Benjamin Pimentel: A writer's sense of mission

A writer's sense of mission 
By Walter Ang
November 24, 2008
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Currently showing at the intimate Tanghalang Huseng Batute of the Cultural Center of the Philippines is "Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street," a play adapted by Rody Vera from the novel by Benjamin Pimentel, which recently won the Juan C. Laya Award for Fiction in the 2008 National Book Awards.

Staged by Tanghalang Pilipino, "Gerilya" tells the stories of a group of Filipino World War II veterans as they wait for the full benefits promised to them and, at the same time, as they wait for their "long-distance call from heaven."

Directed by Chris Millado, the play features a powerhouse cast that includes Tommy Abuel and Bembol Roco alternating in the role of Fidel and Lou Veloso and Bodjie Pascua alternating in the role of Ciriaco, just two of the several characters who reminisce about their days in the war, the women they've loved, and the families they've left behind.

Real stories 
Pimentel grew up in Quezon City and took up political science at Ateneo De Manila University. He relocated to the USA in 1990 to attend University of California-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and eventually became a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, covering information technology and Asian American issues.

"It was also the same time when Filipino veterans started moving to that area after they were granted the opportunity to become American citizens," he says. These were the Filipinos who fought alongside US forces against the Japanese in the Philippines. They were promised citizenship when the war began but were only able to claim on the agreement almost half a century later.

He would notice these old veterans hanging out in one of the train stations on Powell Street. "May of these men were old and sick. San Francisco can be a beautiful place, but the weather can be brutal," he notes.

While their service during the war entitled them to citizenship, Filipino veterans were not entitled to the regular benefits of American military veterans. They were only entitled to receive supplemental security income, roughly USD600. "They need to survive on less than that in order to send home money to their families, which in San Francisco, is virtually impossible," he says. He points out that many Filipino veterans usually share one room, from five to ten people per room, and end up eating at soup kitchens.

Final mission 
Pimentel likens the arrival of these men on American shores to a final mission, of "beteranos [plunging] into their new battle as old men." They now fight against the forces of cold, hunger and loneliness.

Pimentel started writing about the veterans and discovered an ineluctable dilemma many of them face: In the mid-90s, the veterans' plight drew enough attention to spur the fight for an Equity Bill that would grant them equal benefits enjoyed by other US military veterans. However, if the Filipino veterans were to die in San Francisco while waiting for the bill to be passed, there is a considerable financial burden to ship their bodies back to the Philippines for burial. A burden most of them cannot afford. "For many Filipinos, cremation is a `no, no'," he says.

The stories of their yearning for dignity stirred Pimentel into developing a non-fiction account of their plight together with documentary photographer Rick Rocamora. The project did not materialize, but their stories stayed with Pimentel. He soon turned to fiction to "retell and reimagine what these men had gone through."

He wrote a short story, "Waiting on Powell Street," which won first prize in the Bienvenido Santos Story Contest in the US. This inspired him to expand the material into a novel. He'd started writing it in English but soon encountered resistance. "It was as if the characters in my novel rebelled against me. They'd ask why I was making them speak in English when they were Filipinos," Pimentel says.

Another level 
The result of his work was picked up for publication by Maricor Baytion of the Ateneo de Manila University Press and became a bestseller last year. The novel is currently available only in the Philippines but there are initial plans to translate the novel into English.

Pimentel has previously written "UG, An Underground Tale," about the life and times of Edgar Jopson, a bestseller in Manila in 2006, and recently completed "Pareng Barack: Filipinos in Obama's America," published by Anvil. "`Pareng Barack' is my take on the racial, ethnic, immigration issues that have cropped up in the context of the recently concluded US presidential campaign," he says.

Pimentel recently arrived in Manila and caught a performance of the play. He says, "The play takes the novel to another level, it's heartening to see the stories and themes of the book acted out onstage. The actors are really great!" Discussions have been held to explore the possibility of touring the production in the US, however, due to prohibitive costs, the option of having Filipino American or Asian American theater groups based in San Francisco and Chicago stage the material is also being considered.

"Pareng Barack: Filipinos in Obama's America," will be launched on November 26 at 6 p.m. at Bestsellers Ortigas, Robinson's Galleria. "Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street" runs until November 30, 2008. For details, call 832-3661 or Ticketworld at 891-9999.

Also published online: writers-sense-of-mission

Akari lamps and light switches for Pinoy homes 172977/Shining-in-Shenzhen
Shining in Shenzhen 
Text and photos by Walter Ang
November 19, 2008
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Akari CEO Chris Tiu (left).
The Akari brand of lighting and electrical products, despite using the Japanese term for "bright light," is actually a completely Filipino creation. It was introduced to the Philippine market in 2002 by Carlson Philippines, a company founded by Carlos Tiu that started out as an importer of electrical and lighting items from Japan.

Akari first distributed energy-saving lamps and switches, eventually adding rechargeable batteries, flashlights, and cords to its range of products. Carlos' eldest son Christopher is at the helm these days as CEO and he invited Inquirer Lifestyle to visit their manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, China.

"Although we outsource the manufacturing of our products to a large-scale production base, we do all of the designs and technical specifications," says Tiu. "We're committed to quality and we follow rigid international safety standards."

This is the reason Akari chose a manufacturer with close to 65 years of experience in research, production, and distribution of lighting devices, electrical wiring accessories, and intelligent control systems. Stereotypical images of a plain warehouse factory are nowhere in sight at the sprawling complex. A sculptured garden campus provides a striking contrast to several tall edifices that dominate an area covering over 300,000 square meters.

The production base has over 3,000 employees that include 200 engineers, 300 technicians, 100 electrical experts, and 500 management personnel. "Our manufacturer implements the ISO9001:2000 international quality management system and 5S management standards," says Tiu. "Quality control standards are usually set higher what is required. For example, if the minimum standard set by the government is 6,000 hours for the life of a light bulb, we make it 8,000 hours."

Texture and color 
"Our aim is to develop a complete range of quality but affordable energy-efficient lighting and electrical products easily available to anyone who wants to save energy, money, and the environment," says Tiu. "Our energy-saving lamps are five times more luminous and 80% more energy-efficient than normal incandescent lamps."

To add a bit of flair or to complete the small design details for home interiors (and even commercial spaces), Akari also has a line of switches and switch plates to choose from. To ensure strength and durability, the production plant pulls out random switches from every batch produced and subjects them to a machine that turns them on and off at least 40,000 times. If the switch doesn't hold up, the entire batch will not be released.

In Akari's Deco series of switches, the Regular range comes in white and is appropriate for minimalist and classic tastes. Home owners or commercial spaces that need a splash of color will appreciate the Soft Touch range with its assortment of interchangeable multicolored frames like fantasy blue, romantic purple, jazz black and pink lady, while the Elegance range comes in champagne, cola silver and coffee black.

For an unexpected touch of whimsy, the Picture range allows users to insert any photo or image they choose, such as a computer print-out of a painting, into the plate. Spaces that are aiming for a sleek or industrial feel can consider the Prestige range which comes in metal finishes like gold, silver and bronze or the Glass range which uses clear tempered glass. "We test drop the glass plates to make sure they don't break," Tiu says. Prototypes are underway for a range of plates that will come in a leather finish.

Automated for savings 
Beyond design finishes, Akari also has the E-tech dimming pattern switch which allows up to four different lighting schemes to be preset. "This lighting control device can accommodate up to four circuits using existing electrical wiring," says Tiu. A demonstration was done at the main conference room of the production base. At the switch of a button, lights instantly dimmed prior to a presentation using a projector.

"For home use, an example is use it for the dining room where you have a brighter light design for family dinners but a cozier ambience for romantic dinners. For the living room, you can have one lighting design for entertaining guests and another design for watching movies with the family?all at the push of a button. Best of all, the dimming capabilities allows users to save on electricity costs. Galleries, museums, exhibition halls can also benefit from the device," he says. "If you're a bachelor with four girlfriends who have different tastes in lighting, you should get one of these," he adds with a laugh.

For an even higher level of lighting control, plans are underway to introduce the Smart House lighting automation system. "The system allows homeowners and building or mall operators to conveniently control home lighting, airconditioning, and alarm systems. It can be operated through texting or the internet. The operating time of lights and aircon units can be scheduled to save energy. Studies have shown that the system can add up to 30% savings in electricity costs," he says.

The system also uses motion detectors that can switch lights on when someone enters a room as well as switch lights off in unoccupied rooms. When installed outdoors, motion-activated lighting is also useful for security measures. "It even has a replay function that records one full week of actual household lighting activity and then replays it to create the illusion that the house is occupied. If you plan to have a long vacation, it will be an excellent deterrent to intruders," Tiu says. "In addition, through the Smart-House, socket outlets can be switched off remotely to ensure that certain electrical appliances are not activated by children."

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Even kids get to enjoy photo workshops at KidsAhoy

Even kids get to enjoy photo workshops 
By Walter Ang
Nov. 3, 2008
Philippine Daily Inquirer

"Alon Self Half" by Alon Severino
Renowned broadcast journalist Howie Severino did something for his son's sixth birthday that most parents wouldn't usually have done. Severino and his wife, Ipat, curated an exhibit of photos taken by their son Alon.

"We wanted to do something different for his birthday and photography is something that almost everyone can relate to," he says. "Of course, we were quite proud of him, but the pictures are less a testament to any budding talent than a commentary on the democratizing power of technology. It's really seeing the world through the eyes of a child and photography is just the medium"

Severino waxes enthusiastic about the possibilities that are now available for children as far as photography is concerned. "Kids can takes pictures because they can these days. When I was a kid, cameras were big, expensive, shot on film, and off limits to kids," he says. He recalls being apprehensive about using the family camera because if he caused any damage to it he would've had to contend with an entire group of people.

In his blog, Severino notes, "With cameras getting cheaper, better and smaller, it's a wonderful time to be a kid. You can record your own childhood ? including the way your face is evolving -- and not rely on the biased eyes of those who have left childhood far behind."

Severino points out that the digital divide "is being bridged by cheaper and better gadgets, but this divide usually refers to economic class, or even continents." He posits, however, that "we rarely do we mean age, and in Alon's case the ability of modern technology to empower someone who just turned six."

Alon has been taking photography workshops exclusive for children at Kidsahoy, a venue for parents who want a social environment for their children to learn and play. Instructor Kaloy Yap points out the differences in teaching photography to adults and children. "With adults it's more of the nitty gritty aspects of photography and the tone is more formal. With children, it has to involve play and incorporates fun while they learn," he says.

Current workshops are composed of ten sessions with one topic per session. "It's actually a detailed currciculm but it's very accessible. We teach kids about everything and anything that you can find in a regular point and shoot camera. We have topics such as portraiture and landscape photography," Yap says.

To make things more interesting, classes on macro or close-up photography involves a trip to the backyard and unearthing stones to shoot ants and maggots. Parents are tasked to model for the portraiture classes. "It's fun to see children directing their own parents on the `correct' way to pose," says Yap. The workshop also includes a session on light painting, taking photos of a moving light source such as a flashlight in a darkened room. "When the kids start showing signs of boredom, we bring out the toys and ask them to take photos of the toys," he adds.

As for equipment, students can use "whatever their parents give them." Yap points out that digital cameras are the norm for children as they are sturdy and some models are even waterproof. "There are cameras now that you can drop from as high as six feet and you can also swim with them to several meters below the water," he says.

Nina Gonzales has taught photography workshops to teenage girls from Sagada National Highschool and was co-curator of Foto Baryo, a touring photography exhibit featuring works of children (most recently held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines). "In general, technology in photography has hugely impacted the access to imagery. Age is little limitation here because photography is so innately connected to the eye and the view. One person's glance can be as inspiring as anyone else's regardless of age or geography," she says.

"The world looks different to kids," says Severino. "At naturally low or crazy angles, the shots also focus on things the adult eye may not: favorite toys, for example, or his mother through an electric fan."

This does not mean, however, that the quality of their compositions or shots are inferior to adults' output. Yap says, "Children will surprise you with angles or shots that rival a professional. It's almost mostly from a 'worm's eye view' because of their height, but they have a fresh view."

For details on Foto Baryo, email For details on photography workshops at Kidsahoy, call 0920-517-8127.

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Cory's life now a musical

Cory's life now a musical 
By Walter Ang
Nov. 3, 2008
Philippine Daily Inquirer

While a musical and a concert have already been made about a former Philippine First Lady (the East West Players theater company of California staged "Imelda: A New Musical" in 2005 while David Byrne and Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook devised a "song-cycle" titled "Here Lies Love," staged in Adelaide in 2006), no one has yet made a theatrical production that focuses on our country's first female President. Until now.

"Cory: The Musical," a production based on the life of former president Corazon "Cory" Aquino, was conceived by Lourdes "Bing" Pimentel (wife of Senator Aquilino Pimentel), a self-taught composer who has produced and composed musicals such as "Nasaan si Hesus," "Huwag Pumayag sa Dagdag Bawas," and "Pagibig sa Bayan."

To say Mrs. Aquino's life has been trying is an understatement. She is known to have been a devoted wife who was supportive of the political career of her husband, Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr., whom she married in 1954. He started out as mayor of Tarlac, became the youngest senator in Philippine history in 1967, and emerged as a leading critic of the Marcos government. He was arrested during martial law in the 70s, sentenced to death, and eventually allowed to leave for exile in Boston with his family.

Her husband's assassination in 1983 catapulted Mrs. Aquino to global recognition. After a snap election in 1986, she served as the 11th President of the Philippines until 1992, the country's and Asia's first female President. Through all her struggles, Mrs. Aquino emerged, as Wikipedia notes, "a world-renowned advocate of democracy, peace, women's empowerment, and religious piety."

In 1986, Mrs. Aquino was Time Magazine's Woman of the Year and was nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Later on, she would be cited as one of the "100 Women Who Shaped World History" and become a recipient of the J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding. She was also chosen by Time Magazine as one of the "20 Most Influential Asians of the 20th Century" as well as one of "65 great Asian Heroes."

Pimentel says that when she learned the former president had contracted cancer earlier this year, she felt it time for people to demonstrate their love and appreciation for the sacrifices Mrs. Aquino had undergone. "I thought of gifting her with a musical," she says.

"Cory: The Musical" has twenty songs and tackles the life of Mrs. Aquino from her teenage years until the time she accepts the presidency. Acclaimed singer-actress Isay Alvarez, who is usually most known for being in the original London cast of "Miss Saigon" as Gigi and was recently seen onstage in Peta's "Skin Deep," will be playing the titular role.

"It's nerve-wracking," says Alvarez of portraying the former president. "I read a lot of materials on what she went through to figure out where she was coming from. There is a stereotype of Mrs. Aquino that portrays her as a timid person. But she's not timid at all; she's composed. And she's composed because she's really a strong person and she's gone through a lot."

Leo Quinitio serves as the musical director, conductor, and arranger while directing duties will be handled by Nestor U. Torre. Torre has been involved in theater, radio, TV, film, and entertainment journalism (he is editor of PDI's Saturday Special). He was the creative force behind musicals such as "Katy!," and "Magnificat," among others.

This production also serves a reunion of sorts for Alvarez and Torre since Alvarez was in the original cast of Torre's musical "Magsimula Ka." In fact, Alvarez's husband Robert Seña was with her in the original cast of that musical and is part of this one as Ferdinand Marcos. The role of Ninoy Aquino will be essayed by Sherwin Sozon, who was recently seen onstage in "Dalawa Niyang Libing," one of the plays in Virgin Labfest 4. Pinky Marquez will play Imelda Marcos.

"The story for this musical is really a study of two people, Cory and Ninoy," says Torre, who also developed the book (i.e. script) for this production. "It's about the dark night of the soul when Ninoy is incarcerated for seven years and the transformation they go through as a couple. It's about how hey are challenged by the events surrounding them, how they rise above themselves."

Produced by the Buhay Isang Awit Foundation, Inc., "Cory: The Musical" goes onstage Nov. 29, 30, and Dec. 1 at the Meralco Theater. For details, call Sheila at 851-3120.

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Sarah Geronimo rocks on

Sarah Geronimo rocks on 
By Walter Ang
November to December 2008 issue
You Magazine

Sarah Geronimo enters the photo studio with Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" clasped between her hands. As she settles into her make-up chair, she raves about the book. "It's great! It's really different," she says about the overnight sensation story of a mortal girl and her vampire boyfriend. Sarah shares that she loves getting caught up in a good book. "You become part of another world. It's a great feeling."

For a few hours this cloudy Friday afternoon, Sarah shares bits of her own not-so-little world. She's not unfamiliar with the concept of being an overnight sensation herself. Five years ago, at the age of 14, Sarah won a televised singing contest that bagged her a cool million pesos and landed her a ten-year recording contract with Viva Records.

Since then, she's racked up a long list of achievements that most girls her age can only dream about. Her public triumphs are but a click away. A quick Google search for her name yields countless results and her Wikipedia entry, when printed out, totals 11 pages.

Her debut album, "Popstar: A Dream Come True" reached a staggering seven-platinum record, selling more than 350,000 copies. Since then, her showbiz career has grown leaps and bounds. From singing, she's branched out into hosting and acting and has established a presence in TV variety shows, telenovelas and movies as well as commercial endorsements for different products and services.

Despite having achieved so much in so little time, Sarah has a surprisingly shy way about her. She has the aura of a little girl thrust into the first day of school, trying to find her way. But she definitely knows where she wants to go. "I feel like I've only achieved a fourth of my dreams. I still have a lot of goals in my life," she shares. "I want to be a successful international singer. I'd like to bring honor and pride for the Philippines."

Evolving The latest revelation in Sarah's ever-evolving career is her comedy acting chops. She was recently partnered with John Lloyd Cruz in the romantic-comedy "A Very Special Love," which earned P14million on its opening day. "It was very fulfilling, we didn't expect it to do so well. We had lots of fun shooting this movie, the atmosphere was very light."

It's a refreshing turn from the string of heavy drama telenovelas she's been in for the past two years ("Bituing Walang Ningning" and "Pangarap Na Bituin"). And a surprise that Sarah can actually be effective in making people laugh.

"It's more fun to do comedy but it's actually harder than doing drama," she says. "With drama, you just feel the situation your character is in and you can get carried by the emotion. With comedy, you have to have the right timing. Hindi ka puwedeng magpatawa para lang mapatawa ang audience. You're not allowed to overact." However, Sarah didn't have too difficult a time since she admits to being a clown in real life. "I'm very makulit and I like to joke around," she laughs.

These days, having wrapped her telenovela and movie, Sarah breathes a little easier and has a little more free time on her hands. "Taping for the telenovelas would take up almost the entire week," she shares. Although she still does concerts and provincial shows while fulfilling hosting duties on weekly variety show "ASAP," Sarah has had more time to catching up on bonding with her siblings. "We usually hang out after going to Mass. We do regular things like malling, watching movies and eating out."

Simple but adventurous "I didn't used to think about what to wear or how I should present myself in public," she says. "But I try hard to keep up." Sarah's partial to outfits from Zara, but she admits to being a typical t-shirt and jeans kind of girl. "I like my stuff from Bench. What's important is comfort, more than anything else."

When it comes to make up, she goes for light blush on and "just a little lip gloss." Peach and pink are her favorite colors for makeup. "I just try to always keep my face clean and I never go to sleep with makeup on," she says.

She's also trying to work out more. "I try to use the treadmill," she starts, then bursts out giggling. "I try!" Her hectic schedules doesn't really allow her much time to fit in a regular exercise routine, but it doesn't really matter though since she does a lot of dancing for her work anyway. "I love dancing! I'd like to learn all kinds of dance if possible."

Sarah's even learning how to play the piano. "One day, I hope to play the piano in one of my concerts and sing `If I Ain't Got You'" she says. Seeing how the photo shoot is portraying "the rocker side of Sarah," she admits that she'd be willing to try other genres or singing styles only if it weren't so difficult on her vocal cords. "I'm open to alternative rock, but I would have to be very careful not to damage my voice."

Big plans She tempers her adventurous side with a strong commitment to diligence and perseverance. Sarah is working towards finishing her Associate Degree in Arts from the Open University and she's already helped her parents put up several businesses such as a beauty salon, a clothing boutique and a panciteria. As for a romantic relationship, Sarah feels she isn't ready yet and wants to concentrate on her career and education for now.

She's happy working with and learning from her idols like Gary Valenciano, Zsa Zsa Padilla and Kuh Ledesma, to name a few. Her ultimate dream, however, is to perform a duet one day with her idol Celine Dion. International exposure isn't too far off since she's already recorded a duet titled "I'll Be There" with former Backstreet Boy Howie Dorough. The song will be included in Sarah's upcoming album "Just Me." Dorough (or more popularly known as Howie D.) flew in recently to do a music video of the song with her.

Sarah's career is definitely at full steam but she's untinged by any hint of it going to her head. In fact, she even finds inspiration in that Charice Pempengco, one of the contestants in a singing competition that Sarah hosted, has actually gone on to sing with Celine Dion. "I am so proud of Charice. I'm so inspired by her. It really goes to show that people shouldn't give up because God always has bigger plans for us," she says. Sarah may well be biding her time for the day she sings with Celine Dion, but in the meantime, she's certainly enjoying the ride.

Sarah will have a major major solo concert titled "The Next One" slated for late November at Araneta Coliseum and a Christmas album (her first) will be produced and arranged in December by no less than Ryan Cayabyab. She'll end the year with a Special Christmas Concert in December.