The Mean Streets of Filipino-Style Society: Quijano de Manila in 2017

First published in the Philippines Graphic, January 16, 2017


The national artist Nick Joaquin (who goes by the name of Quijano de Manila as a journalist) can be read in several ways: as a master fictionist (having written “May Day Eve” and “The Woman Who Had Two Navels,”) as a critic of nationalist culture (as exemplified in “Culture and History,”) and finally – as a journalist who rolled with thunder and fire whenever he sat down to write his unique reportages that spanned stories of crime, romance and of course, the endless mire of Philippine politics.

To read Quijano de Manila in 2017 is akin to asking: why read him at all? Why reconnect with his brand of journalism, crafted seven decades ago and shaped by the conditions of post-World War 2 Philippines?

Apart from the fact that dahling Nick has captured, in excruciating detail, the endless absurdities of his time, his reportages serve as ripe planes for biopolitical critique – one that allows readers to easily access the segmentation and unique mutations of cultural and political life in “Filipino-style society,” as he would call it.

This year, at Nick Joaquin’s centenary, we dive into the action, violence and intrigues that shook the country in Reportage on Crime: Thirteen Horror Happenings That Hit the Headlines.

A solid volume of crime reportages from 1961-1969, first published in 1977, Reportage on Crime takes the reader into the bruised and erratically beating heart of Philippine society, as unpredictable minds and selfish passions conspire in a malignant number of ways – one horrific crime at a time.

In many ways, Reportage on Crime accentuates and lends coherence to a volatile area in an equally explosive decade in Philippine history. Crime is something that is often discussed in hushed tones, behind closed doors. Quijano de Manila gleefully smashes the reader’s conservative locks and throws the hatches wide open to show everyone who cares to see and know, what the Philippines in the sixties was like – again, in resplendent narration and unequalled detail. For it is one of Quijano de Manila’s greatest talents to recreate and weave the tightly enmeshed lives of his journalistic subjects with startling and often frightening clarity.

It is through QDM’s dedication in capturing the seemingly humdrum and plain details of Filipino life as they relate to crime that his committed writing radiates through the decades. More than a master storyteller, QDM acknowledged and acted upon his responsibility as a social critic.

He wore several hats in the process: a street historian, a journalist faithfully working in his assigned beat and a critic who saw crime not as events in vacuum or “strangeness” cast upon an idealized Filipino nation, but rather, symptoms of widespread and horrific societal issues that involve everyone – not just politicos and movie celebrities whom Filipinos have a strange love-hate relationship with.

Among the 13 tales in Reportage on Crime, three stand out as representatives of QDM’s critical journalism: The House on Zapote Street, The Boy Who Wanted to Become “Society” and A Prevalence of Witches; or the Exorcists – Filipino Style.

The House on Zapote Street is a crowd favorite and likely the most familiar of QDM’s journalism to students and teachers in the country. However, it stands out in this analysis not because of its popularity but because it focused on the extremes of familial repression in the guise of fatherly affections and “keeping the family together.”

The antagonist, Pablo Cabading, personified the unstable, rippling swell of the Filipino patriarch. Obsessed with no one but himself, Cabading used his family as pawns to his satisfy his endless fancies. Every single day, he holds his entire family hostage – they must listen to his words, for his words are gospel. His narcissism also forced his wife and Lydia, and later on Lydia’s husband Dr. Leonardo Quitangon, to bow to his hallucinatory demands as if they were ordained by God himself.

QDM’s development of this reportage focused on the slow decay of the Cabading family and its final smashing when Leonardo wedded Lydia. Smashed beyond recognition and with rays of hope finally streaming in, Pablo Cabading resorted to threats and even imprisoning Lydia in their house in Zapote Street. Narcissism at such depraved heights can find no sufficient vessel to serve as its permanent home. Since narcissism thrives with a servile audience, Pablo Cabading chose the only ‘acceptable’ path in his final jealous rage: death to the entire family, no less.

The Boy Who Wanted to Become “Society” is a wild jaunt on the wild side of Filipino middle class society. Napoleon Nocedal, alias Boy Nap, is the subject of QDM’s analysis. QDM traced Boy Nap’s evolution from an unremarkable, poor boy to a remarkably violent thug who did everything to remain in a gang littered with wealthy buddies. Brought up poor and scant of all material things, Boy Nap did not have the financial and cultural capital necessary to integrate seamlessly with the middle class crowd. Cunning and adaptive, he resorted to the only forms of capital he had: his brawns and an unyielding loyalty to the “top dogs” of the gang.

After gunning down a man, Boy Nap flees and is eventually caught at Orion. The realities of poverty and class caught up with him faster than he built himself up as a new ‘society boy’ who rolled with the “it” group of the neighborhood.

QDM’s sustained crescendo up to the point of Boy Nap’s sudden incarceration reveals the text’s close reading of middle class corruption at the micro level that no amount of money or political clout can cure or clear. More than anything, Boy Nap was victimized by the glittering promise of ‘friendship’ that was nothing more than a vaguely constructed illusion meant to keep him interested – because he followed his ‘friends’’ orders without question.

A Prevalence of Witches; or the Exorcists – Filipino Style brings out QDM’s fictionist prowess as he scores and carves away at the bark of various mythologies to create a meta-narrative for the horrifying events that took place in Mr. & Mrs. Situn’s house in San Andres Bukid.

QDM’s vibrant transliterations (e.g. “asuang,” “oraciones” and “cafre”) lend the text a unique Filipino feel that tugs happily at the local literary palate.  For what is a journalist to do when the story revolves around a father and mother who think they are being chased by asuangs and so they proceed to kill their children out of fear of being mangled by the mythic creatures? In the face of a world turned upside down, QDM resorts to an analysis of the family’s death drive through a study of the father’s life as the son of an unchallenged and well-respected herbolario. QDM’s psychoanalysis revitalizes the reportage’s structure and subsumes the events that led to the murders as logical effects of a lifetime of unfettered superstition.

Truly, Quijano de Manila’s Reportage on Crime is the old-new book of crime that reminds every Filipino that the sixties, seventies and eighties are merely artifices of convenience. The beasts that dwell in the hearts and minds of man reverberate through time and space to bend the will of those eager enough to dance with death one last time.