Penman No. 314: Sourcing the Pinoy Crowd

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Penman for Monday, August 6, 2018

 

ART CRITICS often like to write about the Pinoy penchant to fill up vacant spaces—our horror vacui, evident in everything from our front yards to our jeepneys and desktops. And when there’s nothing to fill up a nice big void like an empty hall or open street with, heck, we fill them up with our own bodies, to form a healthy crowd.

We Pinoys usually don’t think too much about being caught in a crush at the LRT, the ballgame, or the rally. Indeed, students of crowd psychology will point out that while they may be uncomfortable, crowds can also generate positive synergies, and that even in the most seemingly unruly mob, an inner logic eventually emerges and prevails.

But we also know that crowds can turn ugly and deadly pretty quickly, as the stampedes that every and then convulse English football show. Even much less than that, there’s nothing funny about people fainting in a queue or in a surging mass of bodies desperate for one thing, whether it’s a glance from a rock star or a little slip of paper that could be a ticket to a first-rate college education.

All this was on my mind last Monday as I dealt with one of my busiest days as a school administrator at the University of the Philippines, where an estimated 40,000 people converged at the Office of Admissions in Diliman in one day to submit their applications to take the UPCAT, UP’s entrance exam, in mid-September. To wrap your head around that figure, Diliman has 25,000 students on a normal day. But my guess is that at least half of those 40,000 were anxious parents taking a day off from work to accompany their kids.

It was actually the extended deadline for students of private high schools in Metro Manila (not public as erroneously reported—a lot of fake or unverified news went out that day and after, and a woman presenting herself as a network news reporter even urged the crowd to chant for an extension as her camera rolled). As a torrent of tweets soon reported, the lines kept growing longer, tempers flared, and panic seized more than a few people in the area. The media calls came soon after, and—as UP’s equivalent of, uhm, Harry Roque—I spent the rest of the day and part of the evening fielding questions.

Did we expect the size of the crowd? Well, yes and no. The surge in applications was unprecedented—in years past, we’d get something like 80,000 applications; last year it was 103,000, and this year, our estimate runs to about 167,000. What accounted for the sudden bulge? Free tuition, for one, and K-12, for another. (The actual number of qualified exam takers could be about 20 percent less, and the admission rate—those who “pass,” although there’s no fixed passing grade—about 17 percent of all takers, which is a function of UP’s carrying capacity.)

We did see that coming, but I guess what we didn’t anticipate was how many students (and/or parents) would choose to appear and line up in person, rather than avail themselves of other less stressful options clearly stated on the application webpage—to submit applications online, or by mail or courier, or in bulk with the help of their school. (UP provided the extra option of a drop box when it saw how large the crowd was.) That was probably because queuing up guaranteed—if all your papers were in order—a test permit at the end of the line. But that also meant that the line could take all day.

So we Pinoys are seguristas, willing to sacrifice comfort for the certitude of paper in hand. We still mistrust electronic processing, and can’t wait a couple of weeks to know our fate. I went onsite to see for myself what was going on, and was told by one exasperated guard that “They won’t listen! There’s a drop box right there, and we’ve told them they can courier the forms, but they’d rather line up for hours!”

You’d also have to wonder why Pinoys like to wait for deadlines to do the inevitable; July 30 was already an extension from July 27, and applications had been open for three weeks. But to be fair to the students and their parents, it wasn’t entirely their fault to have waited so late in the day to submit their papers. Some told me that their high schools had held their papers up; some were charging rather stiff fees for handling UPCAT forms.

And was there a class factor at play? When the turn of the public high school applicants came, the huge crowds dwindled, and the lines got shorter—and far fewer parents appeared, because they probably couldn’t afford a day off, or trusted their children to fend for themselves. Things moved more smoothly.

There are lessons for everyone to be learned here—by the students, by the parents, and by us, most of all—and we’ll continue seeking ways to ease procedures for everyone in the years ahead. Eventually, I foresee a time when all submissions will be made online, like visa applications—something we can’t enforce until every Filipino has access to the Internet, and overcomes his or her mistrust of information technology. Until then, we’ll all have to learn better crowd management, provide lots of water and Portalets, exercise patience, take the media brickbats, and soldier on.

Maybe this was a crowd that didn’t really need to be there, but on the other hand, and to put it positively, it was a stark visual reminder of the intensity of our people’s aspirations for a good college education. The best way to disperse it long-term would be to meet those needs, in UP and beyond.

Penman No. 313: A Life-Affirming Mission

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Penman for Monday, July 30, 2018

 

TWO SUNDAYS ago, I had the privilege of serving as commencement speaker before the 2018 graduating class of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. You’d have to ask them why they chose to invite a writer and professor of English to speak to a corps of medical professionals, but I was happy to accept. It was likely the last time I would wear my sablay as a UP official, as I will be retiring six months hence after 35 years of service to the university. So this, too, was my valedictory, my final opportunity to share with the audience some insights gleaned from my life in UP as student, teacher, and administrator.

Here’s a brief excerpt, about a third, from that talk. Email me if you want a copy of the full text.

Thirty-six years ago, as a young and aspiring writer, I wrote a story about a doctor. The story was set in the Philippine Revolutionary War, and it dealt with an old, cynical doctor named Ferrariz who had made a mess of his life and, seeing few other options, had signed up to become a doctor with the Spanish army, fighting the Filipino insurgents up in the mountains. His unit is taking heavy losses, but one day they capture a rebel—a fifteen-year-old boy named Makaraig, who is badly wounded. Ferrariz’s superior, a major, orders Ferrariz to save the boy’s life.

Let me quote briefly from the story:

… For three days he worked like a driven man, cleaning out and dressing the boy’s wounds, setting the arm, packing cold compresses upon the swellings. He felt godlike in that mission. He unpacked his books from their mildewed boxes, brushed off the fungi and reviewed and relived the passion of the way of healing. He watched miracles work themselves upon the boy and stood back amazed at his own handiwork. When he was through, when he faced nothing more than that penance of waiting for the boy to revive, Ferrariz realized that his eyes were wet. Not since he stepped into the University, knowing nothing, had he felt as much of an honest man.

In other words, this doctor, who had lost faith in his talents and in his hands, suddenly finds himself revived and redeemed by his mission of curing a battered boy. By saving Makaraig, he saves himself.

But the story doesn’t end there. The major has his own reasons for bringing a rebel back to life—to torture and interrogate him, and eventually to kill him, and that’s where the story closes, in a long scream that pierces the doctor’s newly awakened soul.

That story, titled “Heartland,” went on to win in the 1982 Palanca Awards for Literature. But why did I write a story about a doctor who saves a patient, only to have him murdered by others? Why did I write a story about self-redemption?

The story behind the story was that while I was only 28, I felt like Ferrariz, an old man who had gone adrift and who was just going from job to job with mechanical indifference. It was martial law, and despite the fact that I became a political prisoner at 18 and spent seven months in a camp in what we now call Bonifacio Global City, I had been working as a government propagandist for the past eight years, churning out press releases, speeches for President Marcos, and glowing articles about his New Society.

I needed to remind myself that I could write good fiction (what I was writing for work was bad fiction), that somewhere in me was truth waiting to be said.

… For the past 110 years, that has been part of the mission of the University of the Philippines, our national university, the bearer and champion of our people’s hopes. Through our general education program, we try to produce graduates who can be as conversant about Greek tragedy as about the Law of the Sea and thermodynamics. The premise is that a well-rounded, well-educated student will elevate not only himself or herself but also his or her community and society, bringing people together in common cause.

At least, that’s the noble intention. We know that, in practice, while UP has produced scores of such exemplars as Wenceslao Vinzons, Fe del Mundo, Jovito Salonga, Manuel and Lydia Arguilla, and Juan Flavier, and while we graduated 29 summa cum laudes from Diliman this year, we also know that many UP students and alumni have flunked, and flunked badly, especially in the moral department.

In other words—and it saddens me as a UP professor to say this—intelligence never guaranteed moral discernment or rectitude, and as proud as we may be of our nationalist traditions and contributions to national leadership, much remains to be done to ensure that we imbue our students not only with skills but with principles. In other words, just as we ask physicians to heal themselves, we educators first have to teach ourselves.

This is why I began this talk with my story about Dr. Ferrariz and his seemingly futile gesture. What that story really wants to ask is: What is life without freedom? What is knowledge without values?

What does a cum laude mean or matter if it will not be used to relieve human suffering but only to enrich oneself and one’s family? Of what use is a glittering GWA of 1.25 if your moral GWA is a murky 3.0? How can you study to save lives and yet remain silent in the face of its wanton loss—not even by disease or accident, but by willful human policy?

There is, indeed, no more life-affirming mission or profession than yours, and in a season of slaughter, to affirm life can be a radical and even dangerous proposition.

Penman No. 312: Recovering Fil-Am History

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Penman for Monday, July 23, 2018

 

I WAS in Chicago two weeks ago to keynote the 17thBiennial Conference of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), and it was an opportunity not only to catch up with old friends from my time as a graduate student in the American Midwest but also, and more importantly, to have a sense of where the study of Filipino-American history is going.

With 33 chapters now spanning the US from Hawaii to the East Coast, FANHS has become one of the most visible and important Fil-Am organizations (we typically still hyphenate the term but many Filipino Americans no longer do), devoted to recovering, preserving, and promoting the history of Filipinos and their descendants all over that vast country.

It’s a history that dates back to at least October 1587, when the Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza dropped anchor off what’s now known as Morro Bay, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. On its crew were several luzones indios; today they would simply be called Filipinos. Some men went onshore, and one Filipino was killed by Indians.

Since then, over three million Filipinos have either made that journey, or were born in America to Filipino parents, and in each one of them is inscribed a history of struggle, adaptation, acceptance, resistance, and all degrees of complex responses in between. And as the Filipino population in America has expanded, so have Filipino communities, such as that seminal one that was started by runaway Filipino sailors in New Orleans in the 1760s, which grew into a “Manila Village” that was sadly wiped out by a hurricane in 1915.

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I’d first heard about the Lousiana Pinoys from Jim and Isabel Kenny who produced a fascinating documentary about them in 1992 titled “Dancing the Shrimp” (a reference to the way Filipinos dried shrimp—and grew the shrimp industry—in Louisiana by stepping or dancing on them to music). In Chicago, I was happy to meet Marina Estrella Espina, a pioneering researcher, librarian, and author whose 1988 book Filipinos in Louisiana (New Orleans: AF LaBorde & Sons, 1988) laid much of the groundwork for further studies as the Kennys’ and that of younger scholars like the poet Randy Gonzales, who also grew up in New Orleans but lived for many years in Dubai. Now in her 80s, Marina excited the audience by announcing that she had found proof that Filipinos had settled in Louisiana even earlier than previously thought, and that she was working on a book chronicling Filipino journeys around the world.

From Alameda, California and local historian and Boholano Bob Balandra came the story of the Bohol Circle, a club formed there in 1936 by 16 Filipino immigrants seeking and providing support for each other in a difficult time. Some later joined the 2ndFilipino Infantry Regiment, which fought in the Pacific. Bob and his compatriots are trying to get that historic club and its clubhouse recognized with an official street name.

Elsewhere, the 300 participants in the FAHNS conference spoke on and listened to such topics as community-university partnerships in Alaska; Filipina-American marriages in the Philippine-American War; getting out the Fil-Am vote; the sakadas of Hawaii; Filipino nurses in Illinois; and decolonization and visual art. Film screenings by the noted filmmaker Nick Deocampo and the “Dreamland” team of Claire Miranda, Katrin Escay, and Moshe Ladanga complemented the lectures. Dr. Dorothy Cordova, one of the society’s founders along with her late husband Fred, graced the event. I was particularly glad to meet old friends from the University of Michigan, Dr. Romy Aquino and his wife Necie, and from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Princess Emraida Kiram, whom I hadn’t seen in years.

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A special feature was the unveiling of a mural depicting the Louisiana experience, produced by the Durian Collective composed of artists Leonard Aguinaldo, Darby Alcoseba, Manny Garibay, Jun Impas, Otto Neri, Orley Ypon, and Art Zamora, who were assisted by Fil-Am cultural advocate Almi Astudillo-Gilles.

Over more than 30 years, FAHNS has become a true community of shared personal, academic, and cultural interests, and has the potential to become a formidable force in American politics, especially at a time when immigration and human rights have become threatened once again by the new regime. But as with many communities, unity of vision and purpose is always a challenge, which was why this year’s conference focused on the theme of “Community for Cohesion and Collaboration.”

In my keynote, I suggested that “The only community that will last for our country and people will be one based on an appreciation and acceptance of a common stake in the Filipino future, based on truth, reason, and fairness or inclusivity.

“Under normal circumstances, you and I would not even think twice about this idea, which is almost a motherhood statement. But these are times in which truth, reason, and fairness seem to be in precariously short supply, and the notion of ‘a common stake’ an increasingly nebulous one.

“If we lack a sense of a common stake in a shared future, it may be because we lacked a sense of a common stake in the past. We like to think that we share a history, but the history of our poor is very different from that of our rich.”

And so the conference went, looking back into our past for a glimpse of the future.

Penman No. 311: A Trove of Printed Delights

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Penman for Monday, July 18, 2018

 

A FEW months ago, I wrote about picking up some wonderful books online that I plan to add to my retirement library—books that I’ll be poring over at leisure, for no more compelling or more urgent reason than enjoying the stories they contain, or even just the way they were printed, illustrated, and bound. I won’t be writing any papers about them (well, maybe a column or two), and I’ll leave myself the option of reselling some of them to share the fun and feel better about buying some more.

Most of these books come from the USA, chiefly from eBay, where I’ve been actively trading for more than 20 years. You’d be amazed by the Philippine treasures—not just books but paintings and other artifacts—that made their way overseas and eventually turn up on eBay. I’ve made it my personal mission (of course my wife Beng calls it my excuse) to recover these precious objects as much as I can afford on my professor’s salary—important or interesting Filipiniana, for example, such as the first US publications of Manuel Arguilla’s stories, and early editions of Carlos Bulosan’s books.

I’ve sourced books and paintings from as far away as France, Spain, and Portugal, and have successfully had them shipped to me in Manila by regular air mail. To save on shipping, however, I typically accumulate all my US purchases at our daughter Demi’s place in San Diego, California, and then have them couriered to me when they’re enough to fill a box, or wait for our next visit to Demi and her husband Jerry to cart them home.

That opportunity happened last week, on my annual vacation leave. We came too early for Comic Con this year, but I had stranger things than, well, Stranger Things in mind. I was eager to plow through and pack away about a hundred pounds of books and paintings that had been piling up at Demi’s over the past six months.

The paintings—which include a large and marvelous Gabriel Custodio seascape from 1966 that I found at a resale store in Spokane, Washington—will be worth another story, but for now, let me share some of the most interesting publications from the pile.

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Old editions of the Noli and Fili are always desirable objects of study, and to complement the rather eccentric 1911 Fili I acquired last year, I received a two-volume 1909 Noli from Madrid (also published by Maucci in Barcelona), with annotations by Ramon Sempau. It’s interesting how, scarcely a decade after his execution, Rizal is hailed as a patriot by the Spaniards. This edition contains the Last Farewell and an account of his trial. (Another later edition in the pile, a Noli retitled and published by Norton in 11961 as The Lost Eden, is introduced by James Michener, who describes the novel as “a nineteenth-century Gothic melodrama, filled with eery churches, flashes of lightning, ominous strangers, premonitory whisperings, and almost unacceptable coincidences.”)

I try to collect old books that have something to do or say about the Philippines, but of course that becomes more difficult the farther back you go. In my office, I display a page from a German book on geography from 1578 that talks about “den Philippinischen Insuln,” and I’m sure other collectors have much earlier material. But sometimes I pick up antiquarian documents just to be able to show my students what truly old texts looked like, and in this batch is a page from a Latin breviary published in Augsburg in 1490—an example of true incunabula, or something printed roughly within 50 years of Gutenberg’s 1455 Bible.

There’s an extensive and rather grisly account of a “Massacre at Manilla” in my 1822 copy of Vol. X of The Atheneum, a Boston-based compilation of highlights from imported contemporary English magazines (the “magazine” as we know it today grew popular in England in the 1700s). The article is an unattributed eyewitness account, reported by a victim of a brutal massacre of foreigners—English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese, among others—following a false report that they were responsible for fomenting a cholera epidemic that had decimated the natives by giving out poisoned medicine (shades of today’s Dengvaxia hysteria). It occurred to me that I had read about this same massacre before from Paul P. de la Gironiere, who was serving as a doctor aboard a French ship in Cavite at the time, and who claims to have performed great deeds of daring in the emergency.

More congenial is A Little Journey to the Philippines (Chicago: A. Flanagan, 1900), edited by Marian M. George, filled with observations of a pleasant nature: “Our boat is anchored, and we start off with a guide for the Enchanted Lake. We pass ponds filled with fragrant pink pond lilies, and shortly begin to climb the crater of an extinct volcano.” It also remarks, perhaps presciently, that “There is no Philippine nation. Instead there are numerous governments; the people are divided into over eighty different tribes; and there are over seventy-five different languages spoken among them.”

If I had more space in my baggage and my house, I would buy tons more of these books, which remind me how we keep drifting back to the past, despite the GPS in our iPhones.

 

Penman No. 310: Tacloban’s Worthier Wonders

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Penman for Monday, July 9, 2018

 

ONE OF the pleasures of our recent visit to Tacloban was meeting up with two friends—the cultural scholar and UP Tacloban Humanities Division head Joycie Dorado Alegre, and the poet and Professor Emeritus Merlie M. Alunan. Beng and I made sure to spend an extra day in Leyte to see the UP Health Sciences campus in Palo, the fabulous Palo Cathedral, and other landmarks close to Tacloban. We’d already visited the Sto. Niño (ie, the Marcos) Shrine and the next-door Public Library—both of them in a rather sorry state, as I reported last week. But going around town with longtime locals like Joycie and Merlie revealed worthier wonders.

We made sure to visit other tourist staples such as the Macarthur Landing Memorial Park in Palo—an impressive work by the late sculptor Anastacio Caedo, better known for his plaster busts of a pensive Jose Rizal, one of which I keep in my home office as a kind of conscience. (Though no blushing fan of the famously vainglorious general, I’d been intrigued enough by MacArthur’s Philippine connections to visit his museum and tomb in Norfolk, Virginia.) I tried hard to recreate the tableau of ships massing on Leyte Gulf, only to have my musings spoiled by a tourist and his girlfriend wading into the pool in mock fatigues and rubber boots, posing with fake firearms.

But this was tragedy on a diminutive note compared to what no one visiting Tacloban can escape—the howling hell that was supertyphoon Yolanda and the many thousands of deaths it left in its wake. As we passed one traffic island after another—with the grass almost strangely manicured and impeccably garbage-free—Joycie or Merlie would tell us, “Those islands became mass graves. There are people buried there.”

A more formal and movingly expressive memorial to the lost lay farther on in Tanauan, in artist Kublai Millan’s sculpture built on yet another mass grave. Everywhere we drove on that coastal plain, the surging sea had swept people and whole families away, and while the city seemed to have regained its equanimity and was bravely soldiering on five years after, there was a hole in its heart still aching to be filled.

Merlie herself had gone through a recent personal tragedy, with the sudden passing of her beloved son Ebeb. Even as Yolanda had spared her, living as she did on higher ground, she couldn’t have foreseen this dark turn down the road. (She had lost her father and five other family members in the Ormoc City flood of 1991.) She was still clearly grieving, but had gone out of her way to entertain us, and perhaps thereby also entertain herself.

Nothing can ever compensate for the loss of family, but Merlie was threading a way forward, in that way uniquely accessible to artists. Every true work of art is an affirmation of life, and in Merlie’s case, she has art aplenty to affirm life with. To begin with, there’s nothing literally closer to life than food, and for almost two decades now, Merlie and her enterprising children have built up one of Tacloban’s best-loved restaurant chains, headlined by the now-iconic Ayo Café along Ninoy Aquino Avenue.

Ayo (the name derives from the Visayan term for “good”) serves food as familiar as Spanish sardines, lumpia, roast chicken, and burgers at prices that won’t make you weep, but with a twist—the twist being that it’s cooked and presented just scrumptiously right, with the choicest ingredients, in servings large enough for take-home leftovers. I’d heard about Ayo before from friends who’d been there (Merlie proudly keeps a guest book signed by writers and artists), and while I may have initially accepted her invitation out of friendship, I’ll be seeking it out on my own on my next Tacloban sortie (and I insisted on paying for our merienda to emphasize my patronage).

The Ayo interlude also allowed us to discover another of Merlie’s less-known talents as a visual artist who paints and also does plant sculptures. I asked her to pose for a picture beside one of her works, and learned that this was something she had been doing since her years in Dumaguete, perhaps again as a refuge or respite of sorts from the travails of daily life.

Of course it’s her poetry that Merlie Alunan is best appreciated for (one of her poems, “Young Man in a Jeepney,” has been a perennial on my syllabus), and her sixth poetry collection, Running with Ghosts (Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2017) is understandably heavy with waterborne death. But as she points out at the close of her title poem, life will go on, in all its bewildering indifference:

Grass sow their seeds over the turned earth,

The graves are greening in the seasonal rain.

Everyday we run with ghosts by our side.

God is silent. as ever blameless and inscrutable.

Penman No. 309: A Breakthrough in Tacloban

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Penman for Monday, July 2, 2018

 

 

LATE JUNE is graduation season under the new academic calendar of the University of the Philippines, and since the UP System is made up of eight constituent universities spread out over 17 campuses, that’s a lot of graduations to attend for officials like me. Since the President can’t possibly be at all the ceremonies—which are sometimes scheduled on the same day, or just a day apart—we VPs decide early on where we want to go to represent the System administration.

Diliman is a given, being basically home. I also attend the rites of UP Manila, partly because I’m fascinated by the number and variety of degrees we hand out under the health sciences (culminating this year in the combined MD/PhD—a physician who’s also a researcher, the very top of the heap). But also, UP Manila—harking back to an earlier tradition—still requires its graduates to wear togas instead of the now-ubiquitous sablay or sash, which means I get to drag my US-university toga, or what I call my clown costume, out of the mothballs.

Last year I chose to go to UP Baguio, only to realize, the night before the ceremony, that not only was I on the roster of visitors, but was also the commencement speaker—a little detail that no one had remembered to tell me. A faster commencement speech was never written. (I’ll admit it—I was thrilled to get the job done.)

This June, I selected UP Tacloban—not yet a constituent university but a college under the supervision of UP Visayas. I picked Tacloban because I hadn’t been there for at least 15 years since the early 2000s, and I wanted to see how the campus and the city had recovered from Yolanda’s devastation. I imagined that It was still scarred by the catastrophe five years after; instead, as soon as we landed, I was impressed by how quickly the place had gotten back on its feet, abuzz with tricycles and new construction.

With a morning to spare, I walked about town with Beng (who had come along at her own expense to see old friends) and toured the still-sequestered Sto. Niño Shrine (always more a shrine to the Marcoses), badly ravaged by the storm and by neglect. An even sorrier sight was the adjacent People’s Center and Public Library, which had been converted to a Japanese surplus store. I don’t bemoan the humbling of excess, but as Beng reminded me, “This was the people’s money.”

One happy discovery I did not expect was Tacloban as a food paradise. Wherever we went and at whatever price point—the surf and turf combo and the grilled marlin at the hotel, the fish tinola, the grilled scallops, and bulalo at the Acacia restaurant, more tinola and nilagang carabeef at the unli-rice Pinutos at the mall, and the lemongrass roasted chicken at the now-iconic Ayo restaurant—the food was fresh and flavorful, the beef amazingly tender and the tinola divinely laced with lemongrass and ginger.

All that fortified us for the graduation, which was fairly small as UP graduations go, with just about 200 graduates, two of them finishing magna cum laude, from such fields as Accountancy, Management, Communication Arts, Biology, Computer Science, and Political Science. Tacloban Dean Dr. Dodong Sabalo, a management expert, introduced me to the commencement speaker, Ms. Debbie D. Namalata, San Miguel Brewery’s National Sales Manager and Vice President for Sales, and a UPV alumna, who gave a stirring talk about how her family overcame poverty to achieve professional success against all odds. It was a theme echoed by the valedictorian, Kim Decolongon Limosnero, whose mother had sold chicharon to put him and his siblings through school.

You’d think that I would get bored going to these graduations and witnessing the endless parade of young people coming up the stage in their Sunday best with their parents in tow, but I honestly never do, especially when I listen to such stories as Debbie’s and Kim’s, and see fathers wearing denims and sneakers not because they want to look hip but because it’s the best outfit they can afford. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Kim addressed his widowed mother—who had never finished college—as “my summa cum laude,” and I recalled my own parents who had similarly labored mightily to send all five of us to school.

And as I sat onstage, I received the saddest message on my phone, about another UP student named Jemima Faye Dangase, who was supposed to graduate cum laude in Agribusiness Economics from UP Mindanao. The daughter of very poor parents—her diabetic father was a municipal utility worker and her mother was unemployed—Jemima was clearly her family’s hope. She submitted all her requirements for graduation, went home, then crumbled in pain—pain she had borne quietly for months without complaint, apparently so as not to trouble her already beleaguered parents. She was brought to the hospital, where doctors discovered her organs ravished by cancer; and there she died.

I know it borders on melodrama, but this is, truly, the story of Philippine education and why it’s so crucial to social transformation. For every Jemima who stumbles on the very last steps, there must be a Kim who breaks through. This is why going to such places as Tacloban revives my faith in the Filipino future, despite the dark travails of the present, in this moral equivalent of a Yolanda, which—reposing our faith in a God wiser than all despots—we will survive.

Penman No. 308: A Respite in Luang Prabang

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Penman for Monday, June 25, 2018

 

 

I TRY to give my wife Beng a birthday treat abroad every year—a small price to pay for her manifold acts of kindness and generosity, not to mention her 44 years of patience in sharing a bed with a snorer—so early this June, we flew out to Luang Prabang in Laos. Why Luang Prabang? Because I couldn’t think of a place with a more musical name, and because we’d never been to Laos, and because it had come highly recommended by a dear friend Julie Hill, who’s been all over the planet but who considers Luang Prabang one of her favorite haunts.

With atypical optimism, I’d booked our trip eight months earlier. There are no straight flights from Manila to Luang Prabang, so we spent a night in Kuala Lumpur before making the short hop to LP.

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As in much of Southeast Asia, things were cheap, easy, and infinitely interesting the moment we landed. The local currency is the kip, of which you’ll need about 8,400 to buy one US dollar, but for the princely sum of 50,000 kip or $6, we were brought by an airconditioned van to our digs, the comfortable, two-story Villay Vanh Guest House about 15 minutes away. Like many lodging houses in LP, the Villay Vanh was a largely wooden house—shoes off, please—that had been converted into a hotel, and it maintained that homey ambience without sacrificing modern necessities like airconditioning, hot water, and wi-fi.

Of course, you don’t really go to Luang Prabang for the airconditioning, the hot water, and the wi-fi. As it happened, our hotel was a few steps away from a large Buddhist temple on the left, and a river on the right. And should I say that our four-night stay, including breakfast with about a dozen choices from pancakes to beef fried rice, cost all of $52 (that’s for all four nights)?

Market

Beng, of course, made a beeline for the night market, which was also just a short walk away, but not before we made the obligatory climb up nearby Phousi Hill, which offered a 360-degree view of the city, the Mekong River, and the misty mountains in the distance. We love to travel around Asia for the markets, the museums, and the food, and LP delivered wonderfully on all accounts.

The night market, where lavishly woven textiles abound, stands right in front of the museum, which is also right next to the food stalls in the public market. I know that many travelers are queasy about eating with the locals, but that’s what Beng and I did, stuffing ourselves on broiled chicken, mudfish, and the sticky rice that’s a staple in Laos, for another 50,000 kip (that’s 300 pesos to us, including a soft drink). Over the next few days, we would discover that Laos has some of the sweetest and smoothest mangoes, which could well put ours to shame. (As well as Laos’ worst-kept secret: all wi-fi passwords are the same anywhere you go.)

The National Museum used to be the palace of the Laotian kings, the last one of whom was deposed in a communist takeover in the mid-1970s. Amid the slightly musty regalia hangs an unspoken horror, that the king and his family, much like the Russian Romanovs, were murdered a few years after they gave up power.

Shrine

More uplifting was the tour I truly wanted to take—a day trip involving cruising down the Mekong, visiting a Buddhist shrine up a mountainside, having lunch at an elephant sanctuary, then taking in the fabulous Kuang Si waterfalls. At just $40 per person, including a nourishing lunch, it was a bargain.

The Mekong in Laos is the same immutable, undulating, coffee brown that it is in Thailand and Cambodia, but the boats are long and narrow, often painted in pink and blue, somewhat echoing the Laotian flag. Stately villas and temples overlook the river, and now and then elephants peek through the bushes along the banks.

Falls

Luang Prabang stands at the confluence of two rivers, one that started out in China and the other in Vietnam. So far from the ocean, it thrives on water—and tourists like us, willing to go the extra mile from Bangkok and KL.

BINONDO 1 - FLOYD TENA, SHIELA VALDERRAMA MARTINEZ, ARMAN FERRER

Speaking of China, my wife Beng and I were having lunch at a Megamall restaurant a week ago when we suddenly heard mellifluous operatic voices singing in the lobby nearby. I took a peek and discovered that it was a mall tour to preview Binondo, a Tsinoy musical that’s opening on June 29, Friday, and July 1, Sunday, 8 pm at the Theatre in Solaire.

I got curious enough to seek out its publicist, Toots Tolentino, who told me that this was a love story, set in Manila’s Chinatown ca. 1971, involving a love triangle consisting of Lily, a night club singer and hopeless romantic; Ah Tiong, a scholarly cynic; and Carlos, a childhood friend. With book and lyrics by Ricky Lee and directed by Joel Lamangan, I can predict only good things for this musical, which is being produced by Synergy 88 Digital and Rebecca Chuaunsu Film Production. Rebecca, a theater artist in her own right, also wrote the original story.

I’ll take Chinese love triangles over Chinese island-hoppers anytime!

 

 

Penman No. 307: Minding the Magazine (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 18, 2018

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote about acquiring copies of English magazines from the 1770s so my students in English and American literature could see what people in those days actually read, and what “entertainment” may have meant to them. I noted how magazines are arguably better chroniclers of everyday social life than books, especially since they also came to be profusely illustrated, and may even have sold copies more on the strength of their illustrations than their text.

This was certainly true for Ilustracion Filipina, an illustrated magazine that came out twice a month between March 1859 and December 1860—a pitifully short life-span for such a glorious publication. Not to be confused with the similarly titled La Ilustracion Filipina, published between 1891 and 1905, Ilustracion Filipina featured exquisite lithographs depicting scenes and aspects of Filipino life, produced by such renowned artists as Baltasar Giraudier and C. W. Andrews. I have yet to be so fortunate as to find even one copy of this magazine, which was bought by subscription and lasted for no more than 44 issues. (An 1859 compilation with 14 lithographs by Andrews sold in Spain in 2013 for 1,400 euros.)
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What I did come across in my near-daily trawlings of eBay a few weeks ago were issues of The Filipino People (Vol. 1, No. 12) and Lipang Kalabaw (April 9, 1949). In all these years of looking at hundreds of publications, I had not seen these two magazines.

When I got my hands on them, the older magazine proved particularly interesting, because it was published and edited in Washington, DC by none other than Resident Commissioner Manuel L. Quezon (who would have been about 35 then), “as an official medium for expressing the views of the people whose name it bears.” The magazine is “devoted solely to… the fair and truthful exposition of the relations between the Philippines and the United States, with a view to hastening the ultimate establishment of Philippine independence upon a self-governing republican basis.” Tellingly, its masthead contains a quotation from (of all people) McKinley: “Forcible annexation is criminal aggression.”

As a political magazine, it’s full of polemical articles, not very interesting today to anyone but historians, and brief biographical profiles of Apolinario Mabini, Sergio Osmeña, Emilio Aguinaldo (whose doorkeeper informs the American interviewer “If the American gentleman would be pleased to wait but a moment he would be joined by the master of the house”). It contains a Spanish section, basically a translation of the English pages. While I was hoping for a poem or a short story, the only touches of art in the magazine were a photograph of a majestically clean San Sebastian Church, and the cover (sadly only in black and white) by Fabian de la Rosa.

Lipang Kalabaw, as it turns out (and many thanks to Crispin Ponce for the source material), went through three incarnations—first as a weekly owned edited by Lope K. Santos between 1907 and 1909, with caricatures drawn by Jorge Pineda. This first version struck hard at its political targets, which struck back even harder, forcing the magazine to shut down. Santos revived it in 1922 under banner of Bagong Lipang Kalabaw, promising to be gentler in its tone—but it zeroed in on Governor-General Leonard Wood, and also closed shop after two years following a libel suit. Its third, last, and supposedly most tepid version came out in 1947. (The “lipa” refers to a big-leafed tree.)

My 1949 issue curiously has few real bylines and no editorial board, just pseudonyms like “Binatang Balo” and “Igueng Bel-Bel”—probably the smart thing to do if you were skewering President Quirino and the Congress, with jibes like “Paligsahan sa Pagnanakaw: Ngayon, sa ating Kongreso, and mga usapan ay hindi na ukol sa ‘kung sino ang magnanakaw at sino ang hindi,’ kung di ay ‘sino sa ating lahat ang nakapagnakaw ng lalong marami.’ Samakatwid, lumalalabas na ‘todos na parejo, camaron y cangrejo.’”

Perhaps this magazine deserves a fourth incarnation?

If it’s not too late to dream, one of the things I’d like to do in my impending retirement is to create and edit a magazine—even just an e-zine—I’ll call The Filipinist, devoted to antiquarian books, periodicals, paintings, sculpture, photographs, prints, maps, coins, stamps, and historical memorabilia—anything and everything having to do with the Filipino past. It won’t be for scholars (we have enough of those) but for enthusiasts, although scholars would of course be welcome to contribute their insights. I think I should be able to assemble a pretty credible team of editors and writers among like-minded friends and fellow collectors, and in the very least, The Filipinist should fill a gap in media overloaded with articles about tomorrow, technology, and the world out there. And just in case these musings become more than an idle wish, I’ve set aside the domain name for filipinist.ph, as my small personal investment in the future of the Pinoy magazine.

Penman No. 305: More Autographs and Memories

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Penman for Monday, June 4, 2018

 

FOUR YEARS ago, I wrote a column-piece titled “Autographs and memories,” largely about a visit that Beng and I made to an exhibit of autographs at the National Archives in Washington, DC, where I ogled the signatures of such as Ezra Pound, Adolf Hitler, Albert Einstein, and a score of American presidents and notables. I wished loudly that we would have a similar exhibit curated and mounted, say, at the National Museum.

Having ventured into collecting mid-century genre paintings, I’m slowly building up a digital archive of artists’ signatures. Those of our National Artists are pretty well covered by numerous coffee table books (so well that I’m sure some enterprising souls have made an industry out of copying them), but I’m more interested in the less-known likes of Serafin Serna, Gabriel Custodio, Crispin V. Lopez, Ben Alano, Jose D. Castro, and Fortunato Jervoso, among others—painters born shortly after the turn of the century and who may have studied under Fernando Amorsolo, or been influenced by his style.

When it comes to literature, however, then I do feel happily obligated to collect works signed by our National Artists, and have shamelessly invoked the privilege of friendship to solicit signatures to go with the books of Virgilio Almario, Bien Lumbera, and F. Sionil Jose—and, when they were alive, NVM Gonzalez, Franz Arcellana, Edith Tiempo, and Nick Joaquin. I’ve just as assiduously sought out those of such estimable and historically important writers (apart from my close personal writer-friends) as Carlos Bulosan, Zoilo Galang, Bienvenido Santos, Aida Rivera Ford, Tita Lacambra Ayala, Greg Brillantes, and Resil Mojares. On my wish list remain the autographs of Manuel Arguilla and Stevan Javellana, ideally on their books—and dare I even add Jose Rizal?

I never was his student (although Jimmy Abad and Luigi Francia were, half a generation ahead of me), but I had always wished to meet Jose Garcia Villa. The closest I would get was a signed copy of his 1949 book, Volume Two, courtesy of eBay.

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The Web may be the bane of many a bibliophile yearning for the tactile pleasures of typeset pages and deckled edges, but it also happens to be a nearly inexhaustible trove of hidden treasure, like the seabed where gold-laden galleons li

It was where, a couple of weeks ago, I chanced upon a book inscribed by the late dramatist and poet and National Artist Rolando Tinio to a “Lito, Lito,” whom he gently urges to move away from English, like Tinio himself did. Tinio had directed one of my plays in the late 1970s, but I must have been so awestruck that I never got to ask him to sign anything, not even the playbill.

That reminded me of another departed National Artist I wouldn’t have been too shy to swipe a signature from—but also never did. Lino Brocka and I collaborated on about 14 movies, and I corresponded with him frequently, especially when I was sending him scripts and storylines from graduate school in the US in the late 1980s until he died in 1992. But I don’t recall that he was ever the writing kind. (Instead, unmindful of time zones, he’d call me at 3 in the morning.) For all the work we did together, I can’t locate a single note from Lino.

I did secure an autographed book and a note—neither of them meant for me—online, signed by another National Artist for Literature (yes, the one we very often forget about, perhaps because he distinguished himself in so many other fields): Carlos P. Romulo, who received that honor in 1982.

My only encounter with Gen. Romulo was through a speech of his that I memorized and declaimed in grade school—the one that describes Filipinos as “short sunburnt men who love to fling the salty net” (I must’ve flung that net a thousand times in my impassioned recitations)—but I knew him to be a personage so highly accomplished and acclaimed that one university wag would claim that CPR had “more degrees than a thermometer.”

The book, Crusade in Asia, was inscribed by CPR to a “Howard W. Ashley” of Jacksonville, Florida, and was accompanied by a typewritten and signed letter also dated April 17, 1958 on the letterhead of the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC, where CPR was serving as ambassador between 1955 and 1962. In the note, Romulo thanks Ashley for meeting him at the airport at midnight—a gesture that had unintended consequences, as CPR writes that “I am still worrying about the $127.00 that you have to pay for the repair of your Cadillac.”

Rebuke

Speaking of CPR, by coincidence—the kind that antiquarian collectors tend to run into more often than others—I came across an article by E. R. Rodriguez, Jr. in the Aug. 19, 1967 issue of The Chronicle Magazine.It details a mortifying exchange of long letters between a younger CPR and his boss, President Manuel L. Quezon, who delivers a stinging rebuke to his irrepressibly articulate aide for going on a private book tour while serving as a government official. That deserves its own column one of these days—but what I’d give for a signed original of what MLQ said!

 

 

Penman No. 304: Revisiting the Print

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Penman for Monday, May 28, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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