Penman No. 398: Bringing New Life to Old

Penman for Monday, October 12, 2020

BEING MARRIED to an art restorer who regularly salvages battered or tattered Amorsolos, HRs, Botongs, Kiukoks, and the like and turns them into objects of joy and wonder again, I know what it’s like to give new life to something that at one point seemed utterly ruined. 

Not that I can do it myself, as I’ve often been better at messing things up than fixing them. It’s a shame to admit, being a PSHS alum and an aspiring engineer at some wistful point, but I’m generally worthless around cars, for example. I can fix a flat if it comes to that, but anything else will have to be solved by a phone call to the tow truck. Neither is carpentry my strong suit; I’d probably break a saw before it could cut through a two-by-four, or lose a finger.

There are a few things that I’ve learned to repair—many old fountain pens, for example, though not all, as some require highly specialized skills and tools. Pens from the 1920s up to the 1950s that used rubber sacs or bladders are pretty easy to fix, with some help from a hair dryer to soften (but not melt) the plastic, and a dab of shellac. I can also DIY some basic computer fixes, like replacing laptop hard drives and batteries, making sure not to lose any tiny screws by mounting their heads on upside-down tape. As I collect pens and, yes, old Macs, this has not only saved me a mint of service fees but also amplified the pleasures of collecting and connoisseurship. 

But I reserve my admiration for people who really know and love what they’re doing, are extremely good at it, and who are struggling to preserve a dying art as threatened as the objects they minister to. 

We live in a repair-conscious society; unlike the throwaway Americans and even the Japanese, for whom labor could cost more than the appliance itself, we will fight to keep our TVs, fridges, aircons, and electric fans chugging until their last breath. We suffocate our new sofas with plastic so they will live 100 years.

But repair is one thing, and restoration another. You can always buy another 60-inch TV if it can’t be fixed, but not another 1928 Parker Duofold Senior, or another signed copy of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, or another 1922 Corona 3 folding typewriter, at least not that cheaply or that easily.

Happily and thankfully, we still have people who, like my wife Beng, possess the arcane skills required to bring new life to old. And “old” is the operative word here, because the things they care for and care about tend to be far older than their owners and decidedly appeal to the senior set, although they’ve begun to acquire a certain charm for some millennials eager to connect to some thread of history.

Take vintage pens, for example. For those jobs that amateurs like me can’t do, there’s J. P. Reinoso, a retired bank executive, who’s turned his hobby into a full-on pen spa (yep, that’s what he calls it). Sheaffer Snorkels from the 1950s and Parker Vacumatics from the 1930s and 1940s will almost certainly defeat the uninitiated, but JP has the know-how and just as importantly the parts for them. (Sadly and surprisingly, modern piston-fillers like Montblancs and Pelikans will often require a long and expensive trip back to the factory in Germany for servicing, although some basic repairs can also be done here, subject to parts.)

For my old books that have begun to fall apart—and I mean books from as far back as the 1600s and 1700s, although books from the early 20th century tend to get more brittle and fragile because of their acidified paper—I turn for help to Josie Francisco of Bulwagang Recoletos, who uses gossamer-thin Japanese paper to make a crumbling page whole again. Another genius in this department is Loreto Apilado of the Ortigas Foundation Library, which accepts book restoration jobs.

Local watch aficionados swear by Andrew “Andy” Arnesto, whose shop at Makati Cinema Square has become a mecca for savvy collectors and users seeking to revive their vintage Rolexes and Omegas without having to pay boutique rates, especially for the simplest fixes. 

And what about those typewriters? I’ve written about him here before, but the guy we call Gerald Cha, based in Quiapo, is still the go-to person to get your Lolo’s venerable Underwood 5 or Smith-Corona Silent Super going clackety-clack again. Beyond giving your machine the basic CLA (cleaning, lubrication, adjustment) service, he can also repaint it to your specifications—like he did with a dull-olive 1959 Olympia SM3 that I fancied turning into my “UP Naming Mahal” standard-bearer, with its maroon-and-cream body accented by the original green platen knobs. 

As I quoted Hippocrates last week, ars longa, vita brevis—art is long, life is short. Taken another way, a bit of the restorer’s art can lengthen the life of your dearest toys and possessions.

(Privacy concerns inhibit me from giving out their numbers, but a little Googling should go a long way.) 

Penman No. 347: The Master of Commandante Street

 

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Penman for Monday, April 1, 2019

 

COMMANDANTE STREET branches off Evangelista in Manila’s Quiapo—a downtown district a poet-friend endearingly described as “the armpit of the city.” It’s an area teeming with shops selling generators, compressors, engine parts, filing cabinets, and cheap guitars and stereos, not too far from soft-porn moviehouses and restaurants offering Chinese noodles and dumplings. You wouldn’t know it, but on one side of a hole-in-the wall along Commandante works one of the world’s most highly regarded craftsmen, known to his clients and admirers only as “Gerald Cha.”

Gerald repairs and restores typewriters—yes, those noisy machines your grandparents used to write letters and fill out forms with—catering to a small but fiercely dedicated community of typewriter collectors and users, not only in the Philippines but worldwide. He’s not alone—there are still many master repairmen out there who can make a 1912 Blickensderfer or a 1955 Smith Corona Silent Super work for you (check out Duane Jensen’s Phoenix Typewriter videos on YouTube, for instance)—but Gerald has acquired near-mythical status in the online community, as much perhaps for his skills as for his mystery.

As one member of our Antique Typewriter Collectors group puts it, “Gerald Cha was a quiet man. He lived among the pines in seclusion. His family and friends knew him as a gentle soul, but the typewriters feared his name. Legend has it that Gerald Cha once carried 16 desktop typewriters, using 8 fingers and 8 toes, crawling on his elbows and knees. He stood 5.6 meters tall, weighed 10 stone, and could throw a VW Beetle 270 feet. His shoes could hold 23 gallons of water, each. Gerald did not seek attention, but attention found him.”

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On the day that I and two other collector-friends—Toastmaster Dennis Pinpin and lawyer Javi Flores—visit Gerald at his shop, he’s poring over an 1880s Caligraph shipped in from the States. The Caligraph is a large, black Rube-Goldbergian contraption with a plethora of screws and bars. Like many early models, it’s an upstrike typewriter—meaning, the keys strike the platen (the rubber cylinder on which the paper is rolled) from under, instead of from the front, as in normal typewriters. In other words, you’re typing blind, not seeing what you wrote.

Gerald’s job is to see how everything hangs together, and to fabricate parts that no longer exist. He does this with the help of local artisans, including someone who custom-made the one-inch-wide ribbons used by the Caligraph (the standard size is half an inch). Most of the Caligraph’s key caps were gone, so he had to have a whole period-correct set of letters, numbers, and assorted characters printed out, along with the machine’s emblem—normally a decal, “but for now I’ll have to do with a sticker” that he had made. Gerald’s in the right place for any kind of copying—C. M. Recto Avenue, just around the corner, has a decades-old reputation, predating the Xerox, for being Manila’s Forgery Row, where you can order anything from a birth certificate to a diploma from the university of your choice.

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Our requests seem easy by comparison—Javi is having a ca. 1910 Oliver No. 5 restored, I need new rubber feet for my 1938 Royal O, and Dennis (he with the 90 typewriters) always has something or other for Gerald to mind. The man who attends to all these is no bearded guru, but a slightly built, soft-spoken guy in his early 40s. “Cha” is really his wife’s nickname. “There were too many other people with my name, so I had to find something different,” he says. Another signature is his impossibly weathered Nokia, as if to suggest how far behind the times he is, like his machines. But you can find him as “Gerald Cha” on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger, urged by the likes of Dennis to share his uncommon expertise not just with fellow Filipinos but with the world. He’s been online for only a few years, but in that short time he’s risen to legendary status among the typerati (yes, I just made up that word).

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Incredibly enough, he was born on the same street where he now works. “I was a helper in an office machines shop in my teens,” he explains as he looks over Javi’s Oliver. “That’s how I learned to do this. I never went to college because I was already earning good money!” That was then, of course, and while he still rules the roost, he’s had to make concessions to changing tastes to make ends meet. Aside from the tough specialist jobs he does for collectors, he refurbishes and repaints typewriters for an online outfit that sells the spiffed-up machines to millennials angling for a taste of vintage, including set and fashion designers looking for props. “They like their Olympias in hot pink.” His top sellers include chromed Royal QDLs and Olympia SMs.

Sadly, Gerald says, kids these days are more interested in computers, and no one will be taking over from him. “You can still find quite a few typewriter repairmen in Metro Manila,” Dennis tells me, “but Gerald is different. He loves his machines, loves to figure out how they work and how to get them back up to speed.”

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If you need Gerald, you can text him at 0916-7761268, landline 733-4896—unless you want to take an interesting trip out to 1691 Commandante Street, in the armpit of Manila.