January 26, 2004
FRANCIS C. MACANSANTOS
Born in 1911 in Baguio City, Sinai Hamada was the son of Ryukichi Hamada, an engineer and one of the earliest Japanese immigrants to arrive in Baguio at about the time it was founded by the American colonial authority (Hamada 1975, 245) His mother, Josefa Carino, was a native Ibaloi, and belonged to one of the most eminent families of Benguet, although by marriage to a foreigner she risked certain disinheritance (Zenaida Hamada-Pawid, interview by author, Baguio, 6 March 2002).
Hamada was a product of the public schools throughout, culminating in the University of the Philippines, from which he graduated in 1937 in law and journalism (Hamada 1975).
I suspect that for most of us, Hamada, lawyer, journalist, and pioneer fictionist who produced much of his notable work in 1930’s, is a distant figure in the landscape of our literature. One does not have to look far to see part of the reason for this lack of familiarity. He chose to remain in the province, close to his roots. The limelight, then as now, was in the capital. He was a lawyer and journalist there, a committed and effective citizen until his death in 1991. It is quite likely that these two professions, notoriously demanding in themselves, took away the leisure time he might otherwise have devoted to his art. After his graduation, he produced little fiction, none of these quite as memorable as his earlier work. For the cursory reader of the present generation, Hamada’s stories might, indeed, seem dated.
He himself might have felt ancient when he wrote, in an afterword to his 1975 collection, that, “No permission was sought for republication. The compiler would have loved asking. Alas, none of the magazines in which the stories first appeared is extant.” (Ibid.) But he was only in his mid-sixties then, a time when some artists produce their most mature work. Then it seems likely that his circumstances did not favor creative work.
And yet, sadder than the thought of such lost possibilities is the fact that Hamada has, as yet, no true successor. In the PEN conference held in Baguio in 1998, this point was driven home by National Artist F. Sionil Jose who, facing a panel of Baguio-based writers asked what seemed to be a sarcastic, rhetorical question: “Is there Baguio writing after Sinai Hamada?”
Most of us in the panel took the question in a negative light. I believe that had we not reined ourselves in and chewed the bit, we would have committed the ignoble act of rattling off the names of contemporary Baguio writers, awards, achievements and all. In retrospect, I think it was fortunate that we checked such an impulse. For as Sionil Jose explained to me in another, subsequent PEN conference, his question centered around the mode of social chronicling that fictionists do, the kind that Hamada had pioneered in the Cordilleras. He meant to ask whether anyone in the Cordilleras was writing that kind of fiction now.
The most upbeat answer to such a question would be, “Well, not just yet.” The sad truth is that Hamada still stands quite alone in the landscape of Cordillera fiction. Why this is so is not an easy question, and not for us to even attempt to answer here. But certainly, we must rejoice and be thankful that such a body of work as Hamada’s fiction was at all created. It comprises a world of its own, full of delightful surprises, passion, and insight. And though sadly much of the actual world on which these stories are based is largely changed, transformed or completely gone, the fictional world is still accessible and vitally human.
In his introduction to Hamada’s Collected Short Stories published in 1975, story-master Francisco Arcellana makes a remarkably interesting error. He erroneously observes—although the sentence on the page seems to ring with absolute conviction—that all of Hamada’s stories are love stories (Arcellana 1975). A careful re-survey of the collection will not bear this out.
The last story in the collection, for instance, “Five Men and the Carcass of a Dog,” is a humorous story with a sardonic social comment. “Compensation,” the penultimate story, is about social injustice. “The Fall of Irisan Bridge” deals with the betrayal of the Philippine revolution by the ruling classes. The story “Willy-nilly,” whatever else it is, is surely not a love story.
But the curious thing about this attempt to pick out contrary evidence is that we soon realize we are nearing a dead end. On closer reading one or two other stories that don’t seem to be love stories turn out to be, in some special way, arguably so. In the end, by what Atty. Hamada himself might have termed a “preponderance of evidence,” we may have to agree, essentially, with Arcellana. His instincts were proven right.
Having reached such a conclusion, we next must guard ourselves against the possibility of classifying Hamada with the sentimentalists. A good helping from magic helper Arcellana will steer us from such a trap:
All the stories are love stories, not just of love sacred and profane but of love as charity. “Tanabata’s Wife,” the most popular of these short stories, is, in the opinion of the writer of this brief homage, the finest Filipino love story ever written. ‘Lin-ey’s Strange Request,” is to the same person the most cynical statement on love ever made by a Filipino writer in a work of fiction (Arcellana 1975).
Arcellana instructs us on what Sinai Hamada is about—no less than his heights and depths, dimensions where no mere sentimentalist would dare tread. No, his characters are not all gentle souls; they love and hate, suffer and inflict pain—or love so selflessly their love becomes like the purest, most intense flame. At times the intensity culminates in acts of violence (though never in the manner of self-indulgent social realism). These are ordinary folks, mostly, and portrayed simply—but they are never flat, never run-of-the-mill. In truth they are mostly non-conformists, law-breakers, romantic rebels against tradition.
Don Gregorio, the wealthy social reformer of the story “Sometimes I Am Crying” is reduced to penury by his repeated failure to win any election. One sees the passion and constancy of a rejected lover in this quixotic figure, tragic in his failure to raise the political consciousness of his community. One is happy to agree with Arcellana that this, too, is a love story. And there are lovers galore in Hamada’s stories. One such is a free spirit named Baroy, otherwise known as the ”Pagan.” Orphaned at an early age and living by himself on the highest hill near a valley community, Baroy is enticed into marriage by a beautiful damsel of the valley. He successfully courts her with precious gifts, gold he has dug from the hill of his lonely abode. The community welcomes him joyfully as its new member. Yet immediately after the wedding, he and his bride leave the valley for a virgin land he had once seen from his mountain home. He remains an outsider to the very end. In “The Road to Alno,” a boy is filled with obsessive fascination by the romantic affair he discovers between a high-born maiden and a commoner. In “Kintana and Her Man,” a young widow and a mulatto soldier of the invading American Army discover spontaneous love, and are immediately married without word or ritual. Beautiful Chaguysa, wife of a dying invalid in the story “Death in Love,” elopes with her lover. For her perceived crime, the village closes its doors on her. In “Lin-ey’s Strange Request,” a low-born but alluringly beautiful wife of a laborer instigates an infatuated admirer into murdering her husband so that she can be free to marry—her husband’s and her admirer’s foreman. In “A Woman Hurt,” two young lovers decide to live away from each other to prevent the man’s father from using their union as a means to possess her.
Love and passion predominate the stories. But is that all? Is this theme—or obsession, if you prefer—an end in itself? For, if so, there is a danger as there must be in all amoristic self-indulgence, the danger of a lack of insight, and its inevitable result: sentimentality. Where is the depth that Arcellana promised us in his foreword? The answer is quite simple—we are already there, at those depths—even the mere discovery of such depths is already insight.
But there is surely more than that. I believe that Hamada’s aim, or obsession if you wish, conscious or unconscious, was to prove that the Cordillera native, far from being tradition-bound, was entirely human, human as any other, his humanity shining through exactly at the point where tradition has been broken. But why choose the path of the amorist? Well, what else but the elemental emotions, to break man-made rules?
Beyond ethnicity is nationality: it is no coincidence that most of the stories where the theme of love and passion is not central deal with love for our country, with the national struggle for liberation. But beyond nationality is the struggle, the demand of the human being for equality, respect, acceptance and yes, love. This latter theme is especially dominant in the stories such as “The Last Slave,” “The Call of the Huntland,” and particularly “O Returning Day,” where an erstwhile peasant, having made a fortune through his skills as entrepreneur, tries and hopes to the very end to make himself worthy of the woman he loves, a woman above his station.
Let us take a most extreme example, that of the lethal ingenue, Lin-ey, of “Lin-ey’s Strange Request.“ In essence, Lin-ey’s request, posed as a question to the construction foreman of “Will you marry me?” is not really so strange as it may seem. It is really a request to be allowed to move up to a higher, more humane level of society. In purely human terms, it is a demand to be treated as an equal. And such a desire, such a dream, is so alluring for Lin-ey that she uses a most heinous means to achieve it.
Hamada moves beyond ethnicity and nationality until, at last, he puts us face to face with the human being. And this is true not only of the evil Lin-ey, but even more so of Tanabata-san, whose love is so pure Franz Arcellana calls it charity (Arcellana 1975). And so Hamada portrays Tanabata, the foreigner, the extremely other, as the paragon of human virtue, the possessor of the truly civilized heart.
And yet even Tanabata breaks rules. The characters of “Tanabata’s Wife” are none too law-abiding. Fas-ang, the young woman who travels to faraway Baguio to find work breaks tradition by agreeing to be the common-law-wife of Tanabata, a Japanese national. Tanabata, for his part, crosses lines of ethnicity and nationality by this tacit marriage that is blessed with neither ethnic rite nor state sanction. Later, Fas-ang, under the pernicious influence of American movies to which she has become addicted, elopes, Hollywood-style, with a town-mate she has met in the movie-house and returns with her lover to Bontoc. This town-mate lover is a busol, a head-hunter, a man with a violent temper who has been recently dismissed from his job in the American base for a rule violation. This lover eventually deserts Fas-ang, and she returns to Baguio where Tanabata takes her back, with great affection and without question. Among other things, this a story of lawless people, right? True, but they are all the more human.
Essentially, though, Tanabata is most upright. He may have broken with some traditions, but not with the human moral law. He is the only character in this story who remains steadfast to his human commitments. Definitely he is not our stereotypical Jap, whether brutal invader, slick businessman, or noble, virile samurai. Rather, he is a farmer, unobtrusive, avid, attuned to the cycles of Nature, of planting and of harvesting. His sensitive fingers coax the soil to bring forth life. More than just a vegetable grower with an eye to profit, Tanabata is symbolic of man’s urge to nurture. Only those who are steadfast in their love possess the gift and power to husband the earth in all its phases. The steadfast man as nurturer—a life symbol (1)—such is Tanabata-san.
Ironically, it is he who is the other, the foreigner and stranger, who becomes the paragon for a God-like virtue which Arcellana rightly calls “love which is charity.” It is eros transformed into divine attribute. Some may stop to ask how a mere human could behave so well. If we fail to fathom Tanabata, we will start to doubt his credibility. Likely as not, we will view the story’s resolution as forced, without adequate basis. How could a mere man, a mere male, be so constant in his love, and so God-like as to possess the power to pull all the loose ends of the plot together? Doesn’t he remind us of that deceitful deity of ill-wrought fiction, the deus ex machina?
The best place to look for evidence in his defense is in the earth—or in his hands. Or, more precisely, in what natural miracles occur when his hands and the earth meet. For Tanabata is not just a trader of vegetables. Above all, he is a nurturer. In Tanabata’s garden, Fas-ang, when she was not cooking, stayed among the cabbage rows picking worms. All that Tanabata did was to care for the seedlings in the shed house. Also, he did most of the transplanting, since he alone had the sensitive fingers that could feel the animate soil (Hamada 1975, 42).
These are the hands of a truly dominant male, a great lover who husbands the soil to fruition. The secret to successful husbandry, as to all of civilized community, is in patience, and unfailing intensity.
In the end, neither tribal law nor Fas-ang’s busol lover’s feckless, anarchic machismo can help him triumph over Tanabata, the man of substance. The restless and mobile hunter loses out to the farmer because the hunter just can’t stay put, literally or emotionally. He cannot provide the moral basis for a truly humane existence, a civilized society. As a matter of fact, neither can the wayward ways of the modern industrialized west, fickle as Hollywood, illusory as the movies which had led Tanabata’s wife astray.
The true lover husbands the earth, prods it to yield its bounty. This bonding with the earth early on in the narrative prepares us for his elemental bonding with Fas-ang, and is the true foreshadowing of the story’s resolution. Thus, when Fas-ang finally returns home with their child, it is as if the living essence of the long-abandoned earth, too, had returned. Tanabata and Fas-ang become symbols of life’s mystery, its mysterious fecundity, transcending ethnicity and nationality.
In his foreword to Hamada’s collected works, Arcellana calls “Tanabata’s Wife” “the finest love story ever written by a Filipino.” Now this is the highest praise from the story-master. But Arcellana does not stop there. He goes on to make an observation so uncannily sharp that we suggest it become a heuristic device for the study of Hamada’s fiction, particularly for “Tanabata’s Wife.” Arcellana writes, “These stories are told with the compulsion and great urgency that characterize the making of myths.”
For quite a number of Hamada’s stories that deal with love and passion, the eternal triangle provides the infrastructure: “Who’s Home?”(2), “The Road to Alno,” “Death in Love,” “Lin-ey’s Strange Request,” “A Woman Hurt,” and of course “Tanabata’s Wife.” But it is in the latter that the love triangle appears clearly as archetypal.
Earlier we have had occasion to refer to both Tanabata and Fas-ang as life-symbols. But there is more to the figure than that. Tanabata’s garden, for instance, harks back to a garden so ancient it might well be the most ancient of all.
Ordinarily, she [Fas-ang] was patient, bending over the plants as she rid them of their worms, or gathered them for the sale in the market. Even her hands had been taught to handle with care the tender seedlings, which almost had to be prodded to grow luxuriantly.
When the sunbeams filled the valley, and the dewy leaves were glistening, it was a joy to watch the fluttering white butterflies that flitted all over the garden. They were pests, for their chrysalides mercilessly devoured the green vegetables. Still, their advent in the bright morning would stir the laborers to be up and doing before they, themselves, were outdone by the insects (Hamada 1975, 44).
The figure is old, indeed, but only because it is an allusion, though still recognizable even if worms and butterflies have taken the place of the snake. Another snake—or worm, if you like—is the busol lover, disguised as a butterfly. But perhaps the most pernicious snake of all is Hollywood, purveyor of American moral anarchy.
In the end, Tanabata hurdles the moral challenge. And let us not forget Fas-ang either, who with quiet courage traverses the barrier of ethnic norms. They are the couple to watch.
Of course one must wonder why it is the foreigner, the stranger, the remote other who becomes the paragon. In terms of artistic genesis, the answer must lie in the fact that Sinai Hamada’s father was Japanese. And even though Sinai was a month-old infant when his father died, the Japanese community in Benguet kept in touch (Hamada-Pawid, interview). In fact, the real-life models for Tanabata and Fas-ang were uncle and aunt, respectively, to Sinai Hamada (Ibid.). No doubt, Sinai must have felt like a foreigner, even in the land of his Ibaloi ancestors. But true to his creative gifts, he turned this familiarity with the foreigner into a bridge of understanding, leading to the realization that there really is no foreigner, there really is no other. There is only the human being—which is what we all are.
For the task of understanding this problematic creature, Hamada brought to his material a broad and deep curiosity and a ready, unstinting flow of sympathy, a sympathy of such a kind that, having gone through the gauntlet of otherness twice over—first, as a member of what used to be called a “cultural minority” and second, as a foreigner—emerged from the injustice with his literary sensibility intact, cleansed of any animosity or resentment, truly Filipino and truly humane.
In the wake of the Marcos flight to Hawaii in 1986, Baguio was the recipient of a visit from poet-critic in exile, Epifanio R. San Juan, Jr. One of the most distinct memories I possess from that period of ferment is the lecture he delivered on the story “Tanabata’s Wife” at Luna Hall at the U.P. College in Baguio. Employing the structuralist approach, then a novelty in the country, San Juan laid out what he saw as the story’s Marxist framework, containing the latent theme of class struggle. The analysis was a tour de force.
But what turned out to be just as interesting for me, in retrospect, is a seemingly minor point he made at the beginning of his lecture. This was his reference to the reputation of “Tanabata’ Wife” as the most anthologized Filipino short story on record. No one in the audience then rose to dispute the lecturer’s point. In those times, the belief was widely held. I, myself, held my peace. But I had my doubts.
Over the years I have found myself occasionally scouring my memory for sightings of this particular story in anthologies I had come across. It is recorded that in the early ‘30s, the story found its way into Story, a highly-regarded American anthology. The story is included in T. D. Agcaoili’s landmark volume of Philippine short stories. I remember reading the story for the first time in one of the anthologies published by the Philippine PEN. I was a college sophomore then, at about Hamada’s age when he wrote “Tanabata’s Wife.” Yet in the textbook used for our class in Philippine Literature, then considered the most up-to-date, there was no “Tanabata’s Wife.”
Beyond such sightings, memory fails. Or is it the facts that fail? Is the truism—repeated by E.R. San Juan, Jr.—really true? Isn’t the truth rather that Sinai Hamada has been gradually forgotten by critics and anthologists? Lately, I scanned through one of the most recent volumes of short stories in English written by Filipinos. I report no sighting of Sinai Hamada there. Hopefully, such critical lapses of memory will not occur too often. Let us hope, too, that lectures on Hamada serve as mnemonic devices for a people whose memory is notoriously short.
- For the term life-symbol which I prefer to use in lieu of “fertility symbol” or “phallic symbol” I am indebted to Susanne K. Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967) pp. 150-152.
- “Who’s Home” is Hamada’s first published story.
Agcaoili, T.D. Philippine Writing. Introduction by Edilberto K. Tiempo and Edith L.Tiempo. Manila: Archipelago Publishing House, 1953.
Arcellana, Francisco. Foreword to Collected Short Stores, by Sinai Hamada. Baguio City: Baguio Printing and Publishing, Co., 1975.
Bagamaspad, Anavic, and Hamada-Pawid, Zenaida. A People’s History of Benguet Province. Baguio City: Baguio Printing and Publishing Co., 1985.
Hamada, Sinai. Collected Short Stories. Baguio City: Baguio Printing and Publishing Co.,1975.
Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.