Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sites in the Book: 1940s Filipino Country Homes

"In 1939 we built a big family house..."

The original Reynaldo home that they (and the Japanese) lived in during World War Two is long gone. There are no known photos of it. I remember from my father-in-law Felipe's stories that it was two stories tall, with a cement first floor and a wooden second floor. This picture that you see on the top left, was a typical home of a well-to-do country family in the 1940s, and it was the image that I used to imagine as the Reynaldo farm in The Yellow Bar

In the olden days, a house like this would have window panes made of capiz (oyster) shells. It was cheaper than glass, and still let the light in. The wood used in a house of this type would usually be a mixture of coconut and/or narra, which is Philippine mahogany. It had high ceilings and wide open windows to keep the house cool. The roof was made of zinc or tin, which was considered very modern and leak proof. The only problem was that in a heavy rain, it was very noisy; the roof reverberated like a drum at a rock concert. Some homes used used spanish tile.

Back then, the majority of country folk in the Philippines lived in Bahay Cubo, also know as Nipa Huts. These were made of bamboo, rattan, planks and nipa grass. (And whatever else was around.) They were usually elevated on stilts, and in a land where earthquakes, typhoons and floods are a constant, these houses are ideal for their climate and are easy to repair.

Houses such as these are still ubiquitous in rural  southeast Asia: Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. I have stayed in a few of them over the years and have found them surprisingly comfortable and hygienic (apart from the occasional lizard that falls from the ceiling.) Plus, there is nothing quite as comfortable as walking bare-foot on a split bamboo rail floor.

Nowadays, the modern asian family prefers a cement house with air conditioning. Ceilings are lower and windows are smaller. God help them if the electricity ever goes out.

Note: As the title says, these are country homes, like the one ones situated in The Yellow Bar. In contrast, 1940s Manila was one of the most modern and historic cities in Asia. There, the architecture varied from from Spanish Adobe to Art Moderne apartment buildings to American suburban. I will be posting more pictures of these remarkable building in the near future.

B/W photos courtesy of John T. Pilot. Click on image to see larger version.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Yellow Bar is based on a true story

The Yellow Bar is a work of fiction, but the main story line is based upon true stories my father in-law, Felipe Reynaldo, told me in the 1980s about how he and his family survived World War 2.

Here's the true part:

Felipe's family had the biggest house in Culi-Culi due to the successful notions and home goods store that they had. During the World War Two occupation, the Reynaldo's were kicked out of their home and forced to become servants in their own house for the Japanese pilots. As the war years went on, these pilots would become kamakazi. Felipe (Pepot) was just a child at the time. He told me how the pilots lived, celebrated, and ultimately went to their deaths.

After the horrific Battle of Manila and the return of the Americans, a relative began selling homemade booze (lombanog) to the American GIs and the Yellow Bar was born. The bar ended up being the most popular bar for visiting servicemen in Manila for over 30 years. (The stories he told me about the Americans at the Yellow Bar after the war could make up of book of its own, and may be my sequal one day.) By the time I met and married my wife, Leonor, in the 1980s, the Yellow Bar was long closed and had been converted into the local wet market, but it's art deco entrance still remained– loose chickens, cats and dogs dodged in and out its door. It was intriguing. It deserved a story.

I decided to approach the novel though 10 year old Pepot's eyes- a simple story of how a family survives World War Two. Although it is set in 1940s Philippines, I didn't want it to be an exotic travelog about the wonders of that island nation. (Let a future James Michener write that.) No, it needed to be easy to relate to. Therefore you will find very few Tagalog words and references to quaint social customs, such as balut. The Reynaldo's story could have happened anywhere, to any family.