25 April 2012


I can time Kester, the boy is so regular. His Nintento Game Boy and an odd assortment of school things in his hands, he comes in the house, unafraid of the dogs, to pretend to listen to my mother, his tutor, as she teaches him the basics. Algebra, verbs and nouns and predicates, the Blessed Sacraments, the priest as an instrument of Jesus Christ in confession, that sort of thing. Kester has big, sad eyes, and cute beads of sweat under his nose, where soft hairs will soon grow, in five, six, seven years, once puberty sets on.

But where was he last week? Nowhere to be seen. Yet he didn't go anywhere. It was the haphazardness, or the bad health, of our own household that won Kester temporary freedom. My father had shingles. My sister Lourdes had chicken pox. My younger brother Josemaria had a sort of attack Sunday inside the church, then discovered at the checkup that he had an abnormally slow heartbeat. At about the same time, all coincidentally, of course, the miraculous ministry of Father Fernando Suarez, a sort of healing priest, arrived in Manila. His pre-Lent carnivale drew mother, grandmother, early-rising aunties, and over a thousand others to a healing mass at the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Mandaluyong City. It was later reported in the papers that the profundity of the religious experience was marred by fainting people and profiteering.

Once upon a time I was Kester’s age. I played and prayed. I attended novenas and joined processions, and rubbed my chest with blessed oils. I looked up at a helicopter in the Manila sky, flying over Luneta Park. Pope John Paul II was here now, said the people beside us on the grass, pulling themselves up. This was World Youth Day. Mother herself seemed about to burst; what a way for the pope, after all, to arrive. We couldn't really see without binoculars, but I, too, in the intensity of the moment, was prepared to weep for joy. The helicopter landed behind the park's Quirino Grandstand and from it emerged the caricatured ears of President Ramos.

Once upon a time I had a tutor, too—a kind of after-school governess. Her name was Miss Lyn, Miss Lyn with the fair and naturally powdery skin. I used to dread her arrival, because it meant having to face the piano. It was so embarrassing, because even then I had sweaty palms, and had to wipe the wet dirt that they made off the keys. Did you practice any since our last session? she would ask, in the same manner that mother asks Kester questions: with gathered eyebrows and a tone pregnant with disapproval, that just knew that the answer they were looking for was not the answer they were going to get. Well, you can't expect us now to move past the opening until after summer. “Für Elise” was so hard, especially for a beginner, but I knew that to have rebelled and sought refuge in my first-generation Game Boy was out of the question. Besides, Super Mario never interested me, and Miss Lyn would have frowned if it did. 

Lucky Kester. He finally showed up today and was, as usual, absorbed in the kaleidoscopic blocks of his Nintendo world. Big eyes, sweat under the nose, and—what's this?—no black Ash Wednesday cross on his forehead. I wanted to find out if he'd washed it off. But I didn't ask. Instead I pinched his ears because that means we are friends, and he can watch YouTube videos on my laptop once he finishes his homework.

09 April 2012


I cannot describe it, the kind of pictures you take. I can't put it into words. Well, writers are always going to have problems putting anything into words, but a couple of weeks ago, when I looked through an album you'd put up on Facebook, with pictures from your recent trip to Hong Kong, I went through a rather severe case of it. I thought I'd lost all ability to write! If we were talking of speech, I wouldn't be stammering, but mute. A troubling malady of wordlessness indeed, sucking out the vocabulary and leaving only the word "like", whatever that means on Facebook.

Of course, you must be aware that, in the first place, I know nothing about photography—other than that it's probably nice and awfully cool to be able to make a living out of it. Two: that's how many photographers I've dated. (Or two and a half, but that's a long story.) It occurred to none of them that it would be flattering, wouldn't it, at least to me, if they took my picture, just one shot, an artsy little shot with a subtle bokeh effect. Not that I ever asked, no (although I may have pathetically struck a pensive pose once or twice); I was terrified that I would cause a particular temperament to come to the surface, complaining about bad light, pleading lack of appropriate lens, muttering a carefully worded reminder that one didn't work for free, that the labor of love was expensive labor. So I learned little from them about the art of taking pictures—certainly not more than I did, than we did, about the pain of breaking hearts.

Having said that, I hope it means something when I say that your pictures make me feel something I cannot describe. It happened again with the Hong Kong album, though I've never been to that part of the world myself. It began with the picture of a red taxi in Yau Ma Tei, banners proclaiming "Drug Drug" and "Exclusiv Fashions" (without the second e) in the background. Then an exterior shot of Chungking Mansions, from across the other side of the road. Then, after a series of pictures of your friends walking to the ferry, in Harbour City, I think it was, a stunning early evening cityscape, between sea and sky. This was followed by a bunch of gorgeous pictures of Jenyne Butterfly performing in some big pole dance event, but the feeling I'm talking to you about—a description of which, because it's so unattainable, has been substituted by this letter (and if here you'll indulge me)—the feeling was keenest when I looked at an almost empty street in Wang Chai District, the neon signage of Neptune II Pub and Disco staining the concrete with red light; at a snatched glimpse of two young Chinese men on a bench (you captioned the picture with "Beautiful Boys"), looking quite intensely at each other, the plaid-shirted one holding his friend's nape; at a shadowed little staircase in Lan Kwai Fong, with a string of red and white lanterns hanging from a street lamp (my favorite from the set); at the lady in a crisp blazer sitting at a round table in the dim, old-fashioned bar (I saw barrels), accidentally lighting her face up with her cell phone screen; at a ray of morning or afternoon light spotting the heads of two women in black who were walking along heavily peopled Causeway Bay; at the blurry close-up of a couple eating at an upholstered booth inside the restaurant where scenes from In the Mood for Love were shot; at a rich grayscale image of many tourists on Kowloon City Ferry Pier, their long extended shadows heaped across the floor as though to match the verticality of palm trees and banner stands; and at an elderly man pedaling his bike along an unknown street, a three-tiered lunch box dangling from his right hand.

It's kind of strange, actually. When we met in the university eleven years ago—can you believe it? (neither can I)—I had no idea that I would not know another photographer, no matter how many I have since met, whose work moved me in the same way that yours does now. No kidding. Your pictures have a certain quality, I don't know what it is, they're all very beautiful, of course, but there is something else, an enigmatic quality, that stirs within me sadness, anxiety, yearning—all at once. It puts me in this really funky and vulnerable sort of mood; my palms sweat, my pulse quickens, as though I've been unhinged by a minor-key song. I cannot for the life of me tell you why or how, and even if I can and did, you might very well dismiss this as nothing more than the sentimental opinion of a friend trying to be a fan. But there's no denying the ability of your pictures to sweep me away in a torrent of feeling, demanding me to look upon them and see, invariably, an image of everything I have ever loved, and everything I have ever longed for.  

I just thought that you should know—and know, that is, through something other than a Facebook Like notification. But if one word, one click of a button, was all I had in the world, take it anyway to mean something nice and sincere, even if it did come from someone who knows nothing about photography.