Penman No. 276: A Storyteller Returns

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Penman for Monday, November 6, 2017

 

I EDIT a lot of books and manuscripts in the course of my work as a professional writer, mostly for institutions like banks, NGOs, government agencies, airlines, and even accounting firms. These people need help with their corporate communications, and I’m glad to lend a hand.

But now and then I get asked to edit a book of a more personal nature—a memoir, an autobiography, a travelogue, or a collection of essays—and when that happens I have to think twice about taking the job on, because these personal projects require a certain compatibility—almost an intimacy—between the writer and the editor. While institutional work is largely impersonal—the very reason I prefer it—editing someone’s life-work demands close familiarity with and sensitivity to the author’s character and concerns. That can be difficult, which is why I’ve declined many such invitations, unwilling to engage in so taxing a process.

There’s been one person, however, for whom I’ve edited four books—each one of them formidably full-length and chockful of detail. I have to admit—and she will agree—that the job has involved careful line-by-line editing and restyling. That’s easy to explain: she’s a terrific storyteller, but English wasn’t her first language—she also speaks Arabic, Greek, French, Dari, at least one other language—so she does need an editor, and she found me.

That happened 15 years ago through the intervention of a mutual friend, Jimmy Laya. He had a good friend in the United States, he said, whose husband had just passed away and who wanted to write a book about her life with him, a life that had taken them around the world and to the Philippines, where they had spent many good years. It seemed interesting enough, so I said yes.

And so began what became a unique friendship for me and my wife Beng with Mrs. Julie Hill, an Alexandrian Greek born and raised in Egypt but who moved to the US for her master’s degree in chemistry, then spent the next many decades traveling the globe with her husband Arthur, an official of the Ford Foundation. Later, Julie herself would become a telecommunications executive—and, after Arthur’s passing, an inveterate traveler trekking the Mongolian desert, the Afghan hills, the Russian steppes, the valleys of Papua New Guinea, and the Norwegian fjords.

Out of that life and those travels came four books, all of which I would edit: A Promise to Keep: From Athens to Afghanistan (2003), The Silk Road Revisited: Markets, Merchants and Minarets (2006), and Privileged Witness: Journeys of Rediscovery (2014). Her newest, In the Afternoon Sun: My Alexandria (2017), was launched just last week in Makati, again through the kind auspices of Jimmy Laya and the Society for Cultural Enrichment, which Jimmy serves as vice-chair, and which published Julie’s book.

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Despite her aches and pains—as any octogenarian globetrotter is bound to suffer—Julie flew in from Southern California to be with old friends like the Cesar Viratas and the Francis Estradas and to give thanks to Angola Consul Helen Ong, who graciously hosted the launch, and to Ambassadors Ahmed Abdelaziz Ezzat and Kaimenakis Nikolaos of Egypt and Greece, respectively. Of course she also gave special thanks to her cover artist, June Dalisay, and to her editor—who, sadly, had to fly to Thailand at the last minute on a mission for his university.

It may seem that My Alexandria—Julie’s haunting memoirs of her childhood years in that vanished cosmopolis—would have very little to do with us Filipinos (A Promise to Keep has some very sharp vignettes of expatriate life here under the Marcoses), and Julie herself had expressed serious doubt about its worth as a book, but I had urged her strongly to press on with it, convinced that its evocation of a place and time where cultures and religions could get along so well was what our fractured world today needed to see.

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Of all her books, it was frankly the hardest to work on, as I challenged her to go into sometimes painful detail; our relationship had long gone past editor and client, well past discussing fees, and I wanted this book to be the crowning glory of her authorial career. Here and there, as any editor would, I worked on tenses, participles, and modifiers; but what rewards the dutiful editor is a natural writer who sees what’s worth seeing, and Julie Hill has been just that, as this passage from an earlier book chronicling her journey over the Silk Road (taken when she was in her seventies!) reveals—simple in language, but bright and articulate with emotion. (You can find all her books on Amazon.)

Night had fallen; it was a bright full moon. The sky bristled with stars; but it remained bluish gray, unlike the black velvet firmament of Rajasthan or the Sulu Archipelago. Constellations tipped at an unfamiliar angle. A shooting star! It had been years since I viewed one, and it was a good omen for the trip.

 At dawn I stepped outside my ger. It was a soft morning with the sun rising behind high clouds. Seized by the clarity and the silence, I stood and listened. Not a breath of wind, not a sound from the gravel paths of our encampment, no machine whirring, no horse snorting, no voice coming from the nearby gers, no bird calling. I felt that I was in one of the emptiest places on earth.

 Freed of distraction I held my breath and listened to my own heartbeat; I sensed nothing. There was no wind to move the clouds or dust or bushes. No sound, no movement, no scent, no warmth yet in the sun, no cold remaining in the air. The only sensation was through the eyes: the desert, the mountains, and the hills. This was the Gobi. I wondered if it was possible to be happier.

 Welcome back, Julie, and from here, happy trails!

 

Penman No. 273: A Privileged Friendship

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Penman for Monday, October 16, 2017

 

THE LAST time I saw Wash SyCip was from a far distance. It was his 95th birthday on June 30, 2016, and a long line of well-wishers—businessmen, politicians, and other celebrities—had queued up at the ballroom of the Shangri-La Makati to greet him and have their pictures taken with the icon. I thought for a second about falling in line, just to say hello, but then decided against it, already having spent more time with Wash than most people except his closest associates. He looked more frail than I had ever seen him, even as he kept up a cordial countenance seated in his chair on a raised dais, and I felt content to remember the sprightlier octogenarian I had first met a decade earlier.

Of course I knew who Washington SyCip was well before then; my wife Beng worked as an artist in the communications department of SGV in the 1980s, but I had never met the man himself—not until an opportunity arose to bid for and to write his biography in early 2006, when he was turning 85. I felt very fortunate to have been chosen for the job—and that’s what it was to me then, a job, albeit one involving an illustrious subject. I had no inkling that I was about to enter into a privileged friendship, something that would extend well beyond the writing of a book.

I had already done books for and about other personages in politics and business, and would do many more after Wash. But none of them—meaning no disrespect to or disregard for my other clients—would come close to the biography I would write for Wash, and it had everything to do with the uniqueness of the man, who lived not only an extraordinarily long life but also one far more colorful than you would credit an accountant for.

For months, we met Saturday mornings in his seventh-floor SGV office, and chatted for a couple of hours about phases of his life, proceeding chronologically from his childhood to the key decision to open his own accounting firm, a moment that I would later decide to open the book with. (Wash: Only a Bookkeeper was published in 2009 by the SGV Foundation and the Asian Institute of Management, and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2010.) Immediately I felt at ease with his polite formality; no artificial chumminess there or dramatic flourish, just a quiet consistency of well-remembered detail, everything from trying to learn the foxtrot for a graduation dance and breaking Japanese codes in Calcutta to carrying a cold, dressed duck under his arm on the New York subway to bring to a lady friend.

Most readers, I’m sure, were looking for the grand contours, the big business decisions—and there’s all that in the book—but I tried to keep things homely, and was glad that Wash was game for it. He liked to play “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago on his iPod—but not being a techie, often forgot to recharge it.

When he learned that I collected pens, he sent a bunch of them over to my house; I opened the box and saw that he had gifted me with some very nice ballpoints, which I thanked him for. When a perceptive associate gently reminded him that I collected not ball pens but fountain pens, he sent another box of the correct writing instruments—CEOs like him typically received scores of these as gifts and stored them away in drawers—with an apologetic note, even more graciously acknowledged by the ecstatic recipient. And every Christmas we would receive a box filled with some lovely piece of décor handcrafted by a microenterprise he supported in Cebu.

He had a soft spot for Filipino talent of all kinds. He once hosted a party at his home for President Cory Aquino, some ambassadors, and similarly lofty people. After dinner, he sprung a surprise on them. “Just get into your cars and follow me!” he announced with a twinkle in his eye. He led the convoy to a dimly downscale stretch of Boni Avenue, down into the happy maw of Club Mwah, the gay musical revue. Cory had a blast, and I had fun watching Wash garlanded by that feathery parade.

Sometimes I dropped by his office or chatted with him in the corner of a soirée to hear him share his views on current goings-on, both of us probably thinking that they would be useful inputs to the centennial update of his biography, but really just to catch up. It was these unscripted asides, his inviting trust, that I felt most privileged by. I suppose biographers come in through some special door, and with Wash, that door always seemed open.

Last July I received an envelope from Wash, and even without opening it I could feel that it contained a pen inside. “Dear Butch,” said the accompanying note, “This is the only pen that I have come across which may be new to your library. Just note the owl at the head of the pen. Sincerely, Wash.” It was a ballpoint, but I didn’t mind—owls (and turtles) were his trademark avatars.

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His generosity was well known, but it was never the showy or sentimental kind. He believed above all in the capability of the poor to learn and to lift themselves up with a little help. Despite the American citizenship he had to accept in a time of war, he thought and acted as a true global Filipino.

When he passed away last week on a plane above the Pacific—bridging the two shores he knew best, and still on the job at 96—I was requested to draft an obituary, and I replied, choking, that it was going to be my honor. It was the first—and, almost certainly, the only—time I would shed a tear for someone I wrote about.

Penman No. 158: A Biographer’s Advice

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Penman for Monday, July 20, 2015

OVER THE past 20 years or so, I’ve been privileged to be asked to write the biographies of many notable Filipinos, an unexpected but interesting digression from writing the stories, novels, plays, and screenplays that used to occupy me. As it is, these days, I spend far more time on other people’s book projects than on my own—not that I mind, as it’s become a second career for me, and as it’s also introduced me to some of the most remarkable people in our country and to their life stories, which can be very instructive and inspiring.

To put things in context, I’m in the business (yes, it is one) of writing commissioned (I call them “sympathetic”) biographies, and as I’ve discussed here before, that creates a unique set of impositions on the writer. Commissioned writers might otherwise be dismissed as paid hacks; I’ve never flinched at being called one (which has happened), because I’m aware of my givens and also of what I can achieve within and despite those limitations.

I’ve often been asked by my students and by other writers thinking of going into biographical writing what it takes to get into this line of work—aside, obviously, from the language skills every professional writer should be assumed to have. I might devote a full column to this one of these days, but for now, let me jot down some notes at random.

Know why you’re doing this. Curiosity will be part of it, and that’s always a good thing, and possibly earning a good sum of money will be, too, but you also have to tell yourself that you’re contributing to social and political history by putting new information on the table.

No, you won’t be telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You should make a solemn vow to yourself not to lie or to be a conscious party to a lie, but don’t be under any illusion that you will uncover and reveal everything there is to know about your client. Most clients will either forget, disregard, or downplay the negative aspects of their lives—it’s a natural human impulse. I do advise my clients to be as forthright as possible for the biography’s own good (see below), but the bottom line is, you’re not an independent journalist, so your client will have final editorial approval over what you write. The upside is, even if you’re presenting a half-filled glass at best, it’s still substance for serious scholars and critics to interrogate, so you’re contributing to a hopefully more productive discourse.

You don’t have to like or to admire your client to do a good job. It helps, and I often end up liking and admiring my clients, but I maintain enough distance to allow me to write without gushing, or without sounding like an apologist. I let my clients speak for themselves—especially in instances where I might hold different views; I quote them directly and represent them as fairly as possible, but I also try to raise difficult questions that most informed and intelligent readers will raise anyway.

Be thoroughly professional. Get a signed contract specifying outputs, schedules, and fees. Be prepared to issue official receipts, and pay your taxes.

You can always say no. No matter the money, there are some jobs you just know you have to refuse for one reason or other, and I’ve done that quite a few times.

Clients, too, need some sound advice, even before the project gets off the ground. I get many calls from people planning to have their biographies or that of someone they know written, and this is part of what I tell them.

Don’t go the first-person route. Using the first person (with an “I” talking all the time) gets tiring and tiresome pretty quickly, and almost inevitably sounds self-serving and defensive in its tone. This doesn’t mean that great, honest, and well-modulated autobiographies and memoirs don’t get written; but that takes enormous self-awareness and (ironically) self-effacement. Most people can’t resist thumping their chests. Again, that’s natural, but if you’re truly praiseworthy, it’s best to let others (not your writer, either) point that out. First person limits the number of people who can talk about you to one: you. It blocks out other perspectives—even contrary ones—which can be useful, and which every biography needs for credibility’s sake. You can always be quoted at length, anyway, for more personal insights.

Tell me the truth. Don’t expect me to lie for you. Like a lawyer, I can understand the necessity of nuancing the presentation of certain situations, but I will not deliberately misrepresent the facts. I don’t need or expect to know all your secrets, but I need to be told as much as you can let on, so I can tell your story fairly. If you choose to deliberately leave out entire episodes that could prove embarrassing, that’s your call, but be aware that people will spot the omission, and your credibility will suffer. A biography is your chance to present your side of a controversy, and quite frankly it’s what readers will look for, beyond the predictable catalog of one’s achievements. No one leads a perfect life, and fractures are almost always more interesting than surface sheen.

Be kind, and try not to use your book to settle scores. Like it or not, most big people acquire enemies, and a book’s a tempting opportunity to take potshots at everyone in range. Some of that may be called for, especially when some grave injustice has been sustained, but I counsel my clients to be very sparing with their arrows, which tend to be fired back. I’ve actually walked away from a nearly-finished book project (and from half my fee) when the client insisted on launching a savage attack on a business partner he’d had a recent falling-out with. “Look,” I told him frankly, “you’re XX years old, a born-again Christian, and close to dying. Are you sure you want to be remembered as this vengeful person?” The book never came out, and he died shortly afterward.

Trust me, trust my storytelling. Some clients insist on playing up their virtues to the nth degree, to the point of overwhelming if not nauseating the reader with self-laudatory information. Others want me to accentuate the theatrics of an already dramatic situation. As a fictionist, I rely on the power of selectivity, suggestion, and understatement, and I know how to trigger the desired effect in readers. Trust me; I hardly ever brag, but this is what I’ve won prizes for. If you want a rah-rah publicist, there are many others you can hire for a lot less. Know when to stop, when to let go of the text, and when to say “That’s enough for one book. We can always write another one.”

Penman No. 151: A Workshop in Biography


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Penman for Monday, June 1, 2015

BECAUSE OF my trip to Canada, I was able to attend only one day of this year’s UP National Writers Workshop, which took place from May 10 to 17 in Baguio. I immediately went to work that morning leading a discussion of a biographical project submitted by one of the twelve fellows.

It was a topic I was keenly interested in, because of my own work in biographical writing. (Two of my biographies—A Man Called Tet: The Story of Enrique T. Garcia, Jr. and Edgardo J. Angara: In the Grand Manner—were published and launched recently by Anvil Publishing and the University of the Philippines Press, respectively.) I’m at work on a few more, and if it becomes my lot to be known primarily for my accounts of other people’s lives than for my own fiction, then I can’t complain, having assumed a rather unique responsibility and occupation, among a few others in our writing community.

As a grade-schooler, I devoured biographies in the library, finding that the lives of successful or significant people—whether here or in faraway lands—inspired me to try harder and do more in my own difficult existence. I especially enjoyed the life stories of scientists, explorers, soldiers, artists, and heroes. Of course, these elementary editions were highly simplified, and very likely glossed over the human imperfections—sometimes gross—that these characters possessed, which more mature biographies would reveal if not revel in. No matter; at that time, the overarching greatness of their deeds lent a luminous aura to these characters’ profiles, and I have to believe that I emerged all the richer for reading those books.

The idealization of a life was one issue we discussed at the workshop. There are many kinds of biographies, and I took the occasion to go over a simple classification of these kinds.

On one extreme would be hagiography—literally, writing about saints, and therefore the sunny sanctification of the subject as though everything that he or she did were beyond reproach. On the dark end would be the hostile or malicious biography, written for no other reason than to malign its subject as indelibly as possible, even at the expense of the truth. To its left would be the critical biography—a sober, perhaps scholarly, and more even-handed study of a life, sparing nothing and no one (least of all the subject) in pursuit of the presumptive truth, although these works could also carry their own agenda.

Farther on would come the kind of work that I and some others do on commission, for which I’ve coined the term “sympathetic biography,” a largely positive presentation of a subject’s life—without skirting, however, the major controversies and issues publicly known to involve the subject. Is it the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Realistically, I would expect not, and not because I think my subjects deliberately lie to me, but because it’s in human nature to present the best side of oneself. (I think Dolphy set the bar for searing candor and self-awareness in his autobiography, Hindi Ko Ito Narating Mag-Isa; I can’t imagine politicians or business figures being so open about their private lives.)

A sympathetic biography may be a half-filled glass to many, but it puts something on the table to be seen and seen through. I expect—I would hope—that whatever I write about my subject will be interrogated by more knowledgeable critics and scholars. This is why I urge my clients to be as forthright as possible and to deal with whatever issues they may have been embroiled in, because we live in a highly skeptical environment where questions never cease, especially online.

But to get back to the workshop, we were glad to succeed in our continuing quest for the discovery and encouragement of bright new writing talent across the archipelago. The UP Writers Workshop is different from most others in that it engages mid-career writers—people of proven ability with at least one published book, or major stage or film production to their name. We deal with them less as students than as younger brothers and sisters in the profession.

The critics of writing programs and workshops who think that all they produce are clones and sound-alikes of those teaching these courses should take a look at our roster of fellows and their work. These young writers sound nothing like us, and even after the workshop, they’ll continue working with their own material in their own styles, because we instructors do our best to recognize and preserve the originality of their voices.

The best help we can give them is to provide a response—whether it be a gut reaction or a learned reading that draws on a certain context—from our side of the generational divide, although they get responses as well from their peers, which might just be more useful and valuable to them, coming from people who share their vibe.

This year, we welcomed the following: Jack A. Alvarez (Creative Nonfiction); Armida Mabitad Azada (Poetry); Kristoffer Brugada (Nobela); Resty Cena (Nobela);

Gutierrez M. Mangansakan II (Creative Nonfiction); Isidro T. Marinay (Biography);

Segundo D. Matias Jr. (Kuwentong Pambata); Rhoderick V. Nuncio (Nobela); Will P. Ortiz (Nobela); Benedict Bautista Parfan (Poetry); Charlie Samuya Veric (Poetry); and Eliza Victoria (Fiction). Watch these names, because if you haven’t read or heard about them already, you will soon.

What many don’t realize is what a precious resource we have in these programs and workshops here in our part of the world. Our friends from the region have begun to notice what a liberal and nourishing environment we have for young writers. There’s still patronage and paternalism in the system to be sure—this is Asia, after all—but it’s much less pronounced and potentially stifling than elsewhere. Our tradition is for the younger ones to tell their elders “Up yours!”—until they start putting on the poundage and the gray hairs themselves.

Speaking of writing programs, it was with great alarm and dismay that I received news of the planned closure of one of Asia’s most unique and successful graduate writing programs—the low-residency Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program at the City University of Hong Kong.

The low-residency formula allows students from Hong Kong and around the region to enroll for an MFA and work online with mentors from all over the world, flying in to HK just once or twice a year for intensive workshops and face-to-face interaction. Some Filipinos have gone through the program, and I’ve had the privilege to lecture and to read at a couple of sessions over the years.

The City University administration says that the program costs too much to maintain, but ironically the program turned the corner this year financially, so it can’t be just the money. We wonder if someone up there sees creative writing as a threat to socialism with Chinese characteristics. City U ‘s mandarins should know that Hong Kong’s and China’s prestige and goodwill derive from programs like this—and not from building lighthouses and airstrips in the South China Sea.

Penman No. 146: A Life in the Grand Manner

SEJA2013UPPenman for Monday, April 27, 2015

I’VE BEEN privileged to work with some of the most accomplished and interesting personalities in Philippine politics and business on their biographies—the accounting pioneer Washington SyCip, the brilliantly rebellious Lava brothers, the Marcos-era tycoon Rudy Cuenca, and the political maverick Tet Garcia, among others. This Wednesday, April 29, another biography I wrote—Edgardo J. Angara: In the Grand Manner, published by the University of the Philippines Press—will be launched at the Manila Polo Club, from 3 to 6 pm, and it’s focused on a man who will be remembered for many things in many ways, whose impact on our political, economic, and social life has been far greater than the headlines alone would suggest.

The man now known by many as SEJA (for Senator Edgardo J. Angara) courted consternation and even disdain from many people, including some old friends, when he stood by the embattled Erap Estrada into the last days of the latter’s doomed Presidency. He also confounded many of his own followers when, after leading the opposition, he signed up with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s senatorial ticket in 2007. The biography addresses those issues, and more—the Apeco issue in his home province of Aurora, for example, involving the conversion of land claimed to have been the ancestral domain of the Dumagats into an economic zone.

It also sheds light on some little-known but key moments in our political history, such as the peace agreement that Angara was able to negotiate, when he was Agriculture Secretary, with communist rebels in Negros. “That agreement continues to hold,” Ed told me. “It’s the longest-lasting agreement the Philippine government has achieved with insurgents.” The biography also narrates how Angara, still as Agriculture Secretary, was just about to conclude a rehabilitation plan for Camp Abubakar, in close consultation with the MILF leadership. “It would have been a historic breakthrough,” said Angara, “but it was opposed by the military, and ultimately dropped by President Estrada.”

My favorite portions of the biography have to do with his days as UP President, when he threw that famously independent and historically dissident institution into a tizzy by coming in from the cold and applying corporate governance to the academe.

Rumored to have been President Marcos’ choice for the UP job—something Angara strongly denies, attributing his selection to the support of the late Onofre D. Corpuz—Angara stepped into Quezon Hall from out of the blue, “the blue” being ACCRA, the law firm he had set up with some of the brightest young lawyers of his time. Angara would recall that “OD asked me to meet with him in the coffeeshop of the Mandarin. He brought up the UP presidency with me, and I told him that while it was certainly a great honor to be considered for such a lofty academic position, I simply wasn’t prepared for it. My only teaching experience was as a lecturer for two semesters, right after I had returned from Michigan. The School of Business Administration was looking for someone to teach corporation law, and I drove my Beetle from Makati to Diliman to teach my classes.”

His election by UP’s Board of Regents was no cakewalk: Angara faced a formidable and distinguished array of fellow candidates, including Secretary of Justice Vicente Abad Santos, Acting Budget Minister Manuel S. Alba, UPLB Chancellor Emil Q. Javier, Director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities Rafael M. Salas, incumbent University President Emanuel Soriano, Economic Planning Minister Gerardo P. Sicat, Assemblyman Arturo M. Tolentino, and Assemblyman Ronaldo B. Zamora, among others. It was even rumored that First Lady Imelda Marcos herself was interested in the position.

In the end, the BOR elected the 46-year-old lawyer, and he lost no time wielding the broom—reorganizing and trimming down UP’s tangled and bloated bureaucracy, revamping its academic programs, and securing fiscal autonomy for the university. Some of these measures inevitably made him enemies, but also unlikely allies, such as the staunchly leftist professors Francisco Nemenzo and Roger Posadas.

Known to his colleagues as an irrepressible jokester, University Secretary Mart Gregorio probably wasn’t joking when he recalled a moment when he entered the campus with Angara, who observed a virtual menagerie of farm animals along University Avenue. “He asked me, ‘Why are there so many animals at the university entrance?’ I told him, ‘Ah, Mr. President, that’s the College of Veterinary Medicine. In other universities abroad, you might be welcomed by a beautiful arch or statue. Here we have cows, chickens, and goats.’ And then he asked, ‘What’s that other college there?’ I said, ‘That’s the College of Fisheries, sir.’ He said, ‘Fisheries—but we don’t even have an aquarium here!’ And right there, he said, ‘I think that should be transferred to UP Visayas.’ And it was. ‘Vet Med should be transferred to UP Los Baños.’ And it also was.”

I’m biased, of course, being a UP professor and former university administrator myself, but that’s the kind of anecdote that made this book a pleasure to write. It was also the realization that I was talking to the man responsible for many landmark bills that made a key difference in my own life, among many other millions of Filipinos—the Senior Citizens Act, PhilHealth, the Generics Act, and the creation of the Commission on Higher Education and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, aside from laws on Agricultural and Fisheries Modernization, the Free High School Act, the creation of TESDA and of a host of financial and educational reforms.

He has been a strong supporter of culture and the arts, and lately has been an avid Hispanist, but Ed’s emergence as a cultural champion came as a surprise to many people—even to Ed himself, who acknowledges that “I don’t even sing or dance, much to the frustration of my wife. I don’t do any artistic work.”

From Con-Con delegate, corporate lawyer, and UP President to senator, Senate President, Agriculture and Executive Secretary, SEJA’s life has certainly been one of the most storied hereabouts. “I will be the first to say that it has been a far from perfect life, fraught with challenge and accident,” he says in his foreword, “but in my 80th year I can only still feel privileged to have lived it the way I did. The title of this book may sound rather immodest—it draws on Justice Holmes’ admonition for the law to be taught and therefore practiced in the grand manner—but I would like to believe that in the end, this is the only standard we can be measured by, as we seek to reshape society itself and our nation’s future.”

See you, I hope, at the book launch.

Penman No. 99: The Bromance of Fred and Wash

FredWashPenman for Monday, June 2, 2014

 

IT WAS with great sadness that I read last week about the passing, at age 92, of Alfredo M. Velayo—an outstanding accountant, teacher, citizen, and philanthropist. Fred Velayo was best known as the “V” in SGV or Sycip Gorres Velayo & Co., the pioneering accounting firm that he co-founded with Washington SyCip and Ramon Gorres after the Second World War.

I had the great privilege and opportunity of writing Wash SyCip’s biography some years ago, and among the delights of that assignment was meeting and interviewing Fred Velayo—who, like Wash, was already well advanced in years but still sprightly and brimming with boyish mischief. Tall, handsome, genial, and an irrepressible joker, Fred was the perfect foil for the more private and more formal Wash.

Fred and Wash had one of the most memorable friendships (today they call these unusually durable male bondings “bromances”) I’ve ever come across—certainly one of the longest ones, starting in the 1920s at the tender age of five, when both boys attended Padre Burgos Elementary School in Sampaloc, Manila. Their first meeting, on the first day of school, wasn’t too auspicious. The children started crying when their mothers and yayas had to leave—except Wash’s mother, who was a good friend of the principal’s, and was allowed to stay. So Wash sat there unperturbed, and Fred would remember with a chuckle that “Right that first day, of course, we all hated him. Naturally. He was looking at us, saying ‘Why the hell are you little kids crying?’”

With his brilliant mind and work ethic—qualities that Fred himself displayed—Wash would never again have to lean back on privilege to get ahead. But a little luck never hurt. Bright as they were, both boys got accelerated in grade school—not once, but twice. In Wash’s case, it didn’t occur just twice, but thrice. Fred always wondered how that happened when he was just as smart as Wash—and Wash didn’t tell him the real reason until they were in their mid-70s in 1996, when Wash let slip that there had been room in the upper class for just one more boy, and the teacher chose him—alphabetically.

Fred and Wash caught up with each other in V. Mapa High; they both lived in Sta. Mesa and walked to school together. The friendship—and the rivalry—continued over high school, then went on to college at the University of Sto. Tomas, from which both graduated summa cum laude. As I would note in my book, “To no one’s great surprise, Wash finished his four-year course in two-and-a-half years, graduating a full year ahead of Fred, and ending up being Fred’s teacher in one subject at the ripe old age of 17. Amazingly, Fred would close the gap a bit by also getting to teach in his junior year, also at 17.”

Wash went to Columbia in New York for his PhD and was caught by the War there, and joined the US Army as a codebreaker in India; Fred stayed behind and married the girl who would become his wife of over seven decades, Harriet. After the War, their paths crossed again—Wash came home, and Fred went to the States with Harriet and joined the Army.

But when Wash had to go back to the US to fulfill a residency requirement (he had to take US citizenship to be able to work as a codebreaker), he needed someone to mind the small accounting business he had started in Manila, and there was no other person who could fit that bill but his old pal Fred Velayo. He wrote Fred a letter that would become part of SGV lore. He told Fred, on December 16, 1946: “Dear Fred, Received your letter from Alaska the day after I mailed my last letter—but hasten to write you this note. You should try to return as soon as possible as the top opportunities here are excellent—the earlier you start the better. Master’s degree doesn’t mean much—ninety percent of the FEU accounting faculty do not have anything more than a bachelor’s degree—including some of the highest paid ones. But now is the time to get started as I believe that the more you put it off, the greater will be the competition when you get settled. There’s a lot of accounting work—and you can combine this with teaching and importing (with Miller-Gates)—the returns are much larger here than in the States and the competition for a capable person is much less. So cabron, get the hell on that boat and come out here. The various bills before Congress will undoubtedly increase the work of CPAs—but you have to get in on the ground floor… some come over fast. You can also try your hand at insurance—good and profitable line. Cost of living has been going down during the past month in spite of strikes in the States. Housing isn’t worse than in the States—so make up your mind—be your own boss—and come to virgin territory! See you soon. Wash.”

At first, Fred said no—he and Harriet had just begun to settle down in the US—but in January 1947, Fred changed his mind and took a plane home. The rest, as they say, is accounting history. Fred had a funny story about what supposedly happened next:

“One day, years later, Wash came back. He was still earning a little more than me. And so he came to my room. (WS) Fred, this has got to stop. (AMV) What are you talking about? (WS) The fact that I’m earning more from the firm than you. From now on everything will be equal. Our monthly drawings, even perks, club membership, everything, the same. It’s not fair to you that I’m getting a little more. (AMV) SOB, how come it took you so long? (WS) Never mind, from now on we’ll be equal partners. As he walked out of my room, he started laughing. (WS) Anyway, you’ll always be my junior partner. (AMV) After you said we’re equal from now on? (WS) I can’t help it. I’m 57 days older than you. He even counted!”

When we interviewed Fred for Wash’s book (Fred already had his own biography published before Wash), he told us a hoary joke, often recounted at SGV reunions, about dying ahead of Wash and getting to heaven sooner. I guess he knew something Wash didn’t. Bon voyage, Fred Velayo.

Penman No. 25: EQ Yap, a Filipino Patriot

EQYPenman for Monday, Dec. 17, 2012

LAST DECEMBER 9 would have been the 81st birthday of a man named Emmanuel Quiason Yap—a name unfamiliar to most Filipinos, but who deserved more of his countrymen’s attention than they were able or willing to give him when he was around. Yap was one of the last in a distinguished line of nationalist Filipino intellectuals who emerged in the second half of the 20th century, a roster that included the likes of Renato Constantino, Alejandro Lichauco, and Hernando J. Abaya.

More than a year ago, I was asked by Yap’s family to write his biography, and I agreed—first, because he was the father of a former student of mine, and second, because I had met him earlier in the company of the Lavas, a family of committed revolutionaries whom I had also written about. (He was also a Yap, which is my mother’s maiden name, so we might have had a mutual ancestor somewhere back in Fujian.) I had heard of “Manoling” Yap’s own nationalist convictions, but had never really sat down with him to learn how he had acquired them.

I had several meetings with him and had begun on the book—which I’m now a week or two short of finishing—when he suddenly died in September 2011. Thus I begin the book this way:

“When Emmanuel Quiason Yap died all of a sudden on September 26, 2011, very few Filipinos knew what they had lost. It was almost as if a stranger had walked into a sleeping household, had left a precious gift in their midst, and had walked away; waking up in the morning, the family members see the object and wonder what it is and who brought it there, but they cannot recognize its value, and put it aside.

“His peers and colleagues would recognize and refer to him, even within his lifetime, as a visionary, an astute student and critic of his nation’s political and economic fortunes, a shaper of minds whose firm nationalist beliefs might have led the Philippines on to another track of growth and progress. He was an adviser to Presidents, senators, and congressmen; for a time, he headed an economic planning office for the House of Representatives; he helped to foster stronger diplomatic ties between the Philippines and socialist countries; and he founded a popular movement to promote patriotism among Filipinos. In various venues over many decades, including a newspaper column, he campaigned strenuously for a more independent foreign policy, a more self-reliant economy, and for greater justice in a society riven by exploitation and oppression.

“Manoling Yap, in other words, was a reformer, a man who never tired of thinking how life might yet be bettered. And he was no armchair dreamer, but someone who took his battles to the political arena, risking his life and freedom in pursuit of his principles. But as many if not most reformers soon discover, Manoling Yap would often find his idealism opposed, rejected, or even taken advantage of by others resigned to a more pragmatic view of things.”

Few may remember it now, but Yap—born in Angeles, Pampanga to a family of lawyers and entrepreneurs—was instrumental, along with Mayor Rafael del Rosario, in achieving cityhood for Angeles in the early 1960s and for planning its modernization. However, their plans ran afoul of the rackets being run by the notorious Kumander Sumulong, who issued death threats against the mayor and Manoling.

Trained as an economist, Manoling later went to Georgetown for graduate school with the encouragement of former President Jose P. Laurel, who urged him to go to America “to learn how the Americans are fooling us.” Yap took the admonition to heart—this was the time of parity rights—and came home an even more ardent nationalist. He taught at the Lyceum, then a bastion of radical thinking.

He set up the Congressional Economic Planning Office—a forerunner of what today is the National Economic and Development Authority—and worked with the old man Laurel’s son, Speaker Jose B. Laurel, in crafting the Magna Carta for Economic Freedom and Social Justice, which argued strongly for a more independent economic policy and for vigorous industrial and agricultural development. The Magna Carta was signed into law by Marcos in 1969, but languished in implementation, and Speaker Laurel himself fell from power soon afterwards—the victim, Yap was convinced, of imperialist machinations (as was, Yap would later believe, Marcos at Edsa).

Yap was also instrumental in opening diplomatic and trade ties with the socialist bloc in 1967—surprisingly, even as anti-Red rhetoric was escalating along with the Vietnam War, and well before Richard Nixon undertook his own diplomatic initiative toward China. He accompanied Rep. Manuel Enverga, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, on a grueling three-month journey behind the Bamboo and Iron Curtains. Years later, he would also advise Sen. Leticia Ramos Shahani, when she chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and help her draft a more independent foreign policy moving away from the traditional Philippine-US alliance to stronger ties with our neighbors in the Asia-Pacific, and with countries in the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and Central Asia.

In the last decade of his life, Manoling Yap devoted much of his time and energy into setting up and promoting the People’s Patriotic Movement, an effort to unite Filipinos from all backgrounds and persuasions behind the fundamental need for a sense of nationhood. “Together,” he wrote, “we will rediscover our common historical truth, rectify the errors of our colonial past, muster the national will to reconstruct the Filipino nation into a strong nation-state which can adequately feed, educate and protect its own people by the sweat of its brow and not from mendicancy and subservience to other nations, and ultimately assure a better future to all our children.”

As with many intellectuals, he was a man of ironic contradictions—an Atenean who sang Latin hymns as a boy with touching fervor, but one who grew into a brooding skeptic; a civil libertarian, but one who imposed strict family discipline; a seeker and defender of freedom and a friend of known Communists, but one who appreciated Ferdinand Marcos as a progressive nationalist; and an astute analyst who predicted the end of the Cold War but who blithely ignored the signs of his own failing health.

Emmanuel Quiason Yap was a complex man; his burning idealism often met with disappointment and disenchantment, and in the end he had very few friends left to talk to—among them his cousin the historian Serafin Quiason Jr., the painter Dan Dizon, and my fellow STAR columnist Billy Esposo. But he had his country at heart and died a patriot, joining the privileged company of his heroes—Rizal, Mabini, and the old man Laurel.