Taking Singapore by storm

- Alfred A. Yuson () - September 10, 2001 - 12:00am
Preparing to board our flight back home at Singapore’s Changi airport, we tailed a couple of other "performing" contingents: the cast of Il Trovatore that included a full chorus of expatriate Filipinos, and retired basketball professionals accompanied by referees and officials.

Abet Guidaben and Lim Eng Beng were recognizable among the basketeers. Had they played in some senior veterans’ meet, or themselves officiated in some minor international tourney? Guidaben in particular still made heads turn among Filipinos queuing up before PAL’s check-in counters. Some lady members of the opera chorus ganged up on the lanky slotman for photo-ops.

Last Thursday then, onboard PR 504 to Manila, were three sets of triumphant-feeling Pinoy internationalists. Per the usual scheme of things, lowest in the order of battle, er, recognition, were seven poets and writers who had just concluded their participation in the biennial Singapore Writers Festival.

No matter. They were perhaps the most enthused and fulfilled, or at least the most inclined to feel like returning heroes who had gone, seen and, well, perhaps not exactly conquered foreign territory, but came very close to that indeed. In fact it could be said of their brief stint in Singapore that they had come, seen and been seen, been heard and read and appreciated for their poetry.

The "official" delegation was composed of PLAC poets Gémino H. Abad, Cirilo F. Bautista, Ophelia A. Dimalanta, Ramon Sunico, Ricardo M. de Ungria, and this writer. Tagging along as "official" chaperone, mother hen, and sideline rooter was essayist and biographer Erlinda Enriquez Panlilio, who had just gained literary prizewinning honors with a National Book Award for her biography of her own mother, Teacher to Tycoon: The Life and Times of Trinidad Diaz Enriquez.

Also with us for the four-to-six-day literary reading jaunt was media documentarist Ana Ablaza Baluyot, a young writer from De La Salle University who had just spearheaded the publication of a new literary monthly magazine called Musa.

I say four to six days, as Sunico and De Ungria had arrived ahead and started our festival involvement with a reading at the National Library on Aug. 31. The rest of us only managed to join them two days later on account of the traditional Sept. 1 Palanca Awards night.

One of the best treats during our combined stay was our sponsored accommodation at Gallery Evason Hotel, an ultra-chic, boutique hotel that’s part of the freshly minted Six Senses hotel chain.

Rising at the upper end of Mohammad Sultan Road – something like Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong or Malate’s Julio Nakpil strip, meaning that it’s peppered with yuppie-frequented restos and bars – the Gallery Evason’s main tower appears as a Mondrianesque delight with an eye-catching façade of brightly colored stripes and squares. At night these jaunty lines that frame protruding bay windows are replicated by neon strips.

On the fifth-floor deck is a lap pool with one side walled in by transparent glass, so that motorists down below can look up and catch bikinied swimmers gliding in underwater motion. A wonder that the architectural feature hasn’t been declared a traffic hazard, yet.

The rooms are modest and spare in Zen-minimalist fashion that melds with post-modernist industrial chic, from aluminum-box ashtrays to stainless-steel washbowls and stud-riveted, sliding closet doors. Walking through every floor and lift foyer is like being in an avant-garde art gallery, with attractive installations popping up on walls and corners. Large aluminum buckets filled with sand hang on thick wires on each side of the double-lift: smile-inducing art also serving as trash receptacles.

The fourth-floor check-in lobby extends through a nattily designed resto with artistic stoneware and leaning tall glasses arrayed on colorful tables. At the far end before a steel catwalk-bridge leading to the adjoining tower is a row of candy-colored Macs where guests can surf the Internet for free on a 24/7 basis.

We delighted in our hotel; unfortunately, we couldn’t spend as much time as we wanted within its inspirational interiors. Our sked of readings, appearances, fora and discussions spelled hecticity in Lion City. Singing for our supper had never been this grueling for the esteemed members of the Philippine Literary Arts Council.

First up last Sunday, immediately upon our arrival, was an afternoon reading at Kinokuniya, Singapore’s largest bookstore, right on Orchard Road. Reading along with us were our youthful counterparts – Yong Shu Hoong, Aaron Lee and Alvin Pang. Also in attendance was The Straits Times’ Books editor Ong Sor Fern.

Lee and Pang had been with the four-poet contingent that visited Manila last January for a reading tour of universities. Not only did that visit, hosted by PLAC, coincide with the four full days of Edsa Dos; it also led to an agreement to co-publish an anthology of Singaporean and Filipino poets, thematically titled "Love Gathers All."

It was the indefatigable Alvin Pang who in turn pressed all the right buttons in getting a large Filipino group invited for the Writers Festival organized by the National Arts Council. Traditionally, the biennial festival only allowed individual participation on a per-country basis. Partial counterpart funding was then provided by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), expressly for the promotion and eventual publication of the bilateral poetry anthology.

Alvin also managed to wangle sponsorship from the management of Gallery Evason Hotel, as well as arranged for fringe appearances in a number of venues other than those used for the festival. These included a reading and discussion at the Marine Parade Community Center Library, hosted by the National Library Writers’ Circle; a reading at Action Theater’s open-air cafe-terasse arena; and a reading and open forum at the Singapore Management University, where we engaged in literary advice and erotic confessions before a large, enthusiastic class handled by Prof. Kirpal Singh, himself one of Singapore’s most distinguished poets.

The culminating performance on our last night proved the most exhilarating, as the turnaway crowd was composed mostly of our compatriots – members of the Philippine Cultural Society – with Ambassador Jesus Yabes as guest of honor.

The son of the eminent literary historian Leopoldo Yabes, Ambassador Yabes proved a most genial host. He readily agreed to write a Foreword for the forthcoming anthology of love poetry, for which we also hope to have a counterpart Foreword from Singapore Ambassador to Manila Jacky Foo.

Several sessions were held to discuss the anthology, which has already culled contributions from over 40 Filipino poets and a nearly equal number of Singaporean poets, on the general theme of love: universal, familial, platonic, romantic, erotic, etc. Alvin Pang, Aaron Lee, RayVi Sunico and this writer form the editorial board, while threshing out the details for the production, promotion and big-ticket launches in February 2002, in time for Valentine’s Day, are Ethos Books’ managing editor Winnifred Ong and Anvil Publishing, Inc.’s Karina Bolasco.

We also had occasion to be feted by various compatriots. Filipino expat artists Ludwig Ilio, Bong Martin, Ben Cruz and Dengcoy Miel, who all work for Singapore Press Holdings or SPH, the publisher of The Straits Times, treated the less senior spirits in our group to a dragdown binge on our second night. We descended by serial cabs on a videoke bar that featured Pinay GRO’s, half of whom crowded around their fellow Cebuano Jimmy Abad, perchance to ply the affable and gentle-faced ex-seminarian for ladies’ drinks.

We just had to rescue Jimmy from a raucous fate, as well our eardrums from the loud music and impassioned entreaties for a livelier evening from the gaggle of our charming kababayan. So off we went for an extended nightcap of Tiger beer by the pitcher at Newton Circus, where stir-fried clams, roasted sting ray, kangkong in chili sauce and fleshy durian filled up our long table.

Writer and journalist Felisa Batacan, who also works for The Straits Times, brought along some friends to our reading at the community library. Writer Nadine Sarreal, whose story collection Exactly Here, Exactly Now was a finalist for the Manila Critics Circle’s National Book Awards handed out last Saturday, and Noelle de Jesus Chua, who’s editing a Flash Fiction anthology, showed up at various times, capping the frenzy of association with rounds of drinks after our final reading.

So did East magazine writer A.M. Joyce Garcia Kropp, who hosted lunch at the Inter-Continental Hotel where her husband Gerhard lords it over as GM. Disconsolate as our old Manila-Baguio friend Gerhard was over Germany’s dismal 5-1 soccer loss to the U.K., he was man enough to escort Joyce and their nine-year-old daughter Nikki, herself a budding poet, at the Book Cafe dinner-cum-reading.

Ambassador Jesus Yabes delivered enthusiastic remarks over the unprecedented activity and avid turnout of some 80 guests, some of whom spilled outside among the sidewalk tables, and where our books enjoyed brisk sales. Privately, the ambassador also shared with UP contemporary Jimmy Abad how the arts-loving Filipino community in Singapore had just been raving over their compatriots’ participation in Il Trovatore.

The opera had wound up its initial four-night run at the Victoria Theater. Now it was to hop over to Manila for a weekend at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. It would be particularly engrossing for Manila’s opera buffs, he said, as the setting for the 15th-century Spanish tale had been transformed into colonial Manila.

The four days and nights of poetry in Singapore would prove most memorable indeed for the PLAC members, for which the visit became its first foreign experience together. We can look back at how well we were treated by our fellow poets in Singapore – from Robert Yeo’s Bugis dinner followed by drinks at a private club, to Kirpal Singh’s driving and parking skills, and the contagious exuberance of our hosts and coordinators Alvin Pang, Aaron Lee, Yung Shu Hoong, Amelia Kang, Edwina Tang and Winnie Wong. Now we look forward to the joint publication of our "Love Gathers All" anthology.

Together we were gathered by our common love for poetry. And oh how we’ve delighted at the uncommon brotherhood and camaraderie.

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