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

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

To Shrink a Player

Here is an article of mine that the online magazine published this week. The crack copy editors there called it The Incredible Shrinking Basketball Players, which I like a lot. If you'd rather listen to a podcast than read the article, suit yourself.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Head of the Class

This Engrish will never be topped. Blogger messed up my attempt to post this photo with the previous post, probably because the program could sense that this title deserved a post all to itself. I present you with the valedictorian of the Engrish crass of 2007: These Policeses Fear to Bleed.

Engrish for Dummies

Engrish never gets old. I considered describing these pirated DVD titles for you, but why bother when I can bring you that raw uncut? Behold, the finest in Engrish 8-in-1 and 12-in-1 DVD titles. Click on the images to get up close and personal with the DVD packages.

The Boxing Champion Strives for Hegemony Plan:
Hmm, I remember learning about hegemonic powers my freshman year in college. We were reading Emmanuel Wallerstein's theories on the cyclical rises and falls of hegemonic powers. I remember the Dutch, the Venetians, the British Empire and the United States of America, but somehow Professor Derluguian forgot to mention the greatest hegemon the world has ever seen: Ong-Bak, the Thai warrior. This DVD sets the record straight.

Surprisingly the Soldier:
The real surprise will come when I watch this disk's fourth film, "In China they Eat Dogs."

Global Fashionable Film:
I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on "The Constant Gardener" and "Donnie Brasco." I'll even throw in "The Game," which had a lot of buzz and was filmed before Michael Douglas' skin came to resemble that of the California Raisins. But "The General's Daughter" and "U-Turn" were never fashionable in any corner of the globe.

Impetuosity Killer Gunfight Series:
What better film to grace to cover of this series than the film that created the impetuous killer gunfight genre, "Babel?"

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pushing the Envelope -- PBA Mascots

The PBA is a marketing tool, and it has been one since the league's inception in 1975. PBA commissioners have never denied this. In an October 1980 interview in Atlas Sports Weekly, Commish Leo Prieto said the league was all about entertainment and providing an advertising platform for the franchises' other products. If the league's TV ratings went down or fans lost interest, Prieto predicted that the "money being used by these companies to maintain PBA teams will perhaps be channeled to other forms of advertising."

It sounds strange for the commissioner to refer to his professional basketball league as just another form of advertising, but that's what the PBA is, and that's a big part of why Philippine tycoons fight for the right to own franchises. For some businesses, PBA exposure can mean an huge bump in market share.

Twenty-seven years after Prieto's comments, the league is still going strong, probably because it has never forgotten its duty to its sponsors. The most obvious examples come from teams named after beer, hot dogs and cell phone plans, but the PBA's marketing mission is carried out all the way down the line, from TV ad tie-ins for league sponsors, to the music played during time outs to the mascots who traipse around the arena.

Mr. Softy and Casino Ethyl Alcohol get acquainted at halfcourt of the Ynares Center.

The mascots provide a glimpse of just how determined the league is to push its sponsors' products. Not only do individual teams have mascots -- the Alaska milk franchise sports a guy in a cow suit, Red Bull brings a walking energy drink with an evil grin and Welcoat outfits some poor soul in a giant paint can -- but even businesses that don't own PBA franchises can pay the league for the right to parade a mascot around PBA arenas.

Typically, sports mascots have some human qualities. Some are already people, like Spartans and Celtics. Others are animals -- wildcats or cougars that are easily anthropomorphized. Whether man or beast, they all tend to look cute in furry costumes. Well, PBA mascots are anything but typical. The league will turn any product into a mascot. Last conference, they dressed someone as a cheese-filled waffle on behalf of Waffle Time, a chain of snack stands that sells waffle sticks stuffed with cheese and hot dogs at light rail stations in Metro Manila. The X-treme Magic Sing Mic, a karaoke superhero with a microphone head, has been a mainstay at games for the past two years.

Hey kids, wave to the rubbing alcohol!

Many in the current crop, however, have no human qualities whatsoever. There's something eerie and jarring about watching a bottle of Casino Ethyl Alcohol sprout legs and wink at you. Welcoat's person-in-a-paint can is notable for being partially blind. It needs to be led through the Araneta Coliseum aisles by a seeing-eye person. Finally, it's hard to imagine anything more disturbing than the Omega Painkiller liniment bottle's immensely popular rapid fire pelvic thrusting. This salve is notorious for its role in college basketball teams' hazing rituals, where rookies are forced to apply generous amounts of the numbing agent to their balls. Thinking of this makes watching the mascot do the humpty dance in front of delighted toddlers even more upsetting.

But you know what? As long as it sells liniment, it's fine with the PBA. Enjoy the riveting footage of Omega man shaking whatever's inside his khaki safari shorts.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Great Texts, Vol. 3

Take this clean, stylized image of barbecue sticks in a jar of spiced vinegar. Nice, right? Now imagine these sticks holding hacked-up tubes of intestine, whole chicken heads from the neck up, and some unidentified brown knobs. Imagine them on a tray, covered with a clear plastic tarp, with little ants scampering all over the place. That's what Katrina is working with.

Each time I get a great text, I think to myself, "no text will ever top this." And then the next day I get a better one. Well, this may in fact be the ultimate Great Text. It comes from Katrina, a charming young woman who sells barbecue most afternoons on a street corner in my neighborhood. She doesn't sell that wussy barbecue of marinated chunks of pork/beef/chicken on a stick. She cooks that hard stuff -- pork intestines (isaw), chicken heads (helmet, ulo, leeg), pork ears (tenga), and other miniature impaled organs that I'm still not sure about. If you look closely, you can see tiny ants running around on the sticks before she throws them on the grill, after which they burn up pretty quick. Anyway, I stop and chat with her most days when I'm walking by, and once in a while he texts me. I remember when I put my number into her phone that the keys were really jammed and hard to use. That might explain some of this text, and yes, her English is limited so she probably doesn't spell wonderfully even without the technological handicap, but the errors are so fortuitous in this case, a divine -- or demonic -- hand seems to have had a part in it. One day, I checked my phone and saw that I received this text: "HELL GOD APURTINO TO U." Translation: "Hello, good afternoon to you."

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Who is Rafe Barth?

Great things about my man on the street interview about the elections on ABS-CBN's cable news shows today.
  1. My alter ego Rafe Barth, whose body language suggests certain developmental disabilities.
  2. Being called "Rafe Barth" on television.
  3. Rocking the billowing McSorley's white tee for all to see. I have done more to promote New York's oldest bar in Southeast Asia than any other living or dead man, woman or child. We're still waiting, however, for one of the potential customers I've introduce to McSorley's to actually travel to New York and visit the bar. One step at a time.
  4. Barth's nervous semi-lisp and tendency to speak through his teeth when trying to appear thoughtful.
  5. The hand on the stomach and the impromptu lunging in some of the set-up shots.
  6. Of course, Senate President Manny Villar, who is always, as his ads say, sipag at tiyaga.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Courts of Public Opinion

The national elections are a week away, so I thought I'd dust off this old story I wrote on spec about the issue of politicians using public funds to build basketball courts. It seems like a nice way to post something topical and make it look like I'm back on the grind here at Manila Vanilla, when you could just as easily argue that I'm a lazy bum who's recycling content. Touché.

Likewise, there are two sides to the basketball court issue. There's no disputing the fact that people make use of basketball courts -- for drying rice, holding community events, shelter from the elements and, of course, hoops. In the same breath, there's something very peculiar, especially to Western eyes, to see elected officials pouring money into glass backboards when millions of Filipinos struggle to feed themselves on a few bucks a day. When a family living out of a wheelbarrow rolls by the barangay covered court, it's hard not to wonder if government money could do more for that family than put up a hoop.

The municipal court in Laoag, Ilocos Norte, is pretty dang nice. Pretty reasonable, considering it's a provincial capital. The court is also housed within the City Hall complex. A nice touch, in case the mayor feels like getting some run after taking his merienda.

So, without further ado, here's the recycled story. I actually think it's pretty good, but without a strong news peg or local angle to pin on the article, I couldn't sell it to any U.S. publications. Maybe with the elections coming up I can rework it and fatten my pockets. I'll set it off in a dignified, dark blue typeface to match the piece's serious, newspaperman voice.

Tucked behind a layer of trees, maybe 20 yards from the sweet corn vendors and blaring traffic of Katipunan Avenue, is the Loyola Heights public basketball court. A pavilion-style roof protects players from regular deluges of rain and shades the court from the searing midday sun. Overhead lights allow games to stretch past midnight. The court is furnished with fiberglass backboards and spring-loaded breakaway rims built to withstand powerful slam dunks. And, painted on a wall in white, capital letters over a sky-blue background, are the names of the local politicians who helped secure the funds to build the court.

Less than a ten-minute walk from the court, naked children bathe in the brownish-green, trash-filled water of Diliman Creek. Out on Katipunan, squatters from nearby shantytowns scavenge for food thrown away by local restaurants and cafes.

Scenes of devastating poverty are on display throughout the Philippines, yet somehow, lavish basketball courts are never far from the beehive-like settlements of sheet metal and cinder block shacks piled one on top of another. With more than 30 million Filipinos living in poverty, fiberglass backboards and breakaway rims seem like the kind of largesse only Imelda Marcos could cook up.

Basketball is a national obsession in the Philippines. People’s passion for the sport is evident in their ability to use almost anything to play it – hoods of cars become backboards, coconut trees morph into stanchions and bent wires serve as rims. From NBA logos pasted on the sides of jeepneys to provincial fishermen who wear Indiana Pacers jerseys on the open sea, visual references to basketball clutter the nation. Street corner games in Manila spill into the road, forcing motorists to find detours or wait for a dead ball.

Aren't basketball courts useful? After they go to shit from neglect, your goats can graze on them, as we see here in Laoag's SK Sports Center.

Philippine politicians, aware of their constituents’ roundball fervor, have found ways to parlay the sport’s broad appeal into electoral success. They build courts and sponsor local tournaments to win votes. The public officials responsible for constructing the courts call them essential, multi-purpose centers of community life, while critics argue that erecting hoops equates to cynical exploitation of Filipinos’ love for the game.

If basketball is indeed an opiate for the masses, then no politician has drugged more Filipinos than Freddie Webb, a former senator whose successful candidacy in 1992 was due largely to fame he earned as a guard in the Philippine Basketball Association in the 1970s. “I have the most number of gymnasiums built in the Philippines,” Webb said, estimating that he helped construct more than 120. “I don’t think anyone else has even built 40.”

Webb used his pork barrel – annual discretionary funds each senator receives for development projects – to pepper the archipelago with covered courts and hardwood gyms, with budgets ranging from 2-to-6 million Philippine Pesos – when Webb was in office, between $80,000 and $240,000 – each. Webb’s quest to furnish the nation with top-knotch basketball courts had its origin in his youth. “Every day I’d come home from school, I’d look up at the sky and talk to God,” Webb explained. He would say: “God, please don’t let it rain, because I want to play basketball.”

Basketball courts are worthy investments because they give communities an enormous boost in esteem and instill disciplined, healthy lifestyles in children, according to Webb. In addition, courts are used for more than just basketball games. Farmers dry rice on the flat surfaces and they serve as stages for amateur singing contests, beauty pageants and town hall meetings.

Other government officials and political observers reject Webb’s argument. Constructing courts and sponsoring tournaments are just a means of buying votes, according to Aries Arugay, professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. “The politician merely wants it so he can put his name on it and he can collect brownie points,” Arugay said.

The ploy works because Filipinos expect little from a government that consistently fails to provide them with basic needs, added Arugay. “Filipinos are easy to please,” he said. “If they feel any government presence, they appreciate it.”

Academics aren’t the only people who criticize public spending on basketball. Fellow athletes-turned-politicians and members of Webb’s senate staff have also repudiated the practice.

“It’s always a waste,” said Luis Varela, a popular PBA player from the 1970s who now serves as vice-mayor of Caloocan City in Metro Manila. “There are so many things that people need. Things like medicine and school buildings; that’s more important.”

Instead of basketball, the government should sponsor income-generating projects like microfinance lending and food cooperatives, according to Jean Franco, Webb’s former press secretary. The most egregious misuse of public funds comes from politicians constructing courts in communities that already have them, she added. “Sometimes you can see basketball courts right next to each other or just a few meters apart,” Franco said. “It’s not rational.”

Webb admits the political advantages of constructing gymnasiums, but insists their value is multiplied by the numerous ways communities benefit from them. “There’s nothing wrong with playing the electoral game,” he says. “What matters is to achieve that construction, because if you put up this gym, there will be less people that will get sick, less people in the hospital and less people you have to buy medicine for, because they’re fit and they’re less likely to use drugs.”

Councilor Franz, ever the family man, endorsing Nestle Milo products with his son.

Politicians can serve hard-to-reach constituents through basketball, according to Quezon City councilman and former professional player Franz Pumaren. He can’t improve lighting or roads in his district’s squatter communities because it would recognize the squatters’ right to live on land they don’t legally own, Pumaren said.

Instead, he sponsors an annual tournament, the Pumaren Cup, which holds its final game at the Araneta Coliseum, the arena that hosted the Thrilla in Manila boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975 and the local answer to Madison Square Garden. The tournament is “not sufficient to address the whole problem of certain areas,” Pumaren said, but it allows people to “forget about their current situation.” And, for the finalists who get to play in the Big Dome, he added, “it’s a dream come true.”

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Return! Alex Compton Story

I've been shamed into posting again. I've been pretty busy lately, but I'll try to get my act together and keep this blog alive. As a warm up, read this story I wrote for the Madison, Wisc., Isthmus about Alex Compton, the Philippines' third most-beloved white man, after Paul Anka and myself. In this tryptych, we see a still of Alex from one of his legendary CoffeMate commercials, a shot of him playing for Madison West HS during their 1992 state championship run, and a photo from his days as a men's undergarment spokesmodel in the Philippines.