Penman No. 341: War and Remembrance

 

James_Scott_collage.jpegPenman for Monday, February 18, 2019

 

FOR FILIPINOS, February is or should be a month of remembering, beyond the commercial confections of Valentine’s Day.

For people somewhat younger than me, February should recall the euphoria of EDSA 1986, and the forced departure of a dictatorship. For myself, the month marks the anniversary of the 1971 Diliman Commune, when we barricaded the university in symbolic resistance to what soon became the martial-law regime. For my parents’ generation, however, February can only mean the closure of the War in 1945, culminating in the bloody Battle of Manila that may have crushed the Japanese but also left 100,000 Filipinos dead in the most horrible ways and Manila thoroughly devastated.

Having been born nearly a decade after that war, I can only look back on it with both relief and, I must confess, morbid fascination, that curious wondering about what I might have done—or even if I would have survived—had I gone through that ordeal. I’ve written plays about the war, read as many books as I could, and visited war memorials, but never seem to have come around to answering how and why war can bring out both the best and the worst in us, sadly more often the latter.

This was much on my mind last week when I attended a lecture at the Ayala Museum by the American author James M. Scott, who was in town to promote his newest book, Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita,  and the Battle of Manila(New York: W. W. Norton, 2018, 635 pp.). James had actually been introduced to me by email before his visit by mutual friends, so I was doubly interested in meeting the war historian, whose earlier book Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harborwas a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

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Before a packed crowd that included survivors of the war, James brought the audience back to a time when Manila was indeed the Pearl of the Orient and Asia’s most beautiful city, with wide, tree-lined boulevards and a cosmopolitan culture to complement its charms. The war would change all that, over a few dark years of death, suffering and famine. Despite putting up their bravest front, the city’s residents and the thousands of foreigners interned at Sto. Tomas were in desperate need of food, medicines, and, of course, freedom when the Americans—led by the famous but also famously flawed Gen. Douglas MacArthur—landed in Lingayen Gulf and rolled into Manila. In command of the Japanese defenders, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, the so-called Tiger of Malaya, had ordered Rear Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi to withdraw his forces—an order that Iwabuchi, a once-disgraced officer in need of redemption, had no intention of following (records would later show that the Japanese had made no plans for escape).

The stage was set for one of the most hard-fought and destructive battles of World War II. Instead of withdrawing, Iwabuchi directed his men to hold off the Americans with their guns, their swords, and if necessary their teeth. As the fight moved block by block south of the Pasig, the Japanese turned their retreat into wholesale slaughter; 200 Filipino men were beheaded in one house, women were raped scores of times at the Bayview Hotel, and babies were bayoneted; 41 victims were massacred in La Salle, many at the marble altar. Facing certain defeat, many Japanese committed ritual suicide—77 of them in one place over one night, with singing preceding the explosion of grenades. Iwabuchi slit his own belly. After 29 murderous days, the battle ended. Yamashita, who could have stopped his subordinate had he truly wanted to, was later tried and executed.

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More than 16,000 Japanese soldiers died in the battle, against only about 1,000 Americans. (Contrary to popular belief, Korean conscripts did not figure in the massacres, says Scott.) MacArthur would lament the loss of his family’s Civil War memorabilia and his son’s baby book in his Manila Hotel suite. But as Scott emphasizes, Filipino families paid the dearest price, with over 100,000 civilians dead in one month.

Drawing largely on first-person testimonies recorded soon after the events, the book is a searing account of the horrors of war; it was, says Scott, less a battlefield than a crime scene. A friend who read it told me she had to stop every once in a while to gather herself through her tears. The book takes note of subsequent judgments that the Americans bore as much responsibility for the destruction of Manila as did the Japanese, with their sustained bombardments of entrenched positions, but it’s the persistence of humanity—sustained by such organizations of war survivors as Memorare—that ultimately prevails.

Apart from many private acts of remorse, the Japanese government never formally apologized for their soldiers’ atrocities, and our own government’s recent removal of the comfort women’s statue shows how modern politics can obliterate the past better than a howitzer.

Such is the nature of today’s society—and of a generation obsessed with the present and the future—that many Filipinos can barely remember what happened five years ago, let alone 50, or 70. For some reason, our memories of conflict seem especially faint and fragile. Denial seems easier, revisionism even more attractive, so the despots who sent hundreds if not thousands to their graves and robbed us blind continue to live in mansions and be driven around in armored SUVs.

Meanwhile, we have James Scott’s anguished prose to ponder; I myself fear that if we disregard our liberties, the next Battle of Manila, we might inflict upon ourselves.

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. 333: An Academy of Our Own

DSC_9291.JPGPenman for Monday, December 24, 2018

 

EXACTLY A month ago, in the auditorium of the newest campus of the University of the Philippines at Bonifacio Global City, an event of great historical significance took place—the first general assembly and forum of the newly organized Akademyang Filipino, the first Philippine academy of arts, sciences, and the professions.

Conceived together by National Artist F. Sionil Jose and the late Sen. Edgardo J. Angara, the independent and non-partisan Akademyang Filipino was set up for three main goals:

“To recognize and bring together, in one chamber, the best of Filipino minds and spirits, accomplished representatives of the Filipino arts, sciences, and professions, imbued with love of country and the spirit of service to the nation;

“To uplift the material and moral lot of the Filipino people, to define, promote and defend the best interests of the Filipino nation, and to find and nurture new sources of hope and inspiration for the Filipino youth; and

“To provide a forum for the rational discussion of pressing issues and the exploration of pathways to a better future.”

In other places, such academies have had somewhat more focused roles. The venerable Academie française is devoted to being the authority on the French language; the Taiwan-based Academia Sinica covers a broad range of disciplines but supports advanced research.

In the United States, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is the collective name of the three honorific academies in those disciplines. Since its founding in 1863, these national academies have pledged “to marshal the energy and intellect of the nation’s critical thinkers to respond to policy challenges…. When faced with a complex question, we bring together experts from across disciplines to look at the evidence with fresh eyes and openness to insights from other fields. These study committees survey the landscape of relevant research, hold public meetings to gather information, and deliberate to reach consensus, which results in a shared understanding of what the evidence reveals and the best path forward.” Studies and advice by the National Academies have covered such diverse topics as fixing the Hubble telescope, preventing wrongful convictions, and preparing young Americans for careers in science and engineering.

This is probably closer to what the Akademyang Filipino aims for—to repeat, “a shared understanding of what the evidence reveals and the best path forward.”

In our first forum, Justice Carpio gave a masterful presentation of the history of China’s claims to Philippine territories in the West Philippine Sea, using ancient maps to prove—as a good lawyer might be expected to do—the paucity of those claims. A panel of Akademya members and West Philippine Sea experts—De La Salle University’s Renato Cruz de Castro, UP’s Jay Batongbacal, and author and columnist Richard Heydarian—discussed the current Philippine government stand on the disputes was and warned against a policy of appeasement and surrender.(The DFA was invited but apparently declined to send a representative to the forum.)

The Akademya’s 100-plus founding members—a roster that could grow as more names are vetted—were selected by an interim board composed of NA Frankie Jose, National Scientist Angel Alcala, former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, Sen. Sonny Angara, former Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr., Atty. Felipe Gozon, Dr. Lydia Echauz, Ms. Doris Magsaysay Ho, and myself. We also elected Justice Carpio Morales our chairperson, and NA Jose as Chairman Emeritus.

Some easily recognizable faces at the launch included former UP President Emerlinda Roman, former Education Sec. Armin Luistro, former Foreign Affairs Sec. Delia Albert, former National Historical Commission Chair Maris Diokno, former Prime Minister Cesar Virata, historian Dr. Ricky Soler, Mapua University President Rey Vea, businessman Jack Ng, novelist Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, sculptor Toym Imao, and Anvil Publishing chief Andrea Pasion-Flores.

A smaller group had met less formally for the first time in February last year, when Sen. Ed Angara was still around and very much involved in getting the academy off the ground alongside NA Frankie Jose. It still called itself the “Academia Filipina” then, but later changed its name in deference to an existing Academia Filipina de la Lengua Española.

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This was the first but certainly not the last of our forums, and we intend to have several of these large assembly-type meetings every year for issues of great and general significance, concerning not just politics and business but also science and the arts. We need to create new interdisciplinary points of intersection and interaction. Our artists and scientists hardly ever get heard by our policy makers. With all due respect to the lawyers and the businessmen, they too might benefit from the insights of these other disciplines, so that we do not get mired in the kind of cynical pragmatism that drives too many of our decisions today, and remember to value such abstractions as beauty and logic.

The dues we collect will help support a very small back room and also our future activities. Sponsorships are of course needed and welcome, for so long as they do not compromise the independence of our association.

On that note I would like to thank, once again, aside from our speakers, our sponsors for the Akademyang Filipino event, including the UP College of Law, whose Dean, Fides Cordero-Tan, also happens to be the Executive Director of UP-BGC. I’d also like to thank the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Sen. Jun Magsaysay, and other donors who prefer to remain anonymous for their assistance. My special thanks go to our Executive Director, Ms. Jette Jose Bergkamp, and my UP team from the Padayon Public Service Office and the Media and Public Relations Office.

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. 329: Focus on the Intangible

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Penman for Monday, November 26, 2018

 

THIS TOOK place last month, but it can’t be too late to congratulate the University of the Philippine Visayas for organizing and hosting the 2ndInternational Conference on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Iloilo City last October 25-26. This gathering brought together participants from all over the country and from around the world to focus on an aspect of our cultural, social, and even economic life that we literally don’t see—our intangible heritage, meaning our beliefs, customs, and practices that form a deep spiritual and intellectual resource that we should be tapping into, but have neglected in favor of Facebook and such other attractions of this digital age.

One paper, for example, by Sashah B. Dioso of the Center for West Visayan Studies of UP Visayas, dealt with the role of indigenous beliefs in resource conservation and sustainability in Pandan, Antique. The paper cites how an old man was walking home one day when it suddenly rained. He then “cut two banana leaves to serve as umbrellas for both of them. The latter was heard speaking to the banana that he needed the leaves for them not to get wet and then thanking the plant including ‘kon sin-o man ang rugyan’ or whoever was there (referring to the taglugar). In that situation, the value given to a plant and the respect accorded to the taglugar were evident.

In general, the indigenous beliefs discussed contribute to the communities’ collective sense of protecting their environment and helping sustain natural resources. The practices mentioned share a common characteristic which is to use natural resources and the environment sustainably. Failure to observe due care in using natural resources may earn the ire of the spirits dwelling in the environment. The taglugar, considered guardians of the environment, are portrayed by these beliefs as active protectors of the environment that constantly watch and give the due punishment to transgressors (while also giving) rewards to people who use natural resources in a manner that is acceptable to the spirits (in terms of) a good catch and bountiful harvest.”

There were dozens of these fascinating reports and presentations on offer at Pagtib-ong (Hiligaynon for “to lift up”), and I was sorry that I couldn’t stay for the two full days, after giving a brief talk at the opening.

I had the privilege of attending the first conference last year and found it extremely informative, provocative, disturbing in some ways at it should be, but also giving reason for hope, in that we clearly have not forgotten the importance of those parts of our cultures and societies—parts far removed from the limelight of entertainment and social media—that define who we are.

Those engaged in ICH know that the life of a cultural scholar and researcher can be a very lonely, thankless, and sometimes even dangerous one. They sometimes wonder if their hard work matters to anyone else, or if it will bring real change to people’s lives. They forego more lucrative pursuits chasing after obscure languages and songs that will never make the Top Ten, or even the Top 1,000. The agencies they apply to for funding ask if their work has any practical economic benefits.

This conference was a welcome and warm reminder that they were not alone, that they all belonged to a community of people who understand, almost intuitively, what many others choose to ignore.

Studies like theirs go into the nerves and the bones—indeed, the DNA—of our culture, of what holds us together as peoples deep beneath the skin. The intangible heritage they are retrieving and preserving is an invaluable resource that we can all draw upon in our respective countries and communities around the ASEAN regionNo one else can do this but universities like UP and UPV, and their counterparts around the region, and scholars and cultural workers who believe fervently in needs other than the physical and the economic, those immediately tangible and measurable bottomline concerns that governments and administrations typically prefer to support.

But there is a cultural bottomline as well that we have barely plumbed, that very few people seem to be interested in, forgetting the fact that many of our national and regional problems are cultural in nature, stemming from our ignorance of who our people truly are and what they truly need and want.

This conference happened at a time when truth and human rights have been devalued all around the world. The delegates met in the face of a creeping train of anti-intellectualism, of suspicion and outright hostility towards teachers, students, and universities who dare to speak to power and to challenge falsehood.

This was all the more reason for ICH workers to persevere in what they do—in recovering the threads of our nationhood and weaving them into a coherent narrative that not even the fractiousness of our politics today can tear asunder.

 

Penman No. 328: Writers for Peace

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Penman for Monday, 19 November 2018

 

TO FOLLOW through on my initial report last week on the 2ndAsian Literature Festival in Gwangju, South Korea from November 6 to 9, it was an exhilarating and enlightening experience to be among fellow Asian writers getting together to wield literature as a weapon of peace.

I’ve been to many international literary festivals and conferences, but inevitably these gatherings—even those held in Asia—have tended to focus on Western writers and their concerns. For a while back there, the Man Asian Literary Awards, which culminated in a gala ceremony in Hong Kong, drew some special attention to contemporary Asian writing, but that fledgling effort folded up too soon. The Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which will be holding its annual conference in Australia a few weeks from now, is arguably the region’s largest and most active literary network, but with so many topics on offer and so many attendees, it’s hard to keep your eyes and minds on one thing at any one time.

The Gwangju meeting felt just right, bringing together 11 writers from outside Korea to meet and interact with about the same number of their Korean counterparts. I was privileged to be the first Filipino to be invited to this young festival, which was headlined last year by 1986 Nobel Prizewinner Wole Soyinka. This year, the prolific and immensely talented Chinese novelist Yan Lianke, winner of the Franz Kafka Prize, led the delegates, who also included the Mongolian poet Damdinsuren Uriankhai, the first winner of the Asian Literature Award, which is given out at the festival.

Why Korea? Because—even as it globally exports kimchi, Koreanovelas, cellphones, and K-Pop—Korea (at least the southern part of it) is seeking to strengthen its cultural connections to the world at large, by exposing its people to cultural and literary movements from the outside, especially from beyond the Eurocentric zone. Among the key agents of this pivot is the publisher and editor Kim Jae-yong, a professor of modern Korean literature and world literature at Wonkwang University in Iksan, supported by the likes of Prof. Sohn Sukjoo from Dong-a University in Busan. Last year, it was also Prof. Kim and Prof. Sohn who brought another group of writers, including myself, to Jeju to discuss how our literatures were emerging out of the Western shadow.

The Gwangju event was less a conference than an intense but still festive sharing of experiences and responses to the many threats to peace, freedom, and justice around the world today, especially in Asia. As the festival chair Prof. Paik Nak-chung put it, “Particularly, 2018 is a special year when the journey towards denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula began as the leaders of the two Koreas met in Panmunjom and in Pyongyang. The festival urges Asian writers to carry on the spirit of peace on the Korean Peninsula to sublimate Asia’s wounds through literature.”

Writers, of course, are neither politicians nor diplomats (despite Shelley’s generous attribution of poets as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world”). Much of what we write inevitably has political content and intent, but governments don’t listen to writers (and would, in fact, shut down the teaching of language and literature as superfluities, like our magistrates did last week). We agreed, therefore, that our approach has to be direct to our peoples and audiences, to resensitize them to their humanity; freedom and justice are prerequisites to any kind of real and lasting peace, and these in turn are premised on the worth of the individual, which literature can help establish.

It was a great honor to share the company of the likes of Bao Ninh, a Vietnamese novelist who had fought the Americans during the war and had once found just himself and a comrade left alive in their platoon after a bloody encounter. His novel Sorrows of War is a poignant reflection on the fruitlessness of war, and the man’s quiet but fervent advocacy persuaded us (with me as one of the jurors) to award him the Asian Literature Award for this year. Another writer I got along very well with was the Taiwanese novelist Syaman Rapongan, a champion of his Tao tribe from Taiwan’s Orchid Island, who gave up a professorship in anthropology to pursue his true passions, writing and seafaring; “The ocean is a poem we cannot recite to the end,” one of his works memorably begins. The bestselling Korean novelist Sim Yungkyung, a molecular biologist by training, also became a good friend, and with our very capable guide Ms. Kim Hye Ji, my wife Beng and I saw the best of Korean culture and hospitality that week.

Not incidentally, the Asian Literature Festival was organized and sponsored by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s impressive Asian Culture Center (ACC), which should be a model for other countries to emulate. But the best service of festivals like this is to remind writers—especially writers of conscience—that as solitary and sometimes as disheartening as their work can be, they are not alone, and are appreciated.

Penman No. 327: More than Memorials

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Penman for Monday, 12 November 2018

 

I WAS in Gwangju, South Korea last week to participate in the 2nd Asian Literature Festival, a new, Korea-based gathering of writers from across the continent aimed specifically at promoting peace through literature, with dozens of delegates from as far as Palestine attending. Initiated and supported by Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism through Gwangju’s Asia Culture Center (ACC), the festival draws its strength from Gwangju’s historic role in keeping Korean democracy alive.

I’ll share more impressions about the literary part of the festival next week, but as this was being written just as the festival opened, I’d like to dwell for a moment on our first formal activity there, which set the tone for the whole week.

Korea’s sixth largest city, Gwangju is about 300 kilometers south of Seoul, an hour and a half away by high-speed train. Known for its cuisine, Gwangju (the name means “city of light”) is also an important cultural center in Korea. It came to global prominence in May 1980, when the city’s people rebelled against the newly installed government of Chun Doo-hwan, who had led a military coup just months before, and who imposed nationwide martial law on May 17, closing down universities, muzzling the press, and arresting critics like future President Kim Dae-jung. (Does any of this sound familiar to us Filipinos?)

Among others in other regions, Gwangju’s citizens rose up against the strongman, as they did against the Japanese. In response, over nine days starting on May 18, the military undertook a brutal campaign of suppression against what came to be known as the Gwangju Uprising, leading to the deaths of hundreds of civilians branded as communists by the government. In 1987, a memorial cemetery was set up to honor the city’s freedom martyrs, and subsequent governments have made amends to these victims and their families.

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Not surprisingly, therefore, and before anything else, the visiting writers were brought by their hosts to this cemetery, Mangwol-dong, for everyone to pay their respects not just to the dead, but also to the spirit of peace that their sacrifice engendered. The cemetery at Mangwol-dong is set in a poignantly serene landscape, resplendent in autumnal colors when we visited. A tall monument rises up to the sky, overlooking hundreds of graves, each marked when possible by a picture of the lost one—a poet here, a garbage collector there, a teacher, a student.

I’ve visited many war memorials in America and elsewhere, and have found them no less sad and moving. But almost invariably they honor the fallen soldiers, rather than the civilian casualties. Korea does it differently.

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Last year, I visited another memorial as well, on the island of Jeju, where thousands of civilians were massacred by government troops on April 3, 1948. Jeju’s memorial to those victims—with its harrowing exhibits but also its emphasis on finding peace and justice in our time—offers, like Gwangju’s, another model for our own martial law museum. While it will not have the same space and breadth of sky in its projected site in Diliman, our memorial should not only be able to provoke horror, but also hope amidst the sorrow, hope that can only materialize through sustained struggle. Beyond memorials, South Korea has ingrained democratic values in its citizens, regardless of their Presidents.

As Dr. Roslyn Russell, chair of the International Committee of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, put it, “Unlike the piecemeal attempts to redress past histories of violence and crimes against humanity committed by the government that have been seen in South America and South Africa, the objectives of liquidation of the past—including ‘investigation,’ ‘punishment of those involved in the repression of the uprising,’ ‘recovery of honor,’ ‘compensation for the victims’ and ‘efforts to commemorate it’—were achieved in Gwangju. The May 18 Democratic Uprising played a key role in the democratization of Korea, and influenced the end of the Cold War and the spread of democracy in East Asia…. Pro-democracy movements occurred in the Philippines, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and other countries following in Korea’s footsteps.”

The Koreans know how to jail their misbehaving Presidents—and to keep them there, instead of springing them free after a few years. They’ve also shown that economic progress doesn’t have to come at the cost of democracy and human rights, as many Filipinos enamored of strongman rule love to claim, albeit with little material benefit to show for the surrender of their souls and minds. Koreans value and enjoy their prosperity, but they also remain vigilant against corruption by their corporate giants and government leaders. In 2016-2017, Korea’s Candlelight Revolution mobilized 17 million candle-bearing citizens to peacefully depose another untenable regime.

A statement was flashed onscreen during one of our sessions: “What we must fear is not pain as such but allowing pain to close our mouths.” That’s courage I seem to remember we once had, and could yet recover.

Penman No. 325: Free to Think, Free to Speak

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Penman for Monday, October 29, 2018

 

I’VE BEEN seeing frothy messages on the Internet calling for the University of the Philippines to be shut down because it seems to be producing nothing more than anti-government critics and rebels (and, uhm, five out the seven new National Artists announced last week).

It’s no big secret that rebellion and resistance are coded into UP’s DNA, because it has always encouraged critical thinking, which in turn encourages—at least for a while, until complacency sets in—an attitude of dissent, of anti-authoritarianism, of rejection of the status quo. That’s how knowledge happens, as every scientist since Galileo has affirmed. Learning to lead requires critical thinking; learning to follow demands nothing more than blind conformity.

Apply that to the political sphere, and not surprisingly, UP has for the past century been a crucible of protest, against both internal and external forces seeking to influence its constituents’ thoughts and actions. Those protests and their causes have ranged from tuition fees, uniforms, and substandard facilities to unfair dismissals, Malacañang interference, foreign control of our destiny, and the overhaul of Philippine society itself.

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In 1928, a law prescribed the wearing of uniforms by students in all public schools, including UP. The uniform for men was a white suit (khaki on rainy days); for women, a white blouse and dress reaching three inches below the knees. UP students opposed the measure, and President Rafael Palma supported them.

In 1933, the first student protest against a tuition fee increase, from P30 to P50 per semester, took place at the College of Education in the form of a boycott led by, among others, Fe Palma—the daughter of the President.

The resistance got more serious when it came to political interference in UP affairs. In the early ‘30s, in a tussle over differing positions on Philippine independence, then Senate President Manuel Quezon punished Palma—and the entire University—by removing UP’s lump-sum allotment. Quezon was a notorious meddler in UP matters, often coming to Padre Faura from Malacañang when he was President astride a white horse. A young UP law student even attacked Quezon for his “frivolity,” accusing Quezon of throwing lavish parties in Malacañang while the country suffered under the Americans. The student’s name was Ferdinand Marcos.

This didn’t stop with Quezon. When President Quirino demanded courtesy resignations from all government officials, UP President Bienvenido Gonzalez refused to tender his, to protect UP’s autonomy.

In the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, the Congressional Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities conducted a witch-hunt for communists in UP; the committee was led by Cong. Leonardo Perez, himself a former Collegianeditor. A throng of 3,000 students led by Heherson Alvarez and Reynato Puno marched to Congress in protest.

Diosdado Macapagal made few friends in UP when, upon assuming office in 1962, he announced that his choice for next UP President was Carlos P. Romulo, practically bypassing the Board of Regents. Macapagal got his way.

About Macapagal’s successor Marcos, I can only say that as a 17-year-old participant in the Diliman Commune, I carried but never got to throw a Molotov cocktail—but I would have if I had to, firm in the belief that the military had no right to drive their armored vehicles onto UP grounds.

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True, since the 1940s, many of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines have come from UP, from the fascinating Lava brothers to the English major Joma Sison. But UP has also bred Presidents Laurel, Roxas, Macapagal, Marcos, and Macapagal-Arroyo. Ramon Magsaysay and Fidel Ramos both spent time in UP before moving elsewhere. We can add hundreds of senators, congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet secretaries, and icons of industry, the arts, the sciences and the professions to this list.

In other words, UP has attracted all kinds—communists and socialists, yes, but also capitalists, ultraconservative Catholics and born-again Christians, Rizalist cultists, military agents, the Ananda Marga, and Muslim separatists. Our 300,000 alumni can count saints as well as scoundrels, Jedi Masters and Sith Lords, democrats and demagogues.

And the same thing can be said of top global universities like Cambridge, which in the 1930s was home to what came to be known as the “Cambridge Five,” led by the top Soviet spy Kim Philby. There’s a Communist Party of Canada Club at the University of Toronto, alongside an American Culture Club and a Chinese Christian Fellowship. Even Wharton has a Marx Café, an underground club of Marxist enthusiasts.

When you think about it, apprehensions about UP in 2018 are no more tenable than the charges laid against freethinkers on campus back in the 1940s. And we actually do a lot more than rebel—look into our breakthroughs in research on www.up.edu.ph, which has helped boost our ranking to the top of Philippine universities.

For me, the true heart of UP lies neither in the Right nor the Left, but in that great liberal middle—“liberal” with a small “L”—whose members value the freedom to think, to speak, to study, and to teach, subscribing neither to State propaganda nor to Party doctrine, but trusting their own reason and education to illumine the way forward.

In its editorial of April 14, 1962, the Philippine Collegian wrote this about outgoing President Vicente Sinco, a visionary who fathered what came to be known as the General Education program and who fought to maintain UP’s secular character:

“Dr. Sinco is one of the most liberal of UP presidents. He has stood for intellectual freedom, for the autonomy of the mind…. This particular achievement of Dr. Sinco in… protecting the freedom of intelligence from the infringements of lies, orthodoxy, and mediocrity is a challenge to anyone in the future who will occupy the office.”

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Penman No. 324: Where Have All the Great Minds Gone?

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Penman for Monday, October 22, 2018

 

I’M TAKING stock of my latest acquisition of old books and magazines, delivered to my office by a seller who seems to have hit upon a trove of scholarly materials from the 1950s and 1960s, very likely from the estate of one or two of that period’s leading academics.

They include copies of the Diliman Review, a prominent journal of the University of the Philippines since the early 1950s; the University College Journal, from the early 1960s when UP still had a University College in charge of implementing its General Education Program for the student’s first two years; the Philippine Social Sciences and Humanities Review, established in 1929; and Comment, a liberal quarterly from the late 1950s. There’s a special issue of the Philippine Collegian from 1957 devoted solely to the topic of academic freedom. A unique bonus is a copy of the Golden Jubilee issue of the Diliman Review from 1958—UP’s 50th anniversary—a handsome hardbound volume I didn’t even know existed.

As I leaf through the yellowing pages of these journals, a troubling thought looms increasingly larger in my head: Where have all the great minds gone? Indeed, where have all the great debates and discourses gone?

In an age of short attention spans, dominated by tweets, where “likes” and “retweets” have taken the place of scientific verification, there seems to be little room for these ponderous journals and the topics they embrace, whose complexities our times would demand to be reduced to ten-word “hugot” lines or 280-character tweets.

A cursory scan of the contents of these journals and their authors reveals the prevailing anxieties and ambitions of half a century ago: “The Chinese Exclusion Policy in the Philippines,” by Tomas S. Fonacier, PSSHR, March 1949); “The Scientist as Filipino,” by Federico Mangahas (Comment, 1957); “The Filipino Struggle for Intellectual Freedom,” by Leopoldo Y. Yabes (Collegian, 1957); “A Republic Within the Republic,” by Salvador P. Lopez (Collegian, 1957); “A Portrait of the Filipino Composer as Artist,” by Ester Samonte-Madrid (DR, 1958); “On Contemplating a Life: The Study of Biography,” by Nieves B. Epistola (UCL, 1961-62); and “Imagination in History,” by Teodoro A. Agoncillo (DR, January 1965).

What’s interesting is that we’re not just talking about ourselves, to ourselves. A man summarily described in the notes as “a Japanese fiction writer,” Yasunari Kawabata—the Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1968—contributes a short story, “The Moon in the Water,” to the 1958 DR issue. The foreign scholars Ernest J. Frei and Francis X. Lynch, SJ essay the development of the Philippine national language and the Bikol belief in the asuwang, respectively. The legendary Ricardo R. Pascual dissects Bertrand Russell, Marinella Reyes-Castillo takes on Andre Malraux, and Juan R. Francisco—later to become an Indologist—explains the philosophy of Mo Tzu. And displaying what it takes to be a true intellectual, Agustin Rodolfo, a professor of Zoology, writes about “Rizal as Propagandist” and “The Sectarian University.”

I see that even government bureaucrats then were expected to be literate and to be able to articulate their policies beyond press releases and interviews. The 1958 DRissue includes essays by Amando Dalisay, then Undersecretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, on “Economic Controls and the Central Bank” and by Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong on “The Need for Economic Statesmanship.”

I wonder how many of these names will still resonate with Filipinos below 40, even within UP itself. I’m guessing that “Agoncillo” might trigger a vague notion of nationalist history, but that will likely be it, which means that we have lost our sense of an intellectual history and of the traditions that colored it—say of the great debates between the University and the State on the issue of academic freedom—and of our sense of quality or even greatness of mind, and what it takes to achieve that standard. Sadly, our academics today are too often trapped in theoretical jargon, in Party doctrine, and in self-obsessed mewling to make truly insightful, original, and meaningful contributions to national discourse.

As I contemplate retirement three months hence, these books and journals remind and make me proud of UP’s past and hopeful for its future, if it doesn’t forget its basic mission as a producer not just of smart employees but of new and bold ideas.

Where are these minds today, and especially, where are they in government—in the Senate and Congress, let alone the Palace—where they should matter most? In an essay for the University College Journal (First Semester 1963-64) titled “The Filipino Scholar,” the late Prof. Leopoldo Y. Yabes—himself no mean scholar of literature and the humanities—complains that government has been taken over by mediocrities:

“It is quite disheartening to see the spectacle of puny, warped minds having anything to do with administration and direction of intellectual activity on the local and national scenes, of unemancipated minds exercising power over other minds more liberated and definitely superior to them, of parochial intellects charged with the solution of problems beyond their ken and pretensions. Their scholarly prestige seems to be built not on the basis of actual meritorious achievement but by means of press release and other mass communications media.”

I turn my TV on to witness the gaudy train of senatorial hopefuls, many bringing little to the table but their showbiz ratings and their connections to power. I turn the TV off and reach for my books.

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 322: The Fair Filipina

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Penman for Monday, October 8, 2018

 

I’M ALWAYS intrigued—sometimes enthralled, sometimes amused, sometimes annoyed—by the descriptions I come across in my old books of Filipinos seen through the eyes of foreigners. Jose Rizal, of course, had the same interest, and painstakingly annotated Antonio Morga’s 1609 Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, correcting what he thought Morga hadn’t quite understood. (There’s that famous reference to “stinking fish,” which Rizal points out is just bagoong.)

Thousands of books have since been written by visitors to the Philippines since Morga, and overwhelmingly they’ve been authored by white men. As the American period opens, we begin to see accounts such as those written by Mary Fee (A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines, 1910). But by and large, we encounter what some might call the colonial male gaze, particularly as applied to Filipino women.

One of the earliest accounts I’ve come across in my library is that of Paul P. de la Gironiere, whose Twenty Years in the Philippines (1853) is a long (and some say fanciful) adventure story, with the author as hero, in the romantic mode of the period. His description of the mestiza is very finely detailed:

“In fine, if Binondoc be exclusively the city of pleasure, luxury, and activity, it is also that of amorous intrigues and gallant adventures. In the evening, Spaniards, English, and French, go to the promenades to ogle the beautiful and facile half-breed women, whose transparent robes reveal their splendid figures. That which distinguishes the female half-breeds (Spanish-Tagals, or Chinese-Tagals) is a singularly intelligent and expressive physiognomy. Their hair, drawn back from the face, and sustained by long golden pins, is of marvellous luxuriance. They wear upon the head a kerchief, transparent like a veil, made of the pine fibre, finer than our finest cambric; the neck is ornamented by a string of large coral beads, fastened by a gold medallion. A transparent chemisette, of the same stuff as the head-dress, descends as far as the waist, covering, but not concealing, a bosom that has never been imprisoned in stays. Below, and two or three inches from the edge of the chemisette, is attached a variously coloured petticoat of very bright hues. Over this garment, a large and costly silk sash closely encircles and shows its outline from the waist to the knee. The small and white feet, always naked, are thrust into embroidered slippers, which cover but the extremities. Nothing can be more charming, coquettish, and fascinating, than this costume, which excites in the highest degree the admiration of strangers. The half-breed and Chinese Tagals know so well the effect it produces on the Europeans, that nothing would induce them to alter it.”

Alfred Marche, whoseVoyage aux Philippines(1887) contains some of the loveliest engravings of local scenes, including one of an unmistakably Filipina beauty, observed (in French) that “The Bella Filipina is one of their favorite tunes, which celebrates the grace, the beauty of Filipina women, señoras  whose type is more or less vague and floating, because there has been a lot of mixing in this corner of the earth.”

Frank G. Carpenter was one of those globetrotters whose journalistic dispatches popularized geography, and he wrote this in his book Through the Philippines and Hawaii (1926) about an evening in a Manila theater, under the heading “The Fair Filipina”:

“All the seats are full, and there are perhaps five hundred dark-skinned people dressed in their best in the boxes and pit. On all sides of us there are Philippine girls and women of every condition and age. Look for an instant at this girl at my side. I pretend to take notes of the play as I write this description, and since it is safe to say that the little lady cannot read my scrawl, she will not object. What a pretty creature she is ! If she were white you would call her a daisy, but as she is brown the name “tiger lily” will fit her much better. She is a plump little thing, with liquid black eyes and a skin as soft and smooth as cream. Her luxuriant black hair is put up in a great knot just back of her crown, and held there by a comb of gold set with rhinestones. Sneak a look out of the tail of your eye at her small brown ears, with the big rings in their lobes, and at the same time notice that gold chain wound round her neck. Maybe you have thought of Filipinas as dirty, ragged, and poor. This one, at least, must be well-to-do, and there are scores just like her all over the house.

“How well the black gauzy dress shows off the beauty of her neck. Her costume consists of a low-cut jacket, with great bell-like elbow sleeves standing out from the arms. Her embroidered undergown also is cut low. About her bare shoulders is pinned a kind of kerchief. I say her shoulders are bare, for the kerchief and jacket are of such sheer stuff that through the meshes you can see the plump, dimpled shoulders and arms. I venture you never saw so many beautiful arms and necks at one time.”

Shall we be enthralled, amused, or annoyed? You be the judge.

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