Wednesday, December 31, 2014

“Lakbay Norte 2010:” Re-discovering adventure tourism and its greatest secrets

WE COVERED SOME 1,800 road kilometers in this first-of-its-kind adventure in Philippine media history. 

Put into perspective, traveling that distance would have brought us further north to Taipei, Taiwan (1,160 km away) or to Hong Kong (1,120 km to the northwest). We also could have made a roundtrip journey to Davao City, 960 km southeast from Manila.

Our fantastic voyage, called the “Lakbay Norte (Travel North) Media Tour,” took 22 travel writers, travel bloggers, photographers and organizers on an amazing seven-day, nine-province merry-go-round that showed us what a resurgent Northern Philippines has to offer domestic and foreign tourists. The answer: a lot. Really a lot.

We rode a specially outfitted Victory Liner bus gaily garbed in the warm green colors and graphics of Lakbay Norte. That bus was our motor home for some three quarters of this epic trek that gave us so much sensory and gastronomical input (read too much to see and eat) I still haven’t come down from that incredible “high.”

More than a re-discovery of tourism in neglected Northern Philippines, the adventure again confirmed a long-held observation that long-distance overland travel can be fun if one journeys with companions who want to have a great time; who put their hidden demons on hold and who let the child in them flourish.

Now I really understand why karaoke is such a potent bonding tool in this country: singing your love songs in public is therapy and not just theater. And why a poignant love song can make you cry in the middle of a man-made lake on a sultry afternoon, especially when someone you love won’t love you in return because she can’t.

Vacations are supposed to be about having fun. But I guess a lot of Pinoy tourists seem to have forgotten that since they lock themselves up in their own private cocoons as they travel by bus, plane or ship. The “secret” is to meet people. Trash your xenophobia, smile and the kilometers will morph from tedium into a ribbon of brilliant memories.

Old churches are majestic pictures in stone. Breathtaking natural wonders show nature at its most creative. But only people—the group you travel with and those you meet along the way—can create great memories from a great adventure.

I took more than 400 digital pictures of the journey on my granddaddy Canon SLR. If you think that’s a lot, think again. Our two photographers took over 2,000 shots and the bloggers took over a thousand more, some of which they immediately posted online.

But I relate my photos to the people I traveled with and that’s what makes those photos special. So, many of us became fast friends and bonded. But bonding seems too tame a word to describe the intense emotional ties formed by creative people packed in a bus for a whole week.

Looking back, I guess I felt like that apocryphal clueless tourist who strives to blend in with the locals but who winds up looking like a tourist to everyone but himself. Perhaps the ever present digicam is a dead giveaway. Or like that out-of-town businessman who drops by for a convention and loads up on souvenirs to prove to himself that he’s been somewhere.

I mean, I would have liked to stay longer at each of those spots we visited. But this was a voyage of discovery and I think many of us did discover enough to want us to return for more. And now, I guess we realize we aren’t tourists any longer but citizens of another world—the world of tourism.

Day 1: Cagayan (Jan. 25)
The distance from Quezon City, the jump off point for Lakbay Norte to Tuguegarao, capital of Cagayan, is some 340 km. That’s a tough 10-hour drive for a first leg, which is why we left at 8:00 pm on Sunday, Jan. 24 so we could sleep most of the long way north. Our host, the people from the North Philippines Visitors Bureau (NPVB), welcomed us as we drove along NLEX into the northern night.

Vince Araneta, NPVB executive vice president, noted this first ever Lakbay Norte was organized to show media that North and Central Luzon are now more tourist friendly, hence the tour’s theme, “Rediscover the North.” Tourism infrastructure is in place or is building, he said. Local tourism offices are ready and willing to assist tourists.

NPVB, which is leading this rebirth of tourism in Northern Philippines, is being supported by a growing number of corporate sponsors including Smart, MacDonald’s, Robinson’s, Dizzytab and the Manila North Tollways Corporation, and by the convention and visitor bureaus (CVBs) in the provinces we visited.

We rolled into rustic Tuguegarao at around 6:00 am: dawn had yet to rise over the imposing Tuguegarao Cathedral in the heart of the capital. The trek to Tuguegarao was uneventful, which is saying a lot since traveling to this northernmost city in Luzon could take up to a day in the old days. My father, an Ibanag born and raised in Aparri, Cagayan, resisted taking us to his hometown because the roads north were alternately muddy, dusty and cratered. The roads were bad for one’s back and temper.

As it turned out, Cagayan was the appropriate choice as our first destination on this trek. The trip north was ho hum, which gave me and most of my mates a good night’s sleep.  I awoke for the first time in Nueva Ecija (where we had a “piss stop”) and for the second as we entered Tuguegarao.

The Cagayanos later lavished so much attention on us they won my vote as the most hospitable province in Lakbay Norte (my ethnic roots notwithstanding). My thanks to the Tuguegarao city government and the Cagayan North Convention and Visitor’s Bureau for this fulsome display of Ibanag hospitality.

Ibanag cuisine: deliciously “dry”
The most delightful surprise in Cagayan, however, was re-discovering authentic Ibanag cuisine. Ibanag food is noted for its lavish use of garlic, which is abundantly grown in Cagayan, and a resulting “dryness” when compared to the “sweeter” cuisine of say, the Pampangos.

Our first encounter with Ibanag cuisine on this trip was during the breakfast served barely an hour after our arrival at dawn on the 25th. After close to half a day on the road you’d expect anything to taste great, even a bowl of instant chicken mami soaked in tepid water.

The buffet set before us by the city government, however, was representative of the best in traditional Ibanag cuisine. It was “alien” cuisine for most of my travel mates (mostly Metro Manilans), except for a few of the bloggers and NPVB people who’d visited Cagayan before. You can tell how a stranger likes “foreign” food by the way he winces: more winces don’t add up to a good review. Leaving a dish practically untouched on his table says volumes about his reaction to a foreign flavor.

There weren’t that many untouched dishes this cold morning, however. The Manileños gushed over the lingering flavor of “sinanta,” the Ibanag soup made from Ibanag dry miki (or “dinaddit”), sotanghon, shrimp and chicken in a distinctive orange “atswete” broth.

The large Tuguegarao garlic longganisa (dry, crunchy, non-oily and non-fat), “carabeef tapa” and “pansit batil-patong” (scrambled quail eggs, ground pork, crushed chicaron and minced liver) created a delightful impression on us visitors. I returned for seconds. Sinanta was our choice for the best of the lot.

The Ibanag or Ybanag, by the way, are the dominant ethnic group in Cagayan and number some 500,000 persons or half the province’s population. The word Ibanag is derived from the Ibanag word for river: “bannag.” In this case, the river is the Cagayan River, the lifeblood of the province and the longest in the Philippines. Ibanag means “People of the River.”

Exploring Cagayan
This satisfying introduction to Ibanag cuisine carried us through our first sightseeing trip of the tour. First up, of course, was the Basilica Minore of Our Lady of Piat, the miraculous patroness of Cagayan. “Piat” is the Ibanag word for grace. The town of Piat also houses a museum showcasing Cagayan’s religious artifacts.

It was also at Piat where our group had its first taste of “pawa,” a glutinous Ibanag “kakanin” made from flour and filled with crushed peanuts. Chewing on “pawa” felt as if you were chewing bubblegum, except for the peanuts.

The other tourist attractions on our fast paced first-day included the very popular (the Callao Caves and its many humorously named “rooms”) and the relatively unknown (the “Kalingkingan Festival” in Peñablanca town. This festival along the banks of the Pinanacauan River is named after the Kalingkingan, a local bird whose abundant droppings enrich the soil). Kayaking along the river was a delight for those among us who were more daring that afternoon.

The Callao Caves rest along the banks of this river, a tributary of the even larger Cagayan River. Callao (pronounced “kal-lao” and not “kal-yao”) is Ibanag for, you guessed it, the “kalaw” or hornbill, a bird that once flourished in the area of the caves but that has since migrated elsewhere.

After some five hours exploring the environs of the Pinanacauan River on foot and by kayak, we headed back to Tuguegarao for a dinner consisting of more Ibanag fare. My roommate was Poch Jorolan, a jolly travel writer and tourism official from Pampanga. Both of us had a well-deserved good night’s sleep at the cozy Las Palmas de San Jose hotel at San Jose Village, which is five minutes by car from the city center and 10 minutes from the airport.

Unlike the larger hotels where most of our fellow travelers were billeted, Las Palmas looks and feels like a huge mansion. An ongoing expansion will add 34 more rooms to this growing hotel, said Myrna Guzman, general manager.

“Nanna” and “iffun”
The following morning saw another sumptuous Ibanag breakfast, but even more lavish than that of the previous day. In addition to the sinanta and Ibanag longganisa we had gotten used to, our palates now had to contend with the formidable Ibanag “kakanin.”

Our breakfast host, Bles Diwa, tourism director for the Cagayan Valley Region, egged us to partake of “nanna,” the special Ibanag bibingka.  Made from a special strain of millet grown in the Sierra Madre mountains, nanna looks almost like melting vanilla ice cream and tastes somewhat like bibingka but sweeter. We were told that making nanna is a closely guarded secret known only to six families in all of Cagayan.

There was also “pinnakkufu,” a delicious rice cake made from upland glutinous rice. A demi tasse of Tuguegarao’s famous chocolate drink made from special cacao complemented these offerings.

Our attention was then drawn to a rare Ibanag delicacy called “iffun.” It would have been just another dish made of ground small fish spiced with ginger, onion and tomatoes if we weren’t told this miniature fish makes its appearance only once a year, hence iffun’s reputation as a rare and pricey delicacy at P3,000 per kilo. Fit for a king, most certainly. The dish disappeared in an instant.

Following this welcome start to the day, we toured some of Cagayan’s most famous historic churches on the road south to La Union, the next provincial stop on our trek. First on “church road” was the St. James Church at Iguig and its famous Calvary Hills featuring life-size sculptures depicting the 12 Stations of the Cross. We then stopped to admire the Saint Philomene Church in Alcala, the oldest church in Cagayan, built from red brick made from a rare red clay called “fulay” indigenous to Cagayan.

The road then took us to the San Jacinto de Polonia Church at Camalaniugan and its belfry housing the Philippines’ oldest church bell (forged in 1595 and named Sancta Maria). Also visited were the ruins of the old Camalaniugan Church and a “horno” or kiln used to bake the red bricks so popular among builders during the Spanish era.

A most interesting historic town is Lal-lo, which in Spanish times was famous as Ciudad de Nueva Segovia, one of the first four cities in “Las Islas Filipinas.” Lal-lo became the capital of Cagayan in 1839.

Also at Lal-lo is the oldest road in the Philippines, Calle Real, which spans the length of this old town on the banks of the Cagayan River. What also made our sojourn at Lal-lo memorable was the welcoming show staged by the town. We were treated by school children to ethnic and cultural dances and warmly greeted by the townspeople.

Thank you, Cagayan
Most of us probably associate the Pamplona Church with “dinobong,” which is rice mixed with coconut milk steamed inside sections of bamboo. The paste like delicacy has a wonderfully sweet taste and we were told it could stay fresh for up to a week with refrigeration. Mine made it home in good enough condition to be eaten.

We then bade goodbye to smiling Cagayan and graceful Tuguegarao, the “Premier Ibanag City,” as we left Pamplona for further adventures at the popular beaches of La Union and in disciplined Ilocos Norte.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ninoy Aquino in the Korean War

THE KOREAN WAR (1950 to 1953) was a decisive event in the career of the late Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., Martyr of Democracy and one of the greatest Filipino heroes of the post-war era. 

The nationwide fame Ninoy achieved as a War Correspondent in the Korean War opened doors that led to a meteoric political career cut short by Martial Law and his assassination on Aug. 21, 1983.

Ninoy was one of an elite group of Filipino journalists who covered the Korean War for Philippine newspapers, wire services and radio stations. These men and a lone woman were our country’s first War Correspondents. They retain this honor to this day since the Philippines has not fought in a foreign war since the Korean War.

The young Ninoy Aquino, Korean War Correspondent

My father, the late Johnny Villasanta, was one of these war correspondents and a competitor of Ninoy’s. My father, then 31 years old, wrote about the 10th Battalion Combat Team in 1950 for a pool of newspapers including The Evening News (the leading afternoon daily), his employer.  Ninoy also wrote about the 10th BCT, the only BCT he covered during his tour in Korea.

Among my family’s cherished possessions is a letter my father wrote on Oct. 6, 1950 to his parents describing his first meeting and first impression of the young Ninoy as a War Correspondent.

Last Dec. 15, 2010, Ninoy and my father (both deceased) were conferred the “Korean War Hero Medal” by South Korea for their work as War Correspondents in the Korean War. President Noynoy Aquino received the award on behalf of his father during a special awarding ceremony.

Ninoy and my father were among 14 Filipinos so honored during ceremonies at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.  Ernesto Carolina, Administrator of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office, delivered an inspiring talk on the Philippines’ role in the war as guest of honor.

Ninoy in Korea
Ninoy was more than a month short of his 18th birthday (Nov. 27) when he stepped onto war torn Korea as a War Correspondent for The Manila Times, the Philippines’ oldest broadsheet and the leading morning newspaper at the time.

Among the many stories Ninoy reported on for The Manila Times about the 10th BCT were “Troops given big send-off,” (Sept. 3, 1950); “Ojeda leads Xth in heroic assault; Filipinos gain glory” (Apr. 17, 1951) and “PI Xth recrosses ‘38’ and Ojeda recalls retreat; morale up” (Apr. 13, 1951).

He received the Philippine Legion of Honor in 1951 for his Korean War reporting, the youngest Filipino conferred the country’s highest civilian award. Ninoy then studied law at the University of the Philippines but quit law to return to journalism.

It’s probably fair to assume that if Ninoy hadn’t become the “Boy Wonder of Philippine Politics,” he would have instead taken a career in journalism. His career after the Korean War points to this.

In 1952, he became the Manila Times’ foreign correspondent for Southeast Asia, covering the Indo-China War. He was then posted to Malaysia during “The Emergency’ and wrote about that country’s efforts to defeat its communist insurgency.

Despite his fame and success as a politician, journalism remained Ninoy’s vocation. In the 1960s, he hosted a weekly TV series, “Insight,” on Channel 5 and stopped only after his arrest during Martial Law in 1972.

Momentous national events, however, cut short his return to journalism. In 1954, Ninoy was appointed by Pres. Ramon Magsaysay as personal emissary to Luis Taruc, leader of the communist Hukbalahap movement that was waging a rebellion against the government.

Ninoy went into the hills with a fellow former newsman, Manuel Manahan, and negotiated the surrender of Taruc, thereby helping end the communist rebellion in 1955.

Boy correspondent
Accounts of how he got to Korea vary, but seem to illustrate a boyish brashness that would later in his career earn him the sobriquet, “Young Man in a Hurry.”

“When I was 17, I was a national hero!” Ninoy told a foreign writer in 1968.

“I was the youngest newspaper reporter in Korea. None of the other Philippine journalists wanted to go to war because they had wives and families. So I volunteered. The Manila Times agreed to send me and so I left the next day before the editor had a chance to change his mind!”

That famous journalist, the late Max Soliven, recounted a version of how Ninoy got to Korea.

“When The Times was casting about for someone to cover what was happening to the Philippine contingent in the Korean War, Ninoy jumped at the chance,” wrote Soliven in 2003 during the 20th anniversary of Ninoy’s assassination.

“He cajoled the newspaper’s Brooklyn-born editor, Dave Boguslav, and its publisher, Joaquin ‘Chino’ Roces, to send him to Korea.

“But he was only 17! What could a ‘boy correspondent’ do? When the two hesitated (Chino exclaimed, ‘What will your mother say?’), Ninoy simply hitched a ride on a military plane and was in Korea sending dispatches before his two bosses realized that he had jumped the gun on them. The Times’ editors, Boguslav and Joe Bautista, soon came to appreciate that gung ho quality which was to rocket Aquino to fame.

“Ninoy was a hard-nosed newspaperman--and what set him apart from so many others was precisely his nose for news.

“‘You get the facts,’” Dave Boguslav told him, “‘and I’ll take care of the grammar’.” Ninoy delivered (Boguslav would lock himself in his private office to patiently translate the boy reporter’s dispatches ‘into English’)--and a star reporter was born.”

A newspaperman at heart
Soliven jokingly recalls Ninoy’s admission that his sacking by Soliven as a reporter for UP’s student newspaper motivated Ninoy into becoming a newspaperman.

“I first met Ninoy on the day I fired him,” Soliven wrote.

“I was a junior in A.B. Law and managing editor of the school paper, The Guidon. Here was that cub reporter writing such atrocious copy. I sent for him, and he showed up at the Quonset hut in which we had our one-room office in Padre Faura. Ninoy was just over 15: a lanky, big-eared freshman with a crew-cut.

 “Aquino,” I growled, “Are you related to the late Senator Benigno?”

Ninoy’s grin went from ear to ear. “My father, sir.”

 “Well, Aquino,” I shot at him. “Your father was a great man in his time, but you are a Godawful writer.”

“Years later, he would crack that same broad grin of his, and jokingly recall that I had launched him on his journalistic career by kicking him out of The Guidon.

“Because Ninoy went on to join the country’s biggest newspaper, The Manila Times (where grammar, we Timesmen used to joke, was not necessary and the proofreading was so bad that it didn’t matter, really, whether you spelled the word right).

Why Korea?
And why did he want to cover the Korean War? Fellow journalist and Aquino family friend, the late Teddy Benigno, offers this explanation:

“He said not having made his mark yet as a journalist, young and inexperienced as he was, if he covered the Korean War with spectacular verve, this would make up. And if, perchance he would die in a blaze of journalistic glory, Chino Roces at the Manila Times would embellish the editorial hall with a ‘Benigno Aquino Jr. Room’ in his memory.”

“That was Ninoy, dreaming all the time, living in a fantasy world that was not really fantasy for he would make it real.

“Well, he did not die in Korea. He saw it and he covered it as Norman Mailer covered war in his classic ‘The Naked and the Dead.’ In several battles, dead bodies piled up on him. He had to wade out of the refuse of dismembered limbs and bodies, the deafening roar of battle as mortar, cannon, bomb and napalm rained.

“Ninoy was right there in the ebb and flow of men doomed to fight, to suffer and die, talking the short, sputtering language of the soldier trudging from foxhole to foxhole. This was Ninoy Aquino’s first lessons in courage, a 16-year-old Filipino war correspondent with his mother’s milk not yet completely dry on his lips.”

Ninoy Aquino. Hero. Newspaperman. Korean War veteran.

(Published in 2011)

Monday, October 27, 2014

Binondo: cornerstone of Filipino-Chinese friendship

FILIPINO AND CHINESE HISTORY fuse together at the district of Binondo in the City of Manila. Binondo is renowned as Manila’s Chinatown and is the oldest Chinatown in the world. It was founded in 1594 during Spain’s colonization of the Philippines.

Binondo, however, is neither the Philippines nor China.

A walk through Binondo's crowded and noisy streets; the conversations in Lan-nang mingled with Filipino and English words; Filipinos hawking Chinese charms and “Tsinoys” or Chinese Filipinos passionately discussing Philippine politics can leave a tourist confused as to the exact character of this place called Binondo.

Binondo looks Chinese. On second thought, it is Chinese. But it also looks more Filipino than Chinese. One sees more Filipinos on its streets than Chinese.

This "exotic differentness" is at the core of Binondo's enduring “otherworldly” charm. By not being really this or that, Binondo becomes whatever place a visitor decides it should be.

The Chinese Filipino Arch of Goodwill along Ronquillo St., the southern entrance to Binondo

For a tourist from Hong Kong, Binondo can become Kowloon. A Singaporean might feel transported back to Outram, site of the city-state's Chinatown.

A Mainlander will probably be reminded of Xiamen, Shenzhen or the coastal town where he grew up. A visitor from Taiwan will find virtually no difference between his native Hokkien and the Philippine Hokkien spoken in Binondo's streets, where it is called Lan-nang.

For this reason, Binondo is as familiar as home. But this isn’t exactly home. So, Binondo becomes an adventure to be explored.

And that's an important reason why thousands of tourists crowd its crowded streets every week. They want an adventure within an adventure in the Philippines’ most historic city.

This is Binondo.

A friendship across centuries
Binondo's location has ensured its status as a key player in Philippine history. In 1594, only 20 years after the Spaniards established Manila, the Spanish colonial government provided a parcel of land about a square kilometer in size outside the city’s walls and across the Pasig River to Chinese that had converted to Roman Catholicism.

This enclave was part of the mighty Kingdom of Tondo that was ruled by a Filipino “Lakan”or King. The Kingdom of Tondo began trading with the Ming Dynasty in China during the 1370s, some 150 years before the Spaniards invaded the Philippines in 1521.

Mention of the Kingdom of Tondo can be found in “The Ming Shi-lu Annals” that recorded the arrival of an envoy from Luzon to the Ming Dynasty. The annals state that Ming China considered Tondo’s rulers not as mere chieftains, but Kings.

Chinese goods were shipped to Tondo (dōngdū in Pinyin or Simplified Chinese), the most powerful kingdom in Luzon, from the port city of Fuzhou in Fujian Province. The Ming gave a monopoly over Philippine trade to Fuzhou, which it shared at times with the port city of Quanzhou, also in Fujian.

It was also during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that the first Chinese settlers came to the Philippines. The Chinese were well-received by the peoples in the various Philippine kingdoms. They lived together in harmony with Filipinos, eventually intermarrying with them.

The Catholic Chinese that relocated in 1594 north of the Walled City of Manila (eventually called “Intramuros” by the Spaniards) were, therefore, among friends.

The land given them was called “Binundok,” a Tagalog word meaning hilly terrain. At the time, Binundok was a one-and-a-half kilometer long wedge shaped islet surrounded by streams. The Spaniards corrupted the word “Binundok” and named the islet, “Isla de Binondo,” or the Isle of Binundok.

Apart from being given tax-free land, Catholic Chinese were also granted self-government by the Spanish conquerors.

Non-Catholic Chinese in Manila, however, enjoyed no such privileges. They were herded together outside Intramuros (or “Extramuros”) and packed into a ghetto called the “Parian” that was within easy range of the many cannon lining the city’s huge defensive walls.

Those cannon would be used to murderous effect by the Spaniards under Governor General Pedro Bravo de Acuña against the Chinese, both Catholic and non-Catholic, during the “Chinese Revolt of 1603.”

This revolt is bitterly referred to as the “Luzon Tragedy” (Lǚsòngcǎnàn) by ancient Chinese historians because of the massacre of some 20,000 Chinese by the Spaniards, the Japanese and a few subjugated Philippine tribes allied with them. The Chinese would again rise in revolt in 1639 and would again be silenced.

These revolts, however, would be the only instances on Philippine soil in which Filipinos and Chinese fought each other in their shared 700-year history.

The Second World War saw Chinese Filipinos battle alongside Filipinos from 1942 to 1945 to defeat a brutal common foe: the Imperial Japanese Empire.

Which brings us to the present day.

With their past anchored in tolerance and friendship, Filipinos and Chinese have maintained a beneficial symbiotic relationship to this day. One sees many examples of this symbiosis in Binondo.

The historic Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz along Ongpin St

The business of Binondo is business
Many of the businesses in Binondo are owned by Chinese Filipinos but many of their employees are Filipinos.

One can see this dichotomy in the many shops along Ongpin Street, Binondo’s main road. In practically all of them, there are one or two Chinese or Chinese Filipinos (more likely the owners) surrounded by Filipino employees.

The 2007 census counted just 1.1 million Chinese Filipinos in a population of more than 85 million Filipinos. Binondo has a population of some 12,000 persons, most of whom are Filipinos and not Chinese Filipinos.

The influence of Chinese Filipinos on the national economy, however,has been enormous: from the start of the 20th century until the 1970s when the exodus to Makati City began in earnest, they made Binondo the Philippines’ de facto financial and business capital.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Juan Luna Street was famous as the location of the headquarters of most large Philippine corporations.

The country’s most important banking and financial firms and institutions also made Binondo their base. Until the 1970s, most of the big foreign banks including HSBC, Standard Chartered and Bank of America had their head offices in Binondo.

Among the leading Filipino banks with headquarters in Binondo, or more specifically Escolta Street, were the Philippine National Bank and China Banking Corporation.

Binondo was also the site of the Manila Stock Exchange, the Philippines’ first stock exchange, from its founding in 1927 until 1992 when it merged with the Makati Stock Exchange to form the Philippine Stock Exchange with twin headquarters in Makati City and Pasig City.

It was also Binondo that gave birth to the department store as we know it today. Escolta Street became the most famous address in Manila, and perhaps the entire country until the 1970s because of the presence of “haute” shopping havens for the elite such as Aguinaldo’s Department Store, Berg’s, Syvels and Oceanic Commercial.

The lack of land, however, killed Binondo’s future as the center of Philippine business and finance.

Makati, a neglected small town to the southeast of Binondo infamous for its seedy nightlife, began replacing Binondo in this role in the 1960s thanks largely to real estate developers (many of whom were Chinese Filipinos) with an abundance of cheap Makati land in their portfolios.

What Binondo was left with after the business diaspora to Makati was some of the priciest real estate in the Philippines. Ironically, this was another factor that made business firms flee to other cities and towns in Metro Manila.

Too many people at Juan Luna St. in Binondo

Tourism, nationalism and religion
Binondo today remains a center for business—but mostly those classified as SMEs or small to medium enterprises. These are the businesses one sees aplenty along Binondo’s many crowded streets and alleys.

Binondo’s close proximity to the Port of Manila, the Philippines’ largest, is fueling the growth of Binondo’s SMEs by allowing them to sell an inexhaustible array of imported goods (mostly from China) at cheap prices.

The Big Boys, however, have fled to Ayala Avenue, Bonifacio Global City, Eastwood City and Ortigas Avenue.

Along with an overabundance of SMEs, which are your basic “mom and pop stores,” what strikes one about Binondo is a deep nostalgia for a glory that fled this district a scant five decades ago.

That nostalgia, however, has been translated by Chinese Filipinos and other imaginative Filipinos into a thriving tourist industry. Binondo has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Manila, especially among overseas Chinese, of course.

Tourists have become a growing source of business revenues in Binondo. Today, Binondo is famous for its tourism offerings that include bargain shopping; exotic “Binondo cuisine;”places and Chinese Filipinos linked to the Philippine Revolution of 1896; religious sites and historic buildings that harken to its past greatness.

“Food tourism” is now a staple of a growing number of tourism packages in Binondo. The presence of dozens of mom and pop Chinese restaurants concocting hundreds of dishes and variations on these dishes has created a lively and popular tourism sector called “Food Tourism.”

Adventurous “foodies” (or gastronomes, in more formal conversation) take a group of fellow foodies or tourists on a walking tour of select Binondo restaurants. Here, they savor the Chinese menu while the foodie tour guide spews titillating facts about the cuisine, the restaurant or Binondo Cuisine, in general.

The tour starts at about US$30 per person.  You can find video of some of these Food Tours or Food Trips on YouTube.

Chinese good luck charms and tikoy for sale at Ongpin St in Binondo

Binondo: a center for Catholicism
There’s also historical and cultural tourism focusing on the role of Chinese Filipinos in the Philippines’ revolution for independence against Spain in 1896, and the saga of Roman Catholicism in the Philippines.

Surprisingly, the centerpiece of both these tourism forms is a Roman Catholic Church: the Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz located at Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz along Ongpin St.

This church is a holy shrine to both revolutionary nationalism and pious religiosity. It is named after St. Lorenzo Ruiz, a Chinese Filipino martyred defending Roman Catholicism in 1637. He was tortured then murdered by the Japanese in Nagasaki after refusing to recant his Catholic faith.

St. Lorenzo Ruiz is the first Filipino saint; he was canonized or declared a saint in 1987. The Chinese Filipino saint was born in Binondo to a Chinese father and a Filipina, both of whom were Catholics. St. Lorenzo Ruiz learned Chinese (most probably Hokkien) from his father and the Tagalog dialect from his mother.

He was educated by friars of the Order of Preachers, popularly known at the Dominicans, who were in charge of the Binondo Church during that time. The saint served as an altar boy in this church that is today named after him.

Another Filipino who will become a Roman Catholic Saint is also Chinese Filipino. She is Venerable Ignacia del Espíritu Santo, also known as Mother Ignacia.

She was born in 1663 to a Chinese father (he was from Xiamen) and a Filipina. She is cherished for founding the Congregation of the Sisters of the Religious of the Virgin Mary, the first convent with approved pontifical status in the Philippines. This order runs the network of Saint Mary’s colleges and academies throughout the Philippines.

She was declared Venerable, two stages before sainthood, in 2007. Her eventual canonization is widely expected.

The three major forms of transportation in Binondo (from the left): the horse drawn calesa, a pedicab and the jeepney

Binondo and the Philippine Revolution
The Binondo Church’s link to the Philippine Revolution of 1896 is by way of Andres Bonifacio and his wife, Gregoria de Jesus. They were married at the Binondo Church in March 1893, eight months after Bonifacio and other patriots founded the Katipunan.

The Katipunan (or The Association) was the secret Philippine revolutionary society that ignited the Philippine Revolution against Spain on August 26, 1896. Bonifacio led the Katipunan as its “Supremo” (Supreme Leader) from 1895 until his death in 1897.

Katipunan is the short form of the Tagalog phrase, “Kataas-taasan, Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan,” or the Highest and Most Honorable Society of the Children of the Nation. The Katipunan defeated the Spaniards in 1898 and declared Philippine independence that same year.

Ongpin Street, Binondo’s two kilometer long main road, is named after a Chinese Filipino hero who helped the Katipunan win the war for independence against Spain in 1898.

Roman Ongpin, like St. Lorenzo Ruiz, was born in Binondo. Ongpin’s father came from Fujian while his mother was a Filipina.

Ongpin became a merchant and established an art supplies store called El 82. His store, however, was not an ordinary art supplies dealer.

With Ongpin’s consent, Filipino revolutionaries of the “Katipunan” met at his store to plan their attacks on the Spaniards. During the Revolution of 1896, he used the store’s revenues to buy guns and ammunition for the “Katipuneros ”(or Filipino rebels belonging to the Katipunan). When his store burned down in 1898, Ongpin donated the insurance money to the Katipunan.

Ongpin, however, was eventually caught and imprisoned by the Spaniards but not executed.  He was also jailed by the Americans for supporting Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, who led the Katipuneros (following Bonifacio’s death) in the Philippine War for Independence against the Americans from 1899 to 1902.

Ongpin died in 1912 and was buried wearing a “Barong Tagalog,” the formal wear of male Filipinos. It was a stirring affirmation of what Ongpin, a Chinese Filipino, thought of himself: he was, heart and soul, a Filipino.

His imposing bronze statue is located beside the Minor Basilica of San Lorenzo Ruiz.

Photos by Art Villasanta
(Published in Zest Air Inflight Magazine, 2012)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Confessions of a “Rewriter”

REWRITING IS THE new writing.

In an internet universe where content is allegedly king, writing has transmogrified into a product—a cheap commodity—to be mass produced, sold and re-sold for profit.

Quantity and unique views are what matter. And quality? Someone will have to re-define what this concept means in the website factories that mass produce stories.

My beloved profession, known and revered in the analog world of past centuries as “writing,” has been grotesquely twisted and co-opted into this thing called “Rewriting.”

Rewriters like me are the Minions of that “internet space” called “content aggregation.” We tirelessly rewrite stories picked-up off the internet so these stories still make sense and, most important, bypass that bane of all rewriters, CopyScape.

We mass produce stories by the thousands. I’ve rewritten over 5,000 news stories for over half a dozen content aggregation websites.

I’ve rewritten science, technology, business and entertainment stories. I’m the proud owner of so much mundane information my short-term memory is in dangerous overload.

But 5,000 stories is nothing. One Filipina rewriter I wrote with said she’d rewritten over 20,000 stories.

When I was a newbie rewriter, I did five stories a day. I peaked at 15 stories a day, five days a week when I got the hang of this job.

It takes anywhere from four to five hours of searching, selecting, reading, understanding and rewriting to manufacture 15 stories. The price you pay for mass producing stories is everlasting neck and shoulder pain.

Rewriting stories by the dozen greatly offends my sensibilities as a classically trained writer who cut his teeth on typewriters.  You know, typewriters.

Grandpa’s version of the desktop PC that goes tack-tack when you hammer at the keys and prints words using this prehistoric printer-thing called a ribbon.

But writers write for two Muses: Clio and Melpomene.

Clio because classical writers have this innate hubris their stories will be deified by history. Melpomene because writing is always a tragedy, especially if she becomes your mistress.

You won’t get rich writing but Minions like me hack away at their keyboards for P100 a story. That’s a tragedy of Homeric proportions.

Don’t laugh, ye barefaced whelps. This pittance helps pay the bills. It does for me and hundreds of other Filipino rewriters.

Just who are these faceless Minions that sprout from this mutant branch in the Tree of Writing called Rewriting?

Right now, I lead a team of seven science and technology writers. We rewrite for a content aggregation company based in New York, USA. All my rewriters are Filipinos.

They’re young, mostly women in their 20s. They’re romantic, far too respectful of authority and single.  They’re well-educated, all of them.

Most of them majored in courses identified with writing such as journalism and communication arts. I’ve got a writer with a degree in computer engineering while another’s a veterinarian, or a veterinarian geek, as he describes himself.

My rewriters are from University of the Philippines, Miriam College Foundation, Inc., Ateneo de Manila University, University of Southeastern Philippines in Davao City, University of Santo Tomas and University of the Philippines, Los Baños.

Most of them have done this kind of work before. Some of them have done SEO (search engine optimization) writing, which is the evil twin of rewriting.

They’re all in the process of attaining their full potential as writers. Their writing reflects their uncertainty and fear of making mistakes. They write cautiously.

But these kids work hard, understand science and tech and take pride in being part of a successful team.

They’re all idealistic—as a rewriter must be. Without this basic quality, a rewriter won’t endure the daily grind she inflicts on herself. That makes them heroic in my eyes.

Rewriting science and technology stories is never easy.  You have to read, understand, understand, understand and then rewrite.

Rewriting’s still journalism in its structure and its emphasis on accurate information. It might not look that way to classical writers but it is.

My people rewrite five to seven stories five days a week. On Saturdays, they do three stories. Sunday is a day-off. You can write on Sundays if you want to. Every peso helps.

And why do I claim rewriting’s the new writing?

Because in this country that still speaks and writes the best English in Southeast Asia, rewriting is the only financially and professionally rewarding offshoot of writing available to Filipinos that write in English.

Media is closed to most Filipino writers in English. There are only three English broadsheets and the chances of a kid landing a job as a reporter in any of these papers is probably the equivalent of winning the Lotto.

TV and radio are out. Filipino is the language of the masses these media pander to.

My official job is to edit my team’s stories. My personal commitment is to help these kids become better writers by combining their experience with osmosis.

Rewriting that’s been well edited has a tendency to seep into a rewriter’s consciousness by osmosis. The rewriter sees his original, reads the edited version, says to herself, “This looks better” and rewrites better stories the next time around.

I’ve seen this happen. Writers and rewriters that want to be better writers will motivate themselves to be better writers. Quotas won’t get them to improve.

Rewriting is the only discipline that’s keeping alive the art of English writing in this country.

The thousands of young Filipinas and the smattering of young Filipino men that persist in writing in English deserve recognition for their ardor.

Sure, rewriting’s a job but as these kids get better at it, the job will become a vocation for many and an obsession for the zealous few.

Writing in English will remain alive in this country, thanks to the Filipino rewriter.

Melpomene be praised.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Medical tourism: where the jobs are

MEDICAL TOURISM, the country’s youngest growth industry, has a long way to go—and a lot of employees to recruit—to attain its goal of earning some P135 billion by 2015.

Optimistic government projections say this massive amount of money will come from the one million medical tourists expected to arrive in the next five years. There were some 60,000 medical tourists in 2007 and 100,000 in 2008. Our medical tourism industry has earned about P16 billion since 2004 when the government took its first steps in making medical tourism an industry.

Much of that money went to doctors, nurses, physical therapists, spa personnel, reflexologists, masseuses and tourism personnel who populate the medical tourism industry, which also goes by the name health and wellness tourism industry and the medical travel industry.

Worldwide, medical tourism today is worth from P1.8 to P2.7 trillion and is growing annually at a rate of 20%, so it could be a P8.5 trillion global business by 2013.

Jobs in medical tourism
Medical tourism is widely defined as a health holiday that includes cost effective private medical care and tour packages (sightseeing, golf and shopping, for example). It also includes leisure and relaxation activities such as spa therapies to re-invigorate patients.

The government said employment in medical tourism rose 13% from 2003 to 2005 to around 239,000 employees (or about one percent of total employment in the Philippines). Clearly, medical tourism is the place to be for medical, tourism and hotel and restaurant management students who could earn big without leaving the Philippines to work abroad.

Medical tourism will also enhance complementary industries such as travel, airlines and hospitality. And, equally important, medical tourism could reduce and reverse the brain drain of Filipino medical professionals (especially doctors and nurses) who continue to go abroad to work.

And where are these medical tourism jobs located? They’re mostly in two places: Metro Manila for the medical aspect of medical tourism and Cebu for both the medical and wellness side of the equation.

Without doubt, Metro Manila is this country’s center for the medical arts and medical education. Two of the country’s three hospitals accredited as medical tourism hospitals are in Metro Manila: St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City and Medical City in Pasig City. The other accredited hospital is the Chong Hua Hospital in Cebu City. Private hospitals in Metro Manila offer the best in medical facilities equal to western hospitals, with some providing accommodations similar to that of five-star hotels.

The opening of St. Luke’s Medical Center at the Global City in Taguig City in January 2010 was a landmark in the medical tourism industry. St. Luke’s Taguig is the country’s first hospital designed from the ground up for medical tourism.

St. Luke's Medical Center, Global City

St. Luke’s Taguig, sister hospital of St. Luke’s Quezon City, houses 374 doctors’ clinics, 18 operating rooms, 5 caesarian section and delivery rooms, imaging suites, critical care units, a cardiac catheriterization laboratory, ob-gynecology, a post-anesthetic care unit and 10 institutes (Heart, Cancer, Neurosciences, Digestive and Liver Diseases, Eye, Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, Pathology, Pulmonary Medicine, Radiology, and Pediatrics and Child Health).

St. Luke’s Taguig is regarded as the best hospital in the Philippines today and one of the best in the world. It is better-equipped than 95% of hospitals in the USA. The hospital caters to two main markets— medical tourism and patients from the Makati Central Business District. The government said the opening of St. Luke’s Taguig should strengthen the Philippines’ medical tourism industry, and boost the Philippines as an excellent retirement location.

Accreditation enhances the quality of medical care by providing quality standards and measuring hospital performance against internationally accepted benchmarks. Having more accredited hospitals could help convince more medical tourists to choose the Philippines instead of other countries. All three of our accredited hospitals were accredited by Joint Commission International (JCI), an international agency that certifies hospitals and other healthcare facilities worldwide.

“The Philippines will only succeed if more medical institutions will get international accreditation and improve medical services,” said Dr. Anthony Calibo, Program Manager of the Philippine Medical Tourism Program under the Department of Health (DOH).

Cebu medical tourism
The heart of the Philippines’ tourism industry lies in the Visayas and the jewels of the region’s tourism industry are Cebu and Boracay. The accreditation of Chong Hua Hospital in Cebu City as one of only three medical tourism accredited hospitals indicates the Visayas realizes the potential of medical tourism and is doing something about it.

The ongoing tourism boom is also expected to further benefit medical tourism in Cebu. Cebu is visited every year by a third of all tourists to the Philippines and is also the most popular tourist destination among foreigners, followed by Boracay. Of the top five tourist destinations in the Philippines, four are in the Visayas. Some 8,000 more hotel and resort rooms are expected to open in the next five years, mostly in Cebu and Metro Manila, bringing a massive number of jobs.

Chong Hua Hospital in Cebu City

 In 2009, those jobs were at Cebu’s P3.2 billion Imperial Palace Water Park, Resort and Spa (800 jobs), the Radisson Hotel in Cebu City and the P8.5 million San Remigio Beach Club in northern Cebu. New hotels at Boracay are the Shangri-La Boracay Resort and Spa, Crowne Regency, Phonex Hotel, Boracay Regency Lagoon, Seven Stones and Grand Water.

Its combined medical and wellness aspects make medical tourism in Cebu unique. A medical tourist can have a medical, cosmetic or surgical procedure performed in Cebu City, relax at a spa then tour any of the world class tourism sites in the province, in the Visayas or in Mindanao.

“The Wellness Island of Cebu” is how the province promotes itself to medical tourists. Officials in charge of this effort say Cebu has many advantages as a medical tourist destination: low cost medical procedures (from 50% to 90% cheaper than those in the USA); competent and experienced doctors and medical personnel; the wide use of English and the natural tendency of Cebuanos (and Filipinos, in general) towards compassionate caregiving. There are also a large number of spas that help facilitate recovery.

Good years ahead
Good years lie ahead for medical tourism. This October will see the holding of the 2010 International Summit on Medical Travel, Wellness and Retirement (IMWELL) Summit where experts from the hospitality, healthcare, travel and wellness industries around the world will discuss how to make the Philippines the next preferred medical travel destination in Asia.

The ongoing crisis in U.S. healthcare is also expected to boost our medical tourism. The U.S. accounts for P77 trillion of the P149 trillion spent annually for healthcare worldwide. Although Americans spend more for healthcare than any country in the world, the quality of the healthcare they receive is abysmal: the World Health Organization ranks the U.S. 37th when it comes to quality of healthcare. The top healthcare nations are in Europe.

Consequently, Americans are increasingly turning overseas to address their healthcare needs as their healthcare insurance costs skyrocket at a higher rate than overall inflation. The market for our medical tourism: uninsured Americans and a large number of underinsured since the procedures they mostly undergo (such as cosmetic surgery) are elective and not covered by health insurance. The U.S. also faces a sharp cut in new physicians entering its healthcare system.

Medical tourism today, however, isn’t common enough to play a role in U.S. healthcare reform—not yet, at least. One estimate said medical travel spending accounted for no more 1% (P10.8 billion) of the P108 trillion spent on healthcare in the U.S. in 2007.

Medical travel in the U.S. is gaining ground, however. The four largest commercial U.S. health insurers have either launched pilot programs offering medical tourism or are exploring it. The influential American Medical Association has released new guidelines on medical tourism intended to inform and advise patients, employers, insurers and those coordinating international healthcare about how to ensure the quality and safety of patient care internationally.

(Published in Enrich magazine, 2010)