LUIS H. FRANCIA presents an introductory excerpt from Eye of the Fish: A Personal Archipelago by Luis H. Francia
(Kaya Press, New York, 2001; now available as an e-book on Kindle)
Where am I from, I sometimes ask myself, where in the devil
Do I come from, what day’s today, what’s happening,
A roar, amid the dream, the tree, the night,
And a wave, rising like an eyelid, begets
A day, a flash with a jaguar’s snout.
from “The Magellanic Heart” (translated by Jack Schmitt)
IF THIS ARCHIPELAGO COULD COMMENT on my existence, what would it say? What memories, if any, would it have of my passage? Did mountain talk to plain, and plain whisper to sky that bore me away, to ocean that separates me from these islands? Did Manhattan’s bedrock pick up, through riverine delta, through tremor, news of an Asian walking its grounds? Did it decipher in an islander’s footfall and read in a Spanish name a tangled history of blood and bone and spirit? Imagination, trace if you can this landscape’s ineffable power, its sources of joy and sorrow.
I had been coming back to the Philippines regularly over the course of more than two decades, a process that began as something purely instinctual, moved by the same urge that compels salmon to travel up the waters of their genesis, moved by the need to feel familiar ground, to add to the store of memory and association that nourished me in my sojourning. The trips gradually took on a conscious edge. Upstream to home: what did that mean? Where was the “I” in all this, where the “we”? Death for the new self, resurrection of the old? But home had changed. And so had I. How then to measure each other? And what of that other sea—passionate, calm, deep, shallow, hot, cold—to which I returned after each visitation, a sea called New York City? I: awkward fish swimming simultaneously in different oceans.
A BLUE-UNIFORMED SECURITY GUARD on Gandara Street resists the afternoon heat’s seductive call to sleep by doing pushups on the sidewalk, his legs propped on a chair. I can only wonder at this burst of activity as I walk by, my lunch of curried noodles and steamed fish, consumed in a crowded panciteria, filling my gut. The guards for the other stores—all of them shuttered on this somnolent, humid Sunday afternoon—slouch on chairs, unbuttoned, some dozing in their undershirts. Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown, has an almost demure air, wearing her secrets the way a grande dame wears her per- fume: discreetly but distinctively, hinting at a bouquet of other fragrances. The world passing by has grown smaller and more compact, as though past, present, and future had settled down into one dense layer, and could no longer offer her any surprises.
On Dasmarinas Street, a calesa plies the street, the clip-clop of its blindered horse pleasant drumbeats on the brain. Binondo is mostly deserted today, the colonial-era buildings aspiring to modest heights, their sooty wooden facades, iron-grille windows, stone columns, and solid doors evoking the days when the Chinese grew shy of the Spaniards’ disdainful gaze. Behind the walls, a congested mass of humanity breathes quietly, comfortably, even opulently. Here is the Old Manila still, the Manila that existed before that monument to the mall and American efficiency, aseptic, modern Makati, reared its skyscraper heads south of the Pasig River. Binondo forms part of the city’s cholesterol-choked heart, cheek by jowl with Santa Cruz and Quiapo, neighborhoods that embody the essence of Manila—bustling, brawling, blustery, full of the commerce and vigorous life brought by the river and the sea.
The Chinese trace their presence here to the days when Manila was still a Muslim entrepot. Never proselytizers, worldly to the point of disdain, confiders only in themselves, the merchants and workers from Guangdong, Amoy, and Fukien were distrusted by the Iberians who forbade them to enter Intramuros, the old Walled City, except for trade, and then only through the Parian Gate.
Binondo, where they lived right across the river, was within easy reach of Intramuros’s guns. For the Spanish never forgot that their early tenuous hold on the city had been nearly broken in 1574 by Limahong, a Chinese warlord, and his marauding fleet of junks. After a series of battles, the Spanish finally repelled the invaders. Subsequent uprisings by the Chinese in the seventeenth century were all bloodily suppressed. Binondo’s large esteros, or canals, reenforce the feeling of fragmentation and separation from the rest of the city. Their murky waters, refuse laden, assail pedestrians on the short bridges with the sweetish smell of decay. The approaches are crowded with shops that sell chestnuts, fruits, sweetmeats, ham, noodles, and Chinese delicacies. In a ritual antedating conquest, shopper and shopkeeper bargain till they reach common ground.
Something happens that jolts me back into these unruly times. A small crowd has gathered on one side of an estero bridge. I go over and look down at what everyone else is staring at: a body wrapped in black plastic, the rope around its sheated neck clearly visible. A man nearby remarks: “na-salvaged.” No one is certain of the word’s provenance, why an English term that refers to the act of rescue, of retrieving something of value, especially from the sea, now has this grisly connotation. But the scene before me does bear an eerie resemblance to a maritime salvage.
A burly security guard with a line and a hook has snagged the black plastic. He tugs at the body, managing to lift it out partly before it falls back in. He does this repeatedly. Does he really think he can land this human fish, or is he playing to the crowd? A silent crowd, morbidly fascinated, that shows no outward signs of anger. Does the bag contain a man or a woman? Petty thief, human rights activist, or just a person who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Now just a body thrown up against the embankment like a bad dream. In this city of bad dreams, this is one of the worst, a nightmare that has become one measure of how vastly different this Manila is from the Manila I grew up in.
The salvagings that used to come to light only in the city’s more obscure corners now brazenly turn up under the public’s noses. Take a good sniff, the killers seem to say, you could wind up smelling like that. Friends relate casual awakenings to the nightmare of these twisted redemptions: two bodies on the sea wall by Roxas Boulevard, across from Aristocrat, a popular twenty-four-hour eatery; a friend as she comes out of her residential compound who sees a dead man outside the gates; activists I knew gunned down in the hills.
Manila: a name I utter deliberately, consciously, contemplating what it signifies, the strong and often evocative feelings it evokes in my lived imagination. What terrible and beautiful histories a place contains that one grew up in! I mean not just the impersonal accretion of events and circumstances that give cold shape over the centuries to a city, but those secret stories, those remembrances of people and places that make of it more than an accident of geography, or a backdrop against which lives unfold and end in manifold ways; that make of a city the intimate possession of those whom it possesses as well.
My old Manila wasn’t really old; in reality, the Manila I grew up in grew up with me, though it was a little older and grew much faster. The fabled Noble and Ever Loyal City—as the original sixteenth century Spanish charter described it—had ceased to exist because the world around it had changed. If in my beginning was Manila, if I had come out the natural way, in my Manila was a beginning, yanked out in rough Caesarean fashion and thrown into the dislocations of a confused modernity. The world of the Spanish colonizers had been almost obliterated, not so much by the retreating Japanese during World War II, but by the heavy guns of an army led by that pipe-smoking cowboy General Douglas MacArthur. The Manileños who survived may not have heard the phrase “friendly fire,” but they knew intimately and precisely the dimensions of its cruel irony.
Across from Binondo, the Walled City of Intramuros—built up four hundred years earlier by Malay forebears commandeered by the Spanish—bore the brunt of the bombardment. This was the second time around: the original settlement, the Muslim Malay kingdom under rajahs Lakandula and Suleyman, had been razed to the ground by the Spanish as they began to Hispanicize a far-flung archipelago and to enfold near-naked Pacific islanders in the guilty robes of European religion. What I emerged into, straight out of my mother’s hospitable womb, was a city still devastated by war. Its destruction, its human loss, meant nothing to an infant still pondering its own loss, still seeking the warm maternal island-belly and now moored, between shadow and light, to the larger world of mother and father and other, dimly perceived family members. Nothing that my infant’s clear eye saw when my mother carried me through the city’s shattered neighborhoods has been retained, but the city had its own memories by then. The incomprehensibility of human bestiality, the lengths we would go to to measure our darknesses, was its own rude birth into a vastly different universe.
The memories of that much older, vanished Manila came to me through the recollections of people who had lived in it before the war: my parents, my aunts and uncles, various writers I read growing up. As it is, my earliest memories of the city are devoid of the traces of war: a huge house, dogs, and a yard in a neighborhood noted only for a famous child actress living on the aptly named Hollywood Road; Sunday lunch at a panciteria in the Ermita district, made memorable by the steaming bowl of bird’s nest soup that occupied center stage; strolls by Manila Bay, near Rizal Park, still known to my parents by its Spanish name, Luneta.
Sometimes my parents would take us for a ride on the Matorco double-decker bus, and naturally everyone wanted to sit on the open-air top deck. The bus would amble the length of palm tree-fringed Roxas Boulevard that skirted the bay, its passengers enjoying the cool sea breeze. We would gaze out to that matrix, the sea, as if to reassure ourselves by its presence that the world still existed as it had the day before, that we had remained islanders.
The bus turned around once it reached Baclaran Church, near the boulevard’s southern end. The church was famous for its icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, believed to be miraculous by thousands of devotees who came every Wednesday to entreat Her Lady for intervention in seemingly hopeless cases—and causing monumental traffic jams. Those wanting to avoid this motorist’s nightmare stayed home and listened to the novena over the radio. Sometimes our family would gather and pray along with the jumble of voices that came through the airwaves.
Perhaps we didn’t pray hard enough, for those days of family harmony were short-lived, as relations between my mother and father grew strained, and unhappiness set in. A child’s memory is intuitive as much as it is a recollection of actual events, and I knew the unhappiness had to do partly with my father’s dissatisfaction over his role as family provider, the many disappointments in his career as a civil engineer, and his hurtful pride when my mother had to assume a larger burden than either he or she was prepared for. (Dear father, would that you had understood and forgiven the temper of the times!) The blurring of roles was never an option for my dad, who as the oldest son was used to getting his way. There was a deep sense of discontent at how his life had turned out. His imperiousness, which would have stood him in good stead earlier in the century, had nothing to brighten it in an age that looked eagerly, steadfastly, at a new world.
Though my father had been born in the first decade of the twentieth century, when American colonial rule was barely in place, the essential flavor of the times—the way he and his siblings had been brought up by his Filipino mother, my Lola Morang, and his wealthy Spanish mestizo father, Lolo Pepe—was quintessentially Old World Hispanic. This meant a precise hierarchy through which one inter- acted with the larger world. For my father, as well as for my mother, knowing the proper social rituals and the weight and context of clan relations, of surnames, was crucial. Establishing the background of someone you had just met was common in a society where the important thing wasn’t so much your self as it was your clan, and how the clan and its antecedents stood in relation to the larger world. In a way, it was a form of ancestor worship both my parents practiced quite well.
The Puritanical notion of hard work as redemptive, the Yankee stress on social and economic mobility, rooted in a frontier mentality, and the belief in the fixability of just about anything, that floated vaguely about was alien to the emotional and psychological land- scape my father was accustomed to. He was from the upper class—in charge, answered to—a station he felt inexorably his. Fate’s indifference to his background and the fact that impoverishment was much closer than he ever thought possible bewildered him, shoring up rather than breaching his imperiousness, which became a fortress against an increasingly impersonal mercantile world.
He was truly Lolo Pepe’s son. My father’s father, who passed away before I was born, had been a wealthy landowner in nearby Laguna Province. The estate was considerable, with a perimeter that supposedly took three days to cover on horseback. Lolo Pepe showed no inclination for business, preferring the leisurely life of a gentleman of means. He liked to whittle, was fond of music, and could play the violin passably. With friends he was generous, often paying off their gambling debts, using parcels of land as collateral for the money he’d borrow on their behalf. Lolo Pepe never saw those monies again. By the time he passed away, very little remained of his lands. On the day of Lolo Pepe’s demise, he asked to be carried to one of the remaining rice fields, where he spent some time looking about. He then signalled for his attendants to bring him home, where he died.
According to various accounts by my father’s siblings, the family lands had been taken over by usurers—two brothers and a sister—from the neighboring town of Santa Cruz. One brother went mad, while the other was so detested by the townspeople, he had to carry a gun wherever he went. The sister wound up a reclusive, miserable spinster. These were the stories I was told as I was growing up, the unspoken moral being that this unholy trio had been found guilty by God.
My father’s customary disdain for the practical never sat well with my mother. Her own mother Agatona had been a strong-willed woman with a career as a school superintendent—the first woman to occupy the post in La Union, a northern Luzon province. Agatona’s mother, my great-grandmother Quiteria Narciso, objected to the marriage. Henry was a foreigner, an unknown quantity, and a representative of the imperialistas: what clan was he from? Where were his roots? He had no context beyond what he was. To top it all, he was a soldier in the army that had defeated the revolutionary forces. He was, in short, the enemy. Quiteria refused to attend the wedding and wore black that day. Later on, however, she relented, having grown fond of her son-in-law.
As the education superintendent in La Union, Granny (as we called her) would visit barrio schools on horseback. She impressed her superiors and was offered a government scholarship so she could pursue higher studies in America. Her father, however, fearing that she would metamorphose into a barbarian and lose her soul in the New World, wouldn’t hear of it.
Instead she lost her heart and married my American grandfather, Henry Joseph Hunt of Philadelphia, a soldier in the U.S. army during both the 1898 Spanish-American and the 1899 Philippine-American wars. Soon after marrying, my Granny quit teaching. Whose decision was that? It’s impossible to say; kind and easygoing as he was, Lolo Henry most likely expected a traditional marriage. And though tough and independent-minded, Granny thought men should lead. The compromise may have been for her to start a business of making and selling her own bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) and basi (palm wine) from home. For a while the couple ran a small hotel in San Fernando.
Neither business lasted; her heart simply wasn’t in it. For his part, shortly after the marriage, Henry quit the service.
The U.S. army frowned upon racial intermarriages, and Henry knew his chances for further advancement were nil. But he was liked well enough by the civilian authorities for he was soon appointed chief of the secret service in Manila. The Secret Service! Did Lolo Henry aggressively pursue clandestine anti-American groups and keep an eye on foreigners? He received P600 a month—a princely sum in those days—the use of a car and chaffeur and a stately house by Manila Bay. Eventually, he gave up on the secret service. “He couldn’t abide the corruption in its ranks,” my mother remembers. Later he worked with the Bureau of Agriculture, supervising the aerial spraying of crops in different parts of the country. He may also have had another family somewhere in the Visayas, the central part of the archipelago; there had been rumors that Henry had married before, and that we had cousins in the military surnamed Hunt.
His liver weakened by his love for drink, Lolo Henry died in 1930 at the age of fifty-seven, when my mother was only fifteen. My mother recalls how Henry “would call me ‘lomboy’ [a berry] and your Auntie Josie ‘mango.’ He loved to socialize. [How he lives on in my mother!] He loved animals and hated seeing a dog on a leash or a bird in a cage. And whenever he had to make extended trips to other parts of the country, everything that Mother packed—sewing kit, socks, shirts, handkerchiefs—Papa would give away before coming home.
My mother’s memories of her mother are not as loving. She felt Granny was frugal not just in matters of money but also in displaying affection and warmth towards her own daughters. She would often criticize them in public, humiliating them. My mother recalls, “From the time she got up, she would start nagging. We didn’t need a radio.” She meant that Granny had the lowdown on everyone. And to this day my mother resents having had to live in a dorm at a Manila all-girls Catholic high school, St. Theresa’s, unable to go home on weekends or even occasionally step out in the evenings with friends: dormitory rules forbade this, and if they hadn’t, my mother said Granny certainly would have.
Granny had a loud, commanding voice, partly because she had grown hard of hearing but mostly because she was accustomed to having her way. As a boy, I would often accompany her, already a septuagenarian, on shopping trips within the city; she could reduce shopkeepers to tears striving for a bargain, as I cringed nearby in embarrassment. Sometimes she would treat me to a film, buy me candy, and then snooze in the dark as I consumed both sweets and the images onscreen. When death visited Agatona at the age of eighty-nine, it was only fitting that it be quick, painless, a stroke in the brain, an immediate dousing of the fire. She would have hated a slow, drawn-out death, a diminution of her authority, herself no longer in command.
Against Agatona’s domineering and my father’s traditional notions of primacy, my mother’s sense of independence came reluctantly to the fore when she started to work as an insurance agent, taking up the slack whenever my father was between contractual assignments—which, as he got older, grew fewer and fewer. She soon became the major household provider, a fact that fuelled my father’s resentments. And my mother’s insistence that he do something else, like teach Spanish, for instance—he spoke the language perfectly—would infuriate him. To have followed her advice would have been an open admission of failure, resulting in loss of face in front of his friends and professional peers. My parents would often have raging arguments, my father scorning my mother’s efforts to earn money, and my mother alternately bewildered and angered by his refusal to deal with the world as it was. As a child, I found it difficult to be with them in public, sensing the tension between them and dreading the possibility of a flare-up.
I sometimes wonder how we would have turned out had Lolo Pepe’s vast tracts of land been passed on. Difficult as it is to picture myself as anything other than what I am now, I can imagine growing up as the son of a wealthy landowner, servants and bodyguards at my command, accustomed to the power and privilege such a position carries in a society still shaped by the land, its values dictated by a feudalistic Catholic patriarchy. Those values might have corrupted me, transforming me into an active defender of an inequitable system that I have been harshly critical of precisely because I recognize in it an alternative self: the submerged tyrant, benevolent paterfamilias, uncaring hedonist. We are never harsher than when we see our darker side in others, our harshness a warning to ourselves as much as anything else.
SEA-BREEZE-BLESSED ROXAS BOULEVARD winds its way through my memory as a major artery, mimicking its role in the city. Originally used as a carriage path by the Spanish, the boulevard was then named for the American admiral George Dewey, who easily vanquished the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Later on, it was renamed to honor the Philippine Republic’s first president, Manuel Roxas. At the boulevard’s northern end stood Intramuros, the Manila Hotel, the Luneta, the U.S. Embassy, the Army and Navy Club—fitting emblems of four hundred years of colonial solitude. The boulevard’s southern reaches were dominated by nightclubs. Tropical, brassy, very much twentieth century, their neon names beckoned: Bayside, Riviera, Eduardo’s.
Like the human body, Roxas’s northern part was the administering rational self, while southward, towards Baclaran, other human needs were met. These glitzy nightclubs were expensive, the favorite haunts of politicians, businessmen, and the scions of wealthy families. If Filipinos were the Latinos of the East, Manila was our pre-Castro Havana: the clubs had their own big bands and floor shows, as well as beautiful, well-groomed hostesses whom a customer could “table.” That meant having her sit with him as he paid for “ladies’ drinks,” outrageously priced, watered-down cocktails the lady could drink all night without getting drunk. Invariably, the loveliest women wound up as mistresses of the clubs’ well-connected clients. One of my teenage fantasies was to have an exquisitely lovely hostess as an inamorata, unbeknownst to her sugar daddy whose largesse would benefit a young lothario as well.
Neither I nor my friends could afford these clubs. They could be dangerous, frequented by the sons of powerful politicians, spoiled and spoiling for trouble. Accompanied by bodyguards, they would swagger in, seemingly taller because of their command of men and money. Anyone looking at them with even a hint of disrespect was to be confronted, invariably roughed up. Men could, and did, get killed just for the wrong “look.”
The clubs on the boulevard straddled the boundary between Manila and Pasay City. Manila was by no means a haven of prudes, but Pasay had a seediness that encouraged and thrived on libidinal energies. Plying the boulevard were so-called taxi girls, courtesans of the night who would cruise around in a hired cab until hailed by a trick whereupon the cab would take the couple to one of many nearby motels. Sometimes, when the john wanted to save money, the back seat would have to do.
The sidestreets flanking the clubs had smaller bars—often featuring strip shows—and casas, or brothels, for the ordinary pocket. Streets named after saints and places of pilgrimage—San Juan, San Antonio, Antipolo—offered tawdry experiments in love. The touts and pimps, in addition to their stable of whores, had couples of varying ages, partners paid to demonstrate their lovemaking skills in brightly lit rooms furnished with a bed and chairs for clients to sit on. The exhibition was known as toro, which means “bull” in Spanish. The man was the toro, the woman to be impaled by him. Like carnival barkers, the touts described the extraordinary talents of these men and women. Did one wish for a young couple, sturdily built, still ruled by passion rather than craft? Here, Boss, this way please, for wonders you’ve never seen. Or perhaps you were more interested in an older pair, a man and woman who could make the Kama Sutra come alive, dispassionately, and even invite you to participate. It was one way of learning about the subject, since sex was never discussed in my family, nor, as far as I knew, in my friends’ families, and certainly not at Catholic school, where the body existed solely so we could deny it.
Aside from the requisite girlie magazines and badly lit porno flicks—which for some reason were referred to as “fighting fish”— young men learned by going to these institutions of lower learning. The first time I witnessed toro was with José, a good college friend of mine, who was also a poet. One evening, we were with Q, an older writer, and a friend of José’s. Q, already known among Manila’s literati and with a reputation for generosity towards struggling writers, had taken us out to drink and dine. Afterwards, inebriated, we piled into a cab and headed for Pasay. Q had suggested watching toro, to which José and I had lustily agreed.
The couple the pimp brought out was young. The woman, petite, her taut brown skin shining under the fluorescent bulb, was friendly and chatted with us; all the while she rubbed herself with sterilizing alcohol. The toro, engaged in similar ablutions, seemed taciturn. He was of regular build and, after foreplay had gotten him sufficiently aroused, a little too eager. At one point, we heard her whisper, “Just a moment.” It was clear who was in charge of this show. Whenever she wanted a realignment, she would pat him gently on his rump. The practiced ease of their lovemaking was saved from mechanicalness by his strained eagerness and her gentle cheerfulness. In the end, they reverted to the missionary position (how Catholic, I thought) and, as in fighting-fish flicks, he climaxed on her belly. I remember his mute but eloquent orgasm, but I don’t remember hers, or if she had one at all. More likely, she didn’t. In a reversal of everyday macho etiquette, men came first in bed, and women rarely followed, the onanistic showiness meant to show us that there was nothing fake to this love- making, though there may have been no love to begin with.
It was only later that I—fresh from university and working in one of Makati’s office mills—would sometimes visit a casa, along with my colleagues, after a night of drinking. “Casa” was the right word: it was a home, albeit nondescript, the parlor marked by cheap furniture and almost invariably a religious shrine in one corner. A middle-aged woman in a house dress—the stereotypical picture of a housewife—would greet us with a smile and call out for her “girls” to emerge from their rooms. Our visits weren’t so much a question of sexual initiation as they were rites of passage for male bonding, a camaraderie we naïvely believed would exorcise our doubts about ourselves and the society we lived in.
The Jesuits at the Ateneo de Manila, the exclusive and exclusively male university I had attended, would have had fits had they known about this extracurricular activity, and would certainly have expelled anyone frequenting the casas. There were whispers, however, of one or two priests being seen in these less than reputable establishments. In one of those peculiar interpretations of God’s charity, the men of the cloth could be forgiven, but not us.
Such nocturnal forays were common enough among us. We were young, we were horny, we wanted a life that wasn’t just books, term papers, or innocent soirees and dance parties with the well-bred and sexually repressed colegialas enrolled in Manila’s Catholic schools. When slow numbers came up, the usual ploy for a colegiala to preserve her expensively perfumed honor was to use her left arm as a wedge, limb angled on the man’s shoulder, hand lightly balled into a fist that held the promise of a quick but gentle parry to the throat to discourage any attempt at intimacy.
Some of them were more adventurous, and showed it on the dance floor. If the colegiala placed her left arm around your shoulder in a tentative embrace, it was to encourage you to hold her tight and perhaps feel her a bit. The idea was to close that space where a train could roar through to one where not even an ant, as we joked, could pass. Theologians loved to call this an occasion for sin, when two voices within us engaged in debate about the pros and the cons of an act or a thought. On that dance floor, I don’t have to tell you which “voice” most of us listened to. I kept in mind what Saint Augustine would say, when he was still very much a man of the world and sainthood seemed an impossible prospect: “God, forgive me...later.”
I was at the Ateneo because my two older brothers had graduated from there and my father had attended it for a couple of years in the prewar era when it was still part of Spanish Intramuros. My first year at the Ateneo’s lower grades was spent in temporary quarters, mostly Quonset huts in Ermita, while a new, sprawling school-complex was being erected in nearby Quezon City. The huts, structures of wood and steel with arching semicircular roofs, were relics of a bygone age. The playground had huge jacaranda trees; at one end was a high wall that separated our school from Assumption, an exclusive all-girls’ school run by French nuns. During my last two years in high school, when the Ateneo had long moved to the spacious grounds and modern edifices of Loyola Heights in Quezon City, I served as an acolyte, along with some friends, during La Semana Santa, or Holy Week, masses at the Assumption Chapel. La Semana Santa was when Manila and the whole country stopped to indulge in an orgy of ritualistic sorrow over a man salvaged by the Romans. It was also a time when a great number of city dwellers hied themselves to the provinces and the beaches to escape the suffocating heat of summer. Church icons were hidden under lavender cloth while music of an appropriately funereal nature came over the airwaves. Old women gathered at makeshift roadside altars in Manila’s neighborhoods to chant and sing in keening voices the life and death of Christ in a traditional form known as the Pasyon.
My friends and I served mass not so much out of intense religious feelings but for the opportunity of seeing the lovely colegialas who lived nearby, or whose families chose to attend services at the chapel. These young women came from wealthy, socially prominent families, and were in school not so much for an education but to bide their time and acquire the requisite social graces before being married off to young men of equal privilege. To us they seemed unattainable, Rapunzels in high towers, their air of remoteness making them lovelier than they actually were.
The best chance of seeing them up close was during communion, when we would flank the priest as he took the sacred wafer from the chalice and placed it on the reverential tongues of communicants kneeling at the altar rail. There they were, the innocent, unblemished faces of girl-women, eyes half-closed, hands folded, heads slightly tilted. The only incongruous aspect of this meekly chaste portrait was the tongue—that thick, fleshy red organ that could run from speech to unencumbered passion, praise the Lord or lick the most intimate recesses of the body—that each communicant would stick out at the last moment as though mocking us before chewing Christ to a pulp. The cloakings of piety and the reenactment of Christ’s death and resurrection served to inflame our adolescent passions even more, though we struggled to keep the corridors of thought free from the sensual language and portraiture of the flesh. Ah, those occasions of sin were everywhere, as we wavered between Augustine the man and Augustine the saint! And there too was Mother Church, patroling the porous border between body and soul.
Afterwards, we would compare notes on who we thought was the loveliest, who had seemed even slightly flirtatious, who possessed impious curves beneath prim apparel. One colegiala held us in thrall for two summers. Slim, with exquisite eyelashes and wide, doe-like eyes, she gave no sign of noticing us; to her we must have seemed mere extensions of the good father. What drew us to her was a beauty mark just above a full upper lip. Set against porcelain skin that promised resilience and framed by long dark tresses, it was a black ruby to be touched and kissed along with the rest of her. Ours was an innocent carnality, and the hoary rituals we were engaged in imbued us with a kind of medieval, even chivalric, feeling.
Easter rites were themselves suffused with carnality, a reminder of the pagan ways of celebrating darkness and fertility. The most magical moments were those heralding the bodily resurrection of Christ. In Assumption’s darkened chapel, at the point where Christ comes back to life, the congregation lighted candles, the chapel’s lights were switched on, and the ringing of bells commenced. The celebration was grand, theatrical, a reaffirmation of the supremacy of light.
On Binondo’s northwestern edge, right by the Pasig River, is Escolta Street, once the fashionable heart of Manila’s downtown. When I was growing up, Escolta had all the chi-chi shops, but best of all it had Botica Boie’s, a venerable pharmacy cum department store, with a café on the mezzanine. Sometimes my mother would take us shopping there. Seated at one of the café’s plush banquettes, I would watch the shoppers on the main floor, wondering if their lives bore any resemblance to ours.
Near the Escolta ran Avenida Rizal, where Manila’s burgis went to shop, take in a movie, and then dine at one of Binondo’s numerous panciterias. Lyric, Society, Palace, Ideal, Galaxy, Odeon: the names conjured up celluloid fantasies, a world to escape into and be enlightened about other states, other forms of being. Some of the older theaters, like the Clover, harked back to the turn of the century, and combined vaudeville, burlesque, and cinema. The best known was Opera Theater which, as its name suggested, had higher pretensions and was the favorite venue for zarzuela, or musical-comedy, stars.
The Ideal, however, with its Art Deco lobby, was my favorite. It was my mother who introduced me and my sisters to the Ideal. She knew the ticket taker, a morose-looking, balding gentleman who in our kids’ eyes seemed quite important in his russet and brown uniform. We would purchase one ticket, and at a moment when not many people would be entering, my mother would go up to him and make small talk while he looked around to see if the manager was around. Once the coast was clear, we would enter the cool interior, with our bags of lanzones, a round bittersweet fruit, and hopia, Chinese bean cakes purchased from a bakery on nearby Echague Street. Ensconced in our seats, we would munch merrily away.
The Ideal became a shrine where I discovered film noir, Antonioni, the French New Wave, Dr. Zhivago, and the Beatles. The hip, pixilated cheekiness of John, Paul, George, and Ringo in A Hard Day’s Night—along with the snot-nosed attitude of the Rolling Stones and the unabashed sexuality of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison—encouraged Jesuit-school brats like me and my friends in our tentative rebellions. The most visible sign of this rebellion was growing our school-regulation crew-cut hair past our ears towards mop-topped independence—much to the dismay of our prefect of discipline, a balding ex-Marine.
The Ideal was also where I first saw the films of Greta Garbo. Hers was a face that contained a luminescent sadness, whose apparent sangfroid masked an exquisite vulnerability. To see her smile in delight, or succumb to the unruliness of love, seemed a miracle. Like a troubadour, I paid homage with each visitation, waiting for that wondrous transformation onscreen. Garbo was a secular Virgin Mary, an oedipal dream whose hinted-at intimacy precluded guilt. Her film life exuded melancholia, with a broken heart somewhere at the end. Delicious sadness, yes, but never any regrets: nectar for a young poet.
Nearby Quiapo had other moviehouses, but these were either fleabags or showed Tagalog movies. My friends and I were hip, or so we, thoroughly colonial, thought, preferring the company of English-speaking strangers on the silver screen. We disdainfully referred to local movies as bakya, a reference to the wooden clogs rural folk and the poor wore. “Bakya” became a catchall term of derision for any cultural artifact or mode of decidedly proletarian origin. What was “native” was déclassé. We were completely enthralled by Hollywood, that garden of dazzling delights.
Sometimes I accompanied my mother on shopping trips to the Quinta Public Market, Quiapo’s large, sprawling area of tin-roofed one-storey sheds by the Pasig River. Anything and everything could be bought there, from handwoven baskets and brooms to coffee beans and fresh fish. My favorite section was the brightly lit row of food stalls, or turo- turos, where a customer could point at the desired item displayed in glass cases—hence the name, which means “point-point.” As we walked through, the tinderas, or female stall owners (and they all seemed to be women, with a bawdy sense of humor that reddened my Catholic ears), would pull at us and insist that the snacks they served were the tastiest. The women’s dark bodies glistened in the light, their sleeveless short dresses allowing unselfconscious displays of flesh in an easy interplay of sexuality and food I secretly delighted in. At such times I was thoroughly bakya, though I was ignorant of the world rep- resented by the market’s inhabitants—by the vendors and the crowds of haggling, deal-making patrons.
Across from the Quinta were Plaza Miranda and Quiapo Church, the hub of Manila’s heart. In this configuration of church, plaza, and market lay the essential outlines of a Filipino’s public life. Accepted through baptism in the church, fed by the market, politicized by and entertained in the plaza, the Filipino lived a lifetime of days in a perpetual commute between these places. Plaza Miranda was a sort of compacted Hyde Park where orators of every creed and belief, religious and secular, harangued small knots of listeners. Political candidates held their final mammoth rallies here in their bid for office. The plaza would be packed by the party faithful and the curious, eager to hear the bombast and vituperative attacks on their opponents, but even more eager to be entertained by an array of show business celebrities. This was an indispensable bread-and-circus, a palabas, without which no political rally was deemed a success.
Right outside Quiapo church was another, smaller open-air market, a talipapa, offering products for the soul, for the future, as well as for your health. Here notions of the sacred outdated and often contradicted Catholic ones. Plaster images of the saints, of the Virgin Mary, of the Santo Niño, were displayed in rows alongside anting-antings, bronze amulets with inscriptions of pig Latin that could, for instance, make you bullet-proof or irresistible to a beloved, as was the case with one that depicted the Christ Child with an erect penis, his left hand holding the globe, his right extended in greeting. The charm worked by rubbing the divine penis while chanting the beloved’s name.
Fortunetellers with their cards allowed anxious clients a peek into the different corridors of time. The vendors were again mostly women, among them herbolarias, their stalls and bilaos—round, shallow baskets—overflowing with medicinal bark, vines, roots, bottled potions. One popular herbal potion was an abortifacient; inside those huge, heavy church doors, however, the idea of abortion was anathema and regularly condemned. But the intensity of belief, the belief in the efficacy of spiritual agents, was the same. Many of the faithful crawled on their knees to the altar in fulfillment of a panata, or vow, or lined up to say a prayer of entreaty before the Black Nazarene, a life-size hardwood dark Christ kneeling under the weight of a cross. Carved by an Aztec craftsman during the seventeenth century, this Christ sailed over on one of the galleons that plied the trade route between Acapulco and Manila. Even now the statue is taken outdoors every January, during Quiapo’s fiesta. In a reenactment of its initial voyage, the dark Christ sails on a float in the center of a swaying, sweating sea of men (for only men can carry the Christ), each one jostling and pushing to earn a place among the rope-pullers and move the carriage through Quiapo’s narrow streets. The faithful, standing on the sidewalks, ball their handkerchiefs and throw them at the men riding on top of the float, in the hopes that they will be wiped briefly on the dark arms and doleful face of the Nazarene and, so blessed, flung back to their owners.
body in a bag,
body shunted aside,
body bled dry,
may heaven hold you,
may heaven remember
a body once crucified.
I can’t bear to look at the salvaged any longer. I deny this body, now beyond resurrection, and walk away. The curious crowd ebbs and flows on the bridge. Still no cops have arrived. Unless the dead is someone well-known, chances are he/she won’t make it to the evening news. I walk to the Pasig, wilfully removing my mind’s image of a guard attempting to salvage the savaged. Or perhaps it is the other way around.
Images of loss pervade the afternoon, slouching towards night. Now Escolta lingers on in faded dress, an aging star bereft of her crowds, grown dusty and forlorn. Botica Boie’s has vanished, along with most of the first-class cinemas. A few people are about who seem to like coming here to savor the desolate half-life of another era, sitting in the dark in the district’s remaining movie house, watching flickering images with other like-minded viewers.
Images of loss: the Ideal is gone, in its place a department store filled with cheap items; outside, the elevated mass-transit train courses down Avenida Rizal, blocking out the light and adding to the sense of congestion. Plaza Miranda and Quiapo Church still remain revered points for pilgrims wending their way to eternity, and for politicians embarked on a more worldly voyage. The talipapa around the church bustles, noisy as ever. And Carriedo Street, linking the Avenida to Quiapo Church, remains a maelstrom. Shoppers in a feeding frenzy maneuver the narrow spaces between the street stalls. And I hear that familiar refrain, “Pasalubong para kay Boy!” (“Gifts for Boy!”) Once upon a time I was that boy. Now the hawkers assume I have a boy, maybe a brood of children whose appetite for gifts I must satiate.
Images of loss: the river Pasig into which the city’s esteros empty has itself been salvaged and is now a black corpse moving towards the bay, bearing deadly gifts—one thousand tons daily of industrial effluents, sewage, and the odd body. Sticky with sweat, a handkerchief to my nose in a futile attempt not to breathe in the vehicular fumes that have turned the once-blue sky a hazy gray-brown, I cross the river via the old Puente España Bridge and walk all the way to Ermita and Malate.
Images of loss: between Pedro Gil and Padre Faura streets, the old schoolgrounds of the Ateneo and the Assumption are now occupied by a huge luxury hotel and a shopping mall. The wonderful jacarandas that witnessed our childhood games have been cut down, and the chapel where we once served mass and secretly longed for our colegiala has been gutted, the interior used for offices and boutiques.
Walking to the bay offers some relief from the heat that squats malevolently over the city; intermittent sea breezes barely stir the carbon monoxide or the lead particles that hang in the air like swarms of killer bees. Taxicabs, jeepneys, and rickety trucks on Roxas Boulevard weave through the traffic, schools of mechanical squid propelled by inky spumes. Despite their anemic look, the palm trees remind me of a time when Manileños came down here to refresh themselves, and swim in the bay. Now the city’s shit flows into it, though this doesn’t stop the children of the squatters living in colonies along some parts of the boulevard from swimming in the waters. The once-magnificent bay is dying, the people on the streets are dying, the no-longer noble and loyal city is dying, ravaged by vehicular exhaust, by concrete, by the disappearance of public space and civility—the sordid and grim process of urban entombment.
The more desperate of the homeless—the displaced—live literally on the edge, their shanties on the other side of the sea wall, on a thin strip of rock. When the typhoon season comes, they will have to abandon their homes or be swept away by a sea furious at their encroachment. No one knows for sure how many people inhabit the patchwork of jerrybuilt communities spread through metropolitan Manila—one estimate places them at half the population of eight to ten million—but the number seems to grow every year. People migrate to the city from the provinces, searching for work, filled with the illusion that in this city by the bay there will be reprieves for their pitiful lives. Their children beg on the streets, importuning driver and passengers alike for whatever change they can spare, or sell garlands of sampaguita (fragrant jasmine) for a few pesos. The cliché about the poor wearing smiles is true, though the smiles are more rueful than blissful and do little to soften the relentless claims of poverty.
More images of loss: on Roxas Boulevard, the elegant old clubs have gone; boarded-up buildings line a whole stretch of the thoroughfare—Havana after the revolution—but here one that has nothing to do with morals or ideology, only with mass-market capitalism. Alongside the sushi bars, the hamburger stands, the wiener und schnitzel dives on M. H. Del Pilar, the skin trade has become a fast- food business. The massage parlors and the girlie bars that have mushroomed pretend neither to elegance nor to a cheeky up-yours nod to the establishment. This is a straight-up, no-time-for-romance, wham-bang-thank-you-ma’m cash business. The Marcos regime promoted sex tours avidly, trumpeting the country’s female charms abroad as a natural resource, like so many stands of virgin forest to be felled. And in lumbered Tokyo’s salarymen; farmers from the Japanese countryside with their cameras and garish tropical shirts; and middle-aged Teutons and Aussie adventurers, slack-bellied and dull-eyed, searching for the perfect Asian doll. Or, worse, a child.
Images of loss: nothing startles and repulses more than the easy availability of street children whose faces, a mixture of world-weariness and innocence, make you want to weep. You see them, walking hand in hand with much older tourist men. You want to cry out, putangina mo, you whoreson, motherfucking foreign devil, and pummel them senseless, but you hold your tongue and jam your useless fists into your pockets. You know the city has always been tough, but was it ever this tough, this cold? Sex with prepubescents in the afternoons, and salvagings at night? The child in you shudders, retreats.
Now my recollections are as much elegy as anything else, not just for the city but for my childhood. Yet in the heart there is that place forever sacred, that child who refuses to die, immune from the mutability of time and even place, a place finally beyond place. Out of love, and even out of self-preservation, I hold my Manila in its niche, in my own peculiar history, a city no less tangible than that encountered in the real world, a Manila also of the imagination.
Luis H. Francia is a poet and a nonfiction writer. His latest volume of poetry is Tattered Boat, released in 2014. His poems have been translated into several languages. A collection of his most recent nonfiction, RE: Recollections, Reviews, Reflections, was released the summer of 2015.
He is on the faculty of Asian American Studies at New York University and Hunter College. He teaches creative writing at the City University of Hong Kong. He and his wife Midori Yamamura reside in Jackson Heights, the borough of Queens, New York City.