Accident of history

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Only a few works about the Filipino-Chinese experience have been so far produced in Philippine literature today. This is probably why much about the Tsinoy remains a mystery to most, and the few instances the people has been depicted are often stereotypical, frequently as shrewd business people who would take to even illegal means to further their enterprises.

While this portrayal is inaccurate, it is not far-fetched to say that even as late as today, such high regard for careers in commerce over those in the arts or literature persists among the Filipino-Chinese. This could also explain why there are only a few Filipino-Chinese writers who write about their culture in print today, among them the novelist Charlson Ong, who, in 2005, published Banyaga: A Song of War.

The business-versus-art bind Ong touches on in the novel, such as with the case of a shopping-mall owner, a second-generation Filipino-Chinese, who disapproves of his son’s interest in classical music. The son eventually gets his way, what with the support from none other than his grandfather, the family’s patriarch and one of the four protagonists in the sixty-year Filipino-Chinese saga. The grandfather, Antonio Limpoco, a grizzled tycoon who has bribed his way to business success, sending his grandson to Juilliard? What gives?

Art is again cast in an unflattering light when the only artist among the four main characters turns out to be the darkest. Having been adopted by a rich family, Fernando de Lolariaga leads the most comfortable life among the sworn brothers, training to be an artist and eventually becoming a prized painter and politician. Despite the privilege, Fernando is a troubled character, hunted through his lifetime with feelings of guilt from his youth during the pre-war years and the Japanese occupation.

Besides eschewing unprofitable pursuits such as the arts, the novel offers another reason to the Filipino-Chinese commercial acumen: a headstart. Like Antonio, Hilario and Samuel, many of the big Filipino-Chinese began their businesses when manufacturing and retail industries in the Philippines were still in their nascent stage in the 1950s. So by the time these industries replaced agriculture, these Filipino-Chinese entrepreneurs had already secured their positions, which they would go on to maintain through decades of wars and regime changes.

The profound impact of history on personal lives is a theme which Banyaga shares with another Chinese saga, the Chen Kaige film Farewell, My Concubine. In both works, history serves not only as backdrop but turning points, an element that influences the characters’ decisions and changes the course of their lives. Take the Japanese occupation, for instance. The most compelling section of the novel, the war separated the protagonists from their newfound families and forced them to kill. The damage it would wreak on them they would never recover from and affect their relationships in their post-war lives. History is both friend and foe, bestowing privilege now to take away so much in the next. Other common themes present in both Farewell, My Concubine and Banyaga are father-son estrangement and brotherly love.

As it is, writing a period novel is more demanding than one set in the contemporary times, what with having to render the past as convincingly as possible. With Banyaga, the challenge becomes tougher with Ong’s choice to tell the story from the points of view of the four main characters. This is also the novel’s Achilles heel: having to reorient himself with the change of point of view in every chapter, the reader is often left confused. The shifts in points of view makes the narrative feel fragmented, with no palpable element connecting the next chapter from the last.

Like Farewell, My Concubine, Banyaga has its share of melodrama. Some scenes are too fabulous to be convincing, such as Nenita becoming a spirit medium and Antonio in old age falling off the yacht after hearing the music of his dead brother’s flute. The narration sometimes tries too hard to convey the character’s inner turmoil and tends to be overly sentimental.

By the end of the novel, the reader feels that Ong never set out to defend the often misconstrued Tsinoy. At the very least, what he has done is provide a more complex picture of the Filipino-Chinese. Come to think of it, the travails of his characters aren’t so different from those of other ethnicities.  Being Filipino-Chinese – actually, being anything – is simply an accident of history. The past brings with it two options: either you become its victim, or you become its master.


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