As Seen on Japanese TV

Tune in to Japanese television, and chances are that you’re likely to have come across one of the following:

  • a bunch of “talents” (tarento) riding trains and buses and stopping by scenic spots, restaurants, shops, onsen, hotels, and ryokan
  • a bunch of “talents” doing restaurant-hopping, eating their way across Japan or elsewhere, trying out one particular dish (ramen, gyoza, yakiniku, tonkatsu, pasta, pizza, dimsum) in different restaurants
  • a camera crew following farmers or fishermen or artisans or entrepreneurs as they go about their work
  • a camera crew ambushing either Japanese or foreign visitors in the street, asking them questions or else trying to convince them to let the camera crew tag along with them, in one case all the way into their homes
  • a battalion of “talents” being quizzed on anything from how to write kanji characters to identifying countries by their initial letters or flags to whatever it is that the TV producers can dream up
  • talk shows where a bunch of experts (some of whom have become “talentos” in their own right, with their own groupies) discuss current affairs with nice peel-off or magnet visual aids
  • experts lecturing on all sorts of medical conditions, from cancer to diabetes
  • cute clips of cats, dogs, plus sundry other clips collected from around the world of freak accidents, mysterious happenings, exotic practices
  • house reform, “before and after”
  • classical music performances and special features on art exhibitions on Sunday nights
  • cooking shows

The format is often pedagogical, drawing talents and viewers back to the classroom as someone—narrator, host, expert—asks questions and, after talents and viewers exhaust themselves trying to answer them, gives out the correct answers, accompanied by explanations. Showbusiness personalities sit through two, or even four, hours of this, just so they can spend the last twenty seconds of the show plugging whatever movie, concert, or project they are performing in. There are professional “know-it-alls” whose job it is to lecture on anything and everything, whether it’s the North Korean missile test or Trump or Japan’s ageing society and inequality or the Syrian crisis.

On an average week, one learns the following from these TV shows:

  1. A half-teaspoon of cinnamon eaten everyday promotes blood circulation, as does soaking in a forty-centigrade hot tub for ten minutes each day.
  2. Sliced avocados retain their fresh-green color when they are stored with bits of sliced onions (tops are ok) in airtight tupperware.
  3. Boiled eggs are easily peeled when they are slightly cracked with a spoon before boiling, and after boiling, plunged into cold war and then transferred to another bowl with a few centimeters of water and gently agitated.
  4. Lettuce stays fresh longer in the fridge when three or four toothpicks are inserted into the base.
  5. For easy peeling, make a five-millimeter-deep cut all the way round the middle of a potato.
  6. The juices from Japanese canned tuna make good salad dressing when mixed with a tablespoon of soy sauce.
  7. Japanese artisans are so good at their craft that: a) an onsen owner can tell the exact temperature of the water by just dipping his hand into the hot spring; b) a train driver does not need an odometer to tell him how fast his train is running; c) a cutter can manually slice up castella sponge cakes with precision using just one long knife; d) a pâtissier can measure out the proper weight of the dough in grams, even without a baker dough scale; e) Japanese temples are still largely hand-made, can be dismantled and reassembled in the process of being repaired, and their post-and-beam structure is rigid and strong yet flexible enough to withstand earthquakes; f) the best Japanese knives—light, thin, sharp, and hard—combine the best steel technology can produce with age-old techniques of metallurgy and swordmaking; g) a chef can distinguish, with his tongue, the provenance of a matsutake mushroom, particularly a Japan-harvested one.
  8. Oil-stained shirts can be cleaned with a toothbrush and cleansing oil over a cup of hot water.
  9. One can stop coughing at night by putting an extra cushion under one’s pillow (if this still does not work, best consult a doctor!).
  10. Kyoto people eat more bread than rice.
  11. The prices of wagyu beef are going up because the farmers who supply cattle farms with feed are ageing and their numbers declining.
  12. There have been increasing numbers of car accidents involving senior citizens who confuse the accelerator and the brake. This is part of a larger trend of increasing senior citizen crimes, which account for nearly 20% of all crimes committed. The rate at which Japanese aged 65 and over are arrested for crimes now stands at 162 per 100,000 residents. Almost sixty percent of these crimes involve shoplifting.
  13. The global stock of tuna is declining due to overfishing, despite the existence of Japanese laws requiring fishermen to return tuna weighing less than 30 kilograms to the sea.
  14. Japan had 24.04 million visitors from abroad in 2016, and these visitors spent a total of 3.75 trillion yen (USD 33 billion). Chinese visitors accounted for about 26% of the total number of tourists (a record 6 million last year) and nearly 40% of the tourist spending. The government, though, has set the benchmark high in its hopes of 8 trillion yen in tourist spending by 2020.
  15. The Tsukiji fish market will not be moving to the Toyosu site yet because the Tokyo metropolitan government is still weighing the pros and cons of the move (it also doesn’t help that the groundwater samples in the Toyosu site reveal the presence of benzene and other toxic chemicals well above the safety limits).
  16. A former head of the parents’ association of an elementary school in Chiba  Prefecture is charged with killing a nine-year-old Vietnamese schoolgirl.
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“Elites and Ilustrados in Philippine Culture”

The Filipino “elites” have a starring role as heroes and villains in Philippine history. So-called “ilustrados” were vanguards of the Propaganda Movement whose writings helped inspire the Philippine Revolution in the late nineteenth century and from whose ranks have been drawn many of the country’s “National Heroes.” The urban middle sector and municipal elites actively participated in the Philippine Revolution. But the Filipino elites have also been taken to task for “betraying” the Revolution, for putting their selfish, factional interests above those of the nation and the “masses”, for collaborating with the colonizers, and for being the principal beneficiaries of the American-era “colonial democracy” and post-war “elite democracy” that have plunged the country into crisis for most of the twentieth century.

This book shows how Filipino literature has intervened in the intellectual and popular debates on the historical origins, ascendancy, power, and legitimacy of the elites. Writers like Jose Rizal, Nick Joaquin, Ninotchka Rosca, Miguel Syjuco, and Ramon Guillermo are unsparing in their criticism of elite authorship of the Philippines’ past and present woes while seeking to recuperate the critical stance once represented by the “ilustrado.” The book identifies a number of emblematic cosmopolitan figures— the “middle sector” or “middle element” in Manila and other urban areas, Manila men and musicians, Overseas Filipino Workers, intellectuals, and Fil-foreigners—whose emergence as social forces points to the ongoing redefinition of the elites and the transformations of Philippine society, politics, and economy.

Coming out in May 2017 from Ateneo de Manila University Press.

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A Pasta Obsession

Cacio e pepe, literally cheese and pepper, is a dish so simple that it’s hard to get right. Recipes for this dish abound, many of them with as few as three ingredients: pasta, grated pecorino Romano, ground black pepper. Some include butter or olive oil or specify a mix of cheeses—Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano in addition to the pecorino Romano. All include an additional ingredient: the pasta cooking water.

eataly4We tasted this dish in Rome, in an inexpensive but well-regarded chain restaurant. The dish came to our table, the pasta heaped in the center of a white pasta plate and wafted the heady aroma of the cheese. I don’t know if this restaurant used one cheese or two cheeses or three, if they used butter or olive oil, but their cacio e pepe was a marvel: the pasta the perfect state of toothiness, the black pepper visible and perceptible to taste but not overpowering, the pecorino Romano intensely flavorful.

I wanted to go for another plate of cacio e pepe in Rome, this time in a fancier restaurant. I had the perfect place in mind: Ristorante Roma Sparita, the restaurant that, according to Anthony Bourdain, serves the best cacio e pepe in the world. It’s in the Trastevere neighborhood of the city, east of the Tiber River, south of Vatican City, an easy half hour walk from our apartment near the Colosseum.

But events conspired and we were not able to go, and I was not able to get another plate of cacio e pepe. In Florence, I got to try pasta alla gricia, yet another classic pasta dish. Similar to cacio e pepe in its utter simplicity, this one trades the butter with tiny chunks of lightly fried guanciale, an Italian cured meat made with pork jowl. We tried this dish in a neighborhood restaurant and were amazed by how delicious it was. The dish was simple yet absurdly rich, with what I felt were tiny explosions of lush smoky pork fat in my mouth.

eataly3Back in New York, I have become somewhat obsessed with the two pasta dishes and the two ingredients required in both. Pecorino Romano is made from sheep’s milk. It’s hard and crumbly, salty and exceptionally savory. It’s supposed to be one of the most ancient of cheeses, eaten during their marches by the Roman legions and cited by Roman authors like Pliny the Elder and Hippocrates. It’s widely used in cooking, but also wonderful to snack on and robust enough to hold its own when paired with a glass of red wine. (Just the thought of such a snack—slices of the cheese, some grapes, a glass of red wine—makes me happy. Add some crusty bread and good olive oil, and perhaps another glass of wine, and it’s a spare, elegant dinner.)

The cheese is easily found in New York, available in most markets with a cheese case. It’s not inexpensive, but you use very little of it at a time. You can’t use too much of it, otherwise the dish will become unpalatable—so easily does intense flavor become inedible.

Since coming back from Italy, I’ve tried to cook cacio e pepe but, of course, it never comes out the way the dish tasted or even looked in the restaurant in Rome. Pecorino Romano, it turns out, is hard to cook with—it doesn’t melt easily the way, for example, Parmigiano-Reggiano does. A temperamental ingredient, it clumps up, sticks to the pan, refuses to cooperate with the pasta. A number of solutions are offered in various websites: the addition of butter and eggs, for example, but then the dish becomes almost a carbonara. What seems to work is to whip the grated cheese with the pasta cooking water quickly to emulsify the mixture and to release some of the heat. There seems to be a counter-intuitive principle at work here: the cheese requires gentle heat to melt properly and cling to the pasta.

eataly2Last week I dragged my family to a place in the city called Eataly. It’s a fancy food market curated by the royalty of Italian food in America, Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich. A sprawling space filled with jams, cookies, candies, cheeses, pastas, and charcuterie from Italy, it also has areas for eating—charcuterie and cheeses in one side, fish and vegetables in another, and pizzas and pastas in another. It has a gelateria, a pastry shop, and two coffee bars. The place is trendy and expensive, beautifully laid out with rustic wood surfaces, marble countertops, gleaming stainless steel details, one of those temples to food porn where a tiny jar of jam costs nine dollars and a pound of artisanal pasta is ten dollars.

eataly1But I was obsessed and needed (yes, it was a need) to be near Italian food items. We went to the pizza and pasta restaurant and ordered two pizzas and a plate of cacio e pepe. The pizzas were terrific. And the cacio e pepe? It came while we were halfway through the two pizzas, carried by a man who did not wear the waiters’ black and white uniform but instead jeans and an untucked plaid shirt. He had a Roman nose, beautiful eyes, a mop of black curly hair. He looked, in other words, as if he was an owner or a manager or some other official Italian food authority.

As he laid the plate of steaming pasta on our table, however, he asked me, “Would you like some cheese?”

I was mystified. On the one hand, I understood the question: Americans always want more cheese. Even the humblest pizzerias in the country have glass shakers of Parmesan flakes (and we’re not going to debate whether or not that’s cheese at this point). On the other hand, I wanted to eat a professionally cooked plate of this dish exactly because I did not want to think about the amount of cheese the dish required. The dish, it seems to me, is all about balance.

“But doesn’t it already have cheese?” I asked him. “Well, yes,” he said. Then added, “So you can try it and you can always ask for more cheese.”

Dear reader, the cacio e pepe was terrible. The pasta was undercooked instead of al dente, oily instead of rich, tasting one-dimensionally of butter instead of the complex mouth-filling umami of good cheese.

It was disappointing. But I did get to buy guanciale in the market and what looked like a superbly fresh wedge of pecorino Romano. So in my next essay, I’ll write about pasta alla gricia, my other current pasta obsession.

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When in Rome

It’s hard to escape pop culture in Italy.

We trooped through the Colosseum and I recalled scenes from the Russell Crowe movie Gladiator. We climbed up the Palatine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum and I remembered the opening scene in Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome when the patrician Caesar met the brilliant general Marius. I thought of Roman Holiday and The Talented Mr. Ripley at the Spanish Steps and of La Dolce Vita and Three Coins in a Fountain at the Trevi Fountain.

One can combine high and low culture and remember: E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View and Sarah Dunant’s Birth of Venus in Florence; Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in Venice.

I read The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone’s historical novel about Michelangelo’s life and art, a long time ago. And presented with Michelangelo’s genius at every turn—on the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; in the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica; in the Pieta; in the sculpture, the replica, and the parodies of the David in Florence—I vowed to myself to use the words “agony” and “ecstasy” only when referring to Michelangelo’s art.

A photograph of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that I did not take because photography, after all, is not allowed

A photograph of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that I did not take because photography, after all, is not allowed

In the Sistine Chapel, amidst the milling crowd and the museum guards who intermittently shouted out the need for silence and the no video/photography policy, I craned my neck to view the famous masterpiece. It’s hard to focus on anything else but the iconic center—god the father and Adam, their fingers almost touching, in the artist’s thunderous representation of the creation of humanity.

But my vision also kept gravitating towards the right corner where the Delphic Sibyl was painted. It’s a beautiful cameo—the sibyl’s figure muscular, her face expressive, the colors of her robes richly glowing. It was strangely familiar and, just like that, I was back in pop culture territory. I remembered: it was on the cover of my younger daughter’s coloring book entitled Color Your Own Italian Renaissance Paintings.

In the smallest country in the world

In the smallest country in the world

We went to St. Peter’s Basilica and, in its vastness and silence, it felt like a reprieve from the crowds. Many things in and about it are magnificent: marble cherubs bigger than grown humans, their dimpled limbs larger than my thighs; Bernini’s baldacchino, the ornate and massive bronze structure hovering over the altar; the delicate Pieta, looking tiny amidst the immense scale of the building, but affecting nevertheless, even when viewed through its bulletproof glass protection.

We went out to a crisp and sunny Roman afternoon in St. Peter’s Square. Looking around at Bernini’s columns, I kept imagining the countless footage set in the place, packed with nuns and priests and other visiting faithful, that I have seen on TV when one pope died and another one was elected, when one pope retired and yet another one was elected, when one or another pope held one or another papal mass. And again: Wasn’t there a scene in the Tom Hanks movie Angels and Demons set exactly here?

The most famous, but not necessarily the best, gelateria in Rome

The most famous, but not necessarily the best, gelateria in Rome

When in Rome, one eats pizza. So we did. We ate pizza with prosciutto, pizza with artichokes, pizza with four cheeses. Pizzas in Rome come in different fashions—thick squares from cheap bars sold by weight; rustic oblongs with tomato sauce and olives in grocery stores; and small thin ones in restaurants. The best pizzas were small and delicate, tender, chewy, and aromatic and we ate them with the flavorful low-alcohol wines that Europe seems to refuse to export to America. I remembered a show where Mario Batali sang the praises of puntarelle, a bitter green vegetable in season in the Roman province of Lazio in winter. We hunted for it and found a restaurant where it was served raw and drizzled with olive oil and anchovy sauce. We walked a lot, so we felt justified in eating gelato every day, sometimes twice a day. I tried the sweet milk flavor because I couldn’t resist the name, fior di latte, in Italian. Other memorable gelato flavors were hazelnut, rice (rice!), strawberry, pear, and single-malt whiskey. Every morning we had cappuccino in a neighborhood bar, standing up at the counter like the locals. The Italians invented the drink and they are so good at making it, the espresso intense, the milk creamy and frothy, and the price, at one euro and thirty cents in most bars, wonderfully affordable. Of the many cool things about Italy, this has to be one of the coolest: The price of their delicious coffee is regulated by the Italian government.

Coins tossed in the fountain are supposed to be gathered everyday and used to feed the poor in Rome.

Coins tossed in the fountain are supposed to be gathered everyday and used to feed the poor in Rome.

December is supposed to be a good time to go because it’s not as crowded with tourists as it is in the spring or summer. But it was still crowded. The Trevi Fountain, in particular, was always packed with people taking selfies and tossing coins. I realized, looking over the balcony on the side and watching the melee right in front of the fountain, that one has to enjoy these places as if they were theater or spectacle. Forget having a meditative silence to appreciate the art or to reflect on the march of history. The boisterous crowd is an intrinsic part of the experience. In that spirit, I took my young daughter by the hand and joined the crowd in front of the fountain. We held our coins in our right hands and tossed our fifty euro cents over our left shoulders and wished to visit Rome again. I took her picture, then we fought our way back out.

Back in New York, I think of Italy and remember more pop culture: Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty, Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun, the second and third movies of The Godfather. There are more. Even Shakespeare, after all, set a few of his plays in the country.

And I’ve come up with a reason for all these pop cultural references, for the crowds, for my wanting to go back.

The reason is this: Even when we’ve never been there (I know I was even before this trip), we’re all in love with Italy.


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Kill the Pushers

The death toll for Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, now entering its fifth month, is said to exceed four thousand.

Dubbed “The Punisher” by Time magazine, Duterte has projected the kind of macho persona that Pinoys often associate with action stars like Fernando Poe, Jr. and Joseph Estrada, both of whom had attempted to parlay their silver-screen charisma into careers in politics (cut short, in the case of Poe, by his death from a stroke following his failed bid to become president in 2004). Joseph Estrada has had a long career as a politician, serving as Mayor of San Juan, then as Senator and Vice-President before becoming President. Surviving impeachment, he is currently Mayor of Manila.

Naming Duterte after a Marvel comics character—Duterte is also routinely compared to American cinema’s quintessential vigilante cop Dirty Harry, played by Clint Eastwood, another actor who dabbled in politics in the 1980s—shows how blurred the line between fiction and fact, acting and real-life living, can be.

If Joseph Estrada rode to political stardom on the basis of the action-star persona he had carefully honed on screen, Duterte represents the opposite case of a real-life tough guy (he claims he has killed) now learning to play the role of president on the national and world stage after devoting the better part of his career to playing local politician before a smaller, local, domestic audience.

Anyone who has ever walked onto a stage knows what it’s like to talk and move self-consciously with the knowledge that one is being watched and assessed by the crowd. The best actors are, of course, the ones who manage to wear their personas “naturally,” appearing folksy, down-to-earth, plain-speaking, even refreshingly foul-mouthed, speaking the language of Juan and Juana dela Cruz.

Wasn’t it Alexis de Tocqueville who talked about the “democracy of manners” in which, no matter how privileged their backgrounds, American politicians need to present and carry themselves in public and talk as if everyone were their social equals?

Ronald Reagan was particularly good at playing Everyman, and he reflected back to his fellow Americans the optimism they needed to emerge from the shock and humiliation (not shock and awe) of stagflation, the Vietnam War, and the Iran hostage crisis. His critics dismiss him as lightweight, perhaps even a dimwit, but voters put their confidence in the city-on-the-hill, American-exceptionalist dream he peddled.

Duterte is no lightweight. Unlike Trump, he has had extensive experience as a local politician. He is serious about the drug problem in the country (even as critics debate the accuracy of the statistics he cites to bolster his campaign).

Though trained as a lawyer to be attentive to language, Duterte is not one to stick to the presidential script. He’s more likely to ad-lib and improvise, going off tangent from the speeches that his policy team has carefully prepared for him. It is said that only his family can tell him that he has gone on (and on and on) and needs to step down.

Duterte’s war on drugs is not a flash in the pan either. Here, one cannot help recalling another war on drugs that a “strongman” president waged more than forty years ago, a war that provided cinematic tough guy Joseph Estrada with one of his most memorable movies in the early 1970s.

Joseph Estrada starred in, and produced, this 1972 film, which won the FAMAS Award for Best Picture.

Joseph Estrada starred in, and produced, this 1972 film, which won the FAMAS Award for Best Picture.

Most people have forgotten that Joseph Estrada’s JE Productions won the FAMAS award for Best Picture for the film “Kill the Pushers” (1972), in which Estrada had a starring role.

The film chronicles the Ferdinand Marcos administration’s war on drugs that led to the passing of the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1972, the creation of the Constabulary Against Narcotics Unit (CANU), and the capture of the businessman-turned-drug dealer Lim Seng.

Four months into Martial Law, Lim would be executed by firing squad in Fort Bonifacio (yes, the same Fort Boni that we now call Bonifacio Global City). Never mind that Lim Seng was actually the underling of an even more notorious Big Boss druglord, who was able to escape abroad with the help of his influential circle of friends in higher places.

Years later, under Estrada’s presidency, the execution of child-rapist Leo Echegaray—the first judicial execution since Lim Seng’s, but not the last (six more would be executed)–led Imelda Marcos to gloat that at least under her husband’s presidency, no “Filipino” was executed, Lim Seng being just an intsik, after all.

The problem with the current war on drugs is that it puts too much trust in the power and integrity of the police to bring “criminals” to justice, when most Filipinos, from their own personal experience of the rottenness of the system, actually don’t fully trust either their own government or the police. Motorists see with their own eyes the ways in which traffic cops demand tong and pang-kape from jeepney and bus drivers and car owners, and prey on homeless and pedestrians alike. Politicians are not pejoratively known as “trapos” for nothing.

In fact, a cursory examination of the action films in the Philippines shows that “good cop vs. bad cop” is an abiding theme, along with the notorious failings of the judicial system. While there are no doubt plenty of honest, hard-working police who do their best to uphold the law, there are also plenty of corrupt cops who give the police a bad name, engaging in drug-dealing, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, murder-for-hire, arbitrary killing, and other nefarious deeds.

When police prey on civilians, all that stands between an ordinary tao and the powers-that-be is the law, which is why due process is important. Granted that criminal law is often compromised in practice, and justice perverted to favor the rich and the powerful.  We rage at the corruption in government and the judiciary, the slowness with which the wheels of justice turn, if they even turn at all. This explains the so-called “People Power fatigue,” the exasperation with an electoral system riddled with money politics and no better than a musical chair for oligarchs, media stars, business people, and close relatives of politicians. This impatience with a democratic system that fails to address poverty and inequality or even impose law and order no doubt fuels the nostalgia for authoritarian rule under Marcos.

Ironically, this nostalgia thrives precisely because people have come to take for granted the freedoms that they or their parents and grandparents had fought so hard for when they joined the People’s Power Revolution that toppled Marcos in 1986.

The nostalgia for the authoritarian past rests on shaky, selective memory. The middle classes remember only the first few years of Martial Law, when economic growth rates were decent and applications for a PLDT landline—which used to take years to process—would be responded to within days. Memories are tricky, with the tendency to edit out such inconvenient, unpleasant facts as

  1. Marcos and his family and cronies monopolizing power as well as pillaging the economy
  2. Censorship and the muzzling of free speech: had there been internet at the time, no one would be allowed to comment freely on articles, let alone criticize the government, or perhaps even have access to Facebook, Gmail, Scribd, YouTube, Dropbox, or Google
  3. Control over who can or cannot leave the country: no more trips to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Tokyo, New York, London, Paris for anyone who didn’t agree with the powers-that-be, or whom the powers-that-be simply didn’t like
  4. The decline in skilled and unskilled urban workers’ wages
  5. The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus
  6. Imelda’s humongous shopping sprees and expensive building projects, which led Rafael Salas, the Marcos technocrat who later fell out with the Marcoses, to coin the term “edifice complex”
  7. The routine harrassment, rape, torture, and killing of civilians and dissidents
  8. Military abuses in the countryside in the name of counter-insurgency
  9. Rebellion in the countryside (including several liberation movements)
  10. The state-brokered export of labor: a 1982 “Forced Remittance” Executive Order signed by Marcos required Overseas Contract Workers to remit between 50 to 70% of their earnings (depending on their category of work) through only a select number of official banking channels
  11. The economic crunch that began with the raising of interest rates in the late 1970s by the American Federal Reserve Board and the Dewey Dee scandal in the early 1980s, and the decision to bail out crony companies at the expense of other companies that angered the business community
  12. The political crisis sparked by the assassination of Ninoy Aquino
  13. The collapse of sugar prices and a powerful El Niño that brought drought and, as a result of the failure of the government to respond promptly, famine and malnutrition in Negros

“Kill the pushers” sounds logical, even necessary, as long as it’s not you or your own family and friends who fall victim to the police who are authorized to serve simultaneously as judge, jury, and executioner.

Imagine then, if this happens to your son, and you know for a fact that he is not into drugs, and yet the police insist that he is. How would you be able to prove his innocence when he’s already dead? Who are you to question the authorities if they plant drugs on your son after killing him, or plant drugs on your person when you refuse to play along with their extortion schemes? Police playing extortionists or planting “evidence” is sadly not unheard of in the Philippines and elsewhere, not just in the movies, but in real life.

Oh yes, Duterte’s war on drugs is as exciting and dramatic as an action film–even better than Reality TV!–until you find yourself the dispensable bit player, the “extra” whose fate it is to be shot down by the “bida” in a hail of bullets.

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What Did Rizal’s Simoun, Elias, and Maria Clara Look Like?

noli-cover-1I first read Jose Rizal’s Noli me tangere and El filibusterismo in elementary school, in simplified English translations for young readers put out by Abiva Publishing. What I liked about these books were their beautiful illustrations (having lost my copies of these books, I cannot remember the name of the illustrator), which have done more to fix my mental images of Maria Clara, Ibarra/Simoun, and Elias than any other book or film or play since.

In high school, we studied the Noli and the Fili in abridged Filipino versions. We were fortunate enough to have had a wonderful teacher, aptly surnamed Liwanag, whose spot-quizzes on quotations and details from the books made us realize that if we wanted to get a perfect score, we would have to read the unabridged, unexpurgated editions.

fili-coverMy mother, who matriculated at the University of the Philippines, had the Leon Ma. Guerrero translations in our bookcase, but from the beginning, I preferred the Charles Derbyshire translation, the turn-of-the-century English of which seemed a better match for Rizal’s tropical Spanish, with its long sentences and breathless apostrophes and heaps of adjectives, than Guerrero’s “modern” rendition. (In graduate school, I learned from Ben Anderson that Guerrero tried to “clean up” the Noli and Fili, stifling the subversiveness of Rizal’s laughter, entombing the novels in a dead past, sanitizing their earthy and radical content, and cutting the reader off from the local references–most of them in Tagalog– and European allusions.) In fact, two of the first books I bought with my own savings in high school were Derbyshire’s brick-red “The Social Cancer” and apple-green “The Reign of Greed.” I have them still, even though they now sit dog-eared and loose-leafed alongside the National Historical Institute Spanish editions, Guerrero, Soledad Lacson-Locsin, Harold Augenbraum, and Virgilio Almario.

Looking back now, and reading Rizal in the original Spanish, I can see the points in the novels at which Derbyshire’s translation falls short of describing the kind of everyday life we Filipinos take for granted.   Take, for example, the scene in the Fili where the students gather at the Pansiteria Macanista de Buen Gusto to commiserate with each other on their failure to secure official permission to establish a Spanish-language academy. Derbyshire has Makaraig listing the ingredients of the pancit langlang as “vermicelli, crabs or shrimps, egg paste, scraps of chicken, and I don’t know what else,” but if we re-translate Rizal’s recipe, we find that the original list went something like this: “mushrooms, crabs or shrimp, noodles, pieces of chicken, and I don’t know what else.”

Another example would be the difficulty in capturing the kind of mood changes and cravings experienced by expectant mothers, summed up in the Filipino word “lihi”. Derbyshire translates this as “Capriciousness, natural in her condition.” Elsewhere, Rizal uses the Spanish term “antojos,” meaning “cravings,” but these are not ordinary cravings, because they are specific to pregnancy.

It’s not just translation that poses challenges to understanding Rizal. We have had to deal with the sediments of meaning that have collected over the century and decades since the publication of the novels, as we encounter Rizal and his works in translation, in the classroom, in the movies and theaters, in newspapers and magazines, in field trips (I remember a female high school classmate of mine exclaiming over Rizal’s clothes on display in Fort Santiago: “But I’m taller than Rizal!”), in published photos, in public and private discussions.

Rizal is on the one-peso coin, in the Luneta Park, on the storefronts of business establishments; he is a province, a Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office Match and Win ticket. Some politicians have blasted the attempt of Distileria Limtuaco to register Rizal, along with Gomburza and Andres Bonifacio, as brand names for their liquor products. Even if this fails, who can forget the Maria Clara sangría, and—many years back—the posthumous use of Rizal’s name and image to sell tobacco, sarsaparilla, matches, soft drinks and soda water, cement, vinegar substitute, drink coasters, movie tickets (as detailed by Pinoy Kollektor)?

While Rizal’s face is ubiquitous, that of Ibarra/Simoun and Elias—his two main protagonists—leaves a lot more to the imagination. It is true that Gerardo de Leon’s movie adaptations, released in the early 1960s and now available on YouTube, have given these characters the flesh and voice of some of the country’s leading actors, with Eddie del Mar’s pleasant-looking but stolid Ibarra being overshadowed by the salakot-wearing Leopoldo Salcedo’s sexy Elias. (Del Mar had specialized in playing Rizal in several movies in the 1950s.) Pancho Magalona’s deep-voiced, debonair Simoun is a tragic hero speaking in mellifluous Tagalog (instead of the foreign-accented Spanish and carefully “bad Tagalog” Simoun uses in public) of the need for revolution.

Leopoldo Salcedo as Elias in Gerardo de Leon's "Noli me tangere" (1961)

Leopoldo Salcedo as Elias in Gerardo de Leon’s “Noli me tangere” (1961)

Beyond the visual and vocal templates offered by movies, a look at the novels themselves reveals the fact that Juan Crisostomo Ibarra/Simoun, for all his Basque ancestry over four generations, is the classic “brown mestizo” whose skin color—described as a “beautiful brown color”—ties him to his native country. Rizal’s brown mestizo will be subsequently reincarnated in Philippine literature in the form of Ninotchka Rosca’s Adrian Banyaga and F. Sionil Jose’s Juan Bacnang.

Pancho Magalona's debonair Simoun in Gerardo de Leon's "El filibusterismo" (1962)

Pancho Magalona’s debonair Simoun in Gerardo de Leon’s “El filibusterismo” (1962)

Pancho Magalona’s patch of gray hair at the temples simply won’t do, because Simoun is described as having long white hair (prematurely brought on by his tragedy and long years of suffering and wandering) and a sparse black beard. In our time, Roeder Camañag—white-haired, for a change—is memorable as Simoun in Gantimpala Theater’s production.

The current popular image of Simoun—memorialized in manga and other illustrations—as a Filipino incarnation of Gary Oldman’s Count Dracula (from Francis Ford Coppola’s film version of Bram Stoker’s novel [1992]), he of the tinted glasses and silk hat and English tailored suit, is intriguing except for one detail. The hat worn by Simoun, as described in the Fili, is neither silk hat nor bowler hat, but a pith helmet made of tinsin (matting rush, Juncus effusus; badili, susud, piñgot; tinsin is derived from the Chinese term deng xin).

Simoun’s “moreno” skin, combination of English and South American accents, and time spent in the United States and Cuba all lead Don Custodio to insist on labeling Simoun as an “American mulatto.” Mulato is derived from the Spanish word for “mule” (a cross between a horse and a donkey) and originally referred to the mestizo offspring of a union between a European and an African. First used as an official census category in the United States in 1850, “mulatto” encompasses a wide range of color gradations in the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean, from lightened dark to darkened light to, simply, dark. Indeed, Simoun is variously called a Brown Cardinal and Black Eminence, and, aside from British Indian, is mistaken as well for Portuguese.

And then there’s Elias, described as having long, unkempt hair, an athletic build, large sad eyes, and compressed lips. Though possessed of striking looks, Elias has the ability to “disappear” into the crowd. Two civil guards looking for Elias are given the following description of the fugitive: “Height: tall, according to the alferez, medium according to Padre Damaso; color, brown; eyes, black; nose, ordinary; beard, none; hair, black”–a description so relative and general that it can apply to the majority of the native male population.

A master of disguises, Elias can change accents at will, and is able to move with ease between the towns under Spanish rule and the mountain and forest strongholds of the remontados (those who have turned their backs on colonialism).

While Ibarra basks in the love and (sometimes even obsessive) attention of Maria Clara, Elias does not have the luxury of a lovelife. It is telling that the one chapter Rizal chooses to excise from the Noli is the chapter on Salome, who is in love with Elias and whose offer of happy domesticity and family life Elias spurns because of his single-minded pursuit of the persons responsible for his family’s misfortunes. From hints in the novel, we learn that Elias is “attracted” (to use modern-day lingo) to Maria Clara, no doubt moved by Maria Clara’s going out of her way to talk to him and offer him food at the picnic when everyone else ignores the pilot as a mere hired hand.

As for Maria Clara, we know she is the literary prototype of the fair-skinned mestiza beauty. As a child, she had curly, almost blond hair, a telltale sign of her true parentage. Rather than his male protagonists, Rizal makes Maria Clara the true fulcrum of the Noli’s plot: it is out of love for her that Ibarra returns from Europe and offers the schoolhouse as a gift to her; it is out of love and concern for her that Padre Damaso works to undermine the Ibarra family; and it is out of lust for her that Padre Salvi hatches the false insurrection to implicate Crisostomo.

Because Maria Clara says that she has never seen a live buwaya (crocodile) before, Elias–who is fascinated by her and moved by her kindness to him–jumps into the lake to catch it, thereby initiating the chain of events that puts him in debt to Ibarra for saving his life and leads him to discover the truth concerning the entanglement of Ibarra’s family in his own family tragedy.

In the end, we give Simoun and Elias and Maria Clara and all the other characters in Rizal’s novels the visage and build and voice that we want to give them. We also read and re-read Rizal in the light of our own preoccupations and imperatives. This is what keeps Rizal relevant more than a century since his martyrdom. Historical topics have made a comeback in cinema and continue to be debated by scholars and students. What would Simoun and Elias and Maria Clara look like a century hence?

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Cakes, Cakes, Cakes!


Matcha cake from noted patissier Es Koyama

Christmas has come early this year. Department stores like Isetan have already put up their Christmas trees and wreaths. Starbucks has started playing jazz renditions of Christmas favorites. Red and green and gold and silver Christmas decorations can now be bought in 100-yen stores. Afternoon Tea’s gift packages include candles, bath salts shaped like Christmas ornaments, home fragrance diffusers (“White Christmas” evoking snowy woods), and, of course, tea.

Best of all, the Christmas cake catalogues have rolled off the press. These are sumptuously photographed booklets listing the scrumptious cakes—cross-section and ingredients lovingly illustrated—on offer from well-known hotels, cake shops and bakeries, and leading patissiers.

One can order them off the internet or at the store, and arrange to have them sent by express delivery or else pick them up personally on December 22, 23, or 24. What better way to celebrate Christmas than to savor a slice of cake while multi-colored lights wink merrily on the festooned tree and the Vince Guaraldi Trio play “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in the background?

Department stores like Takashimaya start taking orders for Christmas cakes as early as October 5. Christmas cake catalogues are not exclusive to department stores. They are available in convenience stores like Seven-Eleven and Circle K and in ordinary supermarkets like Izumiya.

Many of the Japanese patissiers are trained in France, and their seasonal Christmas cakes reflect their mastery of their craft, their rigorous aesthetic, and their innovative approach to blending the best of East and West. European patisseries have branches in Japan, for which they create limited-edition specials.


Chocolate teddy bear from Louange Tokyo

Louange Tokyo’s cake—available from Daimaru—features a cute chocolate teddy bear made from Felchlin’s Grand Cru couverture of 65% Maracaibo cacao, redolent of sweet raisin, orange marmalade and caramel.


Pierre Marcolini’s garnet cube with bitter chocolate and framboise

My perennial favorite, Pierre Marcolini, uses his own original couverture to fashion an exquisite garnet cube of bitter chocolate and framboise (raspberry).

Swiss-trained Es Koyama creates a hybrid cake of matcha (Japanese tea) cream and matcha chocolate, with milk ganache and brittle chocolate croquant on a base of almond-flavored joconde.

Profiterole of petits choux and sliced fruit from Izumiya

Creme de la creme’s profiterole of petits choux cream puffs and sliced fruit from Izumiya

The cakes in Izumiya are meant to appeal to children: there’s an Ampanman shortcake for toddlers featuring the eponymous superhero and his cohort Shokupanman and Karepanman. Crème de la Crème’s profiterole is a mountain of petits choux cream puffs, filled with Belgian chocolate custard and cream, bulging with kiwi, grapefruit, and strawberry slices, and topped with a grinning Santa Claus figurine.

Mont Blanc

7-11’s Mont Blanc uses Italian chestnuts

Seven-Eleven offers a variety of strawberry shortcakes as well as “ice cakes” (ice-cream cakes), plus a Mont Blanc made of Italian chestnuts.

For those who cannot make up their mind, Circle K has fashioned a cake made of eight assorted slices: mango mousse, strawberry cream and berry, cheese mousse, chocolate, marron chestnut, matcha tea, caramel, and berry mousse.

Christmas cakes have become a Japanese tradition. Come winter, grocery stores tend to experience butter shortage as the country’s dairy producers strive to keep up with demand. As more children and young people embrace Christmas in the same way that they have learned to embrace Halloween, Christmas has gone from being “foreign” to family affair.

This year’s Christmas will be a long weekend, starting with the Emperor’s birthday on Friday the 23rd. For couples, Christmas is Valentine’s Day. Hotels are often fully booked for overnight stay and offer “set-menu” Christmas dinner courses. Working women blithely defy the pejorative label of “Christmas cake” (unmarried after age 25) by celebrating Christmas eve with their friends over champagne and Wagyu beef and a good Christmas Day buffet breakfast.

The point is to celebrate life with family, friends, and other loved ones, and Christmas cakes are sweet reminders of the fact that one can never have enough of life, with all its pleasures and promises.

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Book Clubbing

I attended a book discussion group at my local library last week for a class assignment. The book assigned was The Rainbow Comes and Goes, a memoir jointly written by the journalist Anderson Cooper and by his mother, the famous Gloria Vanderbilt.

The book is structured as a series of emails the two exchanged with each other for a year after Gloria Vanderbilt turned ninety-one and essentially recounts the eventful, amazing life that Vanderbilt has led since childhood. As Cooper himself said, his mother has been, not just famous as the child of the wealthy Vanderbilts, but also “an actress, an artist, a designer, and a writer; she’s made fortunes, lost them, and made them back again. She has survived abuse, the loss of her parents, the death of a spouse, the suicide of a son, and countless other traumas and betrayals that might have defeated someone without her relentless determination.”

Vanderbilt also went through what was called the Trial of the Century as a child, had an affair with Howard Hughes as a teenager, dated Frank Sinatra in her twenties, saw one of her children jump out of a balcony to kill himself, designed jeans that put her name on millions of women’s derrieres.

Cooper starts the book with an oblique reference to how unreal his mother’s life story is: “My mother comes from a vanished world, a place and a time that no longer exist. I have always thought of her as a visitor stranded here; an emissary from a distant star that burned out long ago.”

There are some genuinely painful moments in the book. In the chapter about the death of her husband, Anderson’s father, Vanderbilt says how she has always felt insufficient as a wife and mother. She writes: “It was your father who died when it should have been me. In my deepest heart I know this to be true. I knew this then and I know it now. I have known it since it happened, and I will know it till the day I die: a lifelong sentence with no reprieve.” Cooper responds movingly: “I hope you know that I do not feel this way. If things had been different and you died and Daddy lived, there is no telling what would have happened to Carter and me. Who knows the direction our lives would have taken? What I do know is that I’ve learned things from you that I never could have gotten from anyone else.”

But enough about the book. The real story here is the book discussion group I attended. The group has been meeting for quite a while, since the early 1990s, although the original founders were not in attendance anymore. The current leader has been attending for fifteen years and the others for close to a decade. It’s a small group, seven in all, not including me, and all seven were senior citizens, they were all women, they were all white. One started napping in the middle of the discussion and another one told me that she’s eighty-four years old. Another one complained about how Vanderbilt revealed too much about herself that she felt uncomfortable and that she finished the book in two days.

The discussion was a form of free association and the women talked about the book, but also about real estate prices in the area, about how the New York Times is secretly infiltrated by Clinton supporters, about how much Gloria Vanderbilt is worth now (“$200 million, I think,” one said. “That’s not a lot,” said another.), about “an Asian librarian” who mispronounced some word which led them to start commenting me on my “excellent English.”

I suppose there isn’t any story here after all. It’s just me meeting a group of new people whose worldview is vastly different from mine and the people I normally talk to. As exotic as I was to them, they were the same to me: they could very well be Fox News viewers and Trump supporters.

But they were also incredibly nice. The group leader held my hands as the meeting ended and insisted, again and again, that I come back. She even got me a library copy of the next book to be discussed, a novel by Anita Shreve. They were all so sweet they kind of broke my heart. (I wonder if that’s revealing too much.)

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