Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Before Reming

MANILA - We arrived at dawn on the Sunday following Thanksgiving, about 140 San Franciscans, members of a sister city delegation of private individuals and city officials led by Mayor Gavin Newsom, on a cultural and trade mission to Manila. This was the largest San Francisco contingent to ever visit Manila since a sister city relationship was established in 1961.

It took a year of meticulous planning by sister city chair Dennis Normandy (and his wife, Lynda) to iron out all the myriad details involved in carting three busloads of San Franciscans from Punta Fuego in Batangas to the museums of Intramuros, to a Cultural Center philharmonic concert, to a Malacanang Palace banquet, and to a half-dozen other events.

There were official functions. Mayor Newsom received an honorary PhD from the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (City University of Manila) where we signed a new memorandum of agreement between Pamantasan and City Colege of San Francisco to strenghten ties and relations between the two educational institutions. Mayor Newsom also signed a new MOA with Manila Mayor Lito Atienza at City Hall. But these events occurred between lunches and dinners hosted by the City of Manila, the Department of Tourism, Philippine Airlines, the Concepcion group, Citigroup and the ABS-CBN media conglomerate.

Our visit was to be highlighted by a sentimental journey to Corregidor. For years, Mayor Newsom had expressed a private wish to travel to the Philippines to visit the site where his maternal grandfather, Arthur Menzies, fought during World War II. A botanist when he enlisted, Menzies was in Corregidor with the Battery K Artillery unit when the Japanese invaded and captured the last allied stronghold in the Philippines in May of 1941. Menzies physically survived the Bataan Death March and went on to become America's leading expert on California wildflowers but he never mentally survived the trauma of the war as it drove him to eventually commit suicide.

We learned the poignant story of Menzie's life and death from Gavin's father, retired California Appellate Court Justice Bill Newsom, who accepted a plaque of appreciation for Menzies from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at the Malacanang banquet tendered in our honor. Bill Newsom knew the mental anguish of his father-in-law and he had always wanted to personally visit the battlefield where Menzies fought.

While we all had looked forward to the Corregidor visit, it just was not to be. The ship Dennis had leased to ferry us from Manila to Corregidor could not traverse the choppy waters caused by Typhoon Reming which was barreling towards Manila with high winds of 225 kilometers per hour.

When he heard that our trip to Corregidor had been cancelled, Filipino Chinese (Tsinoy) Taipan Lucio Tan, the richest man in the Philippines, personally offered his private helicopter to fly us to Corregidor with him. Due to space limitations, unfortunately, only a few select members of our group were able to make it and I wasn't one of them.

The members of our delegation who didn't go to Corregidor were grateful for the off day as it gave them the chance to shop at Greenhills ("Tiange"), the Green Belt, the Mall of Asia and the Glorietta Mall.

One of the museums we visited in Intramuros was the Bahay Tsinoy (House of the Filipino Chinese), where we learned that during the Spanish colonial period (1565-1898), the Chinese were confined to the enclave of Parian just outside the Walled City. They could not receive permission to leave their quarters unless they married local Filipino women, a colonial policy which resulted in mass intermarriage of Chinese and Filipinos, creating the new class of Tsinoy illustrados who then politically and economically challenged the governing Peninsulares (Spanish elite).

On our first day in Manila, I spoke with our Punta Fuego host, Jose Tambunting, at his impressive beachside chalet. He recounted how in the 1960s he led a group of Tsinoy "young Turks" to successfully wrest control of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce from the Kastila (Spanish) establishment led by Don Aurelio Periquet. To learn that this power shift occurred only in the 1960s after it had been initiated by Tsinoy national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, a century before, is to realize how truly young the Philippine nation is.

While the trip had a serious purpose, it was not without humor. When a member of our delegation inquired about the source of our host's fabulous wealth, she repeated the answer as "pornshops" instead of "pawnshops". The same lady was impressed with how liberated Manila was with the presence of so many S & M shops.

SM doesn't stand for Sado Masochism, it's the initials for Shoe Mart and they don't just sell shoes there either. The omnipresent SM malls are owned by Tsinoy billionaire Henry Sy, who is seeking to further expand his financial empire by opening SM malls all over China. A third Tsinoy billionaire, John Gokongwei, also owns a string of Robinson malls throughout the country.

Tsinoy Power is evident not only in economics but also in politics with the two most prominent Tsinoys in the Philippine Senate, Alfredo Lim and Panfilo Lacson, running for mayor of Manila in next May's elections. Popular incumbent Mayor Lito Atienza is termed out and cannot run for re-election but his son, Ali Atienza, is set to run to succeed him, a common practice in the Philippines.

Mayor Atienza was bracing his city for the expected onslaught of Typhoon Reming, with his city crews cutting down trees and securing roofs to prevent a repeat of the deadly Typhoon Millenyo which struck in late September.

But cold winds from the north pushed Reming south, away from Manila towards the Bicol Peninsula. Reming's heavy rains caused heavy mudslides which killed more than 1,000 people.

In the Philippines, even Nature favors the rich. While the poor people of Bicol were suffering the wrath of Reming, the Metro Manilan elite were enjoying a gloriously sunny weather, shopping and eating away, oblivious to what was happening everywhere else.

Our delegation never got to see how the Filipino poor survive amidst incredible poverty. Perhaps next time.

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