A large part of the lure of “Hidden Cities,” a show on History Channel, is its host, Anthony Morse, 31, born and raised in the United States but who moved with his family as a young man to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
His mother, so publicity materials reveal, belongs to the Rawang tribe of Burma, an ethnic minority group, and this may explain Morse’s interest in tribal lore and the struggle of indigenous peoples to preserve their identity and culture amid the rapid changes taking place all around them.
But what keeps me tuned to every episode of “Hidden Cities” is Morse himself. He may be the host, but he doesn’t impose himself on the story nor treat his guides and subjects as little more than supporting players to his star turn. Instead, Morse is quite a self-effacing narrator. He explains historical backgrounds or provides information in a steady voice and manner, with none of the attention-calling mannerisms that I find so annoying, especially among the hosts of so-called “adventure survival” shows.
He is in fact very much the ideal foreign tourist or student—curious and fascinated by new places and people, full of questions but respectful of people’s silences and hesitancies, and exuberant about sharing his reactions and realizations.
It doesn’t hurt, either that he’s easy on the eyes, his looks a pleasant blend of Asian and Caucasian, and his body trim and muscular.
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Just recently, “Hidden Cities” featured the Philippines, including stories about Malacañang with a sidebar interview with the Imeldific herself; the walls of Intramuros; the ruins of Corregidor; the Kalingas and how they are fighting to preserve their culture; and the Iwahig Penal Farm in Palawan, what Morse describes as “a prison without walls.”
I must credit Morse—and his writers and researchers—for providing in every episode preliminary data on the country’s history that help explain why a country is the way it is, and what issues its people have to struggle with. For the Philippines, Morse explains how the string of colonizers—Spanish, American and Japanese—had drawn us Filipinos into centuries of struggle for independence. But even after formal independence, explains Morse, the people have not stopped taking their leaders to account, the most blatant example of which was “People Power” that toppled the Marcoses despite their “last stand” on the balcony of Malacañang.
Of course, Imelda Marcos has a radically different take on “People Power,” laughingly telling Morse that when people rushed into Malacañang after they fled, “they did not find any skeletons in my closet, only shoes.” Morse only glimpses miniature shoe replicas in a glass Cabinet in Madame Marcos’ posh condominium unit, but he doesn’t let the former First Lady off so easily, even if he is properly deferential.
One other sweet trait of Morse is that he doesn’t seem to hesitate to enter even the darkest, narrowest, most frightening places, all to bring the full flavor of the experience to his viewers.
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In Corregidor, Morse accedes to his guide’s suggestion to turn off their flashlights inside Malinta Tunnel if only to get a feel for the atmosphere within the network of tunnels where thousands of Americans and Filipinos sought shelter from the unrelenting bombing of the Japanese.
At one point, the guide points to a circular indentation along a side tunnel, pointing out that it’s a sign that a group of Japanese, during Corregidor’s retaking, chose to blow themselves up rather than be taken prisoners. Morse points to the pockmarked walls and ceiling where bits of shrapnel are imbedded, proving the veracity of the guide’s story.
Ivan Man Dy, who conducts historical walking (and culinary) tours through parts of Manila, including Intramuros, Binondo, and even the Chinese Cemetery, provides the historical backdrop through Morse’s tour of the fortress walls.
Being himself Filipino-Chinese, Dy highlights the uneasy relationship between the largely Spanish residents of the city behind the walls, and the Chinese settlers in the Parian, now the district of Binondo, a mere “cannon ball shot” away.
Most interesting is the feature on how the ancient walls of Intramuros, largely destroyed by American artillery during the bloody “liberation” of Manila, are now being restored by out-of-school Manila youth taking part in the “Escuela de Talyer,” using old-fashioned masonry methods employed by the Spanish.
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Morse and his party then journey to the Cordilleras, where he meets up with Kalinga elders whose tattoos tell stories of their personal exploits, pay homage to symbols of their culture, and re-tell legends and folk tales. They’re walking, living museums in short, and Morse bemoans the reluctance of the next generations of Kalingas to engage in tattooing, wondering if the “unmarked” youth mean the cutting off of ties to the community’s splendid past.
In interviews, Morse has said that the “best” part of his visit last August to tape this latest show was his trip to the Iwahig Penal Farm in Palawan, where thousands of prisoners live and work in a sprawling spread of rice fields, swamps and jungle without need of walls or hundreds of guards. As the warden explains, “they have nowhere to go, they will only be beset my mosquitoes and fall ill of malaria in the jungle” should they try to escape.
But it’s the afternoon and evening Morse spends with a community of inmates that prove the humaneness of the arrangement. He plays billiards with them, gamely accepting a challenge; sings a self-composed song; and even shares in their humble repast. There wasn’t much “hidden” in Iwahig, only the humanity of convicts who say, despite their relative freedom, that “loneliness” is still their biggest bane.
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