Manila Vanilla

What it's like to be a U.S. Fulbright scholar, basketball player, journalist, and the whitest man in Metro Manila.

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Location: Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines

New Yorker by birth, shipped across the globe to the world of malls, shanty-towns, patronage, corruption, basketball and a curious burnt-toast smell that wafts around at dusk

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Blind Boys of Bohol

Footage of a disabled band in the Tagbilaran City, Bohol, airport performing Avril Lavigne's "Complicated." Strange and hypnotic.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Hyper-Realism of Dolphy

Almost exactly a year ago, when I was preparing to move to the Philippines, my Tagalog tutor in New York suggested I immerse myself in some Filipino films. She sent me to the New Manila Food Mart on 14th Street and 1st Avenue and told me to ask for anything starring Dolphy, the stage name of famous Filipino comedian Rodolfo Vera Quizon.

Dolphy posing with his comedic forefather.

I don't remember the title of my first Dolphy film. It hardly matters since they all share the same template: Dolphy is a loveable, slightly pitiful goof who stumbles into every slapstick mishap imaginable while winning over a pretty young Pinay with his good-hearted ways. Every five minutes, Dolphy's pants fall down for some reason or he tries to help someone fill a pothole and ends up cementing his foot in the ground. Dolphy seemed like a Philippine analogue to America's Ernest P. Worrel, the legendary buffoon played by the late Jim Varney, whose mishaps included having a turtle stuck to his nose and confronting a child-hunting troll with Bulgarian Miak when he was supposed to fight it with milk.

Half a year in the Philippines, however, has taught me that Dolphy isn't so ridiculous after all. In fact, I'm beginning to think Dolphy movies are actually some kind of hyper-realistic comment on life in the Philippines. Laying on the couch my Manhattan apartment, feeling in control of most of my life's moving parts, I couldn't relate to Dolphy's films. The most ridiculous things kept happening to him. He'd play with a yo-yo and immobilize himself with the rope. A cat on the street would jump on his back and he'd start screaming and running in circles. It seemed like a total farce and I came away with the impression that Filipinos were very silly people. How many times can a man lose his shorts in one afternoon?

Well, Filipinos are pretty silly, but it turns out that the world represented in Dolphy films was more fact of life than slapstick fantasy.

Great day for a drive.

How do I know? Well, here in Quezon City, almost 10,000 miles from my New York control center, my life is beginning to feel like Dolphy's -- a random sequence of one mishap after another. Weather is a major player. Rainy season is in full-force, and everywhere in the country there is a hanging anticipation of what might fall out of the sky next. Honestly, it's far less harrowing in Metro Manila, where flooded streets and brownouts are de rigeur, but the chances of being buried in a landslide or having your home blown away in a typhoon are slim. It's still bad enough, though, that a taxi driver will touch the rosary hanging off his rear-view mirror and cross himself when the rain starts to fall in sheets and his visibility is reduced to almost nothing. Painted "God Bless Our Trip" messages and images of the Virgin Mary and the Santo Niño, which grace almost every jeepney seem pragmatic instead of quaint when a driver plows through a section of road flooded with waist-level water.

I got caught in Malate during a mild typhoon two weeks ago, and I didn't make it a block before wind blew my tsinelas (flip-flops) off my feet and sent me scurrying barefoot through the darkness to recover them. My slipper-related distress continued this week, when the thong between my big and index toes snapped in the middle of the street and forced me to walk home barefoot. Now, I carry a tube of super glue to put my tsinelas back together whenever something goes wrong. From my repairing my toilet with duct tape to holding my flip-flops together with crazy glue, jerry-rigging has become a way of life.

For those born here, that ingenuity is everywhere. You see it in the street basketball courts with a plywood backboard and hand-bent wire rim attached to a pole stuck in a garbage barrel. It's in the homemade toys sold in the provinces, where vendors can turn a soda can, a small rock, a rubber band and some string into a bird or catepillar that will scoot around your house when you pull the string. It's in the cab driver who can drive across Metro Manila on an empty gas tank by tapping the pedal, letting the car's momentum carry it until friction slows it down, then tapping again. You either make something out of circumstances you have no control over, or, like Dolphy, you make a joke out of them. Or both.

Here is my most absurd Dolphy moment to date. It was a Saturday morning and I was sitting at the downstairs table, eating a bowl of Mueslix. I heard something hit the ground pretty hard next to me. I looked over, expecting to see that one of the towels I hang on the upstairs railing had slipped. Instead, there was a plump, ash-colored rat lying on its side and twitching. A tiny spot of blood was on the floor in front of the rat's mouth. I wish someone else were around to hear the noise I made, because it's hard to describe on my own. It was kind of like an elongated "whoa" stretched into a "HOLY SHIT!" "Whoooolllly Shit!" If the rat decided to take the plunge a foot to the right, he could have landed in my bowl of cereal, or worse, on my head.

As Monifah would say, "do you really want to touch it?"

What is one supposed to do when a 10-inch rat with a 10-inch tail plops to the ground next to you? After the obligatory double-take, I had to figure out how to get it out of my house. My first instinct was to treat it like the cockroaches and butiki lizards that occasionally expire on my kitchen floor -- grab some tissues and chuck the sucker. Thankfully, common sense intervened. I had to find out just how dead the rodent was before I started trying to handle it. It had been lying motionless for a few minutes, so I stood up and stomped the ground a couple feet away to see if the rat would react. How dead was it? Not at all dead. It popped up on its feet and ran behind a nearby bookshelf. I decided to shoo the rat out the front door with a broom. I grabbed my wimpy green broom, propped open my screen door and moved the couch and chairs against the walls so the rat would have a clear route to the outside. Then, I started waving the broom under the bookshelf. The rat popped out the other side and ran into a corner. When I tried to nudge it around the corner and into the path, the rat made a little noise and hopped at me, like a tiny, ugly horse rearing up on its hind legs. When it hopped, I leaped, and screamed and waved the broom around madly. By now, the ruckus in Unit #7 had attracted the attention of my neighbors' maids, who gathered outside my front door to see what was making the 6'3'' Amerikano yelp and dance at 8:30 a.m. After a few more aborted attempts in which the rat got stuck in the same corner, ran under the couch or just went in the wrong direction, I was able to sweep, hoot and holler it through the door, much to the delight of the maids, who were in near hysterics over the scene they had witnessed. It wasn't Dolphy Tuesdays on Cinema One, but the antics were the same. It was Rafy Saturday, and I was getting my best lesson to date on the country's power to turn any moment into an absurd mix of Ernest P. Worrel and Salvador Dali.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


When they write the book on over-the-top, gonzo marketing, the Philippines will have its own chapter. I've written about some of the more blatant examples in previous Manila Vanilla posts.

Cigarette companies, which aren't as strictly regulated here as in the United States, seem particularly shameless to the foreign eye. Hope, the "Luxury Cigarette" runs commercials that look like B-roll from late-'80s swimsuit videos with blonde couple sprawled on a beach, puffing blithely. Hope also wraps the basket stanchions at PBA games with their logo, so that the thousands of people watching athletes sprint up and down a court for 48 minutes can feel inspired to head outside and smoke a victory cigarette after the game. In Champion cigarettes' advertisements, a Lance Armstrong look-alike crosses the finish line in his yellow jersey and immediately whips out a stick and takes a long drag while a jingle reminds the television audience to "savor your winning moment with champion cigarettes."

Everything Manny knows about product endorsements he learned from this man.

And then there's the national hero du jour, Manny Pacquiao, whose achievements in advertising are almost as impressive as his boxing feats. The Pac-Man endorses everything under the sun, from apparel to karaoke machines, booze to painkillers, McDonald's to athletic socks. There's a joke going around town that says Pacquiao's foes can't handle the little feller because they're distracted by all the logos on his trunks. Pacquiao certainly isn't a trailblazing pitch-man, however.

Filipino athletes have been cashing in on their fame for decades, and it's hard to blame them, since they may the only people in this society who go from true poverty to the upper class. Most entertainers, it seems, come from elite dynasties of the acting, political or business varieties. There are definitely exceptions, but there's less room for nepotism in sports, because no matter who sired you, if you don't have the game you won't make it. And as is often the case when it comes to Philippine basketball, all roads lead to Jaworski. Sonny Jaworski perfected the ridiculous endorsement game -- as well as knocking out refs, playing until you're 50 and becoming a senator games -- before Manny Pacquiao was born. The best example I've found of the selling of Jaworski was mentioned in a 1978 issue of Atlas Sports Weekly. The Big J appeared in ads for San Miguel's Cerveza Negra. The TV spots showed him weight training, shooting endless jump shots, running wind sprints and then downing a frothy mug of dark ale. "After a workout, I drink Cerveza Negra," Jaworski says in the ad. "It's refreshing. It's invigorating. It's good." And he meant it. When a reporter asked him if he really topped off his workouts with a glass of beer, Jaworski responded, "Naturally," then showed his true gift for promotion by throwing in a plug for his PBA employer. "And of course it goes without saying that the car I drive is a Toyota." Oh, Big J, you sly fox.

Score another one for subtlety.

But when it comes to exploiting this country's roundball fixation, one product stands head and shoulders above the rest. Growee, a multi-vitamin syrup for children with magic growth ingredient Chlorella growth factor! The label shows a cute little boy in a blue basketball uniform lining up a shot in front of a background that resembles a ruler. Did I mention that it's called Growee! Of course, the back of the box comes with a handy disclaimer, "No approved therapeutic claims," just in case consumers might be tempted to assume the syrup that comes in the bottle marked "Growee," which comes in the box with a picture of a basketball player in front of a ruler might help their children grow into tall PBA players. To my knowledge, there are no multivitamins called Taho-ee! or PediCab Power, which offer thinly veiled promises to turn children into strong-shouldered bucket carriers or mighty-calved cyclists. The basketball fantasy, with its luxury and heroism, must sell better.

Growee's marketing team has paid attention to detail. The young player wears a blue uniform that resembles an Ateneo Blue Eagles uniform. This can't be a coincidence. Ateneo de Manila University is synonymous with wealth and power. The students arrive at the Katipunan campus with drivers, bodyguards and occasionally ya-yas (nannies) in tow. Their alumni, along with De La Salle, University of Santo Tomas and sometimes the University of the Philippines, run the country, from business to government to the military. Their basketball teams compete for the UAAP championship every year, with legendary coach Norman Black, a Baltimore-bred transplant who was known as Mr. 100 Percent during his PBA playing career and who went on to coach San Miguel Beer and Santa Lucia Realty to PBA championships before taking over the Ateneo job, at the helm. The makers of Growee would like you to believe that your boy can attend Ateneo, make the varsity and eventually become an embezzling Senator if he just drinks a teaspoon of Growee everyday. The player on the box is also holding a Spalding TF series ball, which many basketball players will recognize as one of the top rocks on the market, and not a common sight in the Philippines, where many kids' first ball is a rolled up pair of socks.

In defense of Growee, Chlorella growth factor has proven health benefits. Chlorella is a rapidly reproducing, photosynthetic algae. It has one of the highest levels of nucleic acids of any food supplement, and has been linked to increased growth in children, faster healing from illnesses and other good things. But I'd like to meet a professional basketball player anywhere who will say that Growee was the secret to his success. Actually, if the price is right, I'm sure Jaworski will say so. Beer and algae -- the keys to the Big J's basketball longevity. And well, according to this Web site, if the whole height thing doesn't work out for Filipino children who take Growee, at least the Chlorella will stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in their colons.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

If the crowd is any indication, basketball has been able to draw crowds in the Philippines since its inception. The photographer, Elwood S. Brown, was director of the national YMCA and an early leader of the playground movement. He oversaw the construction of many of the first courts in the country, and set basketball on its path to prominence.

The original losers of Philippine basketball -- the ladies of the Normal School. Tondo Intermediate School defeated them in an exhibition game at the 1911 Carnival Meet, a nationwide interscholastic contest. The game was introduced in 1910 as a team sport for girls while boys played baseball and ran track. Basketball didn't become required in the public schools curriculum until 1938, but Ilocanos and Visayans were ahead of the curve and institutionalized the sport soon after its introduction.

As long as dated Philippine periodicals keep supplying the ridiculous advertisements, I will keep relaying them. This one, from 1980, has a blatant air of Village People, which is odd because Ginebra is the gin of the hard-working everyman, not the hard-partying gay man. The confusion could be reconciled by the fact that Filipinos, on average, are less aware of just how gay the Village People are. Most Pinoys know what YMCA and In the Navy are really about, but it's still easy to find people who think they're just hot guys in funny outfits, while nearly everyone in the United States knows these guys are some flaming embers.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

July 8th tribute.

Serious Video Project

Some people might wonder why I'd willingly post this video. They don't know me.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Apparently, these guys -- the genetically engineered hybrid twins of Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx and Bozo the Clown -- evoked the essence of American cool to Filipinos in 1978. They're so full of cola goodness I can hardly control myself.

A sign outside the GSIS museum in Pasay, home to many important pieces of Philippine modern art, and a real stickler when it comes to keeping a burner on your hip.

Soccer be damned: In defense of a Pinoy's right to choose (basketball, that is)

God help me. Because I’m so dedicated to interactivity and serving my readers, I’m going to honor a request to write about the state of soccer in the Philippines during this World Cup season.

I’m sorry to say, however, that Soccer Nut’s request for “man-on-the-street” reporting on World Cup fever, or the lack thereof, will go unfulfilled. Futbol does come up relatively often in interviews with basketball people, though, so I’ll draw on their comments and some general observations to provide a glimpse of soccer’s draw in the Philippines.

As some readers may have guessed, World Cup fever is non-existent among most Filipinos. Hardly any games are played live on basic cable, which, when you consider the fact that we get badminton, table tennis, billiards, Indy car racing and a daily WNBA game, seems like a significant snub. Metro Manila has a large expatriate community and worldly elites who’ve traveled widely and studied at Western universities, and together they have made the World Cup scene quite lively at upper-crust lounges in Makati and Alabang. So, if you’re in the right place, you can catch a little Copa contagion, but usually those places look more like West Chelsea in New York than anywhere else in the Philippines.

If Manny isn't involved in the World Cup, then how can it be considered a major event?

Surely, the World Cup organizers don’t fret over a scheduling conflict between the largest sporting event in the world and four boxing matches between Filipinos and Mexicans, but if they have any interest in the Philippine market, they should. The group stage and first two knockout rounds of the World Cup were overwhelmed by publicity leading up to Manny Pacquiao’s Sunday fight against Oscar Larios at the Araneta Coliseum, where Ali and Frazier fought the Thrilla in Manila in 1975.

No televised sporting event – not even basketball – captivates Filipinos like a Pac-Man fight. I stepped outside in between the second and third rounds Sunday to hear an eerie calm in my neighborhood. No tricycles buzzing people from point A to point B. No ya-yas ordering children around. No wandering vendors screaming “Tahoooooo!” Just silence until I started hearing cheers pop from all the open doors and windows in the neighborhood. The fight had resumed.

The fight itself pulled off the rare feat of being action-packed and boring at the same time. Manny pummeled Larios in nearly every round, but Oscar’s tough little tuckas kept plugging along in his Sisyphean way. It was more enthralling to watch Manny shatter his old record for most products endorsed in a two-hour time period, which seemed impossible after the endless parade of Pacquiao-themed commercials that aired during his January fight with Erik Morales. But Manny’s a warrior and you can never count him out. In between rounds Sunday, Manny peddled the X-Treme Magic Sing home videoke set, athletic socks, No Fear apparel, Ginebra San Miguel Gin, San Miguel Beer, McDonald’s fried chicken and Alaxan FR pain relievers. And those are merely the ads that come to mind first; I’m sure there were others. The clear winner is the videoke spot, which features Manny singing and dancing and showing off an impressive arsenal of awkward smiles. I’m praying they have this on YouTube. They don't. But here's McDonald's commercial starring the Pac-man.

I think the fight could have been more interesting if Manny’s sponsors required him to fight each round while using a different product. Sure, the sock and No Fear rounds would be uneventful, but we’d see what kind of man Manny really is in the rounds that require him to belt out OPM slow-jams like “Dahil Mahal Kita” (Because I Love You) while landing thunderous lefts to Larios’ jaw and the one where he throws back a few shots of Ginebra before dealing out an old-school ass-wooping.

The celebration in the streets afterward, the congratulations banners in the streets today were for Manny’s dominant performance. World Cup Fever was no match for Pac-Man Mania.

To some pundits, this is lamentable. I was quoted on the Philippine passion for basketball in a column in the South China Morning Post, which laments Filipinos lack of interest in soccer and its biggest event. I don’t agree with Alan Robles’ argument that Filipinos are “depriving themselves” by not following the world’s lead in adoring soccer or his implication that basketball is inferior to soccer because the former “has all the international reach of costumed wrestling.”

Now here's the perfect sport for this tropical nation. Smells like a delightful Cool Runnings sequel.

Basketball and soccer are different sports. There’s no reason to anoint one as superior than the other and then force everyone to play and watch the winner. I also feel strongly that Filipinos – and anyone else, for that matter – are free to choose whatever sport pleases them best. Why should they favor soccer because it’s the most popular? Many Filipino pundits have claimed the nation should develop its soccer program at the expense of basketball because Filipinos are not tall enough to succeed at the highest level of international competition. But if world championships and Olympic medals are the goal, why not cultivate Filipino archers, curlers and rhythmic gymnasts? Find a sport no one else cares about, master it and watch the medals pour in. These writers are forgetting why people play sports – to enjoy themselves. You don’t need any other reason. If people in the Philippines like hoops the best, it’s their right to choose hoops.
I’m aware that one could argue that Filipinos’ didn’t choose to devote themselves to basketball, that it was implanted by American colonialism. But Americans tried a lot harder to force baseball on Filipinos, with poor results, so people here must have also found some innate joy in the game. Furthermore, once we start blaming current-day Filipino preferences solely on American influences, how far are we from denying the existence of free will and advancing a dated-behaviorist theory that the world is a giant Skinner box and people’s actions, attitudes and decisions are nothing but the results of positive and negative conditioning.

I'm sure this lucky son-of-a-gun thanks his European colonizers every day for bringing soccer to his land.

And while we’re on the subject of colonial influences, I think Robles’ longing tone when he considers three “historical what-ifs” – chances for the Philippines to have been colonized by the British, Belgians and Germans – is a cute rhetorical maneuver but somewhat naïve. The United States’ colonial rule in the Philippines is nothing for Americans to be proud of. We beat Filipinos into submission and then ruled over the country with a sickeningly blithe air of paternalism, racism and missionary zeal. Still, it looks pretty damn enlightened compared to the way the Brits, Germans and Belgians raped Africa. I doubt Filipinos look at Africa – with AIDS ravaging parts of the continent; civil wars, lawlessness and warlordism that make the Philippine government’s conflicts with communists and Muslim separatists look like a Pre-K fight in the sandbox; and hunger and poverty just as bad as the Philippines – and say, “Those lucky bastards! They play soccer!”

Finally, I want to nit-pick Robles’ contention that importing American players is a sign of the decline in Philippine basketball. Imports have been a part of the game here since the 1970s, an era which is widely considered a golden age for Philippine basketball. Instead, it would be more accurate credit the PBA’s slide with the league’s openness to Filipino-American players, who, thanks to better coaching and competition in the States and the taller genes that often come with mixed blood, have crowded homegrown players out of the league and alienated some fans who want the national league to feature more born-and-bred Pinoys. There is no shortage of Filipino basketball players; Filipino-Americans are simply outcompeting many of them.

Robles is an accomplished, first-class columnist, but I disagree with his column. There is nothing wrong with Filipinos’ passion for basketball.