Stuck In Ilocos Norte With The Weng Weng Blues Again
The noonday Fort Ilocandia sun was blinding on the top of the sand dune. I squinted and adjusted the brim of my already-soaked safari helmet, looking to the rest of the Philippines like a wet, tubby Stanley Livingstone, as my co-producer Dani, in his Arab-looking scarf less a tattooed Sancho Panza than a Polish Lawrence of Arabia, snapped my photo on his iPhone. Big Jim Gaines, our six-foot-plus African-American-Filipino kumpadre, was at the bottom of the dune with hand against his beret surveying the cracked, dried mud and that summer’s vain attempt to make the desert come alive.
Much of Ilocos Norte, north-west corner of Luzon island and highest tip of the Philippine archipelago, is sand dunes as far as the eye can see. Cirio H. Santiago directed most of his post-apocalypse actioners – Stryker, Wheels Of Fire, Equalizer 2000 – here, and Jim, veteran of countless kung fu and ‘Namsploitation movies, recalled filming Eternal Fist with Cynthia Khan on this very spot. “It’s a lot greener than I remember,” he said, casting a critical eye over the sporadic shrubs and dried caribou pats dotting the landscape like forgotten landmines from a Cirio film.
It’s hot. Damned, chickenloving hot. You could boil a balut [crunchy duck embryo in its shell] in the steam under this safari hat.
The mobile rang – one of Imelda’s nurses. “Ma’am is waiting for you. She has prepared lunch for you.”
Yes, we’re JUST getting into our jeepney right now, I lied. We’ll be ten minutes, I lied. And with that, we stopped halfway down the dune for another photo op.
I wondered more than a few times how in hell I managed to get to Ilocos Norte. It all started when Imelda’s former press secretary Sol Vanzi forwarded my list of questions for approval. It was a mad idea to secure footage of Mrs Marcos talking about Weng Weng, the two-foot-nine James Bond of the Philippines so popular in the early Eighties before he slipped right back into poverty and complete anonymity. Incredibly, Imelda agreed to talk. You may have to prepare to go to Ilocos Norte, Ms Vanzi warned, as Mrs Marcos is celebrating her 83rd birthday that weekend.
First night back in Manila, Dani and I were drinking at Ringside, Makati’s dwarf boxing-themed bar til 3.30am. The call from Ms Vanzi came at 5. At that moment I had no idea what country I was in, let alone who Sol Vanzi and Imelda Marcos were.
Days later we’d gathered our small crew: Big Jim, of course, plus our old kumpadre from Brisbane, Roy Arabejo, and my collaborator since the first trip, Nina Dandan Evangelista. We figured the best case scenario was an hour with Imelda, and hopefully a soundbyte about Weng Weng. At worst, we’d at least have a trip to the Deep North and a new drinking story about our failed interview with Philippine Royalty.
After an hour over Luzon’s mountain ranges, our twin-propeller commercial plane flew over the sand dunes into the tiny Laoag International Airport. Exiting the one room baggage claim and Customs area, Jim suggested we commandeer a jeepney – former army jeeps converted into a cheap mini-bus, each decorated in the most garish and outlandish fashion – for the two day visit. Cel, a humorous chap in his Sixties, immediately agreed, and the five of us drove over the bridge into the dusty provincial capital, population just over 100,000, in the back of the jeepney in style. We hung a right at the Governor’s Capitol Building, where Imelda’s daughter Imee is now in residence, past the ornate fountains opposite, past a beautiful old 18th Century church tower, past the two-story shopping centres each selling the same Chinese plastics, and onto our $8 a night hotel – a hotel, I must add, that resembles a six-year child’s birthday cake, slatted with ribs of mauve and pink frosting inside and out, and front counter staff dangerously close to slipping into a diabetic coma.
The evening passed quickly and, aside from a few drinks at a cockfighting-themed beer joint called The Cockhouse (egg cartons on the ceilings, Adele covers on stage), uneventfully. With morning the oppressive Ilocos Norte heat forced us to bunker down in the faux Fifties’ Macy’s Diner in the hotel’s basement, and wait for word from Imelda’s people.
Over the bottles of banana ketchup I recognized a lone figure at a nearby table. The Governor of Ilocos Norte was dining on burgers within a bottle’s toss of her office. “Hello, Imee?”
Recognizing me from our previous interview, she motioned me over. She seemed slightly amused to see me. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“Going to your mum’s birthday party,” I smirked. I then filled her in on the next documentary project, “The Most Beautiful Creatures On The Skin Of The Earth”, on sex, cinema and the Marcos’.
“So what is your thesis?” she asked me bluntly. “Why do YOU think cinema flourished under my parents, as it did in Russia under Stalin, and in Italy under Mussolini?”
“Imee, I wouldn’t compare your parents to Stalin or Mussolini!”
“I meant PATRONAGE,” she said with a steely glare. I mentally noted my almost fatal faux-pas, and wondered if firing squads were still operational in Ilocos Norte.
Minutes later we finally got the call – meet Mrs Marcos at the family mansion, a good half-hours’ burn from Laoag past small farming plots and sari-sari stores, and into the modest provincial town of Batac.
Cel drove us past the covered basketball court where her party would be held just hours later, and over a small creek, we arrived at the 19th Century Spanish-styled hacienda poached in our own juices and looking like Hawkwind’s wizened acid suppliers. Aides ushered the five of us through the ornate wooden doorway and into the mansion once home to Ferdinand Marcos’ father Mariano, born in Batac in 1897 and later elected representative of the second district of Ilocos Norte. Mariano then ran for National Assembly but lost to his chief rival and political nemesis Julio Nalundasan; soon afterwards Nalundasan was shot through his bathroom window by a mystery assassin while brushing his teeth, and Mariano, son Ferdinand and his cousin were arrested. Ferdinand finished his legal studies in prison and famously made an impassioned speech to the judge, who acquitted him of murder. The rest, they say, is history. Mariano would die in the closing phase of World War 2, either at the hands of the Japanese, so the official story goes, or by local partisans executing him as a Japanese collaborator.
At the top of the beautiful dark wood staircase, we saw Imelda Marcos holding court. Here was the mythic figure made flesh, substantially older and puffier than her official portraits and surrounded by closely attentive nurses but unmistakably the regal figure and former beauty queen once dubbed the Rose of Tarlac and the Iron Butterfly. She was swathed in silks like a Italian countess, the first of four outfits that evening: raised, rounded shoulders like padded sawblades cut her a magnificently regal figure, like a fifteenth century heiress to the House of Medici or Lucrecia Borzia than her idol Evita Peron. In her prime, Imelda and her husband Ferdinand were the closest to royalty Philippines has ever experienced: a glamorous couple who swept into power in 1965 to become the most exalted, feared and despised figures in Filipino history, surviving 21 years of political assassinations, a Communist uprising, a civil war in the Muslim South and the dark days of Martial Law, before a popular uprising and comparatively bloodless coup banished them to exile in Hawaii.
The Marcos regime was in fact a failed attempt at forging a dynasty closer in spirit to the Roman Emperors. They instinctively understood the international currency of culture, from art, opera, ballet, to the more populist and debased form of cinema, and the magnificently gauche temples the Marcos’ built perched upon Manila Bay – the Cultural Centre of the Philippines with its tsunami wave for a roof, the Folk Arts Theater, the doomed and now haunted Manila Film Centre covered in cracks and the decay of a mere 32 years – will no doubt outlast their staunchest critics.
Big Jim set up the camera as Roy swung his iPhone around the room, capturing the tiled portraits, photos of Ferdinand in uniform, statues, paintings, tapestries, the entire gaudy spectacle of the Marcos mansion, one of Imelda’s at least three residences, we’re told, in which she resides the part of the year in Batac performing her duties as Member of the Philippine House of Representatives of Ilocos Norte’s Second District. With son Bong-Bong as Senator and Imee as Governor, the Marcos family’s tentacles can be felt twisting and worming through three tiers of government. I found it remarkable that the family of a disgraced President could make such a phoenix-like return from the ashes; however the Marcos’ contribution to Philippine cinema is precisely what I hoped we would talk about on-camera.
Imelda was an incredible interview subject. She expertly wove around certain questions, disarmed others with a barrage of facts and figures contained behind the steel doors and razor wire of her 83-year-old mind. She was charming, seductive, dangerous, a former dictator who had wined and dined the rulers of the world at Malacanang, and who had experienced the view from the top of the pyramid of power. Her still-considerable power radiated from her and filled the room, something us mortals rarely receive an opportunity to witness, let alone experience ourselves.
At the end of the hour-long conversation I slipped in the topic of Weng Weng. She looked at me, eyebrows arched and slightly taken aback. I must have broken the tape loop.
“Yes. Do you remember him visiting you at Malacanang Palace?”
Imelda kicked into diplomatic mode. “I do remember him very well, because he was funny. He made us laugh, he made us happy, he entertained us, and he was nice, and he was helpful, and he was everything that was positive despite of the fact of his disability. He was distorted, a dwarf, but he would make us laugh and make us happy. What a talent – to have almost nothing, and then to make people happy. I salute each and every one of them who make people happy, especially when they are so deprived.”
“Someone also suggested he was the embodiment of the Santo Nino [the Child Jesus],” I offered – it was in fact Imee’s quote, “that there was something otherworldly about him. Would you agree with that?” “I will not agree with that,” replied Imelda curtly, “but anyway, the fact that he was so small, that is a similarity to that. But maybe the spirit of Godliness, of what is positive, was with Weng Weng, so perhaps. But I will not go that far with the similarity with our spiritual God to a disabled boy. Sometimes imagination…and as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I feel there are limits to all of this, but he was fun, he gave a lot of happiness and joy and laughter to everyone, despite of the fact he had so much disability. He was not even typical…his arms and feet were so proportional, and everything…he could mean so much to everyone. For those with so little, to give so much, I surely admired him and loved him for that.”
I remember thinking what an extraordinary soliloquy to come from Madame Imelda herself. And for the record, I never asked her once about her shoes. When you’re granted an opportunity to confront a flesh-and-blood version of a myth, why would you buy into the caricature or the cliché?
She then invited us to eat cake on her veranda while she changed outfits. Just then a covers band’s opening bars of “Africa” by Toto drifted across the canal from the covered sports centre. The song haunts me every trip to Manila, and here in Batac, Dani and I spluttered crumbs at the ironic setting. Imelda’s 83rd had truly begun. “Would you care to join me at my party?” she asked us.
“I hear the drums echoing tonight…”
Security escorted the five of us plus driver Cel (“You’re coming to dinner with us!”) through the entrance of Batac’s covered sports centre. A nice quiet table up the back, we figured. We figured WRONG. We continued past table after table of local dignitaries, politicians, mayors, bankers, grand old dames, the Toto cover, the basketball hoop covered in a blow-up of Imelda from the Fifties, and – to our amazement – into the VIP section, one table away from the Marcos family. Imelda made a grand entrance an hour later to a standing ovation – the emcee declared her “the most BEAUTIFUL woman in the world, our Mother Imelda!” – then posed at our table for some priceless photos, and introduced us to Imee’s children and a table of Chinese bankers as “the Press”. Cel tucked into the table of Chinese-inspired dishes, and gave a thumbs-up to a fellow jeepney driver seated on the bleachers set up for Batac’s poor along the side of the sports centre. The rest of us ate, sweated, downed one Lipton’s iced tea after another, and wondered when we were going to be escorted from the building as frauds. Press? Pressed between two tanks, more likely…
And then the festivities began. The live band was joined by line-dancing hoochie mamas in halter tops grinding away while the political elite of Ilocos Note boogied under the giant Imelda on the basketball court. Imelda herself joined crooner Anthony Castelo for a number or two, and made a long speech filled with references to her new Mothering Centres surrounding Batac to rapturous applause. Then came the spectacular dance numbers – with performing pasties, fresh from the previous month’s Empanada Festival. That’s right, dancing pasties. Jesus Crust Superstar. At some point my head exploded.
At the end of the evening came the most bizarre moment, an almost pagan ritual in which Imelda was seated on a wooden throne, and each guest was invited to hand her a single red rose. As I reached Imelda’s throne I leant over, kissed her on the cheek, handed her the prickly stem, and said in all seriousness, “Thank you for inviting me to your party.” “Let’s do this again tomorrow,” was her reply. I was stunned. Leaving the scene from The Wicker Man, we drove straight to the Cockhouse in Laoag in Cel’s jeepney for some medicinal Red Horses [strong beer brewed by San Miguel], wondering if anything would ever top the evening for sheer strangeness.
The last thing we expected the next morning was a call from the Marcos Mansion, hence the trip to the sand dunes. Lunch was at her son Bong Bong’s five star resort, a place so classy we each had a waiter standing behind us to wave the flies off our Greek salads.
It was then time for a personal guided tour of her home province. We veered off towards Cel’s jeepney…. and instead were asked to join Imelda in her bulletproof limousine bus.
I can only imagine how our bizarre convoy looked – a pickup truck, armed guards with M16s in front of us, a van with armed guards behind us, and Cel’s jeepney bringing up the rear. From inside the bus, Imelda kept up the commentary between micro-naps as we stopped at the Malacanang of the North just long enough for a single photo, drove past a golf club built for Ferdinand for his 60th birthday – snap! – did a loop around the oldest church in Ilocos Norte – snap! – and finally back to the Marcos Mansion, and the adjacent Marcos Museum, opened upon her return to the Philippines in 1993.
Covering the sides of the two-story building were huge Photoshopped charts outlining Imelda’s fascination with mysticism, the Philippines as the cosmic centre of the world, and the Marcos’ role as the Pinoy Adam and Eve. She even ordered one her aides to strip off a branch so she could use it in her lecture to point out her favourite figures from history – Evita Peron, Colonel Gaddafi… But all Dani and I saw was a sign pointing to the right: “MAUSOLEUM THIS WAY”. We looked at each other. “Surely not…”
Without warning we were being escorted into an enormous darkened concrete tomb, the only light illuminating a glass coffin containing the embalmed corpse of Ferdinand Marcos. Ferdinand passed away from multiple organ failure in Hawaii in 1989, only three years after People Power swept the Marcos family from Malacanang Palace, and after three decades his body is still on ice while Imelda petitions an unheeding Congress for a state funeral. From within the dinge, an unearthly Gregorian dirge battled the hum from the army of air-conditioners as we stood wordlessly for more than a minute around the waxen, refrigerated ex-President. Imelda suddenly motioned to her aides to grip her under each arm; Roy kept filming with his iPhone as Imelda was helped over the rows of funereal flowers to plant a lipstick rose on the side of Ferdinand’s glass box. At that very moment Roy felt a tap on his shoulder, and Imelda’s aide asked him to “stop taking photos”.
“Not a problem,” said Roy in low, reverential tone, “I think we have all we need.”