Penman No. 348: Transience in Tokyo

 

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Penman for Monday, April 8, 2019

 

MY WIFE Beng and I have been to Japan—on our own and together—a few times, but not until last week did we go there just to immerse ourselves for seven days in one place, not trying too hard to see or do or buy too many things. The place was Tokyo, which Beng and I last visited as a couple almost 20 years ago, a depressingly downscale sortie from which Beng can only remember living off the nearby 7-11 and slurping rice gruel with construction workers beneath a bridge. With my retirement then looming, I booked this trip last year, well in advance of the 2019 cherry-blossom season, which Beng had expressed a longing to catch. I thought it was a chance to make up for that sorry first outing and for making new memories.

Wherever we travel, Beng and I always have two sure targets in mind: museums and flea markets. The museums provide an intimate feel of the history of the place, and the flea markets—well, they a have a bit of the museum in them, bits you can actually buy and bring home. (Indeed, we often remember cities—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Beijing, Seoul—less for their landmarks than for their flea markets.) For this Tokyo trip, we also resolved to enjoy the cherry blossoms and to look into as many fountain-pen shops as we could.

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The Japanese fascination with cherry blossoms—that perennial signal and reminder of the transience of beauty and of life itself—is well known. As our friend Julie Hill puts it in her book Privileged Witness, “Cherry blossoms are a punctual miracle, a well-rehearsed event in the annual Japanese calendar. They first appear in the southern part of the archipelago, around the subtropical islands of Okinawa. As the weather gets warmer, cherry trees flower in central Japan; and in two weeks, depending on the weather, they will make their presence in Tokyo, achieving their full glory in the parks—Ueno park is a famous spot—and the gardens bordering the Imperial Palace.

“For weeks preparations have been underway in Kyoto; paper blossoms have been fluttering off lampposts and major downtown stores; newspapers and television channels have run elaborate charts of the sakura zensen—the cherry blossom—as part of the daily weather forecast. There are many varieties of trees, some occurring in the wilds of Japan, featured in gardens and parks as a cultivated tree. Others are bred as flowering trees with over-large, over-pink and over-endowed petals. The most popular are those with small pink flowers held in compact clusters.”

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The sakura bloomed early this year—the weather in Tokyo was nippy to almost chilly—but we caught showers of them in pink and white around the Imperial Palace, along the Meguro River, and in Ueno Park. Most fortunately, we stumbled into a bank of them in Chidorigafuchi Park just as it darkened, and suddenly the trees were lit up, lending ethereal magic to the scene. The only downer with these hanami or flower-viewing walks is that you’re doing them with several hundred other people looking for exactly the same thing—that perfect pose or shot under the same trees.

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A quieter time can be had exploring the sakura in context, such as you might do at the Tokyo National Museum on the far edge of Ueno Park, fittingly at the end of a long walk under the flowering cherry trees. There the blossoms figure in everything from Hiroshige’s Edo Road prints to exquisite kimono and lacquered boxes and bowls—indeed, a recurring theme that can only resonate more poignantly in these times of fleeting joys and affections.

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Speaking of fleeting joys, we had our fill of them at the Tokyo City Flea Market beside the Ohi Racecourse in Shinagawa, where we spent most of our Sunday morning. Beng and I are Japan surplus-shop regulars, and this was the mother of all of them, hawking everything from used clothes and vintage electronics to ceramics and scientific instruments. We walked away with a handsome thermometer/hygrometer, which Beng needs for her art restoration studio, for 100 yen (50 pesos) and a big leather bag to carry our stuff for 300 yen. My big find—adrift in a sea of bags and blouses—was a newish Pilot Custom 74 fountain pen, which normally retails for between $100 and $150, for less than P2,000.

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That was before I ran into the mother lode of vintage pens at one stall, where the owner had kept them in translucent plastic boxes, not thinking that anyone would be interested in them, and not thinking that a persistent Pinoy with X-ray vision would spot Montblanc stars in a galaxy of caps. It was a real treasure trove that I would have gladly sold a car for were I a younger and hungrier collector, but after much dickering, I picked out just two prize pens, about which you’ll hear more in another report on pen hunting in Tokyo.

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This time around, we had chosen a better hotel, well located near the Imperial Palace, small and rather expensive but impeccably clean as Japanese hotels go. We still found ourselves subsisting on the prepackaged rice-and-fish dinners at 7-11 (actually, they’re good and cheap!), so Beng and I celebrated the day (and yes, the transience of money) with a grand dinner at a steakhouse in our neighborhood in Chiyoda. A good time was had by all.

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Penman No. 347: The Master of Commandante Street

 

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Penman for Monday, April 1, 2019

 

COMMANDANTE STREET branches off Evangelista in Manila’s Quiapo—a downtown district a poet-friend endearingly described as “the armpit of the city.” It’s an area teeming with shops selling generators, compressors, engine parts, filing cabinets, and cheap guitars and stereos, not too far from soft-porn moviehouses and restaurants offering Chinese noodles and dumplings. You wouldn’t know it, but on one side of a hole-in-the wall along Commandante works one of the world’s most highly regarded craftsmen, known to his clients and admirers only as “Gerald Cha.”

Gerald repairs and restores typewriters—yes, those noisy machines your grandparents used to write letters and fill out forms with—catering to a small but fiercely dedicated community of typewriter collectors and users, not only in the Philippines but worldwide. He’s not alone—there are still many master repairmen out there who can make a 1912 Blickensderfer or a 1955 Smith Corona Silent Super work for you (check out Duane Jensen’s Phoenix Typewriter videos on YouTube, for instance)—but Gerald has acquired near-mythical status in the online community, as much perhaps for his skills as for his mystery.

As one member of our Antique Typewriter Collectors group puts it, “Gerald Cha was a quiet man. He lived among the pines in seclusion. His family and friends knew him as a gentle soul, but the typewriters feared his name. Legend has it that Gerald Cha once carried 16 desktop typewriters, using 8 fingers and 8 toes, crawling on his elbows and knees. He stood 5.6 meters tall, weighed 10 stone, and could throw a VW Beetle 270 feet. His shoes could hold 23 gallons of water, each. Gerald did not seek attention, but attention found him.”

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On the day that I and two other collector-friends—Toastmaster Dennis Pinpin and lawyer Javi Flores—visit Gerald at his shop, he’s poring over an 1880s Caligraph shipped in from the States. The Caligraph is a large, black Rube-Goldbergian contraption with a plethora of screws and bars. Like many early models, it’s an upstrike typewriter—meaning, the keys strike the platen (the rubber cylinder on which the paper is rolled) from under, instead of from the front, as in normal typewriters. In other words, you’re typing blind, not seeing what you wrote.

Gerald’s job is to see how everything hangs together, and to fabricate parts that no longer exist. He does this with the help of local artisans, including someone who custom-made the one-inch-wide ribbons used by the Caligraph (the standard size is half an inch). Most of the Caligraph’s key caps were gone, so he had to have a whole period-correct set of letters, numbers, and assorted characters printed out, along with the machine’s emblem—normally a decal, “but for now I’ll have to do with a sticker” that he had made. Gerald’s in the right place for any kind of copying—C. M. Recto Avenue, just around the corner, has a decades-old reputation, predating the Xerox, for being Manila’s Forgery Row, where you can order anything from a birth certificate to a diploma from the university of your choice.

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Our requests seem easy by comparison—Javi is having a ca. 1910 Oliver No. 5 restored, I need new rubber feet for my 1938 Royal O, and Dennis (he with the 90 typewriters) always has something or other for Gerald to mind. The man who attends to all these is no bearded guru, but a slightly built, soft-spoken guy in his early 40s. “Cha” is really his wife’s nickname. “There were too many other people with my name, so I had to find something different,” he says. Another signature is his impossibly weathered Nokia, as if to suggest how far behind the times he is, like his machines. But you can find him as “Gerald Cha” on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger, urged by the likes of Dennis to share his uncommon expertise not just with fellow Filipinos but with the world. He’s been online for only a few years, but in that short time he’s risen to legendary status among the typerati (yes, I just made up that word).

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Incredibly enough, he was born on the same street where he now works. “I was a helper in an office machines shop in my teens,” he explains as he looks over Javi’s Oliver. “That’s how I learned to do this. I never went to college because I was already earning good money!” That was then, of course, and while he still rules the roost, he’s had to make concessions to changing tastes to make ends meet. Aside from the tough specialist jobs he does for collectors, he refurbishes and repaints typewriters for an online outfit that sells the spiffed-up machines to millennials angling for a taste of vintage, including set and fashion designers looking for props. “They like their Olympias in hot pink.” His top sellers include chromed Royal QDLs and Olympia SMs.

Sadly, Gerald says, kids these days are more interested in computers, and no one will be taking over from him. “You can still find quite a few typewriter repairmen in Metro Manila,” Dennis tells me, “but Gerald is different. He loves his machines, loves to figure out how they work and how to get them back up to speed.”

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If you need Gerald, you can text him at 0916-7761268, landline 733-4896—unless you want to take an interesting trip out to 1691 Commandante Street, in the armpit of Manila.

 

Penman No. 346: Cubao’s Ephemeral Treasures

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Penman for Monday, March 25, 2018

 

MY RECENTLY renewed interest in rescuing old mechanical writing machines from oblivion and providing them shelter in my home (aka collecting typewriters) has led to me to some interesting sidestreets—you’ll read a story about Manila’s Typewriter Row here soon—but it also reminded me that sometimes the best finds lie in plain sight, if you know where to look.

For this Quezon City guy, that means Cubao, a district for which I’ve had a special affinity since the earliest days of the Araneta Coliseum and all throughout high school, when we played hooky to shoot billiards at the Fun Center and slurp noodles at Ma Mon Luk. In 1978, I found a pair of new-old-stock Parker Vacumatic fountain pens in a stall along Aurora Boulevard, triggering a lifelong passion. Fifteen years ago, Beng and I dragged a splendorously comfortable Schweiger sofa out of a Cubao resale shop, and we’re having it reupholstered again for its third incarnation. On Christmas Eve in 2017, I found and bought the oldest volume in my collection—an English book printed in 1551—from a seller in Cubao, who had received it from his mother working as a caregiver in Paris.

In other words, unlikely as it may seem, Cubao has always held wondrous things for me, quite apart from the sikad-sikad, the arosep, and the fresh tangingue in Farmer’s Market. A few weeks ago, I picked up two coveted Swiss-made 1960s typewriters—a Hermes 3000 and a Hermes Baby—from two different shops in Cubao Expo, that refreshingly downscale shopping zone which has managed to retain its old-school appeal and integrity. (Let’s give a shout out to the Grand Thrift House and the UVLA Store, both well worth the walk.)

Being in the neighborhood, I recalled reading a post somewhere that a corner of the now-venerable Ali Mall was now devoted to antiques and collectibles, so I crossed the street and paid it a visit, and was pleasantly surprised to discover a series of shops on the second floor selling everything from Beatles records and memorabilia to vintage pottery and Coke bottles.

No pens or typewriters for me this time, but my eyes wandered, in one shop, to stacks of old papers and documents. This is a class of collecting generally called “ephemera”—comprising, by one definition, documents, letters, booklets, brochures, pamphlets, billheads, ledgers, scrapbooks, photographs, and maps. You can’t collect old books, pens, and typewriters without running into ephemera, and I’ve picked up some choice pieces—including beautifully handwritten letters that date back to the 1500s and 1600s—to illustrate both the practice and the culture of writing, or what people wrote and how they wrote.

Ephemera, by the word itself, is inherently transient and easily lost—to trash bins, fires, and forgetfulness—but thankfully, there are quite a few other pack rats like me who save such things as Love Bus tickets and receipts from long-shuttered restaurants and hotels for no grander reason than to be reminded 40 years later of a fun evening (which I must have had on May 16, 1979, according to a receipt from a place called “For the Boys,” charging me P4.00 for food, P5.50 for cigarettes, and P48.50 for drinks).

I plowed through the piles of neatly wrapped papers and came away with a bundle that shows what’s out there—and perhaps just as interestingly, what’s in here, in that part of ourselves that responds with a clutch in the heart to words on a page. My takeaways—all for about P1,000, or a shirt at Uniqlo—included the following:

– A legal document dated June 10, 1897 and signed by Luis XXXX, Valeriana XXXX (I couldn’t decipher the signatures) and Satorneno Antolin, written in Ilocano. I don’t know Ilocano, but couldn’t resist the vivid purple ink. (My friend Frank Cimatu would later tweet from Baguio that it concerned a couple in Sta. Maria who were selling their plot of land which produced three cavans of rice.)

– A carbon copy of an exchange of letters from January 1929 between Senate President Manuel Quezon and Sen. Elpidio Quirino over the appointment of a Mr. Llanes. Quirino’s letter begins thus: “I owe you my most humble apology for having expressed myself too bluntly in my letter of 11th instant. God knows, and you know too, that I am not capable of insulting you, not for a thousand Llaneses and judgeships.” (I wonder how their modern counterparts write today.)

– A printed invitation to the 13th Annual Oratorical Contest of the UP College of Law on January 31, 1931, to be held (oddly enough) at the auditorium of the Philippine Normal School.

– An undated typescript, probably from the 1960s, of a storyline for a “Drama-Comedy-Musical” titled “Little Darling” by Johnny de Leon and Mario Mijares Lopez, about a provinciano named Ikeng who loved his carabao he called, yes, “Little Darling.” (Ikeng later becomes a famous broadcaster in Manila and forgets his pet, who never forgets him.)

Most poignantly, the trove also included a small book of autographs (a slam book, or in Pinoy usage, a “slum” book) once owned by Rosalina “Rely” L. Estrella, from the Provincial High School of Nueva Ecija, replete with good wishes ca. 1935. We learn from later entries that she was enrolled at the National Teachers College in 1940. And then the war comes, and we hear no more from or about “the Rose of Gapan.”

And so we are reminded of how open-ended the past often and truly is, instead of the closed book we imagine it to be. No wonder I keep coming back to it.

 

Penman No. 345: Sheening, Shimmering, Splendid

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Penman for Monday, March 18, 2019

 

I’VE BEEN writing in this column about the recent resurgence of fountain pens, a phenomenon well documented by mainstream, social, and business media like the BBC, the Chicago Tribune, and the Advertising Specialty Institute, which have noted that a whole new generation is turning on to the vintage vibe, of which pens are a part. That vibe, in turn, comes from the need—especially among the young—for more self-expression in an increasingly homogenized and digitized world.

There are few things more personal and more personalized than writing with a pen—and not just with any pen but a fountain pen. Ballpoints and rollerballs will yield the same F, M, or B line, with the same black or blue inks. But with fountain pens, you have a wide range of nibs—the writing point of pens—to produce different results and experiences, from extra-fine to triple-broad, from stiff and stingy to flexible and flowy. In the end, the pen you choose and use, both in terms of form and function, will be distinctly and distinctively you.

And it doesn’t stop with the pen itself, which is popular enough (on any given day, on eBay, you will find more than 100,000 fountain pens listed). To customize the writing experience further, you can now choose from hundreds of inks on the market, a sub-industry also re-energized by the fountain pen revival.

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We seniors will remember that, when we were growing up and working on our first jobs, we never had much of a choice in inks—it was either Parker Quink or Sheaffer Skrip (both of which are still being produced, by the way), in black or blue-black, and occasionally green, red, or royal blue. Pens and inks were meant for use at work, in school, and at home, not really to be enjoyed or collected, although some esoteric inks, like Sheaffer’s gorgeously vivid Persian Rose from the 1950s, are now regarded like rare fine wines.

With fountain pens becoming more of a lifestyle choice or fashion statement than everyday tools, inks have acquired designer status as well, and more than a dozen companies now manufacture and distribute their inks worldwide to cater to users looking for ever more unique swatches and signatures. Brands like Noodler’s, Diamine, Rohrer & Klingner, Akkerman, Private Reserve, J. Herbin, Iroshizuku, Organics Studio, de Atramentis, and Robert Oster compete with the more familiar in-house inks of major pen companies like Parker, Sheaffer, Montblanc, Pelikan, Waterman, Aurora, Pilot, and Sailor, among others.

Color is, of course, the most important determinant of choice. Fogies like me tend to stick to the old black, blue-black, and brown, but millennials prizing individuality won’t think twice about—and will even seek out—splashy hues and special effects. Where we just wanted our inks to be either washable or indelible, the new inks offer add-on qualities and properties previously unheard of. Two of those most popular features are sheen and shimmer—sheen (as in Robert Oster Fire and Ice) being the presence of more than one color in the same bottle of ink, with one color serving as the base and another as a shiny highlight, and shimmer (as in J. Herbin’s Rouge Hematite) being the addition of glittery metallic particles to the ink. These two can even be combined in some inks. The result will often be more art than penmanship, an enjoyment of colored ink almost for its own sake above anything else. (You’ll also note that ink names have gone far beyond “Permanent Blue” to something as flamboyant as Noodler’s purplish Black Swan in Australian Roses and J. Herbin’s orangey 1798 Cornaline d’Egypte.)

 

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It’s liberating, in a way, because people—especially young students and professionals who have yet to get their first Montblanc—can indulge themselves in ink-play without splurging on high-ticket pens. For a thousand pesos, you could get a fistful of entry-level pens (easily available on Lazada and Shopee, among other sources online, aside from local retailers like Scribe Writing Essentials, Pen Grafik, and NBS) and focus your spending on a menagerie of inks. Do note that milliliter for milliliter, a bottle of specialty ink could cost much more than an equivalent volume of quality wine or scotch.

Color aside, other factors come into play in ink selection. How “wet” or “dry” is the ink? Will it “feather” or “bleed through” on cheap paper? (Paper deserves its own column, being another key factor in the writing experience; happily, inexpensive but fountain-pen-friendly paper can be found in local bookstores). Even bottle design matters—you might buy Iroshizuku and Akkerman inks as much for their iconic bottles as for their contents.

The best news of all is that some pretty fantastic (and fantastically pretty) inks are now being made locally—designed, blended, manufactured, and distributed by Filipinos. Two brands in particular stand out: Troublemaker Inks (troublemakerinks.com), concocted by two young Cebu-based guys and bearing such names as Bantayan Turquoise and Luneta Twilight Pink, and Vinta Inks (inksbyvinta.com), launched just last week by Everything Calligraphy, in such varieties as Sandugo 1565 and Leyte 1944. “We hope to export our proudly Philippine-made inks soon,” says EC’s Jillian Joyce Tan.

And well we should. Pinoys love color, and short of carrying and wielding a brush, we can’t have more fun with color on paper than with these new inks—sheening, shimmering, splendid. (With many thanks to Chiyo-chan Sakamoto, Nicole Angelique Sanchez, Lorraine Marie Nepomuceno, and Troublemaker Inks for the images.)

 

 

 

Penman No. 344: Into the Typosphere

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Penman for Monday, March 11, 2019

 

THE LAST time I wrote in this corner about typewriters, back in mid-August last year, I had just four of these machines in my stable, and primly announced that I really wasn’t a typewriter collector—yet. Since then, for some strange reason only equally strange people can understand, that quartet has grown to about 17, by my latest count. They breed! I was actually happy to sell off one typewriter one morning last week—to free up space, I told myself—only to find and buy another one that same afternoon.

I’ve long acknowledged an addiction to old fountain pens, old books, and midcentury paintings—all of them jostling for accommodation and attention in my shrinking man-cave—but I’m still reluctant to face the fact that a taste for typewriters has been creeping up on me. (And if you think 17 is a lot, I have a lawyer-friend—who shall go unnamed for now—who has about 70; we have interesting conversations, having nothing to do with politics and everything to do with platens.)

As a writer with soft, warm feelings for the tools of his trade (aside from fountain pens, I also collected old Apple Macintosh laptops, about a dozen of which I finally gave away last month), I suppose it was only a matter of time before I returned to the machine on which, after all, I wrote my early stories, plays, and screenplays. I remember pecking away on a rusty Royal back in the 1970s, later replaced by my father-in-law’s battleship Olympia and then a handier Olympia Traveller that I ported with me to grad school in the US, to the amusement of my computer-savvy friends.

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But there are still hundreds if not thousands of people out there—you’ll find the most ardent dozens on the Antique Typewriter Collectors group online—who may never have written more than business letters and birthday greetings on their Remingtons and Underwoods, and yet hold on to them with the sometimes scary passion of the true believer.

Typewriter collectors and users—they call themselves “typospherians” just as pen collectors might respond to “stylophiles” when they’re feeling fancy—don’t necessarily eschew computers, and may even lament the absence of the @ sign on some keyboard layouts. But they’re fiercely protective of their “typers,” and no crime could be worse than the sacrilege committed by “keychoppers” who playfully pull out and convert old typewriter keys into something resembling jewelry.

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For the serious and practicing typist (in olden times, secretaries and clerks were themselves called “typewriters”), the allure of the clackety-clack is in the total concentration it forces upon you—with no screens or pop-up messages to distract you from the message or the novel you’re composing.

Just like car or watch or pen collectors, typospherians have their “holy grails” (you can find one such list here of the Ten Most Wanted), but short of the near-impossible to find, crowd favorites include the curvy Hermes 3000 in seafoam green, the iconic 1960s-pop Olivetti Valentine in red, and the 1920s foldable Corona 3, among other classics (and yes, I must sheepishly confess to having all three).

As with all collectibles, celebrity ownership helps (Sylvia Plath’s 1959 machine, on which she wrote The Bell Jar, sold a year ago at Bonham’s for £32,500, or over P2.2 million, while David Bowie’s Valentine sold at Sotheby’s in 2016 for £45,000), but it’s probably the least important factor in typewriter collecting, given that you can find near-mint examples at resale shops and garage sales in the US for well below $50, and online for below $200.

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Last August, I trotted out my 1922 Corona 3, my 1930s Royal O, my 1970s Olivetti Valentine, and my 1980s Olympia Traveller de Luxe. This week, let me introduce a new quartet—all but one of them, incredibly enough, local pickups either posted online or sold in such specialty places as Cubao Expo.

Let’s say hello to (clockwise in the pic) a Hermes 3000 from 1961, a Hermes Baby also from the 1960s still sporting its decal from the Manila Office Equipment Co., a 1950s Groma Kolibri from East Germany, with a Cyrillic keyboard (I don’t imagine writing any novels on this one), and a 1955 Smith Corona Silent Super (to add to the euphony, it’s super-smooth). I’m particularly elated by the Swiss-made Hermes 3000, finding just one of which—especially in this condition—could take years in this country; as luck would have it, I found two in great shape, at bargain prices, on the same day a couple of weeks ago (and passed one on to my lawyer-friend, at cost plus a nice bottle of shiraz or merlot, to celebrate the find). And sometimes it isn’t so much the machine itself but what it comes with that’s the surprise, like this fancy script I found on a 1970s Smith Corona Classic 12.

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I should add that one of the great gurus of the typewriting world, Gerald Cha, lives right here in Manila, and does amazing work restoring old machines coming from as far away as the US. Right now he’s working on an 1886 Caligraph—check him and his projects out on Instagram.

I do my own hunting, but if you’re craving a pink or fire-red Olympia right now, visit https://typewritersmanila.com. Quick, brown fox—jump over the lazy dog!

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 342: Have Beng, Will Travel

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Penman for Monday, February 18, 2019

 

MOST MILLENNIALS will probably miss the title’s reference to that 1960s TV show “Have Gun, Will Travel” starring Richard Boone as the soft-hearted gun-for-hire Paladin, but I’m happily appropriating it for this week’s piece on travel, given that summer is practically here and many of us are packing our bags for the year’s big sortie to parts unknown.

Global travel has become such a big part of the Filipino lifestyle that it’s changed our culture in all kinds of ways, from our food and fashion preferences to our outlook and attitudes. Of course we can’t forget that most Pinoys still travel for work—for back-breaking jobs far away from home and family—rather than for leisure.

Indeed my wife Beng and I were too poor when we got married 45 years ago to go anywhere farther than Baguio, and come to think of it I can’t even remember when we sat side by side on a plane for the first time to see a bit of the world together—it certainly wasn’t on our honeymoon, because we never had one. But we’ve since made up for lost time by traveling up a storm, especially since I made a vow a decade ago to bring Beng to every place I’d ever been, having had more opportunities to get around as a writer and academic. Except for Myanmar and Brunei, we’ve now been all over Southeast Asia, parts of Europe, Australia, and of course the US.

I was filling up our visa application forms for the UK a week ago—I love the UK, where Beng and I lived for almost a year in 1990-2000 when I was a writing fellow at Norwich, but Christ Almighty, their forms are a pain to fill up, being 12 pages long and asking for your travel history for the past 10 years. That’s when I realized that I’d traveled more than 50 times since 2009—most often in 2012, when I took nine trips, mainly to conferences.

I know people will ask, how could we afford all this on a professor’s salary? Well, more than half the time, it’s someone else paying when I’m invited to conferences (I pay Beng’s way, of course, when she tags along). Also, we’ve been empty nesters for the past ten years since our daughter Demi got married in California (another good reason to save up for a US visit every year). We never had much by way of savings, except for emergencies, because Beng and I decided long ago that money was better spent on having fun together now.

And when we travel on our own, it’s strictly on a budget—meaning boutique hotels, 7-11s, and local buses and subways all the way. I plan out our flights months in advance on Skyscanner.com.ph, and find our hotels on Booking.com. No room service, no Michelin restaurants, no High Street shopping, just museums, flea markets, and hawker stalls. That’s why I love traveling with Beng, because she’s easy, and between the two of us, I’m the picky one, in an odd way—she’s adventurous and will try anything, but I’m a creature of habit and insist on having my noodles and canned sardines, even in the middle of Europe.

Beng’s going to be a septuagenarian soon (though she doesn’t look 60, but for the white hair), but she still clambers up scaffoldings to restore huge murals (most recently a 36-foot-long one by Manansala owned by a big bank). I’m beginning to feel the aches of age and have to stop and even take short naps on our museum tours. But the fact that we’re seniors, and that we could be on canes and wheelchairs not too long from now, only intensifies our desire to go see places together while our knees and feet can take it.

Some young people going out on their first trips recently asked for travel tips on a forum, and this was what I shared with them from all those years of gallivanting. I may be an old guy, but I’ve been a big fan of digital travel since the world went online.

  • I take pictures of all important documents—passports, visas, prescriptions—and store them on my phone. I take pics as well of hotel addresses and vicinity maps, just in case I can’t make a live online connection.
  • I always carry a spare unlocked phone and buy a local SIM at the airport.
  • Since 1999, I’ve been using a free app called Metro (regularly updated) for using the subway or metro in any city I visit. Mastering the local transport system saves on Uber, Grab, and taxis.
  • I usually just withdraw cash from the local ATM and forget about money changers—there’s a surcharge, of course, but it’s safer, more convenient, and easier to track. At the end of a trip, I don’t convert foreign currency back to dollars or pesos, but keep it for my next trip. It’s always good to land with taxi fare in local money, and small bills for hotel staff. I always check Google about local tipping practices.
  •  I always take out travel insurance (online) for long trips. I’ve thankfully never had to use it, but you never know.
  • Like I mentioned earlier, I always look for cheap or good flights on Skyscanner.com.ph and book my hotels on Booking.com. Remember that in booking flights or hotels, cheapest doesn’t always mean the best bargain. Times and locations matter. That said, happy trails and safe travels!

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!