Category Archives: Singapura

Pinoy style toponymy

A young local politician told me that the origin of Alabang is the word abang (tagalog for “to wait”). Bandits during the Spanish era use to ambush unsuspecting people he said.

Legends are more appealing than real history. The small Rio Alban (the one in Festival Mall) gave her name to Alabang. Boring story, I know, the legend’s more catchy.

Three years ago, I blogged about the origin of Muntinlupa’s barrio names. Many were surprised that all had botanical word origins.

Most stories about how places got its name are fabulated. They’re mostly “alamat” (legends) but Filipinos takes them as facts.

Pre-colonial Singapore were populated by Malays that had the same practice. They had a profound admiration towards nature and named places to honor it.

The names of the two towns I call home here, Punngol and Tampines, had natural and botanic origins.

Two years ago, we moved to Tampines township. Its name came from the tree “tempinis”. An ironwood variety, like the rare hard Philippine mangkono.

Punggol town got its name from an old Malay word. It was a method of gathering fruits from trees by hurling clubs. Our ancestors adapted the word in tagalog, “pukol”, which generally means “to throw”.

You see, the intangible historical links are there, we only need to pay attention.

Some other places Malays named after plants here are: the heritage district of Kampong Glam, after the tree Gelam. Kranji (I wrote about its WWII site here) from the keranji tree. Sembawang, Katong and many others.

The popular Filipino hangout place, Orchard Road, got its name from trees that used to lined it. What kind of tree? according to local historians, nutmeg. Not far from Orchard there’s a street called Nutmeg.

In the Philippines we call nutmeg as tanghas or duguan (from the red flesh the covers the seeds). The seed is dried up and grounded. It is used as spice and skin medicine.

I grew up in a street called Bagtican (white lauan). I knew even as a child that it’s a tree but never saw one until 9 years ago in Los Baños. It’s a threatened tree because of market demand.

Why knowing the real story behind places names is important?

Well, for one it dispels ludicrous myths that people ends up believing—and studying toponymy (ah, the scientific and fancy name of the study of places names) is a gateway to history.

Try researching where your place got its name and you’ll go into a history rabbit hole!

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Seeing Kranji and my WWII Obsession

My current reading list are mostly WWII books these days. Like “Tears in the Darkness” by Michael Norman, about the horrors of the Bataan Death March. Another is “Counting the Days” by Craig B. Smith, chronicles of POWs and stragglers in the pacific war. I have two more that I haven’t even started reading.

WWII literature are the most accessible online. If you’re searching under “Philippine History” you get more hits about WWII than any other time (or subject) in our history. The library here (Singapore) has plenty of great titles too. Some are in digital format that you can download using their app.

Although the Spanish-Philippine epoch has long been my area of interest, lately, I’m getting more and more fascinated by WWII stories. For one, it reminds me of my father’s experiences as a boy during the Japanese occupation. I interviewed several individuals in the past that shared with me their unbelievable stories of hardship, courage and spirit. My current reading list echoes their voices inside my head.

WWII happened less than a hundred years ago. Almost every Filipino knows relatives, or know someone, that survived it. For something that happened fairly  recent in our history it is without doubt greatly underappreciated. I don’t think our standard history text in schools gives it justice.

I admire Japanese who travels to the islands to offer their prayers, flowers, and paper cranes for their war dead. I was told that in Muntinlupa’s Japanese Cemetery, these visitors would still weep and sing the popular Japanese 1940s song ”Night Goes on in Muntinlupa” (composed by Japanese prisoners, later pardoned by Quirino). And these visitors are not that old. They’re much younger. They probably only heard of their dead relative’s fate from their older folks.

The Japanese have long memories. There was a Japanese soldier, said to be of royal origin, that was buried somewhere in downtown Dumaguete. The relatives never stopped​ looking until they finally did half a century later. WWII artifact hunter Tantin Cata-al shared this story with me. He gets regular Japanese visitors. Whenever he stumbles upon dead Japanese soldiers from Mt. Talinis during his expeditions, he puts them in a sack and brings them home. He’s got two when I visited, he was expecting Japanese representatives to get them.

I remember visiting Libingan ng mga Bayani a few years ago. I came to pay my respects to our WWII dead and to Nick Joaquin, the national artist. I lingered long enough time to see the portions that are neglected. Then I spoke to the guy cleaning Nick’s gravesite. He told me then that he hasn’t been paid yet.  “By who? the government?” I asked. By the dead’s relatives.

What?!?

Why does the living has to pay for contractors to maintain the grass? to clean the marker? Is the cost too much for the government to shoulder? these men unselfishly served the nation. What’s wrong with us people?

– – –

When I visited Kranji cemetery it was Sunday. There were only five people. Most likely visiting relatives because they were busy locating a tombstone. A maintenance crew told me that visitors are rare even during weekends. Only exception is when dignitaries make official visits. Two years ago the British Royals, Kate and William, dropped by to pay their respects. Crowds gathered to take a glimpse of their former royalties. The event highlights the importance of Kranji Cemetery as a war memorial.

The area where Kranji cemetery is located was converted by the Japanese into a prison. It was a camp and ammunition storage previously. Not far, down the Kranji river, was where the Japanese forces first landed in Singapore. They crossed the straits of Johor, some in bikes. The cemetery is elevated, on a clear day you can see Johor Bahru’s skyline.

There’s less than 100 tombstones in Kranji but there are around 4400 that are buried in its grounds, more than 800 are unidentified. Its memorial walls has the name of 24000 allied soldiers.

Kranji cemetery also serves as a state cemetery. The first Singapore president, Yusof Bin Ishak, the only man featured in the country’s paper currency, was buried on the northern portion of the cemetery.

Like the American Cemetery in Taguig, Kranji is managed by a non-local European group tasked to oversee maintenance and commemoration of allied soldiers and servicemen. It is funded by member states unlike the American Battle Monument Commission (ABMC). The ABMC representative, a retired Marine, told me that their funding is not granted by congress’ budget. So I assume they operate from grants and contributions.

ABMC’s first chairman was Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing. A US military legend who mentored Patton, MacArthur and Bradley, even Eisenhower. He served in Mindanao where legend has it that he scared the Moros by dipping bullets in pigs blood. This is unfounded (but was mentioned by Trump during the presidential campaign!) and is believed to be inaccurate but it could also be a real, a psychological tactic employed to sow fear. This kind of historical rumors don’t crop up from nothing.

gloomy day it was #WWII #kranji #kranjiwarmemorial

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I’ve been deep in my reading WWII books lately that I feel compelled to visit historical sites here linked to WWII events. If there’s something that binds Singapore and the Philippines aside from being close South East Asian neighbors is that both experienced the brutal Japanese occupation.

Back home, we have so many places that witnessed​ the war: old houses used as Japanese residence, rice fields once converted to air strips, larger buildings converted to makeshift hospitals, bomb shelters, even caves that were used as temporary covers. There’s so many to see. When I get back, I’m visiting the Mabalacat airstrip used by Japanese pilots to launch deadly attacks against the allied forces. The Kamikaze East Airfield in Mabalacat is where the Kamikaze pilots first took off.


The Revere Bell in Singapore’s National Museum

I dropped by Singapore’s National Museum yesterday to see a rare piece of Americana. The Revere Bell.

The bell was donated by Maria Revere, daughter of Paul Revere. She was married to the first American consul in the island (Balestier road was named after him). She wanted it to be tolled every night to let the sailors know that it’s time to return to their ships. Those guys must have been causing trouble during those days.

Paul Revere, was not only a well known silversmith of his time but also legendary patriot, one of the founding fathers of his nation. His “Midnight Ride” is an enduring story of patriotism during the American revolution. It has been mentioned countless times in American pop culture. My favorite nerd rock band Weezer even has a song titled “the British are coming”. These are the words Revere shouted that night when he rode on a horseback to warn his people.

There’s a popular portrait by John S. Copley, depicts Revere rubbing his chin with his right index finger while holding a silver teapot. It is said to convey the message of Revere and his silversmith business. He looks like a youn Jack Black if you’re to ask me.

The Revere Bell is the only one that was made in the United States that was exported. That’s how rare the relic is. The US embassy for a time became its home. It was brought to Singapore when Paul Revere was no longer around (he died 1818) but with it came his legendary name and reputation.

I’ve been to the National Museum of Singapore a total of three times. It never fails to amaze me. In all my visits I learn something new. The architecture and style of the old neoclassical colonial building is in itself a museum piece.

I would recommend first time or even regular Singapore visitors to see it. It has the most essential historical information about the island. From its precolonial epoch to its modern history.

If you’ve heard of the fabled Singapore Stone, a piece of it is in the museum. It used to be a large stone that protruded at the mouth of the Singapore river. It had inscriptions that experts has not yet deciphered. Many believes these were old Sumatran text. The legend was that the strong man “Badang” hurled the stone in its place. It was revered for a long time, until the British (for their ships to be accommodated) blew it into pieces!

I like the permanent exhibit, it walks you through different epochs in Singapore’s long storied history. There’s the “Modern Colony” where the lifestyle of the educated and moneyed class is presented: a study desk made of solid wood with side cabinets, a mobile wardrobe trunk from the 1st commercial store in Singapore (John Little, recently closed shop). Spectacles and glasses made of brass and alloy. High society was into dances back then, the clubs was buzzing and its clubbers wore gorgeous dresses (exquisite “cheongsum” with floral motif) and expensive suits (layered western clothing, yes, in the tropics!).

The exhibit about the Japanese occupation (Surviving Syonan) is an interesting presentation. While it’s a brief interlude that lasted for only 3 years, it had a lasting impact on the colony and its citizens. In the exhibit are some curious propaganda materials. The Japanese went full blast with it. They placed propaganda everywhere: art, music, theatre, films, books and radio. They even had a compulsory Japanese language subject in school. And if the campaign had succeeded the current Japanese language schools would not be in business!


Lent, superstitions & a reminder for penance

Last Wednesday I attended an evening mass nearby. I normally avoid this church because the choir’s too loud. They have complete drum sets and very powerful speakers. They remind me of born-again services I attended as a child during my summer vacations in Cavite. The singers, some Filipinos, have great vocals. Maybe I just prefer the more traditional music from the choir stalls—but that’s just me. It’s Ash Wednesday, with little time in my hands I had to go to where’s convenient.

Neo gothic beauty. Small but lofty ceilings with intricate leaf and vine artworks on its columns. Classic English Catholic church as can be seen in the positions of its auxiliary altars, apse, chancel and aisles.

 

I used to frequent an older church from the north east part of the island, not really far from where we are now but it takes two bus rides. I have written about this beautiful neo gothic church here established 150 years ago to serve the fishing Teochew communities. I still visit this church from time to time. Last month, I paid my last respects to a Burmese parish priest, Fr. Peter Paul, who recently passed. He was interned in Myanmar but services were held in Nativity to honor his memory.

I don’t know Fr. P that well but I attended masses he celebrated since 2009. The last time I saw him was a memorable interaction, my confession after so many years. Prior to this the last was back in grade school, that’s almost 30 years. He had a good laugh about it but then reminded me to do it more often. Which of course I still haven’t done and so Fr. Peter P. was my last confessor.

I’m a superstitious person. I was raised this way but interesting is that my siblings grew up unlike me. They took up from my father, an extreme opposite of my mother when it comes to superstitions.

One of my favorite superstitions is avoiding sleeping without eating something. The soul, Mama said, would look for food when your already in deep sleep. The danger is that it might not find its way back to your body! Why? The soul might get trapped inside the caldero ng kanin!

I remember being given pieces of bronze and all sorts of coins when I would wonder around our hilly property in Olongapo. I was told these metals makes you heavy and elemental hates the smell of tanso (copper). Hence, they can’t mess with you or put a spell on you.

Some are really scary. My mother would all wake us up if there’s a funeral procession passing by. According to her spirits possess powers that can lure our souls. When you’re asleep that’s when you’re soul’s vulnerable. Look, these all my sounds strange but believe you me, we have tons of it. Filipinos, like most orientals, are very superstitious.

Many of the superstitions I grew up with revolves around out witting evil spirits. Funny as it may sound that’s really what they were. But how can mortals out smart the devil? The whole idea sounds absurd but many of these are deeply embedded in Filipino tradition.

So are demons or whatever they are true?

I believe so.

I’m sure the good priest will be missed by his parish. It was nice meeting Fr. P. Rest in peace.

Now, back to my long over due penance with the late priest. There was this interesting coincidence that took place that made that day all the more unforgettable.

I normally don’t share these kind of stories here but here goes:

Fr. P and I had a brief chat after my confession. He said even he tries to do it weekly, twice if possible. He needs it because like me, he said, he’s a sinner too. He’s humble, happy, very accommodating guy. After the absolution, he gave me a list of prayers. So I started, and the good priest walked away. This took place near the altar, right after the afternoon mass.

When I was done with the prayers, which were surprisingly short (I was expecting a longer list after all those years of not doing it) I left hurriedly. It was pass 6PM, the skies still lit but the sun had set.

These days I listen to podcasts more than music. My playlist includes mostly stand up comics and educational podcasts like Freakonomics and NPR’S Radio Lab. When I left the Church’s premises I decided to listen on my ride back home. I lost track what I had on but was surprised that there was this comedians mocking priests and the Catholic Church. They were brutal, all the bad press you hear about the church and its priests. They were howling in laughter!

I’m inclined to think that’s just another coincidence?

Descanse en paz Fr. P.


Libraries are our Friend

Libraries eventually will all be phased out as information becomes available in digital forms. This institution will all serve as repositories of physical books. One day,  we’ll just borrow digital facsimile online (Google’s on it with GoogleBooks). There will be no need for a visit.

And so, enjoy them while they’re still around.

Arguably the best library in the region is Singapore’s NLB. For foreigners like myself it comes with a price (around 2000 pesos) but it still a great deal. I consider it paying for a premium membership. I can borrow books from the central library and drop them at any of NLB’s branches island wide. Your library card is a piece of plastic that carries all your information. You don’t have to worry keeping track of what you loaned, there’s an app that alerts you when is your due. You can request for titles and reserve them on line. Open until 9 PM, they also operate from Monday to Sunday. It’s easy to see why I enjoy the library here, makes life and reading easy.

Drop your borrowed books, anytime!

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz, chairwoman of National Book Development Board, in her email  to this blogger relating her NLB experience said, “how I love the National Library of Singapore! I spent my whole day there on my last visit last year. I was so envious!”

The titles I like the most of course are Filipinianas and old history books  about us Filipinos. Unfortunately I can’t bring most of these home. Most are tagged under “reference” use only. But it’s fine, the library provides spaces and facilities conducive to learning (and sometimes snoozing!).

 

They update you regularly by mail, SMS and email. Very efficient service, unlike no other in the region for sure.

 

Our library back home is teeming with first hand historical sources. I can’t wait for my next visit. It’s far from what Singapore has managed to establish but as long as books that I want to borrow are accessible that makes up for everything.

Our National Library has been a victim of  countless pilferage, especially after WWII. Constant issues with funding has also placed rare manuscripts in danger. I wonder if there’s a plan to ensure everything is backed up in digital form before they’re lost forever. In one of my visit to the Lopez Museum and Library they were already scanning their collection.

We have to go digital, invest in making local libraries around the country portals equipped with computers and tablets. There appears to be no other viable option for us.  You go the remotest barrios where even basic medicines are scarce. There’s just too many of us, scattered in so many islands, with so little money for sending books around.

I met a Filipino here a couple of years ago that works for a design firm. He related to me that  those small colorful National Geographic books in their dilapidated elementary school in Cebu inspired him to dream of working abroad as some kind of a visual artist. He would look at those donated book’s pictures for hours he said. He later left his small town to study arts in Manila.

Now, that’s the power of books.

***

I read a couple of books the last two visits I made to NLB. They have an impressive Filipiniana collection. Some are archived available only upon request. Most are in the “reference” section. You can read it there but you can’t take it home.

The first, “An Epistle of a Friar Prisoner 1898-1900” by Lino Dizon. An expert historian of Central Luzon during the Spanish-Philippines epoch.

The book is about Padre Fernando Garcia OSA experience during the Philippine revolution. There were his letters of his “sorties from town to town and provinces” as prisoner and missionary at the turn of the century.

This Spanish Augustinian wrote in Capampangan. Started his career in the mid 1890s. Initially assigned in Tarlac in 1896, then Macabebe. In 1989 he was in Hagonoy, a prisoner of Aguinaldo’s army. His observations were critical of the treatment they received from the revolutionaries . He escaped in Bontoc went back to Manila and wrote “Ing Macuyad a Pamagsalita Diquil Qng Bie Nang Delanan at Pangatimaua Ning Metung a Mebijag”. Many missionaries were left behind when the Spanish started withdrawing from the islands at the turn of the century.

It’s a fascinating read for it shows two things that many Filipinos reading history often overlook.

First is how skilled and learned the Spanish Friars were: they were engineers, scientists and scholars. The churches and presbyteries, today’s remnants of their handiwork, represents their meticulous and masterful planning.

Second is how they mastered the local languages. They communicated using it which made conversion faster. No one understood the local communities more than these Spanish parish priests. Perhaps they did more than other Filipinos living in other regions and speaking other languages during their time.

It is not rare to encounter documents written in local languages by Spanish missionaries like Padre Garcia’s work. It can be argued that by recording ancient local languages and customs they unwittingly preserved these for us to study today. Without written records, so much would have been lost!

Another book I stumbled upon was from a Monash University (Australia) professor, John Newsome Crossley, “Hernando de los Rios Coronel and the Spanish Philippines in the Golden Age”.

The book revolves around de los Rios, his time in the colony and his accomplished resume. It’s an interesting read that deserves a separate post. Crossley suggests that de los Rios was an ordained priest. The first chapters of the books presents the early history of Spain in the islands. Well researched and written; it even breakdown the political make up of the early administrations, even the role of the missionaries in the natives lives. This book’s a lot better than some of our standard text books in grade school and secondaries.

How Crossley got the idea to pick de los Rios as subject for his book is in itself an interesting story. During his visit to UST’s Benavides library in Manila, Fr. Aparacio presented to him a first edition of Copernicus’ “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium”. The copy was signed by “Hernando de los Rios Coronel”. You can tell a lot from what a man reads. The author then went on to write about the Spanish gentleman.


ACM’s Exhibit on Christianity in Asia

The facade of ACM. And those silver spheres, must be Dragon Balls

I arrived at the Asian Museum Civilization pass 4 this past Sunday. While there’s hardly traffic here it takes me about an hour to get to the downtown core—the old colonial seat of power. The British are gone but they left behind elegant buildings now utilized to promote art, culture and history. Like the old supreme court and the City Hall, redesigned and linked from the inside to house the impressive Singapore Gallery.

The ACM was moved to the Empress Place Building in 2003. Originally intended to be a court building but was later used to house various government offices. The interior showcases wonderful doric columns and cornices. It has a top tier Chinese resto and a spacious ballroom. The museum’s bookshop has a great collection of books on arts and culture from all over the region.

Stramford Raffles landed on the west portion of the Empress Place building. There’s a colonial era monument there to commemorate this event. He’s widely considered to have founded modern Singapore even by locals. I find this rather odd because back home, colonial figures are portrayed as evil. Perhaps Singaporeans, true to their meritocratic mind set, values contributions regardless of where it came from. If you look around, prosperous nations like theirs doesn’t really have history education that strongly demeans the former states that ruled them, it’s third world countries like ours that tends to linger on the subject. We still use colonial oppression as social tool to stir nationalism.

I first saw the museum six years ago. I came looking for Jose Rizal’s bust that the Singaporeans built to commemorate the Filipino’s visits to the islands. It’s located near the a pathway along the river, just across the iconic Fullerton hotel. A few meters away is the Cavenaugh Bridge, a structure that caught the young traveler’s attention. He provided a detailed description of this suspension bridge in his diary. Rizal reached Singapore’s shores five times, making it his most visited foreign land.

I’ve stepped inside the Asian Civilization’s Museum at least a dozen times. I recall two memorable exhibits, the Terracota warriors and the Land of the Morning, an amazing exhibit showcasing Filipino cultural and historical items. This two were my favorite thus far.

What made me go back is the current exhibit billed, “Christianity in Asia: Sacred Art and Visual Splendor.” They brought in items from the Louvre, museums in Lisbon & India and Bibliothèque nationale de France. There were, of course, items from the Philippines (described in photos below) where Catholicism succeeded unlike any other colonies in Asia. As a Catholic and a history buff I knew I’m in for  treat.

The relic that fascinated me most was a worn sandal of Saint Francis Xavier, Catholicism’s most prolific evangelist in this part of the world. So important were his contributions that it is said that Catholics in continental Asia could trace their Catholic roots from ancestors that converted to Catholicism with the help of St. Francis. The Historian Pio Andrade Jr. told me that a handful of Catholic Chinese that settled in Manila preceded the Spanish missionaries. According to him these Chinese were baptized by St. Francis Xavier himself. But unlike his Spanish brethren there’s no account of him reaching the Philippines.

In 2009 I visited Malacca. Up on the hill where the St. Paul church’s ruins stands is an open grave where St. Francis Xavier was temporary buried. The body of this saint must be one of the most traveled in the Church’s history. It now lies in Goa in Basilica of Bom Jesus. An Indian friend who I worked with Cebu, a devout Catholic, extended an invitation for me to visit his beloved Goa. I’ve yet to save money and allocate time to make this pilgrimage.

In one area designated for Filipiniana items I found a 19th century Talismanic shirt from Southern Luzon. It is inscribed with prayers in Latin and Spanish. The faithful wearing it believes that it protects them even against bullets. I first heard of these anting-anting from my father who had seen one in his youth. I’ve always wanted to see one and now I did—fourteen hundred miles from home.

Manila was once among the biggest ivory sculpture producer in the world along with Macau and Guangzhou. Our artisans were most likely Chino-Cristianos, Chinese who made a good living creating santos. This partly explains why there are noticeable Chinese facial traits in our religious images. We don’t see the westernize (if there are these are direct imports from Europe) images of the saints but Asianize adaptations. A chinita Virgin Mary with a complexion of an oriental woman. No, not at all Caucasian. We grew up seeing these in our parishes.

The second biggest ivory sculpture in Asia, a crucifix, was made in the Philippines. It’s part of University of Santo Tomas Museum, currently on loan to ACM. The biggest ivory icon is in Notre Dame France. But even then ivory was expensive, in fact only the hands, face and feet of religious images were made from it, the rest are formed using wood. I’ve seen intricate sword handles made of ivory in Negros Oriental at the Cat-Al private collection. They’re fascinating works of art. Noticeable is how it retained its gloss and whiteness for decades without cleaning. They’re most likely ceremonial samurais not made for battle.

The tradition of making religious images or santos continues to this day. One of my favorite town’s to visit is Paete in Laguna where wood artisans still produce fine religious art. The trade was so prevalent that in 18th and 19th century Mindanao carved images of the Buraq, the mythical animal that brought Prophet Muhammad to the heavens are depicted with saintly faces. Ours is believed to be the only one with a human face. Some historians attributes this to sculptors of traditional Santos that were used to making Christian icons.

 


The RSAF “open house” experience

These planes are parked like cars

I visited the Royal Singapore Air Force museum in 2011. I heard then that the RSAF use to have a yearly  “air show” but that it had been put off indefinitely. It made a comeback this year. I thought I should see it. Who knows if they’ll have one again next year.

I’m a huge aviation fan and I try to see air shows and aviation museums when I’m near one. Not many know that the Philippine Air Force have a museum in Villamor near NAIA Terminal 3. There’s not much to see but the effort is laudable considering our military is cash strapped. The museum traces its beginnings in 1974 during Marcos’ rule (actually then it was called Marcos Museum).

The joke since I was a boy was that Philippine Air Force is all air, no force. Thanks to the intensifying tensions in West Philippine Seas we’re slowly building back air power. We recently bought Korean made FA-50’s. At least we’re back in the supersonic age.

The RSAF open house’s in Paya Lebar Air Base lasted for two day and was attended by some 400 thousand visitors. The biggest attendance in its history.

There’s no direct transport that goes to the base but you don’t worry about this here. Singaporeans are masters in securing and running events. The organizers paid dozens of private buses that shuttled people in and out of the venue.

The static display gave the public the chance to inspect the RSAF assets.  They even allowed visitors to sit on the cockpit of the F-15s and F-16s, the Apache, the Seahawk, the Chinooks, the C-130s and the Stratotanker KC135.

I remember having a poster of an Apache attack helicopter when I was in my teens. I have never seen one up close until last Sunday. So I joined the long line, together with some kids, to get a closer look.

I recall a Zamboangeño friend who had a brother-in-law in Armed Force of the Philippines. He would occasionally hitch a ride in one of the PAF’s C-130 from Villamor Air Base to Zamboanga back in the 90’s. I asked him if I could try and we were cleared to go except my Mother threatened to suspend my allowance if I did. Zamboanga and Sulu is a place no parent wanted their children to see even now.

The highlight of the show was how RSAF demonstrated their ability to go airborne in just minutes to intercept an unknown aircraft. The scramble demo involved two F-15s and two F-16s. Remarkable high level performance topped with aerial acrobatics.

Singapore has a 719.1 km² land area, smaller than Marinduque, but it has the biggest air force in South East Asia. According to experts, they’re the “best trained, led and equipped in the region.” 

There’s a reason why the smaller nations is spending more in military hardware than its neighboring countries. Bigger nations naturally coerce and influence what they perceive to be weaker states around them. History tells us this to be true.

We don’t need to look far—read what’s happening in the West Philippine Seas.

I tell people that the Scarborough now guarded by the Chinese coast guards is so near that Zambales fishermen frequents it—I heard this from some of them. The Chinese recently placed buoys around the shoal and there’s nothing we can do but to express our displeasure. Our neighbor is literally in our doorsteps and we can’t get rid of them.

In the 1990’s no foreign military vessel would wander off in Scarborough. The US, with their air bases in the area then, routinely went on target practice there. Truth is we won’t be getting what we lost anytime soon. We can only hope to continue building our military to defend what’s out there, what’s ours.

Let’s learn from the Singaporeans.

Formations above, static displays below…

All roads leads to RSAF’s Open House last Sunday

The mighty Apache


Baclaran Day

p_20160305_144650I grew up seeing the hectic streets of Baclaran and its modern Romanesque church. I was too young to understand then why my mother would kneel, pray, and move, while kneeling, towards the altar. You still see a few devotees doing this today.

My Aunt’s ritual was different and less taxing. After mass and novena, we ate lechon (rumored to be “double-dead” swines!). These carenderias along Redemptorist Road has long been replaced by stalls vending anything from dress to herbal remedies.

Baclaran church is open 24 hours a day. Imagine the upkeep and the bills the Redemptorist fathers have to settle! But they have plenty of resources.When they recently asked financial support for a campaneria many came forward. One of them, Kris Aquino. It remains the biggest Marian shrine in the country. Everybody avoids Wednesday, Novena time, especially if the trip would pass by the area.

Baclaran church was designed by Don Cesar Homero Concio of Pateros. His version, completed in 1958, was the third building on the site. Concio also drew the plan for the Protestant Church of the Risen Lord in UP. In my view, the Insular Life Building in Makati is his second best work. Unfortunately this building was redesigned in 2005.p_20160305_144907

The Concios still maintains their ancestral house in Pateros. Perhaps the only significant bahay-na-bato in the smallest municipality of metro-Manila.

Before the Redemptorists moved to Baclaran they had a smaller church in Malate. When they transferred to Parañaque, Don Manuel M. de Ynchausti and Ana Belen, his wife, requested that the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help be placed in the center of the graceful altar they donated.

If it were not for the Ynchaustis, Baclaran would have been different from what it is now. We probably would see popular devotion to St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus instead. The founding Redemptorist, Fr. Drogan, was a devotee. One could still see a simple monument of the saint surrounded by “love locks” (no one’s sure how this trend started, inspired by  Paris most likely) courtesy of visiting lovers.

I’ve always been fascinated by the 19th and early 20th Ynchaustis. In the 1800’s they were commissioned to build Puente Colgante (also called Puente de Claveria), the first hanging steel bridge in Asia in the mid 1800’s. Described by the great Nick Joaquin as the unparalleled bridge in Asia it was dismantled and replaced by the art deco Quezon Bridge in 1939.p_20160305_145408

The 19th century Ynchaustis donated vast lands to religious and social causes. The only company I remember that at least had their name was YCO floorwax (YCO is the abbreviation of Ynchausti y Compañia). We use to wax the red wooden floors of our elementary school. We would later use “bunot” to polish the flooring.

The now saint, Pope John Paul II held masses in this church when he was still archbishop. He came back in 1981, then as Pope, and blessed the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Here in Singapore, devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help is popular among local Catholics. Since they’re a former English colony, they use “Succour” instead of “Help”. The church of St. Alphonsus is currently undergoing redevelopment and expansion. It is situated in Thompson Road and it was of no surprise to find many Filipinos in attendance during masses. There’s even regular Tagalog mass schedule. The Redemptorists came in this island in the 1930’s. The train station (MRT) that serves the area is aptly called “Novena”.


National Gallery Singapore, a must-visit for every Filipino

Singapore is home to some of the most impressive art galleries and museums in the region. This certainly is not an accident. The government creates art programs accessible to its people and attractive to its visitors. Most museums are discounted if not free for its citizens.

I recently visited the new National Gallery Singapore. How they transformed the old City Hall and Supreme Court, buildings of great historical importance, into one modern museum is a feat that merits admiration.

NGS’s exhibit, the world largest collection of modern and classical SE Asian art, was just as impressive.

I feel like I’m already beating a dead horse in this blog when I say we need to emulate Singapore’s adaptive reuse of its old buildings. They’re under tremendous pressure to build and expand but they do so without knocking down their historic structures.

Now back to the museum.

For Filipinos, living or visiting the island, NGS is a must stop over. Put it on your to-do list paisanos.

Why?

Inside you’ll find works from our greatest painters: Juan Luna, Felix Resurrecion-Hidalgo, Fernando Amorsolo and Carlos “Botong” Francisco. Men hailed as art pioneers in the region. Their obra masetras—national symbols to us Filipinos.

Like Luna’s “España y Filipinas” that speaks of the Filipino past and identity. There’s so much symbolism in this obra. One could spend an entire day figuring out the concealed message it tries to convey.

There are three known “España y Filipinas,” all painted by Luna. I have seen the one in Lopez Museum 8 years ago. Another version is in Cadiz Spain. The one in the NGS’s collection appears to be the piece that was recently auctioned in Sotheby’s. I did check with a staff and I was told that the painting is on loan. So, I’m confused now. Maybe Ambeth Ocampo could help us figure this out.

Then there’s “The Christian Virgins Being Exposed to the Populace” by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo. This painting placed second to Luna’s massive “Spoliarium” in an art competition in Spain. I first saw this painting in Metropolitan Museum of Manila. The original was destroyed in a fire in Vallodolid.

The works of Fernando Amorsolo were so palpable you could feel his emotion. I learned about this painter in poster reproductions that adorned our elementary classrooms. I was too young to appreciate art then but those posters embedded in my mind the joyous nature of Filipinos, the beauty of our old barrio life and our great traditions.

Amorsolo’s painting during WWII are chilling reminders of a war that’s not that distant from us but many had already forgotten. NGS has two of his work during the occupation, “Defend Thy Honour” and “Marketplace during the Occupation”.

There were also art works from modern Filipino artists: Alfredo Manrique, Vicente Manansala, Ben Cabrera, Imelda Cajipe Endaya, Pablo Baens Santos, Romeo V Tabuena, Roberto Chabet, Hernando R Ocampo and Lee Aguinaldo.

The building that house’s NGS is in itself a great historical and architectural exhibit. I briefly joined the guided tour. The guide took the group around explaining its parts, history and even materials used. The visitors were entertained when she showed the temporary holding cells of the supreme court and later the trap door that opens to the courtroom upstairs.

The city hall is where Admiral Mountbatten accepted the surrender of the Japanese in 1945. Lee Kuan Yew, the island nation’s first prime minister, held office in this same building.

The National Gallery Singapore consists of two wings, the City Hall and the Supreme Court, connected by a link bridge.  The DBS Singapore Gallery focuses on local artists while the UOB gallery features classic and contemporary SE Asian artists. Both buildings went under painstaking restoration work. The entire project is a text book effort in architectural reuse.

I look forward to seeing the museum again, hopefully some of you guys can join me!

The city hall, from a distance, the supreme courts dome. These two building were adapted to house the Singapore National Gallery

Part of the Supreme Court wing of NGS. Good view of the Marina Bay Sands

Filipino artists work on display!

 


Bedok Reservoir and other Lake Stories

Last month we were invited by some friends to eat “bulalo” in Lucky Plaza, the mecca of Filipino overseas workers here in Singapore. During weekends Filipinos, mostly domestic workers, congregate around the area.

We shared stories about our diversions. I told them I enjoy biking around the 4 kilometer shoreline of the Bedok Reservoir especially before the crack of dawn. During this time of the day the manmade lagoon provides spectacular scenes unlike anywhere else.

One of the older women there cautioned me that “it’s not safe”. She started telling me about the numerous “mysterious” deaths that has occurred in the lake. She used to live near the reservoir and claims to having sensed some “bad spirits” in it. I sat there in torment listening to her other supernatural stories but her story about unknown entities residing in lakes did not surprised me.

* * *

I recall this news of children drowning in Taal lake a few years ago. Curious was how the correspondents seem to link the deaths to the paranormal and not measures the local government failed to enact. Why would they assume that spirits are randomly taking lives in that placid lake?

My mother said Visayan folklore also attributes drowning deaths to mysterious sea vortex that abruptly appears from nowhere. They call it “Lilo” or “Liloan”. Some littoral towns carries this name to this day. I wonder if they were named after the fabled whirlpools.

When I was in Laoag, I read about the myth of its lake’s origin. According to local legend the lake was once a town called San Juan de Sagun; apparently an unforgiving god sunk it to teach the wicked townsfolk a lesson. The legend sounded biblical like Soddom and Gomorrah.

Fresh water lakes are remnants of catalytic natural catastrophes. I could imagine whatever creature had been left to struggle in it would ultimately adapt. It is possible that monsters people claimed to have seen in lakes are literally monstrous prehistoric animals.

Speaking of adaptation, the only known fresh water sardines, the tawilis, are from Taal Lake. These once sea dwelling fish learned how to live in fresh water conditions. Now that’s fascinating. One of my favorite history book about Batangas is “The Mysteries of Taal: A Philippine Volcano and Lake” by Thomas Hargrove. In the book he marveled how the lake, categorized as fresh water, appears to have sustained species intended only for the sea.

* * *

One of my favorite legend around Laguna de Ba’y is the one told by old timers of Pila-Pila in Binagonan.

The story goes that a gorgeous lady who had countless suitors decided to test them. She would make her husband the man who can erect a bridge from Pila-Pila to Los Banos’s main market. Because it was practically impossible all of the men back off except one—a fine-looking man who took on the task.

The following night, the barrio was awaken by loud activities. To their shock they found demons building the foundation of the bridge! Turns out that the man was the devil himself. The maiden then went to the church and took the cross from the altar and brought it to where the demons were busy setting up the foundation for her bridge. They all scampered but left the vestiges of their work there in Pila-Pila.

I’m sure those rock formation, called “Fuente del Diablo,” have some scientific explanation behind it but these stories are amusing. But what’s more fascinating is that some people believe in it.

* * *

While biking along the lake shore of Laguna de Ba’y in Muntinlupa two years ago I came across some local fishermen. They were casting their nets and were catching milkfish. What they catch they prepare for their families, any surplus they sell.

I asked these men if a bigger ship could still ply the lake. “You need to get rid of those private fish pens in the middle of the lake first,” they said with these big smiles on their faces. They told me that there’s potential for using the lake for transportation if our government is willing to invest in it. They should know because not only do they boat around it, they swim on it too.

But the fishermen also said that ships must be modest in size for a larger vessel would run into some shallow waters particularly during summer. They told me that the deepest depth of the lake is around 6 feet “mas o menus”. They got it right, LLDA classified the lake as a “shallow freshwater” with maximum depth of 2.8 meters.

* * *

Now going back to the Bedok Reservoir. It was recently the site of some of the water sports for the SEA games where held. Not far from it is the 30 hectare campus of the Temasek Polytechnic. It has the most idyllic site for a learning institution that I have ever seen.

The tree lined pathway of the Bedok Reservoir

I did check some online articles and found that some believe the reservoir is cursed, some say it’s haunted, others attribute its location as bad fengshui. But I’m of the opinion that these so called mysterious deaths are nothing more but coincidence. The lake’s so peaceful and attractive that troubled souls would naturally gravitate to it—to die? Maybe, we don’t know what really goes on the minds of those people who unexpectedly plunge in its still waters.

Also, the lake have a maximum depth of 18 feet. Extremely dangerous for someone who can’t swim. I could barely swim so I’m not thinking of dipping in its placid water anytime soon. I’m happy biking around it in a sunshiny picture-perfect Sunday.


Farewell Mr. Lee

The National Museum here in Singapore exhibiting some of LKY’s personal effects including a “red box” used by the elder Statesman until his death. This is almost two weeks after the former Prime Minister’s passing.

I missed out on the commemorative  events that took place after the death of Lew Kuan Yew. The founder of modern Singapore died March 23. I was in Manila to welcome a brother that I have not seen for 4 years.

I’m a huge admirer of this South East Asian statesman. He wrote diligently in the last years of his life. I believe with the intention to imprint to the younger generation the insight of how he built Singapore and how to keep it on top.

I was gifted with his memoirs, The Singapore Story, in 2009. Never stopped following his work and interviews since then. In this book, he wrote about his childhood, WWII, his days studying and the pivotal events of his political years. Interesting were his historical, social and political observations—they were straightforward—no beating-around-the-bush non-sense. I felt his uprightness as a politician and as a man in his words.

His opinion about the Marcoses is worth reading. He wrote about the apparent penchant of the couple for the grandiose; flying in separate planes with their loyalists when the two visited the island. In the same book he cited how “soft” and “forgiving” Filipinos are—and this is true. Just look at the Marcoses, with the exception of the father, who’s been long dead, everyone in that family is back in power.

Three months ago, during the Isleworth Monalisa exhibit in the Old Parliament, I also got to walked around the old building where Lee Kuan Yew once held office. In his old office I tried the turn the door knob, thinking how many times the former Prime Minister entered and exited the room. I have seen his son, the current Prime Minister, but regrettably I have never seen Mr. Lee in person.

Last week, I finally get to pay my respects by visiting Singapore’s National Museum. On exhibit are some of the late Prime Minister’s personal effects. A Rolex watch (given to him by workers he represented), a white wig from his days as a barrister, some printed campaign cards and a parliament podium. Popular among the visitors is an attache case (they call it a “red box”) he used to carry his notes and papers. The only time, and the last time, it left his sight was when he was taken to the hospital last February.

Heng Swee Keat, Education minister, said: “This red box held what Mr Lee was working on at any one time. Through the years, it held his papers, speech drafts, letters, readings, and a whole range of questions, reflections, and observations. For example, in the years that Mr Lee was working on his memoirs, the red box carried the multiple early drafts back and forth between his home and the office, scribbled over with his and Mrs Lee’s notes.”

These red boxes (or as we Filipinos call it, attache case) are made in England. A curious remnant from the administrators of the old English empire that the succeeding local liberated leaders would pick up.

One probably wonders why I write about Lee Kuan Yew. I think of him constantly not only because I read so much of his work and learned enormously from them but also because it was him who opened up Singapore for skilled foreigner workers. I worked here for almost a year back in 2012. I was sent to Germany that same year. The whole experience opened up opportunities. I remain a steady Singapore visitor to this day, particularly during the month of August when they celebrate their founding day. This year would be their 50th.


Old South East Asia Maps

national library singapore, old south east asia maps

The National Library of Singapore recently exhibited old maps of South East Asia from its rare maps collections. They presented maps from 15th – 19th centuries from celebrated European map makers: Gerard Mercator, Abrham Ornelius, Theodore de Bry, Sebastian Munster and Samuel Thornton.

These cartographers created some of the most imaginative and fascinating maps. There were great myths about the seas during their time and you could see these in their creations. Like one map that illustrates the Asian landmass in the shape of a Pegasus.

The framed map, top right, is the 17th century Magindanao map.

There were maps from the 15th century showing our country formed by just a handful of islands. Later on, you see it take shape. By the 18th century, the maps shows “Las Islas Filipinas” as we know it now. Regardless of our view of Spanish and Catholic rule, it’s their rule that formed its boundaries. Just imagine if the Jesuits never reached Mindanao? Maybe we wouldn’t be concerned about that part of the country because it would have never been ours.

Another map that caught my attention was “Isles Philippines & Moluques” by Robert de Vaugondy. Made in 1749, one could see towns like Bolinao, Borongan, Casiguran and Lampon. This is interesting for no other early 18th century maps on exhibit had these towns inscribed. The note beneath the map told me why; these towns were recognized “Spanish mission towns.”

The program, dubbed “Geo|Graphic: A Celebration of Map,” offers the public a rare glimpse of what the region looks like before the advent of Google Maps!

I saw a map of “Magindanao” (Maguindanao) which I thought was intriguing. Dated 1775, it was created by Sultan Fakih Maulana Muhammad Amiruddin, the ruler of that region during that time. The letters were in archaic Jawi, Arabic used for the Malay language; the British Captain who received it Romanized it.

Towns today like Kabantulan and Udsudan could be found in this incredible map. The maps also tells us of the flourishing relation the British had with the Malaysians chiefs in South East Asia. This association has caused us the territory of Sabah. They rented it from the Sulu chiefs but yielded it to their former colony, Malaysia, when they left.

The recent debacle that resulted to the death of the SAF policemen reminds us that these part of the country remains unsafe and backwards. There is a fragile peace process in place; one that I fear would not last long. But I would not want peace in exchange of giving away Filipino land to one armed group. This would be a betrayal to those who died so that the nation remain whole.

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There were other exhibits in the building, remarkable was the one dedicated to Singapore. Not too long ago when its population was still small, there were animal and vegetable farms all over the islands—now, all of these are imported from their neighbors.

There were detailed maps of the island’s airport plan; the Singaporeans visionary planning is inspiring. They expanded their airport to facilitate development and in anticipation of becoming a 1st world nation; they moved the airport from Kallang (they left the old tower there as historical reminder) to Changi just in time to accommodate the boom in economy and tourism. That airport has been voted the best in the world a few times. Not bad for a country its size. Speaks volume of what their leaders are made off.

The most popular area for Filipinos here is Orchard Road. Kasambahays, during their rest days, gather here like migratory birds. Some locals complains about this (they can be rowdy), others had already accepted this to be some kind of a ritual among these Filipinos.

The entire place, including portions of Bras Basah, near the National Library, used to be a motor vehicle hub; very much like Evangelista and Banawe back home.

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There are installation artists that took part in the exhibit. I would be the first to say that I am not a big fan of this art form but there was one I found intriguing. This from a local artist, Sherman Ong. He connected televisions, made them to form a loop, on it common are South East Asians telling personal stories.

You have a local Peranakan (Chinese immigrants to the Malay Archipelago) lady, telling how she lives a life of servitude to her elders while waiting for the right man to marry. There was an Achenese man, recounting the horrors of the 2004 tsunami. Interesting is the story of Firdaus; a Malay who escaped his Filipino kidnappers in Mindanao. Another curious interview, a Malaysian speaking while men dance what appears to be “tinikling.” I know it is because we used to dance it, complete with bamboo trunk, in grade school. These are all fascinating and moving stories–felt like local really even when they’re not speaking my language.

And oh, yes, there were Filipinos there, Filipinas actually. And they’re talking about premarital sex and boyfriends.

Kinda out of place if you’ll ask me. I don’t get it.


A Page From Leonardo Da Vinci’s Book…

I recall how my brother Samuel, now living in the US, would sit me down and show me pictures of great paintings, ancient buildings and perfect sculptures. It was the 80’s and I was in grade school. We had an encyclopedia, a 29 volume hardbound Funk and Wagnalls, which my parent paid for in installments. We were the only family in that impoverished Makati neighborhood to own one.

When you’re a child, it is not letters and numbers that attracts you but pictures. I could not forget the images of art works, particularly that of the Renaissance era, these were tattooed on my mind. Of all the great minds that came out of this period, Leonardo, my brother said, is the greatest.

The big circle drawing is called a Mazzocchio. It is a medieval hat with 256 faces. Believe it or not, he’s trying to capture the image in 3D. And this was like, what, 500 years ago? The first two image (1) a mechanical drum, yeah, a drum that does not have a drummer! (2) a Perspectograph, an instrument used to obtains outlines of objects.

Since then, I became a huge admirer of Da Vinci. Read everything that I could get my hands on about him. Except, Da Vinci Code; I find it too silly.

Last year, I visited Singapore’s Old Parliament building to catch a glimpse of the controversial Isleworth Monalisa. Some expert say it’s a Leonardo original, some say it’s not—I would like to believe it is.

While I was in Germany, three years ago, I tried to make it to Paris. I was staying in the historic Heidelberg town then; the French capital was four hours away by public commute. I could have seen the Louvre, where the Mona Lisa is on permanent display but I have no money for the trip.

The angels, saints or maybe Leonardo himself must have pitied this man and granted his wish. The Isleworth Monalisa was only the beginning.

When I arrived a few weeks ago, I read an on line article featuring the on going exhibits at the ArtScience Museum in Marina Bay Sands. What caught my eyes is the one dedicated to Leonardo, entitled “Da Vinci: Shaping the Future.” The show features impressive presentations and actual pages from the Codex Atlanticus, the largest collection of Leonardo’s drawings and writings.

While following the incredibly laid out presentation about how Leonardo inspired countless innovations  I was hoping that the original pages (which is at the end part of the exhibit) would include the ones I saw when I was a lil’ lad. I was a bit disappointed that the anatomical drawings was not part of the exhibit (but there were facsimiles complete with annotations) but the giant crossbow and the mechanical wing are there! I recall seeing these!

Leonardo studied under great masters that influenced his life and work. He was educated in almost everything. He does not know Latin which was a disadvantage as it was the lengua franca of his time and some of the most important books were written using it. You would not notice this handicap though because he accomplished more than any man!

There were also his studies in geometry, dam, castles, town planning, Archimedes screw, mechanical cannon, theatrical stage and other mechanisms.

The original pages are protected by glass and no one’s allowed to take photos. But when the security was not looking, I touched some of the protective glass— so that I could tell my son one day that I came that close to our race’s greatest genius! You can’t get any closer than that, no, not even in Louvre.

I was told that the museum would bring a new batch of pages from the Codex for February before the exhibit comes to an end. I would most likely go again. There is also a section dedicated to the works of his students. One painting, a rendition of the iconic painting John the Baptist, is from Salaì, believed to be Leonardo’s lover; He used him as model for his John the Baptist.

Seeing this exhibit reminded me of the importance of taking notes, of writing observations and thoughts on a piece of paper.Technology is slowly taking this away and I wonder if the future generation would need to visit museums to see what paper notebooks and writing pens used to looked like.

I must confess that I am addicted to museums. Why not? They are great alternatives to movie houses and malls. As that prominent writer Sionil Jose said, they are practically libraries, “the ultimate storehouse of knowledge, human thought and civilization.”

I regard our museums with great appreciation. I grew up going to the National Museum. I have fond memories of the Ayala Museum and its dioramas—every child should see this. Worthy of mention are the Metropolitan and the Lopez Museums. The former have a remarkable collection of tribal ornaments. The latter have a great and friendly library.

But without a doubt, Singapore’s Museums receives more visitors and funding. Because of this, they’re better in everything; example, the Artscience’s bathroom resembles that of a five star hotel; go just outside, near the main entrance and you’ll find an Anish Kapoor sculpture. Their museums showcases famed international exhibits; programs and exhibits are not static, by doing so, they keep people interested.

I remember seeing that moving exhibit “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” a few years ago. Deep inside I was hoping that they would bring it to our country. But this, as we all know, is wishful thinking as it is unlikely that such an exhibit would generate interest and yes, profit. We’re not known for patronizing museums and art galleries—and this is just sad. To many Filipinos why pay to see a museum when there are gigantic shopping malls and international pop music concerts?

 

 


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