I have seen it all… almost

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

In 1949, when I joined the old Manila Times, I got to edit its Sunday magazine – then the largest in the country. I tried to make it highbrow with contributions from our foremost writers. It had weekly fiction, poetry and cultural commentary. Somehow, I was not content with it. I wanted a magazine for decision makers, like Foreign Affairs and The New Republic in the United States. Editing and writing was an intellectual challenge. Fortunately for me, the Roces publishers gave me all the freedom and support I needed.

First, I traveled all over the country from Sabtang in Batanes, to Sitangkai in Tawi-Tawi. Then Asia, Europe and the Americas. There were no jets; just the four-engine DC-4s and Boeing Stratocruisers. Our airport was a large shed at Nichols Field. One had to dress then to travel by air.

Here are my lasting visceral memories of those trips. First, Southeast Asia – in the 1950s, Kuala Lumpur was like a small town or kampong, and Jakarta was a large village, both surrounded by jungle and rubber plantations. Singapore was like pre-war Binondo, with old brick buildings; Orchard Road was a small shopping street; The Raffles was a sprawling hotel with huge ceiling fans.

Bangkok was laced with canals; I stayed at the Trocadero Hotel and was tempted to join the children swimming in the canals. Bangkok’s skyline was dominated by the Wat Arun temple. All the way from the ramshackle Don Mueang Airport up to the Victory monument were rice fields. Rangoon’s skyline, too, was dominated by the Shwedagon Pagoda, its golden dome glittering in the sun. I remember visiting it, careful that I didn’t step on the red betelnut spit all over the place.

Hong Kong was then a shopping paradise. Slums clambered up the lower portions of the peak on Victoria Island. Even then, Hong Kong was well ordered, with ferries on the dot, the harbor dominated by that regal symbol of empire, The Peninsula Hotel. Colombo’s (Ceylon) biggest hotel was the Galle Face; I went to its barbershop and sat on an ordinary chair with a plank of wood to elevate it, toilet paper on the shop windows. Kabul was like any small Asian city, all the Afghans in Western dress. I knew of the poverty in India, but was still shocked to see people living, sleeping, dying on the sidewalks of Calcutta.

Korea impressed me the most. In the late-50s, it had not yet fully recovered from the Korean War. Kimpo Airfield was a few corrugated iron-roofed buildings surrounded by rice fields and mud-walled, thatched-roofed houses. Much of Seoul was still in ruins. The Han River had one twisted wreck of a bridge. I stayed at the Bando Hotel. Beside it was a urine-smelling alley that led to the old stately Chosun Hotel which survived the war. The sidewalks were dark with soot from the charcoal that was used for the ondol heating of the houses. Korea today seems surreal now, a nation luxuriating in modernity despite a continuing threat from the North.

Europe, particularly Eastern Europe which was under Communist rule, was bleak, dreary and plagued with shortages of basic goods taken for granted in Manila. But even Western Europe then seemed so provincial and homogenously grim, even Paris with its grey unpainted buildings. If one went to the United States via Europe – this was so obvious – you would land in New York and wham! You knew you are in a country vibrant, rambunctious and shiny, its people in a hurry. The underside of America will surface later, the racial prejudice, the wastefulness.

In the 1950s, Japan had not yet recovered from its devastating defeat in World War II. Tokyo’s skyline was dominated by smoke-stacks of the gutted factories. But even then, Tokyo was a charming city made for walking, with a splendid transport system, street cars, buses and a subway line. Its department stores, Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi and Isetan were, in themselves, tourist meccas.

Cairo and Istanbul were long established as tourist destinations. I did not tarry in these cities.

From Manila, we moved to Hong Kong for a couple of years then to Colombo, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, for another two years during which I traveled extensively in the region in preparation for my new journal, Solidarity – it lasted ten years, 1967-1977. If I were an academic, I would have been a cultural anthropologist. I noted carefully the similarities and differences in the cultures of the countries I visited, the sturdy lifestyle of mountain people; since I have visited these countries earlier, I saw how they changed and progressed.

In 1965, at a dinner with Dr. Antonio Isidro, Dean of the University of the East’s Graduate School of Education, I related to him my observations, and he asked me to prepare a syllabus and teach it in his college. That is how I got to teach culture change with an emphasis on the arts which I also taught at Santo Tomas, La Salle and the University of California in Berkeley. The course was very broad; often, when I’m lecturing, new insights would bloom in my mind, and I’d expound on them.

I also learned from my students in our discussions. As a Diliman friend who monitored my La Salle class said, I was using the Socratic Method. In my public lectures, I traced our poverty to many causes, some of them cultural, to our political malaise manipulated by our own elites. I related how a state may fail, how this decay may be reversed by revolution – the revolutionary being the ultimate modernizer.

To sum it all up, I have seen the vaulting grandeur of the Himalayas, the rimless great plains of America that can feed the world, the sprawling web of rivers that make up the Amazon and the oil-rich, arid deserts of the Middle East, the Pyramids of Egypt, the lofty ruins of Machu Pichu – did the Incas really live up there? And the Great Wall of China, like the Pyramids, why was this built at all? The Chinese, surely with their prescience and protean view of history, knew these walls would be worthless.

In my lifetime, the nuclear age was born. I stood in awe before the achievements of modern engineering – the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and those rockets that put man on the moon. We now question the origin of our species and ask ourselves how valid are our religions. In this vast panorama of global change and progress, I turn to appraise my country, and realize that, among our neighbors, we are, alas, sadly left behind; and even more sad, I know the reason how and why.

As for now, with all these miracles in science before our very eyes, we also live in anxiety and fear over the unstoppable onslaught of this tiniest of creatures – the Coronavirus.

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