Sunday Lifestyle

Hail Cebu!

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

That ebullient Cebuano impresario, Hendri Go, dropped by the other day bearing gifts of five coffee mugs each named after the novels in my “Rosales” saga. He also brought showbiz news from Broadway where he had just visited. Hendri travels regularly, not just to New York but elsewhere, and frequents Manila, picking up ideas and identifying talents and shows which he can bring to Cebu. He has been doing this for the last 14 years on his own to promote culture in the country’s queen city. He calls his company Little Boy Productions — a reflection of an inner humility, but his agenda and purpose are big: to bring not just to his home city of Cebu, but to the Visayas, entertainment that will uplift and at the same time broaden the cultural perspective of people.

Little Boy Productions has mounted close to 50 shows in Cebu and in the other big towns of the island and in Ormoc, Leyte and in Dumaguete. He works mostly with the bigger schools and universities with local talents as well as imports from Manila like Cherry Gil and Ryan Cayabyab. It is not just theater that Hendri presents — he has also managed workshops for the theater and literature.

Hendri is a deep-dyed Cebuano and most of his theater presentations are in the language of the region. In many instances, they are also carefully adapted so that they will be more understandable to local audiences.

As of now, most of his audience is composed of students with a sprinkling from the middle classes.

I told Hendri to enlarge his audience with the masa by staging plays that do not need elaborate settings in public schools, even in the market place and during town fiestas the way zarzuelas were staged in the past in Central Luzon towns during their town fiestas.

Does Little Boy Productions make money at all? Hardly, in the same manner that the legitimate theater in Manila needs outside support to survive. Luckily for Hendri, his family has an ongoing business and he gets support, most of all from his mother.

On a recent trip to Cebu, Hendri guided me around the town to old familiar places that I hadn’t seen in years, my visits to Cebu being confined to the inner city itself.

I went to Cebu for the first time in the late 1940s in those C-47 twin-engine transport planes with bucket seats, and on those small interisland FS freighters, remnants of the American Pacific fleet in World War II. They carried mostly cargo — they had no passenger cabins and we slept on the deck on canvas cots. Cebu then was a big town with a very little traffic and a business district confined along main street onwards to Fuente Osmeña, and ending at the Capitol. There were the old Santo Niño shrine, the public market and the port area redolent with the smell of copra and horse dung.

No bridge spanned the narrow strait between the island and the much smaller Mactan. I went there by a small ferry which sailed regularly to visit my aunt-in-law, the Benedictine nun, Sr. Bernarda Jovellanos; she managed a school in the island. I toured Mactan, too, which is really tiny, with equally tiny farms sprinkled with stones — it was hard work to grow crops in them. There was no monument to Lapu Lapu then but there was one for Magellan.

Then, my father-in-law, Dr. Antonio Jovellanos, was assigned to direct the Eversley Childs Sanitarium in nearby La Consolacion and I often took my family there for vacation almost every year. We would go to Talisay on weekends to swim on the beach, which was quite empty of bathers. And at night, at one of the nightclubs there, we listened to a lovely Cebuana belt out songs in Cebuano, Tagalog, English and Spanish.

The irenic Talisay that I knew is no more. An expressway to it has been built and the beach has become a shabby warren of makeshift houses.

Even then, the Cebunao’s reputation for singing is well deserved and preserved with such divas as Pilita Corrales and Dulce. Cebuanos are seemingly born with guitars in hand — Cebu is also our guitar capital. There is no Cebuano who does not know how to play one. Not just guitars but piano, too, as illustrated by Ingrid Sala, Cebu’s premiere concert pianist. We had her as cover girl of the old Sunday Times Magazine, which I edited.

Hendri also took me to Lahug where the old airport was. It is now a ritzy precinct, with snooty residences and upscale shops and restaurants. Hendri owns a restaurant there — the East West Café which serves Hamba, a pork dish which I gorged on. The café is also a meeting place of the Cebu culturati and it was there where I met again old acquaintances like Resil Mojares and Cecilia Manguerra Brainard.

Cecilia dropped by recently for a tête-à-tête. An excerpt of her next novel was published by Joel Pablo Salud in his Graphic magazine but she did not know about it so I gave her a copy. The novel — her third — is a fictionalized account of a real event: a murder that has haunted her. It is also a story of the violence and conspiracy that happens in the best of families. She is writing it, she said, like a mystery novel and it was at this point that we talked about the narrative — how so many writers, in their attempt to be original, have abandoned the narrative for flashy and fractured prose which soon numbs the reader who then stops reading. I shared with her this thinking: the narrative is what grabs the reader and compels him to read to the very end. How often have I dropped a book, lovingly reviewed by other writers, adorned with obtuse prose and technique but so wanting in tension, I got bored. Cecile belongs to that special tribe of Cebuanos, rooted in the land and writing about it.

Every time I visited Cebu in the ‘50s I also saw Cornelio Faigao — the contemporary of Jose Garcia Villa, S.P. Lopez, NVM Gonzalez. I remember his story of his encounter with American color discrimination very well. He had regarded it with great equanimity and grace. “Of course,” he said, “it was an affront, but thinking about it, I realize they were not discriminating against Cornelio Faigao, the Filipino, but at some poor bastard who looked very Negro.”

Indeed, Cornelio was dark and could be easily mistaken as Negro. It was so different from the reaction of another Filipino writer who returned from America very anti-American because she had been discriminated against for having Negro features.

The list of Cebu’s accomplished writers in English is long. There is also Estrella Alfon, Lina Espina Moore, who already shone before World War II and onward to the ‘60s — Estrella with her short stories, Lina with her longer works fiction critical of Filipino society.

Then there is Monsignor Rudy Villanueva, Erma M. Cuizon, Ruby Enario, Marlinda Angbetic-Tan, Godofredo Roperos, Simeon Dumdum — the magnificent poet who is now a judge.

Cebu is a city that continues to grow, limited only by its size. The Cebuanos, like the Ilokanos, are this country’s most industrious.

They will soon build the third bridge that will span the narrow strait between Mactan and Cebu; Mactan is becoming one of the country’s best tourist destinations, so reachable now with so many international flights going straight out of the country to foreign destinations.

With the indigenous skills of the Cebuanos, Cebu can be an industrial hub. That shipyard across the island in Balamban, managed by the Japanese in partnership with the Aboitizes, has stopped building those fast ferryboats; I hope that the Aboitizes will go back to shipbuilding — not those giant tankers and freighters, but those equally speedy boats that can be used to ferry people island to island and which can also be armed, militarized to patrol our extensive waters. Why isn’t the government doing this?

I have held an automatic pistol made by those illegal gunsmiths in Danao — it cannot be differentiated from the original made in the United States. Why hasn’t our government banded them together to form a gun factory? The skills are already there.

And the beautifully crafted furniture featured in American magazines — this is designed and made in Cebu. Why don’t we have more of these pieces all over the country?

Some 30 years ago, the University of San Carlos, one of the leading universities in the country, set up the Cebu Studies Center headed by the historian writer Resil Mojares. It is now headed by the scholar and writer Hope Sabanpan-Yu. It is doing well, gathering materials about Cebu and the Cebuanos, information that not only the Cebuanos need to ennoble themselves, but all of us as well.



he month of August has been declared National Language Month and there has been a spate of articles validating Filipino which, as all of us know, is simple, untarnished Tagalog. The National Language has not, to this very day, included so many of the words in the indigenous languages that are common — words like balay for house, which is bahay in Tagalog. Instead, what the purists who determine the development of the National Language have added is those archaic and esoteric Tagalog words that are not nationally understood. Moreover, intellectual and scientific discourse in Tagalog has yet to be improved and here, like I always say, the Indonesian language Bahasa is a very good example of a dynamic and growing language for us to emulate. For one, Bahasa has made every Indonesian equal the way English makes every Filipino equal.

It is for this major reason that English will be with us for a long time because it has also become the language of the world.

And what about Tagalog? The reality is that expertise in the language is not an asset when it comes to looking for jobs here and abroad. The language of government, of business, continues to be English.

But the reality, too, is Tagalog has become a real national language in the sense that it is now understood all over the country. The movies and television made this possible.

It should therefore continue to be taught as a language in the grade school together with English. As proposed, it should no longer be used in high school and college where the instruction should be completely in English.

Now, Cebuano, Ilokano — these two are the other major languages and they continue to grow. Ilokano has gone further up in Tarlac, and so has Cebuano spread not only in the Visayas but in Mindanao. This is as it should be. In fact all the other languages should be attended to for it is very likely that they will die within the next hundred years or more, for this is the story of language.

For years, Resil Mojares has worked for the acceptance of Cebuano as part of the national heritage. He is correct when he complains that a book with only 500 copies is considered “national” if published in Manila, but regional if published in Cebu with as many as 10,000 copies. There is a lot to argue for Cebuano and other major Filipino languages to be recognized as such, for the different regions in the country to develop as well their own centers as is the case with other highly developed nations in Asia, for Osaka and Kyoto in Japan, Shanghai and Beijing in China to be themselves centers of culture and commerce. Cebu must not be hindered in its progression to this status.

The Cebuano identity is very, very strong and this, too, is at it should be. Cebu’s richest and most influential taipan, John Gokongwei, also speaks excellent Tagalog, but he did not call his airline Cebu Pacific for nothing; his identity is emblazoned in it.

John Gokongwei, Hendri Go, and so many other important people in Cebu are ethnic Chinese but by their very deeds, they have firmly established their roots, which they continue to nurture. Meanwhile, the politics of the island continues to be dominated by the old families, the Osmeñas, Escaños, the Cuencos and the Garcias. Into this equation has been added the Basque Aboitiz family.

It is an accident of history that the Conquistador did not make Cebu the Philippine capital and Cebuano the national language. It will not be an accident if Cebu does become the industrial capital of the country with its port and easy accessibility. More than this, it can truly be a cultural hub as well if Cebuanos — industrious and capable — can get their act together and philanthropists like the Gokongweis and the Aboitizes help further the universities and cultural efforts of people like Hendri Go and Resil Mojares.



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