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, December 13, 2007

Back in Print

Up to this point in my time in the Philippines, I think you can consider this story from Seattle Weekly to be my magnum opus on the PBA and imports. It's about "Mr. Everything" Rosell Ellis, winner of the PBA's Best Import award last conference and the man who's about 40 percent responsible for Alaska's 2007 Fiesta Conference title (that's a pretty large share when you think of all the other guys on the team and the coaching staff). Ellis is a great storyteller and he's had a very impressive overseas career, which has also led him to some hilarious situations around the world. I hope people enjoy reading about him as much as I enjoyed spending time with him.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

You Tube Highlights

I have about an hour to blow before playing basketball -- I try to arrive at the Barangay around 10:30 a.m., when it's officially too hot for any sane individual to be running and jumping, juking and jiving, etc. -- and that's not enough time to do any real writing, so here I am!

Although I have no demographic information about the Manilla V. audience, only a few hints from comments left by readers (most of which I suspect are Pessoa-like heteronyms created by my father), I'm pretty sure that most of you are Americans or non-Filipinos. That may be changing slightly, but how many Pinoys really need to read about basketball and life in the Philippines? So, in the name of exposing the world at large to some of the finest examples of local culture, I figured a little tour of Philippines-related YouTube videos would be instructive.

The country has enjoyed a bump in Internet popularity in recent months, mostly thanks to some zany YouTube videos that caught the eye of millions of people online and eventually garnered international media attention.

The valedictorian of this group are the dancing prisoners from the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center. They do these giant, North Korean Mass Game-style synchronized dances of songs like "YMCA," the Black Eyed Peas' "Bebot" and my favorite, an innuendo-laced Tagalog song called "Jumbo Hot Dog" by the Masculados. Of course, their most famous performance is a near exact reproduction of the dance moves in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, which has been viewed more than 9 million times. I'm going to embed a medley they performed in front of the Cebu provincial Capitol in August. Once you view one of their videos YouTube will throw up links to all the others with hardly any prodding. It's impressive and hilarious stuff, but one or two videos is enough for most viewers.

Then there's the Weng Weng Rap! Who was Weng Weng? Thanks to Andrew Leavold, an Australian documentary filmmaker who has devoted years to researching the 2-foot-9 actor's life (keep up the good fight, bro. You're not the only one obsessed with the minutiae of Philippine culture!) and who has also written this ridiculously thorough biography of Weng Weng on IMDB, we know that Weng Weng starred in a handful of spy/action spoof films, two of which are available through Netflix. The obvious and sole gimmick of these films is that the shortest lead actor in the history of film was out there kicking ass and taking names. My favorite piece of Weng Weng trivia is this wickedly ironic tidbit: His first hit, "For Yu'r Height Only," was the only film from Imelda Marcos' uber-notorious 1981 Manila International Film Festival to be picked up for major distribution. Instead of showcasing the best of Philippine talent and culture, Imelda exported a freak show, which, in some ways seems appropriate. Weng Weng, who died in 1992, has been reborn on the popular YouTube video "Weng Weng Rap," which was recently highlighted by Will Ferrell on Funny or Die. I think we can all agree that the "tiny human being" line takes the cake.

Let's keep the Little People theme going and look at another clip, "Bayot Basketball," which points the spotlight at an exhibition game that has taken the Visayas by storm over the past few years, Aksyon Radyo Cebu's Unano-Bading Showdown. The game pits midgets (unano) against gays ("bading" in Tagalog and "bayot" in Visaya) in a choreographed, Harlem Globetrotters-style game. I have been to this game, and let me say, as a fan of lowbrow entertainment, this stretched me to my limits. I heard from Peace Corps Volunteers in Cebu that this video was shot by an American friend of a PCV who was vacationing in the Philippines. That explains the goofy commentary and intertitles, which just drip with mean-spirited superiority complex. Then again, foreigners can live here for years and never know better, so I won't make too many excuses for the videographer. It might be hard for some to watch, but there's no point in denying the footage exists, so here it is.

We have time for one more: Bakekang. Americans who watch Ugly Better may have some understanding of the Telenovela, but that show is really novela-lite. Multiply the love triangles by 10, square the tear-filled reaction shots and remove any sense of responsible broadcasting, and you have the straight dope. I would need a crack team of intellectuals, including Henry Louis Gates, Toni Morrison, UP Anthropologist Michael Tan and Cornel West to parse the multi-layered racism and post-colonial decay in this clip, but man, the acting is FANTASTIC.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Five-figure discount

Oh snap! I went to bed last night, woke up and saw that this Web site has had more than 10,000 hits since May 2007! Sarap-buhay naman! How sweet it is. I especially want to thank my father, who I'm guessing is personally responsible for about 8,000 of those hits. You make me look good, pops!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

NBA names

Remember my post about PBA names from a couple weeks ago? They're compiling a list of great NBA names over at Seattle Weekly. I had to nominate Priest Lauderdale. How could my favorite 7-4 man-mammoth get overlooked like that? I think this means we need to do a list of PBA import names soon. Watch out Cisco Oliver and Pig Miller, I'm coming for you.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Opening up the vault

I'm busy writing some other stuff but don't want to completely neglect the blog, as I often do. I came across this short essay about Philippine basketball's eternal conundrum: Why are Filipinos so devoted to basketball? I mention some of the oft-repeated theories, but basically conclude that there's no definitive answer, they're all true in varying degrees. On top of that, there's something else. You can feel it, like invisible glue that holds it all together, but for the time being it eludes description, and you just leave it for what it is: basketball is a part of Filipinos' lives in a way that's different from any other nationality.

Basketball and Culture (inspired, in part, by Nick Joaquin's History and Culture)

Ask a Filipino why he eats menudo and he’ll probably look at you funny. What do you mean, “why?” It’s a part of his culture. Filipinos have been eating it for generations. There’s nothing to question.

Ask why he plays basketball and you’ll get the same look. After months of searching for the answer to why Filipinos love the sport so much, I’ve become convinced that the lack of a precise explanation is the best indicator of how deeply basketball is ingrained in Philippine culture.

The question is as much a riddle to the elder statesmen of the local game as it is to me. Their responses range from zen-like koans to complete surrender. “Somehow, basketball caught the eye of the Filipino,” said Mauricio “Moying” Martelino, a former commissioner of the Philippine Basketball League and one-time secretary general of the Asian Basketball Confederation. “Why, for heaven’s sake, even I cannot understand it.”

Commissioner Jun, Rest in Peace.

Emilio “Jun” Bernardino, who served nine years as commissioner of the PBA before assuming his current post atop the NCAA, offered this vague maxim: “Filipinos took to basketball like a fish takes to water.”

While the origins of the hypnotic spell basketball has cast upon the Philippines are hard to grasp, certain events in history have surely helped boost the game’s popularity.

For decades, the country was among the world’s best basketball-playing nations. The first Philippine Olympic team in 1936 placed fifth, but lost only one game in the tournament to the gold-medalist United States. When the Philippine team returned from the 1954 world championships in Brazil with a bronze medal, team captain Caloy Loyzaga told the Philippine Free Press that the team was “lionized at the airport and given a rousing welcome which I will never forget to my dying day.”

The immense pride Filipinos took from their basketball team pushed the sport to greater heights. “Winners will always generate followers – not only spectator followers but player followers,” Martelino said. “And we kept winning and winning.”

Although Americans introduced basketball through the public schools in 1911, the Philippine game is more than post-colonial imitation. The Filipino novelist and cultural critic Nick Joaquin called colonial influences tools, which Filipinos would internalize and use in their own ways long after foreign rule had ceased. “Ultimately, it seems, every invader fades into whatever tool he may have brought along,” writes Joaquin in his essay “Culture as History.”

Scenes like this aren't going anywhere.

Americans may have brought basketball to the Philippines, but Filipinos have made it their own. The sport is a tool, in Joaquin’s sense of the word. It has become a part of the Philippine identity, something Filipinos living all over the country share. It has become, irreversibly, a part of local culture.

This fact, however, doesn’t stop critics from complaining that basketball’s role in society is too large. They say the nation has long since fallen from its perch as one of the powers in international basketball, so Filipinos should drop the round, orange balls and pick up pool cues, boxing gloves and badminton rackets instead. These critics might as well argue that French cuisine is healthier and more delicious than Filipino food and encourage people to trade in their sinigang for seafood bisque, to fork over their sisig for a plate of steak frites. It will never happen.

Basketball is intertwined with the lives of generations of Filipinos, and its role in local culture can’t easily be extinguished. Joaquin wrote the following paragraph about aspects of Spanish cuisine that were absorbed into Philippine culture. But if you substitute the word “basketball” each time Joaquin mentions “adobo and pan de sal,” the paragraph still makes perfect sense:

“If you tell the Pinoy-on-the-street that adobo and pan de sal are but a thin veneer of Westernization, the removal of which will reveal the “true” Filipino … , the Pinoy may retort that, as far as he is concerned, adobo and pan de sal are as Filipino as his very own guts; and indeed one could travel the world and nowhere find … anything quite like Philippine adobo and pan de sal.”