Penman No. 339: Dinner in Penang

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Penman for Monday, February 4, 2019

 

A FEW days after I retired last month, Beng and I hopped on a plane to Kuala Lumpur on our way to Penang. I’d booked the trip many months ago, as a form of insurance against changing my mind about staying on at my job for another year or two, a very tempting option. Thankfully Malaysia Airlines had a sale on its flights, and that sealed the deal.

Why Penang? Because, about ten years ago, I made a vow to bring Beng to every city I’d ever been, and Penang was one of the few left on the list that was close and affordable, with the promise of a pleasant and relaxed vacation. (In your 20s, you look for bars and ziplining; in your 60s, a soft bed and a nice view of the sunset sounds just about right.) Malaysia also happens to be a personal favorite of ours—I’d taken Beng to KL, Melaka, and Kota Kinabalu before, with happy outcomes in all of those places.

The first and only time I’d been to Penang was in December 1992, when I and a few other Filipinos attended the Asean Writers Conference/Workshop being held there for writers below 40. It’s hard to imagine now that I was only 38 then, with a full shock of jet-black hair and a certain cockiness about the strength of Philippine writing in our part of the world; I’d just returned with a PhD from the US and had confirmed to myself that we could write as well as anyone else. That seemed to be upheld when the conference elected us president—an honor usually reserved for the host country—but our esteem took a few licks at dinnertime, when our Indonesian poet-friend, a man who had made a fortune reading poetry to thousands of paying listeners, dined up in the revolving restaurant, while my roommate Fidel Rillo and I snuck out to the hawker stalls, our precious ringgit jangling in our pockets.

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There was, I must say, a sufficiency of ringgit to accompany Beng and me this time around, but we still chose to take the low road, as it’s very often more fun, foregoing the swanky beachside hotels in Batu Feringhi for more modest digs in central George Town, the island’s capital. We stayed at the aptly named 1926 Heritage Hotel, a long building that still displayed the grace and robust masonry of its colonial past. While highrises are beginning to crowd the Penang cityscape, its colonial architecture is the island’s true attraction, the old mansions set back by wide swaths of greenery and bougainvillea.

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Not being beach types, Beng and I made a beeline on our first morning for the Penang State Museum (entrance fee, 1 ringgit), which had small but artful and informative exhibits on Penang’s mixed Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage. We always make it a point to master the local bus or metro system wherever we go to save on taxis, and armed with seven-day bus passes for 30 (about P400) ringgit each, we just rode buses from one end of the line to the other, enjoying the view and riding back.

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The must-sees for anyone touring Penang are Penang Hill, which offers spectacular views of the city from about 800 meters up via funicular train, and the Blue Mansion, the magnificently restored 130-year-old home of one of China’s richest men, now also a hotel and a restaurant, but open to guided tours (tip: Wife #7 will haunt you). We took it slow, enjoying just one major destination for every one of our four days there, but George Town is full of interesting turns—among them, the old Protestant Cemetery with graves from the 1700s that Beng and I strayed into while walking to the Blue Mansion.

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Most of all, Penang is about hawker food (so Fidel and I were on the right track back in 1992), with brand-new Mercedes-Benzes lined up for parking beside stalls hawking Hainanese Chicken Rice for 5 ringgit a plate. Being a creature of habit, I was quite happy to try chicken rice at various stalls, while Beng had her choice of possibilities from congee to char kway teow.

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The trip reminded me of a short poem I wrote after my first visit there nearly 27 years ago, and here it is (Elangovan is a prominent Singaporean playwright).

DINNER IN PENANG

 For the second time in as many days

I come to her, and have the same

Two-ringgit dish of hawker’s prawn

Steamed in fragrant both, and its succulence

Competes in joyfulness with the garlic sauce.

 

The next morning, Elangovan says to me:

Those prawns were fatted on the city’s slime—

Look here, it’s in the papers,

“Waterborne diseases on the rise!”—

And while my reason grapples

With the sordid possibilities,

My stomach’s heart has no regrets,

Having loved, without need of asking,

Having departed more complete, in trusting.

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Penman No. 337: A Perfect Ending

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Penman for Monday, January 21, 2019

 

I RETIRED last week after 35 years of service at the University of the Philippines, and I celebrated the special day with UP friends at a dinner graciously hosted by UP President Danilo Concepcion at his official residence, the newly renovated Executive House.

Standing in a wooded corner of Diliman close to C. P. Garcia, the Executive House was built by President Vicente Sinco in the late 1950s, and in its early years no president really lived there, but it became the venue for lively faculty colloquia, involving such intellectual stalwarts of the time as O.D. Corpuz, Ricardo Pascual, Cesar Adib Majul, Leopoldo Yabes, and Concepcion Dadufalza. When President Salvador P. Lopez decided to move with his wife into the place in 1969, they were reportedly met, in typical UP fashion, by a posse of protesters insisting on certain demands.

These historical precedents were thronging in my mind when I stepped into the EH last Tuesday evening for an all-UP dinner which, unlike all the other big events I had attended there, was being held in my honor—it was a trifecta of sorts, being my 65thbirthday, retirement day, and our 45thwedding anniversary.

Long before I became Vice President for Public Affairs, it had been my dream to end my service in UP with a small party for my closest and dearest UP friends at the EH, and that came true. Of course that dream began with entering UP itself, and it was my mother Emilia—BSE 1956, the only UP graduate among her 12 siblings—who fired that ambition. When I was a small boy, she would play a 78 rpm record of “UP Beloved” flipsided by “Push On, UP.” I guess you could say that my future was laid out for me that early, and I grew up without any doubt whatsoever that I would enter UP someday. She was with us that evening, lovely and graceful at 90. (Our daughter Demi, BA Art Studies 1995, joined us in spirit from California.)

In my farewell remarks, I also thanked my sweet wife Beng, from the UP College of Fine Arts, my 45 years of togetherness with whom was for me the better reason for the festivities. Aside from my friends in administration, teaching, and writing, some seniors and mentors obliged me with their presence—Dr. Gerry Sicat, who took me in off the street and employed me as a writer at NEDA in 1973, sent me back to school to learn some Economics, and sent me to the US on my first trip abroad in 1980 to expose a young writer to the outside world; former President Dodong Nemenzo, whom I had served as VP many years ago; National Artist Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, my professor in playwriting; Dr. Manny Alba, as debonair as ever; and dear friend Julie Hill, whose four books I have been privileged to edit, and who flew in all the way from California to be with us.

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I also noted that VPs and even presidents come and go, but UP is unique and in some ways immutable. The University is bigger than any one or even all of us. It has a life and an integrity of its own.

We need to keep fighting for a UP truly worthy of its founders’ dreams—a UP governed by merit rather than by patronage, and led by men and women of impeccable intelligence, ability, and most of all, integrity. Honor and excellence must be more than slogans to us but a way of life—honor even more so than excellence, which is easily found in a community of intellectually brilliant minds, but also easily compromised and corrupted by power.

While every day we need to recognize and to make the pragmatic decisions that keep the University afloat, every once in a while, we need to remember what makes us different from just another school, and uphold idealism over realism, principle over practical result, excellence over expediency.

I ended with a few appeals, addressed mainly to the friends I was leaving behind—foremostly, to keep the University’s liberal spirit alive. I have often argued that the true heart of UP lies neither in the authoritarian Right nor the doctrinaire Left, but in that great liberal middle, which—despite all of its confusions, contradictions, vacillations, and weaknesses—most honestly represents the search for truth, reason, freedom and justice in our society. I would much sooner trust someone who remembers and respects the value of doubt than those—like our despots and ideologues—who insist that they have the answer to everything.

I also asked the administration take special care of the UP Institute of Creative Writing, which I was privileged to serve as director for eight years. It is a truly world-class institute whose work no one else in Asia is doing. For a relatively small investment, the UPICW keeps the literary imagination and the truth itself alive in this age of fake news and demagoguery.

It was a perfect albeit bittersweet ending to my formal career. I retired saddened to miss the company of people I had come to respect and love, but gladdened by the opportunity to serve our University and people in more creative ways—in a manner, at a time, and at a pace of my own choosing.

Beng and I expect to travel much and travel far together, ngunit malayong lupain man ang aming marating, din rin magbabago ang aming damdamin.

(The 3D-printed Mini-Me up there was a parting gift from my staff at the OVPPA. Many thanks, all!)

Penman No. 335: Senior Moments

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Penman for Monday, January 7, 2019

 

BEFORE ANYTHING else, I’d like to put in a word of praise for the only movie that my wife Beng and I really wanted to see among the entries to the recent Metro Manila Film Festival, Joel Lamangan’s Rainbow’s Sunset, a film about two gay old men on the brink of death and of the family around them. I’ve often said that in our youth- and gimmick-centered culture, we don’t have enough movies (or books and songs, for that matter) about old people, and not enough intelligent movies, either.

 Rainbow’s Sunset satisfies both criteria, offering a sensitive, often comic, in-your-face portrayal of the undiminished decades-old love between two men—and of the woman who loves them both—without losing sight of the very real complications it creates for others, no matter how sympathetically inclined. It’s a project that could very easily have given in to caricature and condescension, but it doesn’t. The acting performances are solid and engaging, both individually and as an ensemble. Aside from the lead actors Eddie Garcia and Tony Mabesa, of course, Gloria Romero and the three children—Tirso Cruz, Aiko Melendez, and Sunshine Dizon—are a delight to watch.

It’s far from a perfect movie—I find the title a bit strained (I get it, I get it) and there are a few off-key notes in the drama—but the minor flaws shouldn’t take much away from its overarching achievement. It will probably be gone from the mainstream theaters by the time this comes out, but it deserves more than passing notice, and I hope it leads to more good movies about seniors, who should know a thing or two about love and life.

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SPEAKING OF seniors, I started the New Year in the best and the worst possible way: by buying an old pen, I suppose as a late Christmas or early birthday gift to myself, but whatever the excuse, I’m happy, because it was one of the last of what we collectors call our “grail” pens (as in “Holy Grail”), something I had been dreaming about for, oh, thirty years.

I woke up early on January 1, and like most of us do, I picked up my phone to scan my messages—nothing too interesting there beyond the predictable plethora of New Year greetings. And then, unlike most of us, my digits drifted off to the fountain pen sites, just to see what people could be possibly up to. There is such a thing as a global fountain-pen community (just as there’s an antique typewriter community, a wristwatch community, a Japan-surplus community, and an Apple community—and yes, I belong to all of those, too), and it’s become my virtual hangout online.

Unlike real friends, with whom you have to chug beers and trade miserable stories that inevitably involve retirement options, Metformin, and political sleaze, these thing-centered, Web-based communities offer mostly good cheer and kind intentions. Sure, we get our share of jerks and trolls, but they’re pretty easy to weed out with a few keystrokes. These sites are the best distraction I can find from the front-page news (let’s not get started on that, shall we?), and they offer something often lost in today’s Twitter-driven dystopia: a sense of wonder and discovery, and for an aging romantic like me, an enchantment with things past. I know that we keep bemoaning how consumerism has turned us into heartless, mindless brutes, but you’ll be surprised how people can be their nicest, most civil, and most helpful selves when talking about flexing vintage Waterman nibs, locating the tension lever on an Olivetti Lettera 22, and using Stage Light in Portrait Mode on an iPhone X.

But all that’s a long excuse for treating myself in my creeping old age—I’ll hit 65 and retire in two weeks—with a new old pen. “Senior moments” are supposed to be about forgetting things, but they should also be about remembering things, chiefly that life is short and keeps getting shorter, which means that any treats you deserve or expect had better come sooner rather than later.

The fountain pen I grabbed when I saw it was a (hold your breath) Wahl-Eversharp Personal Point Gold Seal Deco Band Oversize in woodgrain ebonite with a factory 14K stub nib—meaning a large, fancy, impressive-looking pen with gold trim, great for loopy signatures and maybe for stabbing malevolent strangers in the dark (but with a stub or flat nib, it won’t do much damage). A 25-peso ballpoint will probably write better for most people, but with all due respect to most people, I’m a bit odd in some ways.

In its time, the W-E Deco Band was among the classiest of them all, alongside the Parker Duofold Senior and the Waterman Patrician—think Duesenbergs, Auburns, and Bugattis in terms of 1920s cars. This pen I got survived wars (and worse, people with clumsy hands), and given a few weeks, it will make its way from Pennsylvania to California and then to me. It won’t write a novel—maybe it’ll sign a few greeting cards—but even just sitting in my pocket, it will make a boy from Romblon feel like the Great Gatsby, for once in his Nick-Carrawayish life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 330: From Parrots to Maroons

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Penman for Monday, December 3, 2018

 

I HAD a whole other column lined up for this Monday, but that’s going to have to wait after last Wednesday’s titanic ballgame—you all know what I’m referring to, that heart-stopping semifinal do-or-die clash between the Adamson Soaring Falcons and the UP Fighting Maroons for a spot in the UAAP finals. Without a ticket to the live game at the Araneta Coliseum, I watched the nailbiter on a giant screen at the UP Theater with 2,000 other maroon-shirted fans, and screamed my head off as shrilly as the girls around me when UP sealed the 89-87 win with a shot in the closing seconds.

I can’t say that I’m a huge basketball fan—I hardly know what’s going on in the NBA or PBA—but I’m a big fan of school spirit, and have cheered for UP since my mother (BSE, 1956) indoctrinated me by playing a 78 rpm record of “UP Beloved” and “Push On, UP” every day when I was a boy. I do have to confess that I wore green and sat with DLSU last season, having reconnected with my grade-school classmates, but UP just wasn’t a serious contender then.

The victory over the Falcons sent me scurrying back to my UP history files, the last time we had been in the UAAP basketball finals having been 1986, when we emerged champions. Since then it’s been a long and frustrating story of losses and thwarted ambitions, reversed only this year by the Maroons’ Cinderella appearance in the finals which began last Saturday.

I dug into UP’s unpublished history and discovered some interesting factoids—one of the most interesting and rather unfortunate tidbits being that back in the ‘60s, as UP oldtimers may still recall, the Maroons were briefly called the Parrots, the emblems worn by the cheering squad. They were already known as the Maroons in the 1930s, when UP was part of the Big Three Basketball League (the other two being UST and NU). UP team captain and later Senator Ambrosio Padilla, who also played baseball, led the Philippine team in the 1936 Olympics and in the 1934 10th Far Eastern Championship Games, where we came out champions, beating Japan and China.

A bit of a spoilsport, UP President Jorge Bocobo pulled UP out of the Big Three, citing complaints that players had begun sporting a “star complex” and that the spectators had become too rowdy. Intramurals between UP Manila and UP Los Baños took over, as well as two annual “playdays”—one for boys, and one for girls. When the UAAP was founded in 1938, UP rejoined the big league. When we lost a game, we told ourselves (and others) that it was okay, because we were smarter anyway—a lame excuse we’ve fallen back on way too often down the decades.

But the evidence was there to show that our athletes had, indeed, as much brain as brawn. The unpublished history notes that “Alfonso Ybañez, varsity football captain of 1939, placed second in the board examinations for mining engineers in 1940. In that same year the spirit of sports enthusiasts was further lifted when Ambrosio Padilla joined the law faculty. And, while there might have been some excitement among the law freshmen at the news that he was going to teach the introductory course on family relations, his appointment was taken more as ‘an auspicious sign for their local basketball team.’”

Given our country’s crazy infatuation with basketball, few remember that UP actually won the general championship of the UAAP in the 1977-78 season, having bested all others at volleyball, track and field, baseball, football, and women’s basketball.

But UP’s 1986 basketball championship—powered by the likes of future PBA stars Benjie Paras and Ronnie Magsanoc—still glimmers in the memory of many Maroons of my generation, harking back to a golden age when we had just ousted a dictator (ironically also one of UP’s own) and were looking forward eagerly to a bright new future not only in sports but also in society itself. Neither of those expectations materialized—not so easily and not so quickly.

As I walked back to my car after the Adamson game, the cheers and chants of the crowd still ringing in my ears, I savored the extraordinary sense of solidarity that sports can bring to a community all too easily fractured by politics. Everyone needed the relief after a couple of weeks dominated by horribly bad news about misogyny and brawling among frat boys—a discussion that can’t and shouldn’t go away, but which also can’t be everything that defines a university.

After the 1986 victory, UP went wild, holding a big motorcade featuring three bands and capped the night with a bonfire. I’d have to wonder how we’ll top that in the event that the miracle continues and we rout our favored Katipunan neighbors. Raze the arboretum? Just to annoy the mighty Eagles, I think I’ll look for a parrot, dye it maroon, and train it to screech “Atin ‘to! Atin ‘to!

 

 

Penman No. 323: Cooling Off on the Island of Fire

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Penman for Monday, October 15, 2018

 

AS THINGS heated up last week over military charges of communist inroads in our universities—an issue the University of the Philippines, in particular, has dealt with for over 70 years, under every administration—I decided to take advantage of my leave credits and spend a few days in a zone of true peace and quiet, away from TV and certain “loud and aggressive persons… vexatious to the spirit,” as the Desiderata put it.

As it happened, I’d presciently I’d booked a trip to Camiguin last November (we routinely do this—book blind months in advance and hope for the best) and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Lanzones Festival was coming up (we were going to miss it by a week), which meant a surfeit of the sweet fruit on the market.

But I’d always been intrigued by Camiguin, like Batanes (an itch I scratched some years ago); I was born on a small island in Romblon, so islands hold a special charm for me, as does the sea, which I dream about often in all its varied moods, from tranquil to terrifying.

From what I’d heard, Camiguin was all that—mostly tranquil, sometimes terrifying, being home to no less than seven volcanoes, with the best-known of them, Mt. Hibok-Hibok, still considered active, tagging it as “The Island of Fire.” But all of this was just stuff you see on Wikipedia, and I was raring to see Camiguin and its natural splendor with my own eyes.

On the lower fringe of the Bohol Sea, Camiguin is technically part of Northern Mindanao, so a popular way to get there is by ferry from Cagayan de Oro, but we took the plane from Manila to Cebu, leaving close to midnight, and then a smaller plane from Cebu to Camiguin early in the morning. If you know how to manage your time, this gives you a whole day of exploration from the very start, but being seniors, Beng and I dozed off upon arrival, had lunch, then hit the sack again.

Barangay Yumbing, a few minutes’ ride by tricycle from the airport (P150 for tourists, P30 for locals), seemed to be the locale of choice from what I’d read online, so I booked a room in a cottage-type hotel there. Yumbing is on the beach facing White Island, a sliver of sandbar that’s one of Camiguin’s must-sees, which explains the cluster of lodging houses along the strip.

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We booked online at one of the cheaper places for around P800/night—clean and comfortable, but without hot water, and you bring your own toiletries—but we soon realized that a range of choices could be had, climaxing with the impressive Paras Beach Resort right on the waterfront. We had dinner (tinolang tuna) there, and after a glorious sunset, a swarm of what must have been thousands of chattering swifts descended on the trees above us. Another high-end option specializing in Asian cuisine was the smartly designed Guerrera, set on the edge of a ricefield between the sea and the towering Hibok-Hibok; Vietnamese spring rolls fringed by five special sauces and adobo made for a perfect lunch here.

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We decided to spend the second of our three days touring the island, and for this we hired (P1,500) a multicab, a small van with narrow seats, comfortable enough if there’s just two of you in the back so you can stretch out your legs. Our driver Rey and his wife Grace took us to the most popular spots on our side of the island. We passed on the first stop—the Walkway, featuring 14 Stations of the Cross halfway up to the top of Mt. Vulcan—because after a few steps, we realized that each station was going to be punishment for our sins. The Old Spanish Church was far more pleasing, albeit sobering, as this huge enclosure of limestone and coral—set against a pretty arbor along the shore—was the skeletonized hulk of what remained after a devastating eruption of Hibok-Hibok in 1871, the very one that created Mt. Vulcan.

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More traces of the island’s volcanic past emerged in the Sunken Cemetery, reclaimed by the sea and now reachable by a short boat ride. Tuasan Falls and Katibawasan Falls offered not just spectacular views but cool green waters begging you to jump in for a swim. Indeed, cool and hot seemed to be the theme for the day, with pools and springs of either variety to be found all over, culminating in the suitably named Ardent Hot Spring on the foothills of Hibok-Hibok, where we rested our tired feet by dipping them into the water for half and hour.

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Cutting across the island allowed us to gaze more closely up Hibok-Hibok (whose summit is a popular destination for younger and more intrepid hikers, about a five-hour trek from the hot spring). That’s the full-time job of the Phivolcs Observatory, well worth a visit because of its pictorial display of the island’s tumultuous past (Hibok-Hibok’s last eruption in 1951 killed more than 3,000 people).

An unexpected bonus was a tip from our driver Rey to have lunch at the Orange Pie restaurant in the capital town of Mambajao, where the P180 eat-all-you-can deal featured tuna kinilaw, fried chicken, pork adobo, pancit, steamed grouper, veggies, and fruits and cakes for dessert. Indeed, Beng and I had most of our meals, lutong-bahay-style, in roadside carinderiasfor about P50 each. And of course, everywhere we went, we saw groves of lanzones trees heavy with fruit (yours for P50-60 a kilo).

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We spent the best part of our final day splashing in the indescribably clear water around White Island, a short hop away by pumpboat (all yours for P450 back-and-forth). You might want to spring another P100 to rent a beach umbrella, because there’s absolutely nothing on this sandbar, most of which disappears at high tide. And that’s the blessedness of it—nothing but sea and sky, and the best view of the island from afar.

“Camiguin—come again!” our driver Rey quipped as he dropped us off at the airport. We will!

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Penman No. 315: A Qwerty Quartet

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Penman for Monday, August 13, 2018

 

I’M NOT really a typewriter collector (not like my friend George Mamonluk, whose noodles I patronize to help build up his stable of vintage typewriters and fountain pens), but I realized this past week that I can’t resist a classic when I see one, even when I can barely squeeze it into the budget or, just as critically, into my man-cave.

Surely space and money aren’t foremost on the minds of such fanatics as the 4,677 members of the Antique Typewriter Collectors FB Group—not to mention Tom Hanks, who is to typewriters what Jay Leno is to cars. In fact, Tom—who has hundreds of the machines, including his dad’s Underwood—recently wrote a collection of short stories, published under the title Uncommon Type (Alfred Knopf, 2017, 405 pp.) in which a typewriter appears in every story, and he provided the foreword to the collector’s must-have, Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing (Chronicle Books, 2017, 208 pp.)

I’m not quite there yet; I just have four typewriters hanging around—but what a Qwerty quartet they make. I haven’t really used one for everyday writing since the late 1980s, when I began the draft of my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place, on an Olympia Traveller that I’d carried with me to grad school in the US. I began using computers around 1992 and never looked back. But I’ve never lost my fascination for these mechanical wonders, and even observed their sad demise in my July 11, 2011 column, “Requiem for the Typewriter,” in which I noted the shutdown of the last typewriter producer in the world, Godrej and Boyce, in India.

My oldest one is a black Corona 3 from 1922, and in many ways it’s also the most amazing, as it’s a portable whose carriage folds over its keyboard, and opens up like a clamshell. I remember spotting that Corona on the counter of an antiques mall in San Francisco; it had just arrived and hadn’t even been put on the shelves. When the manager flipped out the folding carriage, I was bewitched (here insert the Ping! of the carriage), paid the asking price, and hand-carried it home.

I also have another shiny black Royal “O” portable, which a check of the Royal typewriter database online shows was produced in 1937. I can’t recall where or from whom I bought this very handsome model, but it was one of two fine old machines that I brought back from the US, one of which I gave to my friend, the poet Isabel Banzon Mooney. When the UP Faculty Center burned down in April 2016, I thought mine had gone up in smoke in my office across Isabel’s as well—until, just a couple of weeks ago, I looked under my bed, and there it was!

The third of the lot is a pristine white Olympia Traveller de Luxe, a classic of the ‘80s and a clone of the one I’d brought with me to the US (a gift from my mentor Gerry Sicat), which had rusted away. I loved that portable so much that I always hankered for its replacement. I found this one on eBay, and had it shipped all the way from London; surprisingly, it arrived at my doorstep without a scratch, at minimal cost.

As you might have guessed, I’m leading up to a thesis here, which is that these machines were meant to roost with me—particularly my most recent find, an Olivetti Valentine, a favorite of collectors and an icon of 20thcentury pop art. Designed by Ettore Sottsass and Perry King, this orange-red typewriter (released on Feb. 14, 1969, thus the name) looks like a narrow plastic wastebasket with a handle—until you flick two rubber clasps and pull out the portable within.

It’s well worth Googling to see the whole machine and case and to get the full story. Cynthia Trope of the Cooper Hewitt Museum explains its appeal thus: “Sottsass chose to use a bold Pop red plastic housing to show that the Valentine was intended more to appeal to writing for recreation rather than work. He said his design was ‘for use in any place except in an office, so as not to remind anyone of the monotonous working hours, but rather to keep amateur poets company on quiet Sundays in the country or to provide a highly colored object on a table in a studio apartment. An anti-machine machine, built around the commonest mass-produced mechanism, the works inside any typewriter, it may also seem to be an unpretentious toy.’”

My friend and fellow Apple fanboy Leo Venezuela had told me about this unpretentious toy a few months ago, and it was burning a hole in my head (as it would in my pocket). I was this close to ordering one from Sweden, when one magically popped up late one night in a local online sales forum. So this late-sleeping bird caught the worm. “You’re lucky,” said the lady who handed it to me the next day. “I had twenty callers after you.” (Note to self: now sell a few old books and pens.)

If there are twenty people in this country who know what an Olivetti Valentine is, then I’m in trouble. That sounds like serious competition—but didn’t I say I wasn’t a serious collector, yet?

Penman No. 306: Minding the Magazine (1)

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Penman for Monday, June 11, 2018

 

IF YOU collect old books like I do, the chances are that you’ll be picking up more than books as you scour the Web, garage sales, and library throwaways for that elusive first edition or that childhood textbook. I’m referring, of course, to other printed matter such as magazines journals, posters, and maps, but also to manuscripts, letters, and such other ephemera as restaurant receipts, plane tickets, and school report cards (yes, I collect those, too).

Books—especially good ones—tend to exude a certain timelessness about them, maybe because they’re meant to be read beyond the present. They like to lay down general (and, authors like to think, immutable) principles of life, of art and science, of philosophy. The characters of fiction may live in the moment—whether it be in Charles Dickens’ London or William Gibson’s matrix—but the context, implicitly, is forever.

Magazines, on the other hand, are typically meant for no higher purpose than to capture the instant—this week, this month—in all its topical and pictorial variety. When I pick them up, it’s not because they’re going to reveal to me some eternal verity (although that might sometimes happen), but because they’ll show me exactly what people were wearing on June 11, 1898 or what the price of a Parker 51 was in August 1947. Newspapers, of course, can bring everything down almost literally to the very hours and minutes of what eventually becomes history, but magazines have just a bit more of a leisurely sweep, making them ideal for doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms, beauty parlors, and barber shops.

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It was in a barber shop in Pasig, back in the mid-‘60s, that I first got to read about people like Jose Garcia Villa in The Philippines Free Press while getting my head shaved for PMT. I didn’t understand his poetry then (and maybe I still don’t), but I was mighty impressed by what I remember him saying, in so many words: “There’s only one literary genius born every thousand years, and I’m sorry for everyone else, but for these thousand years, that’s me.”

The Free Pressand its literary pages became staple reading for me, but I also devoured the Graphic, the Sunday Times Magazine, Life, TIME, Newsweek, National Geographic, and whatever I could get my hands on at the public library (including, away from prying eyes, women’s magazines—and a bit later on in life, magazines with, uhm, women).

These memories came swarming back to me a couple of weeks ago as I received several bound collections of magazines from the 1960s—the Mirror Magazine, the Manila Chronicle Magazine, and Action Now, among others. They’ll join a large pile of Sunday Tribune Magazine issues from the late 1930s and 1940s that I’d acquired more than 20 years ago from a seller who was disposing boxes of them. Sadly, most of them have crumbled (this was before I became more serious about collecting and more organized). While I’ve gently turned away people offering busloads of National Geographic and LIFE (just as I routinely decline offers of family Bibles, law books, and encyclopedias), I’ve sought out samples of historically important or just plain interesting magazines to round out my collection.

One of the reasons I began my antiquarian collection was to be able to show my literature students—in real life, and not just in some Googled picture—what people were reading way back when. For example, when we discuss American literature during the time of the Benjamin Franklin, what would the literate Bostonian or Philadelphian have held in his or her hands?

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As it happens, I have the answer to that, thanks to a bit of instruction from my professor in Bibliography back in Wisconsin, Dr. James Kuist, whose type of final exam was to ask us (in those pre-Internet, pre-Google days), “If the year is 1662, and I’m a member of the Royal Society, what books would I likely have on my shelves?” Jim did his doctoral dissertation on the history of one particular publication—indeed, the very first one of its kind to call itself a magazine (derived from the French for “storehouse”)—The Gentleman’s Magazine, founded by a cobbler’s son named Edward Cave in January 1731. It became immensely popular, made Cave (also known by his pen name Sylvanus Urban) a rich man, and was published uninterrupted until 1922.

I pretty much forgot about Dr. Kuist and The Gentleman’s Magazine until recently, when I realized that there were actual copies (not reproductions) available on eBay. The issue I secured comes from November 1773, and is a special issue devoted to “The FRUGAL HOUSEWIFE, Or Complete WOMAN COOK…. including various bills of fare for dinners and suppers, in every month in the year, and a copious index to the whole.” (And before you think otherwise, The Gentleman’s Magazine did not have a centerfold or anything of the sort; it would have been, well, ungentlemanly.)

I was searching for issues ca. 1763-64, which should have had reports on the British occupation of Manila, and I do have two issues of The London Magazine, from September 1763 and February 1764. But while they have gruesome stories about Englishmen being captured and burnt by the Indians (“The blood which flowed from him almost extinguished the fire”), and other reports from the empire, they say nothing about the Philippines.

Next week, we’ll look at two Filipino magazines from August 1913 and April 1949.

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 304: Revisiting the Print

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Penman for Monday, May 28, 2018

 

I usually reserve my weekends for truly enjoyable things, like rummaging through Japanese surplus shops or just driving down south for a hearty lunch of steaming bulalo cooled off by fresh buko juice, but there was one event a couple of Saturdays ago that I wasn’t going to miss for the world.

This was “Tirada,” the 50thanniversary retrospective show of the Association of Pinoyprintmakers (A/P, formerly known as the Philippine Association of Printmakers, or PAP) at the CCP. I recently wrote about this group when I brought up my obscure and distant past as a printmaker in the early 1970s, when I’d just stepped out of martial-law prison and was looking for something to do while I didn’t have a real job.

I turned to printmaking for a couple of years to help support myself, and those times at the PAP studio-headquarters on Jorge Bocobo Street in Ermita turned out to be one of the most instructive and wonderful periods of my life, as I immersed myself in the intricacies—and the backbreaking labors—of printmaking.

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(With Pinoy printmakers Benjie Cabrera, Jess Flores, Bencab, and Egay Fernandez at the AP retrospective.)

Despite its long and glorious history, printmaking remains misunderstood and underappreciated by many. The fact that printmakers will often make multiple copies of the same work seems to debase the value of the work in the eyes of art buyers looking for something totally unique, like an oil painting. But printmaking’s great contribution to art was precisely its democratization, by making art accessible to many, beginning with the engravings that illustrated old books and newspapers and lent visual credence to literature and journalism. Prints also adorned books on anatomy, horticulture, geography, and astronomy, among others, without which science could not have progressed.

It was an imaginative step to move from the print as functional appendage to the print as an art form in itself, and many artists took that step because it offered a fascinating alternative, with its own fresh challenges, to the sometimes staid art of painting. Prints require a heavily physical and tactile engagement with one’s tools and materials, like sculpture, working with plates, inks, papers, and presses.

Back in the PAP days—employing techniques that hadn’t changed much since Durer and Rembrandt used them centuries ago—we drew designs on zinc plates coated with an asphalt “ground,” soaked them in nitric acid which ate away the designs, cleaned and inked the plates, then rolled them onto paper under enormous pressures to produce etchings. (Today printmakers use polymer plates, not metal—a technique I’ve yet to learn, not having touched a burin or engraver’s tool in over 40 years. The Japanese, of course, used wood, and others use linoleum and stone for their material.)

The PAP was formed in 1968, led by such pioneers as Manuel Rodriguez, Sr. By the time I found my way to Jorge Bocobo five years later, its regulars included the likes of Orly Castillo, Manolito Mayo, Fil de la Cruz, Jess Flores, Joel Soliven, Rhoda Recto, Petite Calaguas, Benjie Cabrera, Fernando Modesto, Bing del Rosario, and Emet Valente. Some days I’d watch Bencab and Tiny Nuyda at work, or just listen to their banter, which was just as valuable to the salingpusaI was, eager for a whiff of the artistic life (I would become a full-time writer a few years down the road).

Some of those stalwarts have since passed on, but seeing their works on display at the CCP—alongside a whole new generation of brilliant Filipino printmakers—revived happy memories of the kind of camaraderie that AP leader and master printmaker Pandy Aviado referred to in his remarks. Painting can be a lonely art, and perhaps it needs to be, but printmaking typically attracts the collective assistance of others, as physically strenuous as the work can get.

My solitary contribution to the show—a 1975 etching of my grandmother—proudly hung beside one of Bencab’s in the corridor outside the main gallery, but I felt happiest just to share the company of old friends from another branch of the arts that I’d stepped away from, perhaps too quickly. I remembered the sheer exhilaration of lifting the dampened paper off a pressed plate to see one’s design in vivid ink, a joy tempered but also deepened by the intensity of filing away and smoothing out the rough edges of a zinc plate, or inhaling a vinegary cloud of acid, or pouring cold lacquer thinner onto one’s fingers to wash away the grime.

“I wish we had a small etching press at home,” I found myself telling Beng—only to be told by a new acquaintance, the artist Angela Silva, that the renowned Raul Isidro had one, or a few, to sell, having commissioned a raft of them to help spread the faith. I made a beeline for Raul, and then and there reserved myself a unit, with Beng’s blessings.

I’ve decided to return to printmaking in the most old-fashioned way with a technique called drypoint, scratching out my designs with a sharp tool by hand on a copper plate. I can just see how busy my retirement’s going to be a year hence—and how messy. But what a marvelous mess I hope to make.

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(With artist Raul Isidro, receiving my baby press. The print above is Joel Soliven’s “Owl70” from my collection.)

Penman No. 302: A Happy Refuge

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Penman for Monday, May 14, 2018

 

 

THESE PAST few weeks and months have been fraught with loss and sadness, given the passing of many friends and personages in the arts community—National Artist Billy Abueva, National Artist Cirilo Bautista, architect and heritage advocate Toti Villalon, writer Jing Hidalgo’s daughter Lara, and, most recently, poet and inimitable punster Ed Maranan.

It’s in times like these that we seek refuge and relief in what amounts, for many if not most of us, to another realm of life, if not life itself—the world of art. Being inherently transcendent, art has a way of lifting us up and moving us away from often sordid and prosaic reality, reminding us that as ugly as the world can get (often the very subject of art), beauty exists and endures, like love, in the most unlikely places.

And sometimes beauty can be so sublime that it will not only take your breath away but cause you to smile, and even break out in wild laughter. I remember one such moment of sheer exhilaration from about eight years ago when I stepped out of the train in Sta. Lucia station for my first sight of Venice on a bright summer afternoon, and everything was as it would have been in a painting by Turner or Canaletti—not just the canals, gondolas, and cupolas, but the people and the pigeons, the thrum of the vaporettos and the bells of the bicycles darting past me. At that instant, all I could do was laugh, my joy tempered only by the fact that I didn’t bring Beng with me (four years later, on our fortieth anniversary, I made good on a promise and did just that).

Two events in this first quarter of the year provoked a similar response in me.

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The first was a free, open-air concert given last March 23 at the Amphitheater in UP Diliman by the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of resident conductor Dr. Herminigildo G. Ranera. The idea was hatched between Cultural Center of the Philippines President Arsenio “Nick” Lizaso and UP President Danilo “Danicon” L. Concepcion. Nick’s a seasoned actor and director and longtime cultural advocate who took charge of the CCP last year with the view of bringing that venerable institution closer to the masses. Danicon, who had also just marked his first year in office, wanted something fresh and inspiring to happen on campus to buoy people’s spirits up and spur cultural appreciation in the community. Backstopping both was former UP Diliman College of Music dean and tenor Ramon “Montet” Acoymo, who helped put a program together for the PPO in UP.

The brief was simple, but surely a nightmare to execute: bring the PPO’s 58 members to the backside of Quezon Hall facing the amphitheater, where graduations are usually held, fill up that sprawling space with people, and have the PPO perform a program of light classics that everyone could relate and hum along to. Oh—and find sponsors to foot the bill, to do away with tickets and invite even slipper-shod retirees and children to enjoy the music on the grass, under the stars.

And that’s exactly what happened. Like magic—with pieces ranging from the William Tell Overture and Les Miserables to Star Wars and Despacito—the PPO serenaded the spillover crowd and proved, once again—despite the turmoil and clamor of politics—that music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, as the poet said. Thank you, Nick, Danicon, and the PPO for the rare treat—and folks, await a Yuletide reprise, which is being planned out as I write.

My second moment of wonderment came when Beng and I stepped last week into the new (and still ongoing) exhibit of painter Fernando “Mode” Modesto at the downstairs gallery of the Globe Tower in BGC, care of the Hiraya Gallery. Titled “Bliss from Bygone Days,” the exhibit celebrates “euphoria, delight, and rapture,” but I didn’t need to read the liner notes to know that. I felt it the minute I paused in front of a painting like “Khartoum”—a lemony depiction of two angels playing with a ball, and my favorite of the lot alongside “Bali,” a blue sky streaked with orange and yellow. They’re paintings you could stare at, smiling, for hours.

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I’d known Mode since the mid-1970s when I hung out at the Philippine Association of Printmakers studio in Ermita, and he was an enfant terrible shocking matrons with his paintings of airborne phalluses. He still shocks today—but with an exuberant wit, a brazen intent to make the viewer smile and be happy despite the tribulations of life in the age of tokhang. Even when he uses black, Mode’s subversive humor pops up, insect-like.

I often ask my writing students, “Where’s the humor in our fiction? Why is every damn story I get a self-obsessed and anguished one of defeat and despair? Sure, life sucks—but I already know that. Can’t you bring me somewhere we haven’t been—like a happiness I can believe in?”

That’s where I thought I was when I stepped into Mode’s works; too bad I had to step back out into the world again.

Penman No. 301: Mysteries of Art (2)

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Penman for Monday, May 7, 2018

 

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote about acquiring a trio of unsigned paintings I’m attributing to Serafin Serna (1919-1979), drawing on stylistic, thematic, and circumstantial evidence. This week, I’ll walk you on the trail of an art mystery that’s puzzled generations of viewers and scholars at the University of the Philippines.

For many decades now, a huge painting has been parked somewhere in UP Diliman—first at the College of Law, from where it was moved to the College of Fine Arts. Although terribly deteriorated, the painting depicts a man—clearly Jose Rizal—being accosted under the trees by at least six other men dressed in two kinds of uniforms—two priests, four soldiers—with more onlookers in the background. Rizal’s arms seem to be held behind his back, so he must be on his way to his execution; his sad, pensive demeanor certainly suggests so.

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It seems to be an important painting—as any work with Rizal would tend to be, especially given its life-size dimensions (184 x 106 inches)—but the big question is, who painted it? It’s dated by the artist to “Manila, 1901,” but the signature above that has been blurred by age and grime. In the university’s inventory, it’s ascribed to an “A. Gomez,” the name whose letters appeared to emerge from the haze. Because nobody knows an “A. Gomez” who’s ever figured in our art history, the painting was considered second-rate and left quietly to decay.

Enter UP President Danny “Danicon” Concepcion, who as Law dean had seen the painting many times and had wondered, like everyone else, about its origins. Even without establishing who the painter was, now that he was president, he wanted the painting restored, given that it’s been with UP for so long and features a national hero.

For advice on the restoration, Danicon turned to my wife Beng, who’s worked on scores of master paintings over the past 20 years, from pieces by Juan Luna to Anita Magsaysay-Ho. (Just to be clear about this, Beng and I have agreed that she’s not going to do more for or with UP than give advice, pro bono, while I’m serving as Vice President for Public Affairs, to avoid any suggestion of impropriety. If no one else can or will do the job, then she’ll take it on for the most minimal fee she can quote, subject to all the applicable rules.) At the president’s request, Beng got together with noted artist Neil Doloricon, an old friend and former dean of the CFA, to sort out the situation.

They faced the same inescapable question: who painted Rizal & Co., and who was “A. Gomez”? As it happens, I think I’ve found the answer, or at least my theory of it.

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Using high-resolution photographs Beng took of the painting, I digitally enhanced the signature and rendered it in monochrome to sharpen the contrast between the letters and the background. Indeed there’s what looks like an MEZ at the end with a long tail, and ahead of them, what seems to be an A. But I wasn’t seeing a G or an O to make GOMEZ. The more I stared at it, the more I saw “MARTINEZ” shaping up.

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Some Googling revealed that a painter named Felix Martinez (1859-1907) was “a painter and muralist who created religious, genre, landscape and still-life paintings. He was a contemporary of Simon Flores, Lorenzo Guerrero, Paz Paterno and her half-sister Adelaida Paterno…. (He) also painted the interior of the San Sebastian church in Quiapo.” The ASEMUS website notes that “Felix Martinez y Lorenzo was a member of a family of sculptors and artisans. He was also an illustrator and an art professor. As an illustrator, he participated in… La Ilustración Filipina(1894-96) depicting daily life scenes. He also helped Regino García (1840-1916), another known Filipino naturalist art painter, illustrate La Flora de Filipinas(The Flora of the Philippines 1878), a creation of Fray Manuel Blanco.”

Examples of his paintings—particularly the one of “Gov. Blanco and His Troops” (1895), now at the National Museum—showed that again, in style and substance (and even in coloration), the Rizal mural could well have been his.

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Do the signatures match? From those I’ve recovered—particularly a sharp one from a portrait of Pepita Bertoll in La Moda Filipina(with thanks to Pinoy Kollektor)—there’s a striking resemblance. I could be imagining things, but I can seem to discern the elevated M and T. Of course it will take more than my 64-year-old eyes and my enthusiasm to prove the case—further cleaning of the signature and better digital enhancement will surely yield clearer results—but an argument for Felix Martinez seems to be shaping up. But whether it’s by Martinez or not, this painting of Rizal by one of his contemporaries deserves to be saved.

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Signature copy

(With many thanks to pinoykollektor.com for permission to repost the images.)