Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ambeth R. Ocampo

Philippine History in Yokohama
By Ambeth R. Ocampo

There are two Chinatowns in Japan, one in Yokohama, the other in Kobe; both are memorable as balm to my homesickness. Unlike the entrepreneurial Chinese who open shops and restaurants in a particular place and carve Chinatowns in almost every great city in the world, Filipinos tend to mix with their adopted countries and become invisible.

Sometimes the Pinoys come out in big numbers, as I have seen on Sundays in Hong Kong, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo where the smell of adobo leads you to a hawker selling everything from sinigang mix and banana ketchup to Green Cross Rubbing alcohol and Eskinol. When homesickness struck on the other days of the week I would seek out the local Chinatown. When I lived in Kyoto a decade ago I would travel all the way to Kobe for the sheer sensory delight of being in a place that reminded me of Ongpin Street in Binondo. The smell of siopao, siomai, buchi and mami was in the air. (Comfort food for me and many Filipinos who harbor a Chinese immigrant somewhere in their family tree.) Tilapia and bangus were readily available from the Kobe fishmonger and while I never bought frozen fish in the land of sushi and sashimi, the mere sight of these conjured memories of relleno, sinigang or daing  na  bangus. One could even buy frozen banana leaves here for ironing clothes or wrapping  inihaw or  pinaputok  na tilapia. Any trip to Chinatown brought back memories from my mother and my grandmother’s kitchen.

I was in Tokyo before the sakura bloomed this year and while I can get Filipino  kakanin  outside a nearby church on Sundays, Yokohama beckons whenever I have an urge for Chinese food. What makes Yokohama unique is that each time I look at its harbor I remember other Filipinos who lived here or made a stopover when it was still a transport hub for Filipinos on ocean liners off  to other parts of the world. In Yokohama, I can retrace the steps of Jose Rizal, Mariano Ponce, Juan Luna, Artemio Ricarte and Manuel Luis Quezon, to name a few. If passenger manifests are available, we can probably see more Filipinos great and obscure who passed by Yokohama. A memorial to Ricarte has been set up in Yamashita Park where the Filipino fiesta will be held this coming September. No memorial has been set up yet for Rizal, who stayed in the Grand Hotel that maintains a Douglas MacArthur Suite just like the Manila Hotel. No memorial has been set up yet for Mariano Ponce, who lived in the outskirts of Yokohama and did public relations work for the cause of the Philippine-American War. All that will change because the present Philippine Ambassador, Manolo M. Lopez, is keen on the shared history that links Japan and the Philippines.

Mariano Ponce is a forgotten patriot who once formed a triumvirate, with Rizal and Marcelo del Pilar; they were the prime movers of La Solidaridad. In Japan, Ponce continued to write for the press often under an assumed name. In Spain, he was “Naning.” In Japan, he was “Robert Samper.” Ponce published in the Japan “637 Miyokoji Yama, Kitagata, Korakigun” on the outskirts of Yokohama, in a quiet place near a Buddhist temple. I have been invited to visit the site of Ponce’s home that was recently located by Kaz Matsunaga, whose interest in Philippine boxing and history is reinforced by his marriage to a Filipina named Nancy.

Visiting the site will hopefully provide some context to Ponce’s letters from the above address. From here, Ponce posted stamps and postcards to Litomerice (once part of Austria, now in the Czech Republic) for the collection of Ferdinand Blumentritt, a friend of Rizal and the Philippines. Here, Ponce arranged to purchase arms for Emilio Aguinaldo and his letters enriched my vocabulary to include brand names like: Mauser, Murata, Werndl and Gras. Here, Ponce negotiated good prices for khaki to be used in our military uniforms as well as printing paper for the newspaper La Independencia edited by Gen. Antonio Luna, who had years before collaborated with Ponce in La Solidaridad. In this place, Ponce hosted a prince, the second son of the King of Korea. In his home, Ponce hosted Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the acknowledged Father of Modern China, whom he first met in March 1899 after advising his compatriots that “malaking tulong ang manga reformistang inchik (the Reformist Chinese are a great help to us).”

Although Ponce’s home is no more, we can reconstruct what it was like based on his representation expenses. In a letter to Galicano Apacible on March 6, 1899, he requested decent furniture and décor for the sala where he entertained VIPs, journalists and others sympathetic to the Philippine cause. He also needed suitable clothes, a translator for texts and an interpreter for face-to-face meetings. Going through expense accounts may appear to be trivial but if they help us reconstruct the past or understand historical figures, we should indulge a bit more into microhistory.

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