Tales from Manila Bay
My sister was visiting over the holidays and stayed in a hotel near Manila Bay. Each time we met she would have some anecdote to share, like the shop in her hotel selling dolls of Pope Francis alongside dolls of a presumed candidate for Miss Universe. She showed me a photograph but I’m not good at recognizing beauty queens and wasn’t sure if the doll was supposed to resemble one of our own triumphant pageant contenders.
At another time my sister showed me a photograph of an old woman sleeping, all curled up, on the concrete pavement, not too far from a sign that reads “Save our elderly.”
Oh no, I thought, these photographs are not going to reflect well on Manila and the Philippines.
Mobile phones have really changed the way we travel. Not too long ago we would hesitate to take a picture, both film and film processing being expensive. But these days you shoot now, then ask questions later about which ones to file and which ones to show, and with which stories.
On her first day in Manila my sister walked into the Cultural Center and was captivated by “Last Full Show,” a retrospective of Danilo Dalena. I didn’t even know there was such an exhibit going on, but she wanted to visit again and I went with her. It’s a different perspective, photographs of ink drawings and oils, with scenes from homes, (seedy) movie houses, bars, jai alai. Churches too, with dogs, lots of them, and the dogs appear in many of his other works, in different settings, blending well with the humans. His daughter Sari produced a film, “Asong Simbahan,” showing the metamorphosis of our canine friends, live and on canvas.
My sister took photographs and I said, Do show them to your children, especially Michael, who is a graphic artist.
Dalena has been described as a social realist, a label he does not like because, well, it’s a label. But he does capture slices of social reality.
I thought of the exhibit description of Dalena’s “signature affinity with the scatological and repellent.” Well, why not?
You can’t sanitize balikbayan photographs and stories, including the way they will be told and retold. But I’m happy that my sister is taking home at least one still strange, but heartwarming, tale from our concrete jungle.
One morning last week she decided to take a walk along Manila Bay and as she approached the Yacht Club (where she took photographs of piles of garbage), she noticed from afar a woman and a child. She first thought maybe the woman was picking lice from the child’s hair—a common scene even in our cities—but the woman was holding up a mirror so maybe, my sister thought, the child was plucking her white hair.
She thought she’d approach the woman and the child. As she got closer to them she noticed how neatly dressed they were, unlike many of the others who were hanging around the bayside. She greeted them in Filipino, saying they had caught her eye because it was clear there was a bond of affection between them.
The woman smiled, quickly explaining that the boy wasn’t her son but her nephew. He was born premature, she said, only seven months in the womb, and he was so tiny, like a Coke bottle. (I laughed at hearing this because I’ve heard similar descriptions from urban poor residents whenever they referred to an underweight infant.)
His limbs, too, were weak—lampa—and it didn’t look like he would survive, the woman said. His mother disappeared shortly after he was born, and so she, his aunt, adopted him.
I told my sister this was very common in communities of the urban poor. Despite their own hard life, they are quick to take in children abandoned by relatives, or even neighbors. Many never go through formal adoption because it’s expensive, and tedious.
My sister didn’t ask about the child’s age but figured he was six or seven. He was very much attached to his aunt, who he called “Mommy Ninang.” His name is JR (I’m using the initials to protect his identity but the “J” stands for a name like my father’s, and my son’s, so it struck my sister).
She chatted some more with the woman and then thought she should give them something for Christmas. She offered P500.
The woman protested. No, she said, her husband had work, selling Nestlé ice cream by the bay. Sometimes she’d sell ice cream as well, somewhere close to St. Scholastica’s College.
When my sister was telling me the story, she kept referring back to the woman as having dignity. She didn’t use the other word which we associate with dignity: pride.
I was relieved to hear that because in the few days that my sister was here, she had seen the hordes of beggars in our streets, approaching cars with babies and children in arms. She had seen how they would move from one vehicle to another, and then suddenly, a whole group would rush to a car whose occupant had given out some money, or leftover food.
My sister continued to chat with the woman and, at one point, asked if she could take pictures. The woman enthusiastically agreed, adding: “Maybe you can post the picture on Facebook and his mother will see it, and come to see her son. She has never come to see him.” She had heard that the mother was working in a place with many foreigners.
My sister took the pictures, then offered the money again, saying it was for the boy. The woman accepted the money and my sister continued on her walk down the boulevard.
After she turned around to walk back toward her hotel, she saw the woman and the boy again, but this time with a man and his ice cream stand, and a little girl. They were now a complete family.
She went up to them again and the father, somewhat shy, thanked her.
“Walang anuman,” my sister replied. It was nothing, but it did mean a lot to her, and as she walked away, the woman called out and asked for her name.
“Evelyn,” my sister replied.
There was a moment of silence and then the woman beamed. “Evelyn,” she said, seemingly relishing the name. “That’s the name of JR’s mother.”
“Last Full Show,” which is scattered across several floors of the Cultural Center, is on view up to March 5.
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