Penman No. 322: The Fair Filipina

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Penman for Monday, October 8, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Penman No. 321: That “K” Factor

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Penman for Monday, October 1, 2018

 

I WAS  in Bangkok last week among a delegation of Filipino academics to attend the 8th meeting of the Korean Studies Association of Southeast Asia (KOSASA), and it was a good opportunity to reflect on the history and growth of Philippine-Korean relations, which have seen a major boost over the past 20 years. While economically driven, much of that growth has been cultural—let’s call it the “K” factor—which accounts for both the proliferation of little Koreatowns and Korean restaurants in major Philippine cities and my wife Beng’s insatiable addiction to Koreanovelas like Boys Over Flowers.

Younger Filipinos enamored of K-Pop probably won’t be aware of this, but our diplomatic ties with Korea (I mean South Korea, of course) will mark their 70thanniversary next year. Those ties were barely a year old when the Korean War erupted, and as an American ally, we sent a contingent of almost 7,500 soldiers to join the fight—the Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea (PEFTOK), which famously included a young lieutenant by the name of Fidel V. Ramos. After the war, Filipinos also contributed to the economic rehabilitation of South Korea. For example, Filipino engineers helped build the Jangchung Gymnasium—Korea’s first domed sports arena—that opened in 1963.

Korea has since given much back to the Filipino people. In 2013, the Korean government readily sent troops and NGO workers to help in rehabilitation and recovery projects after the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda.

The Philippines has seen an influx of Korean tourists and migrants, who now make up 25 percent of total foreign arrivals, reaching more than 1.6 million in 2017. The Korean community in the Philippines is also flourishing, growing to over 93,000 residents as of 2017.

 For all these reasons, over the past decade, Korean studies in the Philippines have developed both in quantity and quality. With the Philippines hosting one of the largest expatriate Korean communities in the world, Filipino scholars are studying the Korean diaspora and interrelated phenomena in the Philippine context.

 The University of the Philippines leads in the study of Korean social sciences, humanities, and language in the country. Korean studies are lodged in four colleges in UP Diliman: the Asian Center, the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, the College of Arts and Letters, and the Center for International Studies.

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The Asian Center offers MA and PhD programs in Asian studies, which include Korean topics and concerns. Korean language courses were first offered by the UP Department of Linguistics in 1990 as an Asian language elective. Until recently, only four courses in Korean were offered in UP, but higher-level courses have just been added to the curriculum. The Center for International Studies also offers a Korea-related GE (General Education) course for undergraduates, now titled “Global Studies 197: From Kimchi to K-Pop.”

In 2016, UP launched the Korea Research Center (UP KRC) aiming to lead and harmonize Philipine-Korean research and link Korean academic institutions and Korean community organizations in the Philippines. It also publishes HanPil: Occasional Paper Series on the Philippines and Korea, which has now produced three issues. Bringing all of these resources together, the First Philippine Koreanist Congress was held on May 26, 2018.

UP’s engagement with Korean academic institutions is part of a broad and strong initiative on the part of UP to internationalize its offerings, its faculty and student body, and its academic and institutional network. While UP, in decades past, traditionally looked westward—particularly to the United States and Europe—for these connections, it has increasingly sought to strengthen its relations with Asian universities. Since 2012, we’ve sent 123 students and 14 faculty members from UP to South Korean universities for study. The 14 faculty members went there for their doctorates—again a marked departure from our old practice of sending our faculty to the West for their PhDs.

On a personal note, while I’m in no way a Korea expert, as a journalist and novelist I’ve maintained strong personal relationships with my Korean counterparts, and have participated in several literary conferences in Korea. (I’ll be returning there in November for a writers’ conference on Peace in Asia in Gwangju.) Time and again, in these meetings, I’ve realized how much we share with Koreans—in terms, for example, of our experience with martial law and our emergence from it. So what happened since, and what accounts for the palpable difference in our two economies? That’s what we need to learn from them.

Of course, we also have much to share with Korea. One of my best graduate students, Sandra Nicole Roldan, had one of her essays translated and published in the Korean literary journal ASIA a couple of years ago, where one of my short stories, “In the Garden,” was also published in Korean in 2015. They’re small starts, but hopefully this exchange will grow in the other direction. Right now, a visiting professor is teaching Filipino language courses at the Busan University of Foreign Studies (BUFS), laying the foundation for Philippine Studies there. Maybe Koreans will soon discover Sarah Geronimo and some of our best pop artists as well!

Penman No. 320: On Academic Freedom

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Penman for Monday, September 24, 2018

 

Let me dwell this week on the idea of academic freedom, which has been in focus again recently in the light of controversies involving conflicting ideologies on campus. It’s important because universities are the natural home of ideas, and therefore for clashes of ideas, which then take various forms of political and cultural expression.

Modern (and especially secular) universities stand on the bedrock of academic freedom, which at its simplest means one’s freedom to choose what to study and what to teach, and giving value to knowledge—not power, not money, not superstition—as our best guide to the way forward. That knowledge can be gained through research and reason, through experimentation, debate, and creative intuition. Hopefully that knowledge will yield better options for a thinking citizen.

That’s the basic concept, and while it sounds like something no one should quarrel with, the fact is that academic freedom has been under constant threat and attack over the past century, precisely because knowledge and its free expression can be dangerous to those in power. The challenges understandably often come from the Right, but even the Left—preternaturally imbued with a sense of moral righteousness—has not hesitated to throttle academic freedom when it feels justified, such as when neo-Nazis appear on campus in the US and Europe.

Two specific cases come to mind to illustrate both sides of this argument. The first (drawn from an unpublished history of UP) shows State power brazenly applied to stifle freedom of expression at the University of the Philippines.

In the early 1930s, law student and Collegian editor Arturo Tolentino got into a fight with Law Dean Jorge Bocobo over whether he could write about the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Law, which then-Senate President Manuel Quezon and Bocobo himself opposed. When the Collegian published a news item seeming to support the bill, Bocobo backed the Collegian adviser’s decision to stop printing the Collegian and to burn the 900 copies already printed, on the grounds that the Collegian was not supposed to publish political material. Tolentino appealed to President Palma, who upheld Tolentino on the basis of free speech. But Bocobo appealed to the Board of Regents, which was filled with Quezon allies, and they overturned Palma.

Dean Bocobo reprimanded Tolentino and threatened him with suspension and even expulsion if he kept violating the BOR ruling. But it was Quezon who was most infuriated by the whole affair, and his ire was unmistakably vented on Palma.

Only days after Palma upheld the Collegian’s right to discuss the HHC, the legislature came down hard on the university and imposed a new system of appropriation requiring an itemized budget. Quezon commended the Lower House for probing the finances of UP, stressing that the move was “a distinct service” to the university. Things got worse between Palma and Quezon, and when Palma finally resigned in fatigue after ten years of service, the BOR denied him a gratuity on some technicality, and denied him an honorarium as well. (When Palma died in 1939, however, Quezon stopped everything to be able to attend his funeral, at which he offered generous words of praise for his former adversary.)

The second case involves an aborted debate at Yale University in April 1974, which featured Dr. William Shockley, a Nobel prizewinner for Physics, who had openly proposed that blacks were racially inferior, and that intelligence could be measured by the percentage of one’s Caucasian blood. So repugnant was the notion to many Yale professors and students that they effectively stopped Shockley from speaking, in a fracas that resulted in some suspensions. (And here I have to thank Fareed Zakaria for bringing this to my attention in a recent CNN program.)

A committee was later set up to investigate and assess the incident, and the report of that committee is instructive in what it concluded: “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that the university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”

The committee quoted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote in U.S. v. Schwimmer,1928, that “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

That’s a sobering reminder for anyone who professes to uphold academic freedom and human rights: knowledge moves forward not by silencing the other side, but by presenting superior arguments—not always the easiest thing to do, especially without screaming your head off.

Penman No. 318: Mysteries of Fish

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Penman for Monday, September 10, 2018

 

I’VE OFTEN written and spoken about how—despite the fact that we inhabit an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, bordered on all sides by the sea, and comprising one of the longest coastlines in the world—we seem to have very little by way of a maritime literature. By this I mean novels, stories, poems, and plays that have the sea as a central element, beyond serving as a romantic backdrop.

There’s a whole economy and culture to be found in our relationship with the sea, but much of this has been lost to a metropolitan generation bred on canned tuna and Starbucks coffee. Even among my students, I can count on my fingers the number of people who’ve taken a boat ride longer than a spin around a lake or the short hop from Caticlan to Boracay.

I myself was born in a house a stone’s throw from the beach, in a village on an island far from Manila, so the sea has never been far from my mind and imagination. I dream about it constantly, with recurrent images of huge waves rolling and breaking on the shore, and I as a boy walking on the sand with my father, now long gone.

But I too have to admit that save for a few scenes and the opening chapter of my novel in progress, the sea has figured minimally in my fiction. That’s probably because I feel responsible for creating credible characters whose lives are inextricably waterbound, and haven’t felt confident enough to do justice to the task. The fact is, we’ve lost touch with our marine heritage, which is supremely ironic given how Filipinos have distinguished themselves as seafarers, and how many Filipinos depend on the sea for a living.

This was much on my mind two weeks ago when I flew to Iloilo to attend the formal investiture of Dr. Ricardo P. Babaran as the tenth Chancellor of the University of the Philippines-Visayas. A fisheries expert and nautical engineer, Ric recounted how, as a young boy far up north in Cagayan, he enjoyed going out to sea and to the river to fish.

“My fishing buddies generally used earthworms as bait, but they sometimes used live crickets using different fishing gear. As a young fisher, I observed that using either crickets or earthworms yielded different outcomes—certain fish seemed to prefer one or the other—but my fisher friends were never able to explain to me why. This mystery bothered me for a long time,” he told us.

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Ric left Cagayan to study Fisheries in UP Diliman, and had to deal with the derision of other people who wondered “why Fisheries students needed four years just to learn how to capture fish with hook and line.” Even now, he says, this misappreciation of Fisheries partly explains why “fish-based industries are faring poorly in the Philippines.” (Indeed, an economist I know has pointed out that the recent spike in prices can be traced to some degree to a shortage of fish.)

Ric went on to take an MS in naval architecture and ocean engineering at the University of Washington, and then his PhD in Fisheries Science at Kagoshima University. It was in Japan where, Ric says, he finally found the answer to his childhood mystery: “I learned that catfish and mudfish responded differently to earthworms and crickets because of a process called chemo-reception.”

Dr. Babaran’s investiture was attended by many guests, including many academic officials and luminaries, but several of them stood out, for different reasons. Among them was Dr.  Loel Losanes, a UPV alumnus and the Filipino head of Japan’s Hikari Corporation, probably the largest producer of South Sea pearls in the world.

Just as significant was the presence of members of the Kamamado fishers group from Guimaras, many of them elderly women who, Ric noted, “supplement their daily income with the P40 they get from selling the equivalent of two-liter-sized containers of captured cardinal fish. Through this group, we will undertake a program that will promote responsible fisheries, which I believe will position the Philippines more strategically in the relation to the ornamental fish industry that generates $7 to 8 billion annually.”

I’m confident that the programs of Chancellor Babaran and UPV will improve the livelihoods of millions of our shore-dwelling countrymen, but I’m even more hopeful that a deeper and broader awareness of the importance of the sea in our lives will soon emerge, if only because of the crisis now roiling in the waters around us. (“About a third of our fish catch comes from the West Philippine Sea,” Ric told me.)

And I’m especially happy that a place like UPV exists to mind our waters. A young PhD in UPV, Noel Ferriols, recalled how he was convinced to study in UPV instead of Manila when he and his mother visited the campus in Miag-ao, which specializes in fisheries. “I was amazed when the security guard told me the scientific name of a certain kind of fish,” Noel said. “I thought to myself, if this is a place where even security guards can recite the genus and species of a fish, then it’s where I want to be.”

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

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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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