Friday, 2 December 2011

Filipino history and the 'Pied Piper of Manila'

Carlos holds a portrait of Filipino ‘national hero’, Jose Rizal
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
When I think of the great histories of the world – the Roman civil war of the First Century BC, the ‘Three Kingdoms’ of Imperial China, the British Raj and the partition of India – the Philippines doesn’t get much of a look in. But this oft-neglected corner of the world has a fascinating heritage that occasionally places it at the heart of global events in surprising ways.

I was first introduced to Filipino history in 2009 by Carlos Celdran, the self-styled ‘Pied Piper of Manila’, his diminutive figure and larger-than-life character dressed up in Nineteenth Century top hat and tails. Every week, Carlos takes tourists and locals around Manila’s handful of historic buildings – those that survived World War II – and treats them to, not so much a tour, as a piece of stand-up political theatre.

In this performance, Carlos charts the last thousand years of Filipino history, demolishing some of its central myths along the way. Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero, gets a gentle ribbing, while US General Douglas McArthur gets a savage mauling. All of this is delivered in a humorous and entertainingly over-the-top style. “There’s a Dutch word for people like this,” my friend Martijn said. “It translates as ‘pleasantly insane’.”

I was back in the Philippines in 2011, partly to fill some gaps in a travel book I’m writing about the country, so I arranged to meet up with Carlos for an interview after the tour. As well as his take on Filipino history, I also wanted to ask him about his political activism. In his other life, Carlos is a prominent campaigner for the Reproductive Health Bill. One particular campaign stunt – which I’ll come back to later – brought Carlos into direct conflict with the country’s top bishops and briefly landed him in jail.

Walk this way

Jose Rizal’s statue at For Santiago, where he was executed for treason.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
I met Carlos on a Sunday afternoon at Fort Santiago, the new starting point for his ‘If These Walls Could Talk’ tour. This former symbol of Spanish colonial power is now a park and shrine to Filipino national hero Jose Rizal, its crumbling masonry soot-blackened from decades of pollution. “I had to change the route because I’m now banned from the cathedrals and churches,” Carlos told me as we waited for the audience to arrive. “It’s presented some problems but I don’t mind. For me it’s a badge of honour.”

Once the crowd were warmed up by a sing-along version of the Filipino national anthem, Carlos began his tale with the era of Spanish colonisation. For readers unfamiliar with the subject, the Philippines was conquered by Spain in the 1520s, coming the long way round via Mexico. Being so far away, the Spanish Kings didn’t know what to do with the country, so it ended up being de-facto ruled by the church. In the 1890s, a nationalist revolution almost succeeded in throwing out the Spanish but in the last days of their rule, King Alfonso XIII sold the entire country – along with Puerto Rica and Guam – to the US for $20 million. “It was buy one, get two free,” Carlos quipped.

The inspiration for the failed revolution was intellectual and novelist Jose Rizal, who wrote two satirical novels about the oppression and injustices of colonial rule, for which he was executed at Fort Santiago (which kind of proved his point). Now a large grey statue of Rizal, his jacket slightly flecked with bird dung, stands in the fort holding aloft a book and gazing into the distance with a visionary expression.

The shrine also features an original copy of Rizal’s first novel, ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (or ‘The Noli’ as it popularly known by Filipinos), its yellowing pages and elegant calligraphy encased in thick museum glass. I bought a copy in 2009 and found it a surprisingly entertaining read, mixing biting satire with a romantic adventure story reminiscent of Alexandra Dumas.

A first edition copy of ‘The Noli’, handwritten on yellowing paper.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
Carlos claimed that Rizal was an unlikely choice of national hero for the Filipinos, not least because he was “sexually ambiguous and an atheist”. In fact, the choice was made by the new US regime on the grounds that Rizal was “a pacifist and, above all, safely dead”. Even the idea of a national hero, he said, was an American concept.

Afterwards, I asked Carlos how he really viewed Rizal. “Well Jose Rizal was a very elitist choice,” he replied. “He wasn’t really known among the masses. But if we’re going to talk about heroes as a template for what a person of that nation should be like, then I like Jose Rizal. He believed in equality. He looked beyond these shores and was very progressive for his time. I mean this wasn’t some guy who painted pretty pictures for the Philippines or used anger as a way to resolve a situation.”

In addition to the ban on cathedrals, Carlos had another challenge to deal with on today’s tour in the form of the weather, which was in full monsoon swing. Heavy grey rainclouds gathered above us, pregnant with an imminent downpour. Initially, he worked it into his act, glancing nervously at the skies each time a rumble of thunder coincided with an anti-clerical joke. When the rain came, we took refuge in the Rizal shrine, and later all but ran to a bomb shelter for a graphic description of the atrocities at the end of World War II.

The bomb shelter was a whitewashed and slightly claustrophobic tunnel under the fort. Carlos changes costumes for each act of the show, and by now he was in US military get-up. This is the emotional heart of the performance. Suddenly Carlos the joker is gone and he becomes deadly serious. There were gasps of horror from the crowd as he mimed a Japanese soldier, anxious to save bullets, throwing a baby in the air and impaling it on his bayonet.

In another departure from the history books, Carlos places much of the blame on US General Douglas McArthur, who returned unnecessarily to Manila in the closing days of the war. This was at least in part to fulfill his famous ‘I shall return’ speech, made when he was forced out of the city by the Japanese in 1942. “Who said ‘I’ll be back’?” Carlos demanded, looking into the crowd. “That was Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator!” In fact no-one had said it, although I had definitely thought it.

Discussing the period with Carlos, it certainly seemed like a classic case of history being written by the victors. “I really think we were a victim of one man’s ego and an entire city paid the price,” he told me later over dinner. “I mean in history books when I was growing up MacArthur was always a positive character, but when I talked to my grandfather who was actually in the war he had a very negative view. So that contradiction has always been with me. Then when I started looking through pictures of the damage and the reasoning behind it, the blame fell squarely on MacArthur. I really look forward to the day when history will convict him for the destruction of Manila.”

Carlos acts out the flag-waving era of American colonisation.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
Home cooking

The tour ended at the ‘Crazy Nun’ souvenir shop in Intramuros, where Carlos has his office. After the audience left, we went to his flat to do the interview. In a pleasant surprise for me, this included a delicious dinner of soup and pasta. I was curious to see how the real Carlos differed from the stage version. Many of his trademark mannerisms remained, but they were less exaggerated, and he was a bit brusquer and more business-like. Nevertheless, he continued to be both entertaining and provocative.

In the car, I asked Carlos how he had come up with the concept for his tour. “I started as an archaeological tour guide,” he said. “It was a regular ‘to your left and to your right’ on a bus with a microphone. After that I went freelance and, to make it more interesting for myself, I started adding pictures, wearing a costume of the period, and playing music. Over the last ten years, it’s developed into the theatrical experience that you see today.”

Carlos admitted that there was an increasing gap between how the tour was advertised, and what the audience actually got. “You know, it’s more like Bertolt Brecht; theatre coming out of the blue,” he said. “But how do you advertise that? ‘Oh please come to downtown Manila and smell our polluted air, while I give you a geopolitical diatribe in the heat’ That’s not going to sell! But if I say ‘look at Manila in a different way while you ride a horse drawn carriage and eat a halo halo at the end,’ it’ll sell.”

Carlos’s home was in the expensive Ermita district. It was a grand, almost colonial affair, with chandeliers and heavy drapes. He had several staff, including a driver and a cook, and was clearly from one of Manila’s rich families. But his politics were more pro-poor and even somewhat sympathetic to ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose attempts to build a ‘new society’ marked a break with the power of the church and the landed aristocracy.

“I think people need to look deeper than Imelda and her shoes, because the Marcoses would not have existed without a world of connivance,” he said. “I mean come on, we were one of the top five diplomatic partners of the United States. Don’t tell me Ronald Reagan didn’t what Marcos was doing, who Marcos was killing. But whether the Marcos order was good or bad, it was at least a different order.”

I’d been struggling for some time to get my head round the ambivalent attitude of many Filipinos to the Marcos era and the ‘People Power’ revolution that ended it. In the West it’s more black-and-white, with the familiar narrative of a brutal dictator overthrown by a democratic crowd, in this case led by Cory Aquino, widow of an assassinated opposition politician. But while a lot of middle-class Filipinos certainly agree, it’s a far from unanimous verdict.

“I hate Cory!” Carlos exclaimed, before adding: “I can’t say it out loud – it’s like saying that you hate Mother Theresa. I hate the myth, I hate what she did. I hate everything that revolves around the symbolism of God and Church and the noblesse oblige. She’s the landed classes brought back into power because of the Catholic Church.”

Father Damaso

Carlos imprisoned in Fort Santiago, still in his Nineteenth Century costume.
© GMA News/2010/Mariz Umali
History and theatre also combine in Carlos’s political activism, with Jose Rizal becoming the inspiration for his most famous political stunt. The Philippines is chronically over-populated, increasing the strain on resources and keeping people in poverty. The Reproductive Health Bill aims to guarantee Filipinos access to information on birth control. However, it is strongly opposed by many politicians, backed by the Catholic Church.

Dressed in the Rizal-era costume from his tour, and holding a sign saying ‘Damaso’ – the name of a corrupt friar who is the main villain of ‘The Noli’ – Carlos interrupted a communion being held by the most senior bishops in the Philippines, to protest about their opposition to the Bill. In a somewhat foolish response, he was carted off to spend a night in jail at Fort Santiago, where Rizal himself was imprisoned. A photo of Carlos looking forlorn behind bars, still in his top hat and tails, circulated on Facebook. It even reached me in London.

I asked Carlos to what extent the irony was deliberate. “Jose Rizal was essentially persecuted by the Philippine Catholic Church,” he said. “So I used the word ‘Damaso’ in order to remind the nation what’s going on. If I went into that church carrying a placard saying ‘Pass the RH Bill’ and wearing a modern t-shirt, it would not have worked at all. But just using that one word, everybody knew exactly what I meant.”

I wondered why he was so energised by this particular piece of legislation. “Everything leads to reproductive health,” he said. “No matter how many projects we have to save the oceans and forests, how much food we grow or schools we build, unless you give people control over their own bodies, it won’t make any difference.

“But this is about ignorance more than anything else. It’s not a battle for condoms as much as a battle against an institution that’s been holding back information. So the RH Bill right now is mainly symbolic. If we pass the Bill, it shows that we’ve chosen to join the Twenty First Century and open our minds. If we don’t pass the Bill, then you can see that the nation’s chosen to continue down the path that we’ve been on since before Jose Rizal.”

Carlos had an evening function to go to, so I said goodbye and caught a taxi back to my hotel. It was a fascinating day and a chance to see behind the mask of a local celebrity. For me, the jury’s still out on Filipino history. I share Carlos’s view of Jose Rizal but am more sympathetic to Cory Aquino, particularly after talking to some of the people involved in People Power about the abuses of the Marcos era. And although I’d be the last person to defend the Catholic Church as an institution, I’ve met several Filipino charity workers doing remarkable work inspired by their faith. But I’m grateful to Carlos for stimulating my interest in Filipino history, and for challenging the way I looked at it.

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1 comment:

  1. Hey, Andy, I'm such a big fan of your writing. Thanks for loving the Philippines so much--to the point that you actually get immersed into our history. It's always refreshing to see it from the perspective of a foreigner like yourself.

    Can't wait to see your book in print someday!