Tuesday, March 27, 2007

OPIUM (Vivien Tan)

Manual Magazine, April (?) 2004

  • (This essay is probably the most ambitious text ever published by any fashion magazine for a model in a string bikini. Breathtaking styling & photography by the magazine team, because this was the farewell assignment of our beloved colleague, top photographer Tommy Zablan. That month's issue was completely sold out; I didn't even get a copy.
  • I'm not sure if the essay makes enough sense without the pictures it was designed to escort, since it was designed to be as dizzying as the photographs. But anyway, here's a brief description: This was a spare-no-expense story, a full ten (or was it 12?) pages long, staged in various corners of an antique shop filled with heirloom furniture & excavated porcelain from the T'ang, Southern Sung, and Early Ming dynasties. The model was dressed in various sets of floral/oriental lingerie. Her hair and metallic makeup were designed to make her look like a statue of a goddess. There was an opium pipe; there was a fog machine. Images were darkly lit; more than half of each frame was in shadow.)

Vivien and I had a fantastic plan for this spread: an intoxicating stream-of-consciousness text containing only her half of what was to be a most unusual correspondence. She was to discuss Asia from some exotic ASEAN destination or another, her being the opinionated, globetrotting Pan-Asian supermodel host of cable TV’s Star Asia Travel; I was to steer her narration from various towns in Cagayan Valley and Batanes, where I was going on simultaneous assignments for three publishers. Her write up was to be loosely formatted after Nick Bantock’s best-selling Griffin & Sabine series, but with my Griffin-ish part edited out, my presence trumpeted solely by my absence.

The goal was a slice of Vivien’s formidably erudite mind, embedded into a text that, despite its necessary ornate-ness, was nevertheless to be as under-articulated as Tommy’s shadowy photos, as rococo as Kim’s decadent styling, and as surreal as Fred’s “cold-blooded goddess” makeup. No explanatory pap here (the new http://www.vivientan.com/ had the introductory trivia, anyway, and Google had the rest); only a take-no-prisoners exposition of her concerns and advocacies, with footnotes as the only concession to the disoriented reader. We were to push the Mysterious Femme Fatale concept to the hilt; we were to produce opium disguised as an essay.

Unfortunately, Vivien’s new internet server conked out for a month, and by the time she got back online my assignments were bringing me much farther away from cyberspace than planned. By then I was usually at least 60kms from an Internet connection on a good day, and 120kms from the nearest BPI ATM. On bad days, I was inside caves or some other archaeological site. Twice, I was even stranded on a cliff across the sea during a typhoon.

But you all must have read too many girls-who-slipped-away stories by now, so let me embrace Vivien’s role-reversal instead, and share with you my research material. This material was originally intended to be the invisible framework for her meditations on the construction of a national identity today, when the idea of Nation itself no longer seems to hold.

Vivien’s eyes immediately fired up, when I mentioned Batanes and archaeology in one sentence.

“Take us with you!” she begged, grabbing her husband’s hand. She had married a wealthy Filipino playboy a few months back (ergo, she will be based in Manila soon), and they apparently were still in the honeymoon phase.

“Yes, take us with you!” her husband chirped. But my horror was probably obvious, so they changed the topic.

Not that I didn’t want them along; they had recently backpacked through Bali and rural China, so they’d probably be fun to hike with. But it was nearing election season, and was a bad time to go nosing around the foothills of the Sierra Madre and the Cordillera. I was afraid Vivien would get kidnapped, hogtied with her own black silk Spring 2004 Louis Vuitton scarf.

In the end, she just asked me to find something for her.

Vivien’s interest in Batanes was deeper than it seemed. She was well versed in the violent histories of Southern China and French Indo-China, and both her parents did cultural conservation research for the UNESCO. Vivien knew her stuff: what she wanted me to find in the hinterlands of Northern Luzon wasn’t a trinket, but the traces of a breakaway Buddhist sect that had incorporated Catholic saints into the Mahayana pantheon.

I haven’t found any leads until now, almost nine thousand square kilometers later, but the trail still makes my heart race. Mahayana Buddhism is vastly more ingenious and complex than the Chinatown (Theravada) version, you see. Mahayana’s strangely post-modern framework allows it to easily absorb other religions into itself, as it did Shintoism in Japan, and Taoism before that.

My belief in the possible Luzon existence of such a breakaway Mahayana sect is also buttressed by the existence of the spectacular Agusan Image, now in the gem room of the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. Found in 1917 in a Mindanao riverbank, the Image is a 4.5 pound, 21-karat gold statue of an Indic goddess. It was originally identified as Hindu, but Prof. Juan Francisco argued that Hindu goddesses were rarely in cast in gold, and they were usually depicted standing, not seated in the lotus position as this was. He consequently proposed that the image was a Tara of Mahayana Buddhism, dating back to the Indo-Javanese Madjapahit Empire.

The Agusan Image. Photo courtesy of the
Chicago Field Museum of Natural History.

Five other important Indic artifacts have been excavated in the Philippines so far. In 1843, a three-inch 12th century copper medallion was found in Mactan, Cebu, portraying Ganesha, the Hindu god of elephants. Shortly thereafter, a gold Garuda pendant was found in Brooke’s Point in Palawan. Both items vanished during the 1945 Liberation of Manila, unfortunately, so the only surviving items of this type now are a 12th century Javanese paleograph found in Butuan in the 1970s; the 9th century Laguna Copperplate which, despite being written in the extinct Kawi script of Champa and ancient Siam, nevertheless dates itself to the reign of King Balitung of Eastern Java; and a crude 12th century clay medallion of the Avalokiteshvara-Padmapani, found in 1961 in Calatagan, Batangas (Incidentally, it was Calatagan that Vivien vacationed in, the weekend after her pictorial).

Inscription from the 9th century Laguna Copperplate.

Said artifacts notwithstanding, however, no ancient direct links have been proven between the Philippines and India so far. Experts say Indic influence reached us only by osmosis, via the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of Indonesia.

It is a tangle of fascinating stories. Palembang’s Srivijaya Empire was born in the 3rd century as one of five Indonesian kingdoms. It gradually gained power across the centuries, elbowing aside its neighboring kingdoms like the Taruma, and dominating most of Indonesia (and much of Southeast Asia) by the 8th century. By the 11th century, however, it was waning. And by the 13th century, it was reduced into a vassal state of Cambodia’s Khmer Empire (and of the Sukhothai later on). When the volatile Madjapahit Empire captured the city of Palembang in 1414, the last Srivijayan ruler converted to Islam, creating the Sultanate of Malacca elsewhere in Sumatra, hoping for an Arab-backed revenge later on.

The Madjapahit Empire, for its part, was started by Prince Kertarajasa upon his 1290 ejection from Java by the Singhasari king, who was his own father-in-law. This scandal brought the increasingly powerful Singhasari Kingdom to the attention of Kublai Khan in China. Khan demanded tribute, but the Singhasari refused to pay. When Khan attacked Java in 1293, the Madjapahit army sided with him in revenge. Immediately after the Singhasari destruction, however, the Madjapahit turned against Khan, forcing the Mongols to withdraw in confusion.

Sticking to similar tactics, Madjapahit power quickly became extensive, though short-lived. There was an aggressive expansionary period from 1331-1364—felt even in the ancient Luzon kingdom of Namayan (today’s Metro Manila)—but the empire was shaken by a war over succession. This Madjapahit falter was eventually exploited by the vengeful Sultanate of Malacca, which had sculpted itself into an economic powerhouse. Malaccan vengeance was finally exacted in 1478, when the cornered Madjapahit Emperor chose burn to himself alive. His heir couldn’t keep up with mounting military/ economic pressure either, so the entire Madjapahit court eventually retreated into Bali in 1520, into a non-violent world of spirituality and art that survives to this day, a world which Vivien was understandably all praises for.

Sadly, Malacca didn’t get to relish the final Madjapahit humiliation, for Malacca was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511. The orphaned Malaccan heir, Prince Kabungsuwan, fled to the Philippines to start the Sultanate of Maguindanao.

Religion and power weren’t the only opiates that shaped the history of Southeast Asia, unfortunately. The real thing passed this way, too.

Known to ancient Mesopotamia as Hul Gil (“plant of joy”), the cultivation of poppy was passed on to Assyria, Babylon, and dynastic Egypt, from which it spread to the Greco-Roman Empire, and into India and Persia. Fifth-century Arab traders brought Egyptian opium to China, where it eventually became a popular T’ang Dynasty snack food. Dutch traders taught the Chinese to smoke opium in tobacco pipes, which led to an ineffective 1799 imperial ban. When the Chinese finally cracked down on (predominantly British) smugglers in 1839, the British retaliated with The First Opium War. China lost, and ceded Hong Kong as part of its indemnity. When China lost the Second Opium War as well, its second indemnity payment included the legalization of British opium imports.

The Portuguese were already smoking opium when they captured Malacca, but Southeast Asia’s opium problem only began after The Second Opium war, when the British converted northeastern Burma’s Shan state into an opium farm. Inadequate control measures caused such plantations to spread into Laos and Thailand. Eventually called the Golden Triangle, this area became the a major opium producer in the 1940s when Burma became independent from Britain, and when World War II temporarily cut off opium supplies from India and Persia.

During the US-Vietnam War, the CIA reportedly used Air America to haul tons of raw opium out of Laos and Burma, to be refined by the Mafia in Marseilles and reshipped as heroin into the US via the infamous French Connection. Burma became the world’s biggest opium producer in the 1970s, as evidenced by Bangkok seizing a 2,400lb shipment of pure Burmese heroin in 1977, and Burma’s Shan warlord Khun Sa being indicted in absentia by the US for smuggling 3,500lbs of heroin into New York in 1978. Khun Sa eventually “surrendered” to the Burmese Miltary Junta in 1996, and has been “under government custody” ever since. But production remained on the rise. Golden Triangle’s exports were estimated at 2,500 tons of pure heroin annually as of 1995, making narco-politics among the biggest problems of the ASEAN today.


During this magazine’s pictorial, Vivien and her husband scrutinized every single idol, chandelier, table, cabinet, bed, and temple door in the set, and she haggled for several Early Ming Dynasty jars. In the context of these photos, then, her creamy white belly becomes a reminder that so much of Philippine pre-history was written with porcelain.

Shipwrecks, grave robbers, and the occasional seafaring police colonel have brought forth Ming Dynasty ware to Manila by the crate-full. Over a thousand pieces of superb-and-atypical Sung Dynasty celadon was excavated from just one Mindoro cemetery in the 1930s, and again in Manila in the 1960s, while two steam-shovels pulverized a similarly rich Sung-era grave in a misguided 1926 Novaliches-Marilao excavation. And T’ang Dynasty pieces? They have been found intact all over the country, from such disparate sites as Jolo, Bohol, Ilocos, the Babuyan Islands and Batanes, making the Philippines one of the best places in the world to study T’ang, the first true porcelain.

Where the porcelain trail tapered off, the narrative of pre-history was picked up by older and humbler ceramics, both from here and from ancient Southeast Asian kingdoms like Annam, Champa, and Siam, hinting at what might just be the most intoxicating story of all.

The Manunggul Jar.

One of the most remarkable ancient pottery finds ever in Southeast Asia was a burial jar from Manunggul Cave in Palawan, carbon-dated to circa-850BC. But most Filipinos still don’t understand its implications today, because colonizers brainwashed us into thinking we were an uncivilized people before they arrived; and because our historians (who argued otherwise) never really recovered their credibility from Dr. William Henry Scott’s devastating 1968 revelation that important chunks of proud Philippine History textbooks were in fact based on documents falsified around 1910. Ferdinand Marcos aggravated the problem in the 1970s when his New Society botched an attempt at cultural engineering, exhorting pride in the brave Malay Race, when in fact (as the Human Genome Project later proved) there was no Malay race at all. One result is that Filipinos clung instead to American truths—the only thing reliable—so tenaciously, that neighboring Asians now consider us an American colony.

But unknown outside academic circles, various teams of international archaeologists have been quietly excavating in Cagayan Valley and Batanes over the past few years, trying to solve one of the most important Asian puzzles of all: the journey of homo sapiens into Southeast Asia and Oceania. Among the more interesting clues they are considering are a sophisticatedly-mummified corpse from Palawan, carbon-dated to 4,300BC (3 millennia older than Tutankhamen, and thus contemporaneous with opium-eating Mesopotamia); a bronze needle from PeƱablanca, Cagayan dated to 2,280 BC (two millennia before our Metal Age); shell axes much older than those excavated from Oceania; and nine long-voyage Butuan boats, the oldest of which had a minimum carbon-date of 235AD. There was also the strange fact that the Batanes “idjang” fortresses looked suspiciously like the ruined “gusuku” fortresses of ancient Okinawa.

Apparently, one of the theories on the peopling of Asia suggests that human migration started from Southern China, and descended southwards to Taiwan and Northern Philippines. This theory, initially proposed in 1985 by Dr. Peter Bellwood of the University of Michigan, used to be ridiculed. But it has since received support from many highly-respected experts from different fields, among them Prof. Hidefumi Ogawa of the Imperial University of Tokyo; Dr. Kazuhiko Tanaka of the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo; and the scientists from the Academia Sinica in Taiwan; who all have been closely collaborating with archaeologists and ceramics restorers from both the National Museum and UP Diliman.

I'm the bald guy in the peach shirt. Squatting at my right is Dr. Kazuhiro Tanaka, international expert on pre-historic pottery.

I didn’t catch Dr. Bellwood and Prof. Ogawa in Batanes (my schedule that month was for the Babuyan Islands, for an unrelated assignment), but I did meet Mr. Willie Ronquillo, chief archaeologist of the National Museum. I also visited the National Museum team in Lal-lo, headed by Ms. Ame Garong, where I tried my hand at drilling through 12,000 years of discarded clamshells (the team found fragments of human skull under the deepest shell layers, hinting at some still-undocumented consecration ritual). I also spent a fruitful week up by the PeƱablanca caves with Dr. Tanaka, who is an international expert on ancient pottery, and who showed me photos of three recent Philippine finds by his colleagues:

All three artifacts were skillfully carved in the Taiwanese style, as confirmed by the Academia Sinica in Taipei, one of whose experts is incidentally coming here this summer. But of the two artifacts excavated in Cagayan Valley, one was made of Cagayan andesite (Magapit artifact 6057), the other of Mindoro jade (Irigayen artifact 6188). Only the third item, a nephrite trinket ironically excavated in Batangas, was really from Taiwan. The curious thing is, all three artifacts were dated to 2,000BC.

Over breakfast recently, National Museum Directress Cora Alvina lamented that there are two things Filipinos never learned to use: Scotch Tape and cement. We over-tape gifts, as if we didn’t want them to be opened; and we cement every heritage site we want tourists to visit, including archaeological sites, thereby ruining them. I nodded in agreement, remembering a beautiful cave in Bicol, which in the 1990s was transmogrified into a disco, complete with a fog machine, a cemented dance floor, and mirror-balls (plural) bolted onto stalactites (plural).

“Every urban planner should visit Bali!” Ms. Alvina declared, praising its urban planning and building codes, noting that even the effective drainage and septic systems were incorporated into the master plan (unlike Boracay), and all of the development executed non-invasively, with minimal use of cement. “Natural materials aren’t necessarily less durable than cement. You just have to use them intelligently.”

I remembered Vivien at the shoot, cooing about Bali, cooing about a remote village in southern China that erected a rudimentary public market on a creek. The villagers did their business at low tide, and went home when the rising tide covered the floor and swept their refuse into the sea.

Vivien had long wanted to do a Star Asia Travel series on rural Philippines, she said. She wanted episodes on Batanes and Banawe, of course, though she also wanted one on Bacolod, where she would sit atop a sugarcane train, discussing history and future. But her company found Dick Gordon difficult to work with.

“Delightful Dick,” she said of him. “He was focusing on domestic tourism, when domestic tourism doesn’t increase GNP.”

I asked her to try her luck again, now that Gordon’s out of DOT.

“Please establish your presence in the Philippine cultural scene,” I begged. “We can’t afford you, but we need you.”

And it’s true. Older cultural workers are retiring, and too few of the young are taking their place. The country needs credible, knowledgeable media front-liners like Vivien to drum up public interest and corporate support for cultural conservation projects, because the allied disciplines are all demoralized by now, and young cultural workers from all allied fields have already begun emigrating. In archaeology, for instance, there is only one student of Lithics left in the country, although so much of the Philippine Stone Age still remains to be decoded, and graverobbers and pothunters are rampantly contaminating too many sites.

“You don’t even have to do anything too different,” I went on. “Just be yourself, and let the younger Filipino cultural workers rally around you.”

“We’ll see,” Vivien smiled, as she ascended the set to pose as a goddess. Tommy knelt down to worship her with his camera one last time, before he himself emigrated to Canada.

1 comment:

RL said...

Hello, Dear Ericflo from Mactan, Cebu.

I am Ratna Lahiri, a scholar of Indo-Philippine heritage from India and I am passionate about the Philippine prehistory linked to India. I had the privilege of working with Prof Juan Francisco in Maila at the Asian CEnter. Am publishing soon, all this glory of the true Phlippine heritage to the notice of Indian people. Indian scholars woulld read easily those eastern Brahmi scripts...and perhaps even that of the Kalatagan pot, the Butuan silver amulet etc...They would also better identify the artifacts in some cases where there are Buddhist overtones.
For example, I have identified the Agusan image (went to the Chicago museum and got photographs from the gold room). Your blog endorses my views of a lost Filipino identity, specailly that of southern Philippines which was so closely linked to Borneo at that time. I have translated two versions of the Maranao Rama story into Hindi and the publication will shortly bring out all these connections to India...Afterwards, I will do the English version about the indo-philippine cultural exchange of ancient and medieval times- am looking for some funding to do that. When I was in Manila the Family of Mamitua Saber brought me his version of the Rama story. Prof Francisco said he had no knowledge of that version before but I have translated both from English with a Maranao speaker helping me with the Fransico's recorded version- both are a little different from the retelling, but from the same source Bai Pamoki.
There is so much more to discuss with you as I found it rare to have someone acknowledge the fact that the Filipinos need to be more proud of their pre-hispanic identity. I am finding it to be a rich cultural heritage, and hate it that at the time of independence no one could find a better name than that of the Spanish prince Philip 2nd...in our literature one of our ancient historians have found the name Panyopaayana, meaning the place where trade goods were taken to( almost as gifts)... I think the word Panay, Pinoy etc all come from that ancient recognition of the islands as Panyopayana...about which I am writing in my research work .
I yearn to find out more as this encounter with the rich Philippine cultural heritage has changed my life...a lot more needs to be recorded from the living elders of the tribes (I attended the Heritage of Man conference in Angeles city as well where almost all known tribes had attended and shown their dances and rituals etc). It is difficult for foreigners to go down south, but I was fortunate to have attended the National Historical Conference in Bongaon Tawi Tawi as the concluding speaker, and traveled with all the University students via Cebu, Marawi and Zambooanga, and then in the hold of a cargo ship to the Jolo Islands, and to Tawi TAwi. (Incidentally, Who is Vivien (I could write up some vivid cultural descriptions for her cultural tourism trips...) The True Filipinos are just beautiful friendly, caring people, distracted by the dollar at present, but steadfast in their diversity and family commitments and vibrant, all just like the real Indian people...
I have a specific identification of the Agusan deity, the mandala it belongs to and the text it is related to, if you are interested, please write to ...ratnalahiri@yahoo.com