Way back in the 1980s, when my fiction in English was already translated into so many foreign languages, I was criticized for my “Carabao” English, that it wasn’t English enough. It was also the time when the biggest publisher in the United States, Random House, took interest in my work. I had several sessions with my Random House editor, Samuel Vaughan, who was himself very distinguished having been president of the publishing house, Doubleday before Random House bought it. He was also the editor for President Dwight Eisenhower as well as for the famous California writer, Wallace Stegner.
I told Sam to do whatever he wished with my manuscripts, but to remember only one thing: don’t make me less Filipino. Those who have criticized me for using so-called Filipino English should compare the original texts of my novels with that of the Random House editions. They will recognize that Sam did very little editing.
It was another situation in 1955 when Malcolm Cowley, then editor of Viking and the literary agent, Ann Watkins, suggested that I make some minor changes in my novel, Tree. They wanted to put it out in their Spring list of 1956 but that I had to explain some terms that may not be understood by Americans.
The novel was already serialized in Telly Albert’s, Weekly Women Magazine and I had no criticisms of terms or words not understandable to Filipinos. I realized early then that I was not writing for the Americans for which reason I never sent Tree back to Viking. This minor question on terms with which Americans are unfamiliar was resolved by Random House with a glossary.
All of us who write in English, however, should realize that we often think in our mother tongue and automatically translate it into English. This gives our English a particular nuance, unique and very Filipino.
Fr. Miguel Bernad, the literary critic, stated it simply that the difference between Irish English and English English is in timbre. Those who have read a lot of literature in American English as well as English English soon realize that American English is a door wide open, and English English is not. Language also reflects the nature of a people, their character. In writing in a borrowed tongue, I know instances when I find English inadequate. There are so many descriptive words in our languages, words pertaining to the senses that have no equivalent in English. Our languages are very sensual but not essentially descriptive and precise when it comes to measurements.
How did I get to be translated into so many languages with my Filipino English? My being published by Random House is illustrative. The Harvard professor, Stephan Haggard, was in Manila for a World Bank project, and when he returned to New York, he told his friend Samuel Vaughan about my books. Sam wrote to me to send him my books; he was senior editor at Random House. Similarly with Fayard; Jacques Decornoy, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, visited Manila and came upon my story collection – “The God Stealer” and he reviewed it in his journal. The French editor, Ghislain Ripault, read it and asked for my books. His wife, Amina Said, who is herself an outstanding poet, read them and decided to translate them.
All my foreign publishers came to me with the exception of Maeva in Barcelona. My New York agent dealt with Maeva. It is for this reason why I tell Filipino writers in English to write as best as they know how in the English as we use it; for sure its excellence and uniqueness will be recognized and broadcast beyond our shores. I recall very well a discussion I had with my Russian translator, Igor Podberezsky. He studied in Diliman and had written books on Rizal and our history and culture. Why was he translating me? Was it because he saw some Marxism in my work? He laughed and said there are so many Marxist writers in Europe and Asia. He was translating me, he said, because my writing portrayed Filipino life so well, and that I was writing in a very Filipino manner.
I like to think that this Filipinoness in my writing as with the writing of Manuel Arguilla, Nick Joaquin and even Rizal sprang from rootedness, not just to a specific place but to a culture and most of all, to history. This rootedness is not all that conscious – in fact, I never really think about it – only in the lonely quiet of the self that its realization surfaces and suffuses the many facets of creative thinking. Roots became me; I can’t take them off like my skin or the nerves that wire all of me.
To perpetuate and to nurture these roots demand our consciousness of the realities wherein we act our fates, to be engaged, as the French put it, with events that dictate our future. This knowledge is instinctive with us who write (and therefore, think) for as artists and writers, we are also prophets – unappreciated and ignored. Only the future will legitimize us.
Whatever the language, it, too, is part of those roots.
Our languages must develop for scientific and intellectual discourse. The truth is that we cannot conduct profound discussions in philosophy or in the sciences for our languages are inadequate. We have to switch to English.
Many young writers have opted to write in our vernaculars. Their development continues but many of the languages that are spoken by fewer and fewer people will die out, while English which continues to grow and gain adherence will live far into the future.
Those of us who write in English will be comforted by the fact that what we write will endure. What is important is for us to develop this “Carabao” English as best as we can for it identifies us, and this ennobles and dignifies our country as well. More than this, language will enable us to modernize faster and bond us with the world.
Published in The Philippine Star on February 3, 2020
When I got to be 90, I had to cut down on my social climbing because my knees were failing. That aborted birthday bash last December 3 was, however, an affair I had looked forward to. I wanted to gather all the kind and wonderful people who made this life interesting and have been very kind to me. I wanted to tell them of my profound gratitude.
I am sure that there were several that I missed, primarily because at 95 my memory is also failing. Forgive me.
I invited several diplomats whose governments hosted my visits and fellowships. First, I want to thank the European Union, the Republics of Chile, The Philippines and France, and His Majesty, Emperor Akihito of Japan for the decorations and awards they conferred on me.
I am a college dropout, just the same I handled an undergraduate and graduate course on culture. Now I have five honorary Ph.Ds. from Foundation University in Dumaguete, the University of Pangasinan in Dagupan, the Far Eastern University, De La Salle and the University of the Philippines. I’m very glad to announce that finally our family has a real Ph.D. in my grandson, Nick Jose, who just got his doctorate in biochemistry from Cambridge. I also invited my doctors who had looked after me through the years. I think they are the best in the country and of course they also ministered to the best writer of Rosales, Pangasinan.
When I was 30 years old, I was invited to visit America for six months, go anywhere I wished and meet anyone I wanted. I had enjoyed a princely per diem of 12 US dollars a day, half of which I saved so I could go home via Europe and Southeast Asia.
I’m also grateful to the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Foundation and to the great American Foundations, the Rockefeller, Ford, Asia, which helped me, and the universities—Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley and the East-West Center for their fellowships.
I’m grateful to the Japan and Toyota Foundations, and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto for their assistance and fellowships. Soba, senbei—a couple of food items had become my favorites. To the Dominican Fr. Gaston Petit in whose Tokyo atelier, I wrote for months on end.
The Russians were the first to translate me and I have a feeling I’ve more readers in the former Soviet Union than in my country. I was there for the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1967 and travelled not only in Russia but also in the Eastern European capitals. I recall my breakfast at the famous National Hotel in Red Square, aromatic tea, freshly baked black bread, with fresh butter and all the caviar that I could slap on it.
I’m grateful to the British Council for hosting my England visit. I felt like royalty when my wife and I were met at Heathrow in a Vanden Plas Princess limousine as big as a truck. Kippers for breakfast, fish and chips on the sidewalk were memorable.
Ah, Australia! Sydney rock oysters are the world’s best.
In Taiwan I got to appreciate Chinese cuisine, art, Peking opera and the friendship of Taiwan’s famous poet and patron, Nancy Ing.
I saw Korea when it had not yet recovered from the Korean war, found the Koreans a warm and hardworking people. They also translated me. I was introduced to ginseng, its mythical origins and lifegiving qualities. According to ginseng’s true believers, the most potent grows wild in the mountains but can be found only by the pure in heart.
I traced Rizal’s journey in Germany where, in the company of that country’s intellectuals, he matured intellectually. Rizal complained about the German potato diet; there was no Nordsee chain in his time where I had smoked mackerel and the best bouillabaisse.
As writer-in-residence at the University of Singapore, I enjoyed the companionship of Singapore’s cultural mandarin, Edwin Thumboo.
And finally and most importantly, I’m grateful to my staff, to Lida who watched my children grow, to Cesar, who is my man Friday, Saturday and Sunday and to my children and grandchildren who gave me infinite joy.
I always knew that writers are almost always poor. I thought I’d be different.
In the 1950’s the President of the largest company in the Philippines asked me to join him. And in the 1960’s a Filipino billionaire offered me all the capital I needed to set up branches in Cubao, Makati. I declined the offers; I wanted to write.
So now, in this, my twilight, I realize I did not make that pile, nor contributed a single stone to the edifice that is the nation. I made a mistake—I knew that early enough to accept it—but from this distance in time, I also know deep within me what a joyous and glorious mistake it was.
Sometime back my wife and I were at the Iseya restaurant close to my bookshop, the owner brought his companion to us; he shook my hand then said, “Thank you for your writing. You changed my life.” Mine wasn’t a rich life, but was much, much better than the drudgery I came from. I worked very hard to do that and hoped as well that I gave voice to what so many of my countrymen had aspired for. With what I have written, I hope that some may now understand themselves better, so that they can also live with themselves. I hope that I have also brought some light to the blackest corners of their minds, their hearts, their very homes, that I have given them memory, too, so that they will remember.
Before curtain falls, I have always suspected that Somebody up there likes me, allowed me to live this long, gave me a companion who stood by me in the darkest night, forgave my sins, nurtured and nagged me so I’d be able to write and give all of you a bit of myself. My wife—she gave all of herself to me.
First published in The Philippine Star, December 9, 2019
I take my beret off to Ambassador Delia Domingo Albert, former foreign affairs secretary, and perhaps our finest diplomat ever. I’ve known Ambassador Albert since the early 1960s, when she was a fledgling foreign service officer. The Department of Foreign Affairs was then on Padre Faura and she used to visit my bookshop with her colleagues. I followed her career through the years.
Delia Albert has contributed so much to building not only cultural but also economic relationships with our ASEAN neighbors and with every country where she has served. She is fluent in eight languages, including her native Ilokano. Once I had as houseguests Mr. & Mrs. Akira Kanda, owners of an art gallery in Tokyo. Delia had come to our house for dinner and when she left, the Kandas said they were awed by her very refined Japanese.
Last month, Ambassador Albert went to Tokyo, where Prime Minister Abe presented her with one of the highest recognitions conferred by the Japanese Emperor, the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star. Last week, the Japanese ambassador, Koji Haneda, gave a reception in her honor. This is excerpted from her response.
My Japan Story
Two years ago some of us gathered here to witness the conferment of the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star on Washington Sycip, an icon in the Philippine business community. It was Mr. SyCip, who, a day after my retirement from four decades of diplomatic service, invited me to join SGV, the company he founded 72 years ago, and gave me a clear and specific mandate to “continue serving the country."
My own Japan story began at the University of the Philippines where a noted Japan specialist, Professor Josefa Saniel, impressed me with her keen knowledge and appreciation of Japan that I aspired to see for myself what I had learned about the fascinating country.
The prize opportunity came in 1962, when I participated in an international students seminar at Tsuda College in Tokyo, followed by a workcamp in Awajishima, where, together with Japanese and foreign students, I worked on a road that would link the small fishing village of Nigoro to other places on the island.
It was my first experience not only in physically building a road with a pick and shovel but also in building friendships with people from different nationalities and cultures, and especially with the people of Nigoro. After the workcamp, I was invited to teach at a pioneer school for girls, the Tokyo Friends Girls School, run by the international Quaker community.
Soon after my return to the country, I was invited to introduce then Secretary of Foreign Affairs Narciso Ramos at the annual "Soiree Diplomatique" of the University of the Philippines Foreign Service Corps. Because his CV was too short, I introduced him in three languages -- English, French, and Japanese. This prompted the Secretary to engage me on the spot as his social and appointments secretary because, as he said, I could say "no" in different languages.
Soon I was arranging the negotiations on the Host Agreement between the Philippines and the Asian Development Bank, which had just been founded. I was also tasked to arrange the calls and meetings of the Secretary with his counterparts in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and later with Singapore as they prepared to meet for a historical game of golf in Bangsaen, Thailand, and later draw up the Bangkok Declaration, which established ASEAN.
When economic diplomacy became the focus of our foreign policy, we pursued the negotiations for the Japan-Philippine Economic Partnership Agreement, otherwise known as JPEPA, which provided the framework for increased bilateral economic relations.
At this point I would like to recognize a dear friend, a partner in economic diplomacy and a recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun Gold and Silver Star, Lilia de Lima, who, as the trusted and respected Director General of the Philippine Economic Zone Authority or PEZA, successfully convinced Japanese companies to invest as well as increase their presence in the Philippines.
After thirty-six years in the Foreign Service I became the first woman career diplomat to serve as Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Asia, I felt a natural responsibility to promote women participation not only in diplomacy but especially in the economy. In support of Prime Minister Abe's policy of "womenomics," I led a group of Filipino women entrepreneurs to meet with their Japanese counterparts at the ASEAN-Japan Centre during the 26th Global Summit of Women held in Tokyo in 2016. At that Summit the keynote speakers, Vice President Leonor Robredo and Prime Minister Abe, enjoined women in Asia to take more active and responsible roles in various aspects of society.
Last July, Ambassador and Madame Haneda visited my hometown, Baguio. They met with the new set of city officials and the descendants of the Japanese settlers who worked in the construction of the famous Kennon Road from 1903 to 1909. At the Baguio market, Madame Haneda was pleasantly surprised to see familiar fruits and vegetables introduced by the Japanese communities who settled mainly in Trinidad Valley, which became known as the “salad bowl” of the Philippines.
For me, personally, road-building, whether in the island of Awajishima or the Kennon road, represents a very special connection between the Philippines and Japan. Not only did they connect places, they also connected people.
May I now take this wonderful opportunity to thank you, Ambassador Haneda, for your kind and generous hospitality and, through you, the people and government of Japan, for conferring on me on May 23, 2019, the Order of the Rising Sun Gold, and Silver Star, which I received from the hands of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, followed by a most heartwarming and memorable audience with His Majesty Emperor Naruhito.
Saigoni kansha wo komete kokoroyori onrei moushi agemasu.
(Finally, please accept my heartfelt gratitude).
First published in The Philippine Star, October 7, 2019
International PEN is a global organization of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists. This week, around 200 members from some 120 PEN Centers will convene in Manila for the annual PEN Congress to discuss the future of minority languages and the condition of writers and literature today.
In focusing on minority languages, the conference emphasizes their importance and their plight. In our own country, several languages, among them Zambal, Pangasinan, and Kapampangan, will probably die in the next century. It is important that a record of the literature in these languages is made, a study, too, of their cultural attributes.
This year’s Congress is hosted by the Philippine Center, which I organized in 1957. It came about this way. In New Haven, Connecticut, in 1955, I met Malcolm Cowley, the poet and editor of Viking, a major publisher. He saw my novel, Tree, and wanted it published in the Spring of 1956. Why I did not let him is another story. He asked if there was an organization of writers in Manila. When I said there wasn’t and since I was going home via Europe, he told me to stop in London and see David Carver, who was then PEN’s International Secretary.
I met Mr. Carver in London and upon arriving in Manila, I set up the Philippine Center immediately. The following year, the Philippine Center held the first National PEN Conference in Baguio. Alfredo T. Morales was the first PEN Chairman, Virginia Moreno was the Treasurer, and I was the National Secretary. President Carlos Garcia opened the conference, and Senator Claro M. Recto delivered the first Jose Rizal lecture, which has become the main feature of PEN annual conferences.
OUR FOREMOST WRITERS, including Leon Ma. Guerrero, Teodoro Locsin, and Nick Joaquin, have delivered that lecture. At one time, the famous Spanish writer, Salvador de Madariaga (I met him in Berlin in 1960) delivered the lecture, too, and he said, a country need not be colonized by a foreign power, it can be colonized by its own leaders. Chief Justice Hilario Davide from Cebu has also delivered the lecture. This year’s Jose Rizal lecture will be delivered by the historian, Resil Mojares, also from Cebu and the newest National Artist for Literature.
The economic insecurity of Filipino writers persists; no one can live on their writing. Still many young writers persist; and they are our fond hope for the future of our literature, particularly if they recognize their roots, and belong to a community much larger than themselves.
The first years of the Philippine PEN were really difficult. Hardly any Philippine writer at the time could afford to pay the annual dues. Every so often, I had to pay the dues for some members to keep the status of our Center. The Philippine Center also hosted two Asian writers conferences and published an Asian PEN anthology that included the foremost writers of the region.
Our darkest days came when President Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972. Some of our members were imprisoned, and several publications, including my journal Solidarity, and radio stations were closed. I myself was harassed and prevented from traveling for four years.
At the time, when we felt so helpless and in despair, International PEN did not forget us, The international secretary, David Carver, the English writer, Kathleen Nott, and PEN President Mario Vargas Llosa came to Manila to ask Marcos to release the imprisoned writers. It was during this time, when we were so despondent, that I realized how important PEN is as a beacon not only to preserve freedom but also to assist writers in prison.
THE MARTIAL LAW REGIME was, in a sense, the moment of truth for so many of us. It illustrated clearly where so many of our writers stood. It was indeed a time when courage, as well as integrity, were clearly defined. Some writers who were with Marcos oppressed their fellow writers and even made fortunes for themselves shouting hosanna for Marcos and his wife. Marcos was, of course, very deliberate. He censored movies and newspapers, but not the stage and he allowed literature, knowing as he did that Filipinos do not read novels or appreciate poetry.
PEN gave a reception for Norman Mailer when he visited during the Marcos years. He declared how much he appreciated the writers who opposed dictators, particularly the Russians because if he were in the Soviet Union, he would have conformed. He liked his comforts, he said.
PEN Chairman, the writer Salvador P. Lopez who was also President of the State University declared it is better to be silenced than be silent. He was fired from his job.
Writers are solitary workers, sometimes, so immersed in themselves and their work that they seem detached from society itself and from all its tensions. They often cannot appreciate the group, the community, and the nation that nourishes them. They forget that, as writers, they are the staunch and traditional keepers of memory, without which no nation can exist.
Writers often thrive best in the most difficult times. There is that old saying, bad times create good literature. But who are those who really desire the worst of times except masochists?
But then, perhaps, there is a bit of masochism in us, for which reason there is even a nostalgia now for the dictatorship of Marcos. If writers are the staunchest keepers of memory, then we have not succeeded in making our country remember.
In citing all these, I hope that not just our writers in the region but all writers elsewhere are bonded together to comfort and assist one another in times of stress and distress. But most of all, to uphold freedom not just for us writers but for all.
First published in The Philippine Star, September 30, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/09/30/1956067/why-pen
I have always considered teaching as the second noblest vocation, motherhood being the first. It can also be the most satisfying and the most trying. I know -- I was once a teacher too.
In 1965, when I returned to Manila from Sri Lanka where I had worked for a couple of years, I met with Prof. Antonio Isidro for dinner. He was then dean of the University of the East’s Graduate School of Education, and later became President of the State University in Marawi.
Our conversation drifted to the problems of culture change. Having by then travelled extensively in the Philippines and Asia, I recounted some of my observations, starting with what I had seen in the country – why Ifugaos were leaving their domain, how geography and environment influence a particular way of life, even the arts. It was then that Dean Isidro told me to teach at his college. I told him I did not even finish college. He said all I had to do was to tell the students what I had told him.
Since then, I have taught a course on culture change at the University of Santo Tomas, La Salle, the University of California at Berkeley, and lectured on the subject in many schools and elsewhere. I made a syllabus that clearly defined the objective of the course — to know ourselves and our country. I brought back to mind the teachers who influenced me the most -- first, my own mother; remember always that the home is the first school in life, and in grade school, Miss Soledad , who urged me to read, and in college, my writer professor, Paz Latorena, and the Spanish Dominican Juan Labrador, who impressed upon me the importance of clarity in thinking and writing.
As a writer, I have always tried to be observant and also curious. Way back in the 1950s, I was travelling all over the country, getting to know our geography, history, and ethnicity. I did a lot of walking in the Cordilleras, appreciated how hard our mountain people worked, and wondered how the Ifugaos could maintain those terraces. I knew even then that many of them would leave.
I SAW HOW INFERTILE LAND made the Ilocanos and the Cebuanos so industrious. And how the two great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, shaped the cultures of Asia, and how Catholicism kept us from developing classical cultures similar to those of our Asian neighbors. I realized also how religion shapes not just social structures but economic structures as well, the great divides in thinking and the unities evoked by nationalism. But above all these divisions, that the universal aspiration for dignity and justice is in every one.
I had no training in pedagogy and one time, a professor friend from Diliman monitored my class for a week and said I was using the Socratic method. I read Socrates in college, of course, but I had not realized he had a method. My friend said, you are always asking questions.
As a journalist and creative writer, asking questions is almost instinctive—questions that require definitive answers, questions that elicit more questions. With my syllabus, my lectures were structured like short stories, with beginnings and plots that lead to conclusions and more questions. I always I tried to infuse my lectures with tension to keep the students awake, to incite their curiosity, to make them think and resolve the questions themselves.
I remembered my mother’s advice about patience and industry. I read Gilbert Highet’s The Art of Teaching, how he urged teachers to repeat and repeat, how knowledge becomes a mantra almost. I often interrupted my lectures as I stumbled across fresh insights, and got my students into arguments among themselves whenever I could.
I spoke with my class about the similarities in traditions across cultures. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the playwright Ediriweera Sarachandra revived and modernized Sinhalese drama – what Filipino dramatists themselves could do with our folk moro-moro or comedia. High up in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, I saw girls perform a harvest dance that was an exact copy of the Manobo harvest dance and the dugso of Bukidnon — the girls forming a semi-circle around a bonfire, chanting and stomping their feet, strings of small bells wrapped around their ankles.
THE IMAGINATION IS INFINITE but knowledge is not. How can I ever explain those Tamil villagers, including children, dancing barefoot across a plot of red-hot stones. I also explained why we Filipinos have so little memory; if we had, the Marcoses would not be back in power.
In teaching, I found out how much knowledge I had collected through the years and from my many travels. But at the same time, I also was aware how little I knew, and teaching, which I really enjoyed was also, for me, a continuing learning process.
But I had to give up teaching, which had given me so much joy. Teaching required so much discipline and interfered with my own personal schedules, my writing, and particularly the travels that I also enjoyed. After a few years, I left La Salle. But it was also in this university where I was truly fulfilled.
Once, at the start of a trimester, as I was going over the class cards of my new students, I recognized two who were in my last class. I really never failed any of my students. I told myself that even if they were not all that bright, it was very unlikely they would kill a person, unlike if they were medical students. I asked the two students why they were repeating – and paying for -- a course they had already taken. They told me happily that they had learned so much in my course, and they were back to learn more.
First published in The Philippine Star, September 23, 2019: https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/09/23/1954017/joy-teaching
Sometime in the late 1950s, the American scholar, John Provinse, made me an unusual offer. He had read my articles on agrarian reform and my short stories. He offered me a fellowship to live in Tondo for a year, after which I would then write about my experiences there. He gave me a copy of the book, "The Children of Sanchez" by Oscar Lewis, about the author’s life in a Mexican slum. It was at the time the most insightful exposition on poverty.
Today, poverty is a global phenomenon afflicting millions, including many Filipinos who eat only once a day. Our foremost sociologists, Mary Racelis, F. Landa Jocano, and Aprodicio Laquian, have studied this condition assiduously, analyzing its causes and why it persists.
Many Philippine scholars with PhDs from foreign universities are almost always middle class. They bring with them their social bias in their analysis of lower-class conditions. Most of the time, however, they are correct in their assessments of Filipino poverty, how it is often bred culturally.
Those who were born or grew up in the slums have firsthand knowledge of poverty. How do the very poor think about themselves? What is their world view? What is the plebian mind? To paraphrase Marx, the scholars have defined poverty, the problem is how to banish it.
I was unable to accept Provinse’s offer. I had to leave Manila to work with the Colombo Plan in Sri Lanka. But when I returned two years later, I was able to go to Tondo and I got to know the people in Barrio Magsaysay.
I started Sakap, an NGO, whose major purpose was to help Manila’s out-of-school youth. It was composed of Fr. Angel Senden, Justice Jose Feria, Dr. Angelita Guanson, Jose Apostol, Tony Enchausti, and myself.
I SELECTED BARRIO MAGSAYSAY primarily because I had been introduced to the place earlier by Walter Turner, a Peace Corps volunteer. Barrio Magsaysay is part of the foreshore land that was reclaimed for port development after the war. That never happened. Almost immediately, refugees from impoverished rural areas flocked to it.
The place was dismal and foul-smelling, without sewage or running water. The barong barongs were made of construction debris and cheap flammable materials. It was in one of these sorry constructions that I set up a book binding shop. I obtained obsolescent binding equipment from printer friends like the late Alberto Benipayo, UNESCO sent an Italian book binding expert, and I persuaded librarians in Manila to patronize Sakap. At its time, Sakap was able to train 20 Tondo youths and give them jobs.
I really paid attention to the project. I often took the young binders to see the world outside Barrio Magsaysay and Manila. One time, I brought them to a Makati supermarket. They were very surprised that the goods there were much cheaper than those sold in Tondo sari sari stores. I also told them I was born very poor, that I worked my way through college.
After a year or so with Sakap, I realized I wasn’t paying attention to the Solidaridad complex that I had set up, and was also writing less. I decided to withdraw from the shop and turned it over to the workers to manage. This was when its deterioration started. In a couple of years, it was closed.
Inefficiency, nepotism, corruption, and ethnicity destroyed it. I asked the experts why it collapsed. Their answer — the workers had no stake in it. But was it really necessary? Didn’t they know that it was the source of their livelihood?
Years afterwards, I asked the youths who had worked in the shop what happened. I knew they knew. They said they felt no sense of belonging, of community. A couple of them had thought I was going to run for public office, for councilor perhaps, and the reason I was good to them.
But my Barrio Magsaysay experience was not totally wasted. Much of “Mass," the last of the five novels in my Rosales Saga, is set in the Barrio.
I HAD SLOWLY REALIZED that the people of Barrio Magsaysay were no different from the residents of Barrio Cabugawan, the Ilokano farming village where I was born and where I grew up. In both and, in fact, all over the country, the very poor are not concerned with high and ghostly matters. Their most important priority is the search for food. Their values are conditioned by this primal need. Pragmatism, pakikisama, ingratiation dictate their actions, condition their thinking. Religion is a mix of piety and superstition. Freedom as most of us know it means little to them.
Shortly after Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, I visited Barrio Magsaysay. They were all very happy. The gangsters who preyed on them were gone. They had peace and security to pursue their old miserable lives.
Corruption in high places -- they knew it was there but the candidates were popular and some had even done them personal favors. In any case, their poverty was not permanent because God always provides. Bahala na -- so they get in debt to celebrate lavishly on baptisms and weddings.
Slum dwellers vary. For many the slum is just a way station. The greener grass abroad attracts, so they leave. When they become politicians, they take pride in their plebian past. Do they ever blame anyone for their poverty? Some do although it is difficult for them to condemn the rich whom they elevated to power with their votes.
There is no real consciousness of class among them. Only those who have left the slums intellectually can do that. And those who do also know that the greater injustice in this unhappy country is not theirs. Our greatest problem is not the physical poverty of the poor but the poverty of the spirit among the very rich who, in the end, by their greed and callousness, are the real perpetrators of poverty itself.
First published in The Philippine Star, September 16, 2019
I mentioned in one of my columns recently what the Singaporean historian Wong Linken said, that Southeast Asia was better ruled by colonialists because their governments were far more efficient. Indeed, this is perhaps one legacy of the colonial powers. There was a time when Indians were very proud of their British-created bureaucracy. Yet British colonial legacy also included land mines, which remain the source of so much tension today. Kashmir, for instance, and Palestine, and for us Sabah.
One can look at colonialism from the perspective of the lowest sector of our economy. I remember Aling Nene, our laundrywoman. She overheard many discussions on colonialism between myself and our guests at home. At one time, after they had left, she told me that under the Spaniards they were poor, under the Japanese they were still poor, and under the Americans they were even poorer. And so she concluded, if the Chinese colonize us, we might have a better life.
I think that is about to happen if it has not already, with 70 percent of our economy in the hands of ethnic Chinese. China has a professed policy of using overseas Chinese to support their hegemony. Today, a flood of Chinese “workers” are now in the country.
Colonialism is certainly not a new phenomenon. It has existed through history, when tribes became nations and once they became powerful they enslaved the weak. The laws the old imperial countries formulated were, however, not shaped by them. They were first shaped by religion, by beliefs in the supernatural, which were institutionalized in the rituals, taboos, and codes of conduct that were later codified by leaders like Cicero for the Romans, Solon for the Greeks, and much, much earlier, in the Christian tradition, God’s ten commandments were given to Moses to pass on to the Jewish people.
It is, therefore, not unusual that imperial nations in the past, like Spain, advanced their frontiers to encompass half of the world with the avowed purpose of spreading Christianity, never mind the atrocities of the conquistadores in Latin America, never mind the slave trade that the Europeans and the United States pursued. When the Moros pillaged the Christian regions of the country during the Spanish regime, they did it not to spread Islam but to make slaves of the people they kidnapped.
MODERN SLAVERY TODAY has taken on new and different forms. No longer are the slaves today in chains or sold at will. In many instances, they even love their enslavement because they are freed from hunger and, most of all, from making those personal decisions that require thinking. In some instances, they even have the freedom to elect their leaders the way slaves in ancient Greece and ancient Rome could not. Modern imperialism continues to spread all over the world, in which slaves are mesmerized by the many pleasures of commercialism, unaware that they have lost their capacity to think independently and to be free.
The trafficking of people across porous borders and open waters is global, and so is the legal movement of slaves otherwise known as overseas workers. But the most onerous form of colonialism today is domestic in nature, when a nation’s elite colonizes its own people and that nation ceases to be a home because it has been willfully transformed into a prison. Many Filipinos are sorry victims of both phenomena.
The compulsion to excel and to conquer is only too human, and it must be ennobled with deceptive gilding when it simply means, in its crudest terms, the search for slaves, for raw materials, for markets. Its logic through the centuries has never changed — the immoral exploitation of the weak by the strong
By whatever color or creed, sometimes the colonizer succeeds. Maybe, they had come to believe their own slogans or had gloved their claws with velvet. The colonizer gets the colonized to love them, to defend them even to the death. Alas, this is the abject description of some Filipinos.
CHINA TODAY in its ascendancy, is utilizing the latest developments in technology to watch its millions, to condition their thinking. Those in the west who think that China’s economic development will bring liberalization and democracy to its people are engaged in wishful thinking.
China today is very harsh with its Muslim minorities and with those intellectuals who stray from the Communist Party line. Western China scholars should not be surprised; China has never really been democratic. It has always been ruled by warlords and despots.
For all its great advances in the arts and sciences, China’s civilization was never “Western,” for which reason Mao stands out as China’s foremost modernizer. For sure, he made many mistakes, among them the cultural revolution and the great famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s that killed millions. But Mao unified China and created a Communist Party that has become the bureaucratic bedrock of China today. The Communist Party holds China together and is also the motive power that propels China’s imperial ambition. The mandate of heaven has morphed into the mandate of Marx.
A bestselling book, When China Rules the World, recounts Chinese history, how the country grew powerful from the puny divided nation that it once was. It traces China’s imperial reach to today, when the United States, the only country that can obstruct this ascent, is in decline.
We have seen in recent times the demise of the Soviet Union primarily because of internal contradictions. Mao himself and China today are full of contradictions. But it is precisely these contradictions and their pragmatism that have enabled the Chinese to progress. As one Chinese scholar said, Mao’s Cultural Revolution was like fire that tempered steel; it had taught them so much and, instead of crippling their society, it has made them stronger, more purposeful, to be what they are today.
We may look at Chinese imperialism as a challenge. How we will face it and how we relate to China will determine our destiny.
First published in The Philippine Star, September 9, 2019
I was asked to speak at a gathering of Ramon Magsaysay Awardees, “Spirit Lives On,” to celebrate President Magsaysay’s birth anniversary. This is my recollection of the man and his times.
Ramon Magsaysay was born on August 31, 1907, and I was born 17 years later. I knew personally both President Magsaysay and President Quirino, who appointed him National Defense Secretary in 1950.
I think there was a special bond between the two because they were both Ilokanos. I spoke with them in Ilokano. I remember Magsaysay’s aides very well -- Lt. Joe Guerrero, Major Pat Garcia, Major Jose Crisol, and Colonel Angeles. I was very interested in Magsaysay because he championed agrarian reform, which was my basic interest.
Many in my generation were leftists in the sense that we were pro-communist. I never became a communist although I read Das Kapital in college to find out what communism was all about. Don’t try to do the same because it is difficult reading. I cannot remember much of it except for some of Marx’s conclusions. He believed in a classless society, that the state will wither away.
Before him, of course, the anarchists (the political philosophy) aspired for almost the same goals. If you read Rizal carefully, you will find that he was an anarchist.
Magsaysay came to power at the start of the Cold War. The Soviets held Europe hostage and Mao had united China. In this global turmoil, the United States was perceived as the free world’s savior. Magsaysay was ours.
He knew firsthand the harshness of peasant life, when he was a guerilla leader during the Japanese Occupation. I suspect he had at this time already met the Huks for he sympathized with their aspirations for social justice.
In 1949, the Huks had gathered enough strength to overthrow the government. To counter this, Magsaysay revitalized not just the army but also the government itself. I am almost positive that when the Huk leader, Luis Taruc, surrendered, Magsaysay would not have imprisoned him had the Americans, fearing the growing communist threat, not pressured him.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO KNOW the political structure of our country, the wielders of power. From the 1940s until 1972, when Marcos declared Martial Law, the most powerful economic bloc in the country was the sugar bloc. Its largesse came from the United States, with the Most Favored Nation sugar quota given to the bloc every year. For those who don’t know about this largesse, let me explain it briefly.
The United States has commodity agreements with favored countries. If the world price of sugar is ten pesos per kilo the United States adds another ten pesos which is, of course, paid by American consumers. The sugar lobby made the sugar quota a national interest and every Philippine ambassador to the United States, selected by the sugar bloc, had one major job: to keep the quota and enlarge it.
It is the United States that created the sugar oligarchy, which was then destroyed by Marcos. This oligarchy determined who would be President. Ramon Magsaysay was not a creation of the oligarchy. He was a genuine creation of the Filipino people, with some assistance from the United States. It goes without saying therefore that he owed us and also the Americans a debt of gratitude.
In a sense, Magsaysay changed our political culture. The earlier politicians who ran for the presidency or other high offices usually depended on their political leaders in the provinces to campaign for them. Magsaysay changed that by going to the people himself.
He was a brilliant speaker and people listened raptly to him. His delivery was conversational and he always couched the most pithy matters in a language the people understood. Unless it was an important announcement that he had to make, almost always his speeches were extemporaneous.
Magsaysay was a populist in the noblest sense of the term. He believed that social justice for the poor was doable with a clean government. When riled by doubts and challenges that required unusual solutions, he always asked what the people in Plaza Miranda would say. Plaza Miranda in Quiapo was at the time the venue for the largest political rallies in the country.
Magsaysay had no intellectual pretensions. He surrounded himself with the best brains at the time, Manny Pelaez, Raul Manglapus, Rafael Salas, and Manny Manahan.
He had enemies. I had a feeling that if he had not died in that plane crash, he would have started a new political party.
HE WAS ABSOLUTELY HONEST Manny Manahan told me how Magsaysay gathered all his relatives including his aged parents in Castellejos, and in front of them told Manahan that if anyone of them broke the law he should imprison them. Manny recounted how he was so embarrassed.
When Magsaysay died, his family did not have a house to go to. Francisco Ortigas donated a lot in Mandaluyong to his family, and the stevedores at the piers donated the tiles for its roof.
The people loved Magsaysay. Crowds wept openly during his funeral procession. Unfortunately, almost immediately after he died corruption was back. I’ve always wondered why President Garcia was not able to continue Magsaysay’s legacy – perhaps it was because his loyalty was to the sugar bloc.
Today we have a different oligarchy. It is now no longer dominated by Filipino mestizos but by Filipino Chinese who, unlike the sugar oligarchy, seem to be interested only in making money and shun partisan politics. But whatever its nature and composition, the oligarchy continues to be the biggest threat to the freedom and prosperity of the common tao.
We were 30 million in Magsaysay’s time, we are 105 million now. Magsaysay’s populist appeal has been likened to Duterte’s. But I have lived long enough to experience several regimes, starting with Quezon. I can say with all conviction that Magsaysay remains to be the best President this unhappy country has ever had.
First published in The Philippine Star, September 2, 2019
Perhaps it was the reminiscing about Hong Kong in my last column that made me remember some of my deepest friendships in the region. Or perhaps it was the remark that I am critical of China and some Filipino Chinese because I do not have Chinese friends.
Of my Singaporean friends, I remember Wong Linken best. I met him sometime in the late 1950s, when he was an instructor or graduate student at the University of Singapore. His father was enamored with Abraham Lincoln and so named him Linken.
Linken was a Raffles Chair Professor at the University. A scholar, he surprised me when he said that Southeast Asia was better off under colonialism because the colonialists were better administrators. He said there is no secret behind good government, just have a good bureaucracy. He was later named ambassador to the United States, and after that he joined Lee Kwan Yew’s cabinet as Home Minister. I don’t really know what happened but he had apparently displeased Mr. Lee for, soon after, he was fired from his job. He took his own life. I think it was just too much for the brilliant history professor.
PK Ojong was the publisher of Indonesia’s largest paper, Kompas. He was ethnic Chinese like his wife, Catherine. I remember taking him to Tondo because he wanted to see Manila’s poorest area. When we got there, he said they were not all that poor and pointed to all the TV antennas.
I learned a lot of Indonesian history from him and from Mochtar Lubis, who was also his friend.
PK was deeply worried about the Communists. With Chinese support and coddling by President Sukarno, they had become powerful but did not have an army like Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. Then, in October 1965, the Communists staged a coup against the army, killing seven generals and neutralizing their units. They were unable to get General Suharto who foiled the coup and established himself in power. A dreadful bloodbath followed, supported by the army, during which about a million people were killed.
I visited Jakarta two weeks after the failed coup and PK met me at the airport. As I got down to the tarmac, he rushed to me and embraced me. He was sobbing, telling me that had the coup gone wrong, he would not have been there to meet me. Much later, Kompas serialized my novel, Mass, in Bahasa.
NANCY ING WAS THE STURDIEST PILLAR of the Taipei Chinese PEN, the writers organization. Her father was a general in the Kuomintang Army. The family fled to Taiwan in 1949 with Chiang Kai-shek. Her husband, Glenn, was a builder with projects in Taiwan, the Philippines, and the Middle East.
On one of my visits to Taipei, Nancy met me at the airport and took me to the city. Before we approached Taipei, in the distance loomed this massive building with a Chinese roof which Nancy told me was the new Grand Hotel. She asked me what I thought of it. As we drew near. I told her that a Chinese roof does not make a building Chinese, that the gilding itself was top heavy and ugly. She smiled and said it was built by her husband. How I wished the earth would swallow me. Nancy noticed my embarrassment and she said she had told her husband the same thing.
Nancy introduced me to the finer merits of Chinese culture, the Peking opera, to the best in Chinese art at the National Palace Museum, and of course to the excellence and variety of Chinese cuisine. She also introduced me to two dazzling personalities. Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who invited me to dinner at her Taipei house. There, I swiped a small silver ashtray as a souvenir. It turned out to be not silver but simply silver coated. The other personality was Lin Yutang.
IF MAO WAS THE REVOLUTIONARY who changed China, it was Lin Yutang, the foremost Chinese writer and scholar, who explained China to the world. He was old enough to be my father. I appreciated him as a teacher. In those days when I visited Taipei or when he came to Manila, I learned a lot about Chinese culture from him, the symbolism in Chinese art, and about classical Peking opera, which was both a cultural and social institution in China. I hope that sometime soon, a Peking opera will be shown in Manila.
I have always insisted that our Filipino Chinese should be able to make a clear distinction between Chinese culture and the Chinese state. If they want to adhere to their Chinese culture, let them be. After all, they can live their culture in the Philippines not only because there is a big Chinese community here but because they have the freedom to do so. And many Filipinos welcome them for the simple reason that there has been so much intermarriage and acculturation, many of those who were born here have become truly Filipino. But they must never forget they came here with nothing; it is this country and people who made them rich.
A deeper insight into this phenomena was given to me by Wong Linken. He acknowledged the prevailing anti-Chinese attitude in Southeast Asia which he said will thaw eventually as the Chinese become acculturated and assimilated into the populace of the countries where they migrated. He pointed to Thailand, where this has already happened and the cultural differences have already been blurred.
We discussed his own loyalties. He said that, indeed, China is often in the back of his mind. But in reality, China was some distant country whose present and future did not interest him as much as that of Singapore and Malaysia. He said, “When I am homesick, I think of Penang, of the palm trees, my friends there, satay babi, the tropical fruits. My loyalty, if you ask me, is to Singapore and to Malaysia, too, for this is where I was born and where I grew up.”
First published in The Philippine Star, August 26, 2019
I have been keenly following reports on the massive demonstrations in Hong Kong and wondering if Beijing will crack down on the protesters as brutally as they did at Tiananmen Square thirty years ago. Those Beijing despots are deliberate. In its present state of economic ascendancy, does China still need Hong Kong as a global financial center? China can dispatch the Peoples Liberation Army at any time to discipline the rambunctious former crown colony or it could simply starve it. I am anxiously waiting.
I first went to Hong Kong in the early 1950s, courtesy of Philippine Airlines. We flew there on a twin-engine plane. Kai Tak Airport, close to the sea, was surrounded by low brick buildings. There were no skyscrapers on the main shopping streets, Nathan Road in Kowloon and Queen’s Road on the island. Bat-winged Chinese junks crisscrossed the bay.
In 1961, I became managing editor of the regional Asia Magazine in Hong Kong, and moved my family there. The slums that crawled up the peak were being dismantled and high-rise tenements were rising in their place. We rented an old house in Kowloon-tong. Our next-door neighbor was a Peking Opera actress and we often watched her rehearse in her garden.
There were no Filipino maids in Hong Kong then. Our household help and driver were from Canton. My kids were in grade school and were learning Cantonese from their from our ayah. One morning, my wife came upon her cleaning chicken intestines, which Filipino housewives normally throw away. She was including them in the dish she was cooking.
I OFTEN DROVE VISITORS to the New Territories which were still rice fields and villages. We often stopped at Tai Po for meals or drove all the way to Lok Ma Chau from where we could see the mainland and its watch towers. The mainland was forbidden. I tried very hard to go there but couldn’t.
The Communists had two stores in Hong Kong, one on Queen’s Road and the other in Kowloon, close to the Star Ferry. Goods from China, including the powerful liquor, Maotai, were available at these stores.
I had dreams of writing about China, particularly about its land reform program. I decided to learn Cantonese. It has nine tones. I shifted to Mandarin, which has five only. In just a couple of weeks I had given up.
I visited the University of Hong Kong. Its president, Wang Gungwu, was an old acquaintance whom I met way back, when he attended a literary conference set up by the late NVM Gonzales. He took me to the university library and showed me shelves and shelves of books in Chinese and English on China’s land problem. I gave up the project, too, but not the ambition to see China. That came in 1979, when Mao had already died. Before leaving for Canton, we stayed in Hong Kong and I concluded food in Hong Kong was much better than on the mainland. At the Peking Hotel in Peking, where we stayed, I had the worst roast Peking duck ever.
I MARVELED at the ancient craftsmanship of the Chinese. At Cat Street, I bought old furniture which I brought back to Manila. My wife ordered a new Chinese dining table set and a month after it had been delivered, a workman visited the house. He had a tool box and he immediately went to the table and started buffing it. He made it, he said, and he was polishing it for free. I related this to a Hong Kong friend much later and he said wood makers don’t do that anymore.
I had a very good friend in Hong Kong, Harvey Liang. He often came to the house for dinner. I showed him two scrolls I brought from Malacca, thinking they were antiques. I had them mounted. Are they poetry? He smiled; they were restaurant menus.
Norman Soong, the editor of the Asia Magazine, was a gourmet and he introduced me to exquisite Chinese cuisine, none of the dishes were available in Manila. He also collected Chinese porcelain, and I wanted to do the same. We went around the many antique shops in Hong Kong. Then we went to the Wan Chai district where much of his collection was stored. There was a room he did not want to show me because the ceramics in it were fakes. I didn’t pursue my collector ambition.
Because of its closeness to the Philippines, Hong Kong has always been a haven for Filipinos, for the illustrados of Rizal’s generation. In all those decades that China was closed to the world, it was from Hong Kong that avid China watchers peeped into that vast country and reported on Mao Zedong’s grip, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and the tragic famine of the late 1950s.
I left Hong Kong in 1963 to go to Ceylon, the old name for Sri Lanka, as Information Officer of the Colombo Plan. I left in 1965 and returned to Manila to set up Solidaridad. On occasion, I dropped by Hong Kong on transit flights to Europe and to the United States, saw the slums in Kowloon and Victoria replaced by skyscrapers, the tunnel built across the harbor and the junks disappear from the waters. We visited the city, too, when my daughter, Jette, was living there, and saw its sprawling airport built, its stores bountiful with everything imaginable, and the Hong Kong shop keepers change from the friendly and attentive clerks they once were. Every time my son, Eddie, visited from Hong Kong, he always brought roast goose with him.
Precisely because they are tyrannized, the Chinese people are susceptible to infection by the Hong Kong virus. What then if, at any time now, demonstrations will erupt in China’s major cities? Now the people of Hong Kong want more freedom. They never really had it under the British. Will Beijing give them what they want?
First published in The Philippine Star, August 19, 2019: