Archive of ‘manila’ category

philippine art at the ayala museum

Residents of Makati City are fortunate to have not one, but two top-class museums in the central business district. I visited the Yuchengco Museum with my PhD classmates and our professor a couple of months ago, enjoyed the experience very much, and decided to take my offspring on a trip to the other one – the Ayala Museum in Greenbelt Park.

The Zobel de Ayala family, a prominent one in Philippine business and society, are generous patrons of the arts; some members of the clan are artists themselves, notably Fernando Zobel (painting) and Jaime Zobel (photography). To sh0wcase and store their art collections, mostly of Philippine provenance, the family established this museum, a venue for sharing their beautiful possessions with the public.

The facade. The museum is connected by first- and second-floor walkways to Greenbelt mall at Ayala Center.

Painted metal sculptures grace the front courtyard.

The guards at the museum advised us to start our tour at the top floor, where tradeware in an array of colors was displayed – blue-and-white, celadon, and brown-and-white among them. There were many pottery items whose uses and functions seem strange to us now – tiny water droppers that barely hold a quarter cup of liquid and miniscule dishes among them. Other artifacts are now made in other materials, such as pen boxes.

Porcelain jars. Image from here.

After our tour of the porcelain, museum guards directed us to a dimly-lit section barred with steel. We entered with trepidation, and were told to sit in front of a dark screen. A switch was flipped, lights, sound, and video came on, and we were treated to a wonderfully-produced, well-written documentary – “Gold of Ancestors”. I won’t spoil it by giving away the narrative – I highly recommend you go see it.

After the show, more lights came on and we made the rounds of display cases filled with gold objects – jewelry, funerary masks, containers. By far the most spectacular piece was something that looked like a belt. From the flyer “Gold of Ancestors: Pre-Colonial Treasures in the Philippines”, written by Dr Florina H. Capistrano-Baker: “A magnificent gold halter…weighing almost four kilograms, is believed by some to be an upavita, or sacred thread. In traditional Hindu society, only members of the elite Brahmin class were entitled to wear an upavita after a purification ritual.”

The Sacred Thread: a magnificent item of jewelry, and a work of art. Image from here.

There were also paintings by Amorsolo and Luna. Of course my favorite was Luna’s “Lady at the Racetrack”.

Image from here.

We saw many other beautiful things in the museum’s collections – an exhibit of 19th century daily wear, heavily embroidered and quaintly tailored; a full suit of Jose Rizal’s everyday clothes; carabao horn salakots and top hats; intricate models of galleons and other sailing ships; and other curios.

Unfortunately, museum rules strictly prohibit photography of the collections and exhibits, which is very frustrating and annoying since other museums such as Yuchengco and the Getty and LACMA in Los Angeles allow it in certain areas. Ayala Museum even forbids photos in the lobby! Visitors who want a souvenir can only pose in front of a bizarre display of unrelated and not-to-scale stand-up figures off to one side of the lobby.  We hope the museum administrators will soon rethink this policy.

A visit to the museum’s gift shop yielded bookmarks, a tote bag, books, a metal pencase, and other little treasures. It’s a great way to spend a geekend afternoon.

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hitman: david foster and friends at araneta coliseum

I don’t go to concerts. It’s enough for me to hear music on my headphones without the distractions of having to go to a venue, be with other people, and not be able to see or hear as well as I could with my home audio setup.

But when given the chance to watch “Hitman: David Foster and Friends” at the Araneta Coliseum tonight, I grabbed a couple of tickets in my grubby little paw and hid them in the recesses of my wallet for safekeeping until concert night.

This was the lineup: famed songwriter David Foster and singers Natalie Cole, Charice, Peter Cetera, The Canadian Tenors, and Ruben Studdard. Now doesn’t that send frissons of delight up your spine? Not too long ago I had seen The Canadian Tenors’ performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and was captivated. I would have given anything to hear them sing live – and here the chance was, dumped into my lap not a couple of months later.

One of my closest friends, Adelle Chua, went with me. We didn’t know quite what to expect, not being regular concert-goers. We were disappointed by our first experience – forced baggage check.

There was a long line of people outside trying to get into the venue, and there was a delay because the show’s Manila producer, Ultimate Productions, had not informed the public beforehand that umbrellas and cameras would not be allowed inside the arena and had to be left at a counter beside the gate. They did not have enough people at the items counter, and the few people there did not have any idea how to check things properly and consequently chaos resulted. People were angry and worried that their valuable cameras would be lost. There was a lot of shoving and pushing and waving of tickets in people’s faces as everyone tried to hurry and get in. It was horrible and the producer deserves to be spanked. Hard. Many many times.

Once inside the venue, we were glad that there was powerful airconditioning and that we seated fourteen rows from the stage with a good view of everything. David Foster’s piano-playing was sublime, his patter engaging. “Music is everywhere in Manila,” he said. “It’s in the streets, in the hotels – and here.” He seemed overwhelmed by the audience reaction. “It’s true what they said, people sing along to the songs here,” he marveled. “I’ve never had an entire arena do that before.”

The Canadian Tenors came on and performed three songs. One of them was “Hallelujah” and I was lifted up on wings of sound. They were fantastic. I could have gone home happy at that point, they were magnificent.

Natalie Cole came out next, and she was incomparable. Her voice is silvery light, so sweet, so beautiful. She sang “Unforgettable” along with a recording of her father Nat “King” Cole’s voice, their voices blending together in a magical duet. A smile is perpetually on her face; she beams, her face shining as if it were lit up by the sun, the voice soaring effortlessly higher and ever higher.

At the end of the show, the performers all came out and sang a song David Foster wrote for Michael Jackson – “The Earth Song”. From left, The Canadian Tenors (four of them), Natalie Cole, Charice, Ruben Studdard, Peter Cetera.

Ruben Studdard, said Foster, “fills a gap in genres”, as he does the crooner-type and R&B songs. His voice is deep, rich, sonorous in the tradition of Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross. He has another talent – making up songs on the spot from a line or two given to him. He did admirably with “so many years” from a lady named George (Georgina – the name raised Foster’s eyebrow and gave him a chance to say, “Hi, George, I’m Debbie”), and also with the rather unimaginative “I’ll always be there for you” from a woman also named George (Georgia). By this time Foster thought some collective leg-pulling was going on, and he chuckled.

Foster had another gimmick – going up to people in the audience and having them sing for thirty seconds. A couple were ordinary folks with talent; there were three teenagers who sang a cappella; but then there were professional singers Pilita Corrales (of course she sang “Dahil Sa Iyo”), Randy Santiago (he did “Wildflower”), and Arnel Pineda.

Pilita, our very own diva, still has her vaunted beauty, style, and voice and it was a tremendous pleasure to see and hear her. Randy combined a terrific rendition of one of Foster’s own songs with humor – “I’m so nervous!” he said onstage, as if he were not one of the “concert kings” of the land, and in the last line of the song interjected, “Can I kiss you?” to a piano-playing Foster who laughed and pointed to his cheek. And yes, Randy did lean down to peck the maestro’s cheek, and hugged him before he left the stage.

I’m not sure David knew Pilita and Randy were professionals, but he did recognize Arnel in the audience and convinced him to sing a few lines from the Chicago hit, “Hard Habit to Break” (a song that has painful associations for me, but that’s another story).

Which made a great entrance for Peter Cetera, former lead vocalist of Chicago. Arnel said, “You guys are freakin’ me out!” Being with both his ‘heroes’ on stage was obviously a huge experience for him – he actually knelt in front of Cetera till the latter pulled him up, laughing but clearly flattered.

Cetera’s voice was not in excellent form, but he made up for it with soul and showmanship, singing some of his most popular hits. One of them was “Glory of Love” from the Karate Kid 2 soundtrack, that had everyone singing along.

The show ended with Charice, the petite Pinay powerhouse who is being mentored by Foster and who has improved vastly under his tutelage. Think of it as he being Freddy Roach to her Manny Pacquiao – it’s a mighty combination. She belted out several songs and had the audience on their feet in a standing ovation, cheering themselves hoarse. She did several songs made popular by Celine Dion, one of them “Power of Love”. Charice also did a fantastic rendition of her own hit “Pyramid”.

Foster said Filipinos should be proud “of your little one”, as he clearly was, saying she was in the league of all the women singers he had worked with – Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton. It was a moment of pure elation.

The music was superb, the show was spectacular, the energy was high high high and we left the arena wowed by the performances  of the evening.

Once outside, though, I had to get my camera back and the experience was even more dreadful than before. More pushing! More shoving! With more screaming from disgruntled patrons! There still weren’t enough people behind the counter and they had not lined up the umbrellas and the cameras by number or done anything else to arrange the items during the three hours that the concert lasted. They did nothing at all. I was one of the first in line and it still took  fifteen minutes before I was given my camera back.

When I finally managed to disengage myself from the melee with much elbowing and leaning and apologizing, my shirt was hanging off my shoulders and my carefully pinned-up hair was a tangled  mess.  Adelle said, “You look like you’ve been through a war.” And that is indeed how I felt. The people behind Ultimate Productions deserve to be scolded and spanked. Hard, as I mentioned. Many many times, as I said.

The check-in incident was terrible and an ugly start and end to an otherwise wonderful show. It needn’t have happened – there were people who had somehow smuggled in their cameras anyway, as flashes kept popping, and cellphones with cameras were not taken. There was no announcement made at any time before, during, or after the concert that photography or video were forbidden. So why take cameras? And umbrellas? They weren’t wet – it rained during the concert, not before. I asked several people with the events group who the producers were, but they all refused to say. Why? Because they knew this aspect of the event they staged was mucho fail?

That being said, I look forward to another edition of the concert. Foster said that they haven’t left Manila yet but are already planning their return – for Valentine’s Day 2011. Fans of David and Friends, both old and new, can look forward to more music, surprises, and romance from this talented team in just a few more months.

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communication environment series 5: wensha spa

This article is the fifth in a series of research studies about Philippine communication environments. For the introduction and  theoretical framework, see Part 1. To know more: Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

Professor Julienne Baldo took our Communication Environment class to visit a spa, not only for us to relax at the end of the semester, but also to examine our ideas of body image vis-a-vis current cultural definitions and standards.

On the surface a spa seems like an ordinary, even boring, place to go, where not much happens by way of communication. After all, people go there to rest, not to talk. But as communication scholars always say, communication happens everywhere, anytime – even in places you’d least expect it. And the silence of the spa spoke volumes.

Wensha Spa: Exploring Body Image  and Wellness

The Architecture

The facade of this – and any – establishment conveys meanings that give clues to the kind of place it is and the patrons that frequent it.

First, the sign. Wensha Spa at Timog Avenue corner Quezon Avenue is open 24/7 , and makes this information known via a huge yellow and green neon sign. Mounted on a wall faced with Mactan stone, the bright sign beckons; it can be seen a long way off.

Next, the parking lot – it was crammed with late-model sedans and SUVs, with other patrons being dropped off by cabs.

The use of comparatively simple materials in the sign and the number and type of cars in the parking lot  convey to passersby that the place is upscale but still within a price range that is affordable to those of a certain socio-economic status; that it is decent and perhaps not too expensive, as, say, the same services at a five-star hotel. One can derive meaning from these signs to assess if he or she can afford this establishment’s services or not.

The entrance is of transparent glass, allowing people from the street to see within. Thus, it attracts; an opaque front would be a barrier to walk-in customers because it could denote exclusivity. Since one can peek within, she is aided in her decision-making on whether to enter or not. The impression is one of cleanliness and good service, with a welcoming air.

Once inside, the place offers more clues about its nature. A sofa greets patrons on the left side of the lobby; here, one can wait and view the menu of services. (At the time of our visit, Wensha was offering a promotional discount package of P680 for a massage and all-you-can-eat buffet for a six-hour stay.)

Further into the lobby on the right side is an altar, painted red, upon which are displayed Buddhist statues and offerings of fruit and candy. This leads to the assumption that the owner is Buddhist and is Filipino-Chinese, if not a Chinese national.  Right across the altar is the reception counter, where harried front-desk clerks check in customers, take their shoes, and issue claim tags and locker room keys. One must pay in advance for the chosen services.

At the end of the lobby is a curving staircase. The color scheme changes from bland to black and gold. A huge painting on the upper part of the wall is a surprise. One would not expect to see this, an image that depicts “the bath” in a confused jumble of themes, with a Roman-style bath surrounded by nude Chinese beauties, echoing the “harem” themes of the Orientalist paintings of Gerome and Grecian-inspired ditto of  Alma-Tadema that were so popular among the Victorians during the late 19th century.

The image is replete with meanings and ideas. Are these ladies the concubines of an emperor, perhaps? What would seeing this image make female customers think – that they should look as curvaceous as these painted ladies, so that the “emperors” in their life will take notice of them? that one should be as sensual and sensuous as they are? For male customers – what ideas will they carry away after looking at this painting? That the women in their life should look like this, or aspire to? Would this painting lead someone to believe that frequent bathing at Wensha will make one’s appearance mirror that of the ladies?

Upon reaching the second floor, guests are greeted with a buffet spread of food. It is nondescript and too oily. There  are hardly any vegetable dishes, no fresh fruit, and desserts are kept behind glass cases and cost extra. Do not, under any account, think of coming here for the food. As for drinks, there are dispensers of too-sweet Tang and Nestea. It is all self-service, though waiters scurry around clearing the twelve or fifteen tables that bristle with diners clad in street clothes or spa-supplied bathrobes.

Shabu-shabu is offered, the tiny gas-powered stoves placed directly on the dining tables. Some of the couches are covered in badly-cracked vinyl that pinch skin horribly, especially if one is wearing shorts or a skirt. That lack of attention to the furniture disappoints; with comfort diminished, the estimation of the place is lowered.

The men’s and women’s bathing areas are separate. This reflects cultural norms. Entering the bathing area, guests pass first through a door and into a corridor with more doors on both sides leading to common area (shared) and VIP (exclusive) massage rooms. At the end is a dressing counter with mirrors and one hair dryer – a problem when there are many women getting ready to leave after their baths. At the end are the locker rooms. Guests are issued one towel and one robe. All are expected to undress to bare skin. Clad only in the robe, the baths beckon.

The spaces up to this point are small and narrow, acting as conduits for the guests, leading them inevitably to the baths, which are in a wide and low-ceilinged space, contributing to a feeling of coziness and shelter. However, these are precisely the attributes, along with the lack of windows on the entire second floor, that might induce claustrophobia in those who cannot bear to be in enclosed areas.

The Artifacts and Activities

Inside the “wet” area are several rooms, stalls, and a couple of pools. First on the right is a “body scrub” room, which is tiled and has drains, shower hoses, and a padded waterproof table. Beside this room, along the right-hand wall, are rows of hot-and-cold shower stalls. Then comes the sauna with glass walls; beside it is the steam room, always fogged over; and a toilet.

In the center of the space are the two pools, raised above the surface of the floor – one filled with hot water, the other with ice-cold. Guests first take a bath in the shower stalls with the supplied liquid soap, then step into the hot pool, staying in it for as long as they can possibly stand before switching to the cold pool.

A television set mounted on the wall gives bored bathers something to focus on. There were also TV sets in the dining room, showing the ubiquity of the mass media, and that many people nowadays prefer or require the electronic buzz to stimulate their brains, instead of giving their entire attention to their companions.

First-timers will mostly experience timidity and shyness when disrobing, especially with friends. With strangers, the anxiety is less, but, Julienne assured us, it diminishes with subsequent visits and after one gets used to the experience of bathing nude with strangers.

Bea, Gia, and I, all newbies to the public bath experience, whipped off our towels and stepped into the hot bath as quickly as possible while trying to cover what we could of our private parts, until we were fully hidden by the water. Chitchat opted to merely dip her feet in the pool, admitting her reluctance to disrobe. Julienne was more relaxed and comfortable with herself, and showed no shyness in being nude, although being pregnant, she could not stay in the pool for long.

We had all taken Dr Sylvia Claudio’s class on Gender and Sexuality (Women and Development 227 at the UP-Diliman College of Social Work and Development), where body image was heavily discussed and debated, and agreed that the spa experience forces one to directly confront issues about self and image. How does one perceive beauty? What are one’s standards – do they subscribe to the cultural norm that is Western-based, idolizing a “Barbie” frame – thin waist, big bust – and mestiza looks – fair skin and tall nose? Or is one content with what she looks like, glorifying in her body, with health and glowing skin the prized assets?

The sauna and steam room have a more relaxed ambience, as towels are allowed. Skin takes on a ruddy hue, and, as sweat breaks, one imagines dirt and toxins leaving the body through opened pores. A bucket of ice cubes, drinking water dispenser, and plastic cups are nearby. Rubbing ice over skin helps one take the heat and stay longer in the steam and sauna rooms, where chatting is more animated since the distraction of nudity is eliminated.

After the bath, sauna, and steam, massage is next. Still in a robe, nude or with panties, one chooses a common room, shared with strangers, or VIP rooms that can hold up to three friends. The rooms are dimly lit and there is unobtrusive Asian muzak in the background.

A masseuse approaches and asks if one wants a hard or moderate massage. I ask for “Whatever, and if it hurts I’ll tell you.” I am kneaded and pummeled and rubbed into a state of gelatinous relaxation. I feel almost boneless until she lifts me and cracks my spine. After the massage, one may sleep. (There are charges for every extra hour spent at the spa over six hours.) But before you doze off, the masseuse hands you a ticket upon which different tips amounts are printed. Though a tip is customary in such circumstances, being reminded of this, forcibly, detracts from the entire experiences as one is unpleasantly jerked back to the realization that this is a commercial establishment.

The Spa Goers

In the dining area, which is open to both men and women, there are quite a few foreigners – Koreans, Chinese, Middle Easterners, Caucasians. Most of the patrons were young to middle-aged people, many looking like professionals.  There were people with their arms around each other – lovers, perhaps – but only hetero couples.

We saw no same-sex couples in the women’s area, but Rod said there were in the men’s area. His assessment was that for many of the couples, the hours spent at Wensha were a treat, to unwind and relax after a stressful day’s work. Certainly all the spa goers looked refreshed. Any problems they had were put on hold as they, with their visit to the spa, consciously sought to set aside their cares for a time and attend to themselves for once through this method of alternative healing and recuperation.

After dinner, bath, and massage, Chitchat, Julienne, I, Rod, and Bea glow for the camera. For obvious reasons, photography is not allowed within the bath and massage areas.

Rod, Bea, and I rode a cab home together. We processed our experiences during the trip. Soc-sci geeks forever!

Wensha Spa is at Timog corner Quezon Avenue, Quezon City. There is a branch at Buendia Avenue, near Sofitel.

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rafe bartholomew: pacific rims

Pacific Rims, by Rafe Bartholomew, New American Library, New York, 2010


Pacific Rims is an account about the culture of basketball in the Philippines in all its interesting forms. Written by an American, Medill journalism graduate and self-confessed hoops addict Rafe Bartholomew, the book chronicles his exploration of a sport subculture existing within and influenced by the mainstream. From bouncing balls off a jerry-rigged hoop at the side of NAIA Road to the huge professional court at Araneta Coliseum filled to the rafters with raucous fans, Bartholomew steeps himself in the sport wherever he finds it and discovers the soul of a country.

It is a look at an international sport that straddles cultures by inspiring passion and obsession in its fans, and provides insight as well into the psyche of a nation that includes appreciation of basketball among its simple pleasures.


Pacific Rims, shorn of details, is essentially a memoir of three years in one man’s personal story.  It is his personal quest to satisfy his curiosity about the nature and state of the sport of basketball in the Philippines, a country that he had barely heard of before.

In this book he explores his own fascination with basketball, an interest stemming from his childhood when he played games with his father and later with neighborhood playmates.

As a young man, the author spent many hours in pickup games in college and poring over sports and basketball books. Minor references to the Philippines in two of the books he read set him off on a journey to visit the country. To raise funds for the endeavor, he applied for and received a Fulbright grant for one year. He ended up staying for three, stretching the funds he received along with whatever he made along the side.

In the Philippines, he played basketball wherever he could – pickup games with kanto tambays in makeshift courts in the city; ditto in the provinces; and in fully-maintained courts in the barangays in elite residential villages. He played with men wearing expensive trainers and men wearing worn flip-flops. He followed the fortunes of a professional basketball team – the Alaska Aces – and charted their wins and losses, their triumphs and defeats, until the exhilarating denouement of the season.

In the book, he recounts his researches at the Ateneo library and in newspaper and magazine morgues to trace the history of basketball in the country. The sport was introduced at the turn of the last century during the American colonial period, when the Americans taught the sport first to young women as a physical exercise, and later to men. From that time, basketball captured the nation’s heart until it became so deeply embedded in the country’s psyche that it is nearly inextricable – so the author says – from its politics and other social elements.

Along the way he learns more about, and for a time even becomes part of, Philippine popular culture. He achieves minor celebrity when he is chosen to play a minor role in the telenovela “Bakekang”; he also appears live on the variety show “Wowowee” and from time to time on the Philippine Basketball Association coverage, seated with the Alaska team.

The author set out to study a sport. But he found more than that – he discovered the passion of a country, and its soul as manifested in an activity embraced by its people and made a part of popular culture.


Pacific Rims is a “bio-confessional” that look at a country’s culture in general via the sport of basketball in particular through the author/researcher’s immersion in the context. It is a socio-cultural approach to the topic via ethnographic study through participation, conversation and interviews, and research. The participative  immersion takes place via a day-to-day seeking out of basketball wherever he can find it, from street corners to well-appointed courts in elite barangays to professional venues like Araneta Coliseum.


The researcher takes a nomothetic study approach as he seeks to depict basketball and the social life it is embedded in through the lens of his own experience and knowledge of the sport. Although the author makes occasional subjective remarks, comparing Filipino attitudes and prejudices to American, he leaves leeway for cultural differences and keeps to a minimum his value judgments while refraining from making recommendations.

In terms of knowledge-making, he takes an empiricist stance, seeing reality as outside the person and thus available for study and analysis, leading to the formulation of concepts that describe and explain the phenomenon of basketball within the various environments in which the sport takes place.

It is a cross-cultural case study, a field report by an American who, before he set out on this journey, knew practically nothing about the Philippines. Predictably, his frames of reference inform his experiences in the Philippines. Another instance of the cross-cultural influence stems from the fact that basketball itself is an import from the United States, but was eagerly adopted by Filipinos and in its local version became a deeply embedded part of popular culture.

In the context of communication studies, communication in this book as detailed by the author took all the forms from interpersonal to mass, in his effort to glean information about the topic.


The author used participant observation and interpersonal communication through conversation, which took the forms of small talk and in-depth interviews to gather data. His eventual output was this ethnographic study wherein he describes the nature of those being studied in writing. He focused his study on a community, selecting from within it knowledgeable informants such as sportswriters Sev Sarmenta and Bill Velasco; the coaches, players, and support staff of the Alaska Aces; and people whom he met on his travels that in his opinion could provide him with relevant information. For the success of ethnographic studies, up-close interaction is crucial in addition to observation; the author performed the latter thoroughly and conscientiously, resulting in this unique study of an interesting cultural phenomenon.

Concepts and Issues

The concepts that emerged from this study reinforced the theory of social constructionism (Berger and Luckmann, 1966) which considers how social phenomena develop in social contexts. Key to this theory is the idea that people in a society ascribe values to an object or phenomenon which intrinsically does not possess these values.

From a communication viewpoint, it may be said that people within a social group, through their patterns of interaction, develop symbolic meanings which in turn are disseminated, reinforced, and reshaped in further interactions. In this book, for instance, Philippine society has, through the years, conferred cult status upon basketball to such a degree that in the cultural context, its players, coaches, and so on achieve celebrity status that may even propel some of them to the height of the social power structure, as in the case of player-coach Robert Jaworski, who later was elected a senator.

A significant factor that influences a group’s meanings and symbols is relationships. Evident in the narrative is the importance these relationships take within the collective consciousness of the Filipino. For instance, the relationships the author observed between team owner and players, coaches and players, players and fans, and so on, were clearly delineated and nurtured. He marveled at how deep the level of interaction was between the Filipino players and fans, something he felt would be impossible to achieve within the context of American basketball.

Other dominant concepts that arose in the research concerned the following:

  1. Proxemics – Anthropologist Edward T. Hall studied the measurable distances people kept between themselves in their interactions. He observed how some cultures allowed for closer distances (Eastern-Asian cultures  in general) while others (Western-European) kept the distances farther. In the author’s recounting of the differences he observed between the Alaska team’s Filipino players, the Filipino-American players who grew up in the United States, and the lone American import, he noticed how Filipinos are more disposed towards touching each other and are comfortable doing so, whereas Fil-Ams and Americans tend to keep distance from each other and observe a greater degree of private space.
  2. Class differences – in dialectics and phenomenon of power and its structures, the researcher observed how people of all socio-economic backgrounds enjoy basketball, but based on social stratifications, their experiences of the sport were markedly different. Those of lower socio-economic status played on makeshift or barangay courts. The latter may be well-appointed – as the author remarks, some barangay courts are better than New York city public courts – but whether a barangay court is well-appointed or not depends on the political agendas of the barangay and local government officials. Those belonging to the elite of society play on school courts, some of which are so expensive that at one university, the hardwood was imported from a court played upon by NBA players.
  3. Sexual and gender identity – In the unano-bading basketball games the author observed in the provinces, he was at first disgusted by what he perceived as a demeaning and humiliating activity. But upon his interviewing the people concerned, he was surprised to find that in fact the unano and bading players considered themselves performers, were glad of the opportunity to work, and in fact can be seen as themselves having power over their audiences in the reactions they can elicit from spectators through their performances. This realization shook the author’s pre-conceived notions, also another proof that identities and values are constructed by society.
  4. Racial biases – the treatment of black and white people by Filipinos carries distinct negative connotations for dark-skinned people, a preference that refers back to our colonial past.
  5. Celebrity culture in the Philippines – media has such a big effect on Philippine culture that the author was  mistaken many times for a basketball player; he was thus adulated and fawned over to such a degree that would not have been the case in the USA.
  6. Filipino cultural values – Obvious in the narrative were the instances of accommodative behavior which is a value in Philippine culture. This showed in the way the author was, as a white man, treated better than locals in some venues. Norms (which can be defined as “our way of doing things”) that the author observed were the tacit collusions to achieve common goals, as seen in the way PBA teams cheat on the way they take the height measures of imports, and  in how the officiating of the teams went when they played in Boracay to accommodate a powerful local politician. Also noticed was the norm of using humor as a coping mechanism, shown in the way Willy Miller always cracks jokes, and in the attitude of the Fil-ams and imports being more serious than the Filipino team members during practice and actual games.


In this book the author communicates the universality of sport, specifically basketball, as a phenomenon. It is an activity that may be enjoyed across cultures, despite differences in culture; talent does not reside in class, it may come from anyone anywhere, especially with Filipino- style basketball being largely a learn-as-you-go thing. It is a noble message, perhaps one that he did not set out to transmit at first, but in time, in the course of his researches, emerged as a significant and dominant theme.

His objective, whether or not he may be aware of it, is to bridge the gap and forge greater understanding among aficionados of the sport.  The book explores the cultural boundaries of communication, going beyond linguistic bounds  to the heart of culture, and the heart and soul of Filipino basketball.   ***

Photo of Rafe Bartholomew from here.

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pop goes the world: culture stock

POP GOES THE WORLD, By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 7 October 2010, Thursday

Culture Stock

Where resides a nation’s heart and soul?

This was the question that several university professors, media professionals, and I discussed the other night during a PhD class at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication. It stemmed from College of St. Benilde professor Rod Rivera’s report on theaters in Manila that screen films bordering on the pornographic.  There are those, he said, that claim that such theaters in Quiapo and Recto are a front for male prostitution.

From there, Dr. Jose Lacson segued to commercialism in television and film. Advertising executive Chitchat Diangson said that much of television content in dictated by what producers believe will sell, leading to the creation of mind-numbing programs like “Wowowee”. Professor Bea Lapa deplored the entertainment media’s unwillingness to raise the programming bar in standards and taste, while writer Nina Villena brought up the issue of media gatekeeping. Women’s development professor and staunch feminist Julienne Baldo decried the media’s reinforcement of negative stereotypes of gender and class, perpetuating cruel cycles of prejudice and bias that further retard national social development.

Prof. Julienne Baldo analyzes the poster of  ”Serbis” at a theater in Quiapo.

Which brings us back to our question and its possible answer. It is in art where commercialism does not hold absolute sway and the discourse on social issues may be expanded without the taint of capitalism and the imperative of profit. There are those of us who write, paint, make music, and sculpt not for money, but because we need to express the meanings and concepts that burn within us and cry to be expressed and physically manifested in forms that may be shared with others.

These forms – books, songs, paintings, theater plays – often do not translate into income for their creators, but that was not the point of their creation anyway. It is in a nation’s art that current social events and issues are poked, cut up into bits, and licked to find out what they taste like. What’s important to people? That is what floats up in the content being made nowadays, and is disseminated over channels such as the Internet.

Dulaang UP scored one such intellectually-shaking triumph with their recent hit production “Shock Value”, written by Floy Quintos and directed by Alexander Cortez. It’s been given a positive review by MST opinion editor Adelle Chua, who focused her piece on the play’s theme of the commercialization of television, and how producers of celebrity shows of mass attraction artificially manufacture the scandals and intrigues that make up its content.

“Shock Value” cast members sashay across the stage. (Dulaang UP photo)

Among its stars in its cast are John Lapus, Mylene Dizon, Andoy Ranay, Christian Alvarado, and the awesomely talented Sabina Santiago. As “Little Tweety Girl”, Santiago’s hilarious on-stage simulation of an orgasm, eyes rolling back in her head, demotes Meg Ryan’s performance in “When Harry Met Sally” to amateur status.

Dulaang UP’s next offering is “Isang Panaginip na Fili”, “an edgy, dreamlike interpretation” of the Jose Rizal novel El Filibusterismo by writer/director Quintos, which will run from November 24 to December 12 at UP Diliman’s Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater. Call (02)926-1349 or (02)433-7840 for tickets.

“Isang Panaginip na Fili” publicity still, courtesy of Dulaang UP.

A fresh take on heartbreak, loss, and recovery comes from writer Carljoe Javier by way of his non-fiction book The Kobayashi Maru of Love, with artwork and design by Adam David of the Youth and Beauty Brigade. It’s available at

Says Carljoe: “I wrote The Kobayashi Maru of Love because, first, I was trying to understand (a recent) breakup, and I was trying to work through my feelings about it. Like any breakup, there are nasty emotions that follow, and I was going through all that. But I thought that if I was forced to apply aesthetic distance, if I was forced to try and be funny about it, that I would be able to cope better. And as I got back into the dating game, well, things were just funny and had to be written about.”

The book is indeed funny, but beyond that, it dwells on themes that nearly everyone who reads it can relate to. “I think that I’m talking about something universal,” says Carljoe, “and that’s loss. Pretty much everyone has gone through a heartbreak or a heartache. I guess that I was just trying to connect to that, to make the book not just about my own personal heartbreak, but to make it for everyone who’s ever been through it. Our individual experiences are different, but the hurt is the same. So I wanted to write a book that talked about that.”

Carljoe’s next book, Geek Tragedies, will be published by UP Press next year. “I have a number of projects in the works,” he says, “among them a book I hope to write about the Filipino diaspora and the effect that having parents abroad have on kids; a book about me, a fat man trying to get healthy; and a novel.” A freelance writer and editor of the Philippine Online Chronicles, he is also taking his MA Creative Writing at UP’s College of Arts and Letters.

Art in this country is alive and well and a thriving part of our culture, a part that is not a slave to commercialism but is free to speak out on social matters, the human condition, and what lives inside the Filipino heart and soul. ***

Photo above, L-R: (front) writer Bambi Harper, UP professor emeritus Dr. Cristina Hidalgo. (back) writers Waldo Petralba, Jeena Marquez, and Carljoe Javier.

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communication environment series 4: yuchengco museum

This article is the fourth in a series of research studies about Philippine communication environments. See Part 1 for an introduction to the topic of the communication environment and its relationship to culture. Read Part 2 and Part 3 to know more.

On his turn to take us on a trip to explore an out-of-the-ordinary environment, UP College of Mass Communication Graduate Studies department chairman Dr Jose Lacson chose to show us the Yuchengco Museum at RCBC Plaza, Makati City.

The museum, which houses the art collection of banker and ambassador Alfonso T. Yuchengco, was established to “foster a greater public appreciation of the finest in Filipino and Filipino-Chinese visual arts and creativity.” (from a flyer)

Photography is prohibited only at the first and second floors.

Yuchengco Museum: Art, Intimately

The Architecture

The museum is located in the Yuchengco Tower at the RCBC (Rizal Commercial Banking Center) complex of buildings along Ayala Avenue. Passersby see massive erections of glass and steel, a familiar conglomeration of materials for this area. More than a profit-oriented real estate development, it is  a monument to the power and wealth of its owner.

Yet tucked in a corner of the megaphallic mass is what looks like a thimble. An odd, even aberrant, design choice, many think. Yet once inside the museum, the structure yields up the interesting secret of its shape.

Inside, the interior is neutral – gray, white, and chrome provide a nearly invisible setting that allow the collections to shine like gems in white gold.

The first floor is a wide space with high ceilings. Here, the museum’s most significant paintings are displayed, the public kept from close contact with the artworks by blue velvet ropes. As the museum patron’s first encounter with the collections, the ground floor’s  rope barriers, though soft and of a luxurious material, seem to say, “Look, but don’t get too close.” Limits are thus set, immediately; the “welcome” into the space is not as warm as might be desired.

However, the barriers also serve to reinforce the importance of these particular pieces. That they were chosen for this form of protection highlights their value, both artistic and commercial.

At the second floor, exhibit spaces are smaller, the ceilings lower, thus more intimate. There are no more barriers from hereon, communicating an invitation: “Come closer.” Patrons may approach the artworks, peer closely at them, and inspect the brush strokes and textures of materials.

The Artifacts

The Yuchengco family’s collection of personal art (reproduction ancestor scroll, commissioned portraits) and antiques (a jade horse, a breathtaking carved ivory tusk) is impressive. Obvious in the care lavished upon these objects is the family’s love of art and history, reflected in a “timeline” display of the Chinese presence in the Philippines beginning with arrival of the merchant ships bringing  Chinese traders to these shores.

The intricately-detailed ivory faces of these tiny figures, turned upward to the viewer as if in supplication to a god, are a marvel of the carver’s art.

Rotating exhibits punctuate the permanent displays. At the time of our visit, works from paper were prominently displayed and provided an interesting look at modern art using found and discarded materials.

The glory of the museum and my personal favorite is “Suspended Garden”. This is the “thimble’s” well-kept secret – a site-specific installation by Tony Gonzales and Tes Pasola.

Hung from different heights by fishing line from a metal grid in the ceiling of the “thimble” is a multitude of papier-mache rocks, looking like so many planets suspended in space. One may view the work from all sides, from the floor above, and from underneath, lying on the carpet on the floor, upon which more rocks are scattered. The rocks also line the inner circumference of the space.

The integration of space and materials into the piece is enhanced by the accidental effect of light on the “rocks”. They look like the river rocks kept in some Filipino bathrooms and used for exfoliating – panghilod – and are thus a familiar size and shape, further inviting the viewer to explore, touch, and play.

The Patrons

There is a sense of freedom in the upper floors lacking in the first floor and lobby. Visitors to the museum feel free to sit, squat, and lie down to take photographs and experience the art. This interaction allows viewers to become one with the art and absorb its meaning and beauty in a personal way.

This may have been inadvertent, but it is a happy effect for all that, enhancing one’s experience at the museum, and ensuring that one will return again and again to enjoy the carefully chosen art for the special exhibits, and revisit the permament treasures that the Yuchengco family is so generously sharing with the world.

Click on a picture, then click again to see a full-size image.

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communication environment series part 2 – my manila: quiapo

This article is the second in a series of research studies about Philippine communication environments. See Part 1 for an introduction to the topic of the communication environment and its relationship to culture.

For his field trip requirement for our Communication Environment class in the second semester of 2010, College of St. Benilde’s Professor Rod Rivera revealed to us a nearly forgotten venue for films.

Quiapo’s Adult Theaters: Exposing the Underbelly of Philippine Cinema

From the premiere shopping area of prewar times to the 1950s, Quiapo has declined into a melange of depressed stores selling cheap merchandise. Here one browses for new and used goods on dusty shelves, rubbing elbows with working folk seeking bargains and the dressed-down middle class rooting out new-old stock items for collections and vintage gems like vinyl records and ukay clothes.

The surroundings are grim and depressing. Yet it is a vibrant and thriving hub of buying and selling, of coming and going.

Somewhere in this maelstrom of commerce  are the decayed remnants of a once-thriving entertainment center – the cinemas of Manila.

The  Architecture

The old movie theaters in this area have seen their glory days come and go. Many, judging from the style of architecture, date back to the 1950s and ’60s. To pull in the pesos and keep financially afloat, they screen R-rated movies that border on the X.

The facades,though dingy, are colorful, trying to attract with hand-lettered banners, printed promotional posters, and old-fashioned painted billboards. The latter are a surprise; I didn’t know they are still being made, as they are laborious to make and the art died out when the technology for computer-printed tarpaulins became more cost-effective.

One theater was tucked into a crumbling building. To reach it, one must walk a narrow passageway, subject to the scrutiny of people outside and inside the place. Thus, watching a film there involves making a conscious decision exposed to the public eye.

Along the entryway was a girlie bar, the photographs of its dancers displayed on a garishly-lit notice board.

“Like attracts like”, it’s been said, and that is true of this environment, where forms of carnal entertainment, from the physical to the celluloid versions are housed together in one building.

We ended up buying tickets to watch a film at Vista Cinema, a fairly decent place considering what the others looked like. The prices are not too far off those charged in malls, yet still less expensive by twenty or thirty pesos. By this tactic the owners hope to draw in people who might otherwise patronize the bigger chain cinemas.

The Theater-Goers

As befits the surroundings, the clientele are those looking for cheap thrills in the afternoon, or a quiet snooze in an dark, airconditioned cave. From what I could see in the flickering light, they were all men. It was quiet inside; no babies whining, no teenagers laughing. The silence was broken only by the drone of the film’s soundtrack, the hum of the airconditioner, and an occasional soft snore. It was a place for titillation, but also for relaxation – at least while we were there.

The Artifacts

The posters displayed outside the theater (see gallery pictures) bore the conventional double-entendre one-word titles reserved for what were called “bold” or “bomba” films – “Booking”, “Binyag”, “Pitas”. Most of them were indie-produced. Surprisingly, the film we saw was well-acted and well-written, the narrative rife with riveting twists and turns, for all that it was a formulaic tearjerker, with dark elements of poverty and homosexuality and death. Heterosexual lovemaking scenes were inserted almost at random, to satisfy the urges of its target audience. Were they edited out, the film could have been shown in any chain moviehouse.

Yet it is precisely the carnal content that keeps films like these confined to screenings in cold dark caverns like these in the heart of the city, ironically trapped by that which makes them profitable.

Click on a photo, and click again to see a full-size image.

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btic and kenny

A couple of weeks ago I happened to be at EDSA Shangri-La Mall for a meetup with total strangers (a long story, I might tell you more about it later on) when I passed this cool and colorful display of frozen yogurt.

I could not resist the strawberry swirls of this concoction cradled in a waffle cone.

BTIC (Better Than Ice Cream) has been around for maybe ten years or more, and was the first brand of frozen yogurt to hit these archipelagic shores. While my favorite flavor has always been the chunky Mint n’ Chips, the others are a delight to savor. You must try them all.

Since it’s yogurt-based, it’s low-calorie and for that reason less likely to lead to contribute to weight gain and other health problems along that line. BTIC also has sugar-free flavors.

Later that afternoon, I took my daughters to Rockwell, our “home mall”, chosen to be so because it is quiet and small and intimate and has my favorite shops.

Kenny Rogers Roasters is one of them. The food is healthy (mostly grilled, reduced oil) and delicious. It recently underwent a makeover and now rocks an upscale vibe.

They kept the glass showcases, but people no longer need to queue. They have waitstaff to take your orders.

I like this funky frieze of fake oranges and apples in glass vessels, lit from below.

The decor is ‘commercial minimalist’ – nothing to write home about, but it’s classier than when they had Kenny Rogers photos on the walls. Hey wait, that used to be more fun.

The ‘Healthy Plate” – a quarter chicken, salad, corn muffin, and fruit.

BTIC and “Kenny” are simple chain eateries, yet all the more deserving of notice because they quietly serve flavor-filled dishes that are healthier than fast food – burgers, fries, and the rest of the grease brigade – and are a good alternative choice.

Photos taken with a 2-megapixel Nokia C3.

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indian eats at new bombay

After an afternoon of art spent at the Yuchengco Museum at RCBC Plaza, my classmates, professor, and I crossed Buendia Avenue to The Columns condominium in search of food.

We looked at a pizza place, a deli, a Starbucks. Our professor, Dr Joey Lacson, said, “Let’s try the Indian place, neh?”

Which is how we wound up at New Bombay, eager to try their “authentic Indian cuisine”.

Nearly everything on the menu was unfamiliar – paneer? roti? masala? I ended up ordering the empanada-like vegetable samosas – pastry cases stuffed with spicy mashed potatoes – accompanied by green coriander chutney. To balance the tanginess, I had a tall glass of cool and tart mango lassi.

My friends had paneer (cottage cheese and spices and sauce), along with breaded vegetable cutlets (like samosas but without the crust), chicken masala, and two kinds of unleavened bread - roti (thin) and chappati (thick).

Paneer – chunks of homemade cottage cheese with tomatoes.

These tear-drop shaped vegetable cutlets will make you smile with joy. Served with coriander chutney and something that tasted like barbecue sauce.

Chicken masala – tender and juicy.

Indian food is highly spiced. Its flavors set your tastebuds aflame and craving for more. The textures are lush and gorgeous, inviting you to convey the food to your mouth with your hands, making eating a sensual, intimate experience.

Rod called this the “pizza pipino”.

Roti – thick and chewy.

Despite the spices, since everything we ordered was vegetarian, the food was light while still being filling. No heavy oils are used in cooking, making for a clean and refreshing gustatory experience.

Chapatti – flat and flavorful.

Vegetable cutlets, pizza pipino (not its real name), and spinach paneer, fantastic with roti and chapatti.

New Bombay has branches at The Columns, Ayala corner Buendia Avenues; Glorietta 3, Ayala Center, Makati; and 5/F The Podium, ADB Avenue, Ortigaas Center, Mandaluyong.

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communication environment series part 1 – my manila: seng guan temple

This article starts a series of research studies about Philippine communication environments.

I had seen its carved facade before, on a trip with fellow fountain pen collectors to look for pens in the wilds of downtown Manila. A drive-by along that street left me intrigued. I had no idea then that a year later, I would discover the wonder of the temple’s glittering, golden interior.

In this semester’s PhD Communication Environment class at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, our professor, Dr. Joey Lacson, said that it was best for us to learn about communication in different environments by actually visiting them. He and each of us students had to take the rest of the class to a place the others hadn’t visited before.

For her trip, Nina Villena chose to take us to Seng Guan temple in the heart of Binondo – a serendipitous random happenstance that opened my eyes and mind to a different side of my Manila.

From the outside, the temple looks like a hodgepodge of buildings that have sprouted in haphazard fashion through the years. But look closer to discover the wonderful things that abound inside.

The Communication Environment

Communication is, quite simply, the sharing of meaning. It always occurs within context, and this context is rooted in the environment. A person may use varying communication styles depending where she might be – for instance, she may use more formal and academic language while in class, and shift to a more informal way of speaking when with friends or at home.

The environment also conveys information that a person will organize and interpret to derive meaning. The semiotic model helps explain this process by conceiving data as a set of signs that bring up corresponding concepts in the mind. Signs may then be arranged into codes. Languages are examples of complex codes.

Non-verbal signs, touch (haptics), artifacts, and even space and distance (proxemics) may also be   part of a code that will impart meanings within a system of interrelated message senders and receivers.

A system cannot survive without its environment. An environment is active, and this activity creates further impact on the system. Since humans are always immersed in an environment, this reinforces the truism that it is impossible for people not to engage in communication wherever they may be.

Communication and Culture

Culture is “the complex collection of knowledge, folklore, language, rules, rituals, habits, lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs, and customs that link and give a common identity to a particular group of people at a specific point in time.” These elements that comprise a culture are constructed by society, meaning that negotiation takes place between the members of that society regarding the meanings attached to these elements until agreement is reached.

The relationship between communication and culture is complex and intertwined. Cultural elements, taken as artifacts along with their constructed meanings, form the communication environment. These artifacts may also be considered as “text”, the ‘what’ of communication that is observed and subjected to textual analysis so that the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of communication may be understood.

Consequently, any part of an environment may be studied as an artifact in order to derive and interpret meaning from it – meaning that can help the observer understand the context he is in, and guide his actions and responses within that environment.

Seng  Guan Temple: A Trove of Cross-Cultural Communication

The temple, established in 1936, espouses the Mahayana style of Buddhism, specifically that of the Pure Land sect. Part of the sect’s belief system is that nirvana (cessation of existence), the ultimate goal after countless cycles of life,  is no longer achievable during modern times, but that a way to heaven (the “Pure Land”) may still be achieved by good works and endlessly chanting the name of the Buddha – “Amitabha, Amitabha.”

The Architecture

The facade of the entrance is ornately carved in a style that is distinctly Chinese, exotic to eyes not exposed to the culture. There is no gate. The lack of a barrier at the entrance projects an aura of welcome reaches out to visitors and draws them in. Just within the entrance, a jolly Maitreya Buddha greets worshippers and visitors with a smile.

A stone lion, one of a pair, stands guard in front of the Buddha statue. The carving is deep and ornate, the subject a ‘cute’ mythological creature, inviting you to run your fingers over the runnels and recesses in the stone, and reach for the ball in the lion’s mouth. Again it is an artifact that beckons one to enter, approach, and touch.

Mr. Carlos Tan, who works at the temple, offered to be our tour guide and showed us around. Practically nothing was off limits; one feels a deep sense of acceptance for and tolerance of visitors, something that one does not readily experience in churches of other faiths. Although it is not stated directly, the license to explore comes with a common-sense caveat: the temple is a place of worship, and as such a visitor must conduct himself with proper respect for the place and its purpose.

The halls are wide and expansive, with high ceilings and spaces that entice one to roam around. Having an expanse of space is made possible by the practice of not providing seats for worshippers, only red-upholstered kneelers that are tucked away in small storage rooms on off-days.

The interior of the ground floor, with three Buddha images flanked by fresh and faux flowers and offerings of fruit.

The hall on the second floor is even grander, decorated with carvings depicting scenes from the life of Sakyamuni (Gautama) Buddha. The statues are made of silk mache and are hollow. Everywhere, one sees the glint of gold and the vibrancy of red, colors that signify prosperity and happiness.

Largest and grandest of all is this hall just off the second level. It is airconditioned on days when services are held. The Buddha statues here are large and dominant, matching the scale of the room, meant to inspire awe and reverence.

The Artifacts

Inside the temple are many things that are unfamiliar to non-Buddhists but, taken in context, are obviously ritual items. There was a drum that a saffron-robed monk beat in time to the chanting of other monks and worshippers. There was a red book with gold Chinese characters stamped on its cover (sutras?). There was a stick-like object that rested on the books, something that looked like a fan or a paddle, cymbals through which yellow scarves were knotted, and cinnabar-red squat carved figures beside which were padded sticks. Were the figures struck with the sticks?

I deliberately refrained from asking Mr. Tan, preferring to experience the environment as an observer, and trying to derive meaning from what was familiar, and gauging the extent of the unfamiliar. In this instance, much was an unknown quantity.

There were always offertory tables positioned in front of the images. The tables are heavily carved, some gilded as well. The tables bear offerings of fruit and flowers, because according to Buddhist tenets, “Only vegetarian offerings are allowed,” said Mr. Tan.

The Worshippers

Through observing their stance and actions in context, it can be seen how worshippers convey their sense of faith and participate in the rituals of their religion. Two women knelt in front of the Maitreya Buddha’s image holding incense sticks and waving them while chanting Buddha’s name. At the same time, at the second floor hall, monks held a service for a deceased man. The relatives were all clad in white, their culture’s color of mourning. Since no seats are provided, worshippers either kneel or stand and chant along with the monks.

The chanting was atonal, in a language I was unfamiliar with (Chinese, presumably), and sounded utterly alien to my ears. For that reason I found it fascinating; language is not an insurmountable barrier to understanding, because all that is required is a translation. On that initial exposure, the impression I obtained from the chanting was a sense of immense antiquity, that these words had been sung in this manner for centuries, the ritual kept alive by devotion and strict adherence to tradition.

Off that hall was a room where the dead man’s picture was displayed. Red marks pocked the picture “so he can breathe,” someone explained. On an offertory table were sweetmeats in covered glass dishes and plenty of fruit. Red lamps were lit. Just outside that room, people rolled paper into the boat shape of ancient Chinese currency, paper money for the dead to use in the afterlife.

Paper printed with gold Chinese characters, rolled into the proper shape, symbolize money for use in the afterlife. To show respect for the deceased, sacks upon sacks of these are laboriously prepared.

After the service, the portraits are moved to the ancestor worship hall on the ground floor, to be displayed beside the pictures of deceased persons whose relatives are waiting for a memorial service to be held in their behalf. Offerings of canned fruit are arranged in front of them – fruit cocktail, peaches, lychees. Chinese are practical; fresh fruit, they say, will spoil.

A woman lights joss sticks that she places in a large bronze urn, one of several placed in each of the temple’s many halls. The air in the temple is fogged with the heavy fragrance of incense carrying prayers to Buddha.

Inside the ancestor hall are serried rows of shrines that carried pictures of the deceased. Some are ‘double’ shrines for couples. A picture placed in the shrine frame denotes that the person was deceased; a plain red backing, that the person the shrine is reserved for is still alive. A fee is charged by the temple for the storage of the shrines – the more prominent the position, the higher the fee. It costs around one hundred thousand pesos for a central location for a shrine.

From time to time, people entered the hall, knelt before the shrines, said a prayer or meditated, and lit joss sticks before leaving.

Mr Tan also showed us pairs of red, kidney-shaped wooden blocks used in divination, a practice that dates back to China’s prehistory, when animal entrails were used to predict the future and reveal answers to questions. One throws the blocks up in the air; depending on how they fall, the answer to the devotee’s query is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

He often used the Tagalog word misa – as in Catholic Mass – to refer to their services. It may be the word actually used by Filipino Buddhists, or it may have been his way of making concepts easy for non-Buddhists to understand.

Overall, though I could not interpret a great deal of the information I was picking up from my surroundings, I understood enough and connected it with previously-read or gleaned facts and materials that enriched my appreciation of this particular environment.

I came away refreshed in spirit by the aura of peace and tranquility permeating every fragrant corner of the temple, fascinated by its art and history, and above all deeply appreciative of the warm welcome and acceptance extended by Mr. Tan and the others at the temple.

The Seng Guan Temple is along Narra Street, near Jose Abad Santos Street, Manila.

Click on a photo, and click again to see a full-size image.

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