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:
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