Manila and Intramuros



The Philippines is looked over.

The visitor to the Philippines from the US is confronted with a large archipelago full of people who are very much aware of your homeland, who you yourself remain distinctly unaware of. All Californians grew up with Filipinos at school and in the neighborhood, but somehow we still looked through the reality of their place of origin.

Filipino restaurants didn’t dot the neighborhood, the local community college was unlikely to offer Tagalog lessons, and no one (other than Filipinos) spoke of saving up their money for that dream trip to Manila. Thailand and Vietnam seemed more real: even history books restricted the Philippines to a curious footnote in the remarkable career of MacArthur, or a paragraph or two about the Marcos regime, and Imelda’s fondness for footwear.

It is the overlooked Southeast Asian nation to the north, unless you’re a scuba diver: a long-term expat friend observed to me that he suspects the bulk of visitors are Hong Kong residents desperate to escape their peninsula for a long weekend. And there, Manila is only a brief plane ride away.


It is blighted perhaps but not all of it is blighted. In the rare event of seeing an image of Manila in the Western media, it is inevitable that a dump be portrayed. Perhaps a correspondent will be standing atop this remarkable monument to filth, looking concerned and talking about the Plight Of The Poor.

Manila’s not-so-poor warrant not a mention, and the decline of the corrupted but very interesting Marcoses has rendered even the elite unimportant. “There’s no there there,” one imagines Gertrude Stein observing of the place, circa 2013.

But Manila also possesses skyscrapers – great canyons of them, a skyline “that encircles you” as my friend observed — and universities with mowed grass, and an old Spanish center, and suburbs with single-family houses and a profusion of joggers. Also there are mallls, malls that would fit into Iowa City, with everyone nipping in for Taco Bell and the latest sale on Vons sneakers, and walking down long marbled corridors of entirely American-origin shops, with not a single hint that you are in fact in Asia.

A hefty percentage of the crowd is wearing a shirt with a NFL team logo on it, or the American flag, and even the children are outfitted in Adidas.

The entire city strikes me as some parallel American re-imagining in some ways. In some ways, it makes me feel embarrassed. We – nationally, in nationalist terms – did not do well by this country.


I decided to visit Intramuros because I am fond of Spanish colonial architecture, and also because I tend to feel that a good way to begin understanding what a city is all about is backtracking to where it first started from.

Manila was Intramuros and Intramuros was Manila before the slow progression of the city across the face of southern Luzon: here was the first Spanish feint into building their Ever Loyal City, populated by religious men, traders, and the local “Negritos” (as the locals, who were presumably both small and dark, were unkindly dubbed).


The sameness of the Spanish colonial experiment is remarkable to me, and it is also comforting, as someone who has spent a hefty percentage of my life residing within various bits of the former Iberian empire. The same cobblestone streets and high ceilings; the same growths of palm trees and yellow-washed walls, and courtyards with austere fountains in them, the same brown signs and road-side lanterns.


A stroll through Intramuros was very much akin to a stroll through the French Quarter (first built by the Spanish) or Ybor City in Tampa: I was disappointed to find that no one had thought to set up a shop producing hand-rolled cigars, though tobacco is not a primary Philippine export.

The San Agustin church in Intramuros was buit in 1589 and is one of the only structures still standing after the bombardment of the old city by WWII: it is an interesting mental exercise to stand here, and note that this church predates the oldest standing structures of the Spanish colonial experiment in New Mexico. The church itself is violently Iberian: a stone Roman Catholic edifice dotted with fading tapestries, chipped wooden sculptures of Christ and the disciples, and lightly-flickering candles. I was in Southeast Asia, but I was most reminded of my 2009 visit to Spanish Toledo: it was an entirely new form of exoticism.


San Agustin is also known as the wedding capital of the city, and for good reason: there was one going on the morning I was there. I spied upon the extremely long ceremony from behind a grate and from the balcony where the antique pipe organ sits:  I never did manage to see The Kiss The Bride Part, and indeed, found it difficult to determine exactly when the ceremony ended. Thus is my knowledge of Catholic weddings.

I headed for lunch at the Ristorante Delle Mitre, acros the street from San Agustin. The restaurant is themed in a fashion that can only be described as “bishop,” with an extensive Philippine – Western menu where most of the dishes are named after either saints or former bishops.


Nuns in red and white habits circulate the place and man the kitchen, and the entire ambience is exactly that of a Cuban cafe in Tampa or in Miami. I ordered seafood chowder and an enormous pork knuckle in tomato sauce with plantains  and was deeply satisfied. They brought me San Miguel in a frosted mug the size of my head, with lime in it. I did not try the cafe con leche: for a nation that grows excellent coffee, the coffee that is actually served in the Philippines is an exercise in disappointment.

I left the church and walked a block off Intramuros, the street beside the Manila House Museum, and you are back in the Phillipines: I walked down a Sunday street populated by people sitting about doing nothing in particular, as befits the Sabbath, listening to music and eating deep-fried bananas. “Hey girl!” a middle-aged man in a tank top said to me, waving from the corner.

I waved back. Waving back is a good idea here.

War correspondents of legend and song unveil memorial in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – GlobalPost



PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Many of the most prominent surviving correspondents who covered Cambodia’s civil war gathered in Phnom Penh on Wednesday for the unveiling of a memorial to the “at least” 37 journalists who perished on Cambodian soil between 1970 and 1975.

Buddhist monks performed religious rites and Cambodian information minister Khieu Kanharith arrived to help inaugurate the black stone memorial, which bore the names of correspondents killed in the field.

Read more from GlobalPost: Record number of journalists killed worldwide in 2012

Chhang Song, a former information minister under the deposed 1970s Cambodian leader Lon Nol, was also on hand to speak at the ceremony, as the “old hacks,” as some of them called each other, gathered to remember their fallen.

“Thirty-seven have died, but they have not died in my heart,” Song, who is now wheelchair-bound, said of the deceased correspondents.

“I have carried the names, the faces, the words of these people who died for their profession.”

Read more from GlobalPost….

US activist Nguyen Quoc Quan released after 9 months of detention in Vietnam – GlobalPost



SACRAMENTOAmerican activist Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan has been released after 9 months of detention in Ho Chi Minh City by the Vietnamese government.

Vietnamese authorities claimed the California software engineer and former teacher was engaged in terrorist activities due to his association with Viet Tan, a pro-democracy group that works “inside Vietnam and among the diaspora … to mobilize the power of the people.”

The Vietnamese government has for years had a contentious relationship with Viet Tan, of which Quan is a long-standing member.

The 58-year-old activist arrived in his home state of California on Wednesday evening to an exuberant crowd of family and friends, soon after his wife received the surprising news that the Vietnamese government would allow him to walk free.

“I received a phone call from the consulate, and [the staffer] told me ‘You better sit down,”’ Quan’s wife, Mai Huong Ngo, told GlobalPost.

Ngo dutifully sat down, but became worried: Was her husband sick, she wondered?

He wasn’t. Instead, the consular staffer told Ngo that her husband was returning to the home they shared in the Northern California city of Elk Grove.

“I kept crying, I cannot speak, I keep crying … and [the staffer] asked me, ‘You are happy, right?”’ said Ngo.

Read more over at GlobalPost…..


Assorted thoughts on Malacca

Typical Malaccan pedicab.

I like Portuguese settlements, I suppose—not that I have visited them often, but there is something to the concept. They do not have the buttoned-down nature of British colonies, perhaps: there is a sort of wild Catholicism to them, the sort you might see in Spanish and Portuguese streets during a major religious celebration.

Malacca was once a major trading post, controlled first by the Malays, than shifting to the Portuguese,than the Dutch, than to the British—and finally, back to the Malays in the 1950s, after independence.

Trading ports attract all manner of strange people, and Malacca turned into an extremely cosmopolitan sort of place—illustrated by stiff Caucasian mannequins wearing the traditional dress of the area’s ethnic groups at the Sultan’s Palace museum. (Why only the Thai mannequin is grinning like an idiot…well, I don’t have a suitable answer for that).

The pirates and the havoc have gone, although there is a pirate-themed theme park and you will see small children waving around plastic cutlasses. Now, Malacca is a quiet, coastal town, with a rather interesting old district and big apartment and condo buildings sprouting like mushrooms on the edge of the historic area.

Old Malacca was designated a World Heritage Site a few years back, and it is worthy of the term: curving roads set off by ramshackle shophouses, some saved as museums, gutters with unidentifiable water running by them. There are little art galleries and cafes in them now, where you can sit and watch tourists from all over the world puzzle over which semi obscene t-shirt they’d like to buy.

But it is not a crass tourism, and there is not really much of it on the weekends: you can easily wander down a small path into an antiques store piled high with vintage money and carvings from Malaysia’s Hindu era, or find yourself very much alone in some back-alley bit of town.

The food is excellent here. Peranakans are Chinese Malays, and those Nyonya restaurant you see everywhere are well worth trying. (Baba refers to a male Peranakan, and Nyonya to a female, as I learned). There is also excellent Indian food, and Chinese food as well: much like the rest of Malaysia, Malacca is a melting pot. I went out the Portuguese Settlement today: that’s another blog post.

Friendly Malaysians at the tandoori shop.

I was thinking today about Malaysia’s identity. Most Malaysians could probably identify themself as having a heritage of something else – this is rather like the USA.

It is also interesting to contemplate how developed Malaysia is. The taxi drivers liked to discuss this with me, in the rather elegant English that seems to come easily to 60-something men here: two of the taxi drivers I rode with had been to Cambodia, and they hastened to described its poverty, its corruption. They also hastened to compare Malaysia with the rest of the world – and the rest of the world was generally found wanting.

“There is all this fighting in Syria, Muslim on Muslim,” one cabbie mused, as we drove in from the bus station. “I simply don’t understand it. Here in Malaysia, we have peace. We all get along with each other.”

Boy out with his grandmother at the fort in Malacca.

Well, I’m unsure about that -and I really am, my lack of Malaysia-specific knowledge is disturbingly vast – but there is certainly a pleasant lack of tension in the air here, at least to the casual observer. I enjoy watching the shoals of hijab-donning women in colorful costumes mixing with Chinese tourists and slightly head-addled looking Westerners: the Malaysian melting pot, united by tourist attractions and food stuffs flavored with sambal.


Malaysians are absolutely wild about John Denver. I hear Country Roads multiple times a day in various locales here. Kids play it on the street, taxi drivers play it in their cabs, restaurant owners hum it while they work…what in the name of God is going on here?

Blogfest Asia 2012: Noisy, fractious ASEAN bloggers, ignore at own peril

Bloggers are about the same everywhere, I guess. Fractious and noisy. Exuberant, opinionated, occasionally make questionable clothing choices. Might have been considered “weird” in school. Vanguards of social revolution and change—that too. You ignore them at your own peril. 

This particular motley pack of Asia bloggers convened at Build Bright University, a small college of something or another outside Siem Reap, placed in the middle of what appeared to be a loosely residential neighborhood, mixed with a small dairy-and-water-lily farm. The bloggers came from 12 Asian countries, a smattering hailing from further afield (including yours truly). Their ages ranged from 14 to in their 70s. Many were professionals, some were students, some had even achieved the holy grail of professional blogging. All fervently wanted to geek out.

Siem Reap is the small city adjacent to Angkor Wat, and is by far the most heavily touristed place in Cambodia—a fact not lost on the attendees, who gathered to watch sunsets, sunrises, and things in between at the archaeological ruins. Many of them were travel bloggers, after all. Catnip.

It is worth pointing out the disconnect between Cambodia’s ubiquitous small, naked children, lotus ponds and wooden, ramshackle homes—right outside the conference—with a cosmopolitan group of tech geeks, most sporting expensive equipment.

However: I don’t see this as some sort of fell indicator of social injustice. The fact that such a gathering is happening in Cambodia at all is, in my estimation, a remarkable indicator of social change.

Further: the Cambodian could have swiftly squashed this gathering if they so chose, but it didn’t. In fact, Cambodian Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith attended and gave out awards on Monday, the final day of the conference. Blogger and event organizer Kounila Keo told me that she ran the schedule of the event by him—including multiple named workshops on Internet freedom—and he expressed no apprehension.

Would that happen in China or Vietnam? I don’t think so.

Sadly, Cambodians seem to get very little love from the mainstream media. They have few choices: they are genocidal and backwards. They are Noble Savages who smile a lot and have not quite got the hang of industrialization, bless them. But the Cambodian bloggers I know are not content to conform to this heat-addled stereotype. They firmly believe that technology and free speech will eventually win out against the forces that are arrayed against them.

And that goes for the other Asian bloggers in attendance, many of whom reside in often-overlooked but swiftly developing nations . Did you know that Filipinos send around 2 billion text messages a day, the most in the world? Or that Indonesians are the world’s biggest users of Twitter, and have collectively created over 5 million blogs? That in only 2 years of rapid change, Myanmar is approaching three percent Internet penetration?

These are all remarkable stats. These are all somewhat little-known stats. This is why I am glad I attended Blogfest Asia 2012.

“We somehow have the perception the world only goes on in Europe and the United States, when in fact many things are happening in Southeast Asia,” observed SPIDER (Swedish Program for ICT in Developing Regions) board member and event speaker David Isaakson to me.

“It’s amazing that so many people are using this [social media] in countries with a situation with less freedom of expression or government control,” he added. “Social media becomes even more important when you don’t see unbiased reporting in national channels.”

Definitely. Citizen journalists, as we’ve seen in the Middle East, step up to fill the gap when the mainstream media either can’t get in, or does’t have the funding or motivation to cover stories considered to be of minimal international interest. For the first time, bloggers—even those who are operating under considerable danger—have the means to speak out against oppression in a very visible way. This scares the crap out of governments, and empowers tech-savvy people who might formally have been relatively helpless in the arena of speaking-truth-to-power. Ignore them at your own peril. 

That simple reality ended up politicizing the event to some extent, perhaps more than the planners had anticipated. Almost every nation represented had an axe to grind: that people from all these nations were then able to come together and compare notes on what they’re up against is heartening in the extreme.

Meanwhile, the Cambodians weren’t shy about expressing their trepidation over the planned, feared Internet cyber-crimes draft law. The government claims it’s to protect against terrorism, but the bloggers are much more suspicious: they think the law will serve as a convenient method of cracking down on dissidents, much in the fashion of Vietnam or Thailand.

Cambodians currently enjoy one of the freest networks in Southeast Asia, and they are fully aware of the options this accords them: although most attendees were willing to play a bit of wait-and-see, they also were quite vocal about their apprehension.

Fai Suluck from Thailand discussed the situation in her own country, where strict lese majeste laws and fear stemming from recent military unrest have kept bloggers relatively silent.

She described the law and its dampening affects on freedom of speech in Thailand to the  attentive crowd, then issued a warning: “…For countries about to have this law passed, yes: go against it.”

Note taken.

Why Are So Many Cambodian Protesters Being Shot These Days? – UN Dispatch

Why Are So Many Cambodian Protesters Being Shot These Days? – UN Dispatch

It’s becoming increasingly dangerous to be a peaceful protester in many parts of the world, and impoverished, corrupt Cambodia is no exception.

Since November 2011, gun violence against peaceful protesters has been on the rise in this troubled Southeast Asian nation. Local NGO Licadho has found that five land-dispute protests turned violent between November and January of 2012, while a city governor has been personally involved in a February garment factory dispute. Almost no arrests have been made in these incidents, and the police seem markedly disinterested in pursuing prosecution.

In what has become perhaps the most widely publicized case, a city governor personally fired into a crowd of 1000 garment factory protesters in Bavet, seriously injuring a 21-year-old woman and wounding two others. Bavet city governor Chhouk Bandith promptly disappeared after the shooting, although he allegedly showed up at the woman’s hospital to ask her not to press charges in exchange for money.

Even Cambodia’s deputy prime minister has jumped into the fray, after local police, at his request, offered the 21-year-old victim $500 if she did not press charges. The young woman, who is nursing a serious chest injury, refused the money, committing a noble act that may come to haunt her later under Cambodia’s current leadership. As for the governor, he has lost his job –although he will still retain a provincial government post of some kind.

Read more at UN Dispatch….

Sex Work and Dignity in Cambodia – Not Everyone’s a Victim at That Girly Bar

Sex work is still stigmatized in Cambodia, a largely conservative nation, despite what Street 51s more than healthy hostess bar trade may lead you to believe. A group of sex workers has decided to create a union and ask for the right to work—and most interestingly, they want to let people know that they don’t consider themselves victims, and they are not asking for anybody’s sympathy.

Trafficking is indisputably a big problem, but many outside observers in Cambodia make the mistake of assuming every woman in the sex trade is a trafficked and helpless victim. Although the electroshocked zombiefied 14-year-olds of Kristofian writing are definitely out there, there are plenty of over-18 women who have decided the sex trade appeals to them considerably more than working for minimum wage at a garment factory.

This passage from the article linked above is of particular interest…

“In the sex workers’ union office in Phnom Penh, a banner pinned to the wall reads, “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights.”
Cambodia’s anti-human-trafficking law has given rise to police raids on brothels where sex workers are “rescued” and retrained for jobs in low-wage garment factories. Workers get minimal instruction to operate sewing machines and usually receive no wages during the two- or three-month training period.”
I’ve also heard heresy of former prostitutes being “rescued,” locked in training centers, and escaping back into the streets….doubtless while their saviors scratch their heads in confusion. But is their reaction really so strange?

I am the same age as many of Phnom Penh’s bar girls, and I liked chatting with them at the foreigner-frequented girly bars I would occasionally find myself at. They were charming, spoke good English, and were usually happy to talk with a foreign woman their own age. Although I couldn’t exactly delve into their personal lives over a beer or two, they didn’t seem like they were being locked in a prison or forced into slavery or regularly beaten with chains.

Maybe  life at the bars was not their first life choice, but in their minds, it was probably an improvement over life in the rice paddy, or a job in a poorly insulated and potentially dangerous factory.

My impressions of these women seem to be backed up by a truly fantastic series on Cambodia’s hostess bars that ran in the Phnom Penh Post last month. The researcher found that a number of these women are looking for foreign boyfriends—and they are also looking for a good time and exposure to people from other countries.

These motivations would be considered pretty normal for an intelligent young woman, if these women didn’t just so happen to be impoverished Cambodians. Curiously enough, the idea that these women might enjoy drinking beer, having sex, and hanging around in bars more than menial labor is considered to be something close to blasphemy in some circles. Me? I’m 23, and I believe it. 

If we want to stamp out prostitution and the sex trade in Cambodia—and we never will entirely—we need to help women get decent and decent jobs, jobs considerably more appealing than minimum wage sewing work.

As it is, assuming that every single bar girl—prostitute or otherwise, and many are not—is both victimized and helpless is downright patronizing. Let’s give these women some credit for their intelligence and initiative in a desperate situation. Do you really think you’d choose much differently if you were in their shoes? I know I wouldn’t.