Penman No. 308: A Respite in Luang Prabang

27677144927_4dbfae4e9c_k

Penman for Monday, June 25, 2018

 

 

I TRY to give my wife Beng a birthday treat abroad every year—a small price to pay for her manifold acts of kindness and generosity, not to mention her 44 years of patience in sharing a bed with a snorer—so early this June, we flew out to Luang Prabang in Laos. Why Luang Prabang? Because I couldn’t think of a place with a more musical name, and because we’d never been to Laos, and because it had come highly recommended by a dear friend Julie Hill, who’s been all over the planet but who considers Luang Prabang one of her favorite haunts.

With atypical optimism, I’d booked our trip eight months earlier. There are no straight flights from Manila to Luang Prabang, so we spent a night in Kuala Lumpur before making the short hop to LP.

Street

As in much of Southeast Asia, things were cheap, easy, and infinitely interesting the moment we landed. The local currency is the kip, of which you’ll need about 8,400 to buy one US dollar, but for the princely sum of 50,000 kip or $6, we were brought by an airconditioned van to our digs, the comfortable, two-story Villay Vanh Guest House about 15 minutes away. Like many lodging houses in LP, the Villay Vanh was a largely wooden house—shoes off, please—that had been converted into a hotel, and it maintained that homey ambience without sacrificing modern necessities like airconditioning, hot water, and wi-fi.

Of course, you don’t really go to Luang Prabang for the airconditioning, the hot water, and the wi-fi. As it happened, our hotel was a few steps away from a large Buddhist temple on the left, and a river on the right. And should I say that our four-night stay, including breakfast with about a dozen choices from pancakes to beef fried rice, cost all of $52 (that’s for all four nights)?

Market

Beng, of course, made a beeline for the night market, which was also just a short walk away, but not before we made the obligatory climb up nearby Phousi Hill, which offered a 360-degree view of the city, the Mekong River, and the misty mountains in the distance. We love to travel around Asia for the markets, the museums, and the food, and LP delivered wonderfully on all accounts.

The night market, where lavishly woven textiles abound, stands right in front of the museum, which is also right next to the food stalls in the public market. I know that many travelers are queasy about eating with the locals, but that’s what Beng and I did, stuffing ourselves on broiled chicken, mudfish, and the sticky rice that’s a staple in Laos, for another 50,000 kip (that’s 300 pesos to us, including a soft drink). Over the next few days, we would discover that Laos has some of the sweetest and smoothest mangoes, which could well put ours to shame. (As well as Laos’ worst-kept secret: all wi-fi passwords are the same anywhere you go.)

The National Museum used to be the palace of the Laotian kings, the last one of whom was deposed in a communist takeover in the mid-1970s. Amid the slightly musty regalia hangs an unspoken horror, that the king and his family, much like the Russian Romanovs, were murdered a few years after they gave up power.

Shrine

More uplifting was the tour I truly wanted to take—a day trip involving cruising down the Mekong, visiting a Buddhist shrine up a mountainside, having lunch at an elephant sanctuary, then taking in the fabulous Kuang Si waterfalls. At just $40 per person, including a nourishing lunch, it was a bargain.

The Mekong in Laos is the same immutable, undulating, coffee brown that it is in Thailand and Cambodia, but the boats are long and narrow, often painted in pink and blue, somewhat echoing the Laotian flag. Stately villas and temples overlook the river, and now and then elephants peek through the bushes along the banks.

Falls

Luang Prabang stands at the confluence of two rivers, one that started out in China and the other in Vietnam. So far from the ocean, it thrives on water—and tourists like us, willing to go the extra mile from Bangkok and KL.

BINONDO 1 - FLOYD TENA, SHIELA VALDERRAMA MARTINEZ, ARMAN FERRER

Speaking of China, my wife Beng and I were having lunch at a Megamall restaurant a week ago when we suddenly heard mellifluous operatic voices singing in the lobby nearby. I took a peek and discovered that it was a mall tour to preview Binondo, a Tsinoy musical that’s opening on June 29, Friday, and July 1, Sunday, 8 pm at the Theatre in Solaire.

I got curious enough to seek out its publicist, Toots Tolentino, who told me that this was a love story, set in Manila’s Chinatown ca. 1971, involving a love triangle consisting of Lily, a night club singer and hopeless romantic; Ah Tiong, a scholarly cynic; and Carlos, a childhood friend. With book and lyrics by Ricky Lee and directed by Joel Lamangan, I can predict only good things for this musical, which is being produced by Synergy 88 Digital and Rebecca Chuaunsu Film Production. Rebecca, a theater artist in her own right, also wrote the original story.

I’ll take Chinese love triangles over Chinese island-hoppers anytime!

 

 

Penman No. 228: A Writers’ Gathering in Guangzhou

IMG_9909.JPG

Penman for Monday, December 5, 2016

BARELY HAD Beng and I returned from VIVA Excon in Iloilo when we found ourselves jetting off again, this time to Guangzhou, China, to attend this year’s gathering of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), which has become one of the highlights of the literary year in the region. APWT has indeed grown into the Asia-Pacific’s premier literary network, drawing its strength from the fact that it comprises and is led by practicing writers and translators rather than by academics, critics or publishers, although many members perform those functions as well.

For the past several years, APWT has held its annual meetings in various cities around the region—I’ve been privileged to attend recent ones in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Perth, among others—and last year Manila was honored to host the event, led by the University of the Philippines with the assistance of De La Salle University and the University of Sto. Tomas, with support from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

Accompanying me in the Philippine delegation were Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo and Ralph Semino Galan of the University of Sto. Tomas; Jun Cruz Reyes, Charlson Ong, Jeena Marquez, Randy Bustamante, and Mabek Kawsek from the University of the Philippines; and Hope Sabanpan-Yu from the University of San Carlos. (I happily paid Beng’s conference fee so she could attend all the sessions, given her personal interest in translation.) It was also good to see old Manila hands like the Singapore-based Robin Hemley, the Hong Kong-based Kawika Guillermo, and New Yorkers Tim Tomlinson and his wife Deedle Rodriguez-Tomlinson, who’ll be visiting Manila again soon.

This year, our conference host was Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, under the stewardship of the very gracious and capable Dr. Dai Fan, a professor of linguistics and the director of the Center for Creative Writing at the School of Foreign Languages at SYSU. Her university is one of the very few places in China where creative writing courses are taught in English, so it was a perfect venue for APWT, not to mention Guangzhou’s attractions and congeniality, about which I’ll say more in a minute.

IMG_9904.JPG

Revolving around the theme of “Ideas & Realities: Creative Writing in Asia Today,” this year’s sessions took on such practical concerns as teaching creative writing in English as a second language and networking from Asia to the rest of the world. At the same time, there was always more room for collaboration within the region. As the Australian author Nicholas Jose observed in his keynote, “Writing is a conversation that often begins with the writer’s own community, including editors, publishers, reviewers, critics and other writers. For Asian and Pacific writers, this can be complicated, with borders of language and culture to be crossed, and barriers to the way work becomes available. We need to expand the conversational community. We are our own best advocates and provocateurs. We can create our own audience.”

The keynotes were especially provocative and informative. Flying in from London, Qaisra Sharaz shared her writing life as a woman with multiple identities living in the West in the age of ISIS and battling Islamphobia. A crowd favorite was the US-born Australian Linda Jaivin’s talk on her becoming “The Accidental Translator,” a remarkable life complete with an amazing chance encounter on a Hong Kong subway train that would eventually lead her to subtitle modern Chinese classics such as Farewell My Concubine and Hero.

IMG_9921.JPG

I was glad to moderate a session on “Creative Writing in the Academy,” where panelists from Australia, the US, China, and the Philippines thankfully no longer had to deal with the age-old (and frankly stupid and annoying) question of “Can creative writing be taught?”, but rather discussed the material and moral support (or the lack thereof) that writing programs received in various universities. In this context, it deserves to be noted—especially given how we Filipinos often tend to put ourselves down—that the Philippines clearly leads the region in the field, with full-blown academic programs, writing centers, and writers’ workshops that go back more than half a century.

Aside from the keynotes and the sessions, the APWT meeting also featured special workshops led by experts in the field, such as Robin Hemley who guided both novices and experienced writers on an exploration of “Travel Writing in the 21st Century.” Robin challenged his workshoppers thus: “How do you write about place in a way that makes the place new? How do you write about a place that’s been written about many times before, Venice, for instance, or Paris? In the 21st century, who is the travel writer’s audience and what are the ethical responsibilities of the travel writer? After all, writing about the most unspoiled beach in the world will surely spoil it. Travel literature is not necessarily for the leisure class but for those who wish to have a better perspective on their own sense of the world and place.”

IMG_9903.JPG

Revisiting Guangzhou was something of a sentimental journey for me, as it was here, almost 30 years ago, that I went with a posse of then-young writers that included Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. It was our first trip to China, and we had already visited Beijing and Shanghai before stopping by Guangzhou on our way to Hong Kong and Macau. We had stayed in what was the new White Swan Hotel along the Pearl River, and last week I took Beng there on a stroll down the length of picturesque Shamian Island (actually a sandbar on the river, with colonial buildings favored by wedding photographers).

IMG_9938.JPG

We were told that first time that “You go to Beijing for sightseeing, to Shanghai for shopping, and to Guangzhou for eating,” and that still seemed to be true—the best meal we had all week, aside from the closing Yunnan dinner, was an 11-yuan breakfast of dimsum, xiao long bao, and ma chang in a hole-in-the-wall—but it wasn’t as if Guangzhou was lacking in sites worth visiting—starting with the stately, tree-lined campus of Sun Yat Sen University itself.

On our last day in the city, with our flight not leaving until 10 pm, Beng and I took off for Yuexiu Park, a public park sprawling over seven hills and three small lakes. Within this neighborhood, we explored the subterranean chambers of the mausoleum of the jade-shrouded Nanyue King, then climbed the five storeys of the centuries-old Zhenhai Tower for a marvelous view of the landscape. From that vantage point, one could think only of great literature and great art, capturing for posterity the inexorable passage of time.

Next year, APWT will move to Bali; I can hear the gamelan tinkling.

IMG_9985.JPG

Penman No. 200: Memoirs of a Teenage Maoist

e13-644.jpg

Penman for Monday, May 23, 2016

 

 

A SMALL item in the foreign news caught my eye last week: a note that the 50th anniversary of China’s Cultural Revolution had gone unnoticed—in China itself, with no parades or ceremonies to mark the historic event. For those of us too young to remember, the Cultural Revolution was launched by Chairman Mao Zedong on May 16, 1966, to consolidate his power and purge his rivals within the Communist Party in the guise of doing away with old ways of thinking. To fight the old, Mao rallied the young—millions of “Red Guards” who turned on their parents, teachers, and superiors, feeling suddenly empowered to reject authority and traditional learning and to see themselves as the vanguards of a new age.

Over the decade that the Cultural Revolution ran its course until Mao’s death in 1976, many millions died—from executions and from famine. While Mao’s legacy would live on, there’s firm consensus both within and outside China that the Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated man-made disaster, something the Party itself in 1981 blamed for “the most serious setback and loss for the Party, the country and the people since the founding of China.”

What did this have to do with us and with me? Well, to put it as simply as I can, I was a teenage Maoist, and for a while back there, I and quite a number of like-minded comrades saw ourselves as the local chapter of the Red Guards. Call it madness, but we saw Mao as a demigod, and looked to his China as a beacon of hope and a model for other countries like ours—also beset by centuries of feudalism and colonial rule—to follow.

How did that happen? I had joined the student activist movement and had gone to my first demonstrations in high school, and as soon as I entered college in 1970, I signed up with the Nationalist Corps. It wasn’t a communist organization, but it was a short step from reading Renato Constantino to reading Mao. Mao’s teachings (in contrast to the heavy-duty theorizing of Marx and Lenin) were attractive in their seeming simplicity, in their pithiness, in their rosy optimism. It was chicken congee for the soul.

Until today, you’ll hear 60-somethings from my cadre recite gems, chapter and verse, from Mao’s Quotations (better known as the LRB, or the Little Red Book) like “A revolution is not a dinner party, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” “Dare to struggle, dare to win,” “Wherever there is struggle there is sacrifice, and death is a common occurrence…. All men must die, but death can vary in its significance.” Among my favorites—music to my 17-year-old ears—was “The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you.”

It wasn’t too different from what Rizal or the Desiderata said, especially about the youth as the fair hope of the fatherland, but I think what drew us to Mao at that point and to his brand of Marxism was his emphasis on classes and class analysis, his awareness of society as one divided between rich and poor (with the rich collaborating with foreign powers to keep themselves in place), and the fact (or the fantasy) that in China, things were actually going according to the socialist plan. Very few of us had ever been to China then (famously, of course, three senior activists would get stranded there—Eric Baculinao, Chito Sta. Romana, and Jimi FlorCruz), but we accepted it as an article of faith that Chairman Mao was doing right by his own people.

In Manila, we did our best to copy the flag-waving strokes of Peking Opera (eg, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”), learned about obscure heroes like Norman Bethune, and wore the LRB like a talisman in the breast pockets of our army fatigue jackets. (Procured from US military surplus stores in Dau, it was the closest we could get to the Mao—actually the Sun Yat-sen—jackets that the Red Guards adopted as a uniform, with the red star on the matching cap; but we at least wore genuine “Ho Chi Minh” sandals fashioned out of rubber tires.) At dawn, we tuned our transistor radios to the faint and crackly signal of Radio Peking, for our regular dose of socialist top tunes like the “Internationale,” “Sailing the Seas Depends Upon the Helmsman,” and “The East Is Red”—plus, of course, the daily rundown of the news from the global war on US imperialism. An enterprising fellow even then, I corresponded with a Hong Kong bookseller who seemed only too happy to mail me copies of the Peking Review, even if I had no money to pay him.

Only years later did the failings of Mao’s experiment and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution emerge, revealed not so much by Western propaganda as by the Chinese themselves, who had suffered the most from its excesses. It would take time—and, indeed, a personal visit to China—to appreciate this disconnect between our long-distance romance with Mao’s socialist paradise and cold reality.

It was in July 1987 when I was finally able to set foot on hallowed ground—Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where I was doing a cultural exchange visit along with writer-friends Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. We had been assigned a translator and a minder, whom we’ll call Chang—a tall wisp of a man who spoke decent English and who was working, he said, on a translation of a biography of Elvis Presley in his spare time. (Had he ever listened to Elvis? No. We sent him a cassette of Elvis from Manila.)

Standing just meters away from Mao’s mausoleum—there seemed to be thousands of Chinese visitors waiting in line to go in—I asked Chang if he could help me see Chairman Mao. “What you want to do that for?” he asked incredulously. “He killed my grandfather in the Cultural Revolution!” Ooops—I tried to say that I was sorry to hear about his angkong, but I had to tell him that I was once a Mao fanboy and just had to meet the man, even his current state of embalmed repose. Chang still didn’t seem ready to believe me, so I sang him the first few lines of the “Helmsman” song: “Sailing the seas depends upon the helmsman, life and growth depend on the sun, rain and dewdrops nourish the crops, making revolution depends on Mao Tsetung Thought!” Chang shushed me up before a crowd could gather: “Okay, okay, I bring you inside, but hurry, okay?”

And so I filed past my fallen idol, awash in conflicting emotions; frankly Mao’s waxen face did little to exude revolutionary vitality, and in just two more years that same square would be bathed in fresh young blood.

I would return to China many times since then as both tourist and writer, and at one point I would chance upon a Mao jacket in a backstreet shop in Shanghai—you’ll never find them in the glitzy stores—and some days I wear it to remind me of what people today will surely say was a youthful folly. Sometimes I’ll stick a most unproletarian Montblanc into the breast pocket, but then again, it’s where the real Chinese revolution led—the freedom to shop for baubles on Nanjing Road.

IMG_8493.jpg

[Image from chineseposters.net]