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!

Penman No. 317: Bringing the Minor Masters Home

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Penman for Monday, August 28, 2018

 

I’VE WRITTEN a few pieces recently about my self-assigned mission of finding and bringing home, from various sources overseas, masterpieces of Philippine publishing and literature, from early texts in Spanish to travel books about the Philippines and first editions or first publications of notable literary works.

This week I’m going to extend that to another burgeoning interest of mine—the recovery and repatriation of Filipino art pieces abroad, particularly those of painters who may never have quite achieved the status of a Juan Luna or Fernando Amorsolo, but whose works have their own charms to recommend them.

I may be luckier than most art fanciers in that I happen to know someone who restores the masters, so I get to see more than my fair share of Manansalas, Ocampos, Botongs, Magsaysay-Hos, and Luzes, up close, warts and all. But unless I win the Nobel Prize, I’m never going to own one of these masterworks, so I’ve learned to moderate my ambitions and aim for something both significant and reasonably attainable within a professor’s means.

Those goals crystallized for me when I attended, some months ago, an exhibit titled “Fascination with Filipiniana: The Vargas Collection,” curated by my friend and fellow UP prof Dr. Patrick Flores, who walked me through the show and pointed out how interesting (and not quite so seamless) the transition was between tradition and modernism, sometime in the past midcentury. I could see the tensions between the two, occasionally manifesting in the same artist’s earlier and later work (I don’t recall that he was in this Met exhibit, but Constancio Bernardo, who left the Philippines as an ardent follower of his teacher Amorsolo and came home a committed modernist, much to Amorsolo’s dismay, provides a good example.)

Many of the paintings on exhibit belonged to the school of “Mabini art,” a term often and unfairly used in the pejorative sense, suggesting cheap art done in haste for the tourist market. Indeed there’s a lot of that (and the purposes may not have changed; they’ve just become more pretentious, pitched toward buyers with deeper pockets), but these pioneering Mabini artists were talented in their own right, persistently romantic in a time of gloomy realism.

I was particularly drawn to the work of Gabriel Custodio (1912-1993), another student of Amorsolo and Fabian de la Rosa. I had earlier acquired two small paintings of his from the late 1950s, restful vignettes depicting rice fields and bamboo groves. The Tanza, Cavite native had produced larger seascapes that I admired, but the art market had caught on to him and I couldn’t possibly afford him at auction—at least not here.

I’ve long been convinced that in the United States—languishing in bedrooms, barns, garages, and resale shops—must be scores of Filipino art works brought over by American servicemen and diplomats after World War II and the Vietnam War, surfacing only recently with the passing of these veterans and being disposed of at auction by their heirs.

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A few months ago, a large painting by Custodio, about 2’ x 3’, turned up in, of all places, a Goodwill Store in Spokane, Washington—and I happily snagged that, and rolled it up in a tube for bringing home to Manila when I visited the US last month. Characteristically, Custodio signed it front and back, dated 1966; I’m calling it “Tanza Shore” in honor of his hometown and of its economic and cultural affinity to the water.

It was also on that trip when I secured and repatriated two other smaller but no less interesting pieces. One, shipped out of the East Coast, was an oil painting of a tree at sunset, more than anything an evocation of mood, an impressionist play of mauves, pinks, and oranges. It had been done by Jorge Pineda in 1937 and was still in its presumably original frame; the browned and crusty paper backing was beginning to crumble, but I plan to preserve it that way, as it bears the sticker of its framer: the Henry Schultheis Company, well known framers and gallery owners in New York City (Schultheis died in 1948). Pineda (1879-1946) himself was no mean painter, having won a prize for his work at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and later becoming a teacher to Amorsolo.

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The third piece I brought home—sold by an antiques dealer in Connecticut—caught my eye not just because of its subject but also because of its symbolic use of color. It’s an oil-on-paperboard depiction of Filipino farmers harvesting rice—pretty typical enough, and unremarkable of itself. But this work had been done by one P. T. Paguia in 1945, at the end of the war and in a season of new hope—a patriotic optimism exuded by the red, blue, and white in the dress of the woman bearing a bilao of fruits in the foreground, echoed by the other farmer and the brilliant sky. (Patrick Flores reminded me that Amorsolo had done a similar work in these colors, Palay Maiden, in 1920.) Sadly I could find nothing on P. T. Paguia, except a reference to Pedro T. Paguia being the illustrator of a 1952 book by Ramon Tapales, Singing and Growing for the Primary Grades.

Whether by established or obscure artists, these paintings from decades ago bring me joy and relief from the vexations of our time. Of course I could resell them, but frankly they probably won’t make too much, and just looking at them makes me happier than wondering what they may be worth, which I suppose is what amateur collecting should be about. Call them escapist, but they fortify my spirit by reminding me of the need to fight for beauty and plenitude for all.

 

 

Penman No. 316: Big Stories in Little Books

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AMONG THE 50 pounds-plus of books that I carted home from my last visit to our daughter Demi’s place in San Diego, California, was a mini-stash of small leather-bound books that most people would probably ignore had they turned up in a yard sale. In a time wedded to the notion that bigger is better, small books attract scant attention, the impression being that they can’t have much to say.

To be honest, I didn’t know the size of the books at the time I ordered them; either I wasn’t looking too closely at the description, or was distracted by other features. My first reaction upon seeing them might have been disappointment, expecting to receive heftier volumes, especially given their topics, history and geography. But as soon as I opened them and began reading, my complaints melted away.

First, a short note about book sizes: publishers and librarians generally go by descriptions that range from the folio, the largest standard-sized book at about 12” x 19″, to the sexagesimo-quarto (or “64mo”) at 2” x 3″. Most books we buy today fall into the octavo (6” x 9”) or duodecimo (5” x 7-3/4”) category. My small books are octodecimo (4” x 6-1/2”) and smaller. (Miniature books—indeed, whole miniature libraries, one of which Napoleon was said to have carried to battle—have a fascinating history.)

The first little book I’d like to share with readers is Vol. II of Mavor’s Voyages and Travels, published in London in 1796. (For its age, its looks almost new, the leather supple and unmolested, except for wear at the corners, and the paper is bright and crisp.) The book offers contemporaneous accounts of the voyages of the great navigators and explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries—Drake, Cavendish, Raleigh, Van Noort, etc.—and they brought me back to my boyhood readings of these travels and their marvelous discoveries.

I haven’t finished the book, but so far I’ve found one reference to the Philippines, from Joris van Spilbergen’s voyage of 1614-1617:

“On the 6th of January 1616, they landed on one of the Ladrones, and reached the Manillas the 9th of February. On the 5th of March they received intelligence of a fleet, consisting of twelve ships and four gallies, manned with two thousand Spaniards, besides Indians, Chinese, and Japanese; which powerful armament was intended to drive the Dutch out of the Moluccas.”

More gripping is this episode from the round-the-world voyage of Willem Schouten and Jacob La Maire of 1615-1617, described elsewhere as “the greatest Dutch expedition into the Pacific Ocean,” a voyage mean to find a new route to the Spice Islands and Terra Australis, today’s Australia:

“They left the coast of Sierra Leona on the 4th of October; and next day, about noon, were surprised by a violent shock given to the lower part of one of the ships. No adversary appeared, no rick had been encountered; but while they were amused with this phenomenon, the sea began to change color, and a fountain of blood seemed to surround them. This sudden alteration of the water was no less astonishing than the shock they had sustained; but of the cause of the both they were equally ignorant, till they reached Port Desire. There, in careening the ship from the strand, they found a large horn, both in form and magnitude resembling an elephant’s tooth, sticking fast in the bottom of the ship. It was a firm and solid body, without any cavity or spongy matter in the middle; and had pierced through three very stout planks of the ship, and raised one of the ribs; penetrating at least a foot deep in the timbers, and about as much more appeared outside. The incident on the coast of Sierra Leona was now explained. It was clear that some monstrous tenant of the deep, of unknown species, having made a rude assault on the ship, was unable to withdraw its weapon; which, breaking in the attack, occasioned such an effusion of blood as to discolour the surrounding ocean.”

And Port Desire? Could a port be better named, from the viewpoint of a sailor months at sea, suffering from scurvy and all manner of loneliness and discomfort? (The port, now named Puerto Deseado, still exists in Patagonia in southern Argentina, and was visited by Charles Darwin on the Beaglein December 1833.)

Another small book comes from 1822, and it’s in French: Le Tour du Monde, ou Tableau Geographique et Historique de Tous le Peuples de la Terre. These “tour du monde” or around-the-world books were popular in the 19thcentury; I’ve chased after them out because they promise exquisite engravings, and this one didn’t disappoint, with hand-colored illustrations of life in Tahiti, Java, the Sandwich Islands, Peru, and Patagonia. No Philippines here, but since it’s the sixth volume in a series, I’m pretty sure the Philippine version will turn up soon.

Of course, much of this information could be available elsewhere at little or no cost; you don’t have to buy an 18th-century book to see what it says, with websites like Project Gutenberg providing the full texts free of charge. But I choose to read not just for information, but for the romance of it—and there’s nothing like holding the very same book that a solicitor or a milliner would have sought for news and entertainment two hundred years ago.

There’s actually a few more small books in the pile, but we’ve run out of space, so I hope I’ve said enough to pique your interest in these tiny packets of wonder.

Penman No. 312: Recovering Fil-Am History

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Penman for Monday, July 23, 2018

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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