Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Militant Visits Manila

For some reason my Trotskyist friends love International Book Fairs. The Militant reports on such events from diverse places like Havana, Tehran, Erbil, London, Sweden, and more. Recently they devoted two articles (dated Nov. 12 and Oct. 29) to a fair in Manila.

I don't know who the intended audience is at a book fair (bookstores? consumers? critics?) but Pathfinder Press was there. 
There was hardly an hour when the Pathfinder booth at the Sept. 12-16 Manila International Book Fair wasn’t packed with fairgoers of all ages browsing the shelves with growing enthusiasm for the books they saw. The crowds kept coming even after a powerful storm sideswiped the city Sept. 15.
The two titles championed that week were Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women (published 1993), and Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution (First edition published in 2006; recently reissued). The hosts at the booth included Ron Poulson from Australia, Janet Roth from New Zealand, and Mary-Alice Waters from New York. They were assisted by "[t]wo young Filipinos active in social and political struggles...". In addition, comrades Poulson and Waters participated in a panel discussion held at the University of the Philippines.

So I'm not interested in book fairs, which in this Amazon-era are a complete waste of time. And I'm not all that interested in the two books highlighted. I read Cosmetics... many years ago, along with author Evelyn Reed's regrettable magnum opus, Woman's Evolution (1975). I've never read Three Generals, and have no intention of doing so.

The fascinating topic for me is the city of Manila and the people who live there. My wife of 32 years was born in the Philippines and lived in Manila as a teenager and young adult. I spent about four weeks in the city, most recently in 1995. I'm due for another visit (perhaps next Spring), but I don't really like traveling there. As Mary-Alice can likely attest, the traffic is simply terrible--it's impossible to get around. And then I am required to spend most of my time listening to my wife talk Tagalog to her myriad friends and relations. It's dull.

Which doesn't mean I'm ignorant. I read a history of the city by Nick Joaquin, Manila, my Manila. It's a wonderful book, but sadly not readily available in the US. Among many other things, I recently read 1493 by Charles Mann--he devotes a long chapter to Manila. Finally, I love maps, and my wife brought me back an excellent one from a recent trip. So while I may not know Manila, I do know Manila geography.

Filipinos love nicknames, and the ones given to women baffle the Militant's authors. For example, the "coordinator of WomanHealth Philippines, convener of the Dignidad electoral coalition, and a leading member of the Philippines-Cuba Cultural and Friendship Association" goes by "Princess." That would shame an comparably well-placed, upper-middle class feminist in the United States.

That's hardly the worst of it. Common nicknames include "Baby," "Precious," "Queenie," and "Inday."  That latter is the Visayan word for "sexy young woman," or, perhaps, "bimbo." Nobody finds these names insulting--quite the contrary, they are proud of them, especially as they get older. (Men have nicknames, too--a common one, for a grown man, is "Boy.")

Two observations seem relevant. First, the Philippines is a remarkably religious country. Eighty percent are Catholic, with the remainder divided between Protestants and Muslims. Whatever their confession, they take religion extremely seriously--to the point of nailing themselves onto a cross on Good Friday. I've never met a Filipino atheist or agnostic.

Catholics (unlike Protestants or Muslims) venerate the Virgin Mary--she of the Immaculate Conception, assumed into heaven as our Blessed Mother. This whole shtick (which people take very seriously) effectively raises the status of women--especially mothers. While young women have difficult lives (as do young men), older women acquire the status of matriarch and head large extended families. The result is that marriage is especially valuable to Filipinas--one can't become a matriarch without a family. It also goes a long way to explaining the relatively high fertility rate.

Second, like women the world over, Filipinas are very fashion-conscious. Unlike what Cosmetics... claims, this is an intramural status competition among women--men are bit players. So this question from the floor is not surprising:
Fredda Ruth Rosete, a young Filipina, asked: “I want to be fashionable and to look attractive to the opposite sex. I’ve been told I’m contributing to my own oppression. Is that true?”
“The answer is no!” Waters replied. “But we have to be conscious of the pressures on us generated by the capitalist system and not let that determine our lives. ..."
Mary-Alice seems to have retreated from the hard-nosed, merciless feminism I recall from my youth. That unadulterated, radical version common in America will not appeal in the Philippines.

Re discrimination against Chinese, Mary-Alice makes the following ridiculous statement.
Waters said, “Cuba is the only country in the world where there is no discrimination against descendants of overseas Chinese. The only one! Before the Cuban Revolution, Chinese there were discriminated against as they are in all other countries where large numbers of Chinese settled.
How could she possibly know that? By what quantitative measure of discrimination against Chinese does Cuba come out identically zero?

Or put another way: Can Mary-Alice please tell us where the best Dim Sum restaurant in Havana is? I'll hazard there aren't any Dim Sum restaurants in Havana--good food is against the law there. In Manila, conversely, good Chinese food is everywhere. I had by a wide margin the best hot & sour soup ever in my entire life there.

Please don't tell me that Chinese aren't discriminated against in Havana.

Her co-panelist, Teresita Ang See (typical Chinese-Filipina name: Catholic given name, Chinese family name) understands the situation better. A little history is helpful.

The Spanish founded Manila, which prior was a swampy river delta, inhabited by fishermen who lived on the few islands. But Manila Bay is a world class harbor, and the Spanish filled in some of the swamp, founding a city at the mouth of the Pasig River. That original city exists now as Intramuros--still today a religious, cultural, and educational center of the country.

The reason for the Spanish settlement was to facilitate trade with China. In exchange for Mexican gold and silver, China sold silks, porcelain, spices, and other manufactures. Junks arrived from China carrying the goods, while galleons came from Acapulco carrying the gold. The ships traded cargoes in Manila and sailed back to where they came from.

Facilitating this trade were a group of Chinese merchants and bankers. The Spanish didn't like commerce and didn't trust the Chinese, so they were restricted to the Parian (today known as Binondo) on the other side of the Pasig. The Chinese got rich. The Spanish built their empire and aggressively practiced their religion. The local Tagalogs got nothing except Catholicism and jobs as stevedores. Or occasionally they were taken as slaves to help sail the boats in one direction or another.

For many centuries Binondo was the commercial center of the Philippines. It is still the heart of Chinatown (though that has expanded into Quiapo). Since Manila was completely leveled during WWII, postwar the commercial center was rebuilt in Makati, where there was more room. But the people who run it are still the same--Filipino-Chinese--who constitute the country's commercial class to this very day. They dominate business life.

Needless to say, all this breeds envy. Anti-Chinese pogroms are a constant throughout Philippine history--Parian itself was destroyed by rampaging mobs on numerous occasions. My wife recalls from her childhood how the Chinese were forcibly run out of her hometown--their stores and property confiscated, Idi Amin style.

Cubans are surely aware of how that works. They didn't just drive their commercial class out of a single town, but rather out of the entire country. Indeed, it's likely that the best Dim Sum restaurant in Havana is actually located in Miami.

Further Reading:

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