Looking Back

Sodom and Gomorrah


SOMEONE told me once that the popular love motel chain Sogo, with its distinctive Japanese logo, is actually formed from two biblical names: SOdom and GOmorrah. I remember these names very clearly because I had devout aunts who took us to watch vintage sword-and-sandal flicks during Lent like “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur,”  “The Robe” and “Spartacus,” but they always avoided  “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Although it seemed like a religious film, I was told that it was not appropriate for children because it had sex and violence. In high school, one of my classmates explained that Gomorrah was a venereal disease that you picked up from an “unnatural act” called sodomy that was practiced in an ancient place called Sodom.

When I finally checked the Bible to get the story straight out of Genesis, I read that God informed Abraham that he would destroy Sodom because it was wicked and depraved. Abraham interceded and asked why God would destroy good people with the bad. What if there are 50 good people there? he asked. To cut a long story short, Abraham bargained with God and lowered the bar to 10 good people: If he could produce them, God would spare Sodom.

So two angels were sent to Sodom and there they visited a good man named Lot. They only needed nine more people to save the town, but this was not an ordinary place. The angels must have been as beautiful as Bench underwear models on billboards that made trips on Edsa worthwhile because the Sodomites got all excited over them. They stormed Lot’s house and demanded that he turn over his visitors, shouting, “Bring them out to us, so we may know them.” This means they wanted Lot’s visitors for sex. So Lot held them at bay and even offered his two virgin daughters instead, but the mob insisted on the men, who were angels in disguise. When some forced their way into Lot’s house, they were blinded. Although reading this part of the story hints at the meaning of “sodomy,” you must read on till you get to the part about Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt.

One of the primary source readings for my Philippine history class is a detailed description of the Chinese community in the 16th century written by the Archbishop of Manila. He talked about the characteristics of the Chinese, their customs and habits, their industry, etc. This text helps students imagine life in a different time and place, but it is when they start to see similarities or oddities that makes the text relevant to their time.

What drew me to early friar accounts of the Philippines and the Filipinos was their prudishness. They were shocked that their new wards bathed every day, and thought this was bad for both health and morals. One friar account says that sodomy was unknown in the islands because the people had no word for this “unnatural act.” The practice of sodomy, according to the friars, was introduced by the Chinese!

In 1598 the Archbishop of Manila sent a letter to the King of Spain regarding the practice of sodomy among the Chinese and how this was spreading throughout the islands. Antonio de Morga, a civil official, made the same observation in a report to Spain and recommended restriction on the movements of the Chinese who were causing so much trouble in terms of crime and other practices like sodomy. Augustinian missionaries in Iloilo were so horrified by the practice that they feared that God would be so upset he would repeat in 16th-century Philippines what he did in Sodom in Old Testament times.

Miguel de Benavides, founder of the Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, as well as Archbishop of Manila, insisted on tougher measures to curb this vice. In 1603 he proposed that a new ghetto, a new  Parian, be established to physically segregate the heathen Chinese from the innocent natives whose bodies and morals had to be protected. It seemed that Filipinos, both male and female, were exposed to this “sin against nature.” He advised the Spanish King to expel those found guilty of sodomy from the islands and to restrict immigration to merchant Chinese. So concerned was Benavides that he proposed that the few Chinese left in the city after these restrictions be in effect placed on ships in the harbor during the night!

Unfortunately, the Chinese then as now were the backbone of business and crafts; they were indispensable to colonial life as artisans, carpenters, merchants, ear cleaners, water vendors,  pancit  hawkers, etc. Benavides lamented that morals were lax because the government needed the Chinese. Benavides, a Dominican, also complained that the Jesuits in Quiapo protected the Chinese who ran the flourishing poultry industry and looked the other way when sodomy and other sins were committed due to greed.

Early friar accounts of the Philippines are so politically incorrect you will get upset just reading them, especially when they blame every imaginable crime and defect in the Philippines to the Chinese. Everything from kinky sex to economic sabotage was blamed on the Chinese. Reading these 16th-century accounts today is like looking in a mirror that shows us how much we have changed or remained the same in our private lives.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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Tags: Ambeth R. Ocampo , Chinese community in the philippines , column , Sodom and Gomorrah

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