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.