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:
Most of us have had an adventure in art. Perhaps, it started in grade school when we began drawing with pencil and crayon. And perhaps we also realized dearly that artists are special, because only a few can draw.
I had dreams of becoming an artist when I was a kid. I did drawings that my teacher liked. I also watched the town painter, Wagas Manalad, at work in his studio near the town cockpit. I marveled at his paintings, landscapes, and portraits. His magnum opus was the backdrop for the float of the town fiesta queen. On it he lavished his skills, painting a mural with Philippine scenes and writing in the most artistic calligraphy, “Her Majesty Queen Teresa.”
In Manila, in the late 1940s, when I started out in journalism, I was a frequent visitor to Angono. I was an early fan of Carlos “Botong” Francisco. I also visited Fernando Amorsolo at his apartment in Azcarraga, and Vicente Manansala, who then lived in San Francisco del Monte.
I was traveling all over the country and all over Southeast Asia, looking at folk crafts, and was introduced as well to the region’s classical art forms influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. By the late 1960s, I had visited most of the major museums in the world with the exception of the Uffizi in Florence for the simple reason that the lines were very long. I had also become a photographer and had two exhibitions at the old Philippine Art Gallery, which was then managed by Lydia Arguilla, the widow of the writer, Manuel Arguilla.
I had also become interested in our art, which had been so influenced by Western tradition that much of it no longer had a Filipino identity. So in 1967, I opened the Solidaridad Galleries in Malate with the sole purpose of giving our art a Filipino and Asian face. A section of the gallery was devoted to folk crafts, which the writer, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, magnificently curated.
The gallery did not only exhibit art from Asia but also held demonstrations of indigenous weaving and of classical Asian music and dance. It was also a place to listen to lectures on art and culture. Many of the leading lights in Philippine art today first exhibited at Solidaridad.
THE POINT OF THIS EXPOSITION is to affirm what Voltaire said, that every time a writer holds a pen or a painter a brush, they have in their hands a sword.
Whether artists recognise it or not, art is revolutionary even if the artists themselves are not inclined to accept revolution. With their sensibility and creativity, artists are always creating alternative realities, which may not be tangible in the sense that one beholds them changing societies and history. But all this they do just the same, perhaps not today or tomorrow, but surely in the future. As the old saying goes, art is forever and it is the artist who leaves lasting monuments and depicts nations at the height of their glory or at their downfall. It is the artist who also records history, and without the artist’s genius and their gift to our collective memory, there will be no nation or civilization.
After the death of Alice Guillermo, we lost a very good scholar and student of Philippine art. I hope that Cid Reyes and Patrick Flores will be able to fill her place. We need this kind of learned criticism in our art, cultural and educational institutions so that we can understand and appreciate aesthetics and excellence in art. Art is always elitist because the best in art is also produced by the country’s best artists.
Except for literature, the arts in this country are flourishing today, particularly the visual arts. Paintings are selling, even those by very young artists, some of them still in art schools, some of them very cheeky to demand thousands for their work. What a far cry from the 1950s and 1960s when our finest artists had difficulty living on their work. Their artworks are now priced in the millions.
I see something missing in much of this cultural flourishing. In spite of competent craftsmanship, I see a lack of depth in the latest works of our artists and that includes the creative writers whose venue for their work — magazines and book publishers— has unfortunately narrowed so much. This is a very difficult conclusion for an old hand like myself to make and I am eager to be disproven.
GREAT ART ALMOST ALWAYS has nationality although artists may not have roots or loyalty to a particular nation. As a cosmopolite, the writer’s main purpose is to achieve excellence. To arrive at this, they will have to deal with the context of their particular reality, their particular environment. And, perhaps, without even being conscious of it, they give their work a particular essence and an identity.
My novel, Sherds, is a meditation on art. The main character, PG Golangco, is a rich potter, designer, and scholar who takes under his wing a young combative artist. When Golangco says the artist is responsible only to himself, that he needs freedom to pursue his art, the student disagrees. She argues that the artist has a responsibility to truth and justice, that art itself must be moral. Golangco discerns the truth in his student’s words, a discovery fraught with revelation as well as pain.
Pain is seldom portrayed in much of our art. Although it is a tradition in our music -- in our kundimans -- much of our art is bright and sunny. This is most evident in the paintings of Fernando Amorsolo and in the agrarian painters he inspired. Not so with Vicente Manansala, and in the later paintings of Carlos Francisco. These three painters, in spite of their idiosyncrasies and repetitiveness, have explicitly defined Filipino art. My spirit lifts when young artists today, who draw from their own adventures in art and are rooted firmly on native soil, enlarge and enrich that definition.
First published in The Philippine Star, August 12, 2019
Ryan Cayabyab, National Artist for music and 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee, asked in a recent essay the question, where is the Filipino in Filipino songs? The question of identity is a very important question, not only for music and for art as a whole but also for that musical composition, that novel, that painting -- for any work of art.
Among those of us who write, that question should also always be in our minds.
As I have stated all too often, the two great religions of Asia, Hinduism and Buddhism, did not take root on Philippine soil. And had the Spaniards come later with their Catholicism, we would have been Islamized. We are Christians and, therefore, heirs to the Christian and Western tradition. This is the historical core of our identity, which we cannot change but which we can exploit in our arts.
Although we are very much in Asia, our music is distinctly Western. Almost every town has a brass band which plays western music in almost all social occasions, so we grow up very familiar with western melodies.
Hinduism and Buddhism brought to Asia classical art forms although, of course, in those countries that embraced these two religions, folk art forms exist.
Many Filipinos today cannot distinguish folk art from classical art. Sometimes, though, the distinctions are blurred for the simple reason that some folk art forms take on the features of classical art — they have become more sophisticated and more difficult to perform.
THE MAJOR DISTINCTION between classical art and folk art is precisely this — folk art doesn’t require much expertise. Take Tinikling, for instance, five minutes and one knows how to do it. However, the classical Bharatanatyam of India and the Legong of Bali take years to master.
But folk art forms are very useful to the creative artist, composer, musician. They belong to the people and are the most basic of art forms and the basis of any art work, which then acquires a definitive character, reflecting as it does the culture of a people.
When Edru Abraham, for instance, gathered his U.P. students to give melody to native musical instruments like drums, gongs, and bamboo flutes, he elevated folk music and showed Filipino composers the creative possibilities for folk instruments.
The return to nativism is perhaps necessary, but only if we recognize that nativism is hardly what most Filipinos appreciate. For instance, our foremost musicologist, Jose Maceda, was a splendid scholar steeped in the native musical tradition. But as a composer he failed to appreciate his western background; instead he attempted to be ultra-modern and avant garde.
How much better if our composers included the native themes of our folk songs in compositions aligned with our Western heritage?
This is what several European composers have done, and what some European writers have done with their folk literature.
INDEED THERE IS SO MUCH that can be extracted from our native themes. Nick Joaquin and I have done this with our writing. Although we write in English, precisely because the themes are Filipino, and we write about Filipino reality in a manner that is appreciated universally.
Our singers like the late Jovita Fuentes who sang Madame Butterfly in world capitals, and Lea Salonga, who has starred in Broadway, are examples of how we have mastered the western idiom. Now comes Freddie Aguilar whose Anak took the world by storm. Maybe it is time that we ask how he did it, and realize that, indeed, there is something hauntingly Filipino in his music.
Way back in the 1950s and 1960s, when there were Filipino big bands playing in the nightclubs of major Japanese cities, I used to drop by the Tokyo nightclubs and, with eyes closed, listened to the music. I could immediately conclude when it was a Filipino band playing. The Japanese played neatly, every note in place. The Filipino bands were not that precise but their music was full-bodied, with heart. This is the Filipino sound which was heard in major Asian capitals long before World War II, all the way to Turkey for the Filipino musicians then were part of the early Filipino diaspora.
Our brilliant singers Lea Salonga, Celeste Legaspi, and Dulce would have make a splendid trio and, with Filipino compositions, be like the Supremes who popularized black melodies, or much earlier, the Andrews Sisters. Singly, they could give their music a distinct national identity, like Miriam Makeba of South Africa and Edith Piaf of France.
ALL THESE ARE ANCIENT EXAMPLES. Among the present crop of musicians and composers, there are those like Ryan Cayabyab who are doing something about making the Filipino sound heard not only in these shores but also beyond.
As they are, a lot of the Ilokano folk songs I learned in my youth are memorable, and our kundiman, such as the classic Bayan Ko are world class. In the more modern idiom, the songs of George Canseco and Willy Cruz can compare with the best songs in the west or anywhere.
We can see from TV how popular musical contests are. Indeed, we are a very musical people. I hope that in the future, there will be more Freddie Aguilars, and more than that, there will be a group of Filipino singers, global like Sweden’s Abba, who used themes from Swedish folk songs.
Once, my kids played new music that reminded of kundiman. I asked them if it was Filipino. They said it was one of the records I had brought back from Moscow.
Indeed, there is also a great similarity between Russian and Filipino music, except that the Russians have composers like Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, the likes of which we still have to have.
But I am sure Ryan and the Filipino songwriters and musical artists he is inspiring are working hard to make and promote a distinctively beautiful and unique Filipino sound.
First published in The Philippine Star, August 5, 2016:
Many, many years back, when I first saw the Boxer Codex at the Newberry Library in Chicago, I was very pleased and relieved. The Boxer Codex is the earliest written and illustrated record of our people. They were elegantly dressed, with footwear, jewelry and bladed weapons — not the illiterate savages that some of our colonizers had pictured us.
Five hundred years ago, as the Spaniards found out, we were already a divided people fighting one another. And today that divide still exists. We are still fighting one another, sometimes as ferociously as our ancestors had.
We Filipinos are also fond of self-flagellation that I sometimes think there is a streak of masochism in the Filipino character. This is particularly true of so many intelligent Filipinos. If they are asked about this country, they start with a long list of negatives, condemning their leaders, themselves, their history, their culture.
Sometimes such views are confirmed by perceptive observers like James Fallows, who more than thirty years ago wrote an essay about our “damaged culture,” about “a nation not only without nationalism but also without much national pride.”
Within the intellectual and academic community, the debate on this characterization of our culture continues until today. For instance, in the current tensions with China, there is a derisive conclusion that there is not enough nationalism in this country. Where are the radicals who demonstrated in front of the American Embassy, Congress, Malacañang?
I SOMETIMES TALK with foreigners who have had experience in this country and can look at us with great objectivity. They agree that our elites have to change. But the great difficulty of Filipinos confronting their own elite is not only because the elites are brown like ourselves but because they are “very nice people.”
Indeed so many of these foreigners find it so easy to break into Philippine society, from the bottom to the very top, because Filipinos are so hospitable. This can be a virtue but it can also be the door to exploitation.
So many journalists who have covered the Philippines for decades have spoken warmly of us. One of them is Greg Sheridan of Australia. I asked him why.
He said he had covered many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia. At the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975, many Vietnamese were expelled in old rusting boats. These refugees were denied entry by all countries. It was only the Philippines, poor as it was, who welcomed them.
The late Robert Shaplen of The New Yorker wrote perceptively of the Philippines, and identified with this country. He first came here with the American Liberation Army in 1945. He was also at EDSA I. Like so many Filipinos at that happiest of events, he was in tears. He said we Filipinos are resilient; we will survive disasters like Marcos.
WAY BACK IN THE 1960s, I read the bestseller, The Italians, by Luigi Barzini. I was struck by how similar the Italians are to us. I had since then made Italian friends, among them Tiziano Terzani, the Asia correspondent of Der Spiegel. Tiziano believed in our faith healers. The Philippines, he said, is blessed with miracles.
Then there is the Jesuit, Hector Mauri. When the Jesuits were expelled from China in 1949, he came to the Philippines and chose to work with the sugar workers in Negros, who were the most exploited agricultural workers. Once he told me that he preferred working with the communists in Negros. He said they were sincere and got things done.
I remember an old Malaysian friend, Ismail Hussein, who told me he envied us because we are a heroic people. Malaysia got its independence on a silver platter; we fought the Spaniards, the Japanese, and the Americans to be free.
Indonesian writer Mochtar Lubis recalled how, during their revolution, they were inspired by Rizal’s Mi Ultimo Adios. It was translated into Bahasa by Rosihan Anwar. And so today, there are some Indonesians named Rizal.
When he was martyred at 35, our national hero was a novelist, a poet, a scholar, a sculptor, and a medical doctor. What country in Asia has produced a man like him?
Once, on a flight to Europe, I sat beside a Boeing engineer. He was going to Teheran, and when he found out I was Filipino, he sang the praises of the Filipino technicians at Boeing. He said, if not for them, Iran Air would not take off.
And so I look back at our revolutions that failed, and at our dismal leaders. Marcos, Duterte – they are all minor incidents in our history.
The French poet, Amina Said, translated my Rosales Saga and also my novel, Viajero, which she considers my best work. Viajero is about our history, long before the Spaniards came. It is a story of the Filipino as traveler, in search of himself and of freedom.
It is the story of our people building cities abroad, as professionals and as menials. It is also a record of past rebellions and of our tenacity in our search for truth, justice. And so the Filipino today is all over the world, finding his identity.
What does history tell us? Asia’s two great religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, did not take root on our soil. We would have been Islamized if Christianity had arrived later. As Christians then we are heirs to the Christian and Western tradition – this is the core of our identity.
We are a very young nation striving to preserve our republic – the first established in Asia. We are also heirs to a revolutionary tradition.
All the problems of growing up bedevil us now. They are sometimes compounded by difficulties beyond our control. But we have shown unity in our aspiration for freedom and justice. Previous generations have shed blood for the survival of this republic. We will perhaps continue to suffer for it, but as our history has shown we are a people that endures and prevails.
First published in The Philippine Star, July 28, 2019
I devote this week’s column to a listing of notable books. Although some of these titles may not be new, any book you have not yet read is always new.
I can’t quantify it, but there seems to be a lot of books being published these days, books on the humanities, even big coffee-table volumes, but less and less literature. This is understandable — fiction does not sell. I have also come across beautifully produced books that, alas, only serve as a reminder that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Honor: The Legacy of Jose Abad Santos
By Desiree Ann Cue Benipayo
Philippine World War II Memorial Foundation
The Japanese Occupation tested my generation and the generation that followed. The national trauma that was the Occupation raised several questions about our national character, some of them unresolved to this very day — the ambivalent nature of collaboration and the real definition of nationalism.
Some Filipinos collaborated gladly with the Japanese, perceiving them as the nation that freed us from colonialism. At the same time, there were collaborators who sincerely believed that collaborating with the Japanese would lessen their depredation and their brutality.
There were also those, of course, who fought the Japanese, giving up their lives in their opposition. These are the real heroes of that war,
not those who collected dubious medals and proclaimed their patriotism.
Of this distinguished group, Jose Abad Santos rises above all of them. He had a choice to collaborate and flourish, but he refused for which reason the Japanese killed him. He was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court when Quezon fled to Australia, then to the United States, entrusting the Philippine government to him.
History tells us that paragons like Abad Santos are often forgotten. This well-crafted biography is an effort to stave off our amnesia.
By Benito J. Legarda Jr.
This patrician memoir of the Japanese Occupation illustrates the Shakespearean observation that the “rich also bleed.” This is also excellent social commentary. A young man when the Japanese invaded the Philippines, Benito Legarda’s sharp memory is refurbished by his father’s diary and recollections of upper-class relatives. Highly recommended.
By Rigoberto D. Tiglao
The Manila Times
This collection of essays is an excellent read because this veteran journalist has several axes to grind. While all of us may have axes to grind, few can be as articulate as Rigoberto Tiglao.
He reveals many unknown details of major scandals that stigmatized major politicians. Highly recommended, but read with caution.
The Counterfeit Revolution: How Ferdinand Marcos Became Dictator of the Philippines
By Reuben R. Canoy
Reuben Canoy, the writer and politician, has first-hand knowledge of the Marcos regime because he was Undersecretary of Information, Presidential Action Officer, and Chairman of the Southern Philippines Development Authority.
As a writer in the early days of the Martial Law regime, Canoy was privy to the machinations and backdoor dealings in the Palace. His book is not only authoritative but also illustrates how power operates and how it also fails.
He called the Marcos dictatorship a counterfeit revolution because like most intellectuals in the fringes of power he realized soon enough the shortcomings of a presidency surrounded by relatives and cronies who profited from that dictatorship.
He has a few words for the President today and I hope President Duterte will read this book so he will know what to avoid.
Dark Days of Authoritarianism
By Melba Padilla Maggay
This is a collection of essays on the Martial Law regime by five individuals who were involved in the activist movement.
The essays reveal so many aspects of that regime that are not known. The editor, Melba Maggay, is also a polished playwright and fictionist. Highly recommended.
Press Freedom Under Siege: Reportage that Challenged the Marcos Dictatorship
Edited by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo
A compilation of the journalistic record of the Martial Law regime that stands out as an example of courageous reporting. A portion of the book describes the murky and perilous conditions today that the journalist must carefully navigate.
Never Again! (To Martial Law)
By Crispin C. Maslog
Although this volume is quite thin, it includes some of the most interesting and least-known aspects of the Marcos regime. Here is the couple on their travels and their lavish shopping expeditions, and at their parties. Read it and marvel at how the Marcoses plundered the country.
More Islamic Than We Admit: Insights into Philippine Cultural History
Edited by Isaac Donoso
This anthology of essays about the Muslim heritage of Filipinos is first-class scholarship and commentary. The author, who is Spanish, recounts the origins of Islam in the Philippines as well as its impact on Spain. A must read, especially for those who shape national policy regarding the Moros.
Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China
By Marites Danguilan Vitug
Herein is a well-researched and lucid study of our case with China and China’s incursion on our territory. It records the heroic effort of Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio in his very perceptive defense of the Philippine claim before the International Court. According to the Chinese, their claim on the Spratly Islands is historical. Justice Carpio debunks this with historical documents. Highly recommended.
The South China Sea Arbitration: Understanding the Awards and Debating with China
By Alfredo C. Robles Jr.
This is a very important addition to the growing number of publications on how we can deal with China and how we can further our interest. This book explains further the least understood aspects of that arbitration.
Demigods and Monsters: Stories
by Caroline S. Hau
This second collection of fiction by the cultural historian, Caroline S. Hau, is a good mix of obscure writing and lucid and readable prose. An earlier anthology on the Filipino elite as described by Filipino writers is superbly edited, with a very perceptive introduction by Hau. It is good sociology as well as literary criticism.
First published in The Philippine Star, July 29, 2019
I am 94. Looking back, I now realize that one of the most important projects I’ve undertaken was a Tagalog translation program for books on Japan. Thanks to Yoshiko Wakayama and Kazue Iwamoto, I received a Toyota Foundation grant for the program, which I managed with much enthusiasm.
I had always thought that there was so much we could learn from Japan, a country with a land area similar to ours but with much less land for cultivation. Like us, the Japanese were also a divided people until the 16th century, when Tokugawa Ieyasu united the warring clans.
The Meiji Restoration in 1886 is one of Asia’s major historical events in modern times. Promoted by no more than a hundred Japanese intellectuals, businessmen, and samurai, it modernized Japan in one generation to be the great nation that it has become.
Japan has scant resources and its greatest asset is its people — disciplined, purposeful, and very Japanese.
I went to Japan for the first time in 1955 when that country was still very poor. The scabs of war had not yet been fully lifted and ruins were still everywhere. I felt rich. The exchange rate for one dollar was two pesos or three hundred sixty yen. Some of the houses in the suburbs of Tokyo and Kyoto were still roofed with grass. Streetcars rumbled in Tokyo, and willow trees lined the Ginza.
Those sleek shinkansen were not yet on the drawing boards; the trains were powered by giant black locomotives. My first impressions of the country were the neatness of neighborhoods, a sense of order everywhere, hordes of men, almost all of them in similar dark suits, marching briskly to work.
Superior Japanese craftsmanship was also everywhere, in shops as well as in homes. On the top floor of department stores, folk products were on exhibit, together with the craftsmen doing their thing on wood, leather, or cloth. I had to visit a folk art museum to see other artifacts of Japanese craftsmanship, how, for instance, eggs are separately wrapped.
Such craftsmanship was transferred to the factory floor, and this explains the high quality of Japanese manufacturing today. If anything, this is one aspect of Japanese culture we can easily emulate.
I TRAVELED AROUND THE COUNTRY and met with young Japanese. As one who had experienced Japanese brutality during the three years of Japanese Occupation, I felt very uneasy on my first visit and I thought I would never have pleasant social contact with the Japanese. But through the years, I’ve made a lot of acquaintances, some of which have turned into very warm friendships and I got to know the Japanese on human terms. I never romanticized the country, however — I also got to know a little of its dark side.
The translation program was, in a sense, also a publishing experiment. I gathered about a dozen of our best writers in Tagalog and told them that their translations should be in the Tagalog of Manila, not the archaic Tagalog of Balagtas. It was also a challenge for them because these writers were Tagalistas; deep in their hearts they wanted a Tagalog that was pure.
I was thinking, however, of the thousands that could not understand that variety of Tagalog, particularly the non-Tagalogs who at the time were already acquiring the language very fast through mass media and forced Tagalog instruction in the schools.
I personally selected the books on Japan, some of them written by Japanese authors themselves. What I wanted readers to learn was how Japan, which was once a very poor nation, became so rich and powerful in such a short time.
For instance, in 1955, ten years after its defeat in World War II, Japan was still poor. But I knew it would develop very fast because an intellectual infrastructure was already in place. The Japanese were not only industrious, they were trained craftsmen from childhood onwards. More than anything, their sense of nation was formidable; it united them.
The editors of the Tagalog translations, Nora Dimagiba and Alain Padilla, were doubly careful. There could be errors, flaws in nuances. The translations were not from the original Japanese but from English.
ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING BOOKS that I selected for translation is the memoir of a doctor from Ibaraki, Memories of Silk and Straw. The doctor recounted his experiences, his patients that included geishas, samurai, the very rich, and the very poor farmers and fishermen whose footwear were made of straw, whose clothes in summer were the same that they wore in the coldest winter. The other books included studies on Japanese thought, social mores, literature, and the autobiography of the founder of Sony, Akio Morita.
I was able to have more than sixty books translated. Unfortunately, neither the Toyota Foundation nor my Solidaridad Publishing House profited financially from this innovative enterprise. Was the program far ahead of its time? The awful truth is Filipinos do not read. They look and listen, sometimes. Even today, the best books in Tagalog do not sell.
We were left with thousands of books in the bodega. The lifetime of a book is at the very least fifty years. Instead of having them rot, we donated them to the National Library, to the Department of Education, and to some schools.
Filipinos don’t throw books away, we keep old magazines and newspapers to sell. So all these books, if they are not in the libraries, are now tucked somewhere in homes where, I’m sure, they will be read one day.
I’m also sure that the Tagalog writers in the program, like Lualhati Bautista and Roger Mangahas, learned a lot. I am grateful to the Toyota Foundation for entrusting me with this program, which I hope will benefit the people of my country in their search for a better life. While the project didn’t bring any financial gain, still I was greatly enriched with insights into how a nation is built.
First published in The Philippine Star, July 22, 2019
The last time I visited Calcutta, India’s cultural and intellectual capital, was in the 1960s. It was then a vast slum with people living and dying on the sidewalks. I recall an old joke about Calcutta told to me by a Bengali writer. That it is crowded with Banerjees, Sukherjees and Mukerjees, but no energies. But in spite of all the dire predictions for its future, Calcutta today is still very much alive, thriving and throbbing as energetically as before.
I was thirteen when I first came to Manila in 1938, and my memories of the city, which had less than a million people then, is still very vivid. All the way from the Bonifacio Monument to Antipolo Street were rice fields. Dimasalang and España were lined with kangkong plots. All the way from the Welcome Monument in Quezon City to Diliman was cogon wilderness. Makati was the world’s end, with few rice fields and vast stretches of grass.
I lived with my uncle and his family in a small accessoria in Requesens near Bambang, and I walked every day to the Far Eastern University High School, which today is now the Isetann Mall, on the corner of Quezon Avenue and Recto.
RIZAL AVENUE WAS LINED with banaba trees and a streetcar ran through it all the way from La Loma to Plaza Lawton. The Pasig was green and clean, and I remember swimming there with my classmates after school. Or we would walk through Escolta and Intramuros to swim in the Manila Bay, right in front of the Quirino grandstand. Not a single tree stood in the Luneta — it was grass all the way to Taft Avenue.
I was in the province when Manila was liberated in February 1945 and, almost immediately after, I visited Manila. Ruins everywhere, charred skeletons of buildings, cratered streets, Intramuros obliterated. As I sat in front of the blackened shell of Manila Hotel, recalling my fond memories of the city, I began to weep.
Over the next four decades, I saw Manila reconstructed and spread out. The other day I visited the places where I spent my early youth -- the Bambang Oroquita area, Antipolo Street which is the setting of my novel Mass, the last novel in the Rosales saga. Many old, wooden buildings, decrepit and unpainted, stand side by side with the new constructions of stone and steel.
I also went to Taguig via Makati and Forbes Park, and backtracked through the reclaimed area of Manila Bay to my bookshop in Padre Faura, Ermita. It was one of Manila’s most genteel neighborhoods, but today, like much of Manila, it is dirty and dilapidated.
I often say the Philippines is poor, but anyone visiting the country for the first time and touring through Taguig will be amazed by the magnificent truculence of its monoliths, brand new and shining in the sun. It is a strange ultra-modern world that could easily be in Southern California or in any of the new and bustling cities of Asia’s four little dragons.
HOW ELSE COULD all this modern magnificence come about but through the wealth and genius of the very rich Filipinos?
That famous English writer, Jan Morris, while traveling through America once wrote — and this I will always remember — America’s cathedrals are its highways. This apt observation unfolds when one travels those intertwining eight-lane freeways. Such beautiful symmetry in concrete.
To paraphrase Morris, let me say that our cathedrals are our shopping malls — so many of them, so huge, bursting with the world’s goods, so many restaurants, ritzy shops and, in each mall, a chapel. Indeed these malls are also our public parks, where people can watch other people, eat, and relax.
But Manila had been left behind.
Then in his first week as Mayor of Manila, Isko Moreno did something spectacular. He began ridding the sidewalks and streets of all vendors. He is faced with a City Hall that is broke, and he still has a lot to do -- garbage collection, for instance, the restoration of public services, or simply the painting of so many shabby buildings for Manila is perhaps Southeast Asia’s ugliest city. He could follow what San Francisco did, which makes that city so picture pretty. The city paints buildings whose owners have failed to do so and the owner is then charged for the job.
The sidewalks of Sampaloc and Sta. Cruz, too, should be cleared for the people. Manila is smaller than Quezon City, Isko Moreno is young. He must move around, make City Hall efficient. He should get to know each nook and cranny of his city, their problems, and improve their lighting and security.
MORENO COULD PUT all those non-performing city hall officials to work keeping the sidewalks clean and open, ensuring the cleanliness of restaurants, the safety of fire-trap buildings and that crime is at a minimum because the police are visible everywhere.
He could also take over the municipal golf links right in the heart of Manila and turn them into public parks. As for those peddlers who have been expelled from the streets, he should find a public area that could be a night market.
And, finally, having once been a movie actor himself, he should have a cultural program for the city wherein ordinary folk are exposed to the best performances in music, dance, and theatre.
The mansions, the soaring condos, and urban munificence of Makati and Taguig emphasize the wide, pernicious chasm between the Filipino elite and the masa. He must work to narrow this divide, and make Manila an exemplary city.
How I wish that the cathedrals of this country – our shopping malls -- are much, much less conspicuous cornucopias, that our cathedrals be our barangays instead, the smallest political units composed and managed by the masa. They will then become living and formidable representations and fitting symbols of our capacity for building democratic institutions, and of our creativity and genius as a people.
First published in The Philippine Star, July 15, 2019
Ah, those venerable Chinese sages, their standards are so high and they are so demanding. They say one is not a man until he has achieved three goals – sired a son, written a book, and planted a tree.
But as that poet Joyce Kilmer said, “Only God can make a tree.”
Whatever, I think these perilous times demand that each of us plant a tree. I read in the papers the other day that the denudation of the mountains forming the watershed of the Angat Dam, Manila’s main source of water, has caused the water shortage in Manila. Again, this illustrates the wanton nature of Filipinos, how we have become our worst enemy. A national effort now to plant trees not only in the Angat area but elsewhere is perhaps a little too late. Alternative sources of water must either be found or constructed immediately and will, of course, be very expensive.
Trees, water -- they are so vital in life. Now and all through history, agrarian societies instinctively know why trees are important. The Ilokanos almost always surround their houses with marunggay or fruit trees. Legend has it that one of the first Ilokano immigrants to Hawaii brought with him a marunggay stick, claiming it was a cane. He planted it, and that explains the abundance of marunggay trees in those islands.
Marunggay leaves are now established as one of the best sources of the minerals that the body needs. Way back in the 1950s, when I was traveling all over Mindanao, much of that island was forested. I went up the Agusan River to see huge forest trees had been cut down and floated down the river as logs, for direct export to Japan. Some Filipinos got rich despoiling our natural resources without replanting the barren land. It was the same in Northern Luzon. And so today, our forest cover is a mere 20 percent.
The Japanese, a very disciplined people, take good care of their forests and trees. For centuries, they have always used wood for their houses and their magnificent temples. In fact, the use of wood defines and gives character to their architecture. Very old trees, some several hundred years old, still stand in that country, the object of much love and veneration.
In contrast, we have very few old trees. Three of them -- all acacias -- were in Padre Faura, in Ermita, Manila. During the liberation of Manila, they were blasted by canon fire. A couple of them simply rotted with age and neglect, and fell last year.
Sometime back, the agriculture champion and guru, Zacarias Sarian, gifted me with a macopa sapling from Malaysia. The tamarind and jackfruit trees I had planted in my yard had to be cut down when my wife enlarged the house to fit our seven children. I planted the sapling in a hole about more than a foot deep.
It grew quickly, and when it reached five years old and still had not borne any fruit, I told it: If this year you still have no fruit, I’ll cut you down. Sure enough, it did bear fruit, and with such abundance that there was more than enough to give to neighbors and friends. The fruit, greenish-maroon and as big as an apple, is sweeter than the native variety.
In the village where I grew up, the tallest tree was the Dalipawen. It had a trunk three times thicker than that of a coconut, and it was much taller, too, than the coconut, with short branches at the very top. Its flowers have a strong scent. Martins made their nests at the top and, at night, fireflies ignited it.
Spirits were supposed to live in the tree and, every so often, when someone got sick in the vicinity, prayers and offerings were made to it. The atang or offering was usually a plate of gelatinous rice cooked in coconut oil, and topped with a hard-boiled egg, betel nut, and a hand-rolled cigar. After the devotee had left we kids feasted on the atang, daring the spirit of the tree to make us ill. It never did.
Way back in the 1950s, as the Baguio visitor climbed up Kennon Road, they were greeted with the scent of pine perfuming the air. Baguio then had so many pine trees, which have since been felled but not replaced. The Baguio government is now engaged in replanting. But it’s not Baguio only that needs replanting but also the entire Cordillera range.
The preservation of our forests is the responsibility of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It is hampered by corruption and incompetence, its forest guards often threatened and killed. The present DENR Secretary, retired General Roy Cimatu, needs assistance and more champions like Gina Lopez. Espousing tree planting brings neither votes nor money.
The Balete is an unusual tropical tree native to Southeast Asia. Its scientific name is Ficus Benjamina Linn. I used it as a motif and symbol in my novel, Tree. A story of growing up in a small Filipino town, Tree is the second novel in terms of chronology of the five-novel Rosales saga.
The Balete Tree grows as a slender sapling. I don’t know where they come from but soon vines surround the sapling. They grow big, close in on the sapling, eventually suffocating it. The vines then become the trunk of the tree itself, for which reason the Balete is often called the strangler tree. It is an apt and fitting symbol for people and for institutions, even for nations, that are strangled to death by impoverishment and decay.
The Balete is indeed an object metaphor for so many of us, and particularly for our leaders who, when elected, start green with promise and noble intentions. But within a few years, they are surrounded by panderers, by hypocrisies, and by grasping, greedy friends and relatives. They are then strangled, never realizing they had betrayed not just themselves but also their country.
First published in The Philippine Star, July 8, 2019
I have always admired Mao, the revolutionary who united his people and modernized China. But the grim reality today is although China professes to be our friend, China is in fact our enemy. China has violated our sovereignty by occupying Panatag and other areas within that sovereignty. Its latest ramming and sinking of a Filipino vessel in our own waters bespeaks blatant disregard for our sovereignty.
We must now know the nature of our enemy.
China is on its rapid rise as a world power, and that ascendancy is powered by a nationalism conducted by a very strong state. For 4,000 years, China was never democratic. It was ruled by warlords, emperors, and despots who claimed they had the mandate of heaven as confirmed by the Confucian ethic, which emphasized hierarchy.
This Confucian ethic also affirmed magnanimity to the people, but just the same, the harmony in society that the Confucian ethic espoused depended on obedience and respect for that hierarchy, with the emperor at the top. This explains the legitimacy of the despots who, to this day, rule China. Thus, we cannot expect China to change, to liberalize, and to respect the sovereign rights of other people, particularly the weak and small. China’s despots respect only power.
When the Chinese communists took over the country in 1945, there was no break with the past although it seemed otherwise with movements like the cultural revolution. Actually, the Communist Party under new leadership tightened its grip on the people. The state has no compunctions about using violence to enforce its will, to wit, the Tiananmen massacre 30 years ago. It rules with the mandate of heaven, which has morphed into the mandate of Marx.
Chinese expansion is unstoppable, building as it does both economic dominance and military superiority. China has also made significant advances in technology, particularly in artificial intelligence and robotics. In its current trade war with the United States, it will not give up. It may seem to do so with one step backward -- but it will then move two steps forward.
The future of Southeast Asia and of ourselves as a nation is in China’s hands. We will be sinicized in a few decades; I pray that we will not be colonized. What aggravates our piteous condition is that in much of Southeast Asia is a very small but powerful Chinese minority.
In our case, this minority effectively controls 70 percent of our economy. This alone illustrates our great vulnerability because this is a minority that has sent billions to China to assist its modernization. It is also a small minority – they came to this country with nothing, but by exploiting the country and the people they have become economically dominant.
Filipinos should never stop demanding from this minority allegiance to the country that has made them powerful and rich because the truth is many of them are loyal to China, not to this country. All that one has to do is ask them, in the event of a war with China and the Philippines, on which side will you be? Their equivocation will mean they, too, are the enemy.
But we must also acknowledge the fact that many Chinese Filipinos work very hard to contribute to our cultural and economic progress. Those committed and loyal to this nation can do so much. Many have ties in China, some of them official. They can be the bridge to convince China about our rights and that China must respect these rights.
As a small, impoverished nation susceptible to exploitation, what are our outstanding problems? First and foremost is our poverty, and the second is that we are a very divided people and, finally and sadly, we Filipinos are not endowed with enough nationalism and love of country the way our neighbors are, particularly Vietnam. That small country not only stood up to America but to China as well. While it maintains good relations with China, Vietnam has not hesitated to confront the Chinese leviathan.
Some years back, when China placed an oil rig in Vietnamese waters, the Vietnamese responded by burning Chinese factories in Vietnam. Earlier, after the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975, wary of Chinese domination, they confiscated Chinese properties and expelled them from the country.
I do not advocate or expect that we do the same. But I also do not expect our people or our highest government officials to kowtow to China. But this is precisely what our President is doing. He is vastly popular, and many Filipinos are unwilling to oppose him and his pandering to Chinese policies.
In the end, we ourselves are also the enemy.
But how does a country whose leaders can think only of the next election confront a nation whose leaders look far and many generations ahead?
Even without military might, we are not powerless in our confrontation with China. The filing of a criminal complaint against the Chinese President in the International Court of Justice by former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and former Foreign Minister Alberto del Rosario must be followed by similar action in international organizations like the United Nations.
We must emulate the tenacity of Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio in safeguarding our sovereignty, and in urging the government to fulfill its constitutional duty to protect our territorial integrity.
We must strengthen our alliances with the friendly nations who want the South China Sea free for international navigation. And we must assist ASEAN to become the bulwark of Asian freedom.
Our voice must be heard all over the world. Most of all, this must be the voice of Filipinos, united and led by strong leaders.
In many instances, it is an enemy of a people that unites a divided people. As a Russian leader told the Americans when they won the cold war, “I pity you because now you have no enemy.”
But given our bleak condition, I will not be surprised if, one day, we Filipinos who could not be awakened by Chinese recalcitrance will wake up to find there is no longer a Filipino nation because the Philippines -- thanks to a weak-kneed leader -- had become a Chinese province.
I have been doing an informal survey, particularly with the young, asking them what they want most in life. Almost always, after giving the question some thought, their most common reply is happiness. Seldom are lofty ideals like peace, justice, or wisdom mentioned. For the young who still have to build a career or shape the future, happiness is the end-all.
I am not surprised, of course, because this is what most people, including myself, want. It is after all enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence which, “holds these truths” to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
We all know that happiness is state of mind, but it can also be very physical. Two of the great thinkers of the 18th century had their theories. Karl Marx postulated that happiness is a full stomach, while Sigmund Freud declared that happiness is satiated gonads.
These are, of course, gross over-simplifications of very complex theories. For politicians, happiness might be the possession of absolute power. For the greedy, immeasurable wealth, and for the common folk just an empty bladder.
SOME THOUGHT MUST BE GIVEN to the process by which happiness is achieved, and how it can be maintained. When we bring these factors to mind, then we recall the nature of man, the society that he creates for himself, and the liberty that makes real happiness possible.
That liberty is what sprouts when opposition is banished from society. The process is often violent and calls for committed agents. As the revolutionary Thomas Paine declared, show me the country where oppression is – that is my country.
For so many people, certain beliefs will bring happiness. As Marx said, religion is the opium of the poor. And for intellectuals, that opium is communism. To achieve happiness that is based on ideology requires unrelenting faith and conviction in that ideology. But then we must remember always what Nietzsche said, that convictions are prisons.
In our search for happiness (and utopia), we need to go back to the distant past to recall what the ancients did, how they created laws and institutions that gave them happiness. Some primitive societies have no word for liberty, but its essence is understood in the taboos and codes of conduct that are rigidly observed.
History is a very good teacher, but can also be a very bad master when it shackles us to the past and inhibits us from being innovative, creative, and critical. Indeed, history often repeats itself because we don’t learn from it.
ALL THROUGH HISTORY man has strived for liberty as the basis of happiness. Liberty, truth, justice are bound together and striving for these is a continuing struggle to this very day. Some years back, an American scholar postulated that with the end of the cold war, the major conflict of the future will be between civilizations.
If we look at this theory very closely and straddle it with fanatic jihadism and the rise of Muslim fundamentalism, we may see some truth in this forecast. The deeper reality, however, is not so obvious. This continuing struggle is not between civilizations but humankind’s deep longing for liberty. And, therefore, the conflict will be as it had always been – between the oppressors and the oppressed, between those who crave liberty and those who refuse to give it.
But do you really want liberty?
Unfortunately, not all civilizations or individuals look at liberty as the basis of their happiness. There are people who want despots or dictators to govern them, and they become comfortable with their shackles.
Tradition, too, inhibits liberty. China is one such country that has always been ruled by despots, a continuum for four millennia to this very day. China also adeptly illustrates, contrary to common western logic, that development does not necessarily bring liberty. In fact, when a country progresses and becomes an empire, to hold on to power, the emperor or the imperialists suppress liberty with the Mandate of Heaven.
In so many instances, too, crimes are committed in the name of liberty for human nature does not take to liberty naturally. The great virtues of humanity are not embedded in human genes, they are acquired often at exorbitant cost.
FOR SEEKING AND TEACHING the truth, Socrates was condemned to death by poisoning by the Greek agora. For propagandizing for freedom from Spanish tyranny Rizal was executed by the Spanish. As the poet Bertolt Brecht said, we who want the world to be kind cannot ourselves be kind. I recall Madame Roland who during the French Revolution lamented before she was guillotined, “Oh, liberty what crimes are committed in thy name!”
We ourselves did not realize the true value of freedom until Marcos took it away, we even welcomed him. And today, we are even nostalgic for his despotism.
The hunger for despots or dictators such as Hitler was aggravated by the Germans themselves who were looking for a savior in the midst of their impoverishment, much in the same way we are today hoping for a savior. That condition was summed up by the German poet and pastor, Martin Niemoller. I now paraphrase what he said: First they came for the leftists – and I did not speak out because I was not a leftist. Then they came for the social activists – and I did not speak out because I was not a social activist. Then they came for the Catholics – and I did not speak out because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
I came across this Latin passage way back in the 1940s when I was in college. Keep this posted in your office, your desk, wherever it will greet you every day: “Ubi boni tacent, malum prosperat” – Evil prospers where good people are silent.
First published in The Philippine Star, June 24, 2019 https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2019/06/24/1928992/why-liberty#034yRTeF7jyRSxvI.99