Art & Development, Travelogue

Wish You Were Here: ‘Postcards’ from the Philippines

The Regalos Project

balikbayan boxes at SFO

Context: Balikbayan* boxes and their owners at the Philippine Airlines counter at San Francisco International Airport. These boxes, and dozens more, were on my flight to Manila. In a testament to the impact of balikbayan boxes, their additional weight was enough to necessitate a re-fueling stop in Guam.
*Literally, “going home.” Can refer to (1) standardized cardboard boxes for shipping gifts to the Philippines or (2) overseas Filipinos returning to the islands.

regalos at MNL baggage claim

Process: My empty, glitter-covered balikbayan boxes for the Regalos project generated curiosity at the baggage carousel at Ninoy Aquino airport (MNL) in Manila.

regalos project at Green Papaya Art Projects

Product: The Regalos boxes on display at Green Papaya Art Projects in Quezon City. Some of the glitter was lost in transit, suggesting the entropy between giver and receiver or intention and material. I really liked how Eric Reyes, one of our academic counterparts in Galleon Trade, put it: “It’s not so much a site-specific project, as much as a transit-specific one.” He liked that the work showed marks of transit, and which I think reflects his interests in imperialism and migration.

installation at green papaya
Installation at Green Papaya Art Projects, with Mike Arcega, Stephanie Syjuco and Reanne Estrada. Photo: PeeWee Roldan.

peewee and joaquin at green papaya
Family moments: Artist and Green Papaya Art Projects owner Norbert “PeeWee” Roldan and his son Joaquin share an ensaymada, a cheese-covered brioche. The ensaymadas were delivered by a relative of Galleon Trade artist Mike Arcega. Photo by Stephanie Syjuco.

In addition to interfacing with Filipino artists, I also took Galleon Trade as an opportunity to get to know and work with the other Galleon Trade artists, many of whom are busybusybusy back in the US. Being part of the Galleon Trade show at Green Papaya was awesome on all accounts: the exhibition was professional and it gelled curatorially (thanks to the planning of Jenifer, Mike, Stephanie, Eliza Barrios, Megan Wilson and PeeWee Roldan). And throughout the installation, when we gave each other honest feedback and discussed the works’ meanings and contexts, I thought to myself, “This is what it’s really about.”


Jeepney on M.H. Pilar Street

Jenifer Wofford is right: A tabletop book on Filipino street graphics is long overdue. As an enthusiast of typography and scripts, I enjoyed all the hand-painted signs, plump cursives, and florid jeepney ornamentation. Jeepneys are a quintessential Filipino mode of transportation; leftover from the U.S. occupation, jeeps have been assimillated as a key form of cheap public transportation. Jeepneys are loud, noxious, and–as any resident of congested M. H. Pilar Street in Malate, Manila might think–overabundant. Yet somehow, it works perfectly: they’re fast, the open windows provide a natural breeze, and there’s an unspoken honor system for passing the fare from rider to rider until it reaches the driver. They’re also richly decorated with spirit and personality, featuring everything from names of overseas workers to airbrushed murals (motorcycle riders or space scenes, for example). The mix of colorful typography with reflective metal is especially irresistible.


Though Manila’s traffic puts even the Bay Area’s congestion into perspective, there are lots of options for getting around, and some of them–like the tricycle–are lots of fun. The tricycle is actually a small motorcycle with a sidecar of welded steel for passengers. Riding through Teacher’s Village to have merienda (afternoon snack, including dinuguan and puto–pork blood soup and steamed rice muffins) at Mike Arcega’s tita’s house inspired a moment of sincere gratitude.

diplomas at green papaya

My honorary PhD in Fine Art from the University of Philippines, Diliman. The degree doesn’t actually exist; Mike Arcega had conterfeit diplomas made for the artists in the Green Papaya show to explore native economies.


dinner at green papaya

Classic homemade Filipino food (and drink) (clockwise from bottom): bangus (fried fish), some of the sweetest, tenderest chicken and pork adobo (vinegar and soy sauce stew) I’ve ever tasted, kare-kare (peanut-sauce stew), rolls of sweet rice, and San Miguel beer. On the first night I arrived, PeeWee Roldan, artist and owner of Green Papaya Art Projects, hosted a beautiful welcome dinner. Gaston Damag‘s sophisticated artwork lined the walls, and we enjoyed a low-key homecooked meal before the madness of daily openings and lectures.

jaime at aristocrat

Galleon Trade artist Jaime Cortez camoflages with the Aristocrat Restaurant, “The Philippines’ most popular restaurant,” which also happened to be next door to our home base. Jaime shares a plate of eggplant-tomato-onion salad, which, when stirred, surprisingly resembles salsa — except with baggong (shrimp paste).

net High Street

In a country of round scoops of rice, square blocks stand out. mag:net High Street in ritzy Fort Benafacio keeps it cubic. Beef mechado (tomato-based stew), adobo quail eggs, and a light sangria. Lovely.

Tourist Trap

airport receipt

This small piece of paper cost me quite a bit of worry.
I saved 650 pesos for the airport exit fee, but the rate had just been raised from P 550 to P 750, and the booth was strictly cash-only. I was short 100 pesos, which translates roughly into US $2. The situation became worrisome when the airport’s two ATMs wouldn’t accept my card. Worse, I carried a traveller’s check that had been utterly useless in the Philippines. Ironically, the airline supervisor said that since this happens so often, PAL no longer keeps a petty cash box to help out their passengers. Instead, he suggested that I borrow money from other passengers and pay them back on US soil. (A bad idea — there wasn’t actually an ATM and retailer to make change at the arrival area at SFO.) Luckily, a sympathetic traveller freely contributed pesos to my (mortified) relief. Whew!
The funny thing is, so many taxes are tacked on to airfares, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about a $17 fee on top of my ticket price. But the current system creates these mini-fiascos. For all the high technology involved in running an airport, is a credit card machine too much to ask?


Romeo performing Spark
[Image from Romeo’s youtube video. Video by Eliza Barrios.]
Romeo Candido’s impromptu performance / goodbye gift to the Galleon Trade artists at The Living Room was really moving. With only two instruments — his voice and a loop pedal — Romeo created a full composition that crystallized a passing moment and brought everyone present with beauty. Romeo is a very talent filmmaker from Toronto working in Manila, and just by chance he happened to be in residence at The Living Room. I think almost all of the Galleon Traders were delighted by the affinity in our practices as North American artists trying to make a deeper connection to the contemporary arts in the Philippines.


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