The Songs of Charlson Ong

Posted: July 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

I have had on more than a few occasions attended dinners by special invitation. I guess it’s a perk of being the editor of a magazine. Not that the dinners I had the pleasure of attending were always worth writing about, but the one by National Artist F. Sionil Jose was definitely for the books.

Only four were invited by Manong Frankie that humid Wednesday night into his humble abode down Padre Faura Street at the heart of Manila: myself aside, there was newspaper editor Lito Zulueta, award-winning poet Ramon Sunico, celebrated novelist Charlson Ong and United States Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr.

F. Sionil Jose (Photo: ECG)

Always the early bird, I arrived and went straight into Manong Frankie’s holy of holies—his modest library and study—where we engaged in a roundabout chat about Philippine literature, my work in Philippines Graphic, and the use of English in Philippine letters. Never thought I’d hail the day when I’d be sitting in the very same room where Nobel Prize winning authors Günter Grass and Mario Vargas Llosa once had dinner with our national artist. The thought struck me as oddly reminiscent of the time the young Anton Chekhov sat humbly bowed before the grand old man of Russian literature, Leo Tolstoy.  But that was my too presumptuous imagination and a few swigs of Ballantines getting the better of me.

The other guests arrived minutes later offering the usual courtesies and curtsies to the National Artist, whose lovely wife Tessie was never far behind. US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr. entered the room in a deep purple barong and a rather sombre countenance prior to breaking into a huge smile. His small entourage was as equally friendly. We all gathered about this round table where we were offered our choice drinks. There was none of the sombreness that usually mark gatherings where dignitaries were present. Talks ranged from Ernest Hemingway to other stuff less likely to hit the front page the next morning. Being a journalist, I came prepared with a camera and digital recorded at hand. It was, however, forbidden. A sumptuous dinner was served shortly thereafter.

Despite what seemed like a very private and closed gathering, it was everything but boring. Award-winning poet Ramon Sunico was quite the “host” that night, giving the roundtable chat its needed continuum. Editor Lito Zulueta, too, had much to say about the cultural and arts scene even while I itched on my seat with queries about Spratlys, the Mutual Defense Treaty and possible reestablishment of the American bases in the country. Thinking, however, that Harry (as he wants himself to be called) would give me the official Washingtonline, I had the good sense to hold back my curiosity. He was scheduled to visit the BusinessMirror and Philippines Graphic editorial offices the next day for a roundtable discussion on the said matters. I therefore reserved my questions till then. Besides, I was, for the most part, among artists, and what better way to spend a clammy evening than to engage in a verbal joust on literature and the arts.

Novelist Charlson Ong was his usual self that night—calm, hushed, enjoying an overstated tranquillity while having in hand a crisp gin tonic. I, too, kept quiet watch over what was transpiring, given over to swigs of fine whiskey and thoughts of perhaps winning a Palanca this year. Much of the evening was accented every so often with hearty laughter and talks one like myself doesn’t hear everyday. By the time US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. flew the nest, I had had a good eight double shots of Ballantines. Manong Frankie barely touched his glass of Bourbon. Charlson, too, seemed to have had his fill, but still not quite. He asked me to join him for another round of beer in Mabini’s “The Other Office.”

The Other Office stretched modestly into what seemed like a 250-square floor space, large enough to entertain a little over fifty guests. The bar hosted about ten seats, while a piano, chair and microphone stood at the side of the entryway. The village-bar mood was perfect: amber lights in a hushed dim, the air-conditioning in just the right level of chill as the pianist teased the small crowd with a balladeer’s opus. After some small talk and half past our first bottle, Charlson took to the chair beside the piano to sing. It was his very own Salin Awit rendition of the classic, The Nearness of You (Hindi ang Puting Buwan):

Hindi puting buwan / Ang may dulot / Tibok niyaring puso / Mahal, kundi ang / Paglapit mo. / Di lamang himig / Ng iyong tinig / Nagpintig sa ‘king isip / Mahal, kundi ang / Paglapit mo. Refrain: Kung kita’y hagkan / Panaginip walang hadlang / Ang mundo’y baliw / Sa aliw. / Do ko kailangan / Ang liwanag ng buwan / Sa karimlan / Mahal, basta lumapit ka lang / Sa dilim ng gabi / Ikaw ang ilaw.”

Not to be outdone, I swaggered over to the microphone to sing old Tagalog movie themes of the ‘70s and ‘80s: Kapantay ay Langit, Tubig at Langis, Kastilyong Buhangin and Martin Nievera’s Kahit Isang Saglit. Apparently our songs were tolerable enough for us not to suffer blunt force trauma from enraged customers. As the minutes trickled a little past one in the morning, the last remaining customer took his leave; the bar was now ours for the night. We sang to our hearts’ content till I had to bid the country’s most celebrated novelist farewell at around two. I left The Other Office with Charlson still on his chair by the piano, beer glass in hand and a humming tune in his heart. It was a long night for all of us, but one accentuated by laughter and music. Nothing could be more enlivening.

Hardly had I been treated of late to a night as marvellously soothing as the one I just had with Manong Frankie, Harry Thomas Jr., Lito Zulueta, Ramon Sunico and Charlson Ong. It has been years since I enjoyed singing by a piano with my father. As every other journalist knows, the work of an editor does not end when the clock strikes five. As hard-line professions go, it’s a 24/7 gig, with scarcely the hour to enjoy a wink, or in my case, time in the company of fellow writers. These rare occasions come like sprinkles of rain in the summer, with enough sweet liquid to wet one’s roots.

The strength a writer culls while among fellow pens makes it easier to face the booming issues of the next day. But more than this, exchanges as the one I had that evening, make life a tad lush than before, and for this I have Manong Frankie and wife Tessie to wholeheartedly thank. As writer David Brin once said, “If you have other things in your life—family, friends, good productive day work—then these can interact with your writing and the sum will be all the richer.”


JOEL PABLO SALUD is the editor-in-chief and interim literary editor of the Philippines Graphic magazine, the country’s top newsweekly publication under the ALC Group of Publications, which include the BusinessMirror.  He is a member of the Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the Manila Critics Circle. He regularly writes reviews for the Philippines Graphic Review of Literature.


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