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

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Good Old Days

In my last post, about a white-looking Mestizo basketball hopeful, I suggested that if his hoops career hit a dead-end, he should just become an artista. But a reader wisely shot down this notion. If the young lad indeed has blond hair and blue eyes, he's too white for telenovela directors, who prefer their mestizo actors with Eurasian features and dark hair and eyes. Olats for you, pare! This is true. When I appeared in Bakekang as the titular character's baby's daddy, I was playing a white American. This wasn't much of a stretch. I am a white American. But the director still sent  PAs scurrying off to the Hi-Top Supermarket on Quezon Avenue to buy sachets of Creamsilk black conditioner to darken my coif. 

My astute reader offered the consolation that the white guy could still pose for SM print ads and billboards, and I'd like to tack on a few more tacky local brands like JAG and Lee Pipes (a personal favorite) that seem to believe in the perhaps antiquated, perhaps true notion that the best way to sell junk in the Philippines is to slap a white face on it. Something inside me writhes and cringes every time I write a sentence like that, but I believe there is still hope. The "American =  good" equation that is the scourge of some Pinoy advertising seems to be on the decline. From what I can tell, Philippine popular culture in the 1970s and '80s was way more saturated with clumsy Amboy-themed advertising than it is now. My basis for this observation is print ads I saw in volume after volume of old sports magazines like Champ and Atlas Sports Weekly, which I read as part of my basketball research, and old commercials on YouTube. 

Check out this classic, Dragon Katol:

And then this doozy, Old Captain Rum:

And, perhaps the Philippines' greatest employer of non-professional white actors, tobacco companies. Thank you, Lucio Tan!

Looking at these commercials, I have mixed feelings. The thought that Philippine businesses have such low opinions of consumers that they aired this schlock and presumably profited from it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Of course, advertising in any country relies on some lowest common denominator appeal, so we should get too holier than thou with the Philippines. But the racial subtext of the commercials, in which a couple of white folks slapping each other and taking Tagalog mispronunciation to dizzying new heights can sell a mosquito coil better than Pinoy actors, is a bitter pill to swallow, especially for a white guy like me who tried to live responsibly and respectfully during my time in Manila. 

On the other hand, how fun would it have been to be the Dragon Katol guy? You get to wear a cowboy hat, slap yourself and butcher a language, and at the end of the day, you get paid. Does this guy know that he's a pop-culture reference now, that a generation of Filipinos can sit around laughing about the way he says "Lamok siguradong tepok!" That must be fun. Likewise, beating down a gorilla who stole your woman and then befriending him over a bottle of old captain rum is something I'd like to put on my TV resume. And playing Jai Alai for Champion Cigarettes? The bomb. In regards to starring in funky advertisements, I definitely missed the boat during my stint as a white man in Manila. 

I should also mention that Philippine consumers, who may have been earnestly underestimated by the advertisers, have flipped the script and turned the question into something more confusing and meta, by re-appropriating these awful commercials as treasured bits of YouTube kitsch. The Champion commercial that I embedded is one of 84 clips uploaded by a user named Flagwavercharacter, which are titled "Pinoy Memories" 1-84. The wildly popular recent Alaska Milk commercial starring Willy Miller, which contained clips of a 1974 Alaska commercial featuring Cisco Oliver's noble failures at pronouncing phrases like "Galing mo!" and "Masarap?", brought that retro cleverness into the mainstream. It was like saying, "Damn, we were on some silly shit back then!" and everyone loved it. For months, kids ran around giggling to lines like "Alaska man!" I wouldn't be surprised if they still are. 

You keep peeling off the layers, and the story keeps getting more complicated. You might was well laugh along the way.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Response to a reader

Yesterday, a reader left this comment on an old post of mine about the PBA's bewildering and unpredictably applied set of rules regarding Filipino citizenship and what makes a Fil-foreign player eligible to play in the league: 

Here's a real case scenario... up & coming 14yo basketball star, father Filipino Mestizo of dual citizenship, US/Filipino, mother, blond New Zealander. This 14yo was born in USA & moved to Manila when he was 1yo... given recognized Filipino citizenship as a baby & currently attends a private 'ex-pat' Manila High School. 

Now here's the catch... based on above he should be considered truly a Filipino for the league right? BUT by chance of genetics he looks caucasian... blue eyes, fair skin, brown hair, speaks only Taglish at best, even though father is fluent (his parents don't converse in Tagalog so he never learned it properly). 

Other Filipino kids laugh when he insists he is a Filipino citizen... yet this kid is predicted to be at least 6'4 when he stops growing... and he's good, some have their eyes on him for the future.... so will Pinoys 'accept' him as Pinoy with his blue eyes or will he be discriminated against because of his coloring & comes from a priveleged family? 

Something to think about.... interested to see what your readers think, should such a kid be considered Filipino or foreign?
So let's break it down. Legally, this kid has no worries about being allowed to play in the PBA. If he's a Filipino citizen, the son of a Filipino citizen and living in the Philippines, there's no legal way to keep him out of the league. I guess he has less than one half Filipino blood because his father is Tisoy (although I'm not sure if we mean mestizo-looking with two Filipino parents, one of whom could have mixed Caucasian heritage or could just be Spanish, or if we mean one of the father's parents is Filipino and the other foreign... wow, this gets complicated fast). It doesn't matter. If the player is already holding a passport, than it is a moot point. We learned this before the draft with Gabe Norwood. Because he was issued a passport and represented the country in international competition, the Department of Justice didn't bother jumping through all the usual hoops in his case. It merely stated that he was a Filipino passport holder and citizen, hence he was eligible for the PBA draft. Norwood is a good point of comparison for our hypothetical player, since Norwood is also one-fourth Filipino, and he's in the league. 

With Fil-Ams entering the league now, their paperwork and eligibility issues seem closely pegged to their abilities as players. Here's my understanding of it based on what I've heard (sometimes in conversations with the actual players, sometimes in conversations with other players/coaches/bball insiders who could just be making tsismis and sometimes from just reading the newspaper). Recent Fil-Am draft picks like Jared Dillinger, Ryan Reyes, Norwood, Joe Devance, Kelly Williams and others going back at least to J-Wash's draft, have tended to breeze through the process with few snags. In some cases, the players' eligibility may have seemed temporarily up in the air, but the problems were always resolved before the draft. Why? Because these guys are potential stars. Many of them bring NCAA Division 1 pedigrees into the league, and the teams want them. It's a little uncouth to say this, but money greases the system, and the team owners have money to burn. They make sure that these players, many of whom they've invested in through PBL and Liga teams, find their way to the big leagues. And overall, that's a good thing. The recent Fil-Am batches are all top players who are raising the level of play in the PBA, and their Filipino lineage is well-established. In some cases, the issue of whether the players' Filipino parent/s became naturalized citizens of other countries before the draftees were born is murky, but that's a bad rule to begin with. 

The players who have a more difficult time establishing eligibility are the ones that teams don't care about. They're fringe guys who are probably good enough to make somebody's roster, but they aren't worth the cost of expediting their papers. So these players often miss a draft or two while they learn life lessons in futility from wrangling with the Department of Justice and Bureau of Immigration over their right to play in the PBA.

Let's go back to our hypothetical player. The league will accept him, if he's good enough to play. Will the fans? On some level, no. If he looks as white as he's been described, then he'll probably have to deal with people calling him 'Kano for the rest of his career. Scratch that, he'll be hearing it for the rest of his life, whether or not he plays pro basketball. This does not mean that he can never win the fans' approval. Take a cue from Alex Compton and learn Tagalog. He's a Filipino citizen and was raised mostly in the Philippines, it sounds, so he can probably do better than "barely" speaking Taglish. People are of course aware that Compton is a white American, but he is adored for his game and his obvious love for the Philippines, the clearest proof of which would be his fluency in the national language. Other options for our hypothetical player are to be drafted by Ginebra, in which case he will automatically become a small-scale national hero, or to play really hard and kind of crazy à la Ronald Tubid or Alex Crisano, because the fans love nutcases. 

No matter what happens to this young man, it sounds like he's got a lot to look forward to in life. As a potential 6'4'' citizen of the United States, the Philippines and New Zealand, who goes to Manila International School, Brent or Faith Academy (I'm guessing) and has blond hair and blue eyes, he will be in constant demand at VTRs and modeling/hosting auditions, if basketball doesn't work out. My advice to you, young man: Artista ka na lang!

Friday, November 14, 2008

America has its Pacman

This is a silly comparison, but since Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election last week, I've observed and participated in spontaneous acts of mass euphoria that have reminded me of one man: Manny Pacquiao.

Are we sure this is NYC and not the EDSA shrine?

To avoid trivializing the president-elect or the Pinoy boxing hero, I want to point out that the similarities between the men are few, but in the post-election celebrations that I saw erupt in the New York streets last week, one thing that Pacman and Obama clearly share is the ability to inspire.

When I got off work at an East Village bar around 1 a.m. Wednesday, the streets were mobbed with celebrants. A lot of them were just screaming joyous nonsense, like a guy screaming "Roc-A-Fella yall!" and another woman walking down the street alone and repeating "Obama Obama Obama" to herself like she had political Tourette's. Everyone in their cars was honking or rolling down the windows to whoop it up, there were random huggings in the street. I had never seen like it ... in the States, that is. 

The widespread elation looked a lot like Manila after one of Manny Pacquiao's wins (and can you believe, that during the three years I lived in the Philippines, I never saw him lose? Pacman went 6-0). The streets would be ghostly quiet during the fight. Everyone would be inside watching or squatting outside the sari-sari stores, watching on the tinderas' TVs. Then, after Pacquiao won, my neighborhood would fill up with people cheering, shadowboxing, laughing, praying, drinking, man-hugging, whatever. Every time I saw it, and every time one of the LP TODA tricycle drivers ran up on me, put his arm around me and foisted a shot of straight gin on me while yelling something along the lines of "Tinalo si Larrios!", it felt like I was part of a public outpouring of joy -- irrational joy, probably -- that didn't happen in the States. Americans just weren't like that.

The crowd watching Pacquiao versus Marquez 2 in Boracay.

Well, it turns out we are like that, and it felt pretty cool. Now, it's worth mentioning that there are clearly millions of Americans who weren't doing the Pacman shuffle after the election, and while we're at it, let's point out that Obama and Pacquiao may inspire very different kinds of pride. But for me, the most inspirational thing about the election was seeing Americans of my generation adopt and adore a public figure the way I saw Pinoys love Manny. Now, if Obama will promise not to sully our love by becoming a light heavyweight contender, then perhaps Pacquiao will agree not to spoil his legend by entering politics in 2010. Oh, who am I kidding? Saddening though it is, Pacman para sa Senado!