One of the members of our Manila fountain pen group decided to start a small book club.  We had our first meeting last weekend, where we figured out what books we’d all like to read.  We’ll focus on a book each month, focusing initially on Filipino writers writing in English.  There are so many good books out there, but it’s a shame not to read the writers of one’s own country.  The guys in our group made a request not to have to read romance novels, and the rest of us heartily agreed (hahaha!).

This May we’re tackling the late Kerima Polotan‘s 1961 Stonehill Award-winning novel “The Hand of the Enemy”.  In June we’ll be reading her collection of essays “Adventures in a Forgotten Country”.  Both books are published by the University of the Philippines Press.  Also in our list is Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr.‘s Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil Publishing), a novel based on his experiences as a Martial Law detainee.  (Incidentally, Butch Dalisay is the founder of our fountain pen group.  We’re asking him to sign our copies.)  We’ll follow with National Artist Nick Joaquin‘s May Day Eve & Other Stories.  Next up is Esteban Javellana‘s 1947 classic “Without Seeing The Dawn” (which was made into a Tagalog tv mini-series when I was a child).  We’re also reading young Palanca winner F. H. Batacan‘s mystery novel featuring a “Jesuit priest who is also a forensic anthropologist as sleuth”, Smaller and Smaller Circles (UP Press).  Then we’ll read another classic of  Filipino immigrant fiction, Carlos Bulosan‘s America is in the Heart (Anvil Publishing). Just so we don’t get stuck on novels, we also picked a book of essays edited by Erlinda Panlilio, The Manila We Knew (Anvil Publishing). Then for something totally different, there’s Resil Mojares‘s Isabelo’s Archive (Anvil Publishing), a compilation of essays and notes on Philippine culture and history, based “on Isabelo de los Reyes’ groundbreaking attempt to build an archive of popular knowledge in the Philippines.”  And then there is Bambi Harper‘s new historical novel, Agueda (University of Sto. Tomas Publishing House).  There is also Luis Francia‘s History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos to consider.

The titles or order of reading might change.  But it’s good to have a reading list.  If we didn’t sit down to plan this, we wouldn’t know where to start! We can’t always meet in person, but we can always email our reading notes to each other.

From this list you can see we all have this common interest in literature, history (national and personal) and culture.  Indeed, in Jose Rizal’s words, “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa kanyang paroroonan.” (He who does not look back from where he came will never reach his destination.)


Last August I joined a group of friends on a day tour of Pampanga.  It’s north of Manila, about a drive of an hour and a half.  We had a special ten-course lunch scheduled at Bale Dutung, but had the morning free to visit a couple of old  churches and take photos.

The San Guillermo Parish Church of Bacolor dates back to Spanish times.  After the original church (constructed in 1576) was destroyed in an earthquake, it was rebuilt in 1897.  In 1991 half the church was buried in lahar during the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.  In one of the photos below you’ll see that the arched windows on the sides of the church are now as low as the tops of the pews.








From Bacolor we traveled to Betis, Guagua – an old town famous for hand-carved furniture.  Built in the 18th century, the Parish Church of Santiago Apostol (St. James the Apostle) is known for its splendid retablo art.  Its facade is quite simple and relatively recent, but old carvings decorate the church door and selected pieces of the church’s original wooden furniture.  The altar is rich with more carvings, gilt and saints.  But the showstopper is the church’s ceiling, painted in the early 20th century.  We were requested by church staff not to use flash photography, to protect the artwork.







The lovely thing about these churches is that they’re still working churches, serving loyal parish families throughout their town’s history.  If you have a long weekend coming up, a map, a camera, and a sense of adventure, this sort of trip is immensely rewarding.


Photo: “Kinnari” (mystical half-bird, half-woman) gold vessel, Gold of Ancestors exhibit, Ayala Museum.

This is the reason why Spaniards went out to expand the limits of the known world in the 16th century. We all know the story from school, but it’s a totally different experience when the gold is literally in your face. This is breathtaking.

The 4th floor of the The Ayala Museum permanently houses a mind-boggling exhibit of just over 1,000 pre-colonial gold artifacts that show our historical and cultural links to neighboring Southeast Asian cultures. Items on display range from jewelry, decorative detailing for clothing and weapons to badges of rank, ceremonial vessels, as well as funerary and religious accessories. Quietly collected for 25 years by the family of National Artist Leandro Locsin, the items are considered part of national patrimony and had been kept under wraps until the creation of a secure and appropriate exhibit location. The collection was finally exhibited publicly upon the construction of the new Ayala Museum in 2004. The exhibit is curated by premier art historian Dr. Florina H. Capistrano-Baker.

Jessica Zafra tells us more in Newsweek here. My favorite blogger Marketman, who was invited to the opening, has some lovely pictures and more food for thought (pun intended) here.

We went to see the exhibit last July 23 with my mother’s friends UP Balik-Scientist Raul Suarez and his wife Pining. I was pleased to see a lot of students around; on their own, like most people, I don’t think it would occur to them to drop by the Ayala Museum just for fun. This isn’t something you hear about all the time on tv or the radio (I do however think it’s a great date place for myself and TDM. I want him to see it with me.)

The entrance to the exhibit is designed to look like a temple door but it’s outfitted like a bank vault security gate that opens every 30 minutes. When you see the gate slide down you get the feeling you’ve entered a time-travelling space ship. Some tourists tried to get out the way they came, but apparently the security is such that you can’t get out the way you came in. You have to go where the end of the exhibit leads you, and there are sensors that slide another gate upwards to let you out from there. You can’t get in from the outside that way, either. Which is great, because a collection this stunning and awe-inspiring can teach us a lot of things about who we are as a people. To lose that would be a tragedy.

We sat ourselves in front of a curved cinema screen where a well-produced video told the story of Philippine gold from the geological formation of the archipelago up to just before Spanish colonization. The photos from the Boxer Codex of Filipinos in native garb sporting gold earrings and other displays of wealth and rank were familiar from school readings. You could tell who the rich individuals were from their distended earlobes — only those who could afford it wore earrings, and gold was naturally heavy. Walking around I could actually see a number of items I would love to wear, if only I didn’t need a motorized wheelchair to transport myself around with while wearing them! (In the first place I don’t know a lot of people who could even afford the motorized wheelchair.)

The crowning glory of this exhibit was a magnificent chain link halter for some chieftain that I think once held a ceremonial scabbard (the missing bit that connected to some torn-off gold wire where the halter ends at the hip). FOUR kilos of gold chain link. Four KILOS of fine, fine, FINE work.

The amount of detail in such artifacts reflects superb, painstaking craftsmanship of incredible sophistication. You’d appreciate this in the varied styles and techniques used — gold foil, filigree, chain-linking, others. The jeweller-historian Ramon Villegas’s Ginto: History Wrought in Gold could enlighten us further (we own a copy of his 1983 book Kayamanan: Philippine Jewelry Tradition). Wish I could afford one. New York-based Filipiniana blogger Pu-pu Platter shares beautiful photos on Flickr. I would dearly love for regular folks to enjoy the photographs of the collection on top of the intriguing story of the discovery, how the Locsins funded the archaeological dig and how they decided for it to be accessible to the ordinary Filipino in this way. It deserves its own National Geographic cover story.

Luckily for us folks with internet access, The Probe Team covered “The Surigao Treasure” and aired it just last June 8, 2008. There’s a good (but short) article accompanying the documentary. They showed it a day later as ABS-CBN’s Independence Day Special “Gintong Pamana” which I’m pleased to find it on YouTube. I missed both showings, but thanks to online links, I got intrigued again and want to return to the Ayala Museum. Or read the bibliography suggested by Pu-pu Platter in his May 4th comment to Marketman’s post. (Funny how, when you’re not required to read something, finally reading it becomes so delicious because you’re just plain CURIOUS.)

Then there’s that gold foil document inscribed with ancient Tagalog/Sanskrit whose significance (at least to us) would approach that of the Rosetta Stone or the Dead Sea Scrolls. It tells of a wealthy man who owed a debt of 900gms worth of gold and thus became a slave because he couldn’t repay his debt. What a great story — that could be made into either a novel or a movie.

But my favorite piece of all is that golden vessel shaped into a Kinnari, a mystical bird-woman that Hindu-Southeast Asian culture refers to as the epitome of grace and beauty. Graceful and beautiful the artifact was, indeed. You can see the very delicate facial expression in the photo above, and the exquisite feather detailing around the vessel, which I imagine held perfumed oil. It is displayed as found, slightly squashed (gold being very soft it couldn’t have kept its shape under soil), but that doesn’t diminish its very fabulousness.

I’m going back. (You can come along, and see it for only Php 225 for the entrance ticket. Bring an id, because they ask for one. I know, it’s the price of a restaurant entree. But it’s a special, special exhibit. It’s worth it. Make it a date. Impress your significant someone. Or teach yourself something new. Today’s a great day to consider it.)