Penman No. 427: Lights and Loudspeakers

Penman for Monday, November 8, 2021

THE ELECTION season is upon us, and for Pinoys for whom Christmas begins in September, November 15 can’t come soon enough to start figuring out who they’ll be voting for on May 9, a full half-year down the road. That date should really have been October 8, the official deadline for the filing of candidacies, but given our penchant to further complicate the already-complicated, we just had to set the stage for the last-minute substitution dramas we expect to happen by next Monday.

What couldn’t wait for November 15 or even October 8 was the onset of the propaganda war—the long series of campaigns and battles for our hearts and minds, with the prize being the right to seat someone you think you know and who thinks they know you in the Palace by the Pasig. And if there’s anything we can depend on to display Pinoy character and creativity at their best and worst, it will be a political exercise like a presidential election, during which people who had been largely content with watching telenovelas, munching sweet corn, playing pusoy, and sharing some kakanin with the neighbors suddenly rediscover their convictions, prejudices, longings, and peeves, and jump onto one bandwagon or another, many with knives drawn. (Of course, there are others who had been suffering in silence and gritting their teeth for the past five years, just waiting for the trumpet to sound from the top of the hill.) 

As a boy in the 1960s whose father kept getting roped into some politico’s campaign, I reveled in the hoopla that heralded every election. The contending parties held rallies in the plaza or the bukid (depending, I guess, on whose side the incumbent mayor was), and places more often attended by dog poo and carabao dung were transformed into one-night circuses. 

The stages were festooned with banderitas, and the lights and loudspeakers promised an evening of entertainment, at least from the movie stars, singers, and comedians whom the people really came for, before the real jokers running for congressman or mayor came onstage. Bands played as pickpockets worked the crowd. They gave away fans, hats, key fobs, stickers, and anything they could stamp a candidate’s face on, and if you were lucky you got a T-shirt—flimsy as hell and reeking of paint thinner or whatever it was they used for silkscreening. I’m sure some folks got more than that, but being too young to vote, I missed out on the serious stuff backstage.

The speeches were loud and bombastic, and you stood in rapt attention, feeling like a droplet in a huge surging wave about to engulf the nation. (Decades later, someone would call this “astroturfing.”) One particularly artful speaker might weave a tale of woe, of how the people had only themselves to blame for all the misery they had sunk into, because they had cast their lot with the other party in the previous election. (Decades later, someone would call this “gaslighting.”) Every candidate promised the moon, the stars, and a galaxy or two of blessings dependent on his or her election: more artesian wells, more puericulture centers, free dental clinics, free coffins, and a lechon for every barrio’s fiesta (loud applause). At some point, some bags of rice and boxes of milk might even go around, the word “RELIEF” overstamped with its new donor’s name.

No self-respecting campaign today would not claim a party color or motif—pink, white, blue, checkered, etc. (What was that? Pink as well? Maybe I should have said “No self-respecting campaign today would claim another party’s color.”) Back in the day, this didn’t seem to be a big deal. The Nacionalista Party’s colors were red, white, and blue, while the Liberal Party’s colors were—well, red, white, and blue. At least, if you were a Liberal today and a Nacionalista tomorrow, which sometimes happened, you didn’t have to change your wardrobe or your paraphernalia.

Neither do I recall proprietary hand signs then, like the Cory-Laban “L” that helped to overthrow her predecessor, and FVR’s jaunty thumbs-up. Ferdinand Marcos flashed the “V” sign, but that had been around for ages, and is now more widely associated with young girls in white socks trying to look their cutest for the camera. I suppose it stands for “victory,” although the “V” word that springs to mind most quickly when I hear that particular name is “vaults.” (Is there such a word as “villions,” like a billion billions?) Mayor Isko has appropriated the “No. 1” sign, with the forefinger pointing up, as if to suggest he has nowhere else to go. (That other mayor who became President, which must inspire Isko, prefers raising the next finger.) 

Frankly Leni’s hand sign remains a bit of a mystery to me, and I haven’t seen one from the boxer and the police general. At any rate I doubt this election will be won with carpal contortions. After all, there are only so many things you can do with your fingers, and the Vulcan “Live long and prosper” hand salute is difficult enough to master.

The fight, as everyone says, has gone to the Internet and the airwaves, and while we may like to believe that everything has changed in half a century, the very players on the field tell us they haven’t—only the lights and the loudspeakers have. So now, as ever, truth, reason, and justice will remain the underdogs, and those who root and clap for the jokers will end up getting their pockets picked.

(Photo from asiatimes.com)

Penman No. 425: Red Light, Green Light

Penman for Monday, October 11, 2021

THOSE OF you who smiled when you read the title know what I’m talking about: none other than Squid Game, which is set to become the most viewed Netflix production of all time.

I’m still groggy from two nights of binge-watching, after making sure that my wife Beng was already asleep. She’s a Korea-novela fan—and I guess you can call me a reluctant convert, having little choice but to follow the travails of star-crossed lovers getting wet in the rain, slurping ramyeon, or running slow-motion into each other’s arms on a beach at sunset. But for some reason, Beng likes romance, not gore, and she steadfastly refused to reciprocate my constancy by watching Squid Game with me. 

She can’t understand it when I explain that violence relaxes me, releases the lion in my pussycat, exhausts my latent desire to pulverize my enemies and split a few skulls, and leaves me refreshed for another day of, well, typing. Beng’s favorite expression—which she uses several times a day, usually when watching the news or some TV drama, or when we’re driving past a mangy dog—is “Kawawa naman!” If she were a street in UP Village, it would be “Mahabagin.” 

That’s why, you see, she couldn’t possibly get through even one episode of Squid Game. The violence hadn’t even begun—Gi-Hun was just getting warmed up as the quintessential loser, trying to play good dad to his 10-year-old daughter—when I heard Beng mutter her first “Kawawa naman!” Rather than subject myself to a night-long litany of laments for pitiful souls, I agreed to switch channels and watch contestants try to outdo each other in applying hideous makeup onto hapless models. Beng couldn’t see me wincing in the dark, my tender aesthetics feeling the vicious assault of mascara wands and lipstick applicators.

But let’s get back to the show. After its release less than a month ago, Squid Game became a global sensation in no time at all, and it’s easy to see why. Even the venerable Washington Post intones that “Squid Game (is) much more than a gory dystopian thriller. It’s a haunting microcosm of real life, unpacking the many implications of inequality, which has in some way drawn each of the players to this battle for their lives.” 

Parents will be horrified to find that their kids can buy Squid Game soldier outfits online, complete with black masks and pink track suits, submachine guns optional. (When I clicked the link, I got a message saying “Sorry! This product is no longer available.” That can mean only one of two things: first, that the seller developed a conscience and pulled the item out, or second, that stocks were sold out—you win a prize of a trip to Busan if you guess the correct answer.)

So let’s get this clear, especially if you’re thinking of gathering the family around the TV for some quality time watching people’s shirts turn a splotchy red: Squid Game isn’t for kids, okay? The whole point of it is that it wants people to think they’ll be playing kids’ games—which is true, except that (this is hardly a spoiler now, after all the publicity), the losers die.

I’m not going to go into the kind of sociological soul-searching that will be the stuff of dissertations over the next five years, with titles like “Competition Theory: Neoliberalism, the State, and Squid Game in the Philippines, 2016-2022.” (If you want an honest-to-goodness, semi-academic chat about the show, the UP Korea Research Center will be hosting an online forum on Squid Game on Friday, October 15, at 3:30 pm.) 

I’m tempted more by the idea of staging our version of the game here, with life’s “winners” instead of losers as players, for a change. The reward will be—let’s see, what might the rich and powerful still want that they don’t already have? More money? Too easy; they have enough stashed away in the British Virgin Islands (legally, mind you—they did nothing wrong) to last three lifetimes. More happiness? Which means what—more likes on Instagram, more cover shots in the glossies, Ivy League placements for the kids, one mistress more, a new Lamborghini Huracan, another Patek Philippe, a new calling card saying “Senator of the Republic,” or something even loftier? Eternal life? Some families already have that—35 years after EDSA, you-know-who are still around.

How about this: the prize will be absolution for one’s sins, which technically will qualify one for entry into heaven, no matter what terrible things one may have done in life—stolen billions, murdered thousands, lied 90 percent of the time, cursed God and half the saints, you supply the rest. 

It could be voluntary, of course, because most of the players we’d like to nominate will never admit to sinning nor to needing forgiveness; they have willfully accepted damnation, and their choice must be respected. But I think it will be more fun if, in the 2022 elections, we took a special poll to vote for 456 politicians, public officials, generals, bigtime drug lords, profiteers, car-loving pharmaceutical executives, troll masters, and other crooks to constitute the players. 

How thrilling it would then be to put on a black mask, look over the track-suited multitude, appreciate the anxiety in their puzzled faces, and announce: “Green light!… Red light!” Boom. Boom. Boom. Sorry, Beng, hindi sila kawawa, and I could watch this all day.

Penman No. 396: A Playwright for Our Time

Penman for Monday, September 14, 2020

TODAY, SEPTEMBER 14, marks the 26th death anniversary of a dear friend and, for me, one of the best Filipino playwrights of his generation, Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr., or “Boy” as we knew him. 

The literary world is full of poets, fictionists, and essayists, but playwrights are few and far between, and good playwrights come even more rarely. Boy wasn’t just good—he was great, which is a word I don’t use very often with people. He understood and magnified the human condition onstage with uncommon empathy, and without the histrionics that passed for drama in lesser hands. Amazingly, his formal training wasn’t even in Literature or creative writing, but Economics, at which he professionally excelled as well.

He was a friend and mentor, one of the earliest and strongest influences on my own writing. Although just two years older than me, he was streets ahead as far as his grasp of craft and his artistic vision were concerned; while I was flailing around for material and treatment, he knew what he was doing, and generously led me along.

Boy and I met as fraternity brothers when I joined the Alpha Sigma as a UP freshman in 1971; already precocious, he would graduate that year, cum laude, with a degree in Economics, at age 18. He would go on to complete his MA in Economics within the next two years. 

I caught up with him again at the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) in 1973, where, fresh out of martial law prison, I had landed a writing job. Boy was already there, at 21 possibly the youngest director in government, in charge of the Policy Coordination Staff. We became “Sicat boys” working under the indulgent eye of our boss, Dr. Gerry Sicat, along with the likes of Federico “Poch” Macaranas and Aniceto “Chito” Sobrepeña. Boy and I fancied ourselves playwrights at that time—he had written a play in UP under the tutelage of Prof. Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio, and I had already written plays for PETA and “Balintataw”—and so a fierce but friendly rivalry was born.

We joined playwriting competitions with gleeful passion, eager to outdo one another. In 1976, I won first prize at the CCP playwriting contest with “Madilim ang Gabi sa Laot;” Boy won second prize with “Ramona Reyes ng Forbes Park.” That was the first and last time I would ever win over Boy, to whom I would finish second or third in the CCPs and Palancas in the years to come. It came to a point when, sick of losing out to him (and after I had watched and applauded his masterpiece, “Bayan-Bayanan”), I decided to pack up and move to another medium—the short story in English—where I felt safely out of his reach. 

But our friendship flourished, and we spent many lunches in Ermita talking about drama, writing, and all the things we wanted to do. When he was sent by NEDA to Harvard in 1979 for his MPA, and later to Columbia for further studies, he snuck out of his Economics routine and took extra classes in Theater and Film. In long, handwritten letters which I still keep, he shared his discoveries with me—about, say, the works of Ibsen and Chekhov—which I eagerly soaked up. I had dropped out of UP after my freshman year to go into the protest movement fulltime, and then to work and to marry, and I knew very little about theater and writing except from what I had imbibed at PETA and from my own limited reading. I was hungry for mentorship, for someone to tell me right from wrong and good from bad, and Boy provided that at a crucial time.

Most helpfully, Boy taught me about Chekhov and indirection, the art of saying something by saying something else. At a time when my own writing was treading history and politics, Boy grounded me by going straight to the heart of things. “You know, Butch,” he told me one day as we finished lunch, “I’ve figured out that there’s really only one thing that people are after, and that’s happiness.” That remark has stayed with me all these years.

In 1984—after I had gone back to UP to finish my long-delayed AB—I chose to write about the drama of Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr. for my baby thesis, with another mentor, Franz Arcellana, as my adviser. I recently unearthed my typewritten copy of that thesis, and it’s remarkable how fresh his words remain. I quote: “The quest for happiness is an obsessive concern with Noriega—‘personal happiness,’ he emphasizes, ‘instead of social utopia, regardless of social conditions.’ The hitch, in Noriega’s scheme of things, is that such happiness can often only be attained through love, and love is the most difficult thing in the world to manage.” A quarter-century after his death, he remains a playwright for our time.

I was on a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland in September 1994, working on what became Penmanship and Other Stories, when I received news of Boy’s passing from cancer through a phone call; there was no email and no Internet at the castle then, no way to tweet my grief, as we might do these days. It saddened me deeply; he was too young to go at 42, I thought—and I felt an even more urgent need to write while I could. Four years later both of us were named to the CCP Centennial Honors List, a joyous moment we should have celebrated together.

I thought of Boy Noriega again recently when I read about the nominations being open for the next round of the National Artist Awards. I think it’s time, brother, I think it’s time.

Penman No. 325: Free to Think, Free to Speak

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Penman for Monday, October 29, 2018

 

I’VE BEEN seeing frothy messages on the Internet calling for the University of the Philippines to be shut down because it seems to be producing nothing more than anti-government critics and rebels (and, uhm, five out the seven new National Artists announced last week).

It’s no big secret that rebellion and resistance are coded into UP’s DNA, because it has always encouraged critical thinking, which in turn encourages—at least for a while, until complacency sets in—an attitude of dissent, of anti-authoritarianism, of rejection of the status quo. That’s how knowledge happens, as every scientist since Galileo has affirmed. Learning to lead requires critical thinking; learning to follow demands nothing more than blind conformity.

Apply that to the political sphere, and not surprisingly, UP has for the past century been a crucible of protest, against both internal and external forces seeking to influence its constituents’ thoughts and actions. Those protests and their causes have ranged from tuition fees, uniforms, and substandard facilities to unfair dismissals, Malacañang interference, foreign control of our destiny, and the overhaul of Philippine society itself.

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In 1928, a law prescribed the wearing of uniforms by students in all public schools, including UP. The uniform for men was a white suit (khaki on rainy days); for women, a white blouse and dress reaching three inches below the knees. UP students opposed the measure, and President Rafael Palma supported them.

In 1933, the first student protest against a tuition fee increase, from P30 to P50 per semester, took place at the College of Education in the form of a boycott led by, among others, Fe Palma—the daughter of the President.

The resistance got more serious when it came to political interference in UP affairs. In the early ‘30s, in a tussle over differing positions on Philippine independence, then Senate President Manuel Quezon punished Palma—and the entire University—by removing UP’s lump-sum allotment. Quezon was a notorious meddler in UP matters, often coming to Padre Faura from Malacañang when he was President astride a white horse. A young UP law student even attacked Quezon for his “frivolity,” accusing Quezon of throwing lavish parties in Malacañang while the country suffered under the Americans. The student’s name was Ferdinand Marcos.

This didn’t stop with Quezon. When President Quirino demanded courtesy resignations from all government officials, UP President Bienvenido Gonzalez refused to tender his, to protect UP’s autonomy.

In the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism, the Congressional Committee on Anti-Filipino Activities conducted a witch-hunt for communists in UP; the committee was led by Cong. Leonardo Perez, himself a former Collegianeditor. A throng of 3,000 students led by Heherson Alvarez and Reynato Puno marched to Congress in protest.

Diosdado Macapagal made few friends in UP when, upon assuming office in 1962, he announced that his choice for next UP President was Carlos P. Romulo, practically bypassing the Board of Regents. Macapagal got his way.

About Macapagal’s successor Marcos, I can only say that as a 17-year-old participant in the Diliman Commune, I carried but never got to throw a Molotov cocktail—but I would have if I had to, firm in the belief that the military had no right to drive their armored vehicles onto UP grounds.

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True, since the 1940s, many of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines have come from UP, from the fascinating Lava brothers to the English major Joma Sison. But UP has also bred Presidents Laurel, Roxas, Macapagal, Marcos, and Macapagal-Arroyo. Ramon Magsaysay and Fidel Ramos both spent time in UP before moving elsewhere. We can add hundreds of senators, congressmen, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet secretaries, and icons of industry, the arts, the sciences and the professions to this list.

In other words, UP has attracted all kinds—communists and socialists, yes, but also capitalists, ultraconservative Catholics and born-again Christians, Rizalist cultists, military agents, the Ananda Marga, and Muslim separatists. Our 300,000 alumni can count saints as well as scoundrels, Jedi Masters and Sith Lords, democrats and demagogues.

And the same thing can be said of top global universities like Cambridge, which in the 1930s was home to what came to be known as the “Cambridge Five,” led by the top Soviet spy Kim Philby. There’s a Communist Party of Canada Club at the University of Toronto, alongside an American Culture Club and a Chinese Christian Fellowship. Even Wharton has a Marx Café, an underground club of Marxist enthusiasts.

When you think about it, apprehensions about UP in 2018 are no more tenable than the charges laid against freethinkers on campus back in the 1940s. And we actually do a lot more than rebel—look into our breakthroughs in research on www.up.edu.ph, which has helped boost our ranking to the top of Philippine universities.

For me, the true heart of UP lies neither in the Right nor the Left, but in that great liberal middle—“liberal” with a small “L”—whose members value the freedom to think, to speak, to study, and to teach, subscribing neither to State propaganda nor to Party doctrine, but trusting their own reason and education to illumine the way forward.

In its editorial of April 14, 1962, the Philippine Collegian wrote this about outgoing President Vicente Sinco, a visionary who fathered what came to be known as the General Education program and who fought to maintain UP’s secular character:

“Dr. Sinco is one of the most liberal of UP presidents. He has stood for intellectual freedom, for the autonomy of the mind…. This particular achievement of Dr. Sinco in… protecting the freedom of intelligence from the infringements of lies, orthodoxy, and mediocrity is a challenge to anyone in the future who will occupy the office.”

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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. 305: More Autographs and Memories

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Penman for Monday, June 4, 2018

 

FOUR YEARS ago, I wrote a column-piece titled “Autographs and memories,” largely about a visit that Beng and I made to an exhibit of autographs at the National Archives in Washington, DC, where I ogled the signatures of such as Ezra Pound, Adolf Hitler, Albert Einstein, and a score of American presidents and notables. I wished loudly that we would have a similar exhibit curated and mounted, say, at the National Museum.

Having ventured into collecting mid-century genre paintings, I’m slowly building up a digital archive of artists’ signatures. Those of our National Artists are pretty well covered by numerous coffee table books (so well that I’m sure some enterprising souls have made an industry out of copying them), but I’m more interested in the less-known likes of Serafin Serna, Gabriel Custodio, Crispin V. Lopez, Ben Alano, Jose D. Castro, and Fortunato Jervoso, among others—painters born shortly after the turn of the century and who may have studied under Fernando Amorsolo, or been influenced by his style.

When it comes to literature, however, then I do feel happily obligated to collect works signed by our National Artists, and have shamelessly invoked the privilege of friendship to solicit signatures to go with the books of Virgilio Almario, Bien Lumbera, and F. Sionil Jose—and, when they were alive, NVM Gonzalez, Franz Arcellana, Edith Tiempo, and Nick Joaquin. I’ve just as assiduously sought out those of such estimable and historically important writers (apart from my close personal writer-friends) as Carlos Bulosan, Zoilo Galang, Bienvenido Santos, Aida Rivera Ford, Tita Lacambra Ayala, Greg Brillantes, and Resil Mojares. On my wish list remain the autographs of Manuel Arguilla and Stevan Javellana, ideally on their books—and dare I even add Jose Rizal?

I never was his student (although Jimmy Abad and Luigi Francia were, half a generation ahead of me), but I had always wished to meet Jose Garcia Villa. The closest I would get was a signed copy of his 1949 book, Volume Two, courtesy of eBay.

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The Web may be the bane of many a bibliophile yearning for the tactile pleasures of typeset pages and deckled edges, but it also happens to be a nearly inexhaustible trove of hidden treasure, like the seabed where gold-laden galleons lie.

It was where, a couple of weeks ago, I chanced upon a book inscribed by the late dramatist and poet and National Artist Rolando Tinio to a “Lito, Lito,” whom he gently urges to move away from English, like Tinio himself did. Tinio had directed one of my plays in the late 1970s, but I must have been so awestruck that I never got to ask him to sign anything, not even the playbill.

That reminded me of another departed National Artist I wouldn’t have been too shy to swipe a signature from—but also never did. Lino Brocka and I collaborated on about 14 movies, and I corresponded with him frequently, especially when I was sending him scripts and storylines from graduate school in the US in the late 1980s until he died in 1992. But I don’t recall that he was ever the writing kind. (Instead, unmindful of time zones, he’d call me at 3 in the morning.) For all the work we did together, I can’t locate a single note from Lino.

I did secure an autographed book and a note—neither of them meant for me—online, signed by another National Artist for Literature (yes, the one we very often forget about, perhaps because he distinguished himself in so many other fields): Carlos P. Romulo, who received that honor in 1982.

My only encounter with Gen. Romulo was through a speech of his that I memorized and declaimed in grade school—the one that describes Filipinos as “short sunburnt men who love to fling the salty net” (I must’ve flung that net a thousand times in my impassioned recitations)—but I knew him to be a personage so highly accomplished and acclaimed that one university wag would claim that CPR had “more degrees than a thermometer.”

The book, Crusade in Asia, was inscribed by CPR to a “Howard W. Ashley” of Jacksonville, Florida, and was accompanied by a typewritten and signed letter also dated April 17, 1958 on the letterhead of the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC, where CPR was serving as ambassador between 1955 and 1962. In the note, Romulo thanks Ashley for meeting him at the airport at midnight—a gesture that had unintended consequences, as CPR writes that “I am still worrying about the $127.00 that you have to pay for the repair of your Cadillac.”

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Speaking of CPR, by coincidence—the kind that antiquarian collectors tend to run into more often than others—I came across an article by E. R. Rodriguez, Jr. in the Aug. 19, 1967 issue of The Chronicle Magazine.It details a mortifying exchange of long letters between a younger CPR and his boss, President Manuel L. Quezon, who delivers a stinging rebuke to his irrepressibly articulate aide for going on a private book tour while serving as a government official. That deserves its own column one of these days—but what I’d give for a signed original of what MLQ said!

 

 

Penman No. 277: The Wealth Within Us (1)

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Penman for Monday, November 13, 2017

 

THIS ASEAN week and next, I’m sharing excerpts from a short paper I presented at a conference on ASEAN Leadership Amid a New World Order that took place last November 8 at the Shangri-La Makati, under the auspices of the Stratbase ADR Institute and the Asia Society. Ours was a panel on ASEAN cultural cooperation, and I spoke as a writer and academic engaged in regional networking.

As a creative writer and professor of literature, I’ve had many opportunities over these past 25 years to meet and mingle with my Southeast Asian counterparts in various conferences.

Until recently, there weren’t too many of these regional networks for writers and artists to get together, but today, some formal networks are in place. In my field, for example, the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators or APWT—which held its tenth annual conference just two weeks ago in Bali—has been very active in making connections between writers, translators, teachers, scholars, and publishers around the region. APWT goes well beyond Southeast Asia to include China, Japan, Korea, India, and even the United States and the UK, and very recently its major sponsor has been Australia, which is seeking to expand its Asian footprint.

I’m sure that similar associations exist in the other arts—in theater, music, and dance, for example. But let me use these writers’ gatherings as an illustration of the challenges and opportunities we Filipinos face on the cultural front.

Cultural cooperation presumes an awareness of each other’s culture. The problem is, there’s very little of that kind of connection, people to people, around the region, or at least between us and the rest of the region. Chalk it down to the fact that we have been separated from the rest of Southeast Asia by geography, by history, by language, and by religion. Scholars, writers, and artists—and let’s add OFWs—should of course have a deeper understanding of regional cultures, but that’s their job.

And even so, at nearly every regional conference I’ve attended, I’m acutely reminded of how out of the loop we Pinoys are—out of the Sinic loop up north, out of the Indic loop out west, out of the Malay loop down south, and out of the Commonwealth loop to which many of those countries belong. Having cast our lot with America and English, we find little in common with most everybody else, beyond the color of our skin and our shared legacy of colonialism.

Ironically, cultural commonalities and exchanges of a kind do happen around the region, and even around Asia—largely as a result of globalization, the Internet, satellite TV, and their impact on youth and pop culture. Witness the spread of K-Pop, anime, rap, telenovelas, and anything from Hollywood, especially the Marvel and DC universe.

But while these influences have arguably injected new vitality into traditional cultures and media, they have also, to a significant extent, contributed to the homogenization of those cultures, and to the forgetting or even obliteration of traditional knowledge, leaving our youth in a cultural limbo, divorced and alienated from the common experience of their own people.

Consider this: young urban Filipinos don’t consider agriculture as a career option, don’t like to eat fish unless it’s imported salmon, have no idea where or what Quiapo is, see Mindanao as another country, and know more about Japanese manga and Star Wars than they do about our heroes. Their world-view is shaped by Facebook and Netflix and spread by Twitter and Instagram, and not by direct immersion in their societies, much less by the societies around them. Indeed the fashionable thing today is to propose that the very idea of “nation” is a thing of the past, even as the rabidly resurgent nationalisms of some of our neighbors reveal that to be a precarious fantasy.

Clearly this indicates a failure of education, but as we all know, subjects related to culture and history have increasingly been relegated to the back rows of our curricular priorities in favor of science, technology, and mathematics. As a graduate myself of the Philippine Science High School and an abortive engineer and economist, I have no quarrel with pushing those competencies in the name of competitiveness and national development.

But there are also powerful arguments to be made for supporting cultural programs and endeavors instead of diminishing them. I will focus on two: what I will call the moral argument, and the economic argument.

The moral argument is that culture is an essential element of national growth and development, as it helps define our national identity and our national interests. Without culture, we have nothing to stand on except our territory. Cultural cooperation begins at home, first of all with an awareness of what culture is and how it can not only explain but enhance human life.

Culture is a dynamic description of our commonalities and differences, without understanding which we will be moving forward blindly, guided only by the political and economic interests of our elites.

Politics and economics may dominate the news and people’s consciousness, but many of our problems are cultural in nature—indeed, our politics and economics are significantly shaped by culture, from the ascendancy of Rodrigo Duterte to the conflict in Marawi.

The problem is that we often see culture as little more than entertainment, a musical interlude between presumably more important matters. Even overseas, Filipinos think of culture as the obligatory pancit and tinikling on June 12—not the underlying reason why there are hundreds of Filipino organizations in Southern California alone but few major statewide Fil-Am political leaders. (More next week)

 

Penman No. 270: Precedents for Presidents

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Penman for Monday, September 25, 2017

 

It’ll only be around for a few days more, but painter Rock Drilon’s latest exhibit at Galleria Duemila on Loring Street in Pasay City is worth looking into, if only to see how a master abstractionist is inspired by the idea and the experience of home. Titled “Homecoming: Works from Dumangas,” the show is the culmination of the past five years that he’s been staying at the Drilons’ ancestral home in Dumangas, Iloilo, after decades of living and working in the big city up north. He’d originally returned to his roots just to help out his aging mother, but the pull of the province proved too strong, and Rock found himself staying on for good.

This is the 61-year-old’s 50th-plus show, and if you’ve followed his career you’ll see familiar figures in his latest work—the loopy lines and amoeba-like shapes—suffused with color, predominantly pastel but pockmarked with black, like life itself. Of course, the wonder of—and, for many, the problem with—abstract expressionism is that a work can seem to mean anything and everything that the viewer brings to the picture.

Drilon cites Chabet, Dubuffet, and Basquiat among his major influences, aside from his mentor Joya, and it helps to appreciate their art as a whole to see a pattern among the patterns. One manifesto seeking to explain the school famously defined it as “violently opposed to common sense,” and you can see that in Drilon’s creations, whose subjects defy categorization but provoke intense examination. No soul-comforting churches, no sunsets, no ricefields here, only squiggles that could be both microbes and galaxies, as minute or as massive as our imaginations will make them. “Homecoming” is on until September 30.

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AN INVESTITURE, we’re told, is a “formal ceremony conferring the authority and symbols of high office, held during the new president’s first year in office,” and is a high point in the life of every university. Aside from the annual graduation, few opportunities exist for shows of pomp and circumstance—where the professors and administrators parade in full academic regalia—in universities like UP where egalitarianism is religion and simplicity of dress and manner are seen to complement sharpness of mind.

We had one at the University of the Philippines last Wednesday, in honor of our new president Atty. Danilo “Danicon” L. Concepcion, UP’s 21st, and it occurred to me that in all my 33 years in UP, I had somehow never been to one, although it’s taken place every six years in UP’s modern history. As one of his VPs, I had the honor of marching onstage, and so had a very special view of things.

The experience led me to dig into UP’s history of investitures, where I discovered more than few interesting factoids.

Our very first president, for example, wasn’t only a foreigner—an American—but also a clergyman, an Episcopalian pastor. His name was Dr. Murray Bartlett, and his investiture was held on December 20, 1911—three years after UP opened. About 2,000 students, teachers, and guests trooped to Padre Faura for the afternoon ceremony where—against the expectations of many—Bartlett argued in his speech for a “University for Filipinos” that would not merely copy US universities.

UP’s third president (after the Filipino jurist Ignacio Villamor) was again an American, and a Methodist minister—Guy Potter Benton—and his investiture in December 1921 was memorable not only for its lavish budget of P10,000 and a star-studded guest list that included Governor General Leonard Wood, Senate President Manuel Quezon, and Speaker Sergio Osmeña, but because of a feature that would never be seen again: the UP faculty wore all-white togas, which someone had thought more appropriate for the tropics. (It would be voted out the next year.)

Benton’s illustrious successor, Rafael Palma, had an investiture described as “austere,” but the word clearly did not apply to Don Rafael’s prolific pen, whose 8,000-word speech I clocked at about an hour and a half.

Flashing forward, Onofre D. Corpuz seemed to have spoken in the spirit of martial law when, in 1975, he scorned the notion of the university as a “battleground of ideas,” calling it “a romantic stereotype” which the people could ill afford to support with their taxes.

Edgardo J. Angara’s investiture in 1982 was besieged by a hostile crowd declaiming a litany of complaints—he had dared to start reforming UP’s ancient academic programs, and he would later reconfigure UP into constituent universities—but if anything, his raucous investiture would prove that you can get someone dead wrong, because Angara would go on to become one of UP’s best chief executives.

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These precedents were on my mind last week as I sat in my chair behind our new president, who made an impassioned appeal for the university’s constituents to find common ground, favoring “consensus over conflict, civility over calumny, and collaboration over confrontation.” UP, he said, should be “a clearing—a safe, free, and congenial space” within which its people could undertake “cutting-edge research, timely policy studies, exciting new exhibits and productions, and provocative art and literature.” (You can find the full text of his speech on www.up.edu.ph.)

We all cheered him on and wished him well—governing UP can sometimes be as difficult as governing the archipelago—and as we marched down the stage I felt more than a witness to history unfolding.

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