jump to navigation

Remembering the Asian Holocaust – part 2 December 7, 2015

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

By Alex Sawit

December 7, 2015

 

 

[ This is Part 2 of a two-part series. To read the start, go to Part 1. ]

 

 

   Ordinarily, a wine blog should not serve as a venue for matters unrelated to the subject of wine. Yet wine is ultimately the ally of honesty and truth, as expressed through the timeless saying, “in vino veritas” (“in drinking wine, truth emerges”). So when the world presents an occasion of such gravity that it gives dispensation to voice ourselves regardless of venue, we owe it to honestly speak the truth for all to hear.

   Seventy years ago, on September 2, 1945, government and military representatives of the Emperor of Japan signed the instrument of Japan’s surrender to Allied Forces, bringing a formal end to hostilities in the Second World War.

   This December 7 – the day on which we remember the Japanese surprise attack that plunged Asia into that world war – we owe it to further reflect on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender and give remembrance to the victims of Japanese wartime occupation, not least of all to the millions who perished from the atrocities committed against them. It is only through such memorial by both the people of Japan and the peoples of Asia that genuine forgiveness and lasting reconciliation are achieved, giving our nations hope that those who faithfully remember the past need not be condemned to repeat it.

   – the Editor

 

 

The “Rising Sun Flag”, once used in World War 2 by the Imperial Army and Navy,
welcomes Prime Minister Abe at an inspection of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

 

 

   Can we now trust Japan to revive itself as a military power – now that it has been seventy years since the end of the Asian Holocaust?

   It is a legitimate question and it needs to be answered.

   Under the present leadership of its ultra-nationalist Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, Japan is moving toward the full reinstatement of its military services, which will give it the ability to wage war overseas for the first time since World War 2. Currently, Japan’s post-war constitution only allows the country to keep self-defense forces that are non-aggressive in principle. Over the past decade, however, security threats from North Korea and territorial disputes with China have given right-wing politicians the pretext to attempt legislative changes that will pave the way for Japanese militarization. And since the United States, Japan’s former wartime adversary, is pushing for a strong Japanese military presence to counterbalance China’s ambitions in the region, it seems inevitable that Japan will once again possess a war machine to be reckoned with.

   But should I trust Japan as a revived military power in Asia?

   There was a time, not too long ago, when I wouldn’t have hesitated to say yes. Even though I was well-versed in the stories of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines and had familiarized myself with Japan’s wartime actions in the rest of Asia, at the time I felt very secure about the idea of Japan regaining its full military services.

   “Japan is a responsible First World country now,” I used to tell myself. “The war is long over and they’ve learned their lesson. Everything is okay. Surely by now, they’ve fixed their wartime problem.”

   Then a funny thing happened. After years of feeling comfortable with the idea of Japan reviving its military strength, I had a startling realization: that the first step to fixing your problem and learning your lesson is to admit you have a problem to begin with. After all, that’s what we tell our friends as individual people when we want to help them change for the better, right? Why shouldn’t the same principle apply to our friends as nations?

   So it hit me: Japan still hasn’t fixed its problem. And it hasn’t fixed it because Japan continues to deny that the problem ever existed. It’s been seventy long years since the end of the Asian Holocaust, yet to this day there endures a stubborn political culture of denial in Japan concerning Japanese wartime atrocities.

   Despite the overwhelming historical record of the holocaust, Japanese politicians continue to promote a domestic policy of lying about the full extent of their country’s guilt. Astonishingly, most of them feel it is irrelevant to acknowledge the truth to the Japanese people, believing all that matters is to preserve Japan’s honor by avoiding anything that brings shame to the country. These holocaust denialists have resorted to revising history itself, distorting and misrepresenting what happened to the point of portraying Japan as the innocent victim of the war. The most insidious propaganda device in their arsenal is the country’s education system; textbooks unscrupulously whitewash Japan’s wartime behavior, teaching generations of schoolchildren to be ignorant of Japanese atrocities and leading them to grow up believing that Japan was unfairly victimized by the victorious Allies (read any history book used in any Japanese high school, and the simplified narrative will say this: “During the war, Japan was bravely trying to defend its way of life against the people of Asia who were fighting against it. Then, for no good reason at all, their American allies started dropping atomic bombs on us.”).

   And now, under Prime Minister Abe, the holocaust denialists are stronger than ever.

   Abe has long been a controversial leader in Japanese politics. As Prime Minister, he has in the past publicly disputed the wartime rape and slavery of the Comfort Women (for years he insisted these were almost all prostitutes hired by the Japanese military), and has tried to suppress the admission of other Japanese atrocities. Further, Abe is closely affiliated with Nippon Kaigi, a highly influential right-wing organization which not only denies the Asian Holocaust, but which dreams of reviving Japan as a military superpower. In other words, Abe is Japan’s holocaust denialist No. 1.

   Still, it wasn’t until only recently that Abe and his political allies demonstrated how brazen they have become with their denialist agenda. On August 14, 2015, on the eve of Memorial Day in Japan, Abe addressed the nation and the world with a speech to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War 2. I have read and re-read the translation of that speech, which was released to the English language press immediately after the address. Based on that translation, I can say that Abe’s speech was a carefully crafted, flowery wording of revisionist history hogwash.

   I don’t want to waste reading space by reprinting that garbage here in its entirety. So instead, I’ve taken the liberty to concisely paraphrase what he said. Here is a “simplified” rewording of the speech Abe delivered to the world in his official capacity as Prime Minister of Japan:

 

    “A long time ago, it was trendy for Western powers to be colonial rulers in Asia. So when Japan grew up to be as tough as any of them, it wanted to become a colonial ruler too. But by then, colonial rule was going out of fashion with the Western powers, and they rejected Japan as the new kid on the block. Japan felt this was unfair, to be penalized just for arriving late to the game, and that it deserved its turn to play. This caused Japan to make the mistake of trying to have its way by going to war with the them. Unfortunately, bad things tend to happen in war, and in the Asian countries that fought against Japan there were plenty of innocent people who died due to hunger and disease and as collateral damage. And yeah, our boys were allowed R&R with women in those countries. That’s just the way war is. And then we lost. Naturally, as the loser, Japan has apologized over and over again for what happened. These apologies are more than enough so that Japan should not be expected in the future to keep apologizing for its past. So I won’t bother to offer any new apology now on behalf of my country. We’ve learned our lesson, so thank you, have a nice day, and stop trying to make us feel guilty all the time.”

 

   What an asshole.

   It is important to be aware that, in his real statement, Abe only ever refers to civilian deaths by saying that, “innocent citizens suffered and fell victim to battles as well as hardships such as severe deprivation of food.” Nowhere in his actual speech does Abe directly say or even imply that millions of civilians in occupied countries died as victims of atrocities committed by Japanese imperial forces. And in addressing the sensitive issue of Comfort Women, he states with calculated ambiguity that, “there were women behind the battlefields whose honor and dignity were severely injured,” allowing room for Abe to maintain his position that these were women who lost their way due to wartime economic difficulties, causing them to fall into prostitution (they fell and “injured” themselves, so to speak).

   Prime Minister Abe and his holocaust denialists may think themselves clever at propaganda in Japan, but they are answerable before the inquiries of the world. How can they claim to have fixed their wartime problem and learned their lesson when they deny that Japan had a problem to begin with? How can they say they’ve changed for the better when they insist that Japan didn’t exactly commit the atrocities it is accused of? How can we trust Japan to be a “benevolent” military power in Asia in the foreseeable future when it is still in denial of its merciless past?

   Sadly, it has become a renewable source of nationalistic pride for Abe and his political allies to deny the Asian Holocaust, which they indulge in as a victorious form of defiance against the judgement of world opinion. The great irony is, while they may think they are making a show of strength, these Japanese politicians are unaware that in the eyes of the international community their denial is looked down upon as a show of cowardice in the face of a shameful truth.

   My answer therefore must be no. I will not trust the revival of Japan as a military power and neither should the rest of Asia – unless Japan has the courage to take that first step by admitting it has a problem with the way it sees its past wartime behavior.

   Courage is the measure of a heroic nation, not denial. Until it chooses to bravely accept the truth, without distortion or misrepresentation, Japan will always lack the complete trust of those neighbors it once visited with the atrocities of war.

 

 

[ This is Part 2 of a two-part series. To read the start, go to Part 1. ]

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Remembering the Asian Holocaust – part 1 November 16, 2015

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

By Alex Sawit

November 16, 2015

 

 

[ This is Part 1 of a two-part series. To read the next, go to Part 2. ]

 

 

   Ordinarily, a wine blog should not serve as a venue for matters unrelated to the subject of wine. Yet wine is ultimately the ally of honesty and truth, as expressed through the timeless saying, “in vino veritas” (“in drinking wine, truth emerges”). So when the world presents an occasion of such gravity that it gives dispensation to voice ourselves regardless of venue, we owe it to honestly speak the truth for all to hear.

   Seventy years ago, on September 2, 1945, government and military representatives of the Emperor of Japan signed the instrument of Japan’s surrender to Allied Forces, bringing a formal end to hostilities in the Second World War.

   This December 7 – the day on which we remember the Japanese surprise attack that plunged Asia into that world war – we owe it to further reflect on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender and give remembrance to the victims of Japanese wartime occupation, not least of all to the millions who perished from the atrocities committed against them. It is only through such memorial by both the people of Japan and the peoples of Asia that genuine forgiveness and lasting reconciliation are achieved, giving our nations hope that those who faithfully remember the past need not be condemned to repeat it.

   – the Editor

 

 

Aftermath of the Massacre of Manila in 1945.

 

 

   Being a Filipino who grew up in the Philippines decades after the end of the Second World War, I was taught from a young age that the Asian Holocaust was a monstrous act of evil that could only have been perpetrated by the most evil of monsters.

   I remember this through the stories told by my mother’s side of the family, who lived in Manila during the Japanese occupation. Sometimes, they told me about the outpouring of joy during liberation as my mother, aunts and uncles, and grandparents welcomed our American allies. Endearingly, grandma always giggled whenever she reminded me about how my mom had the chutzpah as a little kid to greet smiling American G.I.s marching in front of cheering crowds on the street, asking them, “Hi Joe! Want a pam-pam, Joe?” (my giggling grandma told me that the surprised American actually responded, saying, “Sure! Where??!!”).

   Most of the time, however, they told me how they were very fortunate when so many families lost their lives during the occupation. In these unhappy stories, the message was clear: the Japanese were monsters of brutality to the Filipinos.

   The Japanese, they told me, behaved as if they were having fun and games with a people whom they regarded as inferior to their own race. One story told of how sword wielding officers would amuse themselves by beheading civilians on the street to sow terror among the locals. Another story told of how soldiers would grab babies from the arms of Filipina mothers outdoors and toss them high in the air, and as the infants fell the soldiers would impale them on the bayonets of their rifles in a gleeful game of catch (accounts about Japanese infantrymen killing babies exactly in this way are found as far away as China; I have also watched archival Japanese propaganda footage demonstrating how an Imperial soldier with fixed bayonet should properly impale a child in the air). And if they felt that a community needed to be taught a lesson in colonial domestication, the Japanese would simply round up locals and massacre them by machine gun and bayonet, treating Filipinos no differently from uncooperative livestock being culled.

   From their stories, I understood why many Filipinos hated the Japanese for so long after the war. And as I grew up and read the war stories of neighboring countries, I further understood why many other Asians seethed with anti-Japanese feelings that linger to this day. Yet on my own, I also understood the power of forgiveness in the pursuit of lasting reconciliation. I do not believe in giving hatred a chance to forever chart the course of nations, which is why I easily and sincerely befriended post-war generations of Japanese and welcomed them to our country. At some point, people need to realize that we must all strive to move forward together in real friendship.

   Moving forward does not excuse us, however, from our obligation to the truth. For if we forget the past, in doing so we forsake its lessons, which the people of Asia have paid for in tears and blood. There will always be ambitious powers in this world, so ultimately I understand that if we are to prevent any power from reviving such tragedies tomorrow, then we must vigilantly remember the lessons of yesterday, when our countries were reaped as killing fields by the Empire of Japan.

   We must never forget the Asian Holocaust.

   When the word “holocaust” is mentioned, most people immediately think of the Holocaust of Europe, in which six million Jews and millions of non-Jewish civilians were exterminated under the wartime rule of Nazi Germany. So searing was that experience on the conscience of the West that it is now indelible in Western media, to be told always so that the world may never forget. This narrative has been repeated so successfully, however, that today many Asians think that the holocaust experience was only a European one, as if Asia’s experience was not comparable.

   Here in the Philippines, where locals are heavily influenced by Western media, this is especially the case among younger generations, who are too removed by time to comprehend what was once committed against their countrymen. I am reminded of the astonishment voiced by a distinguished Filipino professor not too long ago, regarding the disbelieving attitude of today’s youth, when he confronted them about how the Japanese massacred at least 70,000 men, women, and children in the city of Manila in 1945. To put it into perspective, this conservative estimate for the Massacre of Manila begs for comparison with the approximately 75,000 killed in the atomic bombing of Nagasaki – an event which the Western media annually commemorates with greater sympathy, influencing young Filipinos to the point of imagining Japan as the innocent victim of the war.

   “One of my students in a history class,” lamented Prof. Bernard Karganilla of the University of the Philippines, about this mass-murder of the people of Manila, “adamantly refused to believe that such barbarities were ever committed by the Japanese.”

   Although the Asian Holocaust as a term of reference is only now seeing increasing dissemination, its historical basis is undeniable. In numbers and brutality, the wartime atrocities of the Empire of Japan constitute a crime against humanity that parallels what Nazi Germany comitted in Europe. Most Western researchers estimate that over 10 million civilians were murdered from the continental mainland to Southeast Asia; some Asian researchers place the death toll up to 20 million or higher. Whatever the figure, internationally respected historians unanimously agree that these were sanctioned atrocities, condoned or permitted outright by the Imperial Throne and frequently organized as wholesale actions in which human beings were enslaved, tortured or exterminated.

 

Screenshot of Japanese propaganda film footage, showing two Imperial soldiers
re-enacting how to bayonet a Chinese baby thrown in the air.

 

   Beginning with its invasion of China in 1937, the Japanese Empire indulged in an ideology of racial supremacy over the people it conquered, in which non-Japanese were regarded as commodities that either were useful or needed to be disposed of (especially the Chinese, whom the Japanese derogatorily called chankoro to label them as subhuman slaves; such racist entitlement paralleled that of the Nazis, Japan’s wartime accomplices, who saw the Jews as “slaves and fertilizer”). What started with the Rape of Nanking thereafter exploded across Asia as an account of man’s inhumanity to man: the Sook Ching ethnic cleansing in Singapore and the rest of Malaya…the medical torture and live human biological experiments by Unit 731…the Three Alls Policy – “Kill All, Burn All, Loot All” – of genocide in China…the sexual enslavement of the Comfort Women…the list of atrocities goes on.

   I regret that it is not possible in one reading to do justice to all the stories. But being a Filipino, it is the Massacre of Manila that to me most painfully reveals the apathy for human life with which the holocaust in Asia was carried out.

   With U.S. forces battling their way into the Philippine capital at the start of February 1945, the Japanese proceeded to execute the civilian population of Manila – a spiteful course of action, designed to prevent the Filipinos from becoming a strategic resource of aid and comfort for their American liberators (some historians who disagree with the conservative estimate of the death toll suggest that, excluding the many who died as collateral damage during the monthlong battle for the city, the massacres alone killed anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 people). Through eyewitness testimonies of survivors, captured military documents, and the accounts of prisoners of war and their collaborators, we know that the Japanese were systematic: setting fire to residential neighborhoods and slaughtering the families as they ran out of their blazing homes, massing locals into execution sites to be promptly bayoneted or decapitated, herding the populace into large enclosures to be locked in, doused with gasoline, and burned alive. One massacre order, a copy of which was captured during the fighting, gave these instructions:

 

    “When Filipinos are to be killed, they must be gathered into one place and disposed of with the consideration that ammunition and manpower must not be used to excess. Because the disposal of dead bodies is a troublesome task, they should be gathered into houses which are scheduled to be burned or demolished [editor’s note: the latter refers to entombing live victims in buildings rigged with explosives]. They should also be thrown into the river.”

    order issued to Japanese battalions inside Manila, February 1945

 

   Given the multitude of stories on record about what the Japanese did in Manila, I will make it suffice to tell you about only one of the them – the story of one photograph, taken by a cameraman with U.S. forces after the massacres were finally stopped. It always breaks my heart to look at this. In the scene, three motionless Filipino civilians are lying in the rubble of their war torn city – all of them bayoneted by the Japanese. In the center is a young female, her face unseen because she is crouched protectively beside a little girl of about two or three years old. The woman, whom the photographer presumed to be the little girl’s mother, clearly bears her bayonet wound, outlined by the vivid cut in her clothing from the sharpness of the stabbing blade. On the far left, another victim is visible only by an outstretched left hand on the ground, with the rest of the victim out of frame.

 

 

   It is the face of the little girl that most haunts me. To look at her is to find fleeting refuge from the desolation and failure of mercy that is everywhere around her. Her face is so quieting, so freed from pain, so beautiful with the promise of a life that has been robbed from her. I look at her and think that, had she lived, she would now be the same age as my mother. She seems so lifelike, as if she were only napping as little children do when they’ve tired themselves after too much playing and getting dirty outdoors. And if I look a little longer, I can fool myself into asking, “Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe she’s just asleep. She isn’t dead. She can’t be…”

   Of course she is, I angrily tell myself.

   I don’t know how any Filipino can look at this beautiful little one and not see the sheer absence of compassion that was utterly delivered to her short life. I don’t know how any Filipino can see the woman crumpled in front and not feel that she must have used her own body as a shield while trying desperately to save her child, or look at the outstretched hand and not feel that here was a human being who did not deserve the perverted honor of an Imperial bayonet. I don’t know how any Filipino after this would not think of shaming young Filipinos into realizing that the Massacre of Manila deserves their obligation more than the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to which they feel more connected to in solidarity with Western media sympathies. Indeed, it is the Western media who needs to be shamed into remembering that all this was merely one small chapter of evil in the Asian Holocaust.

   Looking at that photograph, I cannot help but revisit what my family told me, that the Japanese were surely evil monsters. How else could they have murdered so many innocent Filipinos with such heartless efficiency? Yet I know now that this was not true.

   No, it was not monsters who murdered my countrymen. As inconvenient as it might be, the simple truth is that the vast majority of those who carried out atrocities in the Philippines and across Asia were no different from their victims before they were sent to war. From farmers to fishermen, shopkeepers to street vendors, craftsmen to artisans, these were ordinary people – normal human beings who were set loose in violently abnormal circumstances. It is this everyday normality about the killers that ought to be disturbing to any of us, because it makes them so uncomfortably familiar to all of us.

   One of the stories that moved me to that realization was the courage of Jintaro Ishida, a Japanese war veteran whose remorse led him to became a voice of conscience in Japan. After retiring as a schoolteacher in 1988, Ishida sought to atone for his countrymen and implored them to honestly face the heinousness of their nation’s wartime past. He traveled repeatedly to the Philippines to conduct detailed investigations as he searched for massacre sites and interviewed survivors, and he eventually published books about the massacres in the hope of overcoming many in the Japanese public who continue to deny that the Asian Holocaust ever happened.

   Ishida also tracked down the Japanese war veterans who massacred Filipino civilians. One of them confessed this to him: “In the beginning, we could not kill even a man. But we managed to kill him. Then we hesitated to kill a woman. But we managed to kill her, too. Then we could kill children. We came to think as if we were just killing insects.”

   But while Ishida never participated in any atrocities during the war, the Filipino survivors he encountered always asked him the same question: Why were the Japanese so cruel?

   “Many people asked me this,” a heavy-hearted Ishida told the New York Times in 2001. “They asked me why the Japanese killed men, women and children…why didn’t they let these people escape? I had no answer for them. This made them angry. “That’s not a good enough answer. Why can’t you answer the question?” “

   It was only later when he returned to Japan, to interview and confront those war veterans who were guilty of these horrific crimes, that he understood what the answer was. Face to face with his fellow veterans, Ishida realized that they were just ordinary men like him – that in every one of them, what he was really seeing was himself.

   “During the war, I (was assigned for military service on the home front and) never went to the Philippines,” Ishida said, trying with difficulty to explain why he felt so personally accountable. “But if I had been assigned there, I would have been one of the Japanese soldiers who took part in the massacres. So it was hard for me to continue with the interviews (of guilty veterans). It was a horrible experience for me.”

   It is a disquieting moment in any individual’s self-discovery to realize that one need look no further than oneself to see where evil may come from – not from those monsters we conveniently blame outside of ourselves, but from the ordinary human heart that is within us all. Everything comes down to choice, whether to follow or not to follow that sickly sweet call to set aside one’s conscience. It is up to the individual to choose to do what is good or what is evil. Beyond that, we are all the same.

   Do monsters exist? My answer is yes, they do. And few as they are, they would not have the power to spread their ambitions in this world without the unquestioning obedience of ordinary people to impose them. The real question is, can ordinary people be as extraordinary as the monsters they choose to serve?

   I will answer with the words of the esteemed Jewish-American Holocaust scholar, Michael Berenbaum, who said this about the ordinary German people who operated and maintained the Nazi death camps – Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and many more – all without question and in obedience to Hitler.

   “Ordinary people,” said Berenbaum, “are capable of doing extraordinary things…terrible things…evil things.”

   In the end, I feel that I have not undone the stories my family entrusted to me. Rather, I have merely completed them with understanding. As I said, I don’t believe in allowing hatred to forever chart the course of nations, but equally, I believe that we have a duty to valiantly uphold the truth. No matter how painful remembrance may be, the key to safeguarding the people of Asia, together with the rest of the world, from the revival of monstrous evils in the future is for us to always remember what really happened.

   Only by doing so can we ensure our safekeeping of the most important lesson about the Asian Holocaust: that without the collaboration of ordinary people – without a people’s consent to conveniently suspend the conscience of each individual – no holocaust would ever be possible.

 

 

[ This is Part 1 of a two-part series. To read the next, go to Part 2. ]

 

 

 

 

My New Year’s Resolution January 26, 2015

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
add a comment

By Alex Sawit

January 26, 2015

 

 

   I’ve never made a New Year’s resolution before.

   Certainly, lots of folks enjoy making New Year’s resolutions. It’s a socially fashionable way to enthusiastically announce to the world one’s commitment to start over, using the perfectly timed convenience of the new year as a clean slate. Just like that, as if a magic wand had been waved, one is able to throw out all the unwanted baggage that one had been carrying as a result of twelve calendar months of accumulated life mismanagement. All is absolved. And after all the effort of drinking and partying in order to usher the arrival of a brand new twelve months, one now takes comfort in the knowledge that there is plenty of time to get things right THIS time around.

   Unfortunately, as the cliché says, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again in the hope of getting a different result.

   It’s like this comedy skit that I remember watching years ago. In the show, the stand-up comedian is re-enacting the hilarious rituals of socializing while getting blissfully intoxicated at a bar. Eventually, the audience reaches that point in the story where the comedian confronts them with the universal problem of going home in the wee hours of the morning…when one is already hopelessly, head-splittingly wasted.

   “What I really hate,” he tells his guilty audience, with that sinking feeling that all drunken returnees understand, “is that it takes me every ounce of will just to struggle out of the car seat!”

   “Finally, I pull myself out! And now I’m standing on the road, begging myself! Please, please, please! Just make it to the front door!”

   “And then…I see joggers.”

   [ AUDIENCE LAUGHS ]

   Wrapping up the skit, he then describes in painful detail what all hangover veterans know by heart: the crushing remorse of waking up in bed, of time passing slowly and torturously, and the cruel penance of getting up to endure a mercilessly beautiful, sunshine filled day.

   “And that’s when I make myself that solemn promise, ‘I will never drink again!’ ”

   [ MORE LAUGHTER ]

   “And THIS time, I mean it!”

   [ ALL OUT LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE, CURTAINS ]

   You get what I mean?

   That’s why I’ve always distrusted people who excitedly advocate making New Year’s resolutions, in the same way that I am distrustful of fashionistas and hipsters. They’re made of fluff. They make promises that are as binding as the confetti that quickly gets swept from the ballroom floor after the champagne is gone and the fireworks have been silenced by the darkness.

   Then again, I’m being unfair to all of you who ever made a New Year’s resolution at one point or another. The onus is on the person making the promise. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a resolution if your resolve is in the right place.

   I now find myself in such a place. I’ve given it much thought and, after nearly a month gone by in this new year, it’s time for me to finally make a New Year’s resolution of my own.

   To be honest, I’m glad 2014 is over. To be frank and brutal, I hate that year.

   I’ve never known a year that has left me so disappointed in people whom I trusted – people to whom I had sincerely given my loyalty. Granted, it’s a handful of individuals, but each was a Cyrano friend. It is a terrible thing to realize the truth in what Shakespeare said about those who stab where friendship has lowered its guard. “This was the most unkindest cut of all,” he wrote in Julius Caesar. “Ingratitude.”

   Yet even now, I wish them well. And if someday enough time will have passed for amends to be made, I will welcome that.

   For now, all I can do is bill this to experience. I’ve learned a lot from them. And so, here is My New Year’s Resolution of 2015, in the form of a rephrased quote from President Frank Underwood in House of Cards:

   “They’ve done me a great favor. Never again will I allow myself to be put in such a position.”

   [ DOUBLE-TAP SOUND OF KNUCKLES KNOCKING ON WOOD ]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paradise Lost – part 3 November 28, 2014

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

By Alex Sawit

November 28, 2014

 

 

Boracay Ati Tribal Organization on Facebook, showing chieftain Delsa Justo (foreground, right) among the youth. Inset shows Dexter Condez, the Ati leader whose slaying in 2013 galvanized the tribe to continue fighting for its rights.

 

 

[ EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of Paradise Lost. Although long delayed, it turned out for the best because it allowed the article to be shaped by recent developments on Boracay. Nevertheless, I apologize to all those who had been waiting for the conclusion. To read the previous installments, go to Part One and Part Two. ]

 

 

It’s easy to let down one’s guard when one is feeling good with progress being made. Since I do feel good about it and about what it means for the future, I’ll just keep in mind not to stray from being cautiously optimistic.

October was “National Indigenous Peoples’ Month” in the Philippines. For the Ati tribe of Boracay, it was a fitting time to celebrate the official release of their Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan (ADSDPP), which they did last October 18, at their tribal village in Manoc-Manoc. The event coincided with the ceremonial blessing of the newest village facilities, the Heritage Center and Learning Center, which will serve the vital purpose of curating Ati traditions and knowledge for locals and tourists.

Truly, how could we not feel good when so much is seeing fruition?

“When (we) visited the Ati Village last July,” reported correspondent Freida Dario-Santiago in an article for the Boracay Sun, “they were overjoyed to finally have running water from the Boracay Island Water Company…(and as of now) 30 houses, the Boracay Ati Multi-Purpose Cooperative store, the livelihood center and sewing facility, and the Bihasin Ati Living Heritage Center have been completed, and on-going construction of the front perimeter fence and the school were underway, to be followed by the construction of (the chapel).”

Nevertheless, the ADSDPP is the foundation for the tribe’s future. Indigenous peoples like the Ati are required by the Philippine government to each draft a separate ADSDPP. Sort of like a tribal constitution and economic blueprint rolled into one, it properly defines the rights of a cultural community to self-determination. Now, the Ati can move forward, backed by local and national authorities, knowing that they have the lawful mechanism for protecting their interests.

So what’s the long term vision for the Ati?

“Assets for cultural tourism,” says Dario-Santiago in her article. “The ADSDPP will empower them (to govern themselves) as a cultural, spiritual and self-reliant community…providing an enriching interaction for locals and tourists.”

Cultural tourism. Ecotourism. Those are the new buzz words of the good guys championing Boracay’s original heritage. They remind us that it was Ati song and dance that gave us one the greatest celebrations in the Philippines, the Ati-Atihan Festival, suggesting that the Ati have it within their centuries of folklore and way of life to create other narratives. “The Ati would be the best tour guides,” continues Dario-Santiago, “with the opportunity to share the history of Boracay as its first settlers, and the stories behind the places their ancestors named.” There are even Ati cooking demonstrations being organized for urban Filipinos, who are pleasantly surprised by the honest flavors of traditional islander cuisine.

“We are very grateful,” said anthropologist Benjamin Abadiano, speaking to Al Jazeera network, “that the government has finally realized that they need to provide a face, the human face, of Boracay, which is the Ati.” Abadiano is one of the country’s leading advocates of indigenous peoples’ rights and is working to help reinvent Boracay with the Ati at its heart. “Because without the Ati,” he says, “Boracay becomes a soul-less community.”

Yet there’s a treacherous road ahead. It’s because the government that has been so gracious to the Ati has also set a collision course between two visions for Boracay, both of which are publicly supported by the same government.

Vision on the one hand: Eco-Culture Sanctuary of the Philippines.

Vision on the other hand: Party Island to the World.

You only have to watch the Department of Tourism’s international ad campaign, touting “Boracay: Asia’s 24/7 Island”, to grasp the conflict of interest. For despite its commitment to protect the island from over-development, the reality is that the government is also committed to pimping it. This year, planners are on track to exceed 1.5 million visitor arrivals on this crowded beach destination, which surpassed the one million mark last August to generate over $420 million (according to the latest released figures from Aklan’s Tourism Operations Office).

To be fair, partygoers and eco-culture visitors can co-exist but only if the whole island follows the right vision. Take Boracay’s regional rival, Bali, if you want a successful model for this. From the temple processions to the music and dance pageantry, the Balinese cultural experience is so wonderfully inescapable that it creates a compelling “Bali Brand”. Commercial developers are smart enough to tap into this and visitors love it, to the tune of millions of arrivals each year. And the stronger the cultural brand, the more profitable it is for local businesses, which welcome both types of tourists. Unfortunately, the Philippine government appears lukewarm about coordinating a similar strategy between the Ati and the local business sector.

No administration wants to risk Boracay’s revenue stream by advancing a different tourism model. Which means, the government’s commitment to a hardcore party island already sabotages the Ati before the tribe has even begun.

It’s unaviodable. With tens of thousands of drinking, carousing revelers overrunning this small island at any given time, it’s going to constantly generate a negative environment for the Ati’s own eco-tourists, who are coming explicitly for a cultural experience only to be exposed to the party madness one way or another. It’s a raw deal for the Ati and their allies but they must find a way to persevere.

I wonder if there is also prejudice at work. Like those property owners who see the Negrito tribe members as eyesores and chase them off the beaches, do our own tourism officials also look down on the Ati? Are they embarrassed because they think a native islander culture isn’t an “attractive” image for Asia’s 24/7 playground?

That’s ignorance, not just prejudice. Look at the Fijians. Look at the Tahitians of French Polynesia. Look at how the Maori are a source of proud national identity for New Zealanders, including the country’s white majority (watch the mighty All-Blacks of rugby perform their famous Maori warrior haka on the world stage and you’ll get a glimpse of how Maori heritage weaves together New Zealand’s multi-ethnic diversity). If the native islander cultures of other beautiful Pacific destinations can appeal to a world market, the Ati can do the same with theirs.

Which brings me back to something I touched on at the beginning of my story – my example of Batanes, the northernmost Philippine province, a breathtaking island group renowned for its picturesque stone houses and chilling ocean winds, and home of the indigenous, seafaring Ivatan people.

Batanes is always listed in national surveys as the poorest province in the country, with a great majority of the population involved in fishing and farming. Yet the Ivatan correctly point that those same surveys also list them as the happiest people in the Philippines. “We never go hungry here,” is what they like to tell their guests from the big cities. Such visitors always find it refreshing to immerse in the authenticity of the Ivatan, whose simplicity in the pursuit of happiness is immune to outsiders preaching the material priorities of a consumer society. To the Ivatan, it’s never about consuming more and more and more. It’s about living with integrity. The celebrated Honesty Coffee Shop, which is the Ivatan-owned general store in the provincial capital that regularly attracts media attention because of its “honor system”, is just one shining example of the genuineness of life in Batanes (the store has no staff, relying instead on customers to write in the logbook what they’re taking and just leave the payment in the drop box). The Ivatan also like to share amusing recollections of their dealings with aggressive commercial developers from their next door neighbor, Taiwan. The most popular story tells of the Taiwanese gambling group that wanted to build a massive casino complex on one of the province’s uninhabited islands, projecting huge numbers of Chinese gamblers and promising the Ivatan billions of pesos in collections. To this, the Ivatan council essentially told them, “What are we going to do with the money? We’re happy with our lives. You’re just going to destroy our land.”

I ask you: How do you bribe a people who have no price?

The answer makes me smile with renewed faith in what is possible when a community finds strength in its convictions – when a people believes proudly in who they are, making them resolute in defense of their way of life. That’s the kind of cultural stronghold that the Ati of Boracay must become.

With the help of their allies, the Ati can grow into that. Only then will they be able to reassert their centuries-old calling as Boracay’s stewards. That’s the cultural selling point that will help transform Boracay into a more attractive, more sustainable tourism destination for generations to come.

At the same time, the island’s business sector needs to stop being in denial. Time is running out. It’s members need to accept that the present course is not only unsustainable but will destroy the island’s natural beauty permanently. They may not realize it yet, but they need to form a strategic partnership with the Ati. They have everything to gain if Boracay is successfully reinvented with the Ati as its true face. Because in the global marketplace of the 21st century, where First World consumers are shifting increasingly in favor of a more eco-conscious, culture-sensitive attitude – about everything from green energy to organic food to, you guessed it, enriching travel experiences – Boracay needs to offer more than just beaches and parties if it is to stay internationally competitive in the long term.

I’m not saying cultural reinvention will be easy. Imprinting the Ati as Boracay’s showcase identity will take lots of hard work for an unforeseeable length of time, but it’s doable. Besides, can you honestly think of a better way to reclaim this lost paradise? I can’t.

So let’s cheer the Ati and their allies onward and support their dream in whatever way we can. It’s a long road ahead and we all need to stay vigilant, especially whenever we’re feeling most hopeful about the future.

 

 

 

 

Paradise Lost – part 2 June 16, 2014

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
Tags: ,
add a comment

By Alex Sawit

June 16, 2014

 

[ To read this from the beginning, go to Part One. ]

 

 

If Boracay has only one rival outside the Philippines, it must be Bali.

My sister Jennifer recently returned from Seminyak, where she and her husband, with kids and nannies along with my brother-in-law’s side of the family, had a marvelous time. The stories they brought back clearly told me of a beach destination where tourism has been properly sorted by the Balinese community.

Originally a separately administered town, Seminyak is now a suburb of the expansive Kuta district, which includes the village of Kuta, the island’s original tourist haven where daily sunset watching on the beaches first became a beloved institution. Unlike the adrenaline pumping, circus-like sights and sounds of Kuta Village, however, the relatively subdued atmosphere in Seminyak offers travelers the right mix of intimacy and liveliness. And like the classic sunsets on Kuta Beach, the ones on Seminyak are just as bewitching.

“Everywhere along the beach, they bring out these colorful bean bags when it’s time,” Jennifer said, excitedly describing the Balinese devotion to setting the stage for visitors so they could enjoy nature’s show on the sand. “It’s a really big thing to watch the sunset every day here.”

 

My sister’s shot of Seminyak Beach.

 

Colorful bean bags…

 

…for my sister’s Bali sunset.

 

About their accommodations, she really enjoyed how the whole clan was billeted in a Balinese villa. These contemporary living spaces offer detached housing around a courtyard or pool – thatched roof cottages are the classic look but Western-style architecture is now common – with maids, cooks and other faithful staff as part of every villa’s household. All of this makes it practical for large groups to stay together while allowing individuals to seclude themselves in a real home away from home. It’s more intimate than any luxury hotel and a lot more economical, too, if there are enough friends or family sharing the rental. Also, my sister’s villa was an easy footpath walk from the beach, rather than being built along the shore.

Apart from the beach, she said, there was “…a visit to the local market…civet coffee farm…batik factory…and lots of eating out….”

At the wine shop, I mentioned my sister’s great experience of staying in a Balinese villa to one of my regular guests, who dropped in for a nightcap of red wine before heading home.

“This is something I wish they would learn to do in Boracay,” opined my Australian friend, Lisa, who it turns out also shares my disappointment with our local rival to Bali.

Lisa has been living in the Philippines for years but, like most Aussies I’ve met, she grew up a beach connoisseur, so she knows exactly what she wants out of an island getaway (incidentally, her husband is executive chef at that gorgeously manicured private island off the Quezon coast, Balesin, which Lisa assures me is quite impressive). Although our conversation that night was really about Boracay, the mention of my sister’s holiday in Bali struck a chord with her.

“Villas make so much sense,” she exclaimed. “You feel more intimacy. You feel more like you can make yourself at home, not like a hotel or resort. And they shouldn’t be built so close to the shoreline. Really, how hard is it to walk across the road to the beach? But people insist on building on the beach in Boracay and it blocks the view.”

I know what she means. Today, when you try to look at Boracay’s White Beach from across the road that runs along its 4-kilometer length, you can’t see the shore with all those buildings squeezed shoulder to shoulder on the sand, obstructing the view from one end of the beach to other. To think that just two decades ago, that same road was a scenic drive, where the vivid sight of the beachfront would welcome visitors through broad, sunshine-flooded spacings between the coconut trees. That view is now blocked forever. I told Lisa that property developers in this country are thoughtless when it comes to preserving nature’s scenery for everyone but their own guests (I also cited the example of Tagaytay, where decades of unchecked commercial building along the cliffside have permanently ruined the most panoramic lake view drive in all of the Philippines). We both sort of shook our heads.

“But Boracay’s planners,” Lisa reacted, after I mentioned that Boracay wants to sustain more than 1.5 million tourists annually, “should stop trying to compete with Bali’s tourist numbers. Do they have any idea how big an island Bali is?”

Let’s put this into perspective. Bali is an island of 5,780 square kilometers and it welcomed 3.27 million tourists in 2013. That same year, Boracay crammed 1.36 million tourists within its 10-square kilometer confines. Sooner or later, Boracay is going to burst.

“I’m not saying Bali is perfect,” I told Lisa. “Every beach that becomes a major tourist destination will develop its own problems because of commercialization. But when it comes to environmental sustainability, Bali has superior advantages over Boracay. And there is more to Bali than just the beach.”

 

My sister wasn’t able to visit this but Tanah Lot Temple, sitting on a rock
above the waves, is worth the 40 minute drive from Seminyak.

 

But I was preaching to the choir. Lisa was well-versed in the many other ways to experience Bali’s natural wonders – treks up volcanic Mt. Batur, walks through the Sacred Monkey Forest, white water rafting on Ayung River, etc. More than that, she understood that I was really talking about the local culture.

It’s impossible to visit Bali without being pleasantly interrupted by its pageantry. The religious Balinese posses an expressive performing arts culture, which means that on any given day you may have to peacefully stop on the road to give way to a colorfully dressed temple procession, or your host might just surprise you in your rented villa with a Balinese dance troupe complete with a traditional gamelan ensemble (these percussive musical instruments are related to the Filipino kulintang).

The point that I made to Lisa is that Bali is also a cultural destination. It has a vibrant, well-defined identity that succeeds in enriching visitors who are prepared to learn from it (and eat it, because Balinese cuisine is very flavorful, as my sister will attest). In other words, even without the beach, Bali still has a soul that you can experience.

And that is the reason why Boracay cannot ultimately compete with Bali. Because without its beaches and its nightlife, Boracay has nothing else to offer. That is to say, it has nothing else to offer if it stays just a party island, as planned by its retarded visionaries.

Yet there are those who fervently tell us that Boracay does have a compelling but forgotten culture – contained in the inherited memory and traditions of the island’s ancient, original people, the Ati. With help from social welfare groups, the Ati are now trying to establish an alternative vision for Boracay, one based on their cultural identity, which their advocates hope will one day lead to sustainable tourism on the island.

But can the Ati really hope to even marginally emulate the success of the Balinese?

 

[ Continue to Part Three. ]

 

 

 

 

Paradise Lost – part 1 May 26, 2014

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

By Alex Sawit

May 26, 2014

 

 

Behind its beautiful face, Boracay’s heart is turning rotten to the core.

 

Boracay has always been a special place to Cyrano friends. So don’t get me wrong. It’s special to me, too. But I consider everything that has happened this year to be yet another wake up call for sons of beaches like me who give a damn about this island.

A jewel of impeccable, powdery white sand and seductive blue water in the Philippine archipelago, Boracay earned top bragging rights in 2012 after it was voted as the World’s Best Island by the highly influential travel magazine, Travel + Leisure. Even after it slipped to 2nd place in 2013 (1st place went to Palawan, yet another gem in the Philippines), Boracay hasn’t slowed down as other prestigious reviewers joined the bandwagon, heralding it as the planet’s top beach destination.

And there’s the rub.

Although Boracay gets filled every summer, this is my first time to hear what I’ve been hearing from returning Cyrano friends, who were lured to this year’s massively commercialized Labor Day party weekend (#laboracay2014) and its epilogues. That’s not to say they didn’t find ways to have fun. It’s just that they came back with a lingering aftertaste, expressed in one word: “sleazy”.

“It was very sleazy,” remarked one of them after she got back to Cyrano. “You couldn’t see the water anymore. The beach was just so crammed with people advertising themselves, trying to get noticed by everybody else.”

“Boracay is a party place, not a travel place,” said another, who felt so disillusioned that he spent his vacation in Palawan instead. “Without the party, there’s nothing (else offered).”

“I don’t think I’ll go back,” said yet another Cyrano friend (who is probably the most outdoor-adventurous girl you can find even though she also loves wearing pretty little dresses and stilettos to match), after returning from a working vacation, even saying that she found the water quite foul. “It was very dirty.”

“We didn’t mind,” said one dissenting voice, who jokingly excused his network of party-goers for contributing to the wanton mess. “They brought all the drugs they needed to have a good time.”

Maybe it was just a perfect storm. This was the biggest, wildest long weekend in Boracay’s memory. But other returning Cyrano friends described getting the same “icky” feeling. I can’t help wondering if a new culture of seediness is emerging, encouraged by a tourism industry hell-bent on promoting Boracay as a hedonistic 24/7 honky-tonk to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.

Every year, Boracay gets more crowded, more commercialized, more exploited. On a small island of just ten square kilometers, common sense tells us that tourism cannot be sustained here beyond the grace of nature. Yet planners insist on packing upwards of 1.5 million visitors annually from this year onward – all without first solving Boracay’s time-bomb environmental problems, from its garbage and sewage nightmares to the alarming erosion of its priceless white beaches, which are fast disappearing due to commercial overdevelopment.

Indeed, maintaining a heavy volume of foreign tourists is such a priority that the island’s tourism authorities do little but look the other way in the face of an exploding influx of foreign pedophiles (in case you’re not aware, the international children’s protection organization Child Wise has identified Boracay as one of “the primary Filipino locations for child-sex prostitution.”).

Sooner or later, something’s got to burst. And when it does, it will only mean more suffering for Boracay’s indigenous people, who have fallen the lowest in the island’s rise to stardom.

The fairy tale is that Boracay was uncovered in the late 1970s by European backpackers, who were searching for a tropical eden rumored to exist in the Philippines. It was they who supposedly elevated Boracay as a pristine hideaway. The truth? Long before the arrival of those unwitting beach bums who opened the door for mainstream tourism, the island was already being kept unspoiled under the care of the Ati, one of the Negrito ethnic groups of the Philippines, who have been living in Boracay since time immemorial.

Today, displaced and persecuted by the island’s tourism industry, the Ati live like squatters in the land of their forefathers as commercial development expands into the remaining areas the tribe has access to. In a cruel twist, the industry views the impoverished, diminutive tribesmen as walking eyesores and directs local businesses to drive them away – even to stop them from swimming at their ancestral White Beach, which is now permanently fortified with hotels, restaurants, and bars where the Ati are not welcomed.

In February of this year, on orders of Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, the Philippine National Police was deployed to protect the tribe’s 30 families in the wake of the 2013 murder of 26-year old Dexter Condez, who was the tribe’s spokesman and hope for the future as their young emerging leader. Police believe Condez was gunned down due to a dispute between the Ati and rival claimants to their land, after the national government awarded 2.1 hectares of beachfront property to the tribe as its legal territory. The accused hit-man was an employee of Crown Regency Boracay Resorts, owned by J. King & Sons Co. Inc., one of three private groups that have been trying to seize control of the property.

“Some (thugs) started cursing and shouting at the Ati tribesmen,” said a government official last March, after another private claimant and his henchmen were arrested for sabotaging the property’s mangrove sanctuary, turning it into a garbage dump in an attempt to intimidate the tribe. “They even threatened to rape the women and hurt the other tribe members.”

More crowded…more commercialized…more exploited. In this party paradise, the road to hell is paved with good time intentions.

The question is: Who will rescue Boracay from itself?

In a radio interview last week, Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez said the Aquino administration is rushing to save Boracay with an “engineering solution” to preserve what remains of the 4-kilometer stretch that is White Beach, although government experts concede this will not be enough to prevent the impending loss of portions of the island’s most iconic attraction. Jimenez also said they have finalized a list of 80 establishments that are built too close to the shoreline, causing beach erosion, and that the government will enforce the demolition of many of the structures.

Good luck with that. Best wishes fixing the island’s many other environmental problems, too (note: President Aquino’s term in office ends in 2016). At least there’s a little progress in the uphill struggle to protect Ati tribal rights, though we still don’t know what the plan is to intercept and arrest all those smug foreign pedophiles.

The truth is that Boracay is too much of a money train for tourism developers and big corporate sponsors to want to slow down this runaway joyride. I’d like to think that there isn’t a train wreck waiting down the line but…well, we can only watch and wait. Sadly, I know there are other beautiful island destinations in the Philippines that are similarly becoming victims of their own success.

Yet I also know there exist a few precious places where the incursions of commercial exploitation have time and again been driven back – but only because these places are strongholds of heritage, where the community’s cultural identity empowers its people to speak and act in defiance of anyone who would threaten what is theirs to cherish.

“We feel that not every tourist deserves to come here,” my Ivatan friend told me, if I remember correctly what he said years ago, about his windswept island province of Batanes – an untamed, soul-stirring realm of land, sea and sky that is to me the most magical place on earth. “What we get are high value tourists, those who understand that to stay in Batanes is to stay here on the terms of its natural surroundings and traditional culture. That’s why they end up falling in love with this place and want to protect it as much as we do.”

Maybe that’s where the answer really lies.

 

[ Continue to Part Two. ]

 

 

POSTSCRIPT: If you fancy yourself a real traveler, go to Batanes. And if you possess a heroic sense of adventure, consider chasing my kind of thing when you get there – running and hiking along its rocky sea cliffs, hillwalking to the summits of its ocean-overlooking peaks, boating on restless waves to go from shore to shore, or just sharing a bottle of Lagavulin while surrounded by starlight on a pebble beach as the cold wind from the sea chills you in the face (trust me, the locals really like having a good drink with visitors). Then again…you might just be another typical, superficial, party-retarded beach bum tourist. In which case, keep your damn hands off this place and stay away.

 

 

 

 

Heroes and Heroines January 13, 2014

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
Tags:
add a comment

By Alex Sawit

January 13, 2014

 

 

 

“My love, instantly

your hip

is the full curve

of the wine cup,

your bosom is the bunched fruit of the vine,

the bright teardrop lines of the alcohol your hair,

the grapes your nipples,

your navel the vintner’s genuine seal

stamped on your wine vessel womb,

and your love the cascade

of wine inextinguishable,

the clarity that illuminates my senses,

the earthly splendor of life.”
 
– from Ode to Wine

 

If you fancy yourself a romantic (especially after reading the preceding verses), you will probably agree that sensuous poetry is like fine wine; it takes only a few sips to become affected.

Wine is passion. Words are love. That surely is enough to explain why each on its own has the power to deliver men and women into each other’s captivity. But poured together and sipped as a single drink, the effect is heroic, filling two hearts with an exquisiteness that beseeches one to surrender victoriously to the other.

Now hold on to what I’ve just said, Cyrano friends.

This being the start of a new year, the start of a new year always being an opportune time for reflection, I thought I’d share a flattering observation about your favorite neighborhood wine shop. Myself being well known to all of you as a lover of wine and words – and I freely confess to exploiting the convenience of our wine shop as a venue for both pursuits – it is my hope that my disclosure will amuse you into re-imagining yourselves in a bright, burning light.

Here goes…

For a long time now, I’ve been hearing feedback from our neighborhood community that Cyrano Wine Shop has quietly established a reputation for itself as a hideaway for hopeless romantics.

 

 

As flattering as that is for me to hear, I never thought much of it until one fateful evening somewhat recently, when a customer visited with a couple of colleagues in tow. Being exceedingly familiar with our establishment, she took it upon herself to serve as their guide, enthusiastically seating them at the bar and choosing the wine for them from the list like she was our specially appointed sommelier. But none of this behavior was either unusual or unwelcome at the shop for this particular customer of ours.

What caught my attention was that tonight, one of her guests asked her to explain what is it that makes Cyrano such a unique, special place – to which she replied with a dramatic intonation that told me she had been saving the answer in her pocket, waiting for the perfect moment to pull it out.

“The men who go here,” she said with a smile in her voice for the benefit of everyone in the room, “are all romantic.”

Talk about flattery. But I must disagree. In my opinion, it isn’t only the men. I probably count more romantics among the ladies of Cyrano.

You don’t believe me? Come visit on a night when they are present. You’ll be forced to conclude that these women are some of the most sophisticated conversationalists you can ever match wits with over a bottle of wine and a plate of cheese on the side. For example, it suddenly comes to mind that one of them is a gushing fan of Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being and red vino (though not always in that order) and that she offers a carefree counterbalance to one of our blokes, a Scotsman from Scotland, who in contrast would prefer to indulge her with a calculated discussion about Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth over a glass of something crisp and cold and white.

Poetry? It says a lot that I keep encountering Neruda fans among guys and girls at Cyrano. I started noticing them years ago after I added the soundtrack from the movie Il Postino to the shop’s music playlist. “Hey, I know that,” they would exclaim with upturned ears between sips of wine, recognizing the voices of Julia Roberts and Andy Garcia reciting And Now You’re Mine. This place has been a beacon for Neruda fans and their discussions ever since.

And then, there’s our name.

Having a wine shop named after the title character of Cyrano de Bergerac – that magnificent story about a soldier-poet who shields his identity in order to woo the woman he loves – tends to give our literature savvy visitors the elegant impression that ours is a haven for men and women who kindle heroic emotions. Stepping through our doors for the first time, their suspicions are rewarded by the discovery of the different copies of Cyrano that we keep on our bookshelf (we have English and Tagalog translations). Naturally, I seal the deal by allowing them to read the story as they drink here, that under the influence of wine and words they may remake themselves in the language of a valiant heart.

Try it now, if you serendipitously have a glass of wine in hand:

“Un baiser,” confesses Cyrano to Roxanne under cover of darkness so as not to reveal himself. “Qu’est-ce? Un serment fait d’un peu plus près, une promesse plus précise, un aveu qui veut se confirmer…c’est un secret qui prend la bouche pour oreille…”

[“A kiss…what is it? ‘Tis an oath sworn up-close, a more explicit kind of promise, an admission that desires confirmation…a whispered secret that assumes the mouth to be the ear…”]

So here I am, guilty as charged. I freely accept the blame for all this – or credit, depending on your point of view – for opening a bar that by design, accident or opportunity has found a way to awaken Cyrano friends into being the hopeless, romantic heroes and heroines that you are.

Heroes and heroines…yeah, I like the sound of that. And I really hope you all like it, too (and while you’re at it, you can thank me the next time you drop by the shop).

Happy new year, Cyrano friends.

 

 

 

 

 

Hallow Kitty November 1, 2013

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion, Stuff in General.
add a comment

By Alex Sawit

November 1, 2013

 

 

 

It amuses me whenever I find a Hello Kitty hater.

I’m not a Hello Kitty hater. I swear. I may not understand other people’s continuing infatuation with this sugar-coated icon of Japanese pop culture but I now respect the brand for its longevity and global success. Plus, I’m a cat person.

Live and let live, right?

I mean, when a friend hands me her unopened cute pack of Hello Kitty wet wipes with a you-can-keep-it expression on her face along with the statement, “I hate Hello Kitty…it was given to me for free,” well then I just say thank you. Or when all of a sudden some rookie walks past me in the mall with a Hello Kitty guitar case proudly strapped to his back (yup, this stuff really happens in the Philippines), I just smile and tune out the head shakes and face palms of other onlookers.

But this one takes the cake.

Halloween was coming up in a few weeks when I saw this Hallow Kitty of a Honda City on the road on my way to Cyrano. Far from being holy, this felt as strange a sight as any trick-or-treater in a ridiculous, spooky costume.

“Hey,” my stunned friend Maegan asked when I showed her the picture later that night at the shop, after she had finished singing her last set. “Where did you see that?”

I told her that I took the picture as I was about to leave Alabang driving northward to Makati.

“This is so strange,” she said in a perturbed voice. “I just saw that Hello Kitty car when I was leaving Quezon City on my way to my gig here at Cyrano.”

 

 

I agreed. It was kind of creepy, too. Since Alabang and Queon City are in opposite directions from the wine shop, separated by about two hours travel time in rush hour traffic, our first thought was how on earth did the Honda get from Alabang to QC so fast. We soon realized that it didn’t.

“It’s not the same car,” Meg finally confirmed, perhaps still dazed by the uncanny coincidence. “Why the hell would they put Hello Kitty on their cars??”

We had a good moment exchanging looks of bewilderment. I actually don’t know if Meg is a Hello Kitty hater but the joke of it all was as inescapable to her as it was to me.

So keep your eyes open when you’re on the road. Halloween may be over but the meow-meow is still out there.

 

 

Woman, Apple, Moon September 9, 2013

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion, Stuff in General.
Tags:
add a comment

By Alex Sawit

September 9, 2013

 

I’ve been revisiting Pablo Neruda’s poetry a lot lately.

It’s not that I ever need an excuse but the current controversy about what really happened to him forty years ago continues to move me to re-read my favorite Neruda poems while the world awaits the final verdict of investigators in Chile. Indeed, I’d been reading them so intently that I found myself going back and forth between the English translations and the original texts in Spanish.

One of my special favorites is Sonnet No. 12 from the author’s collection entitled Cien Sonetos de Amor (“One Hundred Love Sonnets”). This is the Neruda poem that I most vividly understand. It is also the one that I was most frustrated over because I had never previously found an English translation that rendered this poem to its full glory from the original Spanish.

Now, I don’t speak Spanish. I can’t understand it apart from the following exceptions by virtue of my being Filipino: 1) I had to take compulsory Spanish units in university; 2) I was raised in a society steeped in centuries of Spanish colonialization that affects our cultural sensibilities to this day; 3) I grew up surrounded by my family’s Spanish speaking friends; 4) I can figure out enough bits and pieces to get by hilariously with the menus in our local Spanish restaurants; and 5) I can sing at least one classic Spanish song.

That’s it, pansit.

But being Filipino also means that we are a people with a Hispanic heart. “Oriental spirit, Hispanic passion,” is how I explain our uniqueness to Westerners who are bewildered by the ease with which we live and breathe our dual nature. It’s with good reason that the Spaniards call us as “the Latins of Asia”. We love to emote our speech and we catch the fire in Spanish expressions better than most other native English speakers (in case you didn’t know, we have plenty of native English speakers over here in the Philippines).

And that is why I have always felt frustrated by the way Sonnet No. 12 was rendered in English. Every translation I have ever come across has always been a less courageous version of the original, the translators choosing to settle for timid abstractions in places where there should instead have been unapologetic, burning intensity. In those instances, they just don’t get Neruda.

So after weeks of revisiting, it occurred to me that I should just take matters into my hands: I opened the Spanish-to-English conversion software, compared different English versions to the original text, reflected on Neruda’s intentions and then crafted my own translation.

Here it is. I welcome Neruda fans who may not agree with this English translation to bring their arguments to the wine shop, that we may happily debate over a bottle of good wine until, naturally, you surrender to my being right. And of course, the bottle is on you. ¡Salud!

 

 

 

 

Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XII

 

Woman ripe, carnal apple, sultry moon,
thick aroma of seaweed, mud and light mashed together,
what obscure clarity opens between your columns?
What night of ancient arousal does man touch with all his senses?
 

Ah, to love is an excursion with water and with stars,
with suffocated air and brusque whirlwinds of flour:
to love is lightning combat in continuous flashes
and two bodies defeated by a single drop of honey.
 

From kiss to kiss I travel across your small infinity,
your borders, your rivers, your diminutive villages,
and the genital fire transformed into delight
 

runs through the slender roadways of the blood
until it rushes to open itself like a nocturnal carnation,
until it is and is nothing but a glistening sweetness in your shadow.

 

 

Translated by Alex Sawit
September 3, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

Reflecting on “No Reservations: Philippines” April 21, 2009

Posted by Alex Sawit in Food & Drink, In My Opinion.
2 comments

By Alex Sawit

21 April 2009

 

“So Alex,” I was asked for the umpteenth time at the wine shop, “I know you’re tired of hearing this, but what do you think of the Philippines episode?”

Here we go again.

It’s been over two months since No Reservations: Philippines aired on the Travel Channel in the U.S., but the debate rages on among Filipino fans of the show. It amazes me, though it does not surprise me, how a TV program about food of all things could spark so much divisiveness among Pinoys. On one side are people who are bitterly critical of Augusto, the Filipino-American fan handpicked by show host Anthony Bourdain to accompany him to the Philippines as a guide but who, once the camera started rolling, turned into a sheepish introvert unable to explain the culinary charms of his parents’ homeland. On the other side are those who defend Augusto as a new-born patriot, proud to have finally discovered his roots and whose love for his ancestral country puts to shame a lot of Pinoys who are grudging of their own national identity. Not surprisingly, the latter tend to like the episode a lot, while the former tend to like it a whole lot less… maybe not at all.

Since we say it’s better late than never, Cyrano friends, it’s time for me to once and for all make known my mind to you about what went wrong and what went right in that hotly debated episode.

Never mind that Bourdain’s researchers told him that Clark Airbase was a part of U.S. military history during the Spanish-American War (it wasn’t built until long after Spain turned over the Philippines to U.S. rule under the provisions of the Treaty of Paris signed on December 19, 1898). Never mind that Pampanga food authority Claude Tayag, talking to Bourdain, repeated the myth that sisig was invented by the late Aling Lucing (sisig was around long before Aling Lucing popularized her restaurant’s version on a sizzling plate in the 1970s). Never mind any of the other factual errors mentioned on the show that could be politely excused. In my opinion, No Reservations: Philippines was a good, entertaining episode.

But if I must admit to feeling disappointed, it’s because I was expecting more due to the mistaken impression I was under in the months leading to the episode premiere. Bourdain is known for constructing each episode around a strong central theme. When he arrived in the country for filming in October 2008, his interviews in local publications led me to believe that the theme for the Philippines would focus on a wonderful idea proposed by none other than Bourdain himself: That Filipino cooking, in Tony’s admiring opinion, is an astonishing fusion cuisine tradition that is already centuries old.

“You have had fusion cuisine from the beginning,” Bourdain remarked excitedly to one of his hosts, a conclusion he arrived at as a result of struggling to describe the kaleidoscope explosion of flavors he discovered here, which struck him as vaguely familiar yet seeming to defy definition by his palate even after years of traveling to most every food destination on the planet. “It’s an asset that you have a wide variety and different influences from your years of colonization,” he said, expressing delight that ours is the only cuisine in the world that is the result of both Chinese and Mexican influences. “Those (Chinese and Mexican influences) are two great cuisines.”

The Original East-West Fusion Cuisine. What an awesome concept. That’s what I thought would be the theme. I should say, that’s what I misled myself into thinking.

No matter. Cheers to Bourdain for deciding to build the theme around the story of Augusto – a story about a young Filipino-American in search of his cultural identity, which is really the age-old story about our struggle to define what it really means to be Filipino, to be a unique people whose heritage is of both Oriental spirit and Hispanic passion. That’s the right story. It should make all Pinoys take a good look inside and seek the honest answer in their own hearts. That’s what makes the Philippines Episode something special (along with the fact that Bourdain declared our lechon to be the best pig he’s ever eaten).

There’s just one more thing I should mention. I really wish the producers had recruited the flamboyant Carlos Celdran (he who pioneered the now famous walking tours of Manila) as their local fixer for the Manila segment of the episode. Celdran would have done justice to the city’s street food culture, unlike the person they wound up choosing instead. That culinary pretender ought to be called out for fooling the producers with his lousy, error-filled “foodie insights” and half-baked understanding. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and the fellow just kept misrepresenting things to Bourdain over and over again, at times wrongly describing the regional context of the dishes or ignoring context altogether and passing off regional specialties as “typical” Filipino food. Thanks to him, Bourdain thinks that our indigenous kalamansi citrus fruit, which is ubiquitously used as a souring agent in our food, has a bitter taste (that’s because that fellow didn’t think of straining out the bitter seeds, which is what anyone with common sense is supposed to do, instead of allowing both kalamansi juice and seeds to be mixed into the palabok rice noodles that he carelessly asked Tony to eat). Worse, when Bourdain asked him to list the basic ingredients for making adobo, he completely excluded vinegar, a jaw-dropping omission because vinegar is THE ingredient without which a dish cannot truly be called adobo (sorry, but the stir-fried “adobo shrimps” he perplexingly chose for Tony to try is not a classic adobo dish). There’s more and I could go on but… ‘nuff said.

There, I’ve said my peace.