Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Looking for Snow but Found Sunflower Instead: A Stopover in Seoul

Before Jeju Island, we would make a stopover at Seoul, as most travelers from other countries would on their way to South Korea’s premiere tourist destination. But before Seoul there were the jitters. It was early December, and Korea was in the middle of winter. Living in a tropical country all my life, I had never experienced winter, had little idea on what to wear and had no idea on how cold is near-zero and sub-zero temperatures. I agonized over winter clothes, how to get them and how much to pack for a four-day winter trip. I worried too much it almost dampened the excitement to see Korea. There is snow, my friends squeaked. I wanted to see and touch snow. That piqued me a little.

Somehow, Korea did not seem to excite me. Korean television series are constantly running on Philippine television. Koreans businesses are cropping up all over Metro Manila. Koreans teem in Boracay and Baguio and other tourist spots in the country, fast leading tourist arrivals in the Philippines. It is an invasion of sorts, many say, and this may have produced a kind of familiarity, almost making one feel that Korea is just a nearby island around the Philippines. It seemed we have gotten used to having them around, however, I realized there is precious little we know about the people and their country.

I tried to cursorily dig into my memory and came out with images of kimchi, that spicy side dish; hanbok, worn by Korean contestants in international beauty pageants; and the Olympic games, which Korea hosted in 1988. I remembered watching the latter’s opening ceremony on television and being awed by the spectacle. I could not retrieve the things we studied in high school about the history of Korea. I forgot that they call it "The Hermit Kingdom" and "Land of the Morning Calm."

My excitement only began to blossom when we neared Incheon at the northwestern part of South Korea. From the plane window, I saw the twinkling lights of the city, glitter dust on velvet evening. I almost trembled. My anxiety though surged as we landed and quickly dissipated as we walked into the Incheon International Airport, a sprawling and gleaming structure. The airport, one of the biggest in Asia, is relatively new, being six years old. Before, international flights landed at the Gimpo Airport, right in Seoul. Now, it mainly serves as a domestic airport, many going to Jeju Island.
I started remembering the travel writings on Korea by Filipino writer Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo. How could I forget? I devoured her travel essays, especially her accounts of her stay in Korea in the early 1980s, particularly about her stint as a teacher and journalist and her observations on Korean society, especially concerning women. That sojourn culminated in the book Skyscrapers, Celadon and Kimchi: A Korean Notebook, which I regard as one of her best.

"About Korea. To begin with, there is its beauty, a beauty which unfailingly astonishes the stranger who visits the country for the first time, and finds at every bend in the road a scene as evocatively lovely as an old painting by Yi Sang-jwa," she wrote in her 1984 book Sojourns. I was now ready to be astonished.

Outside the airport, I breathed in my first winter air, and saw my breath came out in visible mist. We laughed, I and my journalist companions on assignment to write about the tourism of Jeju. But there was no snow. No snow now, said the pretty Jessie Kang, who works for the Philippine Airlines Korea and served as our Korean companion for the whole trip and guide for this short stopover in Seoul. It snowed in the middle of November but that was it. We groaned but quickly brushed our little disappointment aside for there was the vast, radiant metropolis ahead.

It was about an hour’s drive from the port city of Incheon to Seoul, and the highway was smooth and wide. Into Seoul, we crossed the Han River, encrusted with lights. The great river bisects the city into north and south. In the area towards the mouth, there is archaeological evidence that people settled there in the Neolithic Age, and settlements slowly spread inland in about 700 BC.

During the Three Kingdoms Period, from 57 BC to 668 AD, Baekje, one of the kingdoms, established its capital Wiryeseong in an area believed to be in modern-day Seoul. The three kingdoms, Baekje, Goguryeo and Silla, competed for this strategic area. During the Goryeo Dynasty, from 918 to 1392, the area was called Namgyeong, Southern Capital, a full-scale city with political significance.
At the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty in 1394, the capital was known as Hanyang and later as Hanseong. The dynasty built palaces, fortresses and dwellings, including the great Gyeongbok Palace, which remains as one of Seoul’s attractions. During this period, Korea had limited contact with the outside world, thus earning the appellation "The Hermit Kingdom." But in 1876, it began establishing diplomatic contact with the West and modernizing, simultaneously having electricity, trolley cars, water, telephone and telegraph systems. But soon after, Japan annexed Korea with Seoul as the colonial capital. After World War II and Korea's liberation, Seoul was declared the official capital by the new government and given its present name, from an old Korean word for "capital."
In the middle of the 20th century, the Korean War broke out, and the Chinese-backed North Korean forces and the United Nations-backed South Korean forces fought over Seoul, leaving the city in ruins. But with aid from the United States, Seoul began reconstruction. By the 1970s, the city was becoming highly industrialized and started achieving rapid economic growth. As with any place in the process of urbanization, Seoul had problems with traffic, pollution and population. More and more people were moving to Seoul.

When the Joseon Dynasty opened up to the world, the population of the city stood at about 200,000. By the end of the Korean War, it ballooned to about two million, as Koreans from the North sought refuge in Seoul, and it had steadily increased. Presently, Seoul has a population of a little over ten million and is considered one of the most crowded in the world.

But I could not readily see the crowdedness now, perhaps having used to the more crowded Manila. I saw clean streets, gleaming buildings and neon lights. The lights at night were specifically noticeable. Because it was Christmas season, there were numerous and showy. Seoul had more Christmas lights than Manila, which boasts to celebrate Christmas with much more enthusiasm than anyone else. Despite being largely Confucian and Buddhist, Christmas was palpable, with buildings wreathed in pine leaves and decorated with ribbons and mistletoes.

By the city hall, we saw an awesome arrangement of Christmas lights. Tiny dots of multi-colored lights were arranged to form an almost life-size building, outshining the constellations in the sky. On one of the highways, lights formed into a static fountain. There were more installations on the bridges of Cheonggye Stream. The city called this attraction Lucevista, a festival of lights from the Italian, to enliven the winter and celebrate Christmas.

After leaving our things at the Ibis Ambassador Seoul, a small but charming hotel in the southern part of the city, we went out for dinner in a small and warm restaurant tucked between other small restaurants and boutiques. We ordered bulgogi, one of Korea’s famous dishes. Pieces of pork with mushroom were broiled in front of us. We fished out the cooked meat and wrapped it in lettuce with a dab of tasty samjang. Making the table colorful was the array of side dishes, de-rigeuer in any Korean meal. There were different types of kimchis-radish and the more familiar Chinese cabbage-which I ate with gusto. There were rape plant leaves and mung bean sprouts sautéed in sesame oil. There was a side dish that looked like a dark green mash, almost like a large dollop of rotting moss sprinkled with sesame seeds. But it was actually seaweed and it tasted amazing. Jessie said it is an old traditional side dish that is seldom made nowadays. We finished off the seaweed that tasted of old times and eternal sea, and asked for seconds. A companion requested if she can buy a jar of it. The owners deliberated and granted her request.

With the delectable dinner over and sucking peppermint candies, we spilled into the narrow street that sloped downward and was illuminated by numerous neon signs. The temperature dipped and it was getting late. Many stores were closing. Many people were still strolling about. Three teens were ribbing each other, a tad drunk and getting rough sometimes. It was nothing to worry about. Seoul is safe, Jessie assured. Indeed, it is one of the safest cities in the world with a low crime rate. One thing to worry about, at least for us, was the cold.
We walked on until we could not bear the cold. My earlobes were aching terribly. I was bungling with my layers of clothes and hefty jacket. I needed to get used to this much clothing on me. We passed by cosmopolitan Koreans, a couple of girls in high-cut boots and miniskirts, striding like it was summer. I thought my fingers and ears will fall off, and bleed from the cold. We took refuge inside a coffee shop, ordered coffee and held on to the warms cup like they were life-giving fire. A group of boys came in, dusky like us. We nodded to each other as if we had seen each other before. One approached me. Philippines, I said as if I read his mind. Malaysia, he said. We smiled, we creatures of the tropics and refugees of the cold. I could not talk from the cold. My lips were always at the rim of the steaming cup of coffee.

It was almost as cold early the next morning. The hotel room was warm, and the breakfast buffet tempted one to linger. But we only had half a day to see the city, so we set out for the Blue House.

It is said that as the population grew Seoul also grew in size, spreading over 605 square kilometers by 1973, more than doubling the area in 1948, and becoming the fifth largest city in the world. The city consists of 25 gu and 522 villages. From the ruins of war, the rise of Seoul is remarkable. Now, the city is a big and neat assemblage of high-rise buildings, malls, convention centers, hotels, wide streets, subways, and entertainment complexes.

Gerald Ramos, an editor at The Business Mirror, remarked that many parts of the city reminded him of Tokyo, but without its impersonality. I discerned a sense of neighborliness and quaintness.
"Even Seoul is beautiful-which is another surprise," wrote Pantoja-Hidalgo. "Somehow, very few modern cities are. Skyscrapers, elevated highways, subways, ten-lane avenues, neon signs-certainly they are an imposing sight. But also cold and alienating. In Seoul, the harshness of the asphalt jungle is softened by the contours of the land. Seoul is a city built on hills, with the Han River cutting across it, and its wooded park lands painstakingly preserved."

Also, it is a city where modern structures stand side by side ancient monuments, carefully preserved. As we zipped through the highway, we passed by old massive gates, reminders of the Joseon Dynasty when Seoul was encompassed by huge walls. In downtown Seoul, said to be traditional heart of the city, there were more grand vestiges of the dynasty, which stand among government offices, corporate headquarters, hotels and traditional markets.

It is in this area where the most important government landmark stands. The Cheong Wa Dae is where the presidents of South Korea reside and hold office. The name means "house of the blue roof tiles" because of its blue-green roof. But it is commonly called "The Blue House." We could only view the building from across the rotunda with a monument of a phoenix-like creature, shivering in the cold. I was more enthralled by the small mountain of Bukhan on its backdrop. I could see the blue roof of the official residence. Cheong Wa Dae is actually a complex, which includes the Yeongbin-gwan or the guest house, the Chunchugwan press hall, and the secretariat buildings, sitting on an area of about 250,000 square meters.

Originally, this was the site of a royal villa built in 1104 by King Sukjong of the Goryeo Kingdom. The area was called Namgyeong, the southern capital. During the Joseon period, it became the back garden of the Gyeongbok Palace. During the Japanese annexation, Japanese authorities erected government buildings on the site, including the official residence and office of the governor-general. After liberation and the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948, President Lee Seung-man used the building as his office and residence, calling it "Gyeongmudae." When Yun Bo-seon rose to power in 1960, he changed it to "Cheong Wa Dae." Subsequent presidents also used the building, restructuring it, particularly dismantling things that symbolize Japanese occupation.

It now stands there, reverent, with the backdrop of Bukhan Mountain. To the left is the mountain of Naksan, symbolizing the Blue Dragon, and to the right is the mountain of Inwangsan, symbolizing the White Tiger. The protective mountain of Namsan is at the south. Here, the stream of Cheonggyecheon flows to the Han River. It is very blessed location, according to geomancers.
Nearby is the Gyeongbok Palace, one of great old palaces of Seoul. We passed by the quaint street of Samcheong on the way there. The tree-lined street is studded with cafes, restaurants, wine bars and art galleries, which makes for a thoroughly inspiring walk. This is a recent development in this once quiet neighborhood. Because it is near The Blue House, development was forbidden. When the government changed its mind, an artist community began to burgeon. Old houses were transformed into restaurants. Galleries and shops blossomed, and visitors came in, many preferring Samcheong than the busier shopping districts of the city.

We stood in front of the imposing gate, Geunjeong-mun, of the Gyeongbok Palace, marveling at the ornate eaves and roofs, at the red-painted doors and pillars. We just had little time, said Jessie, and the palace is a sprawling complex, which includes many rooms, halls, pavilions, ponds, gates, foot bridges and museums. Spreading over an area of 410,000 square meters, Gyeongbok is the grandest of the four Joseon-era palaces in the city, three of them near each other in northern Seoul.

Gyeongbok was built in 1395 and was expanded in the succeeding years, but it was burned down during the Japanese invasion two centuries later. It was rebuilt in 1867 during the regency of Daewon-gun with 330 buildings but were destroyed save for ten by the Japanese in 1911, when Japan annexed Korea. At the southern part, in front of the throne hall, the Japanese built a capitol for the governor-general. During the Korean War, the palace again suffered some damages.

Restoration of Gyeongbok Palace began during the 1960s. The main gate was constructed, hiding the capitol, which was turned into a museum. But there are still structures representative of the Joseon Dynasty remaining, enough to effect an august and ancient atmosphere.

But we stopped by the Geunjeong-mun only. I knew if we went inside I will be lingering too long and will missing the flight to Jeju later in the day. Guards in colorful Joseon-era costumes were stationed at the front yard. Visitors took turns being photographed with the unmoving and formidable guards. Then the ceremony of the changing of the guards began.

The same ceremony was taking place at the Deoksu Palace on Jeong Street in Jung-gu. Located in a busy intersection of the downtown, the palace stands among modern buildings and shops. It was easy to spot it with the throng of people watching and taking pictures of the ceremony.

The gate of the Deoksu Palaca is smaller than Gyeongbok’s but the roof is just as ornate with tiles and eaves that curl upwards. The compound is surrounded by a stone wall, separating it from the busy metropolitan goings-on. Again, we just stopped by the gate. Amidst the office workers going to and fro and a small crowd of onlookers, the guards marched in their costumes, adding streaks of striking colors in the mix of grays and blacks.

This little palace was once the villa of Prince Wolsan, older brother of the Joseon king Seongjong (1469-1494). When other palaces were burned down by the Japanese in 1592, during the Seven-Year War, Deoksu became the royal palace, and King Seonjo was the first king to reside in Deoksu. In 1608, King Gwanghaegun was crowned in this palace, which he then called Gyeongun-gung in 1611. When Changdeokgung was rebuilt in 1618, the royal residence was moved there, and Deoksu became an auxiliary palace, renamed Seogung or West Palace. It was then called Deoksu in the late 19th century during the reign of Sunjong, after Emperor Gojong abdicated but continued to live in Deoksu.

At Deoksu Palace, our group split. One group wanted to check out Seoul’s shopping districts, and the other the Vincent Van Gogh exhibit at the Seoul Museum of Art. We stepped out of the shadows of Korean history and into modern Seoul. It was already midmorning, and the sun was slowly gilding the streets and buildings. Although the temperature was up to a degree or two, I still felt cold and was still waking up.

"Winters were long and very cold," wrote Pantoja-Hidalgo in her 1992 book I Remember…: Travel Essays. "But most days were dry and bright like diamonds. Sometimes it was grey, and the trees and buildings were covered with a soft mist. By midday, the sun would shine forth, and through the mist, everything would look as if it had been sprinkled with gold dust."

At the Seoul Museum of Art, the color of gold burst forth, along with wine, burgundy and burnt orange. The museum is nestled in a small hill, among trees, some leafless and some burning with fiery colors. As much as we were fascinated by nature’s palette, we were looking forward to a genius who mixed colors into amazing visions.
I thought it weird to be viewing the works of the famous Dutch painter and that I should be marveling over Korean artifacts. "The rare opportunity to see Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpieces in Seoul is not one to be missed," said The Korea Times, "especially since the directors of the Van Gogh Museum and Kroller-Muller Museum from the Netherlands are calling ‘Van Gogh: Voyage into the Myth’ one of the best Van Gogh exhibitions ever in Asia." So we headed to Seosomun Street. The museum is very near the Deoksu Palace.

The exhibit, which the Korean organizers diligently prepared to mount, covered the prolific ten-year period in his career with 67, including 45 paintings and 22 drawings, said to be "the biggest Van Gogh exhibition since the exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the artist’s death at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam in 1990." Furthermore, according to one of the organizers, the Van Gogh Museum is not planning to hold another exhibition of this kind for the next ten years.

The Van Gogh works are in Korea for four months, from late November to middle of March the following year. It was opportune that we were in Seoul in that period. It was an unexpected side trip. Banners about the exhibit festooned the streets of Seoul as we went around. Gerald could not stop hankering about it.
Vincent Van Gogh, one of most provocative painters of the world, mystifies many people. He seems to epitomize the image of the struggling artist with his troubled life and his conflicted soul. Throughout his life, he was largely unrecognized, was suffering from depression and could barely support himself. With the unselfish help from his brother Theo, Vincent was able to survive and paint, a fact I find touching. But in 1890 at the age of 37, Van Gogh shot himself in a field and died two days later. Dying, he said to Theo, "the sadness will last forever." Theo died six months later. In 1914, Theo’s body was exhumed and re-buried beside Vincent. After his death, his works had been hailed worldwide, and he was considered a genius.

And we were at the threshold of genius one very cold morning among trees with the color of fire. I was getting cheesy and humming "Vincent," Don McLean’s ballad that starts with "Starry, starry night," and continues to say, "This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you." The world now is beautiful and sometimes I cannot believe I am in it. At the museum’s garden, I saw something close to snow-ice formed at cracks on the pavement and on the earth by the roots of trees. The ground was covered with dead maple and ginkgo leaves. We touched the ice and picked up the leaves like children. At the square by the entrance, benches basked under the precious sunlight, surrounded by leafless trees, which in turn were encompassed by rows of little buildings, their windows still holding the shadows of last night.

Behind us, the museum building, built in the 1920s, stood august and gray with Renaissance-inspired architecture. It was actually a courthouse, housing the Supreme Court of the Republic of Korea from 1948 to 1995. The Seoul Museum of Art was originally in the Gyeoghui Palace, occupying a building that was once the Gyeongseong Middle School. The school became the Seoul High School after the Korean independence, then the Seoul Museum of Art in 1988. The Seoul Museum of Art moved into the Seosomun building when the Supreme Court was transferred to another building, on May 2002. The museum expanded, opening the Nam Seoul Annex Building in the southern part of the city where there are relatively fewer facilities.
Seoul actually has numerous museums and galleries, ranging from the grand to the intriguing. There is the grand National Museum of Korea, the National Folk Museum, the Beautiful Tea Museum, the Kimchi Field Museum, the Museum of Korean Embroidery, the Korean Kitchen Utensil Museum, the National Museum of Contemporary Art and the Seoul Museum of History, among others. Many are located at the northern part.
Seoul seems cultured, and the cultural spaces here must have been well-patronized. This was especially true at the Seoul Museum of Art now with the Van Gogh exhibit. People came in droves this Sunday morning, and we sometimes needed to squeeze in among the throngs to gawk at the paintings. Inside, the museum was alive, warm and throbbing. The lobby, main hall and atrium were studded with television monitors, a video installation. The Van Gogh exhibit occupied the second and third floors.

This "voyage into the myth" started with the artist’s early Netherlands period, from 1881 to 1885, when the twenty-eight-year old Van Gogh had decided to pursue art earnestly and began painting. He lived in the countryside in Etten with his parents, drawing his neighbors as subjects, and then moved to Drenthe, The Hague and Nuenen. He had unfortunate love affairs. His attempt to break into the art world was disheartening. His father died of a stroke.

I finally saw The Potato Eaters, which I first saw in my college humanities textbook, a somber lithograph depicting five peasants sharing a meal of potatoes under an oil lamp. The scene is wrapped in darkness but there is intensity in the depiction of the figures and their expressions, making the lithograph luminous. Van Gogh drew this in the spring of 1885 in Neunen. It was considered a failure, both by the critics and art dealers and by himself, not fulfilling what he initially intended to do. But after his death, The Potato Eaters was considered a masterpiece, his first.

Many of the works during this period were realistic and melancholic. Sorrow (November 1882) depicts a nude woman crouching in despair. Many were everyday scenes: Man at Table, Peasant Women Digging Potatoes and Loom with Weaver.

In 1886, Van Gogh moved to Paris, got exposed to art trends, befriended fellow artists and experimented with colors. Many works during the Paris period, from 1886 to 1888, are still-life: Parisian Novels; Vase of Cornflowers, Daisies, Poppies and Carnations; Glass of Absinthe and a Carafe; Roses and Peonies; and Flowers in a Blue Vase. In this portion, I saw his famous Self-Portrait, one of his many. This was not the one with the bandage, a later version done after he cut off his ear, but the one where he wore a straw hat and a yellow waistcoat.

From Paris, Van Gogh moved to Arles with ideas of establishing an art colony. He stayed at a hotel and then rented a house, called the Yellow House, at Number Two, Place Lamartine. Here he embarked on a project of decorating the house and was joined by artist Paul Gaugin. But they had a falling out. In 1889, Van Gogh suffered from hallucinations and paranoia.

The works in his Arles period, from February 1888 to May 1889, were marked by intense colors and energy. Included in the exhibit were Portrait of Joseph Roulin, The Yellow House, and The Sower. The last one I was very familiar with, a painting that burst with yellow color. Another famous work from this period, but not in the exhibit, is the Sunflower series, which was done August and September 1888. The wilting flowers were done in impasto, intended as decoration for Gaugin’s room in The Yellow House.

The third floor of the museum housed Van Gogh’s works during the Saint Remy de Provence and the Auvers-sur-Oise periods and some works on paper.

After Arles, Van Gogh was committed to a mental hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, which was a former monastery in Saint Remy, a mile and a half out of the town and surrounded by cornfields, vineyards and olive trees. During his stay here, he had limited access to the world and his subjects were taken from his surroundings, when he went for short supervised walks, and from his imagination. The clinic and the garden became his main subjects. It was also during this time that he began to gain recognition.

Some his works during this period were marked by swirls, as seen in The Starry Night, perhaps his best known painting. But this was not in the exhibit. Instead, we saw A Pair of Leather Clogs, the religious Pieta, the romantic Country Road in Provence by Night and another famous still-life Irises.

In the last year of his life, in 1890, Van Gogh went to Auvers-sur-Oise, near Paris. Before going here, his thoughts were returning to "memories of the North," thus some of his Auvers-sur-Oise works, about seventy of them, were evocative of northern scenes. Some works were characterized by certain kind of intensity. On July, when his depression intensified, he killed himself. In this period, we saw Chestnut trees in Blossom, Farmhouse and Ears of Wheat, bucolic images before Van Gogh’s tragic end.

At the top floor, there was a Van Gogh souvenir shop, selling items from mugs to notebooks. The Starry Night umbrellas hung overhead and Sunflowers pens decorated the counter. My companions bought reproductions of Irises.

From the shop, we viewed the goings-on at the museum. More people were pouring in, riding the escalators and going and out of the exhibition rooms. Although our viewing was less than ideal, we were amused by the crowd-parents taking their children and explaining the paintings to them, lovers holding hands while transfixed at Roses and Peonies, teenagers wheeling in their grandmothers, students taking notes. We thought of our almost empty museums back home.

It was almost lunchtime, and Mr. Kim, a Seoul native who is now based in the Philippines where he operates a travel agency, was beckoning to us. He served as our guide for this side trip, while Jessie took the others shopping. We were to rejoin and have the famous Korean ginseng chicken soup for lunch. The restaurant was near the museum.

The Korea Samkyetang Restaurant, as the name explicitly suggests, specializes in the samkyetang or ginseng chicken soup, which is whole young chicken stuffed with glutinous rice and boiled in a broth of ginseng, dried jujube fruit, garlic and ginger. The diminutive restaurant, said to be established in 1968, has about five floors, which can get crowded during lunchtime.

Lunch started with a shot of ginseng wine and samplings of kimchi. Each of us had an earthen pot of whole chicken immersed in steaming cream-colored broth and sprinkled with chopped leeks. The recipes for samkyetang of most restaurants specializing on the dish are often kept secret. For the Korea Samkyetang Restaurant, the "key to the taste is using ingredients from four-year-old ginseng cultivated in Geumsan and native chickens grown in the farm," its Web site says. "Everyday, young chickens that hatched only forty-nine days ago are delivered. With these chickens, ginseng, Chinese dates, garlic, and glutinous rice are boiled and make a fine soup."

Said to be nutritious and even therapeutic, samkyetang is traditionally eaten during the hot summer months. It is a little puzzling but its fighting-fire-with-fire logic sounds acceptable. For us, samkyetang could not be more apt this winter. The soup was unlike any other Korean dishes we had tasted with its subtle flavors. For others, it is almost bland. The chicken meat and bones easily fell off to reveal the stuffing of soft and sticky rice. I munched on kimchi and slurped the soup.

Thus fortified, we were ready to face again the wintry weather outside. I held a postcard of Van Gogh’s Sunflower, which I bought at the museum, like a talisman against cold. My anxiety on Seoul’s coldness was much lesser now, if not altogether gone. My first venture into winter and first visit to Seoul was short and hurried, and I wished to visit again and be more contemplative in whatever season, even winter again. My mind burnt with the images of Korea-the culture, the food, the history, the palaces, the gothic trees with leaves of fire and roots of ice.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mock Swords Into Cultural Ploughshares: The National University Celebrates with Komedya

My first serious involvement with theater was with a komedya. I dabbled in theater in high school, producing, writing and directing plays as class requirements, and I regularly watched plays in college. While finishing a literature degree, I had a short stint as an apprentice stage manager for Tanghalang Pilipino, the resident theater company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, for Orosman at Zafira, a komedya written by Francisco Balagtas, one of the Philippines’ greatest writers. The experience provided me with an inside look at the workings of a professional theater group, as well as an appreciation of Balagtas and komedya, a traditional theatrical form in the country.
It was also my first time to see a komedya. For others, their involvement with komedya is more likely not in a cultural center setting but in their own communities. They may have watched it when they were kids and may even have been part of the production. But in my case, the komedya is hard to come by. Komedya is hardly staged nowadays, except in few pockets of Manila and in the provinces, where communities keep the tradition alive, but only during special occasions like the Holy Week or fiesta.
Now, Orosman at Zafira will be restaged by the Dulaang UP, the resident theater group of the Univesity of the Philippines, for the Komedya Fiesta, a national theater festival dedicated to this form and a flagship project of the University of the Philippines in celebration of its centenary. Every Friday for the whole month of February, different theater groups from around the country will be staging komedyas in the university’s amphitheater free to the public. Additionally, there will be attendant events like conferences, workshops, an exhibit and even activities that traditionally accompany the staging of a komedya like parades and peryas.
The festival is spearheaded by the university’s College of Arts and Letters with its dean Virgilio Almario, National Artist for Literature, who wishes to create a national theatrical form with the komedya and the zarzuela.

Bringing colors for more than three centuries
The komedya was brought by the Spaniards when they came to colonize the country in the 16th century, tracing its origins from Spanish and Mexican theatrical forms. Used in the Christianization of the Philippines, the komedya is thus generally religious and moralistic in theme, with stories usually depicting love and the conflict between the Christians and the Muslims. Many komedyas were written in verse like Balagtas’s Orosman at Zafira and all incorporated dance steps to stylize battles. Actors wear colorful costumes. Usually the color red is assigned for the Muslim group while blue for the Christians.

Komedya was popular in the country until the 19th century, spreading to different regions. It is also known by other names in other regions: moro-moro in the Tagalog and Ilokanos, linambay in the Cebuano; moros-moros in the Ilonggo, and palo-palo in the Ivatan. However, this theatrical form eventually declined and is mostly forgotten now. During the eighties though some scholars, prominently Dr. Nicanor Tiongson, conducted studies and revive interest in the komedya, but there have been measly efforts to promote this further and no initiatives to appreciate this on a national scale.

Now, the University of the Philippines is attempting to fill that gap with the Komedya Fiesta that "seeks to celebrate the komedya as a significant legacy in the continuing history of the Philippine theater."

The few bearers of colors
The Komedya Fiesta will feature Komedya ng San Dionisio of Parañaque City, Komedya ng San Miguel of Iligan City, Hiraya Theater Company of San Jose in Antique, Komedya ng Don Galo of Parañaque, Dulaang UP and Comedia de Baler of Baler in Aurora.

The Komedya ng San Dionisio was born in 1962 when the civic leaders of the barangay of San Dionisio in Parañaque, Metro Manila, and some komedya enthusiasts organized the San Dionisio Cultural Society to produce the popular komedya Prinsipe Rodante in an effort "to make the komedya truly an entity of dramatic art." Now, they occasionally perform komedyas. The old conflict between the Christian and Islam, which is at the heart of many komedyas, has been reworked "to the ecumenical spirit of the modern times," espousing instead unity.

On the other hand, the Komedya ng Don Galo, also from the same city, is of recent establishment and is composed of school children. It was organized in 1992 for a school komedya production, which became a success, thus earning a grant from the Cultural Center of the Philippines for a second production, now with the supervision of faculty and veteran komedyaperformers from San Dionisio.

The oldest group is the Komedya ng San Miguel of Iligan City in Mindano, which was formed in 1898. The group and their performances are kept alive by the community’s devotion to their patron saint, Saint Michael the Archangel. Every year during the saint’s feast day, the Komedya ng San Miguel mounts a drama, originally written in Spanish and Cebuano, depicting the life of Saint Michael. Performances were temporarily put on hold during World War II. After the war, the group carried on with new members who were closely related to the original cast. Today, the group continues to perform the komedya through the sponsorship of private companies and the city Government of Iligan through its tourism office.

On the other hand, the Comedia de Baler of Aurora mounted its first production in 1927. It was supported by then president Manuel Quezon and enjoyed the collaboration of artists Fortunato Esoreña and Alejandro Ferreras and arnis expert Antonino Ramos. Still alive until today, the group boasts of using real weapons in their plays.

The Dulaang UP is the official performing group for the theater of the University of the Philippines, conceived in 1976 by Prof. Emeritus Antonio O. Mabesa to be the production arm of the UP Department of Speech Communication and Theater Arts (DSCTA) and dedicated to the staging classics by master playwrights, in original or translation, and works by professional and promising Filipino playwrights.

The Hiraya Theater Company is the newest group in the festival, having been formed in 2006 as the resident performing group of Binirayan Foundation, Inc. The foundation has been mounting a komedya festival in Antique, bringing to light forgotten works, for two years now. Under the artistic direction of Alex C. Delos Santos, the Hiraya Theater Company, after a couple plays, also mounted a komedya, a 1960s one written by Exaltacion Combong campaigning against gambling and lauding the rural electrification program.
The productions of these groups can be viewed every Friday for the whole month of February at the UP Amphitheater from 6 to 8 p.m.

Making it more colorful
Aside from the regular performances, a host of other activities surround the festival, from the festive perya to the more serious conferences.

The festival will have an opening parade and ceremonies on Feb. 1, from 2 to 6 p.m. Called "Tahak," the opening parade aims to educate the people about the theatrical form; it will be interactive and have reenactments of some scenes. It will also be festive. Representatives of the komedya groups will parade around the UP academic oval together with marching bands, higantes, stilt walkers and jugglers. After the parade, the opening program will commence.

The role of marching bands during fiestas is given spotlight with the "Paseo" and "Serenata ng Banda" on Feb. 8, 15, 22, 28 and 29, from 5 to 6 p.m. A special concert will be held every Friday afternoon at the Quezon Hall steps with selected bands from Metro Manila and nearby provinces. Featured marching band will have a paseo around the academic oval to announce the events of the day. On the other hand, the "Serenata ng Banda" will feature the UP Symphonic Band, Quezon City Band, Taguig City Band, Antipolo City Band and Banda 88 of Sta. Maria, Bulacan.

From Feb. 15 to 29, there will be the Pista ng Bayan Fair and Exhibit, which will be highlighted by the display of "the best of Philippine fiesta," curated as one big exhibit featuring the Philippine’s most celebrated fiestas and the distinct manner each fiesta is celebrated.

Puppet performances, poetry readings, storytelling sessions and komedya excerpts will be mounted on a small scale inside kubols (temporary bamboo structures). These special performances are called "Palabas sa Kubol," which are slated for Feb. 8, 15, 22 and 29, from 4 to 5 p.m.

Filipinos are suckers for photo opportunities, and this predilection will be given venue with "Kodakomedya" on Feb. 8, 15, 22 and 29, from 5 to 6 p.m. Life-size and faceless depictions of komedya characters, carved out from plywood, will serve as bodies for visitors. For a minimal fee, visitors can realize their dreams of being stars of the komedya, even only in photographs.
On Feb. 8, 15, 22 and 29, from 3 to 4 p.m., the pubic can enjoy traditional games like palosebo, tyakad, pabitin and agawan ng buko at the "Palaro" at the amphitheater. And there will be a perya from Feb. 15 to 29, featuring rides like the Ferris wheel, the Flying Elephant and the carousel; different game booths; jugglers; stilt walkers; higantes; and magic shows.
On the serious side, there will be a conference, a workshop, a colloquium and an exhibit as festival components.
The conference and workshop, called "Balitaktakang Komedya at Palihan," is a three-day gathering, which will include the presentation of academic papers from here and abroad with eminent scholars like Dr. Nicanor G. Tiongson and Dr. Resil B. Mojares serving as keynote speakers. The conference hopes to tackle the current state of the komedya tradition, both in the country and other parts of the world. There will also be workshop modules on the different aspects of the production like the batalla/pondo and the dicho. Selected komedya groups will have sharing sessions to impart their experiences, performance conventions and production processes to the participants.
On the other hand, the half-day colloquium, called "Usapang Komedya," will have those involved in the komedya groups -- the comediantes, production team and accompanists -- discussing on the strengths and weaknesses of the groups and their recommendations for the future of komedya on a national scale. This event is aimed at establishing a network of komedya groups of the country.
The visual arts aspect of the Komedya Fiesta focuses on Francisco Baltazar’s literary masterpiece, the metrical romance Florante at Laura, which is said to be written in the manner of the komedya. Curators asked different visual artists to interpret passages from the romance, resulting in 22 figurative paintings. The exhibition will open on Feb. 8 and will run until March 31 at the Edge Gallery of the Vargas Museum.

With the Komedya Fiesta, the first national initiative focusing on the komedya, it is hoped that interest in it will be revived, leading to the realization of a concrete national theatrical form, as nationally distinct as Japan’s noh drama. "More significantly, the effort, talent and creativity that have been manifested by several komedya groups all over the country to make this tradition survive for more than three hundred years are definitely worth celebrating," the organizers declared.

The Komedya Fiesta 2008: First National Festival is in cooperation with the Office for Initiatives in Culture and the Arts (OICA) of the University of the Philippines, and with the support of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

For inquiries, call 928-7508; email or visit Web site at
Published in The Daily Tribune, January 25, 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Experience Travel and Living magazine (volume 3, number 4) is now out!

Since December, the Experience Travel and Living magazine is now out. You can buy a copy at National Bookstore and Magnet branches. This issue features the Calaguas, Cagayan, the Singkaban Fiesta, and Mogambo Springs Spa of Plantation Bay, all wirtten by me. Also in the issue are features on Bohol and the CamSur Watersports Complex.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sea Shell Series # 1

Near the Jusangjeollidae in Jeju Islad, South Korea, there is colossal structure of a sea shell, the kind I saw being sold oby a haenyo, a woman diver of Jeju, together with abalones, sea squirts and se cucumbers. Everyone was having a picture taken with it. I could not resist.