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. 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)?

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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.

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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.

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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. 306: Minding the Magazine (1)

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Penman for Monday, June 11, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 297: A Witness Speaks

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Penman for Monday, April 9, 2018

 

I WAS very honored to receive a response to my recent column-piece on “Writers in Wartime” from no less than Dr. Benito Legarda Jr., the eminent economist-historian perhaps best known by contemporary readers for his harrowing accounts of the atrocities committed by the retreating Japanese forces in Manila at the closing days of the Second World War. Titling his message “Writers Under Compulsion,” Dr. Legarda pretty much confirms what I observed, but with the kind of authority I couldn’t possibly lay claim to. A teenager during the war, he also adds a couple of personal vignettes. (Previously, Dr. Legarda and I had corresponded on another topic of mutual interest, the French adventurer Paul P. de la Gironiere, whose very colorful account of his Philippine sojourn Legarda had introduced in a 1972 edition.)

This may sound like an academic discussion, especially to young readers who know or care little about what came before them, but the question of how writers respond to the challenges (and opportunities) of authoritarian regimes is actually a very timely and practical one. Dr. Legarda ends his comments with a pointed reference to martial law, but we all know that authoritarianism didn’t end with Marcos or martial law. And it’s one thing when you’re writing at the point of a Japanese bayonet—but is it much different when you take the bayonet away and replace it with a balled fist? Here’s what a witness to war had to say:

The predicament of writers working under an authoritarian regime is brought out by Jose “Butch” Dalisay in an article, “Writers in Wartime” (Philippine Star, March 26, 2018). In this column Dalisay describes the conditions under which writers worked during the Japanese occupation.

They had to toe the Japanese propaganda line of Japan as the liberator of Asian people from Western imperialism, the exemplar of nationalist governance.

Dalisay examines the December 1943 issue of the Philippine Review. How did writers comport themselves at the time? Were they cultural collaborators?

Dalisay did not know those writers himself and did not know their inner convictions but as one who lived through those times, I can say that the editor, F.B. Icasiano or “Mang Kiko,” was reportedly a collaborator and disappeared after the battle for Manila.

Other editors, all working for the Manila Shimbun Sha (the only publisher permitted), were Vicente Albano Pacis, Angel  Anden, and Jose Luna Castro—all respectable journalists who had to make a living.

It was not difficult for fiction writers like Ligaya Victorio Reyes and Estrella Alfon Rivera to avoid the propaganda line by writing Christmas stories. This was also easy with Juan Collas’ translation of Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adiosand Jovito Salonga’s commentary on the language of the Constitution.

A friend of my youth, Isagani A. Cruz, in a different issue wrote a poem in praise of Rizal. Later, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court he  would be known as the most elegant prose stylist in the Court.

For the fictionists Dalisay notes the sharp and painful transition to the darkening of the times.

Not so the essayists who could not avoid mouthing the Japanese propaganda line. One was educator Camilo Osias, author of the prewar Philippine Readersseries and future Senate president, who argued for a sound eclectic choice as Japan had done in its cultural borrowings and emphasizing the precedence of the State, of social interests over the individual.

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Osias once escorted my mother home from a civic meeting, and at  our front steps asked my father if he was willing to send me to Japan on a scholarship. My father flatly turned him down. “I see I’m barking up the wrong tree,” he said.

Osias’ ideas were general enough to avoid being tagged propaganda; at most they might be qualified as political adjustment. Not so Luis Montilla, national librarian, who wrote fatuous praises for Japan as a guide and regenerator of true Orientalism, realizing Rizal’s supposed dream of re-Orientalizing his people.

Dalisay withholds judgment on this matter considering that it was possible for some Filipinos to regard the invading Japanese as liberators, after centuries of the white man’s rule.

But as one who lived through that time, I remember the Filipinos regarding themselves as better than the Japanese, who had cruelly ravaged Manchuria and China. They were certainly not looked on as liberators by a people who were already on the eve of full independence.

Perhaps the writer’s dilemma of the time was best expressed by a leading Filipino writer   in Spanish, Don Pedro Aunario, who told my uncle Jose “Pepito” Legarda who worked at the Shimbun Sha with him, “How fortunate you are that you don’t have to write for a living.” Yes, writing for a living under an authoritarian regime meant suppressing one’s own opinions and parroting those of the rulers. Writers would experience this again under the Marcos dictatorship. (Images above from pyswarrior.com, photo of Dr. Legarda below from ateneo.edu)

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Penman No. 294: From Bach to Baleh

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Penman for Monday, March 19, 2018

 

SOMETIME LAST year, I reported on the opening of the new Museo Kordilyera at the University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB), and predicted that it was going to become one of the new “must-sees” for the culturally savvy Baguio visitor, alongside such landmarks as the Bencab Museum. I was back there last week to help inaugurate a new theater and enjoy a concert—about which you’ll hear more in a bit—but what sealed UPB’s reputation for me as that region’s cultural beacon was its new exhibit titled “Feasts of Merit” which opened last month and which will run all year long.

As UPB Professor Emeritus Delfin Tolentino explains it, the title refers to the “prestige feasts” sponsored by the well-off families of traditional societies around Asia and in the Philippine north, such as by the Ifugao, Bontok, and Ibaloy. In these feasts—now long gone, for obvious reasons—hundreds of pigs and carabaos would be slaughtered in a show of affluence—indeed, in what could be seen as a deliberate exercise in excess, as Museo director Dr. Analyn “Ikin” Salvador-Amores acknowledges. But alongside this excess was the idea that wealth was meaningless if it could not be shared with others, so the point of the feast was to have the community partake of it, thereby strengthening the ties between and among the people.

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To liven up the scene, the Museo purchased (with sponsorships), dismantled, transported, and reassembled a complete traditional Ifugao house or baleh which now forms the centerpiece of the exhibit. The 50-year-old house took four days to put back together, says Ikin, employing no nails. Walking around and beneath it gives the visitor an intimate sense of family and village life—as well as of the ingenuity of the native architect, in such touches as the rat guards circling every post, preventing rodents and other pests from clambering up into the house proper.

The baleh may be the most arresting feature of the exhibit, but equally fascinating are the large-scale reproductions of vintage photographs lining the walls, chronicling a lost way of life in the highlands, from Bontok women threshing rice together to other women wearing golden mouth guards to display their wealth (or, as one of those women said, “to shut us up” because the men wore no such flashy encumbrances).

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An especially fascinating corner of the museum houses its impressive collection of heirloom textiles, many sporting designs unseen and unwoven for many decades. As two of her assistants carefully folded and scanned some specimens to create digital files of their designs, Ikin unrolled a large swath of an indigo-dyed textile from the 1920s—still looking new and sharp—that she had found in Chicago, being sold by a Filipino, whom she had managed to persuade to sell the precious artifact.

Foreign sponsors and benefactors such as the Newberry Library in Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia helped make the exhibit possible; local supporters like the National Artist Bencab have also generously lent or donated items from their extensive collections. Dr. Amores says the Museo would be very happy to receive more donations of choice items from private collections, and I can’t think of a more fitting recipient myself of such pieces than the Museo Kordilyera and its state-of-the-art facilities and curatorial services.

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The Museo and its exhibits are part of a broader UPB program to revitalize its campus as a regional center for cultural awareness and research under Chancellor Ray Rovillos, who also happens to be a historian. With just a six-hectare footprint and a steeply sloping landscape to work with, Dr. Rovillos and his architect, the brilliantly adaptive Aris Go, have given UPB a smart new environment that goes beyond looks to include catchments for rainwater, among other innovations.

Thanks to the support of the cultural maven Sen. Loren Legarda, UPB also now has an impressive new theater, the Teatro Amianan, which was inaugurated last week with a concert, and the adjoining Darnay Demetillo Art Space.

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The concert opened with some popular numbers by UPB’s homegrown Tinig Amianan, after which the audience was treated to a stellar performance by soprano Stephanie Quintin, a Baguio girl and UP graduate who has trained in Germany and Hong Kong. Stephanie presented a selection of vocal classics from Bach to Lizst and Gounod before wowing the crowd with Nicanor Abelardo’s “Bituing Marikit” and a rousing rendition of Jose Estella’s “Ang Maya.” She was very capably accompanied by the young pianist Gabriel Paguirigan, who’s still in school at the UP College of Music after graduating from the Philippine High School for the Arts, but who has already won a slew of awards.

It may be quite a stretch from Bach to the baleh, but it’s precisely the kind of imaginative leap from the tribal to the global that Baguio has always been known for, and as a UP official myself, I felt immensely proud to see UPB on top of the effort. Bravo!

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Penman No. 290: My Cabinet of Curiosities

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Penman for Monday, February 12, 2018

 

HISTORY TELLS us that museums began as private collections of odds and ends—Wunderkammer or “rooms of wonder” in German, later to be known as “cabinets of curiosities”—where wealthy Europeans of the 16th century amassed objects from all around the world for the amazement and delectation of their friends. Those objects ranged from stuffed crocodiles and “unicorn” (narwhal) horns to Roman coins, clockwork globes, and such vestiges of defeated empires as the feather crown of the Aztec Montezuma (now in Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology).

Kept and shown in—yes—cabinets (although originally “cabinets” could also mean whole rooms), these collections formed the basis for what later became full-scale and more specialized museums. Those museums are what Beng and I make a beeline for every time we land on foreign territory, eager for the chance to see wondrous objects from the past with our own eyes. Topping that list would be perennials like the Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum, the Field Museum, and the New York City Public Library—for which one lifetime seems inadequate to appreciate in their entirety—as well as art palaces such as the Louvre, the Prado, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate, and the Getty.

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For reasons we can only guess at, the routing in those places almost always ends at the gift shop, where you can pick up a pewter Colosseum or a Vincent van Gogh fridge magnet (both made, of course, in China) to remember your visit by.

My urges, however, have gone in another direction: instead of spending $24.99 on a fake Lindbergh cap at the Air and Space Museum, I’d rather spend it on a book on early aviation or on a 1927 newspaper marking the historic trans-Atlantic flight. You’d be surprised how inexpensive the real thing can be, compared to the mock memento.

Given that mindset—and the fact that I’ve had more than 30 years of collecting old fountain pens, watches, and other men’s junk behind me—it’s no surprise that I’ve cobbled together my own cabinet of curiosities at home, representing half a lifetime of picking rubbish off the street. Some people would call me a pack rat, for keeping Love Bus tickets ca. 1978 or real plane tickets from back when they used red carbon paper for the passenger coupons.

Lately I’ve been prowling eBay for fine old books, but I get as much pleasure finding treasure in a Cavite junkyard as I do securing a 130-year-old travel book in French online (you’ll see both below).

I’ll leave it for Beng and Demi to sort everything out when I myself become a candidate for taxidermy, but here’s a sampler of what a visitor to my mini-museum will find:

  1. A man’s black umbrella with a classic bent-bamboo handle, found for P120 in a Japanese surplus store in Bacoor. Beng rhapsodizes over the ceramics in these stores, and rightly so, but I’ve been strangely attracted to wooden umbrellas, clocks, and boxes;
  2. A silver “Dos Mundos” coin from 1771, big and fat, from my home island of Tablas in Romblon, reputed to be a pirate haven in Spanish times.
  3. A gold-tinted medallion given out to luminaries and guests at the Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1946, the kind gift of a dear family friend, whose father was one of those guests;
  4. A Form 5 (at it was already called then) that a student registered with at the University of the Philippines in the 1930s, accompanied by a booklet of course offerings for that time.
  5. A 900-page travel book, published in Paris in 1878, with 360 beautiful engravings of scenes from Australia, Java, Japan, and China, sourced from Funchal in Portugal;
  6. A gold Hamilton railroad watch from around 1925, large and bright, so-called because railroads required precise timekeeping down to the exact second to avoid collisions, and such watches were synchronized by telegraphy;
  7. The original iPhone from 2007 (of which I must sheepishly admit I have three, two of which still function perfectly), which I predict will be tomorrow’s great collectible (alongside my EasyCall pager, which still glows when turned on, a near-mint BlackBerry, and four Palm PDAs);
  8. A copy of The Gentleman’s Magazine from November 1773—no, not an early version of Playboy or Penthouse, but the very first publication to call itself a magazine, or a collection of general-interest articles, including the title story on “The Frugal Housewife, wherein the art of dressing all sorts of viands with cleanliness, decency, and elegance, is explained….”; and
  9. An array of French-made 19th-century toothbrushes with bone handles and boar bristles.

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I could go on and on—but it only gets worse (or more fascinating, if you like extracted teeth, gallstones, and other wonders of the natural world). Don’t be shy, come on in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 289: PowerPeeves

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Penman for Monday, February 5, 2018

 

I’VE NEVER used PowerPoint in my life as much as I had to this past year, largely because I’ve been asked to do many presentations—briefings, TEDTalks, and such. For the longest time, I’d resisted using PowerPoint (and its Mac counterpart, Keynote), not because I dislike visual aids, but because I felt confident that I could get my message across just by having people listen to my words and my voice.

That works—sometimes. I feel that when I’m talking to persuade—like when I spoke at the annual conference of the Writers Union of the Philippines to argue for the need to give evil a human face, or when I exhorted young writers at the Palancas to remember to write for oneself after writing for others—then direct address works better, without props or pictures.

After more than 30 years of teaching, I’ve long lost whatever shyness I may have had about public speaking—a teacher has no better tool in a classroom than his or her voice—but that doesn’t mean talking comes naturally, especially if you have to make sense. In the ten minutes or so before every class, walking down the corridor or up to my floor, I rehearse the lines I’ll be opening with, the points I have to make. It does get easier with time and practice, but every class is a performance, every audience a fresh challenge.

Perhaps it helped that, in our elementary years, we had a subject called Declamation which forced us to memorize and recite long, elaborate poems and speeches like Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe” and Mark Antony’s lament at Caesar’s funeral. We may not have understood what we were emoting about with full juvenile fervor, but—at least for me—it got rid of the stage fright, and I marveled at the fact that, if you spoke well and clearly, people listened.

Of course that was something that politicians already knew. They could whip the masses up into a maniacal frenzy—just with words. No flash cards, no graphs and charts, and yes, no PowerPoint. Not for Hitler, not for Marcos, not for… well, most other demagogues you can think of, some orange-haired presidents included. They knew that nothing could mobilize people better than fear, and nothing could stoke fear better than the imagination, such as of alien hordes and drug-crazed zombies streaming over the border. (On the other hand, the good guys could raise the dead as well with eloquently simple but moving oratory—think of Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech of 1940, which drew on similar remarks made much earlier by Theodore Roosevelt, not always a good guy.)

It’s tempting to suggest that if Churchill et al. had to use PowerPoint to rally the troops, the Battle of Britain would have been lost as he fidgeted, as presenters often do, with the controls and clicked back and forth between slides of Spitfires, Hurricanes, Heinkels, and Dorniers and rattled off their ranges and payloads. If Genghis Khan had to sit for a PowerPoint presentation on the economic and tourism potentials of every new territory over the horizon before he actually shouted “Advance! Kill! Plunder!”, he would never have gone past the Yellow River.

But of course today very little can happen without someone first having to plunk down a laptop, connect a medley of cables and wires, tinker with screen and clicker, and run through a cascade of slides in a coma-inducing monotone.

But I’ll admit it: there’s nothing like PowerPoint when people need to see what you’re talking about, whether it’s the tomb of Tamerlane in Samarkand, a genetically modified eggplant, or a fountain pen Jose Rizal would have written with. It’s most useful in speeches and lectures meant to inform, providing visual reinforcement for such abstract (and, these days, politically unfashionable) concepts as “human rights,” “freedom of the press,” and “territorial integrity.”

I remember being fascinated by scenes from the Bible that our Religion teacher in grade school flipped through in a roll of posters, and I’m sure we’ll all agree that the impact images produce is visceral.

That said, let me rattle off some of my pet peeves when it comes to PowerPoint presentations:

  1. Slides full of long text, which the presenters then read word for word, line by line. For heaven’s sake, summarize, condense, get to the core of things!
  2. Presenters who mumble like they were confessing their sins.
  3. Slides of cute babies, puppies, kittens, and sunsets when you’re talking about sexual harassment, Bentham Rise, or global warming.
  4. Whoosh! Swirl! Zoom! Dazzling and dizzying transitions and visual effects, accompanied by a fruit salad of colors and a library of exotic fonts.
  5. And, of course, presentations that just go on and on and on, because the presenters never bothered to do a dry run, edit their draft, or look at the clock and all the bored faces.

All yours, Genghis!

 

(Image from makeuseof.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 288: From Quiapo to Norwich

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Penman for Monday, January 29, 2018

 

IT’S A strange title, I know, but it’s all I could come up with to highlight the two topics I’m taking up this week. They’re not actually connected—at least not yet—but they were much on my mind as I dusted off my texts for a new semester of teaching at UP (all for naught, as it turned out, as my graduate writing class was dissolved for lack of students—to my secret relief).

“Quiapo” is at the core of Quiapography, a digital-humanities project designed and led last semester by Dr. Patricia May Jurilla. Normally our resident expert on the history of books and publishing—one of those rare nerds who shares my strange attraction to Gothic blackletter and to the aroma of centuries-old paper—May branched out not only into a new subject but also a new approach to teaching and learning under the rubric of “digital humanities.”

Or maybe not that new. I asked Dr. Jurilla to explain the concept to me, and I was told that “Digital humanities has been in practice for over twenty years now. It’s emerged as a discipline itself with its own league of practitioners, dedicated book series and journals, circuit of conferences and events, degree programs, and new job opportunities in the tight academic market.”

Better than any explanation is the product itself of her PhD students’ semester, during which May directed them in a digital exploration and presentation of that most quintessentially Pinoy of urban spaces, Quiapo. That can be seen on the Quiapographywebsite at https://updigitalhumanities.wixsite.com/quiapography, “a virtual museum designed to document and map the culture of Quiapo in order to celebrate, re-view, and rediscover its heritage and its importance in Philippine history and society.”

Aside from the familiar photographs of and stories about Quiapo Church, amulet vendors, and the Black Nazarene, the site contains useful resources such as a list of literary works about Quiapo, pieces on the district’s fortune tellers, camera shops, and historical heritage, and photo galleries of just about everything.

Myself, I wish that I’d known about the project earlier, as I would’ve had my own Quiapo stories to contribute, as central as the place was to my young life—from my memories of descending for the first time into its brand-new underpass (something straight out of a sci-fi fantasy to a ten-year-old) to marching at Plaza Miranda with fist raised as a teenage Maoist and buying Christmas ham on Echague as a family man.

For those who’ve never strayed into this crucible of Filipino-ness (and sadly, in today’s mall-oriented culture, that would be millions of Pinoy millennials), Quiapographyshould provide a perfect introduction.

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And now a quick cut to Norwich, some 10,600 kilometers away from Quiapo in southeastern England. For nine months between 1999 and 2000, this city became home for me and Beng when I took up residency there as the David T. K. Wong Fellow at the University of East Anglia. It was a restful but also fruitful stay that led to what became my second novel, Soledad’s Sister.

To put it simply, UEA is the most vibrant center of creative writing in the UK. Its community of writers was founded by Sir Angus Wilson and Sir Malcolm Bradbury in 1970, and its graduates have included the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, and Rose Tremain. (Among the privileges of being there was having books signed by future Nobel prizewinners J. M. Coetzee and Ishiguro.)

Every year, UEA invites a writer to stay and write there—no teaching, no research, no lectures, just writing and relaxation—at its expense, or rather that of a sponsor named David T. K. Wong. A former journalist, civil servant, and businessman from Hong Kong who also writes fiction, Mr. Wong did well enough in life to endow the generous fellowship, an award of £26,000 to enable a fiction writer who wants to write in English about Asia.

I was the second Wong Fellow, and over the 20 years since the fellowship’s inception in 1998, two other Filipinos have followed me to Norwich—Lakambini Sitoy in 2003, and the current fellow, the Davao-born but US-based Nathan Go.

This brings me to my pitch: if you think you have a great novel or collection of stories welling in you—and you’d like to finish it in England, looking out on a lagoon full of graceful swans—please apply for the next Wong Fellowship, like I dared to do two decades ago. All you basically need, aside from the forms and the £10 application fee, is a 2,500-word excerpt from your proposed fiction project. The deadline for applications is February 28. For forms and more information, go here:https://www.uea.ac.uk/literature/fellowships/david-tk-wong-fellowship. Good luck!