The Scandal of a Filipino Painter

Talk given at a group reading of Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” at the Peak Galleria, Hong Kong, 20 June 2009, and published in the “Sun” newspaper 1 July 2009

Juan Luna’s El Spoliarium, 1884. Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo wrote, “…the fact remains that when Luna and Félix Resurrección Hidalgo won the top awards in the Madrid Exposition of 1884, they proved to the world that indios could, despite their supposed barbarian race, paint better than the Spaniards who colonized them.”

How many of us know about a scandal involving one of our national heroes? Few of our history books tell us about it, but what’s known is that a friend of Jose Rizal’s was involved.

As we know, Rizal’s talents flowered while he was in Europe. His sojourns in Madrid, Paris, Heidelberg and London nurtured his genius. Not only did he master several languages, he was also an accomplished writer, a talented artist, a keen botanist and a fine ophthalmologist.

But he was not, like many geniuses, a self-centered man just promoting himself. He gave moral support to his talented compatriots struggling in Europe. How sad then that his efforts at showing that Filipinos were the equals of the Europeans would come crashing down because of one of his friends.

Recently I read a fascinating book about that friend of Rizal’s who, single-handedly, blackened the reputation of Filipinos in 1892. Historian Alfredo Roces’s book titled “Rage” deals with the lives of Juan and Antonio Luna, and of the mestizo nationalist Trinidad Hermenegildo Pardo de Tavera (known as TH).

One reason I was fascinated by the book is because my mother’s elder sister Pacita had been married to a son of the famous TH. Alfredo Pardo de Tavera was the father of my cousin, the late Mita Pardo de Tavera who served as Social Welfare Secretary during Cory Aquino’s time.

I’d always been awed by my Pardo de Tavera cousins as I had heard vague rumors about some dark secrets in their lives. I never really found out what those secrets were — until I read “Rage.”

At the age of 5, I developed a crush on my cousin Mita, especially after seeing her ballet performance in Ravel’s “Bolero” before the War. Not just that, her mother had hired a Chinese amah from Hong Kong who always dressed in black, cooked like a dream, embroidered the children’s clothes and spoke pidgin Spanish.

Little did I dream then that I’d be living in Hong Kong one day and see so many of my kababayan doing what the Taveras’ amah did in those days.

Hot-headed painter Juan Luna

Roces’ book recounts Juan Luna’s art studies in Madrid and his brother Antonio’s military training. The two brothers took up fencing, and Rizal sometimes joined them in tournaments.

In an l890 issue of the Filipino expatriate publication “La Solidaridad,” a critic wrote: “We applaud sincerely the enthusiasm that the Filipino colony of Madrid has developed for this noble art of fencing. Skill with arms gives the individual moral strength and girds him for society’s battles . . . Filipinos have shown a felicitous aptitude for the use of arms.”

Sad to think that the arms which some of our kababayan today prefer are paltiks and imported guns. If only they’d stuck to fencing!

Juan Luna and Jose Rizal fencing

When Juan Luna painted his masterpiece “El Spoliarium” for Madrid’s Bellas Artes national exposition of 1884, his triumph was the pride of Filipinos everywhere. This is comparable today to our being proud to be Filipino when Manny Pacquiao became boxing champ, Leah Salonga won top musical awards, and Miguel Syjuco claimed Hong Kong’s top literary prize for Asia.

During Juan Luna’s triumph in Madrid, personages like Pedro Paterno and TH Pardo de Tavera urged their compatriots to show their patriotism. Spanish critics were lavish with their praise, calling “Spolarium” “magnificent,” “sublime,” “the most discussed painting of the Exposition,” and much more. The painting was purchased for 20,000 pesetas by the Deputacion Provincial de Barcelona. Today it hangs in Manila’s National Museum.

During the award ceremonies in Madrid, Rizal gave an inspiring speech later published in the newspapers. Writer Wenceslao Retana described Rizal: “The young Filipino physician spoke (at the ceremony), and his likeable manner and thoughtful countenance gripped (the audience) from the very first moment.”

They ran excerpts from his speech: “This is the glorification of genius, the exaltation of the fatherland. Though born in Filipinas, (our artists) might have been born in Spain, for genius has no country. . . “

Juan Luna in his Paris studio

But life in Europe for our expatriate nationalists was not always rosy. Writing in La Solidaridad in 1889, Antonio Luna complained: “My. . . pronounced Malay figure which has attracted extraordinary attention in Barcelona, excited in an outrageous way the curiousity of the children of Madrid. . . . girls and women turn their heads twice . . . to gawk at me and say, in voices loud enough to be heard: ‘Jesus! How hideous! He is Chino! Igorot!’ Everywhere, always that mocking smile combined with the half-haughty, half stupid stare. Often. . . I ask myself whether I live in the capital of a European city.”

Alfredo Roces relates another nasty incident in which Spaniard Celso Mir Deas wrote an article soon after Juan Luna’s artistic triumph. He quoted a racist critic named Francisco Canamaque who had described Filipinos as “immoral savages and mindless apes.”

Mir Deas wrote this in response to a piece he read which he thought Juan Luna had written but which was actually written by Antonio where he had remarked that Filipinos were disillusioned by years of brainwashing by Spain.

Mir Deas quoted Canamaque at length: [quote] “The Filipino’s features (are) always inscrutable. . . his mouth open in a meaningless smile. . . He is lazy from the time he gets up until he goes to sleep. . . . . Is he moral? He’s only concerned with satisfying his appetites.

“Without the remotest idea of honor, ignorant of everything except the blind satisfaction of their appetites. . . . strangers to the laws of honor and honesty, awake only to the brutal sentiments of oriental sensuousness, it is logical that the vast majority of these natives get from the friars and laymen the label of monkeys.

“… (That) despicable maggot, the son of the Ilocos (Juan Luna) . . . makes it a point to reveal that in the heart of the Filipino artist resides a heavy dose of filibusterismo (meaning subversive ideas).

“What would you be had Spain not favored you, (Juan Luna), who would you be if the city of Manila had not supported your studies? (He is). . . . perhaps a savage in fact and spirit”!

Naturally this diatribe not only offended the amor proprio of Filipinos in Spain and elsewhere, it so incensed Antonio Luna that he hunted down the Spaniard and challenged him to a duel. No wonder Filipinos in Europe took up fencing – perhaps in reaction to the racism they faced.

But luckily, the people around the protagonists managed to calm things down and the duel never took place.

Juan Luna’s Portrait of a Lady, once titled Paz Pardo de Tavera (the artist’s wife)

Roces’ account of the tragedy of Juan Luna’s marriage to TH Pardo de Tavera’s sister Paz is gripping. Luna didn’t earn much from his paintings, and had no qualms about accepting money from his mother-in-law who had at first opposed her daughter’s marriage to “an impecunious indio artist.” But TH prevailed on her to accept him, and Juan ended up blithely depending on his mother-in-law for financial support during their stay in Paris.

Eventually, after suspecting his wife of infidelity and subjecting her to beatings, Juan one day succumbed to a jealous rage. He shot Paz as she held their little son Andres, then shot his mother-in-law dead as well. He also wounded his other brother-in-law Felix, TH’s younger brother.

In an article called “La Desgracia del Pintor,” TH was appalled at Juan’s lack of delicadeza when he turned up at the funeral and gave a eulogy about his mother-in-law whom he had shot to death.

But the biggest desgracia of all, in my eyes, was the Paris court’s acquittal of Luna, fining him a mere one Franc in damages. Obviously crimes of passion were tolerated in those macho days where there was little justice for females.

Tampuhan, by Juan Luna

TH Pardo de Tavera said later that the publicity of the trial cast Filipinos in the worst possible light before the entire world. Most of Europe buzzed with the sordid details of the violent domestic crime of the Filipino family residing in Paris. Rizal’s efforts to showcase Filipino talent all went down the drain.

The French paper “El Figaro” commented that:

“The blood running through (Luna’s) veins is Malay. The appearance of this little man with his broken nose, his prominent cheekbones, his coppery complexion, his eyes shaped like a Japanese’s . . . produces a strange . . . . impression.”

How does this differ from what we Filipinos face today? From Hong Kong employers denigrating and abusing our domestics, to columnist Chip Tsao and his “nation of servants” jibe, to actor Alec Baldwin’s joke about seeking a Filipina mail-order bride, the racism continues.

But with a genius like Jose Rizal who showed us and the world that talent indeed has no country, we can ignore those unenlightened folks who forget that we’re all part of the human race.

Jose Rizal, by Juan Luna


Where were you when…

Kananga, Leyte earthquake July 2017

Some people play the game of “Where were you when…” by mentioning a cataclysmic event then going on to describe one’s reaction to it. Friends have asked where I was when JFK was killed, or when Chernobyl had its meltdown, or when New York’s Twin Towers fell. My most recent event was on July 9, while napping at home in Cebu with my cat at my feet. Feeling the bed swaying, I turned to see if she was the cause but she was lying still. Realizing it was a tremor, I went to open my laptop. Phivolcs reported the quake at magnitude 6.5 in Jaro, Leyte, and magnitude 5 in Cebu.

When I learned that the tremor was “seismic,” I looked up how that differs from “tectonic.” The region of the planet where these occur includes certain parts of both hemispheres. Seismic, which I understood to mean up-and-down motion, is explained as the earth’s crust boiling over, rather like rice overflowing on the stove; the sideways motion of a quake is tectonic when underground plates collide horizontally to release gases trapped underneath. I presumed that was what caused Mount Pinatubo to erupt.

Like typhoons, floods, attacks by criminal elements, and earthquakes jolt one into feeling totally helpless — which is how I imagine Mayor Rolando Espinosa felt early in November 2016 when 19 officers of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group broke into the Baybay, Leyte, subprovincial jail to rub him out. In a country where one needs much security to stay alive if one is involved in political shenanigans, life can be precarious.

Another occasion, which wasn’t too surprising (early signs of the impending event were obvious), was in May last year when Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential election. I was crestfallen as I’d hoped Miriam Santiago would survive her cancer and make it to Malacañang.

Later that year, on Nov. 18, I was in Cebu grinding my teeth so hard I must have worn off much dental enamel after learning about the hastily arranged hero’s burial of the long-refrigerated remains of Ferdinand Marcos.

The Inquirer, on Nov. 9 last year, ran the headline that said it all for me: “OMG! It’s Trump!” The news that that cretinous candidate won the US presidential election caused me more gnashing of teeth as well as tearing of hair.

Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997, was particularly painful for me as my back was killing me (I was working in the territory). A day later my orthopedic surgeon performed a laminectomy on my spine, allowing me to walk again four months later.

Stopping my English class in Hong Kong on June 14, 1989, we watched the crowds marching to protest the Tiananmen massacre, demanding real freedom for China and the territory.

I listened, full of rage in Hong Kong, to radio, watched TV and read about Ninoy Aquino’s assassination on Aug. 21, 1983, muttering Cebuano gaba (curses) on the Marcoses.

Time stood still for me in September 1981 when I was with my husband Antonio Escoda at Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York, where he succumbed to cancer. Tony was assigned to head the Associated Press bureau in Bangkok, where I was stunned to read about JFK’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963.

The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba on Aug. 11, 1961, but I didn’t much care as I was busy delivering my second daughter Tina in Manila.

When Fidel Castro established his dictatorship in Cuba on Nov. 4, 1959, I was engrossed in delivering my first daughter Carla in Manila.

I read vaguely about the Hungarian Revolution, but I was too excited about my wedding to Tony Escoda in Manila on Oct. 16, 1956.

This backward timeline shows I’ve lived long enough to have witnessed cataclysmic historical events, which I hope won’t include too many earthquakes!

This piece originally appeared in the Philippine Inquirer on July 13 2017

Imperialist Beauty Standards Rule in the Philippines

Rachel Peters crowned Miss Universe Philippines 2017

Once again Western standards of beauty are on display in Asia, with beauty contest officials inevitably picking a mestiza to be Miss Universe Philippines 2017. Rachel Peters’ father is British, her mother a Filipina.  Last year’s Miss Universe was Pia Wurtzbach, who had a German father. A former Miss Cebu, Raine Baljac, had a Croat father. Megan Lynne Young, a Filipino-American, was crowned Miss World in 2013. There have been precious few pure Filipina finalists in any recent beauty contests in the country.

Obviously Filipino women who gave birth to those contestants, to name a few among many, either traveled around the world where they met their partners, or foreign men were the ones who had gone to the Philippines. The fascination, even obsession, with Western standards of beauty dates back to the former western colonials which relegated the indigenous population to a lower social stratum.  Analysts of colonialism have pointed to the socio-cultural problems which arise from that.  But in developing countries like the Philippines, mestizos tend to be admired.

Some countries view such minorities either with contempt or a tinge of admiration.  In colonial India, the offspring of Britons who married the natives were labelled “half caste,” “Anglo-Indian” or “Eurasian,” among others.  (In Africa there were the Creoles or Mulattoes.)  The mixed-race actress, Merle Oberon whose exoticism took her to the Hollywood zenith in the 1930s and 1940s, was born in India but claimed she was born in Tasmania, a secret she kept till her death.

It was former US President Barack Obama who spelled things out clearly when he described himself in an interview as a “mutt” soon after he was elected in 2008 as the media were digging into his antecedents. Curiously, he chose to call one of his biographical pre-election books “Dreams from My Father.” This may have been to highlight the racism that pervades much of American society towards what were first called “negroes,” then “colored folks” and finally “blacks.”  The era of miscegenation lasted centuries, when marriages between white and black couples were often ostracized.

Even though Obama had a white mother, which makes him only half black, that tended to be overlooked by racists whose attitudes are deeply entrenched in America’s social, cultural and political life.  Tales whipped up by the present President Donald Trump about Obama having been born in his father’s country, Kenya, festered in the minds of a segment of Americans who hated the thought of America having a black president. The Texan husband of a close relative of mine told me when Obama ran in his first presidential campaign: “I don’t want no nigger in the White House!”

Diluting the “pure”

The early waves of migration throughout the world from China, India and the Middle East served to “dilute” those races which wished to keep themselves “pure,” as it were.  Those considered beyond the pale were seen as mongrels.

Today’s ease of jet travel encourages the itinerant nature of different races moving from their birthplaces to various corners of the globe. The mixed marriages that take place have produced progeny that populates today’s multi-racial world.

Mestiza product

I’m the product of such a phenomenon. My grandfather hailed from Tennessee and joined the army during the time of America’s only colonial adventure. He was stationed in Cebu, the central region of the Philippines, where he met a local teenager who spoke only Cebuano and Spanish (learned from the Spanish colonials who occupied the Philippines for over 300 years). The Americans did not rule by the cross and the sword like Spain had when they took over as the new colonials although they ultimately prosecuted an ugly repression. But they also brought over the English language, education and technology, making native nationalists, later called their compatriots “little brown Americans,” who allowed the new rulers to exploit the country.

My Cebuana grandmother, who learned pidgin English from her foreign husband, produced 10 children who naturally became part of the mestizo class. My father, being the eldest, obtained an engineering degree from a top Manila university, which qualified him to run a cement plant in his mother’s birthplace, where I myself was born in the last century.

Growing up as the child of mestizo parents (my mother had a Spanish father) made me realize I was a bit different from some of my friends. My yaya (nanny) would sometimes tell me I was lucky because I had a straight nose, not a flat one like hers and most others’.  She made me feel glad of this fact, which I later realized was just a colonial hang-over.

Whiteners, colonial hangovers

For decades, pharmacies throughout the archipelago promote “whitening” creams and light-colored hair dyes that are snapped up by women (and men) wishing to emulate western celebrities. Those are also colonial hangovers epitomized by Hollywood, but many among the general mass of people continue to derive satisfaction from aping current trends.

There is a larger infusion of Chinese blood in Thailand than elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but fair skin is treasured by women in China, and especially Hong Kong where beauty salons advertise procedures that give women  wide Western-type eyes with double eyelids.

Cookies from the cutters

Much has changed around the world today, with nationalist pride flourishing in even the smallest nations.  A country like the Philippines, which attaches “world class” to even minor victories and glories in a prize-winning pugilist, has fielded the most Westernized-looking models in beauty contests so as to join the big league. The belief is that “kayumanggi” (brown-skinned) girls wouldn’t make the grade. Mestizas, of which there are countless numbers in the Philippines and Latin America, will go on being “cookie-cutter” Western types aspiring to reach the top of the beauty pile. Rachel Peters is the latest example. She won’t be the last.

This piece originally ran in the Asia Sentinel on May 9 2017.

What’s in a Name?


Christine Mae Calima (5th from right) with her comrades in the 2016 graduating class of the Philippine Military Academy

Who are Pia Wurtzbach, Cherrypie Picache, Empress Schuck, and Christine Mae Calima? The first is a no-brainer; all Filipinos know she’s last year’s Miss Universe, and the celebrity culture has always been alive and well in this country.

Sober or bizarre, one’s name is one’s most treasured possession. When I once took the course of Teaching English as a Second Language for Hong Kong students, I learned a riddle for young learners: “What belongs to you but other people use it more than yourself?” It was a real puzzler, and when they were told the answer, “Your name,” everyone said, “Of course!”

One’s name is truly one’s brand. Nowadays name recognition is very important because it upholds one’s individualism, especially among egotists (for example, Donald Trump). Notorious celebrities and eminent personages are instantly recognizable. Making a name for oneself drives many humans forward.

Today’s pervasive media which foster the celebrity culture means that Pia Wurtzbach’s name is better known around the archipelago than Christine Mae Calima’s. This is because the latter has barely had publicity despite her fine achievement at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), where she placed second in the 2016 graduating class.

It may be natural for a country like the Philippines that struggles with its lopsided economy to be fixated on beauty contests because these provide dreams of celebrity for many folks faced with the daily struggle to survive. Doubtless, Filipino beauty queens, even those with foreign fathers, make many of us believe that our pretty women put the country “on the map,” as was said of Imelda Marcos in her heyday. People who feel the nation lacks real champions feel a sense of national pride, which is why boxer Manny Pacquiao is seen as a hero despite his many flaws.

Sadly, not much attention has been paid to Miss Calima, whose life seems to have been dedicated mainly to her studies. While the media focused on the winners of various Miss Universe pageants, half-German Pia Wurtzbach was hailed like a conquering hero. But no one praised a young Pangasinan girl for her academic and military achievements.

Because Miss Wurtzbach is leggy and busty (something unknown in our society’s early Maria Clara days), her triumph has been viewed as a great achievement. The media binged on her long “struggle” to learn the ropes of modeling, high fashion and cosmetology, and the overblown prose over every bit of trivia in a Filipino woman’s reaching the apex of Hollywood perfection highlights the usual emphasis on the Western concepts of beauty, to the detriment of Asians. It showed the Filipino penchant for popular entertainment, beside which serious academic achievement pales.

In her few media interviews, Miss Calima was reported as long having hankered to enter the PMA and having consistently earned top marks in her early studies. Placing second in the PMA’s graduating class was no mean feat for the determined young lady.

Interestingly, one of Miss Calima’s colleagues in the lineup of top graduates (who placed fourth) proudly bears the name of Joseph Stalin Fagsao, whose father thought that Russian dictator was “a great leader.” Indeed, other Filipinos sport equally extraordinary names: One of Pacquiao’s daughters was christened Queen Elizabeth, a Cebu reporter goes by the name of Princess Dawn Felicitas, and then there’s a Davao newspaper columnist named Mussolini Lidasan. For a country that has elected officials like Vice President Jejomar (Jesus/Joseph/Mary) Binay to high office, this is perfectly normal.

It’s nice to have a sober name like Christine Mae as a role model in a society awash in names like Bongbong, Dingdong, Jocjoc and other colorful monikers. It shows that Filipinos shun the drab and don’t mind the absurd because it makes them stand out among the crowd of plebeians.

– This op-ed originally appeared in the Philippine Inquirer on Feb. 5, 2017 –

Crooning on the cross in 2017


The crucifixion scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian


The past year has been a messy muddle for masochists who seemed to revel in it, but we really should stop fretting about what’s in store for the new year. Worrying about what 2017 will bring, thinking it’s the end of life as we’ve known it, won’t get us anywhere.

Let me hark back to the time at the turn of the century when 1999 was ending and folks worried that clocks would stop, nothing would function, and the planet would be in chaos. I was working in Berkeley, California, then (my favorite place in the United States which some people unkindly call “Berzerkley”), and I’d go to an internet café to check my e-mail. The place was run by savvy young Indians, and when I voiced my alarm over reports of impending doom predicted by the naysayers—social media was still not rampant then even though the bright boys some miles down in Silicon Valley were tweaking their techie talents—I was told by the young proprietor, “Don’t worry, we Indians have got things under control. Clocks will keep ticking and everything else will function smoothly as always.”

He said it with such confidence that I was reassured. True enough, when I woke up as Jan. 1, 2000, dawned with the arrival of the new millennium, there were no cataclysmic results. The worst that happened was many folks wasting paper by still writing “1999” instead of “2000.”

Today, when so many worriers are gnawing at their nails about the end of history, with some even contemplating suicide, let me dispense a term of Teutonic wisdom: “Vergangenheitsbewaltigung!” It’s several German words rolled into one that means, more or less, struggling to overcome past traumas. It may have been Nietzsche who intoned that portentous term, but whoever the wise guy was who coined it certainly nailed it.

We’ve had a train of traumas to last us till the next millennium, but as in that wonderful ditty “Look on the bright side!” sung by Brian as he hung on the cross on Calvary alongside a couple of thieves beside Jesus Christ, we really should try to be optimistic. (For those born yesterday, the scene was in the British film “The Life of Brian” by the Monty Python gang.)

Meanwhile in our benighted nation, we have had such a heap of hard knocks, thanks to our new fork-tongued leader who keeps his subjects on tenterhooks with his blowtorch babble, that we tend to forget the equally benighted Americans who are themselves experiencing dreadful ructions under an even more obnoxious oaf soon to occupy the Oval Office.

It’s a dismal state of affairs for humankind, but we ought to view it, like the cheery Brian, as a comedy for citizens crooning on their crosses.

– This op-ed originally appeared in the Philippine Inquirer on Feb. 5, 2017 –

A Numbered Life

Chi Ma Wan prison on Lantau Island, Hong Kong

Chi Ma Wan prison on Lantau Island, Hong Kong

It can be pretty jarring to find, one day, that you’ve lost your name in Hong Kong and will henceforth be known as “Sam-ling-yat-yat-lok-pak.” That’s what happened to Nida Naturan (not her real name) when she wound up at the Chimawan Correctional Institution on Lantau Island not too long ago. She was told she would be identified as #301168 while serving her six-month sentence.

Having steeled herself ever since she finally decided to turn herself in to the Immigration Department, Nida, accompanied by two weepy friends, was fully prepared to face her ordeal. After all she’d stayed in Hong Kong for 12 years with an expired visa and passport, surreptitiously working at parttime jobs while lying low and ducking the police. That was after her Chinese employers suddenly emigrated to Canada and left her with just two weeks in which to find a new job. But she dithered and wasted time haggling with various employment agencies over their placement fees which, in this hard-nosed town, range from HK$8,000 to $12,000.  In the meantime her savings and three different house-cleaning jobs were only enough to cover her meals and a bunk-bed at a Sheung Wan boardinghouse, so she decided to tough it out and live underground in Asia’s World City, as Hong Kong styles itself.

Once she surrendered herself at the Immigration Department in Kowloon Bay, Nida expected to be subjected to stern grilling, as well as a lot of finger-wagging – which is what happens to lawbreakers in her home country. Instead she found that Hong Kong officials are not just dispassionate, they’re coolly efficient. She couldn’t believe they didn’t look angry and even seemed bored by her tale of woe (perhaps, she thought, because they’re used to dealing with many other over-stayers).

When she approached the counter and greeted the official there, he asked “What’s your problem?” So she told him. He took down her personal details in a deadpan manner and asked “Why did you overstay for 12 years?” She replied, “Because I needed to earn money for my sick father” (which was true).

The man scribbled some more, then gave her an official-looking piece of paper and told her to report back the following week. She looked at him incredulously because where she hails from, anyone not jailed immediately after confessing to a crime or misdemeanor and told to return in a week would be gone with the wind. That’s easy to do in a country with lots of islands one can hide in (officially numbered as 7,107) but not likely in Hong Kong (which only has 235, most of them uninhabitable).

Nida had fully expected to be fined and deported forthwith, so ending up in prison the following week after she reported back was pretty shocking. She was detained for two days at the Tai Lam Women’s Remand Centre where, to her bewilderment, she was examined vaginally — later she remembered hearing that some of her compatriots arrested over the years had had their private parts probed for drugs, the sort of smuggling of which she would never dream of doing. Then she was taken to the Shatin Magistracy where she was stunned to hear her sentence pronounced — “Six months’ detention for breach of condition of stay.”

When she was put on board a police launch at a Kowloon pier, along with a dozen other Southeast Asian women, Nida learned that they were headed for a Lantau Island prison. Once there, their bags were confiscated and they were shown the dormitory, their assigned bunks and daily work schedules; they were given baggy brown checkered prison outfits and small packets of toiletries. And Nida was given the numbers that were to be her name from then on.

The jail at Chimawan Bay is on two levels – a lower bunker for inmates like Nida whose sentences are for five years and under, and a higher one for more serious offenders. Not too long ago Vietnamese refugees were housed in the buildings. Now used as a women’s detention centre, the correctional institution is overseen by all-female Hong Kong officials and staff. The only males calling in at various intervals are the Chinese and Vietnamese pastors who appear each Sunday to minister to those wishing Christian services, and the psychologist who assesses each inmate’s state of mind periodically.

Nida’s tale of woe is the time-worn migrant worker’s story. Born in a poor country which exports its women so as to keep its economy afloat, she was just another statistic, a victim of her nation’s corrupt government.  For decades, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India have turned their female population into export commodities to generate income for their graft-ridden governments. Hence the phrase “the commodification of women” often used by feminist sociologists studying migrant worker patterns.

A couple of years ago the Philippines earned some $283 billion in remittances from its migrant workers who are now estimated to total about l0 million (some 70 percent of them female) in various parts of the world. Their remittances have contributed to roughly 14 percent of the country’s GDP growth – fourth in the world next to India, Mexico and China. The figure is higher today.

The magic word “remittance” is cherished not just by the remitters’ relatives but by their governments.  But economists point out that such income, being temporary, is not the solution to any developing nation’s chronic economic problems. That’s because only a small portion of those funds is used for investments; instead the money goes mainly into consumer spending. This is what has fueled years of consumption-led growth in the poor countries.

The situation in the Philippines is reflected in the other countries whose women toil abroad — dependents at home expect their wives, mothers, sisters and aunts to provide them, not just with the basic things in life, but with coveted high-end items as well. The money sent is meant mainly for food, rent, school tuition and clothing, and offspring are often showered with the latest electronic games, toys, gimmicks and foodstuff by guilty mothers trying to make amends for their absence. And there are, along the dependent chain, siblings who likewise expect to have their studies financed, jobless brothers and male cousins expecting hand-outs, as well as ageing parents needing medical care – all members of the traditional Asian extended families. One result of this dependency is that too many able-bodied male relatives feel no incentive to work, knowing that those precious remittances arrive regularly to cover their necessities like cigarettes, beer, lottery tickets and cockpit charges.

Inevitably, many fractured families result among the women abroad acquiring new, often foreign, mates (divorce is not recognized in Catholic Philippines). The lucky ones find well-off Western men seeking pliant Asian partners, while the unlucky ones resort to seeking domestic employment for their children, thus keeping the poverty cycle going. Meanwhile the males back home further ignite the population explosion by acquiring new mates and producing more children. It’s an old story replicated in many developing countries.

The unlucky women who, like Nida, overstay their visas or commit minor crimes face similar jail experiences like hers. The numbers fluctuate. As of January 2010, there were 122 Filipinos in Hong Kong prisons, 98 of them female. As for the Indonesians, who have now outnumbered the Filipinos, 177 women and 33 men are currently serving sentences for various misdemeanors.

Luckless women who overstay abroad tend to rely on a network of friends, NGOs and some religious sects to bail them out of sticky situations. But Nida, before her incarceration, had met a divorced British businessman in a Wanchai bar who was in the market for an exotic Asian woman. He found one in the vivacious Nida. After a few dates and after learning of her sad situation, he urged her to turn herself in to the authorities, promising to see her through her ordeal, which he did. He visited her at the jail each weekend, and when she was released four months later for good behaviour (hair all grey since dyes are banned in prison), he flew with her to her home country where they had a quiet church wedding before he had to return to his job in Hong Kong.

A year later, Nida’s knight in shining armor arranged to bring her back to the territory where they now live happily ever after. That was easily accomplished, once she’d acquired a new married name and passport – one that no longer bore the numbers “Sam-ling-yat-yat-lok-pak.”

– Originally featured in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, Dec. 20, 2009 with the headline “Nida’s Tale of Woe and Redemption” –

Is the American Dream now a Nightmare?


Cover art for Harper's Magazine (Feb. 2017 ed.) by Steve Brodner

Cover art for Harper’s Magazine (Feb. 2017 ed.) by Steve Brodner

In contrast with the protests that erupted in major US cities after Donald Trump’s election, I recall how it was when George W. Bush won the US presidency in 2000. Working then in Berkeley, California, I noted gloomy reactions among folks of that liberal city. But there was an underlying civility which didn’t burst into noisy protests, as has happened over the Trump victory.

In 2000 the standoff between Bush and Al Gore lasted for some days, when the US Supreme Court ordered a preliminary halt to the Florida canvassing. Thousands were furious at the injustice toward Gore (who won the popular vote) because the irregularities gave Bush the lead. The recount, which was done manually, was ordered because of glitches in the new voting machines.  It was a suspenseful time, with legal experts defending Bush and Gore supporters accusing Florida officials of disenfranchising black voters in some counties.

After extended deliberations by the divided Supreme Court, Gore conceded as a prolonged delay would have torn the nation apart. The result was a general acceptance, amid grumbling on one side and jubilation on the other. The controversy lingers today. Some speculate that if the knowledgeable Gore had won, instead of the political tyro Bush (whose main qualification was his link with a Texas dynasty), there might not have been the fiasco over Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, the financial crisis and others.

I was living in Hong Kong when Barack Obama won the US presidency in 2008, and the general jubilation, not just in America but around the world, was thrilling. Although some Americans derided Sweden’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama, the act was generally hailed. This, despite his not having accomplished much yet (besides becoming the first elected black president of the United States), the reason for which the prize is granted. He inspired countless people with his intelligence, eloquence and grace, after the sorry Bush years, and made us feel it was a well-deserved award.

The racism toward Obama is different from the hatred for President John F. Kennedy, which ended with his assassination in 1963.  A number of Americans were leery of JFK because he was Catholic; they feared he’d act according to his religion on vital issues like birth control.  But he firmly declared he believed in the US constitution which mandates the separation of church and state.

My husband, since deceased, was then with The Associated Press in Bangkok, and I recall seeing the shocking report in his office wires of cheering that erupted in a school in Texas when Kennedy was killed.

Analyses of Trump’s victory include the fact that US demographics have changed drastically. White people are gradually being eclipsed by immigrants from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, fueling much resentment. The economy, which Obama inherited from Bush, has also been wrongly blamed on his watch and thought to continue if Hillary Clinton were elected. Criticisms of her were used to whip up support for Trump.

Like our President Duterte’s use of foul language, demeaning of women, threats to kill miscreants, and insults toward the West, Trump’s personal nastiness has made no difference to his fans. That he has been thrice married, insults women, knows little about the outside world, and has refused to show his tax returns, also lost him no fans.

Social media during Obama’s campaign was even more weaponized during Trump’s. It succeeded in penetrating the electorate, stoking grievances toward the establishment and promoting hatred toward Clinton.  By shunning her, Americans missed their chance to have their first female president who has vast experience and knowledge of the world.  Much of the opposition showed pure misogyny.

Someone has quipped that a test of genuine American democracy would be if a disabled black Jewish woman were elected president.

But has the American dream turned into a nightmare? Seeing that many still want to emigrate to that country, it seems not.

– This op-ed originally appeared in the Philippine Inquirer on Nov. 15, 2016. –

The Smile That Lingers

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attend a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Lima, Peru, November 19, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev via REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attend a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Lima, Peru, November 19, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev via REUTERS

We all know what it’s like to fall in love, even from a distance. For some, seeing the idolized one in the flesh can be thrilling. And so it was that RRD, the brown leader of a small warm country, told his people about his meeting with VP, the white leader of the large frozen continent on the other side of the globe. The smitten RRD reported that the former commissar was “already a friend” because he had smiled at him. “It’s very seldom that he smiles, but every time we shook hands, he smiled at me,” RRD explained. Having been bestowed a sunny look by someone who ordinarily frowns and makes his enemies quake in their boots, this was no mean achievement.

Today, even as American politicians of both parties are calling for a probe into reports that VP had a hand in the US election, enabling orange-topped DT to win over his opponent, RRD is not fazed as he’s still in a daze over VP’s smile that lingers above him like the Cheshire cat’s.

This brings to mind GWB, that other paleface from the opposite continent who had claimed there were WMDs in the land of veiled women. He, too, had met the usually taciturn VP and declared that “I looked him in the eye … and was able to get a sense of his soul.” Few people, it seems, who meet VP are immune from those cossack eyes!

RRD also said VP had promised to help his poor country by buying tropical fruits and native gewgaws and, in exchange, would sell him some modern blowtorches, slingshots and stuff. That display of largesse overwhelmed RRD, who declared that he would no longer accept second-hand exterminators from his old enemy BHO who was prone to nag him for his policy of rubbing out the creatures feeding on weeds in the streets.  Instead he’d buy such things from his “new friend who has plenty of them… As a matter of fact, he is selling them: buy one, take one.”

This display of hubris differed somewhat from what the little leader said in a TV interview overseas. He had announced then that “I’m not ready for a military alliance” but wanted to cooperate with his “new friends.” The alliance was not just with VP’s country but also with the one located closer to his little country, the one led by the enigmatic XJP who had made his octopuses spread their tentacles over RRD’s land but kindly allowed the native squid to fish and frolic in the surrounding waters.

Hearing the wondrous things RRD had done in his travels made his people marvel at his words, with some comparing him to that girl in the film some years back who was able to rotate her head in all directions while a priest kept frantically sprinkling holy water on her.

The glowing reports made the warm country even warmer, but it suddenly got really hot when one of his idols, who had expired years ago, decided he would rise from the grave and plant himself in the national pantheon, propped up along his way by mournful-looking zombies who looked like him, backed by some skittish soldiers.

This produced ranting in the streets by the furious fringe. They got more agitated when RRD suddenly changed the locks of his exclusive establishment to bar his supposed partner, the lady LR. She had been hanging around its edges all this time, so she sent a note saying she was tired of being dangled like a rag doll and would go off to do her own thing.

And so RRD finally became the master of his fate and the captain of his soul, like he’d always wanted.  Whether he lives happily ever after is unknown.

– This op-ed originally ran in the Philippine Inquirer on Dec. 22, 2016. –

Say Sorry, Du30

(Letter to the Editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 16, 2016)

THE AGENCE France Presse report on the front page of the Inquirer’s May 13 issue declares that “Rody plans to visit Vatican to say sorry to Pope Francis.”


I have one question: Does our new President also plan to visit Canberra to offer his apology to the Australians for the outrageously vile remark he made about the gang-rape and murder of one of their citizens, a female missionary who had been visiting the Davao City Jail?

The hasty apology he made soon after making that remark “to all our women” did not include the foreign victim. Since the Philippines has diplomatic relations with Australia and is the recipient of aid from that country, surely the civilized way would be for our new leader to clearly spell out his remorse and sorrow about that carelessly dreadful remark.

An online culture of larceny

Whatever happened to Onel de Guzman? Could he possibly be Paul Biteng’s role model?


De Guzman is the hacker who spawned the “Love Bug” in 2000, a computer virus that caused an estimated $10 billion in damage as it disabled computers globally, including in institutions like the Pentagon and the British Parliament. It prompted the Philippine government to pass an antihacking bill which was introduced by then Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. and which would subject violators to imprisonment. But the law was apparently toothless and 24-year-old De Guzman went scot-free, aided by a wily lawyer named Rolando Quimbo.

Will today’s hacker, Biteng, also get off without punishment even after having caused a massive data leak in the Commission on Elections’ website, because his crime (or misdemeanor) wasn’t aimed at global institutions? Today, as in 2000, the online culture remains the same in a country which the New York Times then described as having a “…kind of subculture of proletarian larceny … where the gap between rich and poor is enormous, [so] poor Filipinos commonly tap into everything from power lines to cable television.”

The newspaper added: “The Business Software Alliance, a US trade group fighting software piracy, estimated that about 77 percent of the software used in the Philippines is pirated.”

In that May 2000 report on De Guzman, the New York Times wrote that his “‘Love Bug’ that brought some of the world’s most sophisticated computer networks to a halt this month was hatched in a noisy inner-city neighborhood where residents live under corrugated steel roofs and raise fighting cocks in their front yards.”

The report quoted him as saying that he may have inadvertently unleashed the virus while harvesting subscribers’ passwords, and declaring that he believed Internet access should be free since having to pay for its use was “immoral.”

Describing the Philippines as having an “enormous” gap between rich and poor, the newspaper cited the hacking incident as having exposed “an embarrassing advertisement of the Philippines’ programming talent and infant dotcom scene… .”  It described how Manila investigators homed in on De Guzman’s shared accommodation and found 13 encrypted disks and six cell phones.

The Associated Press photograph accompanying the report showed De Guzman’s neighbors and a scrawny dog amid a litter of rubber flip-flop slippers and cooking pots outside his front door while police questioned him inside. Another photo was of De Guzman in shades beside a page from his term paper where he stated: “The researcher decided to develop this program because he believes it will be helpful to a lot of people especially Internet users to get Windows passwords such as accounts to spend more time on Internet without paying.”  Over it his instructor wrote in ink: “This is illegal!”

De Guzman continued in his term paper: “The importance of the study is to help other people most especially Windows users… . When we connect to the Internet we are spending time and lots of money to pay for only using a couple of hours.  So this program is the main solution, use it to steal and retrieve Internet accounts of the victim’s computer.”  The instructor underlined “to steal” and wrote: “We do not produce ‘burglars’!”

Manila detective Efren Meneses told the New York Times that the case was too convoluted and that he’d rather take on “armed terrorists in a dark alley” than hackers on the Internet.  And one of De Guzman’s classmates at their computer college commented on his friend’s act: “It’s a cool thing, and I respect it.”

Fast-forward to Biteng telling the Inquirer in an interview that he meant “to give voice to the voiceless” even though, he said, he had not meant to penetrate the Comelec website. Describing last March 18 as a “boring” day at his parents’ house in Sampaloc, Manila, the 23-year-old information technology graduate had been playing his usual online games when he decided to hack the Comelec database. Two days later he shared the codes with fellow hackers; a week later the voters’ data were leaked.

The implications of that breach also worried banks and the monetary authority, since more than voters’ data could also be released.

Of his arrest, Biteng made the illogical statement: “I’m not an ordinary criminal. I’m just a cybercriminal.”  After agents of the National Bureau of Investigation took him in custody on April 20, criminal charges were filed against him at the Manila City Prosecutor’s Office.  He remains detained and is surely contemplating his handiwork—whether with regret or pride, one cannot tell. His friends may consider him a kind of hero —as friends of De Guzman did 16 years ago.

Whether the government will try to patch up its creaky communications reputation and make antihacking legislation stick this time are imponderables. Antihacking legislation seems not to have featured in the election campaign, but all will depend on the new administration after May 9.


This opinion piece originally appeared in the Philippine Inquirer on April 27, 2016.