Sunday, November 4, 2007

Frank Sinatra in the Philippines

SERIALIZATION: The Traveler and the Gate Checkers
"Manila My Way, Boss"

Part 1: The elusive Miss Belgium
By Ted Lerner

The skinny taxi driver with one white towel wrapped around his neck and another wrapped like a bandana around his forehead fiddled with his pair of tweezers, waiting for the car in front of us to inch forward. We were stuck in another monstrous traffic squall, the kind that much of the world thinks is positively unbearable, but people in Manila just yawn at and take for granted. While he waited for the traffic to open up, the driver continually stuck the tweezers into his nose and plucked out tiny nose hairs. Each time he did this, he took the freshly plucked hair and wiped it on the middle part of the steering wheel. I could see that he'd been doing this since before I got in his cab because the steering wheel was covered with probably 20 nose hairs. When a space did open up, he quickly dropped the tweezers in his lap and literally peeled out, lurching forward ten or 15 meters then pounding on the brakes when the traffic came to an abrupt halt.

His cab was somewhat old and a rattling noise came continually from the back. The nose hairs, the rattles and the continual whiplash and the near nausea it all induced would normally have made me miserable and cranky. But at least his air-conditioner worked well. And in the sweltering late June heat of Manila, that's a bonus one doesn't take lightly. I was also listening intently to his radio, which he had turned up loudly to an AM talk show where they were talking about Frank Sinatra. The 78-year-old Sinatra was in Manila for four concerts, starting the following night.

The hosts on the radio were interviewing Sinatra's publicist on the phone from the Manila Hotel, where Sinatra was staying. The publicist pointed out that though Frank had never been to Manila before, he knew he had legions of fans in the country and was excited about performing. The hosts talked about how much money Sinatra would be earning in Manila. Four shows, four nights, a whopping quarter million dollars per show. They talked about the exorbitant ticket prices: From $50 all the way up to $800 for the front rows. The hosts gushed and the publicist promised nothing short of heaven. Indeed Sinatra in Manila was for Filipinos almost like having the Pope come to town. Frank's songs are a part of the social fabric of the Philippines. Every single one of the millions of karaoke machines that dot the Philippines is loaded with Sinatra classics.

The song "My Way" is perhaps the most preferred song when the drinks start flowing and the karaoke gets turned on. The song is so popular, and singing it is taken so seriously, that dozens have literally died because of "My Way." Perhaps someone laughed while a buddy was singing during a drinking spree, or someone didn't like the way the guy at the other table clapped after he tried to imitate Frank. It's always a ridiculously stupid reason but, no matter, out comes the fan knife or the pistol and wham!-it ends in a liquored-up flash, another senseless death due to "My Way." I wondered if Frank was aware that so many had died because of that song.

Apparently 6,000 people a night would be attending the shows but I knew I had no intention of going. I'd never gotten into the Sinatra myth. I always considered Sinatra to be of another generation. I was raised on rock and eventually ventured into things like reggae, funk and salsa. Frank just never caught my imagination. I had never seen him and had little interest in seeing him in Manila. It sounded like something for the old folks and sentimentalists. Anyway, at that point, my main concern was getting my hands on someone perhaps more popular than Ol' Blue Eyes, at least in Manila anyway. Her name was Christelle Roelandts.

Christelle Roelandts? Although she was probably the most popular person in the Philippines at the time, even Filipinos didn't know her by her real name. Mention the moniker, "Miss Belgium," however, and you'd get quite a different reaction.

The Miss Universe pageant had been held a month prior in Manila. Although she didn't win, and didn't even make it into the top ten, Miss Belgium was the one contestant who nearly brought the country to its knees. Her innocent, vulnerable and voluptuous features made her the instant favorite among the beauty pageant-crazed public and press in the Philippines, all of whom mobbed her wherever she went.

The country simply fell in love with her. Anything she did drew crazed interest and a horde of people. The four Belgian neckties that Miss Belgium donated to the Miss Universe charity auction fetched a hefty total of $400. Miss Belgium even complained that a woman was waiting to take her picture as she came out of the stall in the ladies' room. There were several stories about men who got in knife fights over who was more beautiful, Miss Belgium or Miss Philippines. This was how big Miss Belgium had become in the Philippines, as big as Sinatra. Normally it would take a botched version of "My Way" to set off a murderous brawl. But in this instance, which occurred during a drinking spree, two men had taken Miss Belgium's side while one argued for Miss Philippines. The two men attacked the Miss Philippines supporter and killed him.

"She's a natural beauty," said a doorman at the Manila Hotel, where the contestants stayed.

"She's mysterious and intriguing," said one of the hotel's supervisors. Explained one Filipino reporter, "Miss Belgium is the typical girl any Filipino male would love. Filipinos love mestizas-white skin, tall, with a face like a doll. She looks so vulnerable."

I had covered the Miss Universe pageant a month before and was trying to write a story on the event for a magazine back in the States. I was able to get a lot of pictures of the contestants during the pageant but nothing good of Miss Belgium. Each day for a month, the pageant organizers had put out photos for sale of the contestants and you couldn't even get near a shot of Miss Belgium, unless you felt like elbowing people in the head. Men and women were acting like stark raving lunatics trying to get their hands on her pictures. This spawned a thriving black market in copies of Miss Belgium's photos. In June, one month after the pageant, underground copies of her photo were still the hottest selling item on the streets of Manila.

In Manila if you want something from the underground, you're very likely to find it in the teeming madness that is Quiapo, where you can just about get anything your heart desires, and doesn't desire, as well. I was also informed that Quiapo had a street known for its many photo shops. I figured Miss Belgium could definitely be found down there.

The taxi finally crossed over the Pasig River and crept along in traffic through the old city of Manila. I knew we were near Quiapo but wasn't quite sure exactly where the area began. One bright spot about being stuck in a monstrous traffic snarl is that oftentimes it affords you the luxury of some good people watching. As befits a place where supposedly you could get just about anything you wanted-or didn't want-Manila never failed to give the appearance that chaos reigned. People were everywhere and the crowds were thick. Nobody seemed to follow any kind of rules, such as crossing at the intersection, or on green. They just walked when they wanted, in and out of the idling cars. The sidewalks were littered with vendors selling everything imaginable; fresh fruits, newspapers, cheap toys and electronics and imported hardware.

"Boss I want to go to Quiapo," I reminded the taxi driver.

"Yes Quiapo, I know," he said, "but heavy traffic. I know short cut." When a Manila taxi driver tells you he knows a short cut, it often turns out to be a short cut to disaster. I was pretty sure Quiapo was to the right, but he found an opening and veered left around a large church. Ten minutes later we were still stuck in traffic. I figured I was pretty much near the place so I decided to get out and walk. When I paid him I noticed his steering wheel was littered with dozens of nose hairs.

It was a searing hot and sunny afternoon. I stood on the sidewalk outside the Sta. Cruz Parish Church, which teemed with the faithful. The large doors to the church stood wide open and people strolled through into the sultry, cavernous parish. Near the entrance stood a statue of the Virgin Mary. As a white robed priest spoke dryly in English, the newcomers stopped by the statue, dipped their hand in the holy water, made the sign of the cross then took their places among the subdued throng.

I strolled up the sidewalk past the gates of the church. Everywhere people had set up makeshift businesses. Vendors sold pirated tapes, a new fangled screw driver with a tag that blared, "As Seen on TV!", various knickknacks and cheap jewelry and accessories. One man had a table full of miniature Buddhas. Nearby, a blind man played harmonica while holding out his cup. A few steps down, a family had set up a makeshift carinderia (canteen); a small gas tank provided the flame while on the stone ledge sat a small bowl of raw fish, a bowl of vegetables and a pot of rice. Further on I stumbled upon several guys selling various sexual potions, love oils and a stunning array of sexual devices known as French ticklers. One of them had photos of the Miss Universe contestants, including the coveted Miss Belgium.

He wanted 25 pesos for each photo but I didn't like their look. The pictures were photos taken of other photos and the quality was poor. I was sure I'd be able to find plenty of good stuff in the photo district, if I could ever find it. In the winding, narrow alleys and congested streets of old Manila, I suddenly realized the real Miss Belgium could prove elusive. So I flagged down a calesa (horse drawn carriage.)

"Boss I want to go to Quiapo," I said. "There's a street there with many photo shops."

"Yes, boss no problem. Quiapo. Photo shops." In mere moments we were trotting down a curving back alleyway, past an off track betting shop and several buildings that were either run down or under construction. Around a corner we came across a busy, clogged commercial area containing mostly hardware stores with signs written in English and Chinese. I quickly got the feeling that the driver was taking me on a tour of Manila's Chinatown before he took me to Quiapo. For sure he would charge me for it later. But I wasn't averse to a little sightseeing. Chinatowns the world over usually offer interesting surprises. And riding in a horse drawn carriage under a cooling canopy provided a rather pleasant respite from the broiling sun.

Trucks and pickups lined both sides of the narrow street, making the going stop, start, stop and wait. Everywhere we went guys loaded and unloaded things like steel pipes, cabinets and doors. It was like this for block after block; mostly old and crumbling buildings lining the lanes, black wires strung high on leaning poles careening wildly all over the place and down on the pavement below commerce bringing the streets alive.

Along the way we passed some of the filthiest canals I've ever seen. The pollution level in some of Chinatown's canals can only be described as alarming. The stagnant water looked like it was bubbling with chemicals, mosquitoes and every sort of filth known to humankind, including piles of garbage standing in the still water, festering and reeking. Some creeks were lined by ramshackle squatter homes with tin roofs. Others were lined with dirty concrete apartment buildings.

As soon as we passed by this degradation, though, we came across a shiny new building containing a five star Chinese restaurant or a fancy bakery. I was impressed by the traffic expertise of our small brown horse. He waited patiently while stuck in a traffic snarl and, as soon as a space opened up, he was off trotting at top speed over a bridge and down the street.

I soon lost all sense of direction, which led to the feeling that I was no longer in the Philippines. Indeed Chinatown in Manila feels like another country. It's China with Filipinos doing all the grunt work. The crumbling looking buildings, many adorned with incomprehensible Chinese lettering helped set the scene. But it was more than that. I marveled at how the Chinese do business; they sit inside these old, dank offices and warehouses with piles of invoice books, receipt books, old typewriters, cardboard boxes, whatever they're selling or making strewn and piled everywhere, talking on the telephone all day, watching closely as one little nut and bolt, a piece of wire, a sheet of sandpaper, some gadget for a motor, a styrofoam box, or six steel pipes go out the door. The Chinese sell everything that nobody else knows the origins of; that certain kind of rope, the hard to find nut, the grip that goes over the handle that rolls down your car window. They'll sell one piece or a thousand, earning cents on each but making millions on the whole, no doubt.

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