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A local yet global style

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The following article was written by a contertulio of mine (in Círculo Hispano-Filipino), the erudite scholar Fernando Ziálcita y Nákpil.

He is a professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Ateneo de Manila University and is also the director of the Cultural Heritage Program of the said school. Professor Ziálcita has written several articles and books, namely Notions Of Justice: A Study Of An Ilocos And A Bulacán Barangay, Nick Joaquín: a portrait of the existentialist as Filipino, and Philippine ancestral houses (1810-1930). He specializes in the encounter between indigenous culture and Spanish influence.

This article, A Local Yet Global Style, was first published in the book Endangered: Fil-Hispanic Architecture which is actually a compilation of selected papers which were presented at the 1st International Congress on Fil-Hispanic Architecture that was held in Manila (27-29 November 2002). The book was published by the Instituto Cervantes de Manila five years ago.

Remember that “architecture is another form of language” (Guillermo Gómez Rivera).

The author, Fernando Ziálcita y Nákpil (third from right), with members of the Círculo Hispano-Filipino (from left to right): José Ramón Perdigón, Alberto Hernández Miño, Guillermo Gómez, Ziálcita, Atty. Cirilo Lubatón, and me.

Fernando Ziálcita

During the 16th-19th centuries, new architectural styles using timber and stones emerged in Luzón, Visayas, and Northern Mindanáo. My interest centers on what I call the “Wood-and-Stone style” of urban dwellings. I have tried to show that it should be called “Filipino” rather than either “Spanish” or Antillean (Ziálcita 1980; 1997; 1997B). There is more public interest in these structures at present than there was previously. Still, a number of architects continue to deny that there is any Filipino architecture other than the bahay kubo (the farmer’s house-on-stilts). One who has built many mansions for the rich has commented that these houses and churches, shown in a traveling exhibit organized in 2000 by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts to draw attention to Filipino architectural heritage, were “colonial impositions”.

In this article, I would like to point out the following:

• It is important to distinguish between types of nationalist discourses.
• To appreciate the complexity of the Filipino’s architectural heritage, we need a dialectical rather than a reductionist discourse.
• When viewed properly, the Wood-and-Stone style is both a unique local product and a product with multiple international connections.

Assimilation versus Exclusion

Nationalism is a discourse that crystallized during the 1789 French Revolution. It proposes that members of a large extended group “imagine” themselves as a sovereign, political “community” that transcends ethnic, religious, and class divisions because of a shared history, heritage, and mission (Anderson 1983). Nationalism thus excludes outsiders even as it defines criteria for membership. But who are the members? And what is the heritage that unites them? I distinguish between two types of nationalism. The first I call “reductionist”; the second, “dialectical” nationalism.

Reductionist nationalism uses “race” as the criterion for membership and “indigenous culture” as the substance of the shared heritage. It assumes that race, an inherited set of biological characteristics, determines how you think and feel. If you do not look like the majority, or if you are not of the same “race” as them, then you cannot share their feelings. This nationalism also yearns for a mythical past that was supposedly more authentic because it was truly “indigenous” — that is, it had no foreign admixture. Its static perspective has no room for mutually transformative encounters between cultures. It thus ignores what 20th century anthropologists say, namely: 1) that no empirical data can support the notion that race shapes ability, 2) that racism fosters the persecution of minorities, and 3) that culture, being a set of symbols, values, and practices that is socially learned, is therefore permeable and changeable.

In contrast, dialectical nationalism believes that feelings transcend race. By joining a community and imbibing its ideals, you become loyal to it. Sympathy has nothing to do with looking like the majority. Dialectical nationalism can thus regard as local what was once imported: 1) if it has been assimilated to local symbols, values, and practices, or 2) if it has a positive contribution to the local. A dialectical view sees the world as consisting of forces that may oppose each other at particular points in time and space, but may also modify each other and fuse into one.

German nationalism of the late 19th century down to 1945 was reductionist. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) extolled the Volksgeist and the need to build institutions that emanated from it. Every people (Volk) have their own ethos (Geist) which is manifest in its language, literature, and law. A people should think and act according to its Geist, for it is unnatural to ape foreign fashions (Ergang 1966: 100-1). Herder inspired nationalists all over the world, like our own Rizal and Isabelo de los Reyes, to study popular songs, dances, architecture as manifestations of the folk’s lore. His “Volksgeist” anticipated the notion of “culture” that British anthropologists would popularize in its present form, starting in the last decade of the 19th century. However, according to Wolfgang Welsch (1995: 195), Herder’s notion has serious deficiencies. It ignores the fact that modern societies are multicultural. Moreover, its insistence on purity leads to political conflicts and wars. Carriers of a Volksgeist are supposed to experience “insensibility, coldness, blindness” and even “contempt and disgust” towards outsiders.

Meanwhile, during the late 19th century, another development took place. Since the Germans lived in many small states that were independent of each other, German nationalists argued for blood as the determinant of nationality. Anyone of German ancestry, regardless of residence, was German. This included even those who had migrated to other Eastern European countries centuries ago. In the 1930s, the Nazis equated Germanness with belonging to the “Aryan race”. Nazi policies were junked after their defeat; contemporary Germany is an open and tolerant society. But even today, migrants, who are born in and educated in Germany, face hurdles in applying for citizenship if their parents are non-Germans (Brubaker 1992: 75 ff.).

In contrast, French nationalism has generally been dialectical and assimilationist. Being French has more to do with sensibility than with genes or skin color. To be French is to embrace the ideals of the 1789 Revolution (Brubaker 1992: 35 ff.). Thus the French call their patrie a “Terre d’asile” — a land that shelters all migrants who believe in liberty, equality, and fraternity. To be French is also to appreciate the achievements of French civilization. French citizenship is thus open to Africans, Indians, Caribbeans, Indochinese, or anyone who participates in French culture.

Moreover, anything created on French soil that either contributes to France’s glory or carries the imprint of the French sensibility is French, even if the creator is a foreigner by birth. The 20th century Ecole de Paris, which invented modern painting and sculpture, was the creation of Frenchmen (Matisse, Braque, Leger), Spaniards (Gris, Picasso, Miró), Russians (Chagall), Germans (Hartung), Italians (Modigliani), Romanians (Brancusi), and others living and working in Paris. These non-Frenchmen are often classified as “French” by French authors. A work of art can be French yet cosmopolitan. French identity is thus not something determined once and for all by race and ethnicity. Writing on the diversity and conflicts between French regions, Braudel (1986: 94) says that “France” had to be “invented”. We can infer that, for it to remain flexible and open, it must be reinvented today.

Mexicanness is likewise a sensibility that is the product of tradition rather than biology. During the 20th century, following the 1910 revolution, which was both economic and spiritual, Mexicans came to appreciate the diversity of their traditions. While they affirmed their once-despised Amerindian tradition (Olmec, Zapotec, Aztec, and Maya), they also claimed that the Spanish tradition constituted an integral part of their culture. Likewise the Afro-American. The magic word was “mestizaje” or the fusion of cultures (Fuentes 1992). Thus “baroque” in Mexico is Mexican rather than Spanish.

How should we characterize the discourse of Filipino nationalism? Is it reductionist or dialectical? I believe it is in-between. On the one hand, textbooks and the press say that Filipino culture is diverse. It has “Malay, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, and American influences”. Our folk dance troupes showcase the diversity of the archipelago’s dance traditions in each performance. Nick Joaquín, in his novels and essays, has shown how to approach history as a process that assimilates the diverse influences, especially the Hispanic, upon the Filipino (1989). On the other hand, however, the educated casually talk of either a “Filipino race” or a “Malay race”. For instance, in preparation for the second millennium AD, the Philippine Daily Inquirer ran a daily series of short articles on its front-page on the achievements of the “Filipino race”. From anthropology’s perspective, the better term would have been “Filipino culture”, for values and world-views are acquired by anybody who commits himself to a group. But physical characteristics, such as skin and hair color, are inherited genetically. Moreover, “Filipino race” would exclude Negritos, Chinese, and Euroamericans who consider themselves Filipinos. Unfortunately, anthropology’s clarifications about “race” are ignored by the current discourse.

The permanent exhibit on the Filipino people at the National Museum has a wonderful English title, “History of the Filipino People”. But the Tagalog translation is an unacceptable “Kasaysayan ng Lahì” (History of the Race). Ignored likewise by many nationalists is anthropology’s concept of “culture” as a permeable, changeable set of symbols, values, and practices. I have heard many educated Filipinos characterize Filipino achievements in cookery, dances, and sculpture as “bastardized/mongrel/derivative/imitative”. They imagine that a culture has to be “pure” and free of outside influences in order for it to be respectable.

Renato Constantino exerted much influence on the nationalism of the 1970s to the present. While he does not idealize pre-Hispanic culture, he has nothing positive to say either about Hispanized Filipino culture. He characterizes both the masses and the elite during the Spanish period as suffering from a “relative ignorance” brought about by the colonizer’s values (Constantino 1978:52-54). Those reading him must therefore conclude that Spanish influence in any form is cause for embarrassment.

A preoccupation with race stumbles when confronted with figures like Fr. José Burgos. Born of a Spanish lieutenant and of a mestiza from Vigan, Burgos spearheaded the Filipino clergy’s demands for equal treatment with Peninsular priests (Villaroel 1971). His execution in 1871, together with Frs. Gómez and Zamora, shocked the public into discovering that they were being oppressed by peninsular interests. But the highly influential historian Teodoro Agoncillo wondered if Burgos, because of his ancestry, can be called “Filipino” (Nolasco n.d.:2). On the other hand, Marilou Díaz-Abaya, in her film on Rizal, depicted Burgos as a brown-skinned Indio. In effect, nationalism became skin-color.

I sympathize with the concerns of Filipino nationalists. The Philippines is indeed a society that continues to be colonized by outside forces. Moreover, it is highly stratified with widespread poverty. But, as I have shown (Ziálcita 2000), exploitation and stratification antedate the Spanish conquest. Our national honor is not diminished by admitting that the Spaniards did positive things like eliminating slave raiding for sacrifice. Also, there are two things to consider: 1) The Philippines is a multi-ethnic society. Many Filipinos, especially in the major cities, are descendants of foreign migrants, some of whom sacrificed much on behalf of the Philippines (Nolasco 1970-71:178 ff.). Surely, they are no less Filipino than the purely indigenous; 2) Our country has to assert its presence in the world forum, and attract more interest in its culture and its products. To respond to both, we need a nationalism that can deal with complexity and multiple connections.

Filipino Modern

The Philippine has diversified its exports by selling high-quality furniture and home accessories. Designers like Ched Berenguer-Topacio, Budji Láyug, Jeanne Goulborn, Kenneth Cobonpue, and others have projected contemporary Filipino design internationally. But what is “Filipino modern”? Why has it attracted rave reviews and orders? If we examine their best sellers carefully, we shall see that some combine the indigenous with imported traditions.

For instance, a fashionable chair pioneered in by Filipino designers combines an exposed metal frame with rattan weaves that form a seat and a backrest. Sometimes the metal frame evokes a boxy armchair; at other times a curvaceous lounging chair. Always, however, the textured rattan weaves give these chairs a relaxed tropical feel. Two traditions meet in these chairs: the indigenous, which skillfully manipulates rattan for basketry, and the Spanish, which makes wrought iron furniture and lamps. The Spanish baroque tradition also shows in the generous S-curves of some of these chairs. Or, consider another example: wall hangings and shades. Filipino wall hangings made of silk have a translucent quality that evokes the Japanese, which currently is the vogue. At the same time, they have playfully inserted pieces of bamboo and rattan, for added texture. Filipino modern reinterprets international styles using skills and preferences inherited from once-foreign but localized cultural traditions.

Together with Alice Reyes and Paulo Alcazaren, I worked on a book on the best of the contemporary Filipino house designs (Reyes 2000). The staff of the Singapore-based publishing firm that produced the book was enthused by the varied forms exhibited in contemporary Filipino architecture. While some villas had strong affinities with Italian-Spanish-Mexican houses, others had rooms that, because of their shell-paned panels, recalled Japanese interiors. Other villas, though modern, had a more indigenous feel because of their imaginative local materials. As a whole, regardless of their stylistic orientation, the various houses had a common denominator: interior spaces dialogued with the surrounding gardens.

A reductionist approach accepts only the “indigenous” as Filipino. This cripples the Filipino’s options in a competitive global market. In contrast, a dialectical approach appreciates the variety of both our contemporary designs and our 18th-early 20th-century urban houses, because it looks at history as a process.

Distinct yet many-sided

I have discussed the history of the Wood-and-Stone House (Bahay na bató at cahoy) in previous writings. Rather than repeat this, I would like to highlight particular points in order to show how the style is both local and global.

1. The indigenous style of architecture prevailing in the 16th century Luzón and Visayas was suited to a rural but not to an urban environment. The indigenous dwelling was essentially a frame construction where the heavy roofwork was supported not by the walls, which were either of timber planks or of bamboo sidings, but by many wooden pillars dug deeply into the ground. This type of structure thus merely swayed during an earthquake. The floor was elevated above the ground as protection against floods and insects. The steeply pitched roof made of thatch shook off the heavy downpour and allowed hot tropical air to circulate upwards.

But this style had a disadvantage when used in an urban environment where buildings press against each other. Its materials were flammable. The first Spanish Manila, whose cathedrals and dwellings were built of bamboo and thatch, was consumed by an accidental fire in 1583. This prompted a shift to construction in stone, using the deposits of volcanic tuff (locally called “adobe”) that were newly discovered in Macati along the Pásig River.

Similar shifts had occurred earlier among other Southeast Asian peoples. Bas-reliefs I have seen on the temples of Prambanan (9th century), in Central Java, depict houses-on-stilts. However, during the heyday of the Majapahit Empire in the 13th-14th centuries, the Central Javanese shifted to all-brick dwellings resting directly on brick platforms (Schoppert 1997: 32-34). This continues to be the norm today in that region which is Indonesia’s cultural heartland.

The famous bronze drums of Dong-son from Vietnam (5th century AD) likewise reveal longhouses-on-stilts with steeply pitched roofs, which are still common today among the upland peoples of Vietnam. But the Chinese, who incorporated what is now Northern Vietnam into their empire from the first century BC to the 10th century AD, brought in houses whose plastered brick walls stood on stone platforms a few meters above the ground (Bezacier 1955; Taylor 1983). These one-story, tile roofed dwellings of brick continue to be the norm both in rural villages and in the town centers of Vietnam.

I mention these shifts because many Filipinos reduce Filipino architecture to the house-on-stilts; they do not accept subsequent developments as relevant. Also, they reject Spanish-influenced architecture as an obstacle to an Asian identity. They believe the house-on-stilts to be more Southeast Asian, being more indigenous. The truth is that some of our neighbors long ago shifted to more durable houses, partly in response to urban environments with limited land.

2. Spanish architectural styles, which are many and varied, may have been suited to an urban environment, but not necessarily to a tropical, earthquake-racked environment. Spanish urban styles are the product of a long process reaching back to at least 1000 BC, to Celtiberian towns and urban settlements established by Phoenician and Greek colonists on Spain’s Mediterranean seaboard. With their thick walls of cut stone or brick, and their roof of tile, these dwellings protected against fire. Their rigidity posed no threat in a land where earthquakes were uncommon. Their relatively small windows gave better insulation against cold.

However, these advantages failed them in the Philippines. In 1630, the Augustinian Juan de Medina ([1630] 1903-1909: 242) remarked that Manila was cooler and healthier when the buildings were made of wood, rather than stone, for this allowed the wind to blow through.

3. In 1645, 1658, and 1677, severe earthquakes collapsed Manila’s tall stone dwellings. Following these earthquakes, two contrasting traditions —the Spanish and the indigenous— fused into a major synthesis. A wooden framework to carry the trusses and rafters of the roofwork extended all the way to the ground. Thick stone walls tended to be confined to the first floor, though brick walls were used in the second story for some partitions. Wooden curtain walls enveloped the second story. But these were opened up by an ensemble of three windows. On the exterior transom was an immovable opening (espejo) covered with shell panes. Between the windowsill and the floor sill was another window: the ventanilla, which was protected by a screen or either wooden balusters or a metal grille and by sliding wooden panels.

This Wood-and-Stone style was called arquitectura mestiza by the end of the 17th century, not because it was for mestizos, but because of its mixture of wood and stone (Alcina [1668] 1980). Mestizo, like the English word “mixed”, comes from the Latin word “mixtus”. The new style was one major response to Philippine conditions. However, it is not the only possible response.

Ilocos, particularly Vigan, developed a house, starting probably in the 1970s, that used brick on both stories (Ziálcita 1997A) but had no wooden framework (Manalo 2003). Most likely this was in response to the fire that struck the city in the late 18th century (King 2000). Despite the absence of a wooden framework, the Ilocano All-Brick-House-with-Pilasters has survived the earthquakes that have struck the coast over the past two centuries. During the 20th century, new technologies, such as the embedding metal frameworks in concrete, entered the Philippines. These have opened new possibilities for urban constructions.

When I speak of the Wood-and-Stone house as “Filipino”, I claim that it was a reasonable response at a point in time, given the knowledge and skills then available, to a particular set of environmental challenges that remain with us. Surely it is not the only possible Filipino style. I like the French and the Mexicans as well. I prefer to dwell on their positive contribution to our culture, rather on how indigenous their makers were.

4. Components of the Wood-and-Stone house connect it to other traditions in particular countries. This opens intercultural bridges that should help us when projecting our country.

The house on stilts was widespread among Austronesians (the peoples of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines; some upland peoples in Vietnam like the Jarai), Austroasiatics (Cambodians and most Vietnamese), and the Thais before the entry of Chinese, Indian, Arabic, and Western influences. The irony is that the Wood-and-Stone house of Hispanized Luzón and Visayas exhibits greater continuity with this millennial Southeast Asian tradition than do the one story stone dwellings of Lowland Vietnam, post-Chinese conquest, or of Central Java, post-Majapahit.

The Wood-and-Stone style likewise connects with the several versions of the longhouse that continue to be built in Borneo as houses-on-stilts. A Sundanese graduate of mine from West Java, Budi Gunawan, made a highly significant remark before a print of a 19th century Tagalog Wood-and-Stone house. “It looks like a Bornean longhouse,” he said. The house had a tile roof, it was horizontal in orientation with sliding shell windows, and had a cantilevered wooden second story over a stone first story. I thought he might have been referring to the pronounced horizontal orientation of the Wood-and-Stone house and its use of the second story as opposed to the preference by both Sundanese and Central Javanese for one-story stucco brick dwellings.

But a visit to the Dayak country in the Four Lakes District of Eastern Borneo clarified what he meant. During that visit, another Indonesian student, Martinus Nanang, and myself went to a longhouse that was still in use. The main entrance was on the long side: a log with notches led to a verandah with a series of wooden arches and fretwork. Here was the main door. The two-story house was on stilts with wooden boards for both stories. The roof was of wooden shingles. The house’s ambience was not Javanese. Save for the notched log, the house exterior evoked 19th-century Visayan plantation mansions.

A common feature of houses in the Arabian peninsula, Iraq, and Western India is the screened wooden balcony. The Arabs call it mashrabiyya, also rowshan this three-meter-high balcony is supported by wooden consoles embedded into stone walls protruding 60 cm from the building. It has its own roof; its roof line is decorated with entablature. This balcony protects the occupants’ privacy while permitting the air to circulate through the adjoining room through grilles (Earls 1997A, Earls 1997B, Earls 1997C). The Arabs brought it to Spain where it acquired the ajimez, two windows that share a common column in-between.

The screened wooden balcony acquired a different configuration in the various localities that adopted it in the Hispanic World. According to the Spanish art historian Dorta (1973:403), the screened balcony’s evolution attained its final stage in the galería volada (jutting gallery) of the Filipino house of the Spanish period. It was neither open as in the Caribbean, not closed with lattices as in Lima. Instead, it was enclosed with shell-paned window panels.

The galería volada connects the Philippines not only with Spain and with Spanish America, but likewise with the Near East and India. This hanging gallery became commonplace in Manila by the last decade of the 17th century (Ziálcita and Tinio 1980: 8, 244 ff.). A topic for research should be the routes by which this gallery reached the Philippines. Was it only via Mexico? Or also via Indian merchants who came here during the Galleon Trade?

A particular house type that developed in Java during the Dutch period was the Rumah Gedong. This literally means the “office house”, perhaps because it was originally associated with offices. Unlike the conventional Javanese house, it has two stories: stone below, wood above. It recalls our Wood-and-Stone house except that the windows are different. As is the case throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, the wooden shutters that protect the windows hang from the façade like wings. They open outwards. The window itself is a vertical opening that extends from lintel to the floor and has a protective wooden railing and balusters. It looks like a modified French window.

The Rumah Gedong is widespread in South Sumatran villages near Palembang. Is there any connection between them and our own Wood-and-Stone houses? I do not think the Rumah Gedong influenced the development of the Wood-and-Stone house in 17th-century Manila. Based on existing documents available, the phases in the emergence of the latter do not suggest influences coming from Java. Could it be that the Rumah Gedong may have been influenced by our Wood-and-Stone house? This deserves investigation.

I mention these similarities between our 17th-19th century house and the Rumah Gedong to underline once more that what may seem so “Spanish” and so alien to Southeast Asian converges in fact with parallel developments in the region. Outside Palembang, I did see bamboo-and-thatch houses-on-stilts scattered among the fields. But in towns and even the tiny village where I stayed, the preference was for solid materials which, in the South Sumatran case, meant using stone below and wood above, with a roof of flat tiles.

Finally, there is Chinese-Japanese influence. There were only a few Chinese in Tondo when the Spaniards came in 1570. Their numbers soared to 8,000 by 1600 because the Galleon Trade exchanged Chinese silks and porcelains for highly coveted Mexican silver coins (Scott 1977: 207). Among the Chinese who settled in Manila were artisans. The Galleon Trade also attracted the Japanese who came in, though in smaller numbers.

While Chinese migration has been continuous to the present time, Japanese migration ended in 1624 after the shogun limited foreign contacts (Hedinger 1977). However, after the opening of Japan to world trade in the 19th century, the Japanese began coming again as migrants. Among them were carpenters.

In some Wood-and-Stone houses, the roof’s corner eaves curl upwards. An example is the Constantino house in Balagtás (Bigaá), Bulacán. But the more substantive Chinese-Japanese contribution may be in the framework and the openings. Both Chinese and Japanese use a wooden framework to carry the roof. The Chinese combine this with non-load bearing brick walls (Knapp 1990: 37). The Japanese raise all-wood walls (Yoshida 1954). Moreover, both of them like to expose their beams and pillars, including twisted ones.

While this was also the case in indigenous Filipino tradition, this practice’s persistence in the Wood-and-Stone style may have been encouraged by Chinese-Japanese builders. The use of translucent material as windowpanes may have come in from these northerners that paste rice paper on window frames. In the Philippines, the flat shell of the cápiz, abundant in shallow waters, substituted for paper. Filipino wooden frames use a plain checkerboard pattern. A similar window pattern is universal in Japan, and in some areas in Southeastern China.

The Japanese signature is evident too in that Filipino window panels slide in a sill whereas in China, they push out. Because of these translucent panes, Filipino interiors have a parchment-like glow, which Japanese visitors say recall their own. During the late 19th century, the transforms in the interior partitions were opened with tracery, which permitted more light and air to circulate while providing decoration. These cutwork panels are found in Chinese and Japanese dwellings. Japanese called these ramma. They can feature either fine wooden latticework or a wooden panel with a variety of patterns (Yoshida 1954: 156).

In some Filipino houses, Chinese motifs, like the peony, are present. In others, like the Festejo house in Santa Lucía, Ilocos Sur, the interlocking diamond-shaped frames reveal a Japanese hand. In general, however, the motifs in these cutwork panels are inspired by the Filipino’s preferences, for instance lyres and flowers — poetry and romance. These cutwork panels, though with different motifs, are also found in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Perhaps originally Chinese and Japanese, they create another bridge between us and our neighbors.

The Galleon Trade (1565-1815) was the first trade network to encompass three continents: Asia, the Americas, and Europe. Aside from Chinese goods, products from all over Asia were purchased in Manila with coined Mexican siliver. Traders from other Asian countries came here, bringing ideas as well. For the French economic historian, Pierre Chanau (1960: 18), the Philippines was where cultural currents originating in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and flowing in opposite directions met each other again, for the first time in world history. They also met currents from China and Southeast Asia. The Philippines is thus “the only true end-point of the world” (le seul vrai bout du monde).

The music scholar John Summers (1998: 208, 213) says that Manila’s musical life was truly cosmopolitan. In 1611, entries to a citywide poetry contest were in “Latin, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Basque, Castilian, Mexican, Tagalog, and Visayan”. Non-Spanish dances and Tagalog-speaking residents formed part of the festivities. If I am correct, the story of the hanging gallery further illustrates how globalization became a reality in Manila. The gallery may have come in from two directions, from Mexico and from India and Arabia. Here it met the Austronesian preference for constructing dwellings on piles and the Chinese-Japanese tradition of woodworking, and merged with them.

Local Yet Global

Filipinos find themselves in an international environment where, on the one hand, they are expected to affirm an artistic style that is uniquely theirs. On the other hand, they are expected to show commonalities with their Asian neighbors. We should be careful of discourses on identity that imprison. A more dialectical, rather than a reductionist, approach can better show how the initially foreign can become localized. Imported Spanish traditions in stone construction had to be modified to suit the unstable Philippine floor. A dialectical approach can also disclose paradoxes. Though influenced by a non-Southeast Asian tradition, Filipino houses retain continuities with the Southeast Asian house-on-stilts that traditional Vietnamese and Central Javanese houses do not.

Finally, a dialectical approach is more open to surprises in the empirical data. The cantilevered wooden second story of the Filipino house connects in fact with traditions of both East and West. Because of the Galleon Trade, 17th-century Manila became a meeting place for different cultural currents. The Philippines developed a distinct local, urban style, from the 17th-early 20th centuries, that resonates globally. It continues to do so, as shown by its current success in furniture and furnishings.


Errors still unrectified: a brief historical outline of the Philippine Left (with commentaries)

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“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” –Karl Marx–

Today marks the 41st founding anniversary of the reestablished Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) of José María Sison, a leftist writer and former university professor who is now on self-exile in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

On 26 December 1968, Sison, together with other leaders of the Philippine left, convened in a rural area in Pangasinán province to integrate the principles of Marxism-Leninism to that of Mao Tse-Tung’s, creating the said political party in the process. The following year, the CPP launched its armed wing: the New People’s Army (NPA). The landscape of our country’s progressive political thought — not excluding security and order — has never been the same since.

Sison’s CPP actually traces its origins from the old Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP, or CPP in English) of Crisanto Evangelista. PKP was organized on 26 August 1930, but was officially proclaimed on 7 November of the same year (at the height of the American Occupation). The two dates, August 26 and November 7, are significant to Filipino Communists: August 26 of that year was actually the 34th anniversary of the Katipunan’s Cry of Pugad Lawin (Nick Joaquín contends that it happened on 23 August 1896 in Balintawak — I believe him); 7 November 1930 was the 13th anniversary of the Russian Revolution (October 25 in the old Russian calendar). Wrote Novo Ecijano Alfredo Saulo in his groundbreaking book Communism in the Philippines: An Introduction (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1990):

The Philippine Revolution was a nationalist revolution, the first in Asia, while the Russian Revolution was a communist-led working class revolution, the first in the history of mankind.

In trying to bridge the two revolutions, the CPP would seem to emphasize both the nationalist and proletarian character of its revolutionary struggle.

It is significant to note that the party was organized in the Templo del Trabajo (literally Temple of Labor), doubtless the most important gathering place for labor elements in the city in the early thirties. It was proclaimed at Plaza Moriones, Tondo, the heartland of Manila’s working-class district.

PKP, on the other hand, claims to carry on the “unfinished struggle” of the Filipino masses led by Andrés Bonifacio, erroneously designated with the title “The Great Plebeian”. For one, Bonifacio may not have been rich, but he was not from the lowliest of economic classes: he used to work as a business agent in a British firm — what’s proletarian about that? And besides, he joined Freemasonry in 1892 (Taliba Lodge No. 165). Despite claims of espousing the ideals of liberté, égalité, et fraternité, the world’s oldest (and mysterious) fraternal group usually recruit well-off members of the community –at least in the Philippines during Spanish times. Bonifacio couldn’t have been a Mason if he was purely plebeian. And one more thing: the Philippine Revolution of 1896 were the brains of the elite, not of the masses alone, as carelessly claimed by the late historian Teodoro Agoncillo.

But these historical divulgations are to be tackled in the future.

Speaking of the elite, the PKP wouldn’t have survived the prying eyes of Imperialist US if not for the help of an ilustrado by the name of Isabelo de los Reyes, the direct founder of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente. He was then serving a prison sentence in Spain for his ties with the Philippine Revolution. During his incarceration, he was able to meet Francisco Ferrer y Guardia, the infamous anarchist and free-thinker who had a hand in the sacking and burning of about 400 Spanish Catholic churches (Saulo wrote that de los Reyes got the idea of founding the Iglesia Filipina Independiente from him although it is unlikely due to his anarchist background). Upon de los Reyes’ return to the Philippines in July 1901, he brought with him the first batch of socialist literature to have ever reached the archipelago.

Socialism vs Communism

Saulo brilliantly observed that de los Reyes’ “socialist literature must have had such a tremendous impact on local labor circles…”

…that hardly two years later (circa 1903) Lope K. Santos, a young journalist and labor leader, started the publication of Banaag at Sikat (‘Ray and Sunrise’) his social novel, in the daily newspaper Muling Pagsilang (‘The Rebirth’) which he also edited.

Published in book form in 1906, Banaag at Sikat was the first literary work by a Filipino to expound the principles of socialism in the Philippines. This novel antedated by almost a generation the birth in 1932 of the Socialist Party of the Philippines (SPP) founded by Pedro Abad Santos.

Legendary revolutionist Luis Taruc used to be the right-hand man of Abad Santos who is the brother of the 5th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court José Abad Santos. Although Taruc, who died a few years ago, claimed that Abad Santos’ SPP was founded in 1932, others contend that the socialist organization was founded in 1929 or 1933. A few years later, some of SPP’s members who had communist leanings supported then Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon’s social justice program, a move which is frowned upon by many communists who believed that the left should not in anyway “support” the capitalist/imperialist establishment. Meanwhile, more trade unions have been organized following the organization of both the PKP/CPP and SPP (but there were already trade unions which preceded both militant groups such as the Unión de Impresores de Filipinas which was founded in 1906). Labor strikes were rampant (notable was the one which happened in Fábrica, Negros Occidental — about 15,000 walked out from the Insular Lumber Mills company). The Great Depression happening in the US was being felt in the archipelago, much like what had happened in the recent US financial crisis.

Both PKP and SPP, of course, had various differences, particularly in ideology. The PKP is strictly communist: they advocate a social structure in which societal classes must be abolished and that private property should be publicly owned. And like most communist groups, the PKP believed that only a proletarian revolution will help them achieve their goals. Abad Santos’ SPP is, of course, rallying for socialism. But the difference between both progressive ideologies are a bit blurry especially since both groups share the same objectives: a classless society. Many social scientists say that socialism allows some free market economy –a familiar feature in capitalist societies– to exist. An individual is also allotted resources depending on their needs. Unfortunately for communists, especially those who look down to socialists, socialism is in fact based in the theories of Karl Marx, the oft-mentioned German philosopher who laid the foundations of modern communist thought through his famous pamphlet Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (commonly known in English as The Communist Manifesto) and his extensive book Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Capital). Bolshevik Leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin finally concluded that socialism is actually a transitional stage between capitalism and communism (this brought forth the popular Marxist-Leninist school of communism).


Japanese aggression during World War II compelled both PKP and SPP to submit themselves to an “unholy alliance” to secure a more effective and meaningful struggle against the enemy. However, many of their leaders, including Abad Santos and Evangelista, were arrested by the dreaded Japanese kempetai. It was a disastrous blow to the Philippine left, but it launched its “Second Front” under the leadership of Dr. Vicente Lava. Eleven days before the dramatic fall of Bataán, the PKP launched the now legendary breed of Filipino guerilleros called the Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa mga Hapon, commonly known as the Hukbalahap, on 29 March 1942.

After the war, Hukbalahap members fought the government, especially when Manuel Roxas was being groomed by Imperialist US to become the first president of the “independent” Republic of the Philippines. The Huks didn’t trust him, for he was a Japanese collaborator. This disturbing fact was divulged by no less than General Douglas MacArthur’s contact with the Philippine underground movement against the Japanese: Commander Charles Parsons. This was mentioned in the book Cross-Currents in the Philippines (Institute of Pacific Relations, New York, 1946) by Bernard Seeman and Laurence Salisbury: “Roxas didn’t collaborate actively. He was really a passive collaborator,” said Parsons. But dirty politics and a vile US economic policy toward war-shamed Japan made Roxas the US’ main man in the Philippines. And so the hatred between him and the Hukbalahap members commenced.

It can be said that the Hukbalahap is the precursor to today’s NPA.

Rectifying errors

It has been over three decades, but the communist movement hasn’t had any stronghold in local Philippine political philosophy.

Several setbacks forced a beleaguered PKP to go underground, and then later on to join Philippine politics, albeit apathetically. Several blunders in its central committee resulted into petty bickerings, malcontents, and other dissidents. One of them was a young nationalist by the name of José María Sison who was a big fan of Filipinist Senator Claro M. Recto.

Sison was a very belligerent young member of the PKP, which was then led by the Lava brothers (Sison later on sarcastically called the group the “Lava clique”. His virulent ideology always placed him on the party’s critical side. Highly disenchanted with the party’s seeming failures, he prepared a treatise which took him two years to write: Rectify Errors and Rebuild the Party. In the said document, Sison, using the nom de guerre Amado Guerrero which means “beloved warrior”, criticized the political blunders made by the PKP throughout its history and struggle for political existence. Sison/Guerrero assiduously enumerated the errors he thought were committed by the party. He also took time to inject Mao Tse-Tung’s political theories into his faction which he called the “reestablished” PKP, renaming it in English as the the Communist Party of the Philippines, Marxist-Leninist/Mao Tse-tung Thought, or simply as the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP):

The main ideological weakness of all previous leaderships of the Communist Party of the Philippines has been subjectivism, appearing in the form of dogmatism and empiricism, and resulting in Right and “Left” opportunist lines. The Philippines, being a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country, has a large petty bourgeoisie which serves as the historical and social basis for subjectivism. Since the Party exists in this kind of society, it is liable to reflect subjectivist trends from without and from within if it is not alert and careful in its Marxist-Leninist ideological building which is the first requirement in Party building.

The Party could be penetrated by a considerable number of Party members of petty-bourgeois orientation (middle peasants, intellectuals, handicraftsmen and other petty producers) who fail to remould their world outlook and methods of thinking in accordance with Marxism-Leninism and who fail to integrate revolutionary practice with dialectical materialism and historical materialism.

Although the first Party members were mainly from the working class represented by Comrade Crisanto Evangelista, the Party leadership erroneously put much reliance on open, legal, parliamentary and urban political activity which resulted in the paralyzation of the Communist Party of the Philippines once it was outlawed by the US imperialists and their running dogs. A revolutionary and thoroughgoing proletarian world outlook would have made the Party recognize the dialectics of the whole Philippine situation and would have enabled it to adopt the correct methods of legal and illegal struggle.

Sison, upon reestablishing (some say it was somewhat a “schismatic” move) the Communist Party of the Philippines 41 years ago today, went on with a barrage of angry accusations of political carelessness against the old PKP. He also played the role of a psychological observer to the leaders of the PKP, saying that there was an “overconcentration on urban political work because of the subjectivist and opportunist desire to compete or collaborate with bourgeois parties and groups” and that “subjectivism of the dogmatist type prevailed during the first two years of the José Lava leadership and the first five years of the Jesús Lava leadership”.

Right opportunism and “Left” opportunism have been committed in the history of the Communist Party of the Philippines. These political errors have emanated from the subjectivist world outlook. They have restricted the building of a Marxist-Leninist party that is firmly and closely linked with the masses on a national scale, that has a correct style of work and conducts criticism and self-criticism, that implements a programme of agrarian revolution and that makes use of the national united front to broaden its influence and support in its struggle against US imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism.

The urban, parliamentary and open character of the Communist Party of the Philippines during the early months of its existence in 1930 and 1931 was mainly responsible for the political disaster and difficulties that it soon suffered. During this early period, the Party leadership was given to the use of “Left” language in public against the entire bourgeoisie, and illegal work was not effectively carried out together with legal work.

The Party did not arouse and mobilize the peasantry as the main force of the revolution. Even when the principal leaders of the Party and its mass organizations were banished to different provinces, they were not conscious of the significance of planting the seeds of the new democratic revolution in the countryside. The idea of the national united front was not also immediately taken up and adopted. Even the urban petty bourgeoisie was not given serious attention as a class ally and as a source of cadres.

Current analysis

Sison also cited some military and organizational errors which he sought to rectify in the reestablished CPP. But looking at the CPP today, it seemed that the reestablishment which he did also ended up in failure. There is no more need to engage Sison in an ideological debate, nor to imitate his wont for flowery words. The very fact that he lives comfortably in Utrecht while his comrades here suffer a pitiful plight in various malaria-infested Philippine mountains and in garbage-laden urban jungles demonstrates the juvenile adventurism which he viciously hurled against the PKP.

To reiterate: his reestablishment is a total failure.

My wife has an uncle who used to be an NPA member in their hometown of Abra de Ilog, Mindoro Occidental. I’ve engaged this uncle in numerous conversations about his past life with the left. But he knew nothing about the ideology. We also had an elderly household helper who also joined the NPA in the mountains, all because of agrarian unrest. But her knowledge about what the movement is all about is zero.

I’ve also heard stories of NPA members who are as young as 15 years old! What do these kids know about capitalism, right opportunism, the deeper roots of agrarian unrest, León Trotsky, and other leftist terminologies and thought?

In Unisan, Quezon, my auntie’s sari-sari store, as well as other business establishments, were regularly visited by communist cadres to demand “revolutionary taxes”. Nonpayment would mean further harassment and scare tactics. Big businesses in rural areas bear much of the brunt of communist rage. Their establishments are either bombed or burned or looted.

When I was in elementary school, me, my brother, and some cousins were on a bicycle stroll outside the población of Unisan (we were on summer vacation). We were visiting a nearby hillside forest outside town. Little did we know that the whole town was in panic mode because of a skirmish between the NPA and local police. Virtually all the houses closed down their doors and windows in broad daylight. The whole town went silent after the firefight. Our family members were desperately looking for us in fright. My mom even claimed to have seen NPA members escaping the town.

When we got back, the action was over. The NPA were gone. Two policemen were killed. And our butts received generous amounts of spanking for something that we didn’t understand and wasn’t our fault.

Later on, I learned that the two policemen who were killed by the NPA in cold blood were former communists who returned to the government. That is why it is difficult for me not to believe the political purgings and mass killings that were hurled against Sison et al.

When the CPP-NPA was declared as a terrorist organization by the US and Philippine governments, they cried foul. But what do they call the recent activities of their group in far-flung provinces?

Even my friend, San Pedro, La Laguna Mayor Calixto Catáquiz, dreads going home to his father’s hometown of Unisan, Quezon for fear of being visited by money-hungry NPAs who might ask him for revolutionary taxes, whatever that meant.

I used to be a member of the progressive movement, that’s why it saddens me to occasionally hear bad news about the left whose main goal is to eradicate poverty –and ultimately, evil itself– once and for all. I even had the privilege of joining an underground meeting with members of the Sosyalistang Partido ng Manggagawa (SPP) led by its leader, Sonny Melencio, many years ago somewhere in Quezon City (I was then a passive member of its youth wing, the Liga ng Sosyalistang Kabataan). One of my comrades, Danilo Balao (an Ybanag) even confided to me that Melencio also helped Sison in drafting Rectify Errors and Rebuild the Party. But realizing that the psychosocial elements inherent in the movement are no different to those found in organized religion (continuously fragmenting and splitting), I gave up hope on hope itself, eventually becoming a cynical atheist prone to suicide.

I am confident that I wasn’t alone in this kind of disenchantment. Even Sison himself felt the same way. But he reestablished the group; I desisted.

The recent US financial crisis didn’t lead to capitalism’s self-destruction, as predicted even by Marx himself. Or is it because there was inaction? Or too much dependency on economic theorems?

Then and now

Years later after that, I was able to watch a televised interview of Sison in Utrecht. He may be faraway from the dangers of local politics, but he’s not really living a life of luxury (this was before his group was declared as a terrorist group). Politically speaking, he’s free to move, free to write down his thoughts. He was all smiles in the interview. It appears that he has given up hope when, in parting, he said that even if he wouldn’t be able to witness the fruits of his labor, others will continue it for him. Isn’t this line of thinking in a way be considered as adventurism itself? It seems that age has mellowed down a once angry and dissident Amado Guerrero. Or perhaps disenchantment from members –and a stubborn government pursuit of NPA members)– forced too much inactivity from him and from his comrades. The controversial yet harmless ballroom dance that he had with actress Ara Mina a few years ago signalled the end, wittingly or unwittingly, of his militancy’s self-armistice. Marxism-Leninism-Maoism has just died right then and there.

The late journalist Máximo Solivén was right when he mentioned that communism is virtually utopia, paradise on earth. It is something that has always fascinated the youth who is prone to militancy and adventurism, thus paving the way to ideological pride and stubborness of spirit. Those who never outgrew this kind of youthful character ended up as lonely

I live in a capitalist environment. The fabric of this society is woven with evil threads. But I choose to live my life to the fullest. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have succumbed to the perils and temptations of materialism. I have never –and will never– become one of this reality’s seamsters.

“Our main problem in this country is the problem of social justice,” wrote the late historian-priest, Fr. Horacio de la Costa, S.J. Sadly, Sison wasn’t able to address that glaring problem despite rectifying errors here and there.

Communism isn’t the answer, after all. Or perhaps it isn’t just that…

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