Enterpreneurial Filipinas in Hong Kong: from nannies to businesswomen

Photo: Aira Conan

Photo: Aira Conan

If Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mohammad Yunus met Nympha, Girly, Delia and Gigi, he would surely be impressed. That Bangladeshi economist who founded the Grameen Bank some years ago to provide small loans to impoverished women in his country should meet these four enterprising Filipinas who have shops in Mui Wo on Lantau.

The four ladies first came to Hong Kong to work as domestics. Today they’re running their own shops, catering not just to their compatriots but also to local Hongkongers and foreign residents. Their stores carry native Philippine foodstuffs and a variety of tinned goods, breakfast cereals, snacks, ice cream, soft drinks and gift items.

Nympha, who hails from the province of Nueva Ecija in central Luzon, opened her shop in 2007 and called it “RY Pilipino Store” (the initials stand for her daughter’s name, Roxanne Yaneza). Filipinos around Lantau know Nympha’s place as the premier “sari-sari” (Tagalog for miscellany) where one finds not just native foodstuffs but also beauty products, woven mats, hats and brooms. Besides offering cooked food in her shop, Nympha has a monitor that shows Filipino films and a PC available for rental by the hour. With goods stacked higgledy-piggledy almost up to the ceiling, she runs a thriving business not far from the Mui Wo ferry pier.

Girly is from Isabela province in northern Luzon and first arrived in Hong Kong 14 years ago to work for a Chinese family. Some years later she met a Pakistani underwriter who became her husband and they now have two boys. Her “Island Store” is located on the ground floor of the Chan Shi Sau Memorial Social Centre by the Mui Wo children’s park. Besides selling Philippine items, she offers Pakistani foodstuffs, fabrics and trinkets. Cardboard “balikbayan” (return to the country) boxes are available in her shop, as in Nympha’s, for use by domestic helpers to send Hong Kong goods to the folks at home. Freight companies based in World Wide House, which offer “door-to-door” service, forward the boxes.

The “Eurasia Trading” store, right behind the China Bear restaurant that overlooks the bay, is run by Delia who hails from the resort city of Baguio. She started out selling the usual native products but has lately diversified – she now offers wood carvings, bags and trinkets from her province to attract both local folks and foreign tourists. She came to Hong Kong in 1990 to do domestic work and met her Scottish husband a few years later.

The newest entrepreneur is Gigi, whose “Mega Asian Products” is right behind the Mui Wo market. She arrived in Hong Kong in 1995 from Pangasinan province to do domestic work and later married a Briton, now retired. With her children all grown and working at various professions, she decided to set up her shop which sells the same things as those of her three competitors. Her compatriots flock to her place to savour special native dishes like braised banana hearts and stewed fresh hearts of palm.

All four women set up their small businesses by investing their savings. But in today’s economic climate, they share the common problem of spiraling rents. Breaking even is a constant struggle, with the threat of arbitrary rent increases hanging over their heads. With no MBAs to their names, the women have learned what it’s like to maintain a small business.

Historically, Filipino women were the first to arrive in Hong Kong in the late 1970s to work as domestic helpers, back when the territory was still a British colony. The fact that they know English (the Philippines having once been a US colony) resulted in their becoming the largest expatriate community in the territory. In the late 1990s, Indonesian women began catching up with the Filipinas – their main advantage being a knowledge of Cantonese since their government puts them through intensive language classes before shipping them out. The Jakarta government apparently took a leaf from the Manila authorities’ experience of propping up the Philippine economy through their migrant workers’ remittances.

In 2012, Filipino migrant workers remitted close to US$24 billion to the home country. Though economists contend that countries which export their citizens do not provide the ideal solution to the problem of unemployment at home, the migrating waves continue.

The matter of Hong Kong’s exploitation of its domestic helper population was recently spelled out by South China Morning Post columnist Alex Lo, who wrote that the territory’s practice of labour importation is a “regressive one, with a corrosive effect on local parenting, family and society.” He pointed out that keeping over 300,000 migrant women as a “permanent underclass” benefits no-one, labelling such exploitation a “zero-sum game” and adding: “We may think we get a good deal exploiting other people’s cheap labour. But in the end, everyone pays for such a regressive and slavish system.” And he rightly castigates the Philippine and Indonesian governments for “not getting their acts together so their economies would provide more rewarding jobs for their women.”

Indeed, until better conditions prevail in their home country, the Filipinas who venture abroad will continue to bear the burden of helping their families survive. But a few of them may be as lucky as Nympha, Girly, Delia and Gigi who have graduated from domestic work to become their own bosses.

– This article originally appeared in Life on Lantau on September 21st, 2013. –


Mistrust: Hongkongers battle China as Filipino workers vote overseas

Filipino community leaders in Hong Kong leading the drive for Overseas Absentee Voting (OAV) have been finding more apathy than enthusiasm for the political exercise these days. Unlike in 2004 when the OAV was initiated, where registration and voting were enthusiastic, there is a general disillusionment today among overseas Filipino workers.  The “walang nagbago (nothing has changed)” attitude prevails, with migrant workers feeling that their concerns have not been met by the Aquino administration, which most of them had backed.

The 2013 midterm elections seem irrelevant for many, more so after learning that some members of the Ampatuan clan are running under President Aquino’s Liberal Party. With the 2009 massacre case dragging in court and three witnesses for the prosecution assassinated, the outrage that the culture of impunity still remains has deepened. Hope for justice for the deaths of 58 people including media workers and private citizens continues to fade. And even though the much admired bachelor President has kept his promise to combat corruption by having former President Gloria Arroyo indicted, his reported refusal to heed doctors’ calls to shed his tobacco habit makes him less admirable to his kababayan seeking a role model. In fact, it seems that Psy of Gangnam Style fame is more of an inspiration to ever-cheerful Pinoys abroad.

What’s been equally interesting for the OFWs is watching the citizens of Hong Kong embroiled in a political struggle entirely different from that in Manila. Hongkongers today have been vocally resentful of their motherland’s tightening its grip over this enclave. The peculiar arrangement made for the territory after the 1997 colonial handover by Britain—whereby Hong Kong continues with the status quo for 50 years in a policy called “One country, two systems”—has produced a number of controversies about the limits of its freedoms. The main one involved the new administration’s attempt to impose a “National Education” subject into the school curriculum, which was seen as a kind of communist brainwashing of students. The political scene today is so dysfunctional, Hong Kong may go the way of Taiwan where the majority want autonomy for their island-state.

The protests denouncing Beijing’s perceived interference in Hong Kong affairs has resulted in some factions brandishing the old colonial flag during their rallies. The organizers claim they’re not calling for independence or a return of the British, just true autonomy. This prompted a Beijing official to label the protesters “sheer morons,” with another warning that the movement may be “spreading like a virus.”

By comparison, Pinoys may feel justifiable pride at being the first nation to gain its independence in Asia, but it’s a tattered type of hubris, with the profound dissatisfaction over the country’s political and economic elite. But even when the future doesn’t look particularly rosy for the OFWs, they, unlike those Hongkongers feeling nostalgic for British rule, do not hanker for the days of American colonialism. There may be many with emigrant relatives in the United States who hope to join the diaspora, but that aspiration remains low. Today’s OFWs view Canada as a more hospitable host-nation (as well as Australia and Europe where many Pinays link up with Western men seeking pliant Asian mates). The American Dream no longer seems to loom as large for Pinoys—unlike, say, that time when a movement called “Philippine Statehood USA” claimed to have seven million members pushing to join the Union. At the time many thought of those as a lunatic fringe.

In Hong Kong the feeling against China was articulated by Dickson Cheung, who said, “We’re Hongkongians, not Chinese.” He even set up a Facebook page for his movement and was quoted in the South China Morning Post as calling for Chinese tourists to be banned from the city for “disturbing much of our order and culture.”  He wants all exchanges with the mainland cut off, reflecting his members’ mistrust of Beijing for having reneged on its promise to grant the territory universal suffrage. Other gripes include China’s refusal to acknowledge the Tiananmen massacre.  Cheung capped his manifesto by saying Hong Kong’s economy “won’t suffer because it is a city that faces the whole world, not the so-called motherland.”

There may be no outside power subverting Philippine sovereignty, but China’s territorial aims are more of a danger than the traces of a colonial hangup vis-à-vis the United States.  The disenchantment over Manila’s leaders and political system continues to erode patriotic feelings. While Pinoys at home continue displaying resilience over the continuing manmade and natural disasters, the long-suffering OFWs’ hopes for a better future may need to be deferred for some time to come.

– This article originally appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on December 18th, 2012 –

Chinese hubris, Malaysian pride

The world knows about China’s arrogance, which stems from its economic power, toward its neighbors.  So the spectacle of Malaysia bearing the brunt of Chinese anger over its missing airliner is not surprising.  Having once lived in Kuala Lumpur, I know about Malaysians’ nationalistic pride. But because the country is a democracy tinged with authoritarianism, it’s been in a quandary since March 8 upon becoming the focus of the world’s media. Malaysia may be considered of “Second World” status, one boasting of its multiculturalism, but its top government officials are often Malay bumiputra (“sons of the soil”), with minority ethnic Chinese and Indians handling lesser roles. The official lately tasked with facing the media has been a Malay burdened by the restrictions of his country’s media, someone not totally adept at considering different countries’ sensibilities.

One aspect of the Chinese nationals’ rage over the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may have been forgotten as the weeks of agonized waiting dragged on. That has to do with the Chinese Communist Party’s draconian one-child policy for couples. Those defying that constraint risk being banished to China’s hinterlands, with the extra children denied benefits and proper education.

The fury of the relatives of the lost Chinese passengers clearly showed them as parents of single children, or related to those who are. To have one’s precious descendants disappear into thin air, as it were, made the outbursts understandable.  One mother shown on TV screamed in a paroxysm of rage because she had lost her only son, his wife, and her only grandson. Obviously, many of the lost Chinese passengers were in the same boat—or, more appropriately, plane.  The males, who are seen as “little emperors,” are China’s valued assets (the sons of Party leaders are known as “princelings”).  The females (those not aborted in their mothers’ wombs) are beloved offspring who produce the princelings that play major roles in China’s politics and economy today.  President Xi Jinping is one such princeling.

Those who have disappeared may amount to only a tiny fraction of China’s population of 1.4 billion (the largest on the planet), but China sees their disappearance as a tragedy of catastrophic proportions and has no qualms about displaying its wrath.  Not only have the Malaysian authorities been attacked verbally, the vitriol is likewise aimed at Boeing, the airline manufacturer, as threats of lawsuits are aired.

There were no volcanic flare-ups from the relatives of the other nationalities on board Flight 370. Most were somber as they expressed hope that their relatives were still alive, or impatience at the slow and confusing data released by the Malaysians.  Prayer vigils and words of solace were shared, and though some were pointedly critical of the Malaysians, none descended to hysterics.

What’s ironic in all this is that although China has a number of ships and planes engaged in the search over the southern Indian Ocean, it’s been Australia, the United States, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand expending more time, great effort, and much funding in the search.  Even smaller countries like the Philippines have offered assistance in a display of fellowship, despite its territorial differences with China.

It may take years to find the Malaysian plane. It took two years after June 1, 2009, for an Air France plane to be brought up from the ocean floor, following its crash that was believed caused by pilot error.  Or Flight 370 may never be found, like American aviatrix Amelia Earhart who disappeared in 1937.

With much speculation raging on the cause of Flight 370’s crash, the most plausible one comes from Canadian veteran pilot Chris Goodfellow.  He calculates that a catastrophic malfunction occurred suddenly, obliterating the plane’s communications equipment.  As the pilots sought to land quickly, they veered away from the northbound Kuala Lumpur-Beijing path toward the closest airports, on the Malaysian islands of Langkawi or Penang, hence the turn to the west over the Malay Peninsula.  He posits that a fire broke out, with toxic smoke quickly overcoming the flight crew.  That left the aircraft cruising on auto-pilot for hours over the Indian Ocean.

The harrowing thought is if, with the crew incapacitated, passengers were left in an imponderable situation.  If they, too, were knocked out by the fumes before the plane finally plunged into the sea, that would be a merciful scenario. It would have spared them hours of agonizing horror.

Compared to the other conspiracy theories, Mr. Goodfellow’s theory makes the most sense. There was no terrorist hijacking (as sometimes happens) or pilot suicide mission (as in the 1999 EgyptAir crash), but a horrific mechanical accident that took the lives of 239 people. What’s left is the hope that the wreckage will be found one day, so the victims’ relatives can finally have some peace.

– This op-ed piece appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on April 3rd, 2014 –

Trusting in God for a job in Russia

HONG KONG—This is a true story about my friend Digoy and my encounter with Masha, a Russian lady.  If written like a play, it would go thus:

Characters: Digoy (not his real nickname), from Butuan, 41 years old;

Masha, from Moscow. She could be about 55.

I am a longtime Pinay resident of Hong Kong (old enough to avail of the territory’s senior privileges).

Locale: Hong Kong, 2014.

Intro: Globalization for many Filipinos means leaving the motherland to seek fortunes abroad. Most head for Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Canada, the US, the UK, even danger spots like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya.

Domestic helpers are much in demand so Pinoys easily land jobs as housemaids, nannies and caregivers for greying populations around the globe.  Pinoy men are popular as seafarers and construction workers.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, groups of prosperous Russians have been chasing the sun around Asia and the Caribbean. They can be found at Philippine seaside resorts.  Some end up in Hong Kong to shop and hit the Macau casinos.

Digoy has lived in Hong Kong for almost two decades, signed up by a British employer who also hired his wife, Maris, as a fulltime cook and nanny. An expert jack-of-all trades, he freelances as carpenter, plumber, electrician, and much-in-demand lipat-bahay man (house mover).  His three children are looked after by his parents in Butuan with funds he and Maris remit.  But over the years he has felt the need to earn more money which he thinks can happen only elsewhere.

Last year he went to a Kowloon employment agency run by a Pinoy resident who guaranteed to find employers in Canada in exchange for a hefty fee.  A trusting individual (a devout member of the El Shaddai), Digoy paid the agency which promised to call in two weeks, three at the most.  When a month elapsed, he called to find the phone-line out of service.  He went to the address and found the office shuttered.  Phoning Maris with the bad news, they sadly agreed it was the Lord’s Will that they not go to Canada.

Looking online next for jobs in Australia, Digoy received a reply to his application from a Sydney firm and was told the Melbourne branch would advise him on placements soon.  The call never came and Digoy bowed to God’s Will again.

Still buoyed by their faith and not giving in to despair, Maris learned in Facebook that her old classmate Joji had a good job as a nanny for a family in Moscow.  They Skyped back and forth and Joji told of having found her job via a Russian agency that sends out “invitations” to would-be migrant workers.  Showing one to a Russian consulate produces visas, and applicants just need to buy their round-trip Aeroflot tickets.  Once in Moscow the inviting agency find jobs matching the applicants’ qualifications.  Joji assured them it’s all above board.

Digoy related all this to me, as I had typed his CV and his application letters in the past. Alarmed by his Russian plan, I pointed out it’s a scary place for workers, especially Asians. I suggested he try Canada again, but he wasn’t interested, and I felt my giving him a potted history of contemporary Russia would be futile.

Soon after, as I biked back to our Lantau barrio (on one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands), I saw an interesting-looking woman on my path.  Her features looked slavic, like the actress I once saw in the film “Eugene Onegin,” my favorite Tchaikovsky opera.  She was scanning a map of Lantau so I stopped to ask if I could help. After I gave her directions to the waterfall she was seeking, I asked where she was from.  She said Russia and asked about me.  When I told her, she said she’d visited Boracay so I figured she belonged to the gentry.  I remarked that I’d been helping a compatriot find work in her country, and the following conversation ensued:

Masha: Does your friend speak Russian?

I: No, but he’ll surely learn when he gets there.

M: I once had a Filipino couple working for me (I’m a single mom with a teenage daughter) but it didn’t work out; now I have a Ukrainian woman who speaks Russian.

I: Perhaps a Russian family using sign language could use a good handyman like my friend, as well as his wife who’s a fine nanny and cook.

M: He’ll find the work very hard and he’ll never get rich.

I: Could I give him your name and e-mail in case he needs help when he gets there?  We do have an embassy in Moscow, but another contact would be good to have.

She wrote down her e-mail address and we parted.  I reported the encounter to Digoy forthwith.  He mused that my meeting a Russian must have been an act of God and he wasn’t disheartened by her words, which I quoted.

His reply: “Sigurado ako na matulungan kami ni Lord makahanap ng mabuting trabaho doon (I’m sure the Lord will help us find good jobs there).”

With blind faith like that, I could only nod hopefully.

– This article appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 29th, 2014. –

Can we live without Chinese goods?

“Filipinos think saying something is the same as making it happen,” is a classic line from a 1995 novel about the Philippines by British writer Timothy Mo.

The observation springs to mind as we ponder the call of some supposedly nationalistic quarters in Manila for a boycott of Chinese products, in a tit-for-tat over the Spratlys dispute.

“All the big slogans, all the talk, it’s a blanket over a big hole . . . you fall in and break your leg,” one of Mo’s characters declares in “Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard.”  So one wonders if those promoting the boycott have really considered whether Pinoys can be as militant as the Vietnamese, who also claim the Spratlys, and if we can realistically live without Chinese goods.

Shouldn’t we instead be asking what’s happened to our own industries and why we’ve become so dependent on made-in-China products that admittedly are pervading the rest of the planet?  Can the ordinary citizen get along in today’s world without all those cheap, easily available goods?

Just look around the country these days.  Farmers even in the most remote barrios have no recourse but buy Chinese-made flip-flops (or rubber slippers) and other necessities for their families.  Very few Pinoys today make chinelas from old tires or abaca anymore, nor much of anything else that’s indispensable.

It’s no secret that the Philippines can’t compete with Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, all of which manufacture and export some commodities of value.  Even former “economic basketcase” Bangladesh today is listed as being the third largest exporter of textiles and ready-made garments.

The Philippines once produced rattan furniture, abaca, wooden and shell products, but local craftsmen and artisans apparently gave up in the face of the Chinese onslaught and now work abroad as seamen, laborers and drivers.

All this reminds me of another book called “A Year Without Made in China – One Family’s True Life Adventures in the Global Economy.” Journalist Sara Bongiorni wrote about how her family coped without Chinese goods for one whole year.  A writer who follows economic trends, Bongiorni launched her venture after being hit by the realization that her country is so awash with Chinese goods that most consumers are hard put to find anything made in the US.   It’s not just wholesale US outlets and budget stores that sell Chinese-made appliances, clothes, toys and foodstuff, but even high-end shops  offer not-so-sloppy imitations and even fairly well-made stuff.

Indeed Bongiorni’s conclusion was that the wide-awake Oriental dragon swamped the American market while the Yankee donkey was dozing and taking it easy.  Wryly narrating the ways she and her husband managed their shopping (always time-consuming, often expensive, sometimes hilarious), she scoured catalogues and the Internet and travelled to distant stores to make purchases.  Always asking about “country of origin” before buying the family’s necessities, she often irritated salespeople, though a few backed the idea and urged her to “Go for it!” Her soft-hearted mother needled her about depriving workers in China’s sweatshops of their livelihoods.

The decision to avoid Chinese goods for a year, she said, was not politically motivated, nor meant “to kick China out of our house.”  She just wanted to see if an ordinary American family could get along without Chinese goods, as well as find out how much was still being produced in the US (not much!) and what was available from other countries (a bit more).

That great post-Second World War boom, which had bought a plethora of made-in-USA goods, is gone. All the fine inventions from American factories like washing machines, vacuum cleaners, pop-up toasters, steam irons, hair dryers, etc., which the world once prized, have vanished from that continent.

The outsourcing to China of US production happened, thanks to US-based labor unions and workers whose demands grew increasingly untenable.  Ironically, Marxist principles about workers’ rights took stronger root in the US than in Communist China where coolie-like workers slave for long hours and low wages, with few complaints.

But all that is changing today as more workers engage in sporadic uprisings in that vast country which Beijing controls with an iron fist.

Can Pinoys really embark on an experiment like Sara Bongiorni’s and thumb their noses at China while making a point about sovereignty over the Spratlys?  Will President Noynoy’s recent visit to Beijing produce more than the usual diplomatic language about better relations?  Will the proposed boycott be trumped by other parties fervently calling for prayers to solve the dispute?  Will the lofty plans for a boycott degenerate into the usual feeble pleas for help from On High?

That seems likely, since seeking divine intervention in lieu of human effort is such a deeply ingrained tendency in the Philippines that Mr. Mo’s statement about our being fine talkers but lousy doers is validated once again.

Indeed the country seems fated to be the perennial laggard behind the rest of “godless” but dynamic Asia.

– This article appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on September 10, 2011 –

My bridge of sighs

Like those gullible folks who used to get duped by con men selling them the Brooklyn Bridge, I was once taken in by something connected to the Golden Gate Bridge. I wasn’t fooled into buying California’s famous landmark, but I went chasing after a story that seemed plausible at the time.

It was my late brother, John, who first got taken in by a tale about our family having a slim connection with the Golden Gate Bridge. His piano-playing pal, Jose, had told him he’d seen a plaque somewhere by the bridge indicating that some of the concrete used to build that splendid span came from the Cebu Portland Cement Company. Since our father, Eduardo Taylor, had worked at that cement plant, starting as chemist and ending up as general manager, John felt justifiably proud that such a marker existed in such an illustrious spot. After all, he and I and our seven siblings grew up in the shadow of that cement factory in Tinaan, a town in the municipality of Naga in Cebu.

Since I was living in Berkeley at the time, John urged me to track the plaque down. So one day, armed with camera and notebook, I crossed the Bay Bridge to head for the Golden Gate. On the way I mused about the photos I’d take of the wonderful marker, which would be featured in Cebu’s four newspapers. The story would make our family famous and would spread to Manila and the rest of the archipelago. It would eventually reach California, then all of the U.S. (probably even featured in the National Geographic!). It wouldn’t be just 15 minutes of fame for our clan, but it would catch the eye of some documentary maker who’d buy the rights to my story and make it an epic!

I thought my father would’ve been so proud (I realized only later that he had never told us about the plaque since he’d paid a few visits to the U.S. after the War, San Francisco being his favorite city.) And I thought of how my Yankee Lolo’s heart (if it were still beating today) would swell with pride to learn that his eldest son had been a chemical engineer at the first-ever cement plant in America’s only colonial territory that would produce the concrete used to build one of the world’s famous bridges.

Sad to say, gullibility seems to run in our family. I’ve wondered if we inherited the trait from our paternal grandfather, Edward Dennison Taylor, who hailed from Tennessee, or from our maternal grandfather, Narciso Lopez Manzano, a native of Asturias in Spain. Or was it from our Chinese great-grandfather, or even from our native Filipino forebears? It’s hard to say where exactly to lay the blame for our credulousness.

I never met my American Lolo who died before I was born, but I knew lots about him—thanks to my now-deceased Tita Lilian, who regaled us with stories about her handsome Yankee papa. Her account and the records, which my eldest sister living in Texas found at the genealogical archives in Salt Lake City, show that Memphis-born Edward Dennison Taylor enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1898 when the U.S. acquired the Philippine Islands as part of the booty from the Spanish-American War.

My grandparents Petra Alferez and Edward Taylor around 1901.

My grandparents Petra Alferez and Edward Taylor around 1901.

The Yankee pacifiers included teachers bent on turning Filipinos (whom they called “Googoos” and “Flips”) into little brown Americans. The Thomasites, a band of Christian mentors, arrived to instill the finer points of education. (One result of such sophisticated tutelage is Filipinos’ favorite Christmas carol today is “White Christmas,” considered apt for a tropical climate.)

But soldiers like my Lolo Edward had no role in that high drama; his conquest was mainly a comely Cebuana lass named Petra Alferez with whom he eventually had ten children, of whom my father Eduardo was the eldest. U.S. War Department records show that he was first assigned for a brief stint as an Army cook at the Presidio in San Francisco before being sent to the Philippines. (Being rather deficient in the culinary arts myself, I wonder if he was shipped out because his mates complained about his menus.) On arriving in Manila with Company E of the Army’s 121st Regiment, Edward was assigned to Cebu. I don’t know if raw recruits were given a briefing about Philippine history before their deployment. My Lolo may not have known about Ferdinand Magellan losing his life in 1521 in a battle with a local chieftain named Lapulapu, an episode dear to our hearts because it shows how a small brown man made quick work of a big white fellow.

By the time Private Edward Taylor arrived in the Philippines, the natives had been so thoroughly indoctrinated by the Spaniards into fire-and-brimstone Catholicism that the urge to stab more white men dead (a la Lapulapu) was abating. Besides, Filipinos at the time were rather bewildered by the contrast between their new colonizers and the former ones. The fact that the Yanks were more interested in building roads and schools than in saving souls (while sometimes resorting to unique forms of torture like waterboarding and shooting, as opposed to Spanish garroting and hanging) was a real novelty. And having heard Spanish spoken for over 300 years, Filipinos were intrigued by the strange new language used by the new aliens who, it turned out, were mainly asking where to find girls.

Fortuitously Edward’s platoon bivouacked in the Cebu town of Naga next door to the barrio of Tinaan, where large deposits of clay, gypsum and silica were discovered some years later, prompting U.S. Governor General Francis Burton Harrison to set up the first-ever cement plant in the islands. Assigned to that dreary outpost, the Yankee soldiers sought relief in the Catholic Church hall, which, as in most Philippine villages then, served as a community center. A mestizo priest named Anastasio del Corro, better known as Padre Tationg (a bust of him sits at Carcar’s town plaza), ran the parish. He played a mean game of chess, and on hearing of a chess aficionado among the platoon of long-nosed Yankee soldiers newly encamped in Naga, rapport was quickly established between Christ’s apostle and Uncle Sam’s disciple.

As is true of many of today’s extended Filipino families, Padre Tationg had numerous relatives scattered about. Being himself of mixed blood, he was probably the offspring of a Spanish friar. (Some scholars note that Spain’s practice of sending hot-blooded young clerics to remote villages in which nubile women abounded wasn’t very conducive to the strict observance of celibacy. Indeed, Imelda Marcos is one such later product of that era, having had a Spanish friar among her varied ancestors – hence her constant references to the Almighty who, in His wisdom, provided her with all those shoes to compensate for her impoverished beginnings.)

Padre Tationg had a pretty teenaged niece called Petra who liked to loiter in the convento. So, in between chess games, Edward ran into her and found her alluring; she thought him pretty cute in turn. Wooing went on behind the padre’s back, even though Petra spoke only Cebuano and Spanish, and Edward only knew English. This was apparently no handicap as they soon made plans to elope. They failed on their first attempt made on horseback under cover of darkness. They got as far as Minglanilla when Petra’s father intercepted them and took her straight home. Edward was told to get lost, but he persisted and made a second attempt, with the help of friends. This was also at night, by means of a horse-drawn tartanilla hired from a friend. This time the couple reached downtown, to the city hall. But Petra’s father got wind of the escapade after someone squealed (probably one of Petra’s jealous friends, resentful that a handsome blade like Edward hadn’t fallen for her instead).

As related with gusto by Tita Lilian, who knew her mother’s story inside-out, an ugly tug-of-war ensued on the Cebu City hall steps between the lovelorn Edward and Petra’s irate father. Edward lost. Back home in Naga, Petra was shorn of her tresses and locked in her room, guarded by two housemaids.

Perhaps Memphis-born men are made of steel because Edward didn’t give up.

He managed to send a note to Petra and arranged for another tartanilla to be ready when she made her nightly trip to the outhouse. Edward knew the path behind the latrine, which was made of nipa fronds, like most Philippine outhouses. As her servant waited outside the latrine door, Petra quietly broke through the rickety back wall and made a dash for Edward’s buggy parked in back. The lovers made a dash for Cebu’s port, boarded a boat for Manila, and settled down to a happy marriage. My father Eduardo, being the firstborn among nine offspring, grew up speaking English, Spanish, Cebuano and Tagalog. He studied chemical engineering at the University of the Philippines, and on graduating, heard of an opening at the Cebu Portland Cement Company, located on the island of his mother’s birth. He went for the job with his degree and 19-year-old bride, my mother Soledad Manzano, in tow. The factory was in the barrio next door to Naga, where Edward Taylor had encamped a quarter of a century earlier.

Edward, Petra and Padre Tationg were on my mind when I made the trek to the Golden Gate Bridge. There I spent over an hour inspecting every plaque in sight. I also went down to the old barracks at the base of the bridge to survey that dank structure, which had housed the soldiers who defended the bridge on occasions when threats from alien invaders were believed imminent.

The Taylor family at their Santa Mesa home in 1948.

The Taylor family at their Santa Mesa home in 1948.

Finding nothing, I proceeded to the souvenir shop to peruse the books, but none of them mentioned the source of the cement used in the construction. So I went to the administrative office and spoke with the very accommodating chief engineer who took me to the library where a large book gave a full account of the bridge’s construction. I learned of the redoubtable Joseph Strauss who designed the bridge and was the moving spirit behind its creation. I read about the problems the builders faced, the colossal labor involved and how long it took to build the span. I saw marvelous photographs of the process of construction and read about the different materials used.

Most crucially I found that cement had been supplied by two U.S. companies – the Santa Cruz Portland Cement Company and the Pacific Portland Cement Company. Pink high-silica cement (of which the Cebu plant produced a high grade) was used for the underwater portion of the bridge, but there was no mention of that having been imported from the Philippines. I read a report about granite having been imported from China to use for the bridge’s main foundation (U.S. granite apparently not being as good), so I presumed that if that item had come from such a long way, cement would surely also have been from the Philippines.

Wandering around forlornly under the bridge, I came across a friendly member of the National Parks Service. After telling him I’d seen two plaques on the bridge, one listing the personages who attended the bridge’s opening in May 1937, and a small one acknowledging the source of the steel used in the construction, I told him of my quest. Could there possibly have been a marker about Cebu cement, which has since been removed? He said he doubted it since plaques are placed for posterity. So I asked if he thought importing cement from the U.S.’ colony would have made sense then. He pondered my question earnestly, then said that since the U.S. was in the midst of the Depression at the time, considerations would have been made about whether carting cement by rail across the continent was more economical than shipping it from across the Pacific.

He hadn’t given me much hope, but I was grateful he took the time to listen to my queries seriously and had not treated me as some loony tourist, especially since he related sometimes getting some strange queries – like a Japanese tourist who’d wanted to know where a compatriot of his was buried near the bridge, since he’d committed suicide off it. So I felt some relief that my quest didn’t seem as bizarre, but I knew it was time to admit failure. On leaving, I mused about how stories snowball and rumors run riot and I consoled myself by thinking how dull life would be if one didn’t sometimes go chasing rainbows.

I’d bought some postcards of the bridge, on one of which I wrote something to mail (in those days before e-mail) to my brother John in Cebu: “Tell your friend Jose to pull your other leg!”

– This article appeared in Positively Filipino on September 25, 2013. –

Interviewing Joan Kennedy

Interviewing Joan Kennedy.

Interviewing Joan Kennedy.

BBC’s live telecast of the funeral of Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy on August 29th was quite a moving experience for me. Not because I am, like some British people who revere their royal family, an admirer of America’s version of royalty, but because I found the pomp and solemnity involved in the ceremony impressive. Particularly interesting was the presence of so many former American presidents and other personages. It showed that Teddy Kennedy was admired, even loved, not for belonging to a famous clan but for his work and achievements in government. President Obama’s eulogy called him “the greatest legislator of our time” who had penned, in the U.S. Senate, more than 300 statutes and whose name is connected with nearly a thousand laws affecting his country’s citizens.

Watching the extended TV relay reminded me that I’d seen the late senator and met his first wife briefly many years ago. It was a fleeting, not particularly memorable, moment caught in a photograph taken of Joan Bennett Kennedy and me in Kuala Lumpur. And so I wondered, while watching the televised funeral ceremonies, why I could not see Teddy’s ex-wife among the crowds gathered in Boston’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica. As the cameras panned around the dignitaries during the processional and Mass, it was mainly the senator’s second wife, Victoria, who was very visible, as were his three children by Joan and various grandchildren and other relatives.

But I couldn’t find the striking blonde I’d once met whom JFK reportedly described as “a dish.” (In Americanese, “dish” denotes female beauty and glamour, and that American president, a connoisseur of women, obviously knew whereof he spoke.) My late husband Tony was the Associated Press correspondent in Malaysia at the time, so he and other KL-based journalists went to interview the youngest Kennedy brother on his arrival at Subang Airport. I don’t know why I tagged along but think perhaps that Tony suggested I interview Joan to get the “woman’s angle” – which made me nervous, never having interviewed a VIP before.

I think now that as a newly elected senator, Teddy was sent by his brother on an Asian trip early in 1963 when Indonesia and Malaysia were embroiled in Confrontation and the Vietnam war was escalating. By 1962 JFK had been continuing the military build-up in Vietnam, so perhaps he thought that his younger brother, after becoming a senator the following year, needed to go on a familiarisation tour of Southeast Asia, KL being his first stop. Not many months later, Teddy’s brother was assassinated. Like JFK who took along his glamourous wife Jackie on his state visit to France (“I’m the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,” he famously said), Teddy took along his own beautiful wife on his trip, similarly to charm his hosts at the various capitals they visited.

What did I ask Joan Kennedy at Subang Airport? Frankly it’s all lost in the mists of time. My old photograph, taken by the AP photographer, shows her wearing a simple sleeveless frock and long thin necklace. Her thick blonde mane was held back by a slim hairband, and her hands were on the low table between us, with one hand apparently toying with her wedding ring. Smiling tentatively across at me as I grinned at her and held a notebook on my lap, she was probably telling herself to reply politely if the rumpled-looking woman “reporter” with a Burmese Shan bag slung over one shoulder asked some silly questions. I’m almost sure I asked her if it was her first trip to Asia but can’t remember her reply nor the rest of our conversation. All I know is that I took some shorthand notes (my secretarial training came in handy) which I later typed out for Tony — who probably wrote that the young American senator was accompanied by his stylish wife on their stopover in Malaysia.

After surfing the Web to find out if Joan had indeed attended her ex-husband’s funeral, I did find a couple of pictures – one of her wearing white and large sunglasses, walking ahead of a stern-looking Victoria. One report said Joan had remained on friendly terms with Teddy, but that relations with Vicky were frosty. I found the other write-ups about Joan quite poignant. She apparently came from a comfortable background, though one story mentions both her parents were alcoholics. She went to the same elite Catholic academy as Ethel Skakel, who later married Robert Kennedy and who introduced her to his younger brother Teddy. Marriage into that famous clan must have been intimidating, and difficult. Teddy’s memoir, published posthumously in late September, shows he acknowledges having caused Joan to drive “deeper into her anguish.” Indeed Joan herself attributes her alcohol addiction to the Kennedys, particularly the notorious Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 in which Teddy left a young woman to drown in his car during an accident.

In subsequent years Joan was arrested a few times for drunken driving. One report that called her a “casualty of Camelot” said she tried to mask her drinking with mouthwash and vanilla extract. Though the couple separated in 1978, Joan helped Teddy campaign in the 1980 presidential campaign which he lost. They divorced in 1983. Today psychotropic drugs are what weak, beleaguered persons turn to for relief, but Joan used alcohol to dim her woes which included three miscarriages, one son’s lingering asthma, two of her children’s cancer scares and her husband’s occasional carousing. She also coped with the assassinations of Teddy’s two brothers and the deaths of his three nephews — which drove him to drink sporadically.

Such tumultuous events would shake an ordinary person’s life, and Joan was particularly fragile. In 2005 she was briefly in the news when she was hospitalized with a concussion and broken shoulder after being found lying drunk in a Boston street near her home. This resulted in her eldest son Edward being appointed as her legal guardian. Not long afterwards, she underwent surgery for breast cancer. The litany of woes seems endless. Joan reportedly had a brief love affair but now lives alone in her homes in Boston and Cape Cod, with her estate placed in a trust overseen, not by her children, but by two court-appointed trustees.

President Obama’s eulogy of Teddy said “We weep because we loved this kind and tender hero who persevered through pain and tragedy – not for the sake of ambition or vanity, not for wealth or power; but only for the people and the country he loved.” Having been married for 25 years to that ill-fated “kind and tender” man, perhaps the fragile young woman I met in Kuala Lumpur long ago finds solace today in the piano, at which she’s said to be accomplished. She did, after all, write a book in 1992 called “The Joy of Classical Music.” So maybe there is some joy in her life today.

– This article appeared in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club magazine: The Correspondent in October 2009 –