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

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


A photo this wonderful needs no caption. Taken by Marielle Nadal this morning on the South Superhighway.

Friday, February 16, 2007


Images like these make me downright mushy. They're a common sight at basketball courts all over the Philippines. The grassy area around the perimeter of a cement court becomes a graveyard for sneakers' soles. People use a pair until the rubber bottom peels off. Then it gets kicked to the side of the court and lingers there, partly as a memento of all the hard fouls and fast breaks it survived, and partly as a send-off into oblivion where the grass slowly grows over the remains. If you were a basketball shoe, isn't this how you'd want to live and die -- on the feet of someone who treasured you so much that he wore you until you literally fell to pieces, then finding eternal rest with front row seats to the game that was your raison d'être?

I try not to get carried away like this often. It's pretty likely my rhapsodic basketball musing is all fantasy. People wear their shoes until the point of near-disintegration because they're expensive. They leave them behind at the court because no one in their right mind goes around picking up old rubber soles (or taking pictures of them). But for an outsider, one who doesn't understand everything Filipino but who shares Filipinos' love for basketball, images like this -- the footprints, the homemade backboard nailed to a coconut tree, the dust cloud that follows every dribble on a dirt court -- are some of the most beautiful sights in the country.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Great Texts, Vol. 2

Wow. I feel extremely fortunate. Great texts are a rare thing, but just a day after I put up the inaugural "Great Texts" post, I got another fabulous text. And I say "fabulous" for a reason.

This comes from my agent, Clyde Babao, of Icon International Modeling Agency. I'm going to glaze over just how ridiculous that statement is, and I'd appreciate it if my readers, whoever they are, would do the same. Clyde set me up for a foreign beer commercial, for some brand called Encar. I'm an extra, but the money is pretty good and really easy. Besides, who could say no to being on television, even if it's in Tajikistan or the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, or wherever this beer is sold. (Companies from Europe and elsewhere in Asia film commercials in the Philippines because it's cheaper than doing it on native soil. Chumps like me, who will "work" for $140 a day or less, enable this.)

So here's Clyde's text, telling me what kind of clothes I need to bring to the shoot: "For rafael. Bring party outfit, fabulous outfit. all light or white or silver color. Pls txt bk. Call time for shoot to follow."

This is one Little Rascal that Bill Cosby can't stop you from seeing.

Hmm. A fabulous, silver party outfit. That's tough. I left all my Hammer pants in New York. Ditto for my white seersuckers. And when I go out partying, the look I go for is not shiny and fabulous. It's more -- dare I say it? -- heterosexual. So what's Clyde gonna get? A pair of jeans and a white, knock-off Hollister polo shirt with horizontal brown stripes. I bought it at Greenhills for $3, and the label says Hollinger, and to me, that's fabulous. I'll also be rolling in there with a Little Rascals-style black eye, which I picked up from an errant elbow in a basketball game a few nights ago. Totally fab.

Newsbreak Postscript

I want to thank Glenda Gloria, managing editor at Newsbreak, for weighing in on the publication's future, online and hopefully in print. You can read her comment, from an earlier post, here.

I should also add that while I put more than 1500 words into doomsday predictions for Newsbreak's new direction, I have admired the publication since I arrived in the Philippines a year ago and started reading it, and I felt honored to have contributed a couple stories to it in late 2006. In this case, I hope Newsbreak survives and my fire and brimstone prophecies are proved wrong.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Great Texts, Vol. 1

It's no secret that text messaging is quite popular in the Philippines. In fact, that may be the understatement of the year. I go through a couple hundred texts a week, and I'm probably somewhere around the median. At one peso per text for most pre-paid deals, that's too expensive for a lot of people, but there are also millions of folks who are constantly working on two or three cell phones. I'm at the point where I rant and curse when somebody who could be texting me calls instead. The numbers on my phone's rubber key pad have all worn off, except for 9 and the pound sign, from what must be approaching 20,000 text messages. As far as texting goes, I've gone native.

I just can't quit you, Nokia.

Every now and then, I receive a great text message. What nominates an SMS for the pantheon? The possibilities are endless, but some common examples might be garbled English, extremely creative Taglish abbreviations, "good morning" texts peppered with rabid Christian dogma and texts that are so crazy that they're indescribable. I intend to record the best of them here.

Text #1: The inaugural great text is a doozy. It comes from a textmate, Weng, who is in her early 20s and lives in Boracay, where she works at a beach resort. Textmates are people who you don't really know well, but you exchange text niceties with them anyway. There is often some romantic subtext to it, and textmates definitely try to flirt, although it's just for fun and it seems rare, although not unheard of, for textmates to become real-life couples. Because I'm a big white guy, I have a disturbingly large rolodex of textmates that spans the country. It's goofy and embarrassing, but if someone wants to send small-talk text messages with me, I usually return the favor.

So here's Weng's text: "Bz! As of nw, we r preparng 4 the chinese nw year. lumipat km ng bhouse. im wd my daughter nicol. she s 3 yr old jst ths jan. surprise!"

Translation: "I've been busy. We're preparing for Chinese New Years. We moved to a different boarding house. I'm with my daughter Nicole. She just turned three years old in January. Surprise!"

That "surprise" had me rolling. Weng has been my textmate for a few months, and I've had to ignore some very awkward texts referring to me as "SWEET LAZY HUNK." I knew a bit about her, but she held onto this special surprise for a while.

The Cockhouse. Anything less would be uncivilized.

Text #2: From Alex, a Korean volunteer in Laoag, Ilocos Norte. We met when I visited Laoag in December and spent a strange evening together at a local watering hole called the "Cockhouse," which was more wholesome than it sounds, although not the kind of place where you'd bring your Bible study group.

The next morning I received this text: "good am. Pleased to see guys. :) this is Alex de korean volunteer, and let's get to be bond again someday. Take care!"

Engrish never gets old. I've gotten to be bond with a lot of great people here in the Philippines, but Alex was special.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Newsbroken: What will become of Newsbreak?

NOTE: This discussion rages on at this blog. No need to duplicate it on both sites.

There once was a little magazine here in the Philippines called Newsbreak. Now, it's a little Web site. I wrote a couple stories for the magazine, but I don't think I'll bother now that it's Web-only. I know someone who interns there. Here's what she wrote in her blog about the move from print to online:

"Six years after publishing its first issue, Newsbreak has radically reformed, becoming a web-based operation and ceasing its fortnightly publication. The major factors driving this transformation were Newsbreak’s financial constraints, and its desire for independent ownership. Thus, when Newsbreak’s primary backer opted to cease funding the magazines, the editors and writers at Newsbreak decided the magazine should make the jump to independent ownership. By doing so, they could ensure continued full editorial independence – a rarity here in the Philippines because it is businessmen who have the means to own publications, and the same businessmen always have their hands in at least half a dozen other businesses as well. No certainty exists that someone would have opted to buy Newsbreak, thus providing it the necessary funds to continue its fortnightly publication, but by making the decision to be independently insured, Newsbreak all but ensured the realization of its lingering financial troubles. It is a testament to the necessary sacrifices made in the name of independent journalism."

The once proud pages of Newsbreak.

And then: "Surprisingly, at least for me, everybody appears in relatively high spirits. Newsbreak has existed with financial difficulties for the last six years, and so the fact the it finally closed its print publication did not surprise anyone. One photographer told me that he anticipated the publication’s closure two years prior.

In terms of losses, the photographers and in-house artist were let go with Newsbreak’s move to the Internet. Everybody else stayed, and none of the writers appear to consider moving to another publication given the magazine's bi-monthly closure. That fact alone strikes me as symbolic of the familial atmosphere and relations within Newsbreak. Newsbreak employs only four full-time writers, and all of the writers are as dedicated to Newsbreak as the editors. Many of the reporters and editors have known and worked together for more than a decade, specifically at a newspaper called the Manila Times. That paper also underwent major upheaval, the result being that reporters and editors quit in mass. Thus, as one Newsbreak reporter told me, what they are facing now is “nothing new.”

With that said, however, I think the transition from a print medium to the Internet (alone) required great flexibility on the part of the Newsbreak staff. In particular, the editors grew up in a world without Internet and where they valued seeing their material in hard copy. But everybody ultimately accepted that Newsbreak did not have the financial means to publish bi-monthly, and so it needed to find a new medium and format if it was going to continue to exist. Everybody at the office is very excited about Newsbreak’s new website, and dedicated to ensuring that Newsbreak maintains its journalistic output. Moreover, Newsbreak considers itself a multi-faceted center - part of its new identity - opposed to just an on-line publication. As such, it will produce long reports on different aspects of the government and hold academic forums on a variety of topics. Ultimately, I am not sure how the center will evolve, and I don’t think the folks at Newsbreak know either. But they have an idea, they are dedicated to the Newsbreak and its associated, newly minted center, and perhaps most important for the future, they have a better business sense that when they started six years ago."

Here's what I have to say:

"If I'm curt with you it's because time is a factor."

Aww, damn. Here comes the Grinch. I doubt this will do much to improve my public image in the Fulbright community, but, to quote Harvey Keitel's character, The Wolf, from Pulp Fiction, "Let's not start sucking each other's dicks just yet."

What I mean to say is that Newsbreak's switch to a Web-only format should not be viewed as a positive development. In the publishing business, when a magazine's pages get thinner, the margins smaller and the paper of poorer quality, the end is near. I noticed this happening with Newsbreak sometime in early 2006, and by moving online they are taking a step closer to becoming irrelevant.

Journalism may be a noble endeavor and a vital part of a working democracy, but it is not primarily those things. It's a business. For the most part, it's been that way since Gutenberg. For news to matter, it has to reach an audience. For it to really matter, it needs to reach a wide audience. And because publications contain important news and reach wide audiences, they can make money through advertising.

From what I've heard, Newsbreak's funding came in a novel manner -- mostly grants, not much advertising. This insulated the magazine from meddlesome, agenda-toting owners, but it also insulated Newsbreak from the bottom-line realities of the media business and it probably insulated them from readers as well. Because Newsbreak didn't rely on circulation-driven advertising for funding, it was free to print what its editors wanted, not what readers wanted. Ideally, the two would intersect; unfortunately, they often don't. In fact, it seems that there's an almost inverse relationship between what a media professor might call good or important journalism and what people want to read. The reporting inside Newsbreak probably benefited from the private-funding model, as did whoever Newsbreak's readers were. But a publication that isn't beholden to an audience is antithetical to its main function -- reaching the public.

For all their flaws, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Philippine Star, the Cebu Sun-Star, Tagalog tabloids and news programs like 24 Oras, Saksi and TV Patrol are more vital organs of Philippine journalism than Newsbreak because they inform the masses. With its increasingly limited audience, Newsbreak is becoming journalism's answer to the tree in the old Zen koan: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Until Newsbreak went online, this argument was purely academic. When the magazine was still on newsstands, it may not have had a wide readership, but its limited audience mattered. The move to the Internet could mean the end of Newsbreak as an important publication in the Philippines. Newsbreak's audience, already small, will surely shrink on the Web. While the college-educated professionals and public policy types who probably made up most of Newsbreak's print readership certainly have access to the Internet, what will draw them to Newsbreak's Web site? There isn't much evidence out there to indicate that the Philippine audience consumes much news online, and many of those who do probably visit foreign news sources that are hard to find here -- the BBC, The New York Times, The Guardian. The Internet media landscape is a lot closer to a Walter Lippman-esque pluralism than television or print, and in a sea of so many voices, what will draw the online audience to Newsbreak?

Usually, when a publication rolls out a new product, like a Web site, it spends nearly as much money promoting it as it does developing the site. I haven't seen any attempt by Newsbreak to market its new format, unless you count an editorial that announced the change in the magazine's final print issue. That's not enough, and if they're counting on word of mouth to draw people to the site, they are insane. Again, it seems like the journalists at Newsbreak don't care about reaching an audience; they only care about their work, which is very, very good, but journalism doesn't and shouldn't exist in a vacuum.

While I believe Newsbreak's overall impact will suffer from moving to the Web, I can see it remaining relevant as a provider of stories for mainstream news organizations. As long as the journalists at Newsbreak continue turning out good work, and there's no reason to think that they won't, reporters for bigger newspapers and television shows will visit the site to find investigative stories and angles that their organizations may have missed. Then, the mainstream journalists will rework the stories, the public will get the information they need and hopefully Newsbreak will get some of the credit. But since nothing Newsbreak does seems to indicate that its staff even cares about having readers, let alone receiving credit for their reporting, perhaps serving as background catalysts for breaking important news will be enough satisfy them.

I am sad to say so, but no matter how you spin it, no matter how high you keep your spirits, the move to the Web seems like a death knell for Newsbreak as an important Philippine news source.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Calling all wackos. We're looking for senators.

I'm sure oppposition senatorial candidate Antonio Trillanes, a Navy lieutenant who's been stuck in prison for years for his involvement in a 2003 coup attempt, was thrilled that the first four paragraphs of a story that should have been about his candidacy were instead devoted to Victor Santos, a colorful nobody who seems like he filed his election papers for the heck of it.

“If I am elected, I will change the name of the country to ‘The Greatest Land’ and you [the Filipinos] will be called ‘The Greatest People’ as a symbol of your freedom,” Santos told reporters. The stated reason for these changes is that Filipinos will be under Spain's yoke as long as they and their country are named after Spanish king Philip II. The ridiculous passports would be a plus, too.

The founder of ULTIMATE democracy!

Then, to make sure he'd be portrayed in the media as a total quack, Santos announced his platform would be "ultimate democracy," which he declined to explain. Instead, he would personify the concept after winning a seat in the Senate.

I don't blame the Philippine Daily Inquirer's Jerome Aning for leading his story with Santos' antics. Trillanes is pretty boring and clearly delusional. His campaign war room, I mean prison cell, will serve as the nerve center for a nationwide web of Trillanes' family and friends, who will text their friends and tell them to vote for Trillanes. Brilliant!

Trillanes, apparently unaware of the nature of Philippine governance, said he was running for senator because it is "the only way through which I can continue battling corruption and fight for the common welfare.” Uhh, is it opposite day? I got the impression most senators considered it their duty to spread corruption and ignore the common welfare.

Gimme Two Pair!! At Php 100,000 Each!

Maybe Nelly can afford Nike's super-limited edition, hand-stitched in Italy Air Force 1s, one pair made of Anaconda and the other Crocodile. The sneakers, on display at Nike's Air Force 25 exhibit to promote the 25th anniversary of Air Force 1s (in New York we call them Uptowns), sit in a glass case in a dim but warmly-lit room with plush walls and a looped film describing the Italian craftsmanship that went into each sneaker. A nook in one wall has cards for people to leave bids in a silent auction for the shoes. The minimum bid is 100,000 pesos for a pair! That's $2,000. To provide a little context, the Philippine government considers those earning something in the neighborhood of Php 15,000 a year to be at the poverty line. Without getting into the farcical idea of living on $300 a year, it's safe to say that these shoes are worth more than many Filipinos' lives.

If Imelda collected Uptowns, she'd put Fat Joe to shame.

You'd think that of all places, there might be a taboo associated with fetishistic shoe collecting in the Philippines. Imelda Marcos' closet full of thousands of pairs of designer shoes, bought with plundered government money, is one of the few subjects -- along with prostitution and a generalized notion of government corruption -- that many Americans think of when the Philippines comes up in conversation. Then again, to most of the people lusting after the $2,000-Nikes, Imelda's collection is probably something to envy rather than be ashamed of. Perhaps these brown low-tops will be among the crown jewels in their own graft-funded wardrobes someday! Sweet!!!

The exhibit includes about 30 pairs of rare Uptowns owned by some of Manila's most avid collectors, arranged in a beehive pattern on a wall in a room next to the one housing the snake- and croc-skin kicks. They all look like they were borrowed from Fat Joe's New Jersey crib -- never worn and clean enough for Joey Crack to lick the sole, as he did repeatedly in his episode of MTV "Cribs". I have a soft spot for Uptowns, however, and the collection was nifty enough to make me forget the gauche, obscene aspect of spending more on shoes than most people earn in a week and just drool over low-tops decorated like the Philippine flag and ones with a blue "Biggie" written in script near the heel. I'll go back to the exhibit and get some pictures for the blog sometime.

Would you rather own these or feed your family for a month? Do I even have to ask?

Of course, AF 1s are basketball sneakers, and most things associated with the sport are granted plenty of lee-way here. That goes for players, who are given free passes for garden-variety misbehavior at nightclubs, and also for politicians, whose misdeeds are overlooked in part because they build basketball courts and sponsor barangay tournaments. It goes for me, as well, when I walk into a neighborhood full of people who might not want to be bothered by an American writer/researcher, but who warm to me after seeing a trick with the ball and a slick drive to the basket. Is there something repugnant about blowing Php 100,000 on a pair of rubber shoes? Sure there is. But it's forgivable because it's about basketball.

The exhibit, at the Manila DJ Club in Fort Bonifacio Global City, is a characteristic over-the-top example of the rags or riches conditions that exist in the Philippines. The night before I visited the Nike exhibit, I drank "extra strong" Red Horse beers with construction workers, some of whom left school after third grade, who are staying in temporary plywood sheds alongside of a road they're re-paving. The next night, at the DJ Club, I could sip a tumbler of top-shelf cognac while reading wall-size posters describing the dominance of '80s NBA players Calvin Natt and Jamaal Wilkes, two of the Air Force 1s' first crop of endorsers. Ain't it grand?