Saturday, May 17, 2008


Unfortunately, my ARTWALK today at Fort Bonifacio High Street was cancelled due to the weather. It will be rescheduled on another Saturday soon they say. The last ARTWALK I did was rained on, so I'm glad I'm going to be given another chance to do it on a nicer day.

Meanwhile, here is the interview I had today with Tanya Lara of the Philippine Star. Thanks, Tanya. It was really cool having coffee with you last week right before my first ARTWALK.

A walk in the rain with Carlos Celdran

CRAZY QUILT By Tanya T. Lara
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Tour guide and performer Carlos Celdran thinks he’s in on the biggest secret in the world: That it’s actually fun to live in this country. We may have hours-long traffic and garbage in the streets, but we also have Imelda, the CCP and Rizal Monument, Ongpin Street, and endless strange and bizarre stories about life here that make for one hell of an interesting tour.

Wearing a top hat and an Ilustrado costume during his tours, Carlos likens living here to playing a video game, something that can be mastered “and once you master it, you’re addicted.”

The art enthusiast/fine arts graduate/history and architecture buff says the best thing about living in Metro Manila is that “It’s constantly changing, it’s organic, it’s challenging. Nothing is what it seems. If I’m the only one who knows Manila is this fantastic, then lucky me! It’s rich in history. We keep forgetting that we’re a player in terms of global history; we keep thinking we’re just this small backwater town.”

Before he blew into town and started his now-famous walking tours, Carlos was the youngest editorial cartoonist at 14 for a major newspaper, he was a Fine Arts student at UP and later at Rhode Island School of Design. When he was in his third year in Rhode Island, he found out that he was allergic to oil paint.

“After paying all that tuition, right? I couldn’t just drop it, so I took up performance art as my thesis. I was still able to graduate from the painting department — without doing a single painting!”

After school, he went to work for the Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, which used to be a landfill and an illegal dumpsite until artists and community members under the leadership of artist Mark di Suvero transformed it into an exhibition space for large-scale works in 1986. Here Carlos learned all about public art and got to know the major artists in New York, and at the same time he was interning with the Blue Man Group.

“Blue Man Group exposed me to performance art and how it can be a tourist trap, so I kind of made my own version of a tourist trap for Manila,” he says with a laugh. “Because when you’re in New York you gotta watch Blue Man Group; the same way that when you’re in Manila you gotta do the Carlos Celdran tours.”

On a very hot and humid Saturday afternoon, Carlos sat down with us to talk about public art, the country, our culture and history, and his tours. Naturally — and characteristically of the Philippines — it rained right before he started his tour.

Ever the trouper, Carlos led his dozen or so fans through a wonderful walking tour in the rain.

THE PHILIPPINE STAR: Did you ever regret having to abandon fine arts?

CARLOS CELDRAN: No, because I’ve never been an introvert. I was born with the skill to draw. As a child I was a cartoonist for Samahan ng mga Kartunista ng Pilipinas. I was the youngest member of SKP, working for BusinessWorld. It was just assumed that I would be painting. Being a painter requires you to stay in a room, lock it, and then… depression…and work your issues out on a canvas. You know what, I got over that really fast!

You look like a genuine extrovert.
I like being with people, I like being out there with the rest of the world. There’s more ways to express my artistic self than through my hands. But learning how to draw was necessary because you do need to learn the rules before you break them. Fine arts allowed me to get my basics in, my art history. I brought those skills to my performance and my tours. My tours teach people how to look at Manila in another way.

Do you include local legends in your tours, like the ones in Nick Joaquin’s ‘70s book Fairy Tales for Groovy Children?
No, my parents were conservative. They were so square, so Catholic, they probably would have said, “Don’t touch that” because the word “groovy” is in the title.

What were your first walking tours like?
Oh, very simple. The tours I used to do were for the Heritage Conservation Society, which was under Toti Villalon. We would just go around old parts of Manila like Quiapo, FEU and Luneta. You know, choo-choo-choo to the left, choo-choo-choo to the right. It didn’t have any of my interest in performance art yet.

When they reorganized the structure of the society, I took the tours with me. I started to put on the top hat and costumes, to really make it more interesting for myself. And then I added the pictures, the visual element, the musical element and the rest is history.

The first time I read about you some years ago was in a foreign magazine.
Cool. Not even here, eh? Time magazine was my breakout. I also had one in a Dutch magazine in the beginning.

What are the common elements in your tours of Intramuros, Imelda and Chinatown?
My tours always have to do with art, culture, history and architecture. For my Imelda tour, we explore the architecture of Lindy Locsin and try to relate the feeling of that era to the architecture, to the life and aspirations of Imelda. Because, really, without her ambitions, that building (the CCP Main Theater) would never have been built. My tour is kinda like the unauthorized biography of Imelda.

What kind of feedback do you get, what’s the most bizarre?
Some are offended, like a lot of Americans don’t realize that they were the ones who blew up Manila in World War II. And when I try to tell them that it was actually MacArthur who destroyed Manila, which is why Manila lost its spiritual center and its heritage, they get offended. Not that I use the word “imperialist” purposely or anything like that, but there’s a lot that can be learned from what’s going on in the world right now, especially with the Iraq War and relating it to Philippine history in 1898 — a country that didn’t need to be freed — and imposing your own imprint upon it. And then World War II came along. The big disappointment. We were dragged into a war that wasn’t our own, and we were destroyed.

How do you do your research?

Books, the Internet.

Was Renato Constantino a source of history?

A lot of my "leftist" leanings, yes. I came from UP — from 1990 to 1992 — then Rhode Island from 1993 to 1996. We were the first Fine Arts batch to move from the Main Library to the Vet Med building. There’s always been that “art for a social cause” in UP. But mostly I was influenced by Nick Joaquin and all those books like Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s The History of the Burgis, and The Streets of Manila. It was important for me to have history taught in a very entertaining, graphic manner. It was the first time that I was seeing history that wasn’t cold or seen through a foreigner’s eyes. These books were written for and by Filipinos. The History of the Burgis, for me, is the bible for explaining everything here. Period.

When did the costumes come in?

Later on, just to keep things interesting. If I got bored, you’ll all get bored. It became necessary when I was doing tours downtown, because if I wore something plain, you would lose me going through Quiapo, but now you see this guy with a funny hat and an Ilustrado outfit.

For the Imelda tour, I wear bellbottoms, a Ninoy T-shirt and a Marcos pin. I try as much as I can to not take sides in any of my tours. I try to be an equal-opportunity offender. If I can’t treat everyone nicely, then I’ll treat everybody badly.

What’s your favorite building?

The CCP with all its warts. It’s a wonderful marriage of traditional and contemporary. It’s something that’s undeniably Filipino and yet it fits in the international stage. It’s dramatic, bold, pioneering; it took guts to build something like that. It’s really one of the first monumental things we built for ourselves. All those churches, think about it, they were done for religion, for Spain. It took Imelda to build the CCP.

I love Lindy Locsin, but his buildings seem to me closed off and dark.

I think it was also the times, it was all about air-con back then. Imelda wanted to see the CCP against the sunset. Everybody said, “Why not face the building the other way so you see the sunset when you’re coming in?” But actually it looks better when you look at it from the front and the colors are behind it. Locsin was brave and also a victim of the times — without Madame and her endless purse strings to fund his projects, he wouldn’t have been able to do what he did. No artist or architect today has the same opportunities that he had. I’m obsessed about Lindy Locsin.

Do you like Imelda?
I do recognize her importance and contributions to the country. I give her props for that.

Then and now, parang may sarili siyang mundo no?
Oo naman, pero there’s a fine line between sanity and insanity. All the characters in the world naman were lukaret di ba? The only problem with her was that she was loony on our government coffers and she played out her issues on the world stage. That’s the only part I cannot forgive her for.

Your tours are mostly composed of what kind of groups?

Puti — North Americans, English, Australians — and a few Japanese who speak English. A lot of Lonely Planet readers because I’m in their guidebooks, expats whose parents are here and they don’t know what to do with them. My No. 2 is Fil-Ams, like from Toronto or the US, who are all looking for their soul, their identity. You know what, what makes you think you’ll find any answers here? You have identity crisis over there? Same shit here! Except that we’re here. And then my last one is students.

Which subject do your tourists love best?
Imelda. You know, we made the Marcoses as much as they made us.

What’s the question you get asked most?
“So, where did it all go wrong?”

And your answer?
After 1986, we went back to the 19th century. We brought back the landed gentry and the Catholic Church to run the country.

Is that off the record?
No, you can put it (laughs). This is UP talking — as I eat in Starbucks.

And speaking of Imelda, my dad sent me the funniest text today.


Which proves a theory set by my friend, Junjun: "Nobody is every ready to talk to Imelda, but Imelda is always ready to talk to you."

Thank you Drinoboi for the picture.