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. 311: A Trove of Printed Delights

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Penman for Monday, July 18, 2018

 

A FEW months ago, I wrote about picking up some wonderful books online that I plan to add to my retirement library—books that I’ll be poring over at leisure, for no more compelling or more urgent reason than enjoying the stories they contain, or even just the way they were printed, illustrated, and bound. I won’t be writing any papers about them (well, maybe a column or two), and I’ll leave myself the option of reselling some of them to share the fun and feel better about buying some more.

Most of these books come from the USA, chiefly from eBay, where I’ve been actively trading for more than 20 years. You’d be amazed by the Philippine treasures—not just books but paintings and other artifacts—that made their way overseas and eventually turn up on eBay. I’ve made it my personal mission (of course my wife Beng calls it my excuse) to recover these precious objects as much as I can afford on my professor’s salary—important or interesting Filipiniana, for example, such as the first US publications of Manuel Arguilla’s stories, and early editions of Carlos Bulosan’s books.

I’ve sourced books and paintings from as far away as France, Spain, and Portugal, and have successfully had them shipped to me in Manila by regular air mail. To save on shipping, however, I typically accumulate all my US purchases at our daughter Demi’s place in San Diego, California, and then have them couriered to me when they’re enough to fill a box, or wait for our next visit to Demi and her husband Jerry to cart them home.

That opportunity happened last week, on my annual vacation leave. We came too early for Comic Con this year, but I had stranger things than, well, Stranger Things in mind. I was eager to plow through and pack away about a hundred pounds of books and paintings that had been piling up at Demi’s over the past six months.

The paintings—which include a large and marvelous Gabriel Custodio seascape from 1966 that I found at a resale store in Spokane, Washington—will be worth another story, but for now, let me share some of the most interesting publications from the pile.

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Old editions of the Noli and Fili are always desirable objects of study, and to complement the rather eccentric 1911 Fili I acquired last year, I received a two-volume 1909 Noli from Madrid (also published by Maucci in Barcelona), with annotations by Ramon Sempau. It’s interesting how, scarcely a decade after his execution, Rizal is hailed as a patriot by the Spaniards. This edition contains the Last Farewell and an account of his trial. (Another later edition in the pile, a Noli retitled and published by Norton in 11961 as The Lost Eden, is introduced by James Michener, who describes the novel as “a nineteenth-century Gothic melodrama, filled with eery churches, flashes of lightning, ominous strangers, premonitory whisperings, and almost unacceptable coincidences.”)

I try to collect old books that have something to do or say about the Philippines, but of course that becomes more difficult the farther back you go. In my office, I display a page from a German book on geography from 1578 that talks about “den Philippinischen Insuln,” and I’m sure other collectors have much earlier material. But sometimes I pick up antiquarian documents just to be able to show my students what truly old texts looked like, and in this batch is a page from a Latin breviary published in Augsburg in 1490—an example of true incunabula, or something printed roughly within 50 years of Gutenberg’s 1455 Bible.

There’s an extensive and rather grisly account of a “Massacre at Manilla” in my 1822 copy of Vol. X of The Atheneum, a Boston-based compilation of highlights from imported contemporary English magazines (the “magazine” as we know it today grew popular in England in the 1700s). The article is an unattributed eyewitness account, reported by a victim of a brutal massacre of foreigners—English French, Danish, Spanish, and Chinese, among others—following a false report that they were responsible for fomenting a cholera epidemic that had decimated the natives by giving out poisoned medicine (shades of today’s Dengvaxia hysteria). It occurred to me that I had read about this same massacre before from Paul P. de la Gironiere, who was serving as a doctor aboard a French ship in Cavite at the time, and who claims to have performed great deeds of daring in the emergency.

More congenial is A Little Journey to the Philippines (Chicago: A. Flanagan, 1900), edited by Marian M. George, filled with observations of a pleasant nature: “Our boat is anchored, and we start off with a guide for the Enchanted Lake. We pass ponds filled with fragrant pink pond lilies, and shortly begin to climb the crater of an extinct volcano.” It also remarks, perhaps presciently, that “There is no Philippine nation. Instead there are numerous governments; the people are divided into over eighty different tribes; and there are over seventy-five different languages spoken among them.”

If I had more space in my baggage and my house, I would buy tons more of these books, which remind me how we keep drifting back to the past, despite the GPS in our iPhones.

 

Penman No. 196: A Frenchman in Jalajala

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Penman for Monday, April 18, 2016

 

I USUALLY ask my wife Beng to ride out with me on a day trip during the Holy Week break, and this year our destination was rather unusual, in that it never figures in the travel plans of Manileños, although it’s a short and pleasant drive from Quezon City or Ortigas. We took the scenic route from Diliman via Antipolo, Teresa, and Morong, and soon found ourselves following the lakeshore of Laguna de Bay on the peninsula of Jalajala, Rizal, described by the guidebook as “a fourth-class municipality with a population of 30,074 people.”

We were there on the trail of an extraordinary author and adventurer who, nearly two centuries ago, had lived in Jalajala, and had written about his sojourn in a book that had been a favorite of mine for 40 years.

The book was Paul Proust de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines (subsequently expanded under the title of Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines), and I had recently acquired a copy on eBay, all the way from the UK—the first English edition published by James and Henry Vizetelly, undated but very likely from 1853, a year ahead of the American edition published by Harper & Bros. in 1854. The copy was far from mint, but it was in its original binding and still very readable, and wonderfully illustrated with engravings of local scenes.

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Gironiere was an adventurer from France who came to the Philippines in 1819 in his early 20s as a ship’s surgeon and stayed on for the next two decades, establishing himself as a landlord and farmer in what today is Jalajala, Rizal. His travails begin shortly after his arrival on the ship Cultivateur, and his account of a massacre shows why his book is—in that awful word coined by book reviewers—“unputdownable”:

I had only resided a short time at Cavite when that terrible scourge, the cholera, broke out at Manilla, in September, 1820, and quickly ravaged the whole island. Within a few days of its first appearance the epidemic spread rapidly; the Indians succumbed by thousands; at all hours of the day and of the night the streets were crowded with the dead-carts. Next to the fright occasioned by the epidemic, quickly succeeded rage and despair. The Indians said, one to another, that the strangers poisoned the rivers and the fountains, in order to destroy the native population and possess themselves of the Philippines.

On the 9th October, 1820 … a dreadful massacre commenced at Manilla and at Cavite…Almost all the French who resided at Manilla were slain, and their houses pillaged and destroyed. The carnage only ceased when there were no longer any victims. 

…Four hundred Indians surrounded me; the only way of dealing with them was by audacity. I said in Tagaloc to the Indian who had attempted to stab the captain: “You are a scoundrel.” The Indian sprang towards me; he raised his arm: I struck him on the head with a cane which I held in my hand; he waited in astonishment for a moment, and then returned towards his companions to excite them. Daggers were drawn on every side; the crowd formed a circle around me, which gradually concentrated. Mysterious influence of the white man over his coloured brother! Of all these four hundred Indians, not one dared attack me the first; they all wished to strike together. Suddenly a native soldier, armed with a musket, broke through the crowd; he struck down my adversary, took away his dagger, and holding his musket by the bayonet end, he swung it round and round his head, thus enlarging the circle at first, and then dispersing a portion of my enemies. “Fly, sir!” said my liberator; “now that I am here, no one will touch a hair of your head.” In fact the crowd divided, and left me a free passage. I was saved, without knowing by whom, or for what reason, until the native soldier called after me: “You attended my wife who was sick, and you never asked payment of me. I now settle my debt.”

I had first read the book a long time ago, and kept my copy of Adventures, in a Filipiniana Book Guild edition reprinted locally in paperback by Burke-Miailhe in 1972, with a foreword by the eminent historian and economist Benito J. Legarda. In his foreword, Dr. Legarda says that Gironiere’s book was “probably the best seller among books about the Philippines in the 19th century,” noting that “What attracted the 19th century reader was of course the narration of several adventures, at that time considered unusual or bizarre. Among them may be enumerated the killing of man-eating crocodiles, the hunting of wild carabaos, the exploration of caves, the customs of pagan tribes, and the adventures of those caught in captivity by Moro pirates.”

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While granting that Gironiere’s accounts may have taken certain fanciful liberties, Legarda also considers the many real contributions the Frenchman made to his adopted soil, particularly as an agricultural pioneer who planted coffee, abaca, indigo, and rice on his 2,400-hectare estate in Jalajala, then part of Morong. Of Jalajala, Gironiere would write that it was “the greatest game preserve in the island: wild boars, deer, buffaloes, fowls, quail, snipe, pigeons of fifteen or twenty different varieties, parrots in short all sorts of birds abound in them.”

Gironiere returned to France in 1839, crushed by the deaths of his son, daughter, and wife, and he eventually remarried, and yet nothing, he said, “could induce me to forget my Indians, Jala-Jala, and my solitary excursions in the virgin forests. The society of men reared in extreme civilisation could not efface from my memory my past modest life.”

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Was there anything left of Gironiere’s vast estate? All I could find on the Internet was a marker put up by the National Historical Institute in 1978 on what presumably had been his property, so I resolved to find at least that. We were there on the Wednesday of Holy Week, so I knew I had to catch someone at the municipio before it closed for the half-day, and fortunately a kind gentleman from the agriculturist’s office recognized the marker and offered to lead us there. And a short drive later, there it was, on a lot in the shade of towering acacia trees.

Nothing else would have suggested Gironiere’s presence, except possibly a stump of bricks in a corner of the lot. Not too far away was the water’s edge, and the slim profile of Talim Island, which Gironiere would have seen out his window. I struggled to imagine this spot as the center of a visiting Frenchman’s adopted life and holdings, his pursuit of bats and lizards, crocodiles and gold dust.

I didn’t feel let down; I was looking at an empty stage, but I knew the play, and I could hear the lead actor’s parting words: “Overwhelmed by the weight of troubles and of the laborious works I had executed, there was only one wish to excite me, and that was, to see France again; and yet my recollections took me continually back to Jala-Jala. Poor little corner of the globe… where my best years were spent in a life of labour, of emotions, of happiness, and of bitterness! Poor Indians! who loved me so much! I was never to see you again! We were soon to be separated by the immensity of the ocean.”