Tag Archives: Philippines

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.

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Diary of a Doctor, Rizal in Singapore

Jose Rizal (1861-1896), fondly remembered as the founding father of the modern Philippines, was one luminary who formed favourable impressions of Singapore. In May 1882, Rizal left the then Spanish colony of the Philippines on his way to Spains for further studies in medicine. As a keen 21 year old leaving home for the first time, nhe meticulously recorded his observations of life and events in a journal that offers a picturesque snap-shot of Singapore in the late 19th century, which are historically important for the breath of details captured.

An eagle-eyed visitor Rizal was also highly sensitive to the cultural nuance of the first foreign land he visited  commenting on the rich mix of ethnicities in the street-scapes he observed. His entry conveyed gus surprise at the finding a city more modern than he imagined. Writing in his diary, he was “surprised to find the streets bordered with trees and many… on both sides. The town is rather pretty.” Travel as the cliche goes, does indeed broaden the mind.

Rizal noted in his diary of his first day in Singapore that although there were “..crowds of Indians of Herculean figures; Chinese a few Europeans, and very, very few Chinese women.” He went on to ask about the presence of women in Sinapore, writing in his diary that he had seen a Chinese woman with the smallest feet; but I didn’t see either Indian women or Malayan. I asked about them and I was told they stayed home.”

Rizal also found the thriving British colony abuzz with people and economic activity, with English spoken everywhere. He described  in detail, building within the city such as St. Andrew’s Cathedral, along today’s St. Andrew’s road, interestingly described as a “Protestant church in Gothic style, the Catholic Cathedral of Good Shepherd (along today’s Victoria Road) as well as the Church of St. Joseph (by Waterloo Street today).

He was mistaken, though, in identifying the former Parliament Houses (now the Art House) as the “…palace of the Rajah of Siam…” He described it as “…notable and has a small iron elephant and what not on the pedestal placed in front of the building.”

Rizal was travelling in and around the north bank of Singapore River, He was to cross the Cavenagh Bridge to the south bank and reached the more “lively” part of town, described in his diary as having “… Beautiful European Buildings  shops  show-windows etc. It is the Escolta of the town.”

The keen botanist, Rizal visited the Singapore Botanical Gardens on his 2nd day of visit. He was bowled over by the park, observing that “its cleanliness and orderliness are admirable; numerous plants with their labels beside them.” He was to revisit the gardens on his second visit in 1887, commenting that he saw “a beautiful Royal Victoria. The leaves can be one meted in diameter.”

Rizal was to visit Singapore a total of four times, noticing changes that pointed to the rapid development of the city over the course of his visits. With elegance, he captured in an 1892 entry his observation that “Singapore has change much since I saw it for the first time n 1882.” This was to be his last visit to Singapore  for not long after this, this revered father of Philippine nation was executed on 30 December 1896, at the age of 35, labelled by the Spanish colonials as “the living soul of the rebellion”.

Today, a visitor can easily re-trace Rizal’s first visit in today’s heritage district of Bras Basah, as most of the buildings he visited are still standing on the exact spot! They co-exist elegantly alongside contemporary glass and steel structures of the modern city, in a history-rich environments and the walking trails of Singapore’s Civic District. Walking down busy Coleman Street today, one can still imagine the lively and bustling city that Rizal wandered about after emerging from the Hotel de la Paix. The hotel is no longer standing but another has risen on te same site and is known today as the Peninsula-Excelsior Hotel.

– Taken from Singapore’s National Heritage Board article “Friends & Neighbours” written by Tan Swee Hong.

NHB has been a great resource for me not only in retracing historical sites related to us Filipinos here but also in learning the history, culture and traditions of the island state — along with NLB, great stalwarts of South East Asian historical education.


Old Islamic Enclave in Singapore

An old Islamic school. Singapore’s heritage architecture shows a variety of styles and influences.

Lined up in a row. These shop houses, most probably, pre World War II, reflects Chinese and European architecture.

Colorful old buildings characterized by wide, adjustable windows and arched entrance ways.

Narrow streets that reminds me of old Binan. The narrow streets is a sign of expensive realty, as people had to make use and utilize available space as much as they can

This area have shops that specializes in selling traditional fabrics. This area is near the gate of the Masjid. Not far from here is what people call the central business district.

Solidly built heritage structures, now all shops.

White painted commercial houses preserved for the future generation

I saw a poster of the Sultan Mosque (locally known as Masjid Mosque) in the mall and found it wonderfully enchanting. A heritage Mosque in a middle of a bustling city. National day is just around the corner here in Singapore and the government has been heavily promoting heritage structures that represents the different groups and faith in the islands.  I got curious and thought it a good idea to see the mosque because like Manila, Singapore was once predominantly Mohamedan (for old Tagalogs Mohammed  is “Mahoma” hence the saying “Panahon pa ni Mahoma”).

Early this year I attended the National Library’s exhibit “Stories Behind Singapore Streets” (I think the exhibit is still on going) and found what local historian’s refers to as the “Raffle’s Town Plan”.  The British governor mapped and zoned the entire island during his time in the former colony. Such zoning (sectores) also took place during the Spanish era in Manila and all other progressive towns. To get a picture of how this worked back in the day one can visit Malolos which still have the names of the “sectores” as it was implemented in the old days.

Raffles is regarded as the pioneer of modern Singapore and I’ve seen books about his life on sale here. Singaporeans have a mature perspective about  their historical evolution and its influence in their modern lives. Around the country, you could still find street names after British royals, British war heroes and even English countrysides. They’re not bothered by these colonial things. What matters to them is what they’ve accomplished when they became independent from the British and Malaysia. Filipinos on the other hand are easily persuaded to give up their historical heritage and replace it with something else. We habitually, for example, change streets names as though they represent nothing more but alphabets. We don’t seem to understand the importance of preserving historical names.

I discovered that the mosque is surrounded by old shops and residential streets that I’ve never seen before. The mosque is located in the Streets of Muscat and Northbridge. This is not the original, as it had to be expanded because of the growing Muslim population. This present structure was built in the 1920’s, interestingly it was designed by a westerner named Denis Santry.

I was impressed by how they managed to preserve the area around the mosque. The district, known as Glam Kampong, is surrounded by towering buildings of is known as central business district. The coexistence of old and new here is something that has long fascinated me. How I wish this is the case in Manila! And I believe that this is possible back home only if we have the the vision to find use for our old buildings.

The pressure to develop space for urban use is real everywhere. Much more in Singapore because they have very limited space but what they do well is manage urban development in a way that it doesn’t harm their historical relics. We’ve seen how urban expansion devastated the heritage structures of Manila, which have bigger space and more options when it comes to urban planning. How Singapore has zoned out certain districts away from development is something we all can learn from.

I would not know that there was an old Muslim settlement in the center of Singapore if I have not seen this district. Although, aside from the mosque, the structures around the district does not appear to be heavily influenced by Islamic art. Its historical significance is that here, their royal and merchant ancestors showed the world the beauty of their culture and religion. This is the beauty of conserving what’s left of the past – it reminds people. The old houses and shops are now mostly commercial spaces but this is good because as long as these structures are utilized – they’ll continue to exist. Architectural reuse is something that our local government in the Philippines needs to catch on. Fast. Before we lose everything.

An old shop converted to a Mexican bar with Aztec inspired murals

An old building sandwiched between modern buildings. Some space eventually must be conceded to land development but historical houses must not be removed totally as they represent the different historical strata of each state.

Taken from Beach Road. At night, the place comes alive with some fine dining restos and pubs.

Motel here enjoys a better reputation than hours. This one, obviously an old building, now reused to accommodate transient visitors and lovers of course.

An old housing building converted to shops

An MMA shop housed in what used to be a small house! Brock manning the door!


Identity and Heritage: A Confession of a Culturally Insecure Filipino

Identity and Heritage: A Confession of a Culturally Insecure Filipino
By: Sebastian Cruz
London, United Kingdom
27 December 2011

Living in Europe, more so living in London, posed one significant challenge that I need to face with every single person I meet – describing the Philippines and explaining what a Filipino is.

It is not like French, Brazilian nor Chinese. It’s not like one of these “mega brands” that has a strong visual image and identity that one word can generate a rush of images in one’s mind. Moreover, it doesn’t even fit in to the visual image of the big umbrella word: “Asian”.

Growing up in Asia, I’ve always been confused and insecure about the Filipino identity.

Asia is comprised of three cultural ‘superpowers’: Confucian, Hindu, and Arab/Islamic. Three big clusters that have distinct languages, architecture, and even religion – cultural buckets that a “Malay Catholic Filipino like me with a Spanish Name but can’t speak Spanish” doesn’t fit in.

I’ve always felt this sense of cultural misfit ever since: from competing with Chinese Filipinos in Math competitions when I was young, participating in international conferences back in uni, and travelling/doing business around Asia while working for Procter. It’s as if the only Asian thing about us is that most of us look Malay and we eat loads of rice.

Living in London though allowed me to meet Latinos from Latin America and Españoles from Spain and I can’t help but be surprised. I felt that sense of sameness in culture that I never feel when I meet a Japanese, a Thai, or a Chinese.

We are mostly Catholics who do the novena and rosario, greet with kamusta(como esta), use the words kubyertos, mesa, kama, silya, etc., count/tell the time/petsa(fecha) in the same way,  and yes, celebrate the Nochebuena. Only and unfortunately, we can’t speak fluent Spanish.

La Lengua Castellano, Spain, and that Hispanic identity have long been demonized in our history –an oppressive part of our nationhood that should be forgotten; consistent with what the Americans pounded in our heads when they seized the country right after our forefathers fought for independence.

Our forefathers resisted this perspective. Look it up, American occupation of the Philippines was also the Golden Age of Spanish Literature in the Philippines. And that Filipinos who resisted this perspective were those who perished when the Americans and Japanese obliterated our cities during the Second World War. However today, a lot of Filipinos still embrace this mindset oblivious to the fact that the country was a Spanish colony for 333 years, longer than the entire history of the United States (235 years).

Further, being so far away from the Latin American world, Filipinos’ perception of Latinos today are mostly distorted by what the media of the United States project – taxi drivers/drug dealers/illegal immigrants with broken English. A pathetic generalization of a superpower that grew to believe that it’s the center of the universe.

We, however, should embrace the fact that our Hispanic identity defines a lot of who we are.

Filipinas after all was not just a colony of Spain for 333 years, but was the gateway of the Hispanic world to the great cultures of the Far East.

It is not by accident that Intramuros and the Old Hispanic Manila is situated side by side the oldest Chinatown in the world. Two worlds in one city separated only by a river and connected by the Bridge of Spain (Puente España) and is by the port of Manila – then port of the Manila Galleon, and the then only direct ship route between the Americas and Asia.

It is not by accident that our first constitution, Noli and El Fili were written in Spanish and that the original Spanish version of our national anthem – Himno Nacional Filipino was banned by the Americans and still banned to be sung publicly to this day. Our founding fathers like Rizal envisioned a free Hispanic Filipinas not the culturally basterdized and forcibly Anglicized Philippines that we have today.

The world is shifting to the East of Europe and South of the United States. It is the most opportune time to be true to who we are, true to what make us unique and be what we have always been – the Hispanics of the Orient and the bridge between the Hispanic World and the Far East.


Life is a Great Sunrise

beauty that needs no words...

I don’t know if its the thought that I’m a month away from leaving the building (I recently resigned) that gave me a more appreciative eye but you know lately I’ve been seeing a lot of these breathtaking sunrises over Laguna de Ba’i. Truly a wonderful experience.

Over the years,  I developed this habit of looking at the sunrise before leaving the office. Except during stormy days, I always make it a point that I look and take a photo. They’re never the same. The explosion of colors that appears every morning spattered across the sky and hills of Morong is just amazing.

A pure delight.

Stream liners (in the 1800’s) once serviced the towns around the lake. This brought unprecedented growth to the southern Tagalog provinces. People coming as far as Tayabas and Bicol would send their products to Manila using this route. A ferry service will have a great impact on how people move today. But the forces behind the toll ways and oil would not allow any competition. That’s how they do it, they provide you with no other option but to go their way. If government is not owned by these special interest group it would push for viable alternatives people can use – we all know that’s not going to happen. Government no longer belongs to the people but to these corporations who have them inside their pockets.


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