Penman No. 349: Pen Hunting in Japan

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Penman for Monday, April 15, 2019

 

MOST TOURISTS visit Japan, sensibly enough, for the sushi, the sakura, and the swords. I like all of the above, and chased after all of them during our recent trip to Tokyo (a highlight was seeing a 13th-c. Masamune katana at the Tokyo National Museum). But I had one more item on my personal agenda that I couldn’t possibly leave Japan without—or at least, without looking for it.

That desideratum, of course, was the fountain pen, and there’s a very good reason why fountain pens should be on the discriminating tourist’s Japanese shopping list. Just as they’ve excelled in practically all the arts and crafts, the Japanese have made some of the world’s best fountain pens, many with uniquely Japanese materials and production processes, and some very special nibs.

With fountain pens undergoing a global resurgence in both the corporate and personal spheres as instruments of individuation—a means by which you can literally leave your own signature on a stack of digitized documents, and set yourself apart from the ballpoint-clicking herd—many Filipinos now know familiar American brands like Parker, Sheaffer, and Waterman. Lawyers and doctors typically want German-made Montblancs, and might even try Pelikans, Lamys, and Faber-Castells. But a growing number of mostly young professionals have discovered the Japanese Big Three—Pilot, Sailor, and Platinum—as well as newer brands like the Taiwanese TWSBI. They’ve been helped along by the emergence of local fountain pen, ink, and stationery specialists like Scribe Writing Essentials, Everything Calligraphy, Noteworthy, and PenGrafik.

The Japanese pens I was looking for in Tokyo exist in a whole other realm of connoisseurship. These are artisanal masterpieces, the culmination of centuries of fine workmanship. I’ve often said that pens fascinate me as the perfect fusion of art and engineering, and nothing exemplifies that more than the best Japanese pens. You’d think that the Japanese would be more inclined toward brushes—and they still may be—but a fine pen is considered a personal treasure, as distinct as the swords carried by the samurai of old.

In 2002, Pilot Pen Company—one of Japan’s pen pioneers—opened a pen museum at its headquarters in Kyobashi. Beng and I made a beeline for it, walking the couple of kilometers from the Tsukiji Fish Market, only to discover to our dismay that it had closed a few years earlier. But Tokyo’s fabled pen shops are in themselves museums, and more, so armed with a 72-hour subway pass, we made the rounds of the usual suspects. (Earlier, at the Tokyo City Flea Market in Shinagawa, I had treated myself to a defective but repairable Pelikan M805, a Pilot Custom 74, and a prewar Pilot with a flexible shiro steel nib.)

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A fountain pen tourist’s first stop in Tokyo should be Itoya in Ginza. Japan’s oldest stationery store, Itoya has a whole floor devoted just to fountain pens, and not just your everyday Sheaffer either but the very finest examples of Japanese penmaking. The Japanese pride themselves in the art of maki-e (literally, “sprinkled picture”), which involves creating intricate designs with gold dust and hand painting on ebonite or hard-rubber barrels and caps, on which many layers of hard urushi lacquer are applied. In the 1920s, Pilot—then known as Namiki—partnered with Dunhill to create exquisite examples of urushi/maki-e pens, which have since sold for over $250,000. These urushi and maki-e pens—now also produced by such makers as Nakaya, Danitrio, and Hakase, aside from the Big Three—are hand-made by master craftsmen in small shops, and are typically ordered months ahead. Or you can go to Itoya (or online, to www.nibs.com or www.penchalet.com, among others) to find yours.

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A couple of blocks away from Itoya is Eurobox, a small room on the fourth floor of an old building stocked full of vintage pens, mainly Western, very well chosen and sold at competitive prices. Another must-see is Maruzen’s large pen section at the basement of its Nihonbashi store. And no Tokyo pen visit would be complete without stepping into Kingdom Note in Shinjuku, which specializes in used but top-tier pens, both Japanese and Western. One pen store that takes and ships orders for Pilot urushi pens with special nibs like the so-called Waverley and Falcon nibs is Tokyo Pen Shop Quill in Kugahara, which unfortunately we missed because we took an express instead of a local train on our last full day in Tokyo.

That diversion turned out to be serendipitous, because Beng and I got off on a whim at Sengakuji Station, only to realize that we were within walking distance of the graves of the famous 47 ronin who had attacked and beheaded a despotic ruler in 1702, paying for their deed with their own lives. As we paid our respects to these noble warriors under the cherry blossoms, I seemed to hear voices urging me to “Buy a big Japanese pen to fight evil overlords!”

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So off we went to our last pen stop, Komehyo Ginza. Komehyo is a resale chain that sells mostly high-end used goods but also some new items, including fountain pens, and this was where I found my “grail” pen, by which I was going to remember Japan this time around—a large, new, and thankfully affordable urushi Platinum Izumo pen, its deep red undertone sheening through the rich lacquer. As with many things Japanese, it’s simplicity itself, but breathtakingly elegant. Unlike some places we know, Japanese stores accord their customers extraordinarily solicitous service—you can hold and try out any pen you want for as long as you want without any dagger looks from the staff—and even Komehyo lived up to that standard, processing my 8 percent tourist rebate without any fuss (a few stores ignore it, or require you to collect it at the airport).

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As we flew home with the Izumo sitting smartly in my pocket, I munched on my 100-yen rice crackers from Daiso, and dreamed about whipping out my pen and slashing a few bile-filled throats in the name of truth, beauty, and justice.

(Top pen images from http://www.nibs.com)

 

Penman No. 348: Transience in Tokyo

 

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Penman for Monday, April 8, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Penman No. 342: Have Beng, Will Travel

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Penman for Monday, February 18, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 339: Dinner in Penang

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Penman for Monday, February 4, 2019

 

A FEW days after I retired last month, Beng and I hopped on a plane to Kuala Lumpur on our way to Penang. I’d booked the trip many months ago, as a form of insurance against changing my mind about staying on at my job for another year or two, a very tempting option. Thankfully Malaysia Airlines had a sale on its flights, and that sealed the deal.

Why Penang? Because, about ten years ago, I made a vow to bring Beng to every city I’d ever been, and Penang was one of the few left on the list that was close and affordable, with the promise of a pleasant and relaxed vacation. (In your 20s, you look for bars and ziplining; in your 60s, a soft bed and a nice view of the sunset sounds just about right.) Malaysia also happens to be a personal favorite of ours—I’d taken Beng to KL, Melaka, and Kota Kinabalu before, with happy outcomes in all of those places.

The first and only time I’d been to Penang was in December 1992, when I and a few other Filipinos attended the Asean Writers Conference/Workshop being held there for writers below 40. It’s hard to imagine now that I was only 38 then, with a full shock of jet-black hair and a certain cockiness about the strength of Philippine writing in our part of the world; I’d just returned with a PhD from the US and had confirmed to myself that we could write as well as anyone else. That seemed to be upheld when the conference elected us president—an honor usually reserved for the host country—but our esteem took a few licks at dinnertime, when our Indonesian poet-friend, a man who had made a fortune reading poetry to thousands of paying listeners, dined up in the revolving restaurant, while my roommate Fidel Rillo and I snuck out to the hawker stalls, our precious ringgit jangling in our pockets.

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There was, I must say, a sufficiency of ringgit to accompany Beng and me this time around, but we still chose to take the low road, as it’s very often more fun, foregoing the swanky beachside hotels in Batu Feringhi for more modest digs in central George Town, the island’s capital. We stayed at the aptly named 1926 Heritage Hotel, a long building that still displayed the grace and robust masonry of its colonial past. While highrises are beginning to crowd the Penang cityscape, its colonial architecture is the island’s true attraction, the old mansions set back by wide swaths of greenery and bougainvillea.

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Not being beach types, Beng and I made a beeline on our first morning for the Penang State Museum (entrance fee, 1 ringgit), which had small but artful and informative exhibits on Penang’s mixed Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage. We always make it a point to master the local bus or metro system wherever we go to save on taxis, and armed with seven-day bus passes for 30 (about P400) ringgit each, we just rode buses from one end of the line to the other, enjoying the view and riding back.

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The must-sees for anyone touring Penang are Penang Hill, which offers spectacular views of the city from about 800 meters up via funicular train, and the Blue Mansion, the magnificently restored 130-year-old home of one of China’s richest men, now also a hotel and a restaurant, but open to guided tours (tip: Wife #7 will haunt you). We took it slow, enjoying just one major destination for every one of our four days there, but George Town is full of interesting turns—among them, the old Protestant Cemetery with graves from the 1700s that Beng and I strayed into while walking to the Blue Mansion.

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Most of all, Penang is about hawker food (so Fidel and I were on the right track back in 1992), with brand-new Mercedes-Benzes lined up for parking beside stalls hawking Hainanese Chicken Rice for 5 ringgit a plate. Being a creature of habit, I was quite happy to try chicken rice at various stalls, while Beng had her choice of possibilities from congee to char kway teow.

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The trip reminded me of a short poem I wrote after my first visit there nearly 27 years ago, and here it is (Elangovan is a prominent Singaporean playwright).

DINNER IN PENANG

 For the second time in as many days

I come to her, and have the same

Two-ringgit dish of hawker’s prawn

Steamed in fragrant both, and its succulence

Competes in joyfulness with the garlic sauce.

 

The next morning, Elangovan says to me:

Those prawns were fatted on the city’s slime—

Look here, it’s in the papers,

“Waterborne diseases on the rise!”—

And while my reason grapples

With the sordid possibilities,

My stomach’s heart has no regrets,

Having loved, without need of asking,

Having departed more complete, in trusting.

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Penman No. 332: Southern Surprises

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Penman for Monday, December 17, 2018

 

MY RECENT forays to southern Taiwan—the first to Tainan, and the second to Kaohsiung—reminded me that while we Pinoys love to chuckle and even snicker at how the Chinese (among others) mangle English, the economic and technological leaps they’ve made (using their own language, let’s not forget) are no laughing matter, unless you’re a Chinese entrepreneur or engineer on his or her way to the bank.

This occurred to me as I was flipping through the local travel and leisure magazines in my hotel room in Tainan between sessions of the academic conference I was attending. Typical of the prose was this advertisement for a resort on the island: “Join the exclusive equestrian sports of the aristocrats, so that parents can easily experience the price of the people, the wonderful and rich itinerary, you can easily lick the children without going far! Let you play and don’t want to go home anymore.”

I could imagine some snooty Filipinos, more English than the English, rolling on the floor and thinking that people who write that way can’t possibly go anywhere, but I would’ve liked to bring those people to the exhibits downstairs showcasing Taiwan’s state-of-the-art research in biomedical engineering, solar power, and materials science, including an interesting project aimed at improving your basketball skills through “a virtual reality basketball tactic training system.”

I don’t know how close that project will bring Taiwan to a world basketball championship, but I could see, from the presentations I was listening to, that they were going all out to become world-class champions in research and development. Our host, the National Cheng Kung University, had almost US$145 million to spend on R&D in 2017, mostly from the government. (That’s about half of the University of the Philippines’ budget for everything.)

Thankfully, we did have a break from all the S&T reports on the last day of our Tainan conference, and we were given a choice of tours between visiting a museum or an aquaculture farm. Now, I love fish as much as you do—it’s often the first thing I eat in the morning—but I wanted to have a closer look at Taiwan’s culture and history, so I hopped on the museum bus. What we saw was, well, anything but Taiwanese—unless you take the act of presenting the thing itself as an expression of Taiwan’s place in the world today.

Our destination was the Chimei Museum, named after the company that’s now the world’s largest maker of ABS resin, which goes into the making of popular plastics such as computer keyboards, auto body parts, and bicycle helmets.

The Chimei Museum is an imposing if rather odd homage to Western art and artisanship. Located on the outskirts of Tainan, it was built in 1992 by the billionaire industrialist Shi Wen-long. Now 90, Shi never got a college degree. But he’s also a passionate amateur violinist who’s played with Yo-yo Ma. That, plus his personal fortune, has allowed him to put together a stunning collection of vintage musical instruments—including priceless violins by Stradivari, Guarneri, and Amati—that are now on display at the museum, in an exhibition that recreates the workshop of a master luthier or violin maker.

The Chimei’s other showstopper—aside from the Rodin gallery and some masterpieces of French realism—is its exhibit of ancient arms and armor, from the time of the Greek hoplites and medieval knights to the Japanese samurai and English crossbowmen. I have to admit to a boy’s fascination with weaponry, and having visited many of the world’s best museums, I’d have to say that the Chimei’s collection was comprehensively fearsome. These were the real things, folks, not cheap or 3-D printed replicas.

Indeed, there’s hardly anything Chinese in the design of the Chimei or in its exhibits. The large, neoclassical, Corinthian-columned museum—set off from the street by a long walkway flanked by tall statues of the Greek gods and goddesses—could have stood anywhere in Europe or the US, and comes off as a statement, as if to say, “We could have given you the chinoiserie you expect, but we chose to acquire and to present the best of the West.”

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And I can’t let this column end without mentioning the other surprise I came across in southern Taiwan, in the port city of Kaohsiung, where I also attended a conference on distance education. Our host, Dr. Eing-Ming Wu, made use of a free afternoon to introduce us to the city in a most unconventional way—by giving us tickets to take the I-Ride, Kaohsiung’s so-called “flying theater”—kind of like a rollercoaster in an Imax—powered by the homegrown Brogent Group’s 3D technology, which it has exported to Hollywood and other amusement capitals worldwide. If I needed to be impressed by Taiwan’s engineers, this was the best way to do it, screaming my head off, feet dangling in the air, as we swooped over a Buddhist temple then plunged into the ocean.

While travel to Taiwan remains visa-free for Pinoys, I’m definitely returning as a tourist to Kaohsiung with my wife Beng, if only to have her  experience the exhilaration of the I-Ride and maybe take her on a cruise on the Love River, feasting on the sweet giant atisuntil our eyes bulge. As they say, in Taiwan, “you can easily lick the children without going far”—whatever that means, it sounds like fun!

 

 

 

Penman No. 331: Opening up to Taiwan

 

IMG_8621.jpegPenman for Monday, December 10, 2018

 

AS IT happened, I was in Taiwan twice last month to represent the University of the Philippines in two conferences that underscored the vitality of our academic partnerships with our Taiwanese counterparts—and the importance they accord to improving relations with Philippine universities.

Over the past decade, the Philippines has been sending scores of graduate students to various universities in Taiwan for their masteral and doctoral degrees, mainly in the sciences, where Taiwan has a lot to offer the world, given its cutting-edge technologies and laboratories. This also plays into one of the island’s growing predicaments—a demographic dip that has encouraged its policymakers to draw students for its universities from around the region, embodied in its so-called “New Southbound Policy” of promoting relations with South and Southeast Asia and Australasia.

Southern Taiwan has been especially aggressive in opening and developing academic relations with Philippine universities, banking on its geographical and cultural proximity to us. (It always amazes me how closely their aboriginal costumes and folkways resemble ours.)

The first conference I attended was the Presidents’ Forum of the South and Southeast Asian and Taiwan Universities (SATU), a consortium organized 15 years ago and since led by the National Cheng Kung University based in Tainan. This year’s meeting was devoted to strengthening linkages between universities and industries, with experts from Thailand (medical sciences) and India (engineering) supporting their Taiwanese counterparts in providing models for cooperation. SATU universities match experts who then work collaboratively on projects ranging from robotics and wind tunnels to dengue and stem cell research.

The second and larger conference was held in the port city of Kaohsiung, even farther south (both Tainan and Kaohsiung are easily reachable from Taipei by high-speed train). This was the 3rdInternational Conference on Open and Distance e-Learning (ICODeL) with the theme “Technology-Enhanced and Inclusive Education in the Digital Age,” and while it took place in Taiwan, it was actually organized and run by the UP Open University (UPOU), with support from the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), the National University of Kaohsiung, the Open University of Kaohsiung, the Southern Taiwan Universities Alliance, and Taiwan’s Edu-Connect Southeast Asia network, among others.

This is as good a time as any to highlight the work of UPOU, one of UP’s eight constituent universities—one that happens to have the smallest physical footprint (it occupies a small lot in Los Baños, Laguna) but the largest global reach, because of its online presence. Founded almost 25 years ago to democratize access to quality higher education through distance education, UPOU came fully online in 2007, with 25% of its enrollees spread out over 70 countries. It offers three undergraduate, about 30 graduate diploma and masteral, and three doctoral degree programs, from which it has produced close to 3,000 graduates, mostly from its Multimedia Studies and Education programs.

All of this happened, former UPOU Chancellor Grace “Gigi” Javier Alfonso told me, without compromising UP’s high educational standards. “Applicants to our undergraduate degree programs still have to pass the UPCAT,” she said.

There’s a persistent impression out there that open universities and distance education offer cheaper but also lower-quality education and easier-to-pass courses, but UPOU has been working hard to prove this stigmatization wrong. “We offer the same quality of education as any other UP CU,” said current Chancellor Melinda Bandelaria, who also presides over the Asian Association of Open Universities (AAOU). “What open universities like UPOU provide is a chance for working professionals, housewives, entertainers, and OFWs to acquire a college or graduate education at their own pace, wherever they may be in the world. It’s not a replacement for, but an alternative to, traditional residential colleges.”

Many of UPOU’s students are OFWs working on their degrees, which will boost their skills and employability where they are and when they come home. One of the highlights of ICODeL was the inauguration of a Philippines Learning Commons in Kaohsiung where UPOU students could access their materials online. Much of the instruction of UPOU and other open universities is done through Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, which have become increasingly popular in the global academic landscape. UPOU now has more than 70 MOOcs on its roster, with 3 MOOCs typically covering a 3-unit course. It typically takes three years to finish a master’s degree with UPOU.

Mandated by RA 10650 or the Open Distance Learning Act to assist CHED and TESDA, UPOU had engaged industry experts help it in designing Open Educational Resources  or OERs which are free to use by teachers and students; UPOU then develops MOOCs using these OERs. “When industries work with universities, they create a powerful engine for economic growth and innovation,” said Dr. Bandelaria.

The point of bringing ICODeL to Kaohsiung was also to match UPOU and the many Philippine SUC officials who attended the conference with their Taiwanese counterparts. The chief matchmaker was Edu-Connect’s indefatigable Executive Director, Dr. Eing-Ming Wu, a political scientist and Chair Professor at Shu-Te University who has been one of the most energetic promoters of the Philippines abroad that I’ve ever met.

With these connections in place, Philippine educators may not have to look much farther than our closest northern neighbor for vital help in raising their educational standards.

Penman No. 328: Writers for Peace

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Penman for Monday, 19 November 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penman No. 323: Cooling Off on the Island of Fire

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Penman for Monday, October 15, 2018

 

AS THINGS heated up last week over military charges of communist inroads in our universities—an issue the University of the Philippines, in particular, has dealt with for over 70 years, under every administration—I decided to take advantage of my leave credits and spend a few days in a zone of true peace and quiet, away from TV and certain “loud and aggressive persons… vexatious to the spirit,” as the Desiderata put it.

As it happened, I’d presciently I’d booked a trip to Camiguin last November (we routinely do this—book blind months in advance and hope for the best) and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Lanzones Festival was coming up (we were going to miss it by a week), which meant a surfeit of the sweet fruit on the market.

But I’d always been intrigued by Camiguin, like Batanes (an itch I scratched some years ago); I was born on a small island in Romblon, so islands hold a special charm for me, as does the sea, which I dream about often in all its varied moods, from tranquil to terrifying.

From what I’d heard, Camiguin was all that—mostly tranquil, sometimes terrifying, being home to no less than seven volcanoes, with the best-known of them, Mt. Hibok-Hibok, still considered active, tagging it as “The Island of Fire.” But all of this was just stuff you see on Wikipedia, and I was raring to see Camiguin and its natural splendor with my own eyes.

On the lower fringe of the Bohol Sea, Camiguin is technically part of Northern Mindanao, so a popular way to get there is by ferry from Cagayan de Oro, but we took the plane from Manila to Cebu, leaving close to midnight, and then a smaller plane from Cebu to Camiguin early in the morning. If you know how to manage your time, this gives you a whole day of exploration from the very start, but being seniors, Beng and I dozed off upon arrival, had lunch, then hit the sack again.

Barangay Yumbing, a few minutes’ ride by tricycle from the airport (P150 for tourists, P30 for locals), seemed to be the locale of choice from what I’d read online, so I booked a room in a cottage-type hotel there. Yumbing is on the beach facing White Island, a sliver of sandbar that’s one of Camiguin’s must-sees, which explains the cluster of lodging houses along the strip.

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We booked online at one of the cheaper places for around P800/night—clean and comfortable, but without hot water, and you bring your own toiletries—but we soon realized that a range of choices could be had, climaxing with the impressive Paras Beach Resort right on the waterfront. We had dinner (tinolang tuna) there, and after a glorious sunset, a swarm of what must have been thousands of chattering swifts descended on the trees above us. Another high-end option specializing in Asian cuisine was the smartly designed Guerrera, set on the edge of a ricefield between the sea and the towering Hibok-Hibok; Vietnamese spring rolls fringed by five special sauces and adobo made for a perfect lunch here.

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We decided to spend the second of our three days touring the island, and for this we hired (P1,500) a multicab, a small van with narrow seats, comfortable enough if there’s just two of you in the back so you can stretch out your legs. Our driver Rey and his wife Grace took us to the most popular spots on our side of the island. We passed on the first stop—the Walkway, featuring 14 Stations of the Cross halfway up to the top of Mt. Vulcan—because after a few steps, we realized that each station was going to be punishment for our sins. The Old Spanish Church was far more pleasing, albeit sobering, as this huge enclosure of limestone and coral—set against a pretty arbor along the shore—was the skeletonized hulk of what remained after a devastating eruption of Hibok-Hibok in 1871, the very one that created Mt. Vulcan.

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More traces of the island’s volcanic past emerged in the Sunken Cemetery, reclaimed by the sea and now reachable by a short boat ride. Tuasan Falls and Katibawasan Falls offered not just spectacular views but cool green waters begging you to jump in for a swim. Indeed, cool and hot seemed to be the theme for the day, with pools and springs of either variety to be found all over, culminating in the suitably named Ardent Hot Spring on the foothills of Hibok-Hibok, where we rested our tired feet by dipping them into the water for half and hour.

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Cutting across the island allowed us to gaze more closely up Hibok-Hibok (whose summit is a popular destination for younger and more intrepid hikers, about a five-hour trek from the hot spring). That’s the full-time job of the Phivolcs Observatory, well worth a visit because of its pictorial display of the island’s tumultuous past (Hibok-Hibok’s last eruption in 1951 killed more than 3,000 people).

An unexpected bonus was a tip from our driver Rey to have lunch at the Orange Pie restaurant in the capital town of Mambajao, where the P180 eat-all-you-can deal featured tuna kinilaw, fried chicken, pork adobo, pancit, steamed grouper, veggies, and fruits and cakes for dessert. Indeed, Beng and I had most of our meals, lutong-bahay-style, in roadside carinderiasfor about P50 each. And of course, everywhere we went, we saw groves of lanzones trees heavy with fruit (yours for P50-60 a kilo).

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We spent the best part of our final day splashing in the indescribably clear water around White Island, a short hop away by pumpboat (all yours for P450 back-and-forth). You might want to spring another P100 to rent a beach umbrella, because there’s absolutely nothing on this sandbar, most of which disappears at high tide. And that’s the blessedness of it—nothing but sea and sky, and the best view of the island from afar.

“Camiguin—come again!” our driver Rey quipped as he dropped us off at the airport. We will!

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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!