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