Penman No. 200: Memoirs of a Teenage Maoist

e13-644.jpg

Penman for Monday, May 23, 2016

 

 

A SMALL?item in the foreign news caught my eye last week: a note that the 50th anniversary of China’s Cultural Revolution had gone unnoticed—in China itself, with no parades or ceremonies to mark the historic event. For those of us too young to remember, the Cultural Revolution was launched by Chairman Mao Zedong on May 16, 1966, to consolidate his power and purge his rivals within the Communist Party in the guise of doing away with old ways of thinking. To fight the old, Mao rallied the young—millions of “Red Guards” who turned on their parents, teachers, and superiors, feeling suddenly empowered to reject authority and traditional learning and to see themselves as the vanguards of a new age.

Over the decade that the Cultural Revolution ran its course until Mao’s death in 1976, many millions died—from executions and from famine. While Mao’s legacy would live on, there’s firm consensus both within and outside China that the Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated man-made disaster, something the Party itself in 1981 blamed for “the most serious setback and loss for the Party, the country and the people since the founding of China.”

What did this have to do with us and with me? Well, to put it as simply as I can, I was a teenage Maoist, and for a while back there, I and quite a number of like-minded comrades saw ourselves as the local chapter of the Red Guards. Call it madness, but we saw Mao as a demigod, and looked to his China as a beacon of hope and a model for other countries like ours—also beset by centuries of feudalism and colonial rule—to follow.

How did that happen? I had joined the student activist movement and had gone to my first demonstrations in high school, and as soon as I entered college in 1970, I signed up with the Nationalist Corps. It wasn’t a communist organization, but it was a short step from reading Renato Constantino to reading Mao. Mao’s teachings (in contrast to the heavy-duty theorizing of Marx and Lenin) were attractive in their seeming simplicity, in their pithiness, in their rosy optimism. It was chicken congee for the soul.

Until today, you’ll hear 60-somethings from my cadre recite gems, chapter and verse, from Mao’s Quotations (better known as the LRB, or the Little Red Book) like “A revolution is not a dinner party, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” “Dare to struggle, dare to win,” “Wherever there is struggle there is sacrifice, and death is a common occurrence…. All men must die, but death can vary in its significance.” Among my favorites—music to my 17-year-old ears—was “The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you.”

It wasn’t too different from what Rizal or the Desiderata said, especially about the youth as the fair hope of the fatherland, but I think what drew us to Mao at that point and to his brand of Marxism was his emphasis on classes and class analysis, his awareness of society as one divided between rich and poor (with the rich collaborating with foreign powers to keep themselves in place), and the fact (or the fantasy) that in China, things were actually going according to the socialist plan. Very few of us had ever been to China then (famously, of course, three senior activists would get stranded there—Eric Baculinao, Chito Sta. Romana, and Jimi FlorCruz), but we accepted it as an article of faith that Chairman Mao was doing right by his own people.

In Manila, we did our best to copy the flag-waving strokes of Peking Opera (eg, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”), learned about obscure heroes like Norman Bethune, and wore the LRB like a talisman in the breast pockets of our army fatigue jackets. (Procured from US military surplus stores in Dau, it was the closest we could get to the Mao—actually the Sun Yat-sen—jackets that the Red Guards adopted as a uniform, with the red star on the matching cap; but we at least wore genuine “Ho Chi Minh” sandals fashioned out of rubber tires.) At dawn, we tuned our transistor radios to the faint and crackly signal of Radio Peking, for our regular dose of socialist top tunes like the “Internationale,” “Sailing the Seas Depends Upon the Helmsman,” and “The East Is Red”—plus, of course, the daily rundown of the news from the global war on US imperialism. An enterprising fellow even then, I corresponded with a Hong Kong bookseller who seemed only too happy to mail me copies of the Peking Review, even if I had no money to pay him.

Only years later did the failings of Mao’s experiment and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution emerge, revealed not so much by Western propaganda as by the Chinese themselves, who had suffered the most from its excesses. It would take time—and, indeed, a personal visit to China—to appreciate this disconnect between our long-distance romance with Mao’s socialist paradise and cold reality.

It was in July 1987 when I was finally able to set foot on hallowed ground—Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where I was doing a cultural exchange visit along with writer-friends Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. We had been assigned a translator and a minder, whom we’ll call Chang—a tall wisp of a man who spoke decent English and who was working, he said, on a translation of a biography of Elvis Presley in his spare time. (Had he ever listened to Elvis? No. We sent him a cassette of Elvis from Manila.)

Standing just meters away from Mao’s mausoleum—there seemed to be thousands of Chinese visitors waiting in line to go in—I asked Chang if he could help me see Chairman Mao. “What you want to do that for?” he asked incredulously. “He killed my grandfather in the Cultural Revolution!” Ooops—I tried to say that I was sorry to hear about his angkong, but I had to tell him that I was once a Mao fanboy and just had to meet the man, even his current state of embalmed repose. Chang still didn’t seem ready to believe me, so I sang him the first few lines of the “Helmsman” song: “Sailing the seas depends upon the helmsman, life and growth depend on the sun, rain and dewdrops nourish the crops, making revolution depends on Mao Tsetung Thought!” Chang shushed me up before a crowd could gather: “Okay, okay, I bring you inside, but hurry, okay?”

And so I filed past my fallen idol, awash in conflicting emotions; frankly Mao’s waxen face did little to exude revolutionary vitality, and in just two more years that same square would be bathed in fresh young blood.

I would return to China many times since then as both tourist and writer, and at one point I would chance upon a Mao jacket in a backstreet shop in Shanghai—you’ll never find them in the glitzy stores—and some days I wear it to remind me of what people today will surely say was a youthful folly. Sometimes I’ll stick a most unproletarian Montblanc into the breast pocket, but then again, it’s where the real Chinese revolution led—the freedom to shop for baubles on Nanjing Road.

IMG_8493.jpg

[Image from chineseposters.net]

Penman No. 199: A Bell from Bauang

IMG_3136.JPG

Penman for Monday, April 25, 2016

 

 

SANTIAGO “SONNY” Busa is one of the most remarkable people I’ve met. I was introduced to him when I spent some time in Washington, DC on a fellowship a couple of years ago, and from the very first time we sat down for a chat in the backyard of his home in the DC suburb of Annandale, Virginia, we hit it off. He possesses a hilarious, self-deprecating wit, is fascinated by history, and speaks, among other languages, Spanish, Ethiopian and Chinese. Ironically, though born in Eastern Samar—he was practically just a baby when his family moved to the US—Sonny doesn’t speak Filipino (or, we keep joking, pretends not to, so he can listen in on what everyone is saying).

IMG_3148.JPG

A retired diplomat who served as consul general at the American embassy in Manila, among other postings some years ago, Sonny had also been a US Army Ranger and parachutist, and taught International Relations at his alma mater, West Point. For all that, he’s a flaming liberal (like me), doesn’t believe in keeping an armory or packing a .45 to feel masculine or secure, and devotes much of his time to promoting the Philippines and Philippine concerns in America along with his lovely wife Ceres. Last year, he was a key figure in the commemoration of the Bataan Death March in New Mexico, where 5,000 soldiers and civilians marched across the desert for more than 26 miles—and they’ve been doing this for 27 years now!

But Sonny’s recent messages gave me a special reason to smile. He’s been a staunch advocate for the return of the three bells taken as war trophies by American troops from Balangiga, Samar in 1901—two bells remain in a “Trophy Park” in a military base in Wyoming, and another is in a military museum in South Korea. Despite the strenuous efforts of both Filipino and American activists to have those bells returned, it hasn’t happened yet.

As it turns out, the Balangiga bells weren’t alone. In 1899, during the Philippine-American War (which the Americans insisted on calling an “insurgency” for the longest time), a Lieutenant Tom Berry took a bell from the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Bauang, La Union and shipped it to America, where it languished for over three decades in some Army warehouse. In 1933, the same soldier—now General Berry, the superintendent of West Point—had the bell taken out of storage to be displayed at the Catholic chapel of the academy.

Last January, acting on an inquiry from Fr. Ronald Raymund Chan of the Diocese of San Fernando, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, Jr.—the current superintendent of West Point and a friend of Sonny’s—wrote Fr. Chan back to say that “The bell currently displayed on the grounds of our Catholic Chapel here is apparently the bell in question. According to our own records, the markings on the bell itself matches all the descriptions you provided. While we have been honored to guard and display this bell for the past several decades, we would be glad to return the bell to its rightful home. We are currently in the process of making arrangements for the return of the bell to your Parish.”

IMG_3179.JPG

Aside presumably from Fr. Chan and the people of Bauang, no one was happier about this outcome than Sonny Busa, who had married Ceres in that chapel in 1977 in a military wedding, and had looked with fondness at the bell every time he visited the academy. He alerted me and some friends about the San Pedro bell last February, but asked us to keep quiet about it for the meanwhile until the return arrangements were finalized, fearing that Americans opposed to the return of any war booty—especially the Balangiga bells—would torpedo the move.

Last month, on the 29th, the send-off finally took place at West Point, with Sonny Busa, Philippine Consul General in New York Mario de Leon, and prominent members of the Filipino community in attendance. Another good friend of Sonny and mine, the Filipino-American historian Sharon Delmendo, stood as both proud witness and photographer. Another special participant was Filipino exchange Cadet Don Dalisay—to whom I would be glad to claim a relation, because Sonny says that he’s at the top of all his classes at West Point.

Dalisay Bell.jpg

In his message to me, Sonny—who had been put in charge of the turnover ceremony—emphasized that Gen. Caslen had “ordered the bell returned to La Union because it belongs in its rightful home. West Point above all stands for high morals in all that it does and teaches and keeping looted war booty is not part of its ethic. The people of La Union are hyper-excited and have already built a display stand. Once the bell arrives it will be big news in the whole of the Philippines as you can imagine.”

That truly is wonderful news, Sonny, and many thanks from your kababayans for your tireless efforts to help right the wrongs of the past and to remind us of our precious heritage.

IMG_3112.JPG

But sadly—as I write this on the eve of one of the most important and contentious elections of our modern history—I fear that too many of us have forgotten how valuable our democracy is, and what artifacts like the San Pedro bell stand for. At war with ourselves and with foreign invaders long gone, we seem far too willing to squander our votes on mindless whimsy and puerile petulance.

I so desperately pray we can prove ourselves deserving of that bell, Sonny. How hollow its ring would be otherwise—a death knell for sanity and decency, rather than the vibrant peal of freedom.

(Photos by Sharon Delmendo and Sonny Busa)

Penman No. 198: Mind-blowers and Eye-openers

IMG_8289.jpg

Penman for Monday, May 2, 2016

 

THE FIRST-EVER?Knowledge Festival held by the University of the Philippines in Tagaytay City a couple of weekends ago proved true to its promise and offered mind-blowing, eye-opening discoveries galore, shoring up not only UP’s reputation as the country’s leading university but also that of the Filipino genius as a whole.

Part academic conference and part science fair, the festival brought together over 200 of UP’s top scientists and artists from the university’s many campuses all over the country to showcase the best and most promising products of their ongoing research. The festival also featured talks by experts on key academic and research issues (I excerpted my own keynote here last week), and presented the university’s expansion plans and the latest publications of the UP Press. A roundtable with members of the media had UP President Alfredo E. Pascual exchanging views with some of the country’s top journalists on future directions in Philippine higher education.

But it was the exhibits themselves that formed the living heart of the festival. Most were focused on science and technology, but UP’s most advanced endeavors in the arts, education, and mass communications were on display as well. What unified them was the element of interdisciplinarity, of crossing traditional academic turfs and boundaries to arrive at better solutions to age-old problems, or better products for the 21st century. Most of the projects were being financed by the university’s Emerging Interdisciplinary Research fund (EIDR), an ambitious program which has funneled many hundreds of millions of pesos into projects cutting across disciplines and with a positive impact on the government’s Key Result Areas (KRAs).

(I know—I get fidgety myself whenever I step on the road to Acronymia, but like I said in the open forum after my talk, artists—especially those in public life—have to learn to speak bureaucratese and to do the math if they want to engage outside their comfort zones, which is also key to getting grants.)

The exhibits were organized into six clusters: (1) agri/aquaculture, food, and nutrition; (2) health and wellness; (3) disaster risk management and climate change; (4) energy, environment and ecotourism; (5) technology, new materials and other products; and (6) progressive teaching and learning.

As a frustrated scientist (I entered UP as an Industrial Engineering major fresh out of Philippine Science High), I’m always fascinated by what goes on in S&T, and touring the science booths gave me an overview of the research and development in the field within UP. Among the dozens of projects on show, I lingered longest on a few: an analysis of the use of Twitter to keep track of typhoon events; the development of the Philippine Scientific Earth Observation Microsatellite (better known as Diwata-1, which is now in orbit) for disaster risk reduction; an ecosystem assessment of Laguna de Bay, a study aimed at finding ways to revive a dying lake; and a study on the use of microbes from shipworms (tamilok) as potential sources of enzymes for biofuel production. (I’ve had tamilok wriggling down my gullet on a dare during trips to Palawan, where they’re a delicacy, and I’d happily give them up to biofuels.)

In the health and wellness cluster were a flurry of projects ranging from a dengue detection kit to the development of best-practice guidelines for the better management of prevalent community diseases and the use of social media for promoting healthcare. In agriculture, a product called BioN promised to replace 30-50% of chemical fertilizers while increasing yields by 11%, keeping plants “healthy and green even in drought and in the presence of pests.”

Although it was a tucked away in a corner of the learning cluster, what especially caught my eye was a little black box called VISSER—short for “Versatile Instrumentation System for Science Education and Research,” a highly portable science kit which can do over 120 experiments in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and environmental science. As it turned out, VISSER had been developed by a team headed by a fraternity brother of mine, physicist Dr. Giovanni Tapang, originally with some support from the University of Maryland. The argument for VISSER is compelling: more than a third of the country’s 13,000 high schools—catering to about 7 million students—have no labs, and of those that do, only 2,800 have access to digital tools. The VISSER kit isn’t cheap at over P40,000 per unit—about the price of a laptop—but its potentials are huge, with a total market value estimated at almost P60 billion. It isn’t just good science, but good business as well for technopreneurs.

And speaking of technopreneurship, few Pinoys can be more inspiring than Dr. Gonzalo “Al” Serafica, a much sought-after consultant on technology commercialization who also spoke in Tagaytay on how he developed new uses for microbial cellulose—known to most of us as the lowly nata de coco—for the global medical market as brain patches and artificial skin. A chemical engineer and also a PSHS alumnus like Dr. Tapang, Al Serafica holds 10 US and 20 international patents and co-founded Xylos Corporation in 1996, proving that crossing over from the lab to the boardroom isn’t only possible but, in many cases, necessary.

On the whole, the Knowledge Festival offered ample proof that with the right support and incentives, Filipino scientists, artists, and researchers can be right up there with their international counterparts, but we have a lot of catching up to do. As a UP study notes, we spend about half of what our ASEAN neighbors spend on education, and even less on R&D. But just showing ourselves what’s possible is a good start, and UP will soon be touring key exhibits not just around the UP system but to other universities as well.

And UP itself will keep growing, as I was mighty impressed to see in the display that featured ongoing and upcoming expansion projects: the UP Clark Green City that will include, among others, a new College of the Natural Environment and College of Designed Environments; the soon-to-open UP Bonifacio Global City that will host classes in law, engineering, business, architecture, labor and industrial relations, urban and regional planning, statistics, and distance education; the UP Professional Schools-South Road Properties in Cebu; the Philippine Genome Center in Diliman; the new UP Diliman Sports Complex rising out of the rubble of the old track oval; and an upcoming UP Cavite incubator campus.

If we can shoot satellites up into the cosmos and turn a coconut dessert into brain implants, you’d have to believe that the sky’s the limit for the Filipino genius—as long as we don’t get sidetracked by personality politics and medieval mindsets.

timpeake-20160427-diwata-1-deployment-001_FD3086695C6E4EA699A3E0129B0153AD.jpg

[Diwata-1 photo courtesy of ESA/Tim Peake]