits rolled. For someone who’s been out of the film industry for a while, it was heartening to witness such a wealth of new young talent—both on the directorial and acting sides (Chai Fonacier, who appears in the two road movies, has a great future ahead of her)—emerging to take over from the likes of Brocka, Bernal, de Leon, and the other masters of that generation. If I were to hand out my own awards just among these four, I’d give the top prize to Patay Na si Hesus, for its refreshing quirkiness and dark comedy.

What struck and impressed me from a writer’s perspective was the non-linearity of the plots and the moral ambiguity of the characters and situations—a far cry from, say, Brocka, in whose movies it was always clear who the villain was, and why.

Most important, of course, was to see how the Pinoy nuclear family had morphed in response to changing times—to nontraditional sexuality, to absentee parents, to the pressure to survive—and yet also to see the love and affection in it undiminished and even intensified by need. Bravo!

 

Penman No. 264: The First Filipino Pen

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Penman for Monday, August 15, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about the objects that gave this column its title—my fountain pens—so I’ll indulge myself after many weeks of hardcore arts-and-culture pieces to talk about my favorite pastime. Pens, after all, are both technological and cultural tools without which civilization and knowledge could not have advanced over the past millennium. Just imagine Shakespeare or Einstein without pen and ink, and you’ll see what I mean.

With that excuse out of the way, let me report that for the past year or so, I’ve considered myself semi-retired as far as pen collecting is concerned. Where I used to pick up two to three pens a month, I haven’t (until very recently) bought a pen in half a year; more than that, I’ve sold off much of my collection, bringing down what once would have been around 300 vintage and modern pens to less than half that. I plan to reduce that further to a core of about 50 that I can pass on to my sole heiress, Demi, who will inherit no tracts of land or shares of stock or certificates of deposit, only colorful tubes of plastic and metal with pointed ends and messy blobs.

My most recent acquisitions could hardly even be called spectacular, save one. Off eBay, I picked up two pen-and-pencil sets of Parker Vacumatics from the early 1940s, because they came in the less-common azure pearl color and at a price hard to resist. Last month in California, poking around our usual haunts in the antique malls and flea markets around San Diego, I landed a Montblanc 22 and a Parker 21 from the 1960s, an Esterbrook from around 1940, and a Sheaffer Targa rollerball from the mid-1970s (yes, I keep a few rollerballs around, for filling in those immigration and customs forms on which fountain-pen ink tends to run because of bad paper).

Many people, even those more used to cheap (but perfectly good) ballpoints, have some idea what “Montblanc” is, so let me just demonstrate why it’s important to know what you’re looking for. I saw that near-mint MB displayed in a cabinet in a shop in San Diego, with a tag that said, “Not sure if it works,” which probably explained the very reasonable price of $48. That’s about a third of what this pen—in very good shape and working condition—would go for online. (The 22 is a lower-end but still attractive model and not the fat, cigar-shaped 149 that most people rightfully associate with Montblanc, which sells in the boutiques for about $700 but which you can get, slightly used, for half that price on eBay, if you’re a risk-taker and bottom-feeder like me.)

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The seller probably couldn’t make it work because he or she didn’t know how: the 22 is a piston-operated pen, requiring the turning of a knob at its end, and you can see the piston rise and fall in a see-through window on the barrel. That’s how I tested the pen and why I bought it without hesitation (intending to resell it later, but when Beng remarked how nice it was, she instantly became its new owner). In other words—and every collector, every picker of every little thingy from vintage Hamiltons to bird stamps knows this—knowledge pays.

So the MB was a great score, but the piece de resistance of this andropausal batch was truly one of a kind. Filipinos have been among the world’s most avid and most knowledgeable pen users and collectors (we have hundreds of members at fpnp.org), but until recently, no one has ever made one. (We found an advertisement for a “Rizal” pen from the 1920s, but it was likely a British or American pen rebranded for the local market—and yes, I’d happily pay for a specimen!)

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That changed when I got a call from one of our members, a bright young man and newly minted MD by the name of Mark del Rosario, who enjoys tinkering with pens, blades, and lathes in his home workshop when he’s not preparing for his internship as a neurologist. Mark had been fascinated by nibs (the pen’s writing point) and had been modifying them to produce different lines, but when he presented me with a box at our meeting and when I opened it, I saw that he had gone much farther than just toying with steel tips—because there was the first fully functional fountain pen ever made by a Filipino, a prototype handcrafted by Mark in frosted acrylic and sporting a lovely smooth German-made Jowo (“yo-vo”) nib. And he was giving it to me for my collection, to honor me as a prime purveyor of our common addiction.

I couldn’t congratulate and thank Mark enough, so I’ll say it here: finding a 1960s Montblanc in California for less than $50 was good, but being gifted with the first Filipino pen by its maker is incalculably better. The only bad thing about it is that now I’m looking at pens again….

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Penman No. 263: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (2)

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Penman for Monday, August 7, 2017

 

LET’S START with some stats: last month, Beng and I were two of the 35 million visitors who would have trooped to San Diego, California by the end of the year. We go there regularly for our daughter Demi, but most others would probably mention the beaches, the ships, the Mexican food, the whale-watching—and, for 130,000 people in late July, that long weekend of masked madness called Comic-Con International. Those fun-seeking fans will book all of San Diego’s 40,000 hotel rooms—many a year in advance, at room rates easily triple the normal—and on the average spend over $600 per person, injecting some $80 million in direct spending and another $70 million in multiplier effects.

Geekdom, in other words, is serious business, and there’s no stronger pitch that the spinners and purveyors of fantasy can make to their market than Comic-Con, which began in San Diego itself in the dim and dingy basement of the rundown US Grant Hotel one day in March 1970. Since then, the US Grant—where Demi works—has been refurbished into the city’s swanky grande dame, and Comic-Con, like the superheroes it glorifies, has morphed from a pimply kid to a sleek and powerful machine.

I’m sure the fans aren’t thinking much about the history when they stream through the doors of the SDCC on opening day and emerge with bags and boxes of new Funko Pop Justice League figurines, Deadpool Wooden Push Puppets, and one of this year’s exclusives, a Twin Peaks Agent Cooper Bobble Head, all yours for $14.99. The comic-book collectors could dwell on decades past, but most of Comic-Con is decidedly future-oriented, always looking around the corner for the next TV season’s plot spoilers and the next sequel’s new villain.

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There’s even been an urban-dictionary term coined for the phenomenon: “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out,” the hidden impulse behind the surge of the pop-culture hysteria best exemplified by Comic-Con. It’s all fun, of course, on the level of cosplay and souvenir shopping. For others, it’s also a profession and the work of a lifetime.

There were two such professionals and icons I sought out in this year’s Comic-Con: the Filipino-American artists Whilce Portacio and Alex Niño. I’d already met and interviewed Whilce in last year’s event, and subsequently at the Asia Pop Comic-Con in Manila, but it was good seeing him again in top form, signing autographs and artworks for fans in his booth in the Artists’ Alley.

Whilce actually wasn’t there yet when we arrived, as he was being interviewed by Syfy about his work, so Beng and I wandered off to observe a long queue forming for the autograph of another artist whom we frankly had never heard of before—the very young Patrick Ballesteros, another Fil-Am and San Diego native.

“We’re everywhere!” Whilce would remind me later. “Marvel, DC, Pixar, you name it, we’re there.” Whilce himself would co-found Image Comics and create Bishop for the X-Men, and he has been going back and forth to the Philippines to mentor young graphic talents such as Leinil Yu and to set up a studio that can meet the growing global demand for illustrators and animators.

I missed Alex Niño last year—at 77, he now attends only the last couple of days of Comic-Con, leaving it to his son Jules to mind the booth—but I caught him this time at Comic-Con’s closing hour for a quick chat about his struggle to rise to the top of his profession in the US. Tony de Zuñiga blazed the trail for all of them, but Alex, Nestor Redondo, Larry Alcala, and later Whilce and his peers followed shortly after in the 1980s and 1990s.

Alex recalled a crucial moment at the beginning when, still in the Philippines, he was approached by DC to draw a comic, he came up with a carefully drawn work, only for DC to balk at his price. “I tore the pages up,” Alex said. “I preferred to do that than get short-changed.” Unknown to him, his wife Norma had painstakingly pieced and pasted the drawings together overnight, and had sent it to DC—which, understanding what had happened, paid Alex’s price. This sense of self-worth would serve Alex and his compatriots well.

He moved to the US in 1974, and I’ll leave you to check out Wikipedia for his voluminous credits since then. Time may have slowed him down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped him from working, albeit more traditionally than others. He has just finished illustrating a book on wines for Jay Ignacio. “I don’t mind technology, but I never got used to a tablet. With digital art, you can’t tell what or where the original artwork is. I still use a pen and ink, and markers. I had to evolve my own style to be different from the others. None of my five children have taken after me, but my grandson in the Philippines works in animation. I can’t retire, because I’ve yet to be satisfied by what I’ve done. I feel that my best work, my masterpiece, is still out there.”

Way to go, Alex—spoken like a true Pinoy superhero! Until next year—if we get those badges.

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Penman No. 262: Geekdom Galore at Comic-Con 2017 (1)

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Penman for Monday, July 31, 2017

 

I MUST’VE been a really good kid to deserve this fortune, because much to my surprise—and possibly the chagrin of my 20-something students for whom this would be the closest they could get to heaven without dying—I got to attend Comic-Con International in San Diego with my sidekicks Beng and Demi (and Demi’s husband Jerry) for the second year in a row. I’d given up on returning to the show after failing to score tickets (“badges,” in CC parlance) twice online, but again our San Diego-based daughter pulled off a miracle at the last minute and got badges for us for the opening and closing days of the four-day convention, smack in the middle of what’s become our annual US vacation.

As all of my undergrads and junior colleagues know, San Diego’s Comic-Con is the world’s largest and most-awaited extravaganza of popular culture, running now for 47 years and attracting 150,000 attendees from all over the world. This is geekdom galore—a global gathering of fans of comic books, superheroes, fantasy, toys, animation, TV, and basically anything that levitates, teleports, or transmutates.

If you’re my age (63) and can’t relate to anything I’ve said, I can’t blame you. The average age of the Comic-Con attendee is 25; until recently, about 60 percent were male, but that’s been changing with the emergence of strong female superheroes such as Wonder Woman and Supergirl and intriguing characters like Stranger Things Eleven.

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But while seniors (yes, we got a discount on the tickets) may seem out of place at Comic-Con, the fact is, we were the original comic-book fans who grew up not just on DC and Marvel at a time when Adam West still played Batman on TV and George Reeves, not Christopher Reeve, played Superman; we were also followers of Lastikman, Palos, Gagamba, Darna, and other Pinoy heroes in the local komiks. For older folks like me, Comic-Con is rejuvenation, if not resurrection.

Here, everyone who was ever made to feel weird or was left out because of, say, a desire to wear blue hair, green skin, or an extra eye will feel at home, because Comic-Con is just like that Star Wars bar scene, with patrons from a dozen galaxies, multiplied a hundred times over. Fans come to the show dressed as their favorite superhero or cartoon character, and you don’t even need the body (or, for that matter, the gender) of Gal Gadot to be Wonder Woman. I’d give this year’s Most Astounding Cosplayer Award to the Princess Leia who had all the right buns—and a beard. Before I could snap a picture, she/he was off to Alderaan (aka home).

Also ubiquitous this year were various iterations of Harley Quinn (the girl from Suicide Squad), Spider-Man, and Deadpool, and even a knotty Groot or two. Beng was swept off her feet by a Jack Sparrow lookalike who had the accent and the bow down pat. I swallowed my shyness and agreed to Beng’s prodding to have my picture taken with Wonder Woman (one of them, anyway). We were unabashed fans for the weekend, and enjoying ourselves, although we had to squat on the floor and eat our lunch sandwiches, like hundreds of others, for lack of seats at the San Diego Convention Center.

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That’s because almost all the seats were in the meetings rooms and halls upstairs. The SDCC is a lot like the Mall of Asia’s SMX, only larger, with a huge exhibition hall downstairs and meeting spaces of various sizes for the convention itself upstairs. While the ground floor had hundreds of booths exhibiting everything from collector comics (I saw one, All-Star Comics No. 8 from December 1941which introduces Wonder Woman, selling for $75,000) to what happens in a Hollywood make-up studio, on the second floor were endless queues of fans who had come for the four days of panels. If downstairs was merchandise, upstairs was talk—and lots of it.

It’s at these one-hour panels, running in parallel sessions all over, that fans can actually meet the stars, who just might let some spoiler slip about a show’s forthcoming season (the Game of Thrones panel, hosted by Hodor, ended with a snippet about Melisandre) or give a definitive answer to some lingering mystery (was Bladerunner’s Deckard a replicant? Harrison Ford remained evasive). Most other panels are smaller and more practical, with titles like “Career Paths into Game Development,” How to Color Comic Art,” “Basic Star Wars Robotics,” and “Villains: Creating the Perfect Antagonist.” I wish I could say I attended even one of these, but the long lines quickly drove us back downstairs.

The biggest panels take place at Hall H, which can accommodate 6,500 people. A Comic-Con badge is far from a guarantee of entry into this cavernous space, for which the queue spills out to the yard and street outside—beginning days before; Demi’s brother-in-law Ray had planned on standing in line for his daughter Mia for the Stranger Things panel on Saturday, but had to give up when he learned that the line had begun forming on Thursday.

Madness, indeed—but of a happy kind, especially for host San Diego, which stood to gain $150 million in revenues from the July 20-23 convention. More on Comic-Con next week, including the highlights of my interview with Pinoy comics icon Alex Niño.

For more of my Comic-Con 2017 pics, click here.

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