Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Dr. Fernando Zialcita, a professor of Philippine history at the Ateneo de Manila, once lamented that the Philippines and it's dominant culture seemed invisible. He believed that our country, with it's westernized ways, seems to be considered as an anomaly to the Southeast Asian region and is apparently "not exotic enough" to the eyes of the world to be given much attention. And due to this inability to peg Philippine culture among it's neighboring cultures, they just bypass it altogether. As an example, he said to look up most international publications on cultures of Southeast Asia printed in the last fifty years and one will see that great focus will be given to neighboring Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand but only minimal print will be given to the Philippines. And if the Philippines is mentioned at all, those features will only touch upon Philippine tribal and pre-hispanic cultures. the dominant Philippine lowland/Christianized culture created after 1600 won't be mentioned at all. It had become invisible.

That theory stuck to me as I thought about our presence in magazine publications in New York City (above). For the past few years and at any given month, one could open up just about any art or lifestyle or travel or events or cuisine publication and section upon section would be given to the arts, crafts, culture, cuisine etc... of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, et al. But aside from the "surreal" section ('Woman gives birth to fish') and world news events ('Terrorism!', ''Typhoons!'), the Philippines was given small notice if any at all. It seemed like the Philippines was becoming invisible in New York.

It was a was really a sad state of affairs considering that thirty years ago, thanks to Imelda's jet setting ways and real estate purchasing "savvy", the Philippines held a pretty high profile in the "greatest city on earth". Think about it. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, at any given time you could open up the Village Voice, The New Yorker, or New York Magazine listings section and you would see that the Philippines would be having: a) Architect Leandro Locsin guest as set designer for Martha Graham's latest ballet, b) a festival of handicrafts at Bloomingdale's Department Store c) a travel exposition at the newly opened Philippine Center on Fifth Avenue (above) or off the record, hosting a Van Cliburn private piano recital at the Philippine president's residential townhouse on 56th street between Lexington and 5th. (more on this below). It was apparent that the Philippines was the most dominant Southeast Asian culture on the New York cultural map beforing falling back into anonymity when we slashed the budget for public relations.
But after years of neglect, I'm glad to see that we are slowly creeping back to the surface in the New York City scene. With the latest performance of the Bayanihan Dance Company at the Metropolitan Museum, the feature of Cendrillon Restaurant's book, "Memories of Philippine Kitchens" (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang) as Vanity Fair Magazines Fanfair picks (above), and Imelda Marcos making it into the "Approval Matrix" of New York Magazine (below), it somehow seems were kinda poised to head back into the Big Apple's cultural consciousness once again. Bravo bravo to you all!
But then again, maybe just half a bravo to Imelda. Her position was still in the was "highbrow, despicable" area. And while we're on the topic of Her Highness The High Hair. Allow me to post some pictures I took of her former town house during my last visit to New York.

Actually, it was never Imelda's townhouse. It was always owned by the Philippine government and used as offices for our Ambassador to the United Nations since the 1950s. It was only refurbished as a residence by Imelda in in the 1970s after she moved all the offices to the more centrally located Philippine Center on 5th Ave. Today, half the property has been sold to the Czech government to use as their consulate (hence, the renovations).

Here is the entrance foyer with most of the original wall/ceiling details remaining intact. The place, although a bit dark, I am happy to report, is spotlessly clean.

Here is a picture of the Dining Room with a chandelier that supposedly cost U$one million. I'm not sure how true this is but apparently it once had real diamonds hanging from them. They are gone now.

The grand staircase. Then and now. Note the missing tapestry and antique candelabra. Apparently most of the good stuff went missing during the Cory Administration, when most of the furniture was "sequestered" by the Presidential Commission on Good Government.

The piano room/sala. Note the mural works of peacocks behind Imelda are the same ones next to the fireplace. The murals are in current need of restoration (water damage) and would cost about U$50,000.00. The house itself is one of New York City's registered Historic Homes so I hope the funding for this comes soon.

Finally, a portrait of the living room and the current mistress of the house, Mrs. Norma Baja, the wife of Philippine Ambassador to the United Nations, Amb. Lauro Baja. She sometimes throws ballroom dancing parties at the townhouse when entertaining fellow UN diplomats ("Koffi Annan is an excellent dancer."). Most of the furniture is hers and will leave with her when their assignment ends. The chandeliers will remain though. "They belong to the Filipino People", she says. Thanks for the tour and the cookies. Charming charming lady.