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