Author Archive

International Kids, Part 2

by on Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Crystal's self-portrait

Crystal’s self-portrait

Andrew Dougherty and Crystal Dougherty are 13 and 15; they attend Yongsan International School of Seoul, an American-based private school which is both Christian and broad-minded. I was particularly interested in their stories because when I was a child my family spent a year in Europe every five years, first in Luxembourg then Germany, where I attended public schools and university; it turned out there were some similarities.

Crystal’s story



I’ve lived in Korea for almost half of my entire life. I was born here then I was raised in Seguin,  Texas in Las Brisas. It was a pretty good neighborhood. I went to a good public school which was very strict, although in the third grade I did get bullied by a classmate. She made fun of me, and it really hurt. When there was a book fair she asked if she could borrow some books for a while. I’d just bought them. Maybe I was too naïve—I don’t know if that’s the right word.

In third grade you should be naïve.

Of course. I thought she meant borrow the books for a day or two, so I gave them to her. A week or so later, my mom went up to her and said, “Can you give me my daughter’s books back?” She handed them back to me. They hadn’t even been taken out of the plastic cover. Then one morning I was called into the principal’s office. My parents were there, and we talked about the things she’d done to me. The next year I didn’t see her, and my mom told me that she’d been expelled.

So when did you come back to Korea? What were your feelings about it?

About four years ago, in November of 2011. My parents told my brother and me a few months earlier. We were a bit upset to be moving out of the home we’d been in for seven years. It’s difficult for an eleven-year-old. But by the time we left I’d gotten used to the idea, and I just carried on like a soldier.

You were also moving from a small town to a big city, right?

Yeah, well, Seoul is a lot bigger than San Antonio. I was kind of happy because I had memories of playing in the apartment and on the US Army base. But it had been a long time ago, and some of my memories were not very clear. I felt kind of neutral about moving. I was not sad. I was not happy. I was somewhere in-between.

My first impression of walking around Seoul was the sidewalks. Mom said to be careful because the they weren’t even so I could easily trip while walking. Then I was surprised that people would walk past and wouldn’t say “sorry” or “excuse me” when they bumped into me. Mom told me that it was normal.

Crystal a Christmas (Marianne's photo)

Crystal a Christmas (Marianne’s photo)

If people don’t know you, they’re about as polite as they would be to a lamppost.

Right, then I was introduced to Korean junk food. The sweets weren’t as sweet as American sweets and had a very different taste. Some snacks brought back some memories. like the shrimp snacks, which look like fries, but they’re crunchy, and they have square holes in them.

Actually, I haven’t been outside of Seoul much, no farther than Pyeongtaek, and it only took about two hours to get there. I like Itaewŏn, and some friends of mine live in the area. Mom said that in the 80s and 90s, there was more of a sewer smell than now.

I haven’t noticed a sewer smell, but I don’t have a good sense of smell. What about the school you’re in now?

I’m in the eighth grade at Yongsan International School of Seoul, or YISS for short.

When I was in the eighth grade I was in Germany at a scientific high school for girls.

Well, that sounds pretty interesting. I’ve never been to Europe

So tell me about your school.

My current school is bigger than the one I used to go to and a bit more conservative. We’re not allowed to wear jeans or a polo shirt with a logo on it. If your stomach shows when you put your arms up, that’s also a violation of the dress code. In middle school you’re not allowed to wear short pants, unlike the elementary school where you get to wear long skirts and shorts.

Crystal at gala (Marianne)

Crystal at gala (Marianne)

The school is two years ahead of schools in the States, and that caused me a bit of a struggle when I first came to YISS. We started algebra in the seventh grade. I don’t know if that’s normal.

That was my experience in Germany too. I went from arithmetic, which I had a lot of trouble with, to geometry and algebra, which were much easier for me than arithmetic.  

You had both?

The school year started in March instead of September. So I was there for the end of their seventh grade and the beginning of their eighth grade. So we went from geometry to algebra and biology to physics. Everything changed except Latin.

If I’m correct, at YISS there are like four different classes for math: arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra and geometry. Depending on how advanced you are, in the sixth grade, you take either arithmetic or pre-algebra. In the seventh grade you take either pre-algebra or regular algebra, In the eighth grade you have a choice between algebra and geometry.

Our classes are around one hour and thirty minutes long, but a bit shorter on Fridays because of chapel at the end of the day. There’s a five minute break between the first class and the second class—it used to be ten—and thirty minutes of lunch. Right now I’m taking American History, Science, Media and Technology, PE, English, Algebra, Creative Writing and Speech and then Bible.

When I was in Hamburg, we had Latin six days a week and the other important classes, like math, science and English, German and history we had five days a week. The classes like singing and needlework and gymnastics we had once every two weeks. In your school is there more time given to some classes than others?

It varies according to whether it’s an A-class or a B-class. They meet on alternate days. The only ones I have every day are the electives. For example, Media and Technology, where we do a lot of stuff like filmmaking, yearbook and a little bit of photography.

What about creative writing?

It’s Creative Writing and Speech. We were doing speeches for the last week. We’re doing improv and persuasive speeches.

That sounds like Introduction to Speech in the freshman year of college. You demonstrate how to do something or you select a topic out of a hat.  

That’s exactly what we did. I had to talk about my favorite book, so I chose Sherlock Holmes. I’ve became a fan.

Have you seen the television series from the BBC?

Yeah, I have the first two series on my laptop. I’m trying to catch up.

I’ve seen that too. When I was in fifth or sixth grade took some Ellery Queen short story murder mysteries and adapted them into plays. One of them we performed at a Girl Scout overnight with lighting from the fireplace and a big scream coming out of the darkness. It was sort of dramatic. But what kind of stuff have you worked on in the past?

I haven’t done that much writing, but I did the artwork for a book cover. Writing is just what I do when I’m bored.

Ok, I get that. What other things do you like to read?

Sometimes on the internet I read fan fiction and manga.

What classes do you like?

Well, I like all kinds of history. Right now we’re doing American history, starting with the Native American regions that were all over America and got a view of the Native Americans before the European settlers colonized the land. It went on to the colonization, the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny and currently we’re on the American Civil War.

Are you learning anything about Korean history?

We don’t learn much about Korean history. In the past the social studies classes haven’t really focused on that. We do Celebrate Korea, about a week of field trips to museums or towns. We go to a museum or the Korean Folk Village or learn how to make kimchi. Recently we went to Paju Book City, a town where they have a lot of libraries and exhibits about different children’s storybooks, like “Pinocchio,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Little Prince.”

Who are your friends?

There’s Talei Kau, who’s from Fiji. Mya Diffin is from Mexico although she’s American. Maya Hasumi is from Japan. Maja Kristensen is from Denmark, and Katie Palmer is from San Diego.

So this is a really interesting international experience for you because you have friends from so many different places.

Yeah, well, it’s nice to have lots of people in my grade. To tell the truth, after I came back I went to Global Christian Foreign School for fifth grade. It was so small there was only one other person in my grade. She was from Canada. There were four sixth graders, two fifth graders—which was me and my friend—and no fourth graders. Then six kids from third, second and first grade and in kindergarten. It was really cold during the winter, so to save energy I used to make a couch by putting some chairs together so I could take a nap.

If you had a choice between living in Seoul or living in Seguin, which would you pick?

That’s a bit of a hard question. I couldn’t really choose. Both of them are like my hometown, so it would be like picking my favorite child.



International Kids, Part 1

by on Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

Andrew and Crystal on the way back to Seoul (Marianne photo)

Andrew and Crystal on the way back to Seoul (Marianne photo)

Andrew and Crystal are thirteen and fifteen. They attend Yongsan International School of Seoul, an American-based private school which is both Christian and broad-minded. I was particularly interested in their stories because when I was a child and young adult my family spent a year in Europe every five years, first in Luxembourg and then in Germany, where I attended public schools and university. It turned out there were some similarities. We spoke in their home in Seoul.



Andrew’s story

Before I moved here to my international school in Seoul, I went to Navarro Elementary School in Seguin Township, Texas. It was a good public school in the middle of nowhere but kind of close to our house. It was like any other school. They’d teach us the lesson and ask questions.

I was nine years old when we moved to Korea. We’d been here before, but I was little and didn’t remember. I was expecting this to be like where I am from, but it was really different because of the culture. Like how people like talk to each other, like express themselves. For example, we’re used to having our own personal space. So when we’re talking we just talk like this [about three feet apart]. But in Korea, even though most of my friends are half American, there’s more of a feeling that friends stick together. We’re a little closer when we talk and maybe hold each others’ hands or something like that. It’s kind of a weird. [Korean society is more highly socialized, more tightly interconnected and less homophobic.]

I came from a small town to a big city, and I wasn’t used to being on a busy sidewalk with people rushing and bumping into me. It was so crowded, and there was no personal space. It made me uncomfortable for about a year, but then I guess I got used to it by being with my friends on busy sidewalks. We played soccer, and we went to Korean restaurants and small shops and just hung out. At first, since I’m part Asian they just assumed I knew how to use chopsticks, but they didn’t assume I could speak Korean because they didn’t know whether I was half Korean or half Filipino.

The school is pretty strict. If you don’t do your work you’ll have detention or not get a break between classes. The kids around me are under pressure to get good grades. Otherwise, their parents punish them. So I when I was fooling around with my friends, the girls near me would complain to the teacher that I was making noise and they couldn’t hear or they couldn’t concentrate. I had to do pushups or something as a punishment.

When I was in the Luxembourg in the second grade, I was treated like somebody really special because my classmates hadn’t seen an American before. This was only a few years after World War II. Most of the kids were dark-haired and skinny, and I was chubby and had blond hair and blue eyes. Their first response was, “Oh, an American! Let’s teach her Luxembourgish. Let’s teach her how to play marbles.” Was your experience here like that or different?

It was actually a lot like that. They don’t usually see a lot of almost full Americans in that school. So they said, “Let’s hang out with this kid. Let’s teach him kai bai bo.” That’s rock-paper-scissors in Korean. They also taught me how to speak Korean to girls, just like hello, anyong haseo. And yeah, also some insulting things. The Korean guys taught me a few curse words, but I didn’t want to be the guy that’s always a pain to people who aren’t like him.

With me, being the center of attention got me into trouble. I remember we’d be playing marbles during class, which we weren’t supposed to do, and I was the one always dropping the marbles. So I’d have to stand in the corner behind the blackboard. Was that something like your experience?

Yeah, most of my friends would fool around during class, and I’d follow them. Here in Korea if you want to have friends, you do the stuff they do so you can hang out with them. That’s true in the US too, but here there’s something very different.

How long do you your Korean friends have to study?

All weekend, like sunrise to like ten or eleven at night. They study for five hours, do sports for five hours and then go back to studying. The Korean girls just stay in the house all day studying and reading books. They don’t even go outside. Today when we were at the Seoul Club, one of my friends was in a tournament there. His mom was there too. Afterwards my friend had to go home and study. He’ll get a little free time and then go back to studying.

I tutored a Korean middle school girl who would have loved to have had free time with her friends.

The mom is usually the one who orders them to study, and then the dad gets in the way and says she should give him some time off. So it depends on what happens between the parents. It’s off and on.

My situation is nothing like that. I don’t start studying for a test a month early. I just study, and then I don’t even review it again until the night before the test. My mom just asks me to work a little harder. I have one C, one F for not turning in a paper, then the rest are half A’s and half B’s. I have 100% in PE. Athletic stuff is easy for me because I have more time than the other kids to go outside. I have a 97% now in Mandarin. This is in an international school which is at least two years ahead of schools in America. My sister’s doing high school math.

My schools in Europe were also way ahead of my American schools. What are you doing in your classes?

Andrew on the Han River

Andrew on the Han River

In English we’re reading a book about Greek mythology. In science we learned about ecology, and now we’re learning about the layers of the earth and the atmosphere. We’re learning how a hurricane or a tornado forms. We each have to do a research paper on a specific storm or hurricane which really happened, then for English we have to be able to cite the works with the right documentation. The science part is writing about how the hurricane formed and what damage it did—wind velocity and intensification and all that. I don’t like my topic very much. Hurricane Andrew was one of the five most damaging storms in American history, but I really only chose it because of the name.

I have some advice as somebody who’s done a lot of research. Pick a topic that you really like. Take a careful look at what the options are, like maybe writing about one of the typhoons to hit the Philippines not far from your relatives. Pick something you really want to know about. Before I wrote my PhD dissertation, I had two possible topics in mind, so I wrote a seminar paper on each one to see which one worked better. Taking the time to take a good look at the options ends up saving you time for what you’re actually interested in.

Cool. I’ll take that. Thanks.

So that’s English and science, what are you doing in your math class?

We did geometry—area and volume of specific shapes. Now we’re doing equations, so algebra. We just finished our integer unit and adding and multiply integers and everything like that. In physical education we’re playing soccer, playing capture the flag and doing fitness tests, like pushups. In technology class we’re learning how to program and code our own applications, which is what I’m doing now in my spare time. Classes are a lot harder than last year. Now we’re learning a little bit of what high school students do. Science is going to be hard for me. Oh, I forgot. We also have a Bible class.

In Mandarin I’m doing okay, but nobody likes the teacher. It’s so boring. It’s about 50% writing the characters and 50% memorizing simple phrases. This is the first year Mandarin is being offered, and they made the sixth graders take it for some reason. The seventh and eighth graders have a choice between Spanish and Korean. I wanted to learn Korean. I speak some, but I’ve always lived in an environment where we spoke only English.

If you had a choice between being in the international school that you’re in now and going back to Texas to the school system you were in before, which one would you choose?

In Texas I didn’t fit in. It was torture. I couldn’t cope with the people around me. When I was in kindergarten there were a lot of germs in the school, and I was sick a lot, so I either had to repeat kindergarten or go on to the first grade and make up for the time I’d missed by going to school every Saturday and Sunday. I repeated kindergarten. That meant I was older than my classmates, and some of them would say things like, “Did you get held back? What are you, like stupid or something?”

In the first grade I transferred to public school from the primary school in the education department at the university, where I hadn’t learned anything. So I had to repeat the first grade. I was embarrassed about being older for years.

Andrew with his mother, Marianne

Andrew with his mother, Marianne

The international school is a good experience. I’ve learned a lot from the comparison between American culture and Korean culture. For example, in America you have to sit up straight and pick up food with your fork, but in Korean culture you can just put your face right over your plate and make noises while you eat. Only the elders are allowed to talk or the men that are hosting the dinner. The little ones can only talk if the elders talk to them. The wives of the hosts, they’re just quiet the whole time. But in America the wives talk more than the husbands, at least at my house.

Why do you find it interesting to observe cultural differences?

I observe, and then I wonder, if I was in that position, that specific culture, would I do this or would I do that? So there are more possibilities. In Korea I definitely had to change. If I want to hang out with my friends, who have good grades, I should have good grades too. I mean, I’m kind of off and on. I’m focused now, but maybe tomorrow I’ll say, “Oh, it won’t be a big deal if I don’t get a good grade on this test because I already have an A in the class.”

How about getting interested in the subject just because it’s the subject?

If it was technology, then I would actually do my best because I want to learn. Here I learned that I can achieve something. In Texas I was doing nothing, just playing games. My whole mindset changed. Now I’ll be concentrating in class because I want to get this method right, know it, master it and then go on to something else.

Why do you think you’ve become more outgoing in Seoul than you were in Texas?

I used to be the really quiet kid. But here when I’d hang out with my dad, we’d go to Korean business dinners and he’d make me socialize. So I’d think that I had to talk to this guy or my dad would feel ashamed of me because I didn’t know how to talk. My mom encouraged me too.

You’ve come out of your shell a lot.

But when I want to focus I go into my shell.

Many people don’t understand that when a person is an introvert, someone who turns inward, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re shy. It means that you get your energy from going inside rather than picking up energy from lots of other people.

That’s kind of like me.

Do you find that you have to be more polite and respectful of people here than you did in Texas?

Yes. In America at a soccer game or something which calls for teamwork, you’d gradually learn to trust each other and be polite enough not to point out when someone messed up. But in Korea you have to be polite first and then you can relax and go the other way, so at first I’ll be more in my shell, rather than joking around first.


Corregidor, at the Mouth of Manila Bay

by on Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Corregidor in Peace and War

Corregidor in Peace and War

Recently I talked with Collis H. Davis, Jr., the photographer and independent documentary filmmaker who collaborated with historian Charles Hubbard on a book called Corregidor in Peace and War, published by the University of Missouri Press in 2007. We met at Café Adriatico in Malate to talk about it. I learned again one of the few things I know about war, that new technology in warfare can cause the tide to change very rapidly. Many thanks to Collis for all the photos of from his book. (Please click on any image to enlarge.)

Collis’s story

Collis Davis

Collis Davis

In 2000, both Charles Hubbard and I were Senior Fulbright Scholars in the Philippines. He approached me about collaborating with him on a book on Corregidor Island, a scenic island at the mouth of Manila Bay with an interesting history. As the historian he would write the text, and I as the photographer would do the visual side. The University of Missouri Press took on the project and sent the manuscript out to two expert reviewers who ripped the hell out of it and sent it back with suggestions. Charles made the changes. The press was satisfied and went ahead with the press run. In the meantime I went out to the island and shot color photographs for the present-day depiction of the island. I did all the historical pictorial research as well, with maps, old and new, involving the island’s history. We tapped every conceivable source here in the Philippines, including the Spanish cultural center, the Instituto Cervantes of Manila. I designed and laid out the book and did the first index. The press eventually did their own index. Violeta P. Hughes was the editor.

So what can you tell us about the historical importance of Corregidor Island?

Spanish Map showing the island at the mouth of Manila Bay

1727 Dutch map of Manila Bay

1727 Dutch Map showing the island at the mouth of Manila Bay

wing the island at the mouth of Manila Bay

1727 Dutch Map showing the island at the mouth of Manila Bay

Spanish Map sho

1727 Dutch Map showing the island at the mouth of Manila Bay

The Reina Cristina

The Spanish cruiser of the 1st class, Reina Cristina

The Spanish cruiser of the 1st class, Reina-Cristina

The island lies at the mouth of Manila Bay. In the early seventeenth century [after aggressive action by Chinese and Dutch pirates, the British military and threats from the Muslims in Mindanao], the Spanish colonizers set up Corregidor Island to protect the city of Manila and the harbor.

I’m sure the strategic value of the island was obvious to the Spaniards because you see it all over Europe, the use of fortresses on islands or hills to control a waterway.

Battery Way mortar

Battery Way, 12″ breech-loading mortar

Right. They set up front-loading cannons which they were still using when the Americans arrived during the Spanish-American War. The US had the modern breech-loading cannons, which were loaded from the back. With all due respect the Spaniards did have a couple of breech-loading cannons in Manila, in Fort Santiago and other places, right on the water. But they were too far away from Admiral Dewey’s fleet, which entered Manila Bay in May of 1898. [The Americans sneaked past with no lights on, changed course and then charged toward Manila.] Because the Spanish had not gotten word that the Americans were coming, they were caught completely unawares and incapable of mounting a serious defense. When the Reina Christina sank, the command ship of the Spanish military here, the Spanish knew that their mission in the Philippines was over. It spelled the end of Spanish rule. It was kind of an easy victory for Dewey.

Battery Hearn fixed gun

Battery Hearn, 12″ fixed gun

Was it kind of agreed that this was going to happen or was it an actual military defeat? Because afterwards in the Treaty of Paris the US bought the Philippines, Guam and a few other places for two million dollars.

No, it was an actual military defeat. I think the sale was a face-saving arrangement for the Spaniards. Two million dollars was a lot of money at that time. Spain must have been happy to extricate itself.

Malinta Tunnel entrance

Malinta Tunnel entrance

When the Americans took over they proceeded to build up the island, to transform it into formidable military weapon which could sink any ship approaching the harbor when it was still 27,6oo yards (25.2 km. or 15.7 miles)  out at sea. During the years 1911-1912 and so on, they put in some awesome weapons, breech-loading cannons and a new innovation, disappearing cannons that would rise up out of a protected bunker, fire, and then recoil back down to the wall where they were protected from any oncoming fire. As World War II approached the Americans laid mine fields on both channels linked to Corregidor Island.

Layout of Malina Tunnel

Layout of Malina Tunnel

They had huge mortars sites on the island also. Battery Way was one site which lasted throughout World War II and was still firing mortars against the Japanese. The advantage of the mortars was that they could pivot 360 degrees, so they could fire in any direction to target any enemy ship they liked and ground targets in Bataan and Cavite, whereas the long guns and the big cannons were very limited.

Ft. Drum

Ft. Drum

But then in WWII the airplane became viable as a weapon platform. After the Japanese destroyed all the aircraft at Clark Air Force Base, they could bomb Corregidor at will because Corregidor didn’t have any significant anti-aircraft capability. So the Japanese had a very easy time targeting everything on the island because it was antiquated, both in weapons and in concept, since it was set up long before air power became an issue. Still, the mortars carried the day for a long time before the Americans finally had to surrender, and that was significant.

The fortified islands

The fortified islands

Of course Corregidor wasn’t the only island. There was also El Frail, a big rock which the Americans covered with concrete and formed into a battleship-looking edifice they named Fort Drum. It was very seriously armed with 12-inch cannons and so on. Then at the end of the war, the Japanese had taken cover the concrete battleship and were holding out to the very end. They refused to surrender, so the Americans came in and poured gasoline into the innards of the island and blew it up, incinerating all the Japanese inside.

Summary of combat

Summary of combat

The Japanese also held out in the Malinta Tunnel which the US had dug under a mountain. When they refused to surrender they were burned out or blown out—killed by detonations. There are pictures of the tunnel in the book, as well as the cliff where Japanese soldiers jumped to their death rather than surrender.

After the war the island was a shambles. A commission was formed, and it decided to reconstruct the island, rehabilitate it as much as possible. A few of the guns had been dismantled by salvagers who had come to the island surreptitiously with their acetylene torches and cut the gun barrels into pieces in order to take them down the side of the island to waiting barges and then to foundries. They were partially successful, but then the authorities caught on and stopped it. There is evidence of the kind of pilferage that went on everywhere right after the end of the war.

The restored isaldn

The restored island

But now the island’s been transformed by the Corregidor Foundation, headed up by Leslie Murray, who was arrested as a child POW during the war and h

eld at the University of Santo Tomas. Day-to-day operations were run by Art Matibag, a retired military colonel. They’ve done a fantastic job of restoring the island, giving day tours and overnight tours and all kinds of activities. But now their role is being phased out because the Department of Tourism is taking over the management of the island.

So there’s overnight accommodation?

View of the South China Sea

View of the South China Sea

Yes. Right off Roxas Boulevard, which runs along Manila Bay in Malate, is Harbor Square and Manila Sun Cruises. From there you can take a 45-minute ride to Corregidor Island at the mouth of Manila Bay. There’s a hotel with a veranda overlooking the South China Sea where you can sit and relax, drink a beer and enjoy the food service. You can stay overnight if you like or return to Manila on the same day. There are several different programs.

A friend of mine, Steve A.Kwiecinski, wrote a book about his father’s experience as a gunner at Battery Way who held out until he was captured by the Japanese and taken to a POW camp in Japan. He survived and lived a long time afterwards. Steve collected his father’s stories and spent six years on Corregidor. Then he wrote a book, Honor, Courage, Faith: A Corregidor Story, which was published in 2012 by National Bookstore’s Anvil Press. He and his wife, Marcia, attended all the historical observances having to do with the island, veterans’ burials, Memorial Day, all kinds of milestones having to do with the island. My connection was not that personal.

The book is Corregidor in Peace and War by Charles M. Hubbard and Collis H. Davis, Jr., University of Missouri Press, 2007. Its 216 pages contain 53 color and 115 black and white illustrations. New and used copies are available via In Metro Manila the book is also sold at La Soliaridad Bookstore in Ermita and on the mezzanine level of Silahis Arts and Artifacts in Intramuros, Manila.

Collis H. Davis, Jr. is the photographer and independent documentary filmmaker who worked with Richie Quirino on the documentary Pinoy Jazz: The Story of Jazz in the Philippines. The post on Pinoy Jazz appears in the previous post at


A Filipino Jazz Musician and Jazz Journalist

by on Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Richie Quirino on drums and vocals, playing Latin jazz with Quarana at the Sage Bar, Makati Shangri-la Hotel.

Richie Quirino on drums and vocals, playing Latin jazz with Quarana at the Sage Bar, Makati Shangri-la Hotel.

pinoy-jazzOne night in Tago Jazz Café I met Richie Quirino, who’d written three books on Filipino jazz and used the subject matter for the documentary he did with Collis Davis. The following week I interviewed him at the Shangri-la Hotel in Makati, where he had a gig playing Latin jazz in the Sage Bar. With his permission I added snapshots from the documentary, Pinoy Jazz. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

Richie’s story

Louisiana houses on stilts.

Louisiana houses on stilts.

My father, Carlos Quirino, studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin and graduated in 1931. While he was there he heard of a Filipino community in Louisiana near New Orleans area, so before returning to Manila he visited the bayou area to do interviews and take pictures. He discovered five communities, one called Manila Village.

Philippines/PinoyJazz3/CarolDussereBack in the nineteenth century during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, a lot of Filipinos had been hired to work in the galleon trade between Mexico and the Philippines. It was hard labor, and wages were terrible, so many of the men jumped ship. They had heard that the Louisiana environment was very much like that of the Philippines. So they went there and started fishing or doing whatever they could to make a living. They intermarried with the locals and eventually set up communities. I believe they witnessed the birth of jazz. Filipinos love music, so I imagine that they mingled and absorbed the music. The second song in the documentary is “The Belle of the Philippines” by an unknown composer in New Orleans. Filipinos also love to write letters. These people were homesick. They would send letters and somehow get their relatives to America secretly, tago ng tago.

Philippines/PinoyJazz4/CarolDussereAround the same time, in 1898, the Spanish-American war was raging. Admiral Dewey defeated the Spanish Armada, and the Spanish surrendered. In the 1898 Treaty of Paris, the Philippines was ceded to the United States in return for twenty million dollars,

When the Americans took over, they brought their jazz with them here. In Pinoy Jazz Traditions, I mentioned David Fagin, a happy-go-lucky African-American who was with the US troops. He came here, deserted and joined Aguinaldo’s Filipino troops. He was well known for singing gospel music, Negro spirituals, and the blues. That was how jazz filtered into the Philippines. In 1901, the Thomasites came to teach English, bringing with them the American education system and Edison phonographs. A couple of decades later there was also jazz on 78-rpm records.

Jazz musicians play at the funeral march of Spanish rule.

Jazz musicians play at the funeral march of Spanish rule.

Filipinos love freedom. It was a big relief to be out from under Spanish rule. We had vaudeville here, stage shows to entertain the general public with comedians and musicians. Then the Dixieland era came in. Filipinos embraced it as freedom music. The heart of jazz is improvisation. That’s what distinguishes one jazz musician from another, how they speak through the universal language.

My own story starts in 1970 when I formed a band with my best friend, Raffy Lopez. He was twelve, and I was thirteen. His brother Gabby returned from the States and brought jazz records with him. They completely blew me away, and I decided jazz was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was more refined, more sophisticated, than the rock and blues we had been doing. It needed research and practicing, but there was no looking back. My mother, who’s a novelist and poet, tried to discourage me because she thought I’d regret it when I’d have trouble paying my bills. But my father said, “Choose what you want to be, but be the best at it.”

Angel Peña

Angel Peña

After high school I enrolled in De La Salle University, where I didn’t want to be. Then I had to go to summer school to retake some required courses I’d flunked. I was so stressed out that I developed a skin condition from scratching. The dermatologist told my parents, “Let your son do what he wants to do. This is a psychological thing.” So I enrolled in the College of Music at the University of the Philippines, where I learned how to read music and to write music. I already played the drums, but I took up piano and soprano sax as well. I also studied gamelan with an instructor from Indonesia and kulintang, brass gong music from Mindanao. I really got into twentieth-century music, like Stravinsky. After three years I moved on to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and graduated cum laude three years later with a double major in professional music and audio recording.

Joey Valenciano

Joey Valenciano

I’d come to jazz through Miles Davis and fusion, which wasn’t difficult for me to appreciate because of all the rock elements in it. I thought I was a damned good fusion drummer. But at Berklee I learned how to play big band, swing, cool jazz, and all the genres. Berklee was a great experience. There was Herb Pomeroy, one of Berklee’s founding members, who headed the concert band and the recording band. He taught the Duke Ellington class and a class for arrangers and composers only. For those classes there were a lot of prerequisites. For a while I roomed with Tots Tolentino and Bob Aves.

Tots Tolentino

Tots Tolentino

At the same time I had a series of odd jobs, which I wouldn’t have been able to do here. I told my parents I wanted the experience of working with my hands. It made a man of me. It really enriched my life. My first job was in the work-study program as a janitor cleaning the classrooms and the dormitory during the summer break. One afternoon at a quarter to five, I was hitting on this really cute flute player. Our supervisor had the hots for her too, so he came up with some errands for me. I objected that it was almost quitting time, he ordered me to do it, and I muttered something in Filipino. You know what? He’d been stationed here at Clark Air Base and he knew what it meant. He ordered me to report to the director of the work-study program.

Bob Aves with his album using Filipino gongs.

Bob Aves with his album using Filipino gongs.

This guy said, “Well, Ricardo, I’ll bring you up a notch. You’re going to work as a receptionist at the front desk of the dormitory.” I was promoted! From there I worked in the mailing office, in the scheduling office, in the ensemble office. I got to know the people who were running the school, who were also musicians. On my last job at the school I got into another altercation with my boss, he sent me to  the program director, and I quit.

After that I got a job in a laundromat, where I broke my back for eight months until a Hong Kong immigrant at the school, a guitar player, said he’d been making at least $7 an hour driving a cab. In order to get my hackney license I had to get my driver’s license and then take a seminar on getting around Boston—traffic, street names, locations of hospitals, hotels, clubs—and then pass an exam to get my hack license. I leased a cab from Checker Cab and drove the graveyard shift. I really enjoyed the freedom of moving around Boston. Every passenger was a new experience. I left Boston in 1980.

"Igorot Jazz Fantasy, Bagbagtulambing" by Angel Peña was a landmark piece.

“Igorot Jazz Fantasy, Bagbagtulambing” by Angel Peña was a landmark piece.

In 1991 the United States was told it couldn’t extend or renew its bases in the Philippines, so it packed up its bags and left. All the jazz was gone. The Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center had brought in jazz musicians for concerts. It had a library of audio recordings and books, and Filipinos could go there to learn more about jazz. That folded up. The archives were crated up and stored in a warehouse in Subic. Later I tried to get access but was denied.

Filipinos had been doing American and European music because we didn’t know our own identity, but the enormous void spurred us on in search of it. It took years. In 1999 Jim Ayson, put up a website called Phil Music. He set up Pinoy Jazz E-Groups, creating a forum for everyone interested in jazz to share their dreams. I wanted to write books and make a documentary. Someone else wanted to do his own concerts. This was what started the big bang because it went in so many directions and put people in touch with one another. Filipinos from all over the world would subscribe. There was an explosion.

Jonny Alegre

Jonny Alegre

There are two kinds of Pinoy jazz. One is, like you said, a Filipino playing “Watermelon Man.” We’re good copycats, so we listen to the record and copy what the players are doing, but of course not exactly Herbie Hancock’s improvisation. The real deal is Filipinos who have found their own identity by infusing indigenous ethnic music from the Philippines, from the north and from the south, and incorporating it into their music. We only have a few of these gifted musicians: Bob Aves, Tots Tolentino, Johnny Alegre. Some composers will have one song on their album with Asian rhythms and Asian Instruments are used, specifically from the Philippines. There are also the jazz arrangers and composers like Albert E. Albert, creating their own music—original music—even though it may sound American or European.

Also in 1999 my father died, and my mom in 2002. When they were both gone I felt empty, and that triggered in me a desire to what they did, research, compiling memorabilia, writing, working with an editor. The whole experience connected me with my parents. It started with interviewing older musicians, including people I discovered through the e-groups in Europe and Japan and America. Gradually I realized I might have a book. That was my first one, Pinoy Jazz Traditions, about the American era in the Philippines. To my surprise it won a National Book Award. The only other recipients of that award in music were two of my teachers at the UP College of Music. My second book was Mabuhay Jazz, which covered the post-war period to 1969. It had the same format: the narrative of the era, a photo chest and the interviews. My third book was Contemporary Jazz in the Philippines, from 1970 to 2010. I didn’t have to do as much digging as I did for the first two.

Collis Davis

Collis Davis

In 2003, I called Collis Davis, an American very well-versed in jazz who’s living in the Philippines and asked for help with the Jazz Society in the Philippines. Collis is a webmaster, photographer and documentarian. He did the website for Jazz-Phil, and we did the documentary on the story of jazz in the Philippines. I provided the research and the material, and he provided the camera and the editing software and put it together. Our third partner, Gus Langman, provided the logistics. At that time he was the owner of Monk’s Dream Jazz Club, which was open from 2001 to 2004 or 2005. Monk’s Dream, named for Thelonius Monk, was the venue for the jazz society. I was in charge of the open jam on Sundays. I also conducted clinics and workshops. We screened documentaries on jazz and produced five jazz festivals here. The club will reopen on the ground floor of a five-story structure that Gus is building in Rockwell Center, a high-end, mixed-use project in Makati.

Gus Lagman of Monk's Dream

Gus Lagman of Monk’s Dream

Now, in the meantime my old friend Raffy Lopez had become the CEO of his family business, ABS-CBN. The family also owns Rockwell. When I told him I wanted to have jazz festivals there, he said we could use the parking lot and he’d provide the stage. Since Monk’s Dream was just outside the parking lot, we just had to bring the instruments a few feet outside. We got sponsors who put up booths to sell food. The only thing was I didn’t have money to pay the bands. They said, “Richie, we’ll play for free.” That’s the love of jazz. We did five jazz festivals.

After two years I relinquished the jazz society presidency to Sandra Lim, who took it to an international level. The Philippines became one of the ten member countries of the Asian Jazz Federation, which negotiates for discounts. So for example Chick Corea might play in the Philippines in February, in Indonesia in March and Tokyo in April and so on. Sandra Lim also formed her own organization called PI Jazz Org, which produces the festivals in February. Jazz really exploded.

The first festival I attended outside the country was in Bremen in March 2006. The German embassy and the Goethe Institute sponsored my trip. I was one of fifty representatives from all over the world. All major German cities have their own jazz festivals and compete with one another, but that year they decided to unite and show the world what German jazz is all about. It was a five-day event. At that time there was no book written on the history of German jazz.

After Bremen I started getting invitations to attend more jazz festivals. Rather than bring in a group of people, it’s easier for a festival to bring in one person who’s offering the whole pie, with the books and the documentary, so I started getting invited all over the world.

Charmaine Clamor with her first album of Filipino jazz.

Charmaine Clamor with her first album of Filipino jazz.

In March of 2007 Collis and I were sent to the Java Jazz Festival, which was incredible, rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Scofield, Sergio Mendes, Sadao Watanabe, Flora Purim and Airto, Kenny Rankin, and Gino Vanelli. We were all staying in the same hotel and eating in the same buffet area. Then also in 2007 I went to Los Angeles to show the documentary and to perform for Jazz-Phil, USA, which Charmaine Clamor and her husband Mike Konick had kicked off in 2005 with our blessing.

In 2013, I went to the San Francisco for the second Filipino-American book festival and the sixth Filipino-American jazz festival, which took place on the same weekend. Both sponsored my trip. I screened the documentary and signed books.

In Skarlet's Ten02. there were workshops, jams. performances, everything for players and fans

In Skarlet’s Ten02. there were workshops, jams. performances, everything for players and fans

In the Philippines we enjoyed a whole decade of jazz, but I predicted it would eventually die, and it did. Jazz clubs open and close, open and close. Clubs like Skarlet’s Ten-0-2 started closing. Even clubs that did jazz just once a week were closing. You can’t have it all the time. Let’s put it this way: people will go to hear somebody once, twice, maybe three times. Then they’ll go hear another group. Jazz includes all kinds of music in this country, and it’s a little more sophisticated and requires more listening than some forms of music.

The band Elemento plays its own music on instruments the players maker from things others have discarded.

The band Elemento plays its own music on instruments the players make from things others have discarded.

Tago opened up about the same time other clubs were closing. I’m used to that kind of club from New York and Boston, a dimly lit, hard-to-find hole in the wall. If I lived around the block I’d be there every night.

I’m looking for new leaders. Many of our older leaders have passed on, like the great Angel Peña and Joey Valenciano, both on the UP music faculty. I’m waiting for the young jazz lions to take over. Nobody else has even thought of writing a book on Filipino jazz. I am the lone wolf. But I’ve met many other writers from all over the world, some who’ve consulted with me about Asian jazz and cited my work, so I’m excited that it’s bearing fruit.

Note: The filmmaker Collis Davis was the webmaster for the jazz society’s website, which was set up to promote the jazz scene in the Philippines and the Filipine Diaspora. He said the jazz society began disintegrating after Monk’s Dream closed and it lost its natural clubhouse. At the last meeting he screened the updated version of his film about a jazz musician, The Edification of Weldon Irvine. The jazz society website has just recently closed down. The DVD, Pinoy Jazz, is available at La Solidaridad Bookstore in Ermita and on the mezzanine level of Silahis Arts and Artifacts in Intramuros. Copies can also be ordered directly from Collis Davis from his website, or at




Misspelling “Embarrassed” in Korea

by on Thursday, August 20th, 2015

King Sejong statue in Seoul with the Gwanghwamun behind

King Sejong statue in Seoul with the Gwanghwamun behind

Ana’s experience teaching in the language school reminded me of the first time my supervisor observed me when I was teaching elementary German in the US as a PhD student in German literature. I was very nervous. At the end of the class she pointed to the blackboard where I’d made a mistake in elementary grammar—in subject-verb agreement or something like that. I blushed, and we laughed it off. At the same institution I took a linguistics class from an instructor whose illustrations of linguistic phenomena on the board always contained English spelling errors. That was a bit much, because she could have checked the spelling in advance, but we pointed the errors out, and she corrected them.

Confucian cultures, however, are “shame cultures” with little tolerance for mistakes or disabilities. Many people also don’t seem to distinguish between “professional” and “personal.” This story illustrates what can happen when Western employees work under Korean management—but also how the employee can eventually excel. Tip: Don’t provide any information the boss doesn’t need to know.

This interview took place over Skype while Ana was in South Korea and I was in the Philippines.

Ana’s story

Before I came to Korea I was living in the United States. I’d just finished a master’s degree, which meant I could teach at a Korean university although my degree was not in language teaching or a related field. When I contacted a friend who’s teaching here, she told me I could check out jobs online or I could come over and find a job, since they were plentiful. I was skeptical because my only teaching experience was a year in South America. But I did come over, and I got an interview at a language school connected with a top university in Seoul. The woman who interviewed me was absolutely delighted with me. She became my boss. Her English name is June.

Nowadays to get a work visa as a foreigner in Korea you need a criminal background check and an apostilled diploma. I’d had some of the paperwork done before I left, but the police station where I had my fingerprints taken did it incorrectly, and the FBI couldn’t read the prints. I had to get them done again here. That meant waiting a month and a half. However, the school was willing to hold the job for me. Then I was sent to a Korean consulate in Japan for my work visa. I couldn’t start working until I had my visa in hand. Before I left, I stopped in at the office to say hello, and June said, “There’s something about you. You bring sunlight into the room.” It was the nicest thing anybody had ever said to me.

I was originally supposed to start in May, but my first day was in mid-July. June came in to observe. During the lesson I misspelled a word on the board. Ironically, that word was “embarrassed.” Afterwards June asked, “Why did you spell it wrong? Why can’t you spell?”

There was another teacher in the room, so I said, “Can I talk to you privately?” We went into another room and I explained that I’m slightly dyslexic.

She said, “I feel deceived.” She dismissed me. Her behavior turned very cold, like I was a horrible teacher. I couldn’t spell, and therefore I couldn’t teach. After that she kept repeating that I’d deceived her by not telling her about my dyslexia. She was talking down to me as if I’d been convicted of grand larceny.

Eventually, I said, “Deception is what you do when your intention is to hurt someone, but I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. I feel ‘deceived’ is not the right word to use in this situation.” I tried to let it go.

This was still within the first three days of my job. I was waiting for her to tell me the school wasn’t going to keep me on. At that point I was so disheartened I said, “I don’t know if this is for me.”

It was weird because she was so unhappy with me and she so disliked me, but she wasn’t firing me. She was also hammering away at another message: I needed to make it up to her. I’d wronged her, so now I needed to be perfect. I needed to prove to her that I could teach. I’d come to the school without a teaching degree, and she’d thought I could do it anyway. I realized she was telling me to make sure she saved face in front of her boss.

I became so sensitive that I believed everything anyone said was about me, whether it was directed at me or not. For example, the school had special classes where students could get extra help, but none were assigned to me. I thought it was because people had no confidence in me. It didn’t occur to me that I should be happy I didn’t have to take an extra class or that my assignments weren’t made to fit in with other people’s teaching schedules.

So there was this huge hubbub about my having misspelled a word, and then one of my coworkers confided that he was on thin ice. A few days later, between lunch and the first afternoon class, there was an emergency meeting. Someone took our orders for coffee from a nearby gourmet coffee shop. I heard, “It must be really bad if they’re buying us gifts.” At the meeting they told us they’d had to let somebody go. They wanted us to pick up his classes. So I got another class.

In the meantime, June had taken a leave of absence for a month because she wasn’t feeling well—a nervous condition or something. Within the second week of her absence, I was waking up in the middle of the night panicking that I was going to sleep through my alarm. Every day I hated it. I was going to work with a big fricking smile on my face, but I felt trapped. I felt ill all the time. On top of that I had a full course load. I had four classes a day. That’s seven hours of teaching, every day, Monday through Friday—and the extra pressure. But when I took the job I’d made a vow to myself that I would give it 110%, and I did. I never was never late for a class, and I was never unprepared.

Maybe two months into my five-months’ contract, my boss called me into a meeting and said, “We’re not going to rehire you.” I hadn’t planned to sign up again anyway, but it was still a blow to my ego, and my feelings were hurt. Then I started feeling jealous of my co-workers because they were enjoying their jobs while I was in my own private hell. Fortunately, I had friends outside of work I would see on the weekends.

Things started changing when a friend said, “You need to get a thicker skin.” Other people told me to stop fighting and let it go. “Stop trying to make it right. Stop trying to read meaning into everything. As soon as you stop fighting it will be different.” And it was.

When I stopped internalizing everything, it all shifted. I’d find myself in a negative thought, and I’d tell myself, “Stop. Don’t go there.” I realized I was bringing in stuff from the past that had nothing to do with the current situation. I told myself I needed to have a different attitude. I needed to pick out the things I liked about the job and say to hell with everything else.

I got along fine with all my coworkers, all the other foreigners. One day when June snapped at me in front of other people—which was embarrassing and unprofessional—they said, “What was that all about?”

“I don’t know, she just really doesn’t like me, I guess.”

They said, “Why?”

The head teacher of the Korean staff, a woman named Young-ah, was nice and supportive and kind. I have a lot of respect for her. Even in the thick of things, when she saw me in the hall, she’d always stop me and say things like, “How are you doing? How are your classes? You look really nice. All I’m hearing are good things from your students.”

I had the most wonderful group of students. They were amazing people. At first I’d been nervous because my students are business people, and I’d heard how chauvinist Korean businessmen can be. Ninety percent of them were so nice. Drinking is very big in this culture, but when we went out after class and I said, “I don’t drink,” they didn’t make a big deal of it. They just bought me a soda. They were really genuine people.

It made all the difference to focus on the good things. In the future when I get to something that’s difficult, I can remember being in Korea and feeling trapped. After a while I had started enjoying myself, not only because the end of my contract was near but because I was having a good time with my students. I thought, “Wait a minute, I really like my job. Maybe I have to see my boss twice a week, once at a meeting and once in passing. I can do that.”

Fast forward now three and a half months, and my coworkers were having problems with the boss. For example, there was going to be a North American-style Thanksgiving dinner. June made a big deal about including the wife and two kids of one of the teachers. Then the day before the dinner she called him into the office and said his family couldn’t come. Another teacher, someone who had problems with the boss, wrote her an email expressing her feelings. That didn’t go over well. Since I had already worked through all that negativity, I found it interesting to sit back and watch other people act like babies, responding in a very reactive way.

Then there was the episode of the skiing trip which was supposed to be for the staff and the students. [In Korea and Japan attendance at supposedly solidarity-building work functions is mandatory.] The boss was talking about how we could rent a bus, we could start drinking after skiing and then go bowling at night. I really didn’t want to go, so I told them I had family coming to Korea. Other people were saying they wouldn’t go because they didn’t like the boss, like the guy who couldn’t bring his family to the Thanksgiving dinner.

So in response to your original question, “Would you see something like this in America?” I say no. I think an American boss would have asked me what she could do to help. In the States I’ve made mistakes on the job without getting talked down to. When I ran into another foreigner who used to work with June, he was surprised. “Why is she so close-minded? I’m not a good speller. People make mistakes. That’s why we have spell-check.”

This is a shame culture. Your exterior has to look spotless. My students are in class from 8:30 to 5:30, Monday through Friday, for ten weeks. During the week they live here. On the weekends they go home to their wives and their husbands. Then they come back here and do another week. They told me they feel like robots. It’s almost sad. Here if you screw up, you don’t apologize, you don’t show your face. You’d better just fix it. People around you will remember.

One day the office manager, who was always on someone’s butt for something, realized she’d forgotten to tell the students their pictures were going to be taken. It was time, and nobody had showed up. She didn’t say, “I made a mistake,” she just crumbled. She said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that.” She was in a real panic, and then she squatted down and covered her head like someone was about to beat her. One of my coworkers made a sarcastic remark about her not running a tight ship. People were saying, “God forbid anyone should make a mistake.”

I’ve heard so many horror stories about teaching here that I honestly don’t think my situation is any different. I was never told straight-out what they wanted. I had to read between the lines. One of my first experiences had to do with textbooks. My boss held up a book and said, “This is what we usually use, but I want you to go to the bookshelf and pick out one you’d rather use instead.” I picked out two I liked. When I showed them to her, she said, “Oh, no, I want you to use this one.” Another time she asked, “Do you have time in your schedule to take another class?” I said, “No, I only have a small amount of free time, and I need some time to myself.” She said, “But we really need you to do this.” It’s like they give you the illusion of choice, but there’s only one right answer.

June came up to me last weekend and asked how many weeks I had left. I told her two weeks. She said, “I’d like to take you out to dinner.” At the staff meeting beforehand, I said I really enjoyed working there, people had helped me a lot and given me guidance, and I appreciated the head teacher, who had always been nice to me.

I get uneasy around June, but at dinner I told her how I felt, that I had vowed to do a good job and after everything happened there were times when I wanted to give up, but I was really glad I’d stuck it out. I thanked her for the opportunity, and I meant it.

She listened. Then she talked about holding the position open for me during the long wait for the paperwork. She said in Korea dyslexia was looked upon as a disease, there was such a stigma attached to it. She said, “I refused to look at it that way.” She told me she’d had to meet with the dean. Other teachers hadn’t wanted me to stay, because the school was run like a business and they were afraid their clients wouldn’t like it. Even though her head was telling her it wasn’t a good idea, she’d wanted to give me a chance. She said, “You worked so hard, you’re genuine, you’re honest.” She went on and on.

I thanked her. I reminded her of when I’d walked into her office and she’d said I brought sunshine into the room.

She said, “I still think that. I’m not taking any of the other teachers to dinner, and I don’t care whether they like it or not. You’re probably among the top ten most amazing people I’ve ever met. If I ever meet someone else with dyslexia I’d like to share this experience. Can I use your name?”

It blew my mind. I told her I was flattered. I felt she was being genuine. Dinner was a really nice gesture.

Readers write:

Many of the readers of this story on Facebook made positive comments. The majority were English teachers working in Korea.



Benefit for a Filipino Musician

by on Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Lilybeth Garcia, Skarlet Brown, Nyng Pinion, Nickie Mossman and Joel Galang

Lilybeth Garcia, Skarlet Brown, Nyng Pinion, Nickie Mossman and Joel Galang

Recently I sat on the porch outside Tago Jazz Café with Nickie Mossman, and she supplied the words to go with the photos I’d taken at a benefit a few nights before at Cafe Astana in Makati. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Nickie’s story

Joel Galang & Nickie Mossman

Joel Galang & Nickie Mossman

The benefit we had was for Joel Galang, who was my pianist from 1987 until I went to Hong Kong in 2007. We were like siblings. His parents loved me, and I was really like a member of the family. I came back in 2011 when my mother got cancer because I needed to look after her. I didn’t have time to look him up. When I did go to his old address in Cubao, I was really
surprised that his house had been demolished. There was just a vacant lot. Then a few weeks ago I heard that he’d had a stroke and his brother had abandoned him. He was living on the streets. The news was very painful.

Was there a story behind why he was abandoned?

John Balmonte

John Balmonte

His brother is a jerk. He’s been spending all the family money without giving any to Joel. I hated him for that. But I knew Joel had a son, Jovy, so I went looking for him. Fortunately, last Saturday I got his number and I called and insisted on seeing him. He came over around midnight. We talked, and I said, “All right, what are we going to do about your father?” We agreed to go through Skarlet and the Heart of Music, which is the official non-governmental organization for helping musicians with severe medical conditions. Jovy doesn’t have much money, but as his son he has an obligation to care of his father. I promised him to help him. He said he has always seen me as his aunt, which I really appreciated.

House pianist, Lando Opon

House pianist, Lando Opon

The benefit happened because a group of friends—the owners of the bar where we performed, the regular customers and other singers—found out about Joel. They got in touch with me and asked if it would be all right to have benefit to raise money for his physical therapy and his medicine. He can raise the affected arm, which is a good sign. After a stroke some people can’t raise the arm at all. So when they asked me about the benefit, I said, “Why not?”

MC, Nickie Mossman

MC, Nickie Mossman

Then I called Skarlet to tell her, since she’s the one looking after Joel. We also wanted her to be in charge of the money we raised. That’s why we were at the table going over the figures. She wants it to be clear that what she does with the money—to avoid suspicion and all that. Everything was written down. That’s why I love her. She’s very transparent. What you see is what you get.

So it really was a spontaneous thing, which was why I happened to see your invitation on Facebook at the last minute.

Floraine Lacson

Floraine Lacson

Yes. I was inviting everyone. The songs we played were mostly the jazz standards we were singing when Joel was still playing the piano. We wanted to inspire him, to tell him, “Look, you have to do something. You have to get well so you can get back to paying for us.” Heart of Music will help him, and I heard there’s another group as well.

Can you tell me something about Heart of Music?

Girlie Benedicto

Girlie Benedicto

Well, HOM has been really, really good to musicians. I think it’s growing slowly. I hope it will be really successful very soon because, as I see it, there are lots of musicians who need help, even people out in the provinces. It’s the only NGO I’ve seen that helps. What HOM does is try to find sponsors for musicians who need dialysis or medications for high blood pressure or some other on-going condition. My mom was a recipient. She was a singer. When she needed blood I contacted Skarlet, and she helped me with two bags of blood. As long as I’m a singer, I qualify for help, and so does my family. I like the people with HOM because they really care. Skarlet is such a beautiful woman with a very big heart.

Nyng Pinion

Nyng Pinion

I think they are going to have another free dental mission or something. I heard that somewhere. And once again it’s Skarlet’s HOM doing this for the musicians.

Now, for my readers who don’t know about music in the Philippines, could you tell me more about Skarlet?

Skarlet Brown (Myra Ruaro)

Skarlet Brown (Myra Ruaro)

She was the lead singer with a ska band called Put3ska [a word play based on the Tagalog phrase, putres ka—damn you] and another called the Brownbeat All Stars. They had cut records. For a while Skarlet owned a bar called Ten02, renamed Skarlet’s Jazz Kitchen. When I first heard her sing, I was so amazed that I said, “Who’s she?” I met her that night. Then when I came back from Hong Kong a few years later she’d already formed Heart of Music. It was a great idea to set up an NGO for musicians. The government certainly wasn’t helping. We’re not earning enough—sometimes as little as 500 pesos [$11.36] a night or even less—and we’re so tired. We entertain people, but nobody entertains us. I’d been telling people that we should do something. We should help each other. But at that time I guess people were scared. That’s why I admire Skarlet so much.

Butch Miraflor & Joey San Andres

Butch Miraflor & Joey San Andres

What would people be scared of?

I don’t know—probably the government. With the system here you’re not going to get protection unless you hand over a certain amount.

There was also that NGO scandal.

Mark Mabasa

Mark Mabasa

Yeah. That’s why during the 1990s musicians weren’t into putting up unions or NGOs. I hope this HOM grows bigger and bigger and gets a lot of sponsors to help musicians like me. To be honest, I’m not getting any younger. One day I’ll have to call Skarlet and ask for help. When I saw how she really helped Joel—I call him my brother—the way she helped my brother, I don’t know how to thank her. She pulled him off the streets, and she asked Nelson if Joel could stay at Tago for a couple of days. That was fine by Nelson, but Joel couldn’t sleep. He needed rest. He’d had a stroke. He’s also really stubborn. He’d go around asking people for cigarettes and beer. Well, he’s in a bar. What do you expect? The temptations are there.

Lilybeth Garcia

Lilybeth Garcia

So scarlet had to pull him out of Tago. After that I heard he was with his brother, and then back on the streets, which was really terrible. But I think everything’s going to be all right. I heard they’re going to put Joel in a hospice. His son and I will provide moral support.

Yes, the hospices are cheaper than the national hospitals [which charge about a third or less than the private hospitals]. The hospices here are run by nuns, and they only ask for a small donation, like 50 pesos [$1.13]. So I think that would be better for him. It’s better than his staying on the streets.

Lando Opon, Anna Tanquintic, John Balmonte

Lando Opon, Anna Tanquintic, John Balmonte

I  know someone who lived on the streets here for quite a while. She looked like she was dying. Very, very thin. Skin that had turned an unhealthy shade of brown from a skin disease. People had tried to get her into a treatment center, but she wouldn’t go. One Sunday afternoon I rode around with some friends who were trying to find an emergency room at a national hospital which would treat an infected cut on her foot. They eventually found one. I’ve seen other people who have no teeth because of methamphetamine poisoning but who keep having babies because reproductive health isn’t available. There’s a nice, gray-haired woman who comes to my friend’s soup kitchen and who showed up once with a knife wound all down one side of her face. So I know what somebody who lives on the streets can look like.

Sammy Sancuan

Sammy Sancuan

I saw the pictures of Joel when he was found. He also had a skin disease from living on the streets. He’d made a bed outside a barangay [district] hall. Skarlet said he’d tried to talk the barangay people into letting him come inside when it rained, but they said no. It did rain when Skarlet went to visit him, and they both got soaked. That’s when Lilybeth offered him a room.

Lando Opon & Dra.Gissele

Lando Opon & Dra.Gissele

URLs to copy and paste on your navigator bar:

Skarlet and friends spearhead advocacy to help ailing musicians.

Facebook Heart of Music page.


A reader writes:

I cannot wait to see your BLOG in print.The interviews are excellent.Contact the New Yorker to publish some of these or National Geographic.
Another reader writes:
This is beautiful, Carol. I hope some of your reader would also send donations for Joel. Thank you very much, my dear friend!

Making Donations in Rural Zambales

by on Saturday, July 18th, 2015

iVolunteer members who help at Mang Urot's soup kitchen arranging school supplies.

iVolunteer members who help at Mang Urot’s soup kitchen arranging school supplies.

The man who calls himself “Mang Urot” has been a friend of mine for several years. The links below connect with previous posts I did about his work. Recently I recorded his trip to a tiny village in rural Zambales.

Mang Urot’s story

Mang Urot (n yellow teeshirt) and volunteers

Mang Urot (n yellow teeshirt) and volunteers

View on the way to the village.

View on the way to the village.

I’ve had a Facebook friend from Saudi Arabia for three years. We’d debate various points about religion. About a month ago he visited my home, he made a donation for my work and told me he was an ordained pastor of Day by Day Ministries, a born-again Christian church. In the Philippines their main venue for services is at the Folk Arts Theater. Once in a while I go there to hear the sermons, but I’m not a formal member.

Typical house made of concrete block and bamboo with a sheet metal roof.

Typical house made of concrete block and bamboo with a sheet metal roof.

The first time I went to the village we visited in Zambales, I was with the three pastors of the congregation, but they’ve already returned to Saudi Arabia. That’s when I met the local pastor.

Village church with sign saying, "Everyone says Jesus is God."

Village church with sign saying, “Everyone says Jesus is God.”

The trip we made together was purely spontaneous. I just had some ideas springing about helping the school and the church. Tibag is in the barrio of Naugsol in the hinterlands of Zambales in Luzon, northern part of the Philippines, about 180 kilometers from Manila and four or five kilometers uphill from Subic, the nearest town.

School children

School children

We went to make donations to Tibag Elementary School and individual school children and to bring electric fans, lighting fixtures, a television and a DVD player to the chapel. It amounted to about 30,000 to 35,000 pesos [$682-795] for the school and about 10,000 pesos [$228] for the chapel. The donation was also a way of giving back to the Saudi pastor.

Teeshirts with church logo

Teeshirts with church logo

Each of the little kids got four or five notebooks, three ballpoint pens, three pencils, erasers, a pair of slippers [flip-flops], vitamins, snacks, toys and some other stuff that they can use for their studies. For the school I also brought books, folders, chalk, blackboard erasers, sports equipment and school equipment. Some of it was left over from a previous trip to another location.

The villagers made a good lunch for us served right outside the church.

The villagers made a good lunch for us served right outside the church–grilled tilapia, grilled eggplant, greens and rice.

The income of the villagers is very low and seasonal. When they’re harvesting some of their crops the median is probably $3 a day, but at other times a lot less. There are no school buses there. High school students going to school in Subic have to walk downhill for an hour or an hour or two, depending on where the residents are located or if the residents are from the school. When it rains the dirt roads get very muddy. If they took a tricycle, the price would be 100-200 pesos [a day’s income or more].

Tibag Elementary School with four classrooms and 42 students.

Tibag Elementary School with four classrooms and 42 students.

The front of a classroom holding maybe 42 chairs.

The front of a classroom holding maybe 42 chairs.

I think there were about twenty volunteers who went with us, people who’d previously volunteered for the soup kitchen. We took two vans. Some of them contributed for the school and the church, so I didn’t ask them for any money, but I asked the others for 500 pesos each for the transportation, because the funds were running low. It was really not in my plan to bring them along, but they wanted to go, so I wanted them to share my experience with them.

Children waiting in school doorway to get school supplies.

Children waiting in school doorway to get school supplies.

The volunteers seemed to enjoy it. There’s a Catholic, a born-again Christian, there’s even an atheist. What we do is just a work of love, there’s no religion really. Even though I donated to a church, it wasn’t because it was a church. I donated because I saw the people’s need for a more comfortable place to worship and because some of some of the pastors are my friends.

"Mang Urot," the pseudonym assumed by the soup kitchen guy.

“Mang Urot,” the soup kitchen guy.

I told the people, “If you become rich, don’t prioritize the church, prioritize people.”

From the volunteers:

Hi, my name is Jeanette, and I’m the wife of Mang Urot. We’re here to go to the Zambales Outreach Program. We’re very excited about giving these things to the school children.

Jeanette gives supplies to the head teacher.

Jeanette gives supplies to the head teacher.

Hi, I’m Malou del Rosario. I’m joining this outreach for the school in Zambales to experience this outreach.

Hi, I’m Estella Aubres. I came back from the Philippines but migrated to Australia a few years back. I’m here in the Philippines because I was assigned by my company to work on a project. Since I’ll be here long-term. I searched for a something to work on during my free time, and I found Karinderia ni Mang Urot online. I’ve been active with it because I want to serve my countrymen in any way I can.

Preparing for distribution of notebooks, pens, books, toys, snacks and flip-flops.

Preparing for distribution of notebooks, pens, books, toys, snacks and flip-flops.

Little boy gets stuff.

Little boy gets stuff.

My name is Sophie, and I come from China. I’ve been volunteering for the soup kitchen, and Mang Urot invited me for this trip. So I am excited about helping children.

Hi, I’m Rommel Gusto. I’m from the Philippines. I just wanted to help.

I am JR from the Philippines. I’m a volunteer because want to help.

A thank you from the kids.

A thank you from the kids.

The local pastor and her child

The local pastor and her child

Links to previous posts on Mang Urot’s mission:

A Personal Crusade.

At a Filipino Soup Kitchen.

The Man behind the Soup Kitchen, Parts 1 and 2 and

Mang Urot also brought me along to meet his friends for this post, Filipino Squatters’ Tales, Part 1.


Seize the Moment!

by on Thursday, July 2nd, 2015


Philippines/andrew/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereWhile talking with Andrew G. Contreras I was reminded of a beginning sculpture class I took years ago. During the first class students had to walk slowly around someone’s piece and observe it from this place and that place, from above and below. Part of what I got from the exercise was seeing the countless number of two-dimensional views we could get of a three-dimensional object, some definitely more interesting than others.

Andrew and I talked at my home in Quezon City. Please check out his page at  Many thanks to Andrew for the photographs. (Click on photos to enlarge image–they’re all well worth enjoying for a while.)

Andrew’s story

Philippines/traveleast21/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereWhy don’t you tell me about your experience with photography from your first camera to the present day?

When I was a kid with an Instamatic, I’d take vacation pictures or pictures with friends. I was always disappointed because the results weren’t what I’d had in mind. At the time I made no effort to do anything about it because I wanted to be a comic book artist. For years I was just shooting randomly.

Philippines/traveleast01/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereMy family is a family of artists, so I figured eventually I’d end up in the arts. I started college in Fine Arts at the University of Santo Tomas, but the program focused on drawing for advertising with a lot of technical stuff done by hand. I realized that that was not my calling. I went from there to Mass Communications at Philippine Women’s University, which at first I saw as a stepping stone for the University of the Philippines. I majored in Public Relations thinking that I would eventually take over my dad’s business. He was in PR as a consultant for big companies like Pepsi and the Lopez Group, which owns ABS-CBN. Later I found the communications background useful because of its emphasis on getting the message across in whatever medium you manipulate, rather than snobby, high-end abstract photography. It taught me to think, “If you have something to say, how do you communicate it and make it understandable?”

Philippines/traveleast 00a/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereSo after mass communications, what changed?

Getting into photography was an accident. After my third year in college, I came home late, got into an argument with my dad and got booted out of the house—actually, it was a mutual decision. I didn’t want to live there anymore. Still, it felt like my whole world was crumbling. It turned out to be one of the best things that happened to me. I went to see my aunt and ask whether she had any connections which would help me get a part-time job. During dinner, my cousin walked in and said, “Hey, I don’t have an apprentice right now. Try it out.”

Philippines/traveleast17/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereI guess the trick is not to get fixated on keeping the end in sight and not to fear the unknown. Just because you can’t do something doesn’t mean that you can’t eventually learn to love it. I had the same experience with cooking. I got into it as a practical matter just to feed myself, but after I put my heart into it I came up with things I was happy with, like a damned good kare-kare.

Philippines/traveleast23/AGCPhotography/CarolDusseretraveleast 23My cousin Toto Labador was a well-established fashion photographer, doing covers for magazines like Preview, Cosmopolitan and FHM. He’s a graduate of the Art Center School of Design in Pasadena.  apprenticed for him and his older brother, Albert, who was doing weddings and architecture for hotels. They saved me. I was just blown away by my cousin’s slides of Nepal, from his climb of the Himalayas. He had books of Richard Avedon’s work and Joel Peter Witkin. and videos of National Geographic photographers. He introduced me to Annie Leibovitz. I said, “Wow, there’s so much you can do!” That was probably when I started making a conscious decision to come up with good pictures of my own. I got an SLR [single lens reflex], a Yashica with a 35mm lens. I loved that camera.

Philippines/traveleast05/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereFrom 1999 on was the apprenticeship. I loved it, even if some of the models treated me like the help. I didn’t mind making coffee, I didn’t mind running errands, taking film to the lab and waiting for it. The part-time job became a full-time job when I graduated. During the apprenticeship I decided to make photography a career. At first I wasn’t ready for the responsibility of making decisions, like what angles to choose. For an editor you’re supposed to come up with eight solid set-ups—that’s what they call them—or layouts. Making the decisions can really squeeze your brain. But I was really glad that my cousins were empowering. They didn’t train me in order to have a dependable assistant-apprentice for life. They wanted me to make it on my own. So during the latter part of my apprenticeship, they’d encourage me to get jobs of my own, and they passed on to me some jobs they thought I could handle—and also some that they knew I couldn’t. They threw me into the fire anyway.

Philippines/traveleast06/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereBecause I had the liberty to get my own clients, eventually I realized it was time to go out on my own, and trained somebody else to take my place as an apprentice. In the meantime, I’d moved back in with my parents, but then my dad started losing a lot of money, and I braced myself for the inevitable moment when I wouldn’t be able to live at home and save whatever I earned. So I moved out and set up AGC Photography around 2001 or 2002.

Philippines/traveleast18/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereThere was a time around 2009 when the business nearly folded because no money was coming in. The quality of my work was not what it is now. Sometimes it happens that you get obsessed with earning a lot of money. You spend more time running after clients than trying to take the best pictures—at least I did. I got so burned out. But eventually I had to accept a new perspective on it and remind myself why I got into photography. From that point on, no matter what the client was paying I still put the same amount of heart into my work. My mindset needs to be that, even if I’m paid a lot for a picture and the client is happy with it, I can’t kid myself that I’m also happy with it when I’m not. That’s why I push myself constantly and continuously to do better.

Philippines/traveleast08/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereBasically it’s just being honest, telling it like it is. The trick is that there may be a better way to approach the subject. That’s the challenge that motivates me to try to do something different. But again, the mass communications background reminds me that I’m just a messenger, I’m just a vessel for whatever talent I was given. The ego cannot be bigger than the art itself. Basically, there has to be a balance. Figure out how to take that picture that’s not too artsy. Sometimes the simplest picture speaks volumes.

Philippines/traveleast19/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereWhat I really love about taking pictures is that there’s so much room for mid-air adjustments, there’s room to just go with the flow. Steve McCurry from National Geographic is one of the people whose work I most admire. He’s the photographer who’s famous for the Afghan Girl image. He said the journey is the destination. You might be fixated on going to a place where you expect to find a great picture, but while you’re crossing the street something terrific happens. If you’re not ready to adjust you’ll miss it.

You mentioned teaching. Where are you teaching now? What advice do you give your students?

Philippines/traveleast09/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereI don’t have time to teach anymore, but two or three years ago, I taught at Abba’s Orchard Montessori School, and every now and then I was invited by certain corporations to do lectures for employees who were interested. I found it ironic that a lot of the amateur photographers had more passion than the greater percentage of the people who have apprenticed for me. I told my students to start with just the basics. First and foremost, move around. Don’t just sit in one place with your legs crossed and use your zoom lens. Don’t just shoot from the same place as everybody else—unless of course it’s a sporting event like tennis where you have to stay in a designated area. Get off your chair and move around.

Philippines/traveleast04/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereI tell them, “First, really love what you do.” A lot of people get into stuff like music and photography because it’s “in,” it’s considered cool. If your heart is not 100% into your work, it will never be as great as it could be. The work you put into the craft will be reflected in whatever rewards may come—which for me are just a bonus. The real prize is the picture itself. If photography is your profession and you love it enough, the money will come in eventually.

Philippines/traveleast10/AGCPhotography/CarolDusseretraveleast 10We talked about your sending me some pictures. Could you talk about the specific ones you’d like to send?

A lot of the stuff I’ve come up with recently will probably be in an exhibit to be called “Down Time.” It comes from in-between moments when I’m shooting for a corporate client but then suddenly I see something else. Probably I’ll share a photo I took during Christmastime. I was working for Coca-Cola following a truck made up to look like a vending machine. People stood in line, and out of the door came gifts, like lechon [roast pig] or a flat-screen TV or cups. We went from barangay [local district] to barangay and covered the people’s reactions when they got their goodies. In one of these locations I saw a guy who had dressed his dogs up with Christmas hats and shades. Two had toy guitars around their necks, and another one was sitting in front of a toy piano. So I excused myself to go to the restroom, and I ran to the corner to take a picture of the dogs. The owner didn’t want to be in the picture, but if you look closely you see him reflected as a tiny image in the shades of one of the dogs.

Philippines/traveleast11/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereIt’s those quirky things on the side I find really fulfilling. Basketball is really big in the Philippines. Recently, I went to a lot of rural areas. While I was waiting for the client to get set up, I took a picture of kids playing basketball. I focused on the ball and the kids’ very, very dirty feet mid-air.

Another time we were in Bulacan, already packed up to go back to Manila. There was a beautiful sunset and a father holding three-year-old son. They were standing in front of and orange house. Fiesta banners were casting perfect shadows on the wall. It was just beautiful.

Philippines/traveleast22/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereI went to Thailand recently, and I made sure to wait until after the busy hours go to the floating market. When the market closes down, the hustle and bustle of trading is gone, so you can walk around without being hounded to buy something at five times the normal price. You see people washing their dishes in the river, and you can have a boat all to yourself. You can tell the boatman where to go because nobody else is in the way. I love those moments of peace.

Philippines/traveleast12a/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereWhen you capture a moment, it’s yours. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t go back. Even shooting an event, I’ve found that if I wait a bit longer there’s always the possibility that I’ll get something better. I like to go back. The lighting conditions would be different, and there would always be a different perspective. So that drives me, the nagging feeling that maybe I could get something better. It’s also humbling to say it’s not so perfect that I couldn’t go back. Every unique place has a unique moment—we’d like to think only for us, right? For example, in London the morning before my flight back to Manila, the sun was coming up. The light was perfect. At one end of a long bench there was a guy in a suit and tie, on his phone. He looked very ready to mix it up. At the other end was a homeless guy asleep. I’d like to think that a moment like that it mine. It won’t happen again. Or if it did there wouldn’t be someone there to photograph it, right?

Philippines/traveleast14/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereI was in a vegetable market with perfect defused light creeping onto one of the stalls. A vendor wearing green was selling greens. The background was a gray wall with speckles of light on it. I took a photo, and I was really happy with it because the moment was unique. Three minutes later the guy is no longer there. The moment was a gift of nature or whatever, the powers that be. As a photographer I feel fortunate to be able to shoot it the best I can.

Philippines/traveleast12b/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereWhat cameras are you using now?

Right now I use a Canon 70D and 60D. I usually carry two bodies around, especially for work. I move around a lot, and I don’t want to worry about changing lenses. One nice thing about digital is you don’t have to change film after every 36 shots. I encourage people to learn as if they were using film and didn’t have memory to burn although I might be saying that because of my loyalty to film, because that’s how I was trained and how my skills were honed. Film is a very harsh teacher. You wait for your contact prints, sometimes you look at your contact prints and you think it looks good. But then it turns out to be out of focus or too shaky. What you did wrong really sticks in your memory. My purpose even with digital is to get everything right initially. Of course with digital a certain amount of editing does have to be involved with every photo, but my practice is to not edit it to a point beyond what could have been done on film or in the darkroom. It has to look real.

I still love film.

Philippines/traveleast07/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereYeah, with digital people can take pictures that are technically really good but have no soul. Not many people understand that. A lot of the new school photographers are obsessed with what the gear can do for them. There’s a saying that it’s not the bow and arrow but the archer. Nowadays some photographers will convince clients that the gear they have is a requirement for taking good pictures. They think it will do everything. But that’s not going to happen until cameras have auto-compose, auto-frame and auto-anticipate. I know some people who have the eye and who take good pictures with cell phone cameras. For me it’s the soul and the composition and the recognition of that unique moment, not huge lenses. There are “professional photographers” who shoot a whole event from one spot. I’d get bored just sitting glued to my seat, especially during sporting events or concerts when there’s so much movement, so much happening. Apart from the wrong reasons for getting into photography, all this hi-tech brouhaha has made everyone lazy.

Philippines/traveleast02/AGCPhotography/CarolDussereHow you practice your art or your craft is parallel with what you’re going through personally. With the clarity I’ve found, I assume I can sniff out those who are just doing it for the money versus people who are purely passionate about their respective craft. I can smell the posers from a mile away, maybe because I’ve had so much experience with dishonest artists.

How do you get digital to look a little more like film?

Philippines/traveleast15/AGCPhotography/CarolDusserePersonally, I really love shooting at higher ISOs to get more grain. When digital started out, the challenge was to equal the quality of film because film looked so much cleaner. Then digital caught up and overtook film as far as clarity was concerned, and digital looked too clean. When a shot looks too sharp, I use a blur tool on Photoshop like you would focus in a darkroom. I don’t like it when the lines are too sharp and the skin tone is too smooth. I still like that old film texture that’s not too perfect.


In Search of a Father’s House

by on Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Marita's father, Enrique Lopez-Mena, in Europe

Marita’s father, Enrique Lopez-Mena, in Europe

Marita and I met in the summer of 2008 at a writer’s conference in the South of France, and we became friends. We often talked about her visiting me in the Philippines, the country where her father was born and raised. This finally happened in early 2015, when she came over with her daughter, Paloma. This interview took place at my home in Quezon City. Thanks to Marita for the family photographs. (Click on to enlarge.)

Marita’s story

I’ve wanted to come to the Philippines since I was a little kid wondering what Manila was like because my father talked about it all the time. He described his home and family life as a kind of paradise, a happy, beautiful place. Manila was “the Pearl of the Orient,” a phrase I’ve heard here as well. It hasn’t looked much like a pearl on our short visit. It is a huge city re-built from nearly scratch after massive bombing during WWII when the US liberated it from the Japanese.

Grandfather, Enrique Lopez y Mena

Grandfather, Enrique Lopez y Mena

My father grew up in 1883 in Vigan, an old Spanish colonial military settlement [previously Chinese]. I think his father was assigned there as the head of military forces. The family moved to Manila, maybe when he was nine or ten, because he talked very fondly of the house from what seemed a kid’s perspective. He also talked about a young boy his own age who slept by his bed at night. His mother was a very busy businesswoman. My father got to see her by appointment —with his mother’s European style of parenting, that is, checking on the kids maybe every two or three weeks to be sure his education was going well. He had to sit in a straight-backed chair, without crossing his legs, and answer questions about what he was learning in school and in life in general.

My dad told stories about how his mother—my grandmother—gave big parties. There were a lot of servants in this house, and they would wrap their feet in cloth and dance in the ballrooms to polish the floors. He remembered dancing on the floors with them and laughing and playing. It sounded like an idyllic early childhood. After his father died of consumption at about the age of thirty, I don’t know what their lives were like. His mother was left alone with three kids. I know she owned an indigo plantation and shipped the product all over the world on square riggers. She also was social and was one of the founders of La Cruz Roja (the Red Cross) in the Philippines.

I imagine my father lived in Manila into his early twenties, so approaching 1910. He traveled a lot, circling the globe four times in his life and having adventures. He was sixteen the first time he sailed away. My grandmother gave him money to travel first-class on steamships, and he had a whole set of monogrammed trunks and suitcases including a round leather box for his collars, and a flask with nesting stainless cups for travel. He never mentioned whether anyone was traveling with him. He might well have been sent out alone. I do know that he got halfway around the world and was on his way back when he ran out of money. He wired is mother, who said, basically,“Too bad.” So he went over first class and had to return on the same ships as a stevedore working below decks.

Grandmother, Felicitas Ortiz y de Leon

Grandmother, Felicitas Ortiz y de Leon

Oddly, he didn’t resent this. Particularly when he was older, he felt that it was a turning point in his life. He hadn’t known how people outside his social class lived, and he found out. He was an independent, gregarious man, perfectly cheerful working down in the kitchen and doing chores he was not used to. He made lots of new friends. He learned from that experience that there was more to the world than his narrow social class. My mother said she never knew who he was going to bring home for dinner — the electrician, the plumber – just anyone he took a liking to. He also entertained counts, a Russian princess, and dignitaries.

I know little about my grandfather, but everybody knew my grandmother as a strong woman. When my father was working for the government in the Philippines, his first wife and their daughter Nina—my half-sister—lived some of the time in Malacañang Palace, the presidential residence and offices. My grandmother would come to visit with her family, and she would stroll the halls of the palace in her gown, which had a little pair of scissors tucked in the deep pockets. Every so often she’d jump out at Nina from out of the darkness and cut off a piece of her bangs. The women in the family had a tendency toward thinning hair in front, and she was convinced that if she cut Nina’s hair back like grass she would have thicker hair. Nina shrank away from her because of that and because she was not a warm person.

My father spent at least part of his childhood on the indigo plantation which was said to have been the largest one in the world at that time—but that might have been an exaggeration passed down through the generations. I think they had sixty employees in the house and on the plantation. I hope they paid them. Who knows what working conditions were like? I’ve heard that when one of her ships went down laden with indigo she would wade into the sea and threaten to kill herself. The servants would “rescue” her from herself. I don’t imagine my grandmother was easy to work for.

Paloma and Marita at a cathedral in Dumaquete

Paloma and Marita at a cathedral in Dumaquete

When I came to Manila I expected its size, but thought there would be more old neighborhoods. I was probably thinking of how most of Europe protects and preserves its old architecture. I didn’t know that during World War II the American bombing decimated Manila. Nothing I expected to see exists anymore. Our family homes were plowed under. I’ve heard the same thing from people I traveled with during our stay who come from the same kind of old families. Often their houses were destroyed after the Japanese appropriated and used them. On their way out, the Japanese burned them down and sacked them so there was nothing left. A man who was on this journey with us said that part of his family died and part of it survived, but everything was stolen from their house—their furniture, their silverware, all their possessions. After the war they would sometimes find their silverware for sale in stores or on little tables on the street. They’d have to buy back their own possessions. I don’t think my father had but a few things in the States that came from the Manila homes.

marita-mapPaloma and I spent nine or ten days in Manila and then went north for three days in Vigan. We went to the cathedral to find my father’s baptismal certificate and looked to see whether it included an address where the family might have lived and whether it was one of those houses that was spared. We toured around and got a much better sense of what the Spanish architecture was like—pretty houses with window panes made of shell, tiled floors and beautiful hardwood floors. Then we had three days on the seashore outside Dumaguete in Negros Oriental. It’s a very pretty place. The land is lush. The ocean was beautiful, but there were no sandy beaches. Where we were there were no sandy beaches, but there’s a lovely view across the water to distant islands.

Maria (Marita) Cerilia Lopez-Mena

Maria (Marita) Cerilia Lopez-Mena

I don’t really have any relatives in the Philippines. The person I visited with was my father’s second wife’s granddaughter. She remembered my dad fondly from when she was a small child. The other people we traveled around with knew my aunt, my father’s favorite sister, the woman I’m named after, who perished during World War II. She was caught one day and marched away like the family members of the people we were traveling with. I met a gentleman who remembered my Aunt Marita with particular clarity as he was twelve years old when he last saw her. The Japanese had been appropriating homes. It sounded as if they had taken most of the houses by the time they got to the house of friends where she was staying nearby. The friends were sleeping four and five to a bedroom. My Aunt Marita had been out shopping the day the Japanese came to the house where she was staying. They separated the families, taking some of them away and letting others go. When she came home she didn’t realize what was happening. The Japanese didn’t want to let her in, but she insisted that she lived there. She was marched away with her friend and never seen again. I think she was taken to the Masonic hall—a building they used—where a lot of people were kept alive for a few days and then shot and burned. The gentleman whose mother was her friend remembered her as very feisty, which people also refer to me. So maybe in addition to her name I inherited some of her personality.

This is my first time in Asia, and I’ve found the trip more confusing than anything else. Metro Manila is big and sprawling. The interactions with people have been hard to interpret. You can sense hostility or you can sense friendliness, but you don’t know how deep either one goes or why it’s there—if it actually is. In order to know that you need to work and live in a community and understand what people are really about. For example, in our little boutique hotel in Makati there was an awful lot of smiling and deferential behavior. No matter how often the hotel staff have seen you, it’s “hello, ma’am” and “goodbye, ma’am” and “can we give you something, ma’am” and “do you want bacon, ma’am?” It’s hard to know if that’s the culture of extremely effective guest relations training by the hotel. I understand that that’s part of hotel experience everywhere, but the extent of it was more than what I’m used to. [The ubiquitous “ma’am” or “sir” is a translation of the Tagalog honorific po which appears in every sentence spoken to a person of greater age or higher rank. Its use appears to be mostly automatic and not to be taken too seriously.]

Marita (far left) with Paloma (far right) with family friends at Casa Blanca in Intramuros the day before the 80th birthday party for Marita's father's second wife's granddaughter, Jess Huberty.

Marita (far left) with Paloma (far right) with family friends at Casa Blanca in Intramuros the day before the 80th birthday party for Marita’s father’s second wife’s granddaughter, Jess Huberty. Everyone’s wearing traditional Filipino blouses as requested by the birthday girl.

Almost everybody has been friendly, some just neutral. I went to a birthday party here attended by people from the same socio-economic class. Some were Americans, some Spanish-Americans, some Spanish-Filipinos or Filipino-Americans—any number of combinations. They were all very welcoming, pleasant and curious to know why I was here and what I was doing. They found it odd and amusing that I was here visiting my father’s second wife’s granddaughter. It is kind of an odd situation because he was divorced from her grandmother and then married my mother.

Paloma at a shop in B-Side, Makati

Paloma at a shop in B-Side, Makati

All three of my father’s wives were Americans women. I think the first one was from the South. He married his second wife in Hong Kong. As I said, he traveled a lot. He went to Cuba a good deal. I have a photo from a club in Havana with the men all in tuxedos. I can tell from some of the women’s dresses that it was probably the mid-to-late 1930s. I think he hung around with the “jet-setters” of their day, the people who traveled by ship to Cuba and trains or by air to Newport.

I haven’t met a lot of people since we’ve been here—your housekeeper, who’s friendly but a little hard to read also. I don’t think people make instant friends here, not like in the States, where you talk to someone on the bus or plane and the next thing you know you’re exchanging emails. Look at how you and I met. In pretty short order people figured out which conference participants they liked and wanted as friends. I don’t expect that here.

Your place in Quezon City is very different from Makati. The streets are broader, they’re less congested. There’s not as much pollution here. People seem to be more relaxed. In the financial district in Makati, there was a lot of wealth but also a lot of extreme poverty—people living on the streets, small children asleep under a tree. I didn’t know whether they’ were homeless or out in front of their house or waiting for a parent to get off work. You don’t see that here in your neighborhood. [The guards in this gated community would never let them in.] You see kids running around, but it’s different. It’s more relaxed here. More green.

St. Sabastian Church in Manila,

St. Sebastian Church in Manila,

Makati is suffocating because of the pollution. They tell me it’s so much better now, but I can’t imagine how it’s so much better. We went on a ferryboat to Corregidor [an island at the mouth of Manila Bay]. As we sat waiting on the ferryboat, the engine was running and kicking out diesel fuel for a good hour before we took off. There was a cloud of smoke. I was having asthma and wishing they’d turn off the engine until all the passengers were on board, and in the meantime it was polluting everything in sight. [Motorists also idle their cars unnecessarily for long periods of time.]

In Makati we felt safe. When we were walking on the street and asked for directions, everyone we asked was willing to help. People said we shouldn’t take taxis, but had no trouble. We’re used to taxis in New York City and a cab is a cab is a cab. I can’t imagine that all of the taxis in Manila are driven by psychopaths. The people who warned us had private cars and drivers or they hired a car through a company. [It’s common for people with cars and drivers to claim that taxis aren’t safe.] Taxis are an inexpensive way to get around, and we never had any trouble finding one. So we began to feel more independent.

The sanctuary at St. Sebastian Church

The sanctuary at St. Sebastian Church

One day my daughter and I walked over to The Collective, a dark, dank former warehouse which now houses stores and B-Side the art and performance space. It’s kind of a community project where counter-culture events take place. We walked through all manner of neighborhoods, including some where we were very much in the minority and people were suspicious of what were we doing there. I can’t say I felt overtly threatened, but I felt anxious. When we finally got there, we had a perfectly lovely time. At a little restaurant we split a sandwich, and at another I bought one of those gizmos that shreds melon into curly strips . I bought two of the best chocolate bars I’ve ever had in my life, handmade and beautifully wrapped. The collective was an interesting project. Paloma wanted to get out more to see the city, just as you and I would have when we were a lot younger. I’m a little more tentative than I used to be.

The crypt at St. Sabastian.

The crypt at St. Sebastian.

Our boutique hotel in Makati had an Italian restaurant inside—and a damned good one. I can’t say I fell in love with Filipino food, but it may just be that we didn’t go to good restaurants. We’ve had adobo, chicken and pork, we’ve had steamed fish and lots of shrimp. White rice, which It was eaten was good, inexpensive and filling. There wasn’t much in the way of salads. But plenty of fruit, which was divine. I ate all the pineapple I could get my hands on and mangoes and bananas. In a restaurant we had sinigang, the traditional sour soup flavored with tamarind. I didn’t miss American food. Enough of the Filipino food was similar. There were also so many Chinese restaurants where you can get hot and sour soup or barbecued pork in sauces.

In school I didn’t get a lot of history about the Philippines although I went to an excellent regional school in central New York. There was more about Europe and Latin America, of course. There was very little truth-telling in our history books, I expect — sanitized versions of the Civil War and what life was like for African-Americans. I’m glad that I understand better what happened here during the war here in the Philippines.

The Lopez-Mena family graves in the St, Sabastian crypt. The caretaker said someone had come recently and lit a candle.

The Lopez-Mena family graves in the St, Sabastian crypt. The caretaker said someone had come recently and lit a candle.

I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world. It’s put to rest certain things that I’ve always been curious about, like what the Philippines looks like — a measure of the reality against the fantasy. I didn’t really expect to “find” my father or my roots. He died when I was six years old. I never met my namesake aunt. Under those circumstances, the best I could discover at this late time would be a glimpse of their personalities from a story somebody who knew them might tell me. And that’s a nice thing.


Puzzle Gourmet Store and Café, Serving a Special Need

by on Sunday, May 31st, 2015

The folks at Puzzle Cafe

The folks at Puzzle Cafe

Last November, Girlie Canoy set up the Puzzle Gourmet Store and Café in order to provide a future for her son Jose, who has autism. Her daughter, Ysabella Canoy is the general manager. After graduating from college, she wants to go to the States for a master’s in Applied Behavioral Analysis and then return to the Philippines to help people here. I spoke with both women in the next-door gallery, also owned by Girlie Canoy. The Puzzle Café project has evolved well beyond its original purpose.

Ysabella and Girlie Canoy’s story

Mother and daughter

Mother and daughter

Our son and brother Jose quit school after the fifth grade because it wasn’t doing any good anymore. He found it so boring, and it was exasperating for us when we had to tutor him for exams. Autism had greatly affected his ability to learn a first language, let alone a second, and since English is the language of our home, he didn’t speak Filipino. We couldn’t see a reason for him to keep going to school. He’d already learned as much as he was going to. It was more important to learn life skills like how to cross the street, how to talk on the phone, how to count money—things he wasn’t learning in a mainstream school. Since his education was limited, we were looking for a place for him to work which would still be open in five, ten years from now.

The café just happened. When I took Jose to the grocery store, I noticed he would straighten up the cans on the shelves, lining them up properly. He loves to fix everything. I told the children we should open a convenience store for him. The kids wanted to make it into a coffee shop. Then the interior designer made this place so beautiful that it became a café. One day I opened my eyes and said to myself, “I don’t know how to run a restaurant. What am I doing here?” I called up a niece and said, “You have to help me because we’re opening in two weeks and I don’t even know what to buy.” So she helped me, and now it’s there. Originally, it was planned for Jose, but other individuals with autism came here in the hope of landing real jobs in the future.

Jose Canoy

Jose Canoy

People with autism are all different. Jose happens to be one of those where it takes longer than most people for him to understand and it’s harder for him to talk, to communicate. Basically autism is a neurological disorder. There are various theories about it, but the causes and cures are still unknown. There is no correct answer for everyone. The early red flags are difficulty in communicating, hand clapping, lack of eye contact, great sensitivity to light, sound, smells and noise. Speech is in very repetitive language. People with autism don’t really learn from their environment, and they’re not stimulated by the things happening around them. They probably clap their hands to stimulate themselves. Jose talks to himself for stimulation the way we might talk to each other. They seem to have a hard time processing things around them, so they find comfort in things that happen again and again, such as watching the same video over and over because it seems normal and predictable. People sometimes think that individuals with autism live in their own world, which may be true, but I think it’s because they’re having a hard time processing what’s around them. It’s overwhelming—all the people, sights and sounds and smells—because all their senses are heightened. So they can hear things that we don’t necessarily hear, smell thing we don’t smell. They see things so much differently than we do.

A tabletop

A tabletop

It’s important to realize that autism has a very wide spectrum. Here we have high-functioning kids, but there are also low-functioning people who are thirty years old and in adult diapers because they’ve never been toilet trained. Maybe they haven’t received the proper care and education. Some people aren’t as blessed as the kids we have here. Of these ten people, no two the same, although there are some similarities among all of them. They’re all high-functioning, but at different tasks. You should be prepared to be surprised.

Coming here is a different kind of experience from just sitting in a café and drinking coffee with friends. Customers get to experience firsthand what autistic people are actually capable of. They see that the kids are happy and interacting with others. That’s more than just reading about autism. First and foremost, we’re focusing on awareness. We want people to see that people with autism can function, that they’re not so abnormal that they can’t do anything or communicate at all. We want them to show that given opportunities our kids can actually work. And it’s not just a matter of opportunity. It’s a matter of acceptance. Twenty years ago if we took Jose out in public and he acted a little strange people would look us over from head to foot, saying nonverbally, “You should have left him at home.” Over the years there’s been a definite change, but not everyone has come around.

Another tabletop

Another tabletop

The café gets the kids ready for employment. It’s part of their therapy. Here they get to interact with others. It’s not the same as being in school. They come through the Independent Living and Learning Center or through a therapist we’ve been working with for over ten years, Josephine de Jesus. Both the school and the therapist focus on teaching life skills. For us it’s crucial to work to work together with them because they know the individuals they’ve sent to us so much better than we do. We collaborate in deciding what the individual is interested in and what he or she is able to do. Out of all their students the teachers had to decide who was highly functional and not resistant to learning because, as we said, some autistic people just want to stick to what they already know, and it’s hard for them to get used to something new. Others want to work and meet new people. They’re interested in what we’re doing and they’re very good at following instructions.

At first the teachers and the therapist were very much present. In the beginning it’s important that the kids see that they’re being watched. They can’t be left alone. Now we’re doing that less and less. The teachers and the therapist showed us how to handle the kids. We didn’t know much about their individual personalities, and they were only with us for two hours at first. We didn’t know what they were like anywhere else. So that was very important, the transition from the therapist or the teachers to us.

We set the original session at two hours so as not to overwhelm anyone, but in that period of time we were able to identify who could work longer. Some now work every day—like Jose. Some work three times a week, some just once a week. We need to be careful in this setting where customers don’t necessarily know the extent of their condition. Two weeks ago we hired a cook, Carmelo San Diego, who was diagnosed with autism, but he had two years of culinary experience and had graduated from culinary school. He’s working and getting paid. We’re still not sure whether he can actually be left alone to work by himself. But we decided to give him a chance, and he’s doing well.

Customers read the menu and select what they want on this order sheet.

Customers read the menu and select what they want on this order sheet.

The food and drink on the menu consists of house favorites. You have to have good food so people will come back, but we say, “Remember we are not here to make money. We are here for the advocacy.” Of course, we have to make money also because we’re looking at Jose’s future. We don’t want to burden anybody, especially financially, even though he has five siblings who have all volunteered to take care of him. You don’t know whether a future spouse might not agree.

Yes, we have a sign saying “April is Autism Month.” It’s a worldwide celebration which has evolved. Before it was “autism awareness,” but now I think it’s becoming “autism acceptance.” People are aware that individuals with autism exist. So the next step is acceptance. What we’re striving for is a more inclusive community, inclusive in the sense that people are more sensitive to the special needs of these individuals and understand that they’re viable employees in the workplace. So this year we partnered up with a lot of companies who are also trying to educate their staff about possibly hiring an individual with autism.

Message on the front door

Message on the front door

This effort was spearheaded by the Unilab Foundation, which set up a meeting with several schools and companies such as McDonald’s, LBC, Jollibee and all the SM’s. It’s a step in the right direction. Hopefully in the future people won’t need a special Autism Month to learn about it because it’s already very much known in the community.

The companies involved in this effort are aware of how productive individuals with autism are because of their strong focus on the task they were asked to do. Ysabella was invited to join in with the Unilab Foundation’s efforts because of her firsthand experience in an establishment where people with autism interact directly with the public. We know a lot of companies who have autistic employees working in the background, doing this like drawing. But having people with autism who interact, we’re one of the very few. She’s been invited to help prepare a manual for companies who do want to do this. It’s still in the process.

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