Poems, some used in songs

Surfing in Ayoke Island, Philippines
Poetry usually arrives before a perfect wave to surf.

I wrote poems before discovering that I could use them as lyrics to my songs.

This is a collection of the poems I’ve written from the time I tried to describe my first crush poetically until I attempted to capture special moments with words, Pablo Neruda style.

Worn-out Levi’s jeans
Your dusty tattered Mojo
Beneath your worn-out Levi's jeans
Topped with your white, unpressed Hanes
Perfect for your untangled silky
Pony-tailed hair
Enticing me

To listen to your stories
Not found on cable TV
Might be found on tabloid 
And local news
But not as convincing as a fact
As how you reveal

Had it been on your rugged
But explicitly neat appearance
On your strict articulation 
That impressed me much

Or on how your eyes revel your sight
As you speak of your punto de vista
That amused me and gave interest
In this naive, but confident mind

How a vegan restaurant in Singapore tries to fight cancer

Along the tourist-flocked Chinatown Food Street in Singapore, a long-established restaurant hails potential customers to get inside with its free spiritual books in English and Chinese, old tapes and CDs with Chinese labels.

Nothing in its facade is delicious. A menu of three dishes handwritten in Chinese and English on a chalk board: BROWN RICE WITH FOUR VEGETABLES, SOUP AND PASTA.

If not with the stickers of positive ratings from popular travel companies or the book that you take for free, you wouldn’t get in.

Unless, you’re vegan.

What is veganism? According to The Vegan Society, it is “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

What is common among vegans is the plant-based diet, avoiding animal meat and by-products such as dairy, eggs and honey. Vegetarians also avoid animal meat but still eat some animal by-products.

Inside the restaurant, there are more shelves of tapes, CDs, books and pamphlets about Buddhism, spirituality, meditation, the story of underworld, and the Dhamma, and symbolic instruments. And another chalk board of the menu.

At the edge of the counter, a bunch of chopsticks, spoons and some bottles of condiments. About 10 small wooden square tables each with four stools are arranged neatly. Posters of meaningful sayings, an altar of a Buddha figure the one with multiple arms adorn the walls.

Is this really a restaurant? Despite the absence of burning incense, nothing smells like food in this place. But, before a customer could imagine the menu or choose a table, a tall skinny man asks from his chair, “What’s your order?”

Adrian Seow relays the order in Chinese to his father, who will then go to the kitchen and comes out with a plate or bowl of a dish. The rest is self-service, such as getting a glass of water from a dispenser or cold drinks in the fridge, utensils, and even putting them all to a basin for washing after eating.

The chef, his mother Wong, is leisurely watching television, sitting on an elevated platform at the corner also surrounded with packed bookshelves.


“She is the owner, not me,” Adrian says and takes a spoonful of his soup while surfing the internet on his tablet.

Wong, a petite woman with shoulder length hair and humble smile in lieu of her limited English, conquered leukemia 22 years ago and at the same time opened up the Ci Yan Organic Vegetarian Health Food.

Upon learning that she had Stage 3 cancer, Wong swore to survive and dedicate the rest of her life serving other people. Nobody convinced her to be vegan, neither her friends nor religion, as she adheres with the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It was after her bone marrow transplant that Wong could only eat certain foods and she realized that vegetables are actually much better for her health.

When she decided to be vegan, it was hard to look for organic vegetables and fruits during that time, so opened up a vegan restaurant to provide healthy meals for other people.

“What you eat is important”, says Wong, advocating that being vegan or vegetarian does not mean healthy. “At the end of the day, a healthy mind is more important.”

“It’s not just about changing your diet, but having a reason to live,” Andrew says, who was vegan for three years long before his mother’s diagnosis. “I’m not a vegan anymore, but I always make sure to have a balanced diet.” In the last 11 years, Andrew has helped Wong manage the restaurant, where he had most of his meals. “The question is not about why you got cancer but how are you gonna fight it. Perfect balance is having good nutritional food with a healthy mind,” he says.

Outside Wong’s place, the Chinatown Food Street is teeming with food stalls and restaurants, cooking Singapore’s best traditional dishes. The air is redolent with barbecue smoke.

The Mothers Who Fled Marawi

By Lorie Ann Cascaro
Marawi-evacuees-mothers-babies-newborn-war Waiting for their relief goods at Saguiaran municipal hall on Oct. 19, 2017, Anisa Ibrahim from Brgy. Rorogagus Proper, Marawi City, worries her 11-month old daughter is malnourished. (Lorie Ann Cascaro)

Seven months pregnant, Widad Batabor was bleeding profusely when she left Marawi City on her 28th birthday. It was May 23, the day President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, after the Islamic State-inspired Maute group took over sections of the city on the same day.

“I just wanted to save my baby before the bombings get worse,” said Batabor five months after the attack, with four-month-old baby Bakwit in her arms.

Marawi-evacuees-donation-women-war A woman evacuee receives a relief food pack at the Saguiaran municipal hall, Lanao del Sur, on Oct. 19, 2017. Distribution of relief donations at the evacuation center happened once a week. (Lorie Ann Cascaro)

Batabor remembered how she left home that day. Except for the intermittent sounds of gunfire, she thought her neighborhood was quiet. But as she went out, she discovered that the streets were crammed with residents leaving their houses — elderly people in wheelchairs, pregnant women and children on their feet, and a long queue of stranded cars.

Continue reading this article on The Diplomat.

Gawad Urian nominee Baboy Halas captures to save Mindanao tribal ways

By Lorie Ann Cascaro

It is more than perfecting the crisp sounds of trodden grasses and dead leaves, burbling water on river rocks and the wailings of a wild boar concealed in the remaining rainforest of Maharlika in Marilog District of Davao City.

A Gawad Urian nominee for Best Picture, Baboy Halas (Wailings of the forest) 2016 furthers its deep commitment to eternalize the cultures and tales of the Lumads or indigenous people in Mindanao. For the Davao filmmakers, it is an opportunity to reach a wider audience to help them retell the story.

It is also nominated for Best Sound (Willie Apa & Charlie Daclan), Best Production Design (Joel Geolamen), Best Cinematography (Raphael Meting and Mark Limbaga), and Best Director (Bagane Fiola).

The first Matigsalug film that was critically acclaimed by the most prestigious award-giving body of the country, Baboy Halas is the fruit of teamwork, especially with special participation of the tribe members themselves.

Bagane Fiola, who conceptualized the story, says his team was very lucky that the community adopted them and embraced the project with all their hearts. “They understand our advocacy to preserve their traditional practices and spirituality. We might not see them anymore in the next five years.”

The Lumad actors are the best representation of the film, Fiola says. He cites the protagonist Mampog, acted by the last hunter in Maharlika, who worries that his hunting skills may no longer be passed on to the young, as agriculture is gradually claiming the forest.

The filmmakers value their experience and moments shared with the community as already a form of award. They had lived with the tribe that is still very close to nature, performing rituals and prayers before they began a shoot.

It was a give-and-take. Fiola recalls a screening in the city cinema last December, when the Lumads were so happy and amazed to watch a movie in a theater which might be their first time. Let alone see themselves as the cast on a big screen.

Gathering stories from their immersions in Lumad communities for documentary video projects, Fiola and his team have committed to capture their traditions and translate their dreams and aspirations in feature films. He gained confidence to pitch the story for the QCinema International Festival grant last year from their growing relationship with the Lumads.

The team had two datu or tribe leaders as consultants.

“When we arrived in the community, we are not filmmakers but cultural workers, as we listen to them and learn their ways,” says Fiola. #

This article is published on the Mindanao Times. 

Local short films gain interests 

Locally produced short films have gradually permeated the interest of cinephiles, as the Davao Ngilngig Films (DNF) showcased products of its last years’ festival in a school tour dubbed Pasalidahay around the region.

“As long as there are people who commit themselves to make local films, there is always an option to see them,” said Edwin Oscar Gutierrez, Jr., teacher and school paper adviser of The Mover at Tagum City National High School.

“People will watch them, if they are of a quality worth their time, effort and perhaps, money,” he added.

The DNF, established in 2010 by young and aspiring Davao filmmakers, invites students to join its film workshops and submit their outputs for the festivals.

It aims to preserve and portray “gruesome or awesome” tales and urban legends in the country. It is presented by Malagos Garden Resort and supported by Morning Light Art Gallery and Shop, JCI Kadayawan, and Alpha Phi Omega Fraternity as Minor Sponsors.

Using Bisaya in films helps preserve the dialect and culture, LazaroSuello, Jr., Media Arts facilitator/adviser at Tagum City National Comprehensive High School, said during a film screening at the school’s mini library last Friday.

He encourages his students to make films in Bisaya or Cebuano, citing that such are widely spoken in Visayas and Mindanao.

This article is published on Sunstar Davao. 

‘Mga Buhay na Apoy’ smolders hearts and minds

by Lorie Ann Cascaro

“Mga Buhay na Apoy” (Breath of Fire), not only moved the viewers on its opening night on Oct. 2 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila, but also triggered a philosophical discourse, as they sympathized with the characters’ struggles.

It explores the intersection between love and hatred; faith and religion; cultural preservation and modernization; and, past and present.

The play also portrays the prevailing colonial mentality among Filipinos, such that fluency in English corresponds with a higher social status. For some people, being familiar or well-adapted to American culture helps to ensure a more promising future in the United States or Canada.

Written and directed by Kanakan Balintagos, formerly known as Auraeus Solito, and first prize winner of the 2015 Palanca Awards for full-length play, Mga Buhay na Apoy tells about the reunion of a broken family in Manila.

Born in Palawan, Soledad Santos, the matriarch acted by Irma Adlawan, reconciles with her two children, Aurora Alba and Aran, performed by Karen Gaerlan and Russell Legaspi. They have been indifferent after Soledad broke up with their father and became violent to them.

Calm and reserved, Soledad first appeared waiting for Aurora, who left several years ago to escape the negative atmosphere enveloping the household.

The maids, Yaya and Gusing, acted by Peewee O’hara and Doray Dayao, are preparing a sumptous dinner for Aurora’s homecoming. Soledad’s two sisters, Lili and Selmah, played by Carol Bello and Malou Crisologo, and their families joined the celebration.

Aran spends most of his time painting inside the greenhouse, where nobody dares to enter. Nonchalant to his mother, he is talkative and bubbly with Aurora.

The dinner was lively as they shared mythical stories and collective memories of Palaw’ans, the family’s tribe in Palawan.

But at bedtime, their family secrets are revealed, and Aran, who was the last to know, will eventually accept them.

Suddenly, Soledad appears in a black night dress, sleepwalking, and tells her nightmare while in a trance.

Irma Adlawan as Soledad Santos acts superbly when she was in a trance, while her family tried to calm her down. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz
Irma Adlawan as Soledad Santos acts superbly when she was in a trance, while her family tried to calm her down. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz


Soledad’s struggles highlights the issue of violence against women, as she was raped first by a governor in Palawan, and then by her husband. As a result, she turned physically abusive towards her children and servants.

Their abundant lifestyle shattered after he left, alongside her relationship to their children.

But her active participation in a charismatic movement “saved her” from madness, according to Yaya, who invited her to the group.

Clearly stated in the whole duration of the play, their Christian beliefs are being challenged by the family’s cultural tradition. For instance, Aran says that humans came from the sun or fire, while Soledad insists from Adam and Eve in the Bible.

For Lili’s husband, intoxicated Kuya Benj, played by Jonathan Tadioan, wherever humans originated, what matters is that he’s alive.

Aran calls himself, “nakikibakang buhay na apoy,” a struggling breath of fire, when asked by Aurora about his condition.

Russell Legaspi as Aran climbs on the mango tree that has only one fruit. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz
Russell Legaspi as Aran climbs on the mango tree that has only one fruit. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz

Superb acting

The cast members performed superbly, especially Adlawan during the trance scene by showing contrasting characters.

Her character was the most that developed, followed by Aran, finally showing his utmost concern for her mother when she was in a frenzy.

Although he does not need to be strongly emotional in the story, Aran excelled in portraying his role that seems to mirror the young Balintagos.

It’s not only because of the character’s costume, wearing shirts of ethnic patterns and accessories, but also his energy and enthusiasm, especially when explaining how painting is similar to giving birth.

Formerly a baliyan or healer of the tribe, Lili is chanting in Palaw’an dialect that sets the general mood of the play. Bello’s powerful voice in accapella reverbrated in the whole theater.

She also performs a ritual during Soledad’s trance. Such ritual is similar to the one that was shown in Balintagos’ second movie of a Palawan trilogy, “Busong.”

As the curtains opened, the chanting began, while Lhorvie Nuevo appeared as a woman with long hair that touches the ground, while Aran was asleep. She was his recurring vision, as if calling him to discover his roots.

Kanakan’s home

With a big mango tree in the middle, the stage, designed by Paolo Alcazaren, almost resembles the backyard of the director’s abode in Sampaloc. The set captured a feeling of being in a mini forest or garden amid the bustling metropolis, which I also experienced when I visited there.

Changing the set in the second half of the play gives a different perspective of the house with the front being inside the greenhouse.

It was crucial towards the end, as Soledad, Aurora, Selmah, Lili and Topaz, Selmah’s daughter played by Kyrie Samodio, look at the audience while describing Aran’s imaginary painting on the wall.

Aran eventually goes to Palawan to follow his destiny.

Balintagos, the director of the movie “Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros,” considered the play as very personal.

It’s not only because it tells about the mythical stories that he has deeply known and grew up with, but also explains why he changed his name, which literally means “hunter of truth” for Palaw’ans.

This article was first published on NewsDesk Asia.

Filipino migrants welcome Ip’s apology, call for better treatment

Occupy Central on National Day by Lorie Ann Cascaro

By Lorie Ann Cascaro

HONG KONG — Filipino migrant workers accepted the apology of Hong Kong’s legislative council member, Regina Ip, for her controversial comments on Filipino domestic workers. They also wanted improvements in their conditions and better treatment of all migrant workers here.

GABRIELA Hong Kong, United Filipinos in Hong Kong and BAYAN Hong Kong and Macau said they hope that Ip should avoid discrimination in her speech and writing, in a statement Friday. She shall, instead, “promote the rights of migrants and build a just and inclusive Hong Kong,” they added.

On the same day, Ip issued an apology statement, saying that she did not make the sexist or racist accusations in her article published in Chinese-language newspaper, Ming Pao, on April 17.

She wrote about complaints that she had received from foreign women here against Filipina domestic workers “seducing” their husbands.

She concluded her article by saying, “Beside discussing about the inappropriate behaviors of employers, should foreign media cover more stories of the issues about these Filipino domestic helpers becoming the sex resources of Hong Kong’s male expats?”

The article was posted on her Facebook page and blog that was later removed as reactions sparked, including from the Filipino community.

The sole purpose of the article, she said, “was to raise a question as to whether there is a widespread exploitation of Filipino maids in Hong Kong and to express my concern.”

Ip’s statement followed a protest rally of Filipino groups outside her office on Thursday. The Philippine Consulate General expressed concern over Ip’s “unfortunate choice of words,” adding that it did not reflect the public sentiments, in a statement on April 20.

Hoping that the incident will not happen again, the Filipino groups also challenged Ip to make sure that her apology would reach the broadest number of Hong Kong people.

The groups also wanted the Hong Kong government to enact laws upholding rights of migrant “as women and as workers” and reform policies that “put migrant domestic workers in a condition vulnerable to abuses and discriminatory practices.”

The city has over 173,000 Filipino domestic workers, receiving a monthly salary of 4,110 Hong Kong dollars ($530).

The Hong Kong government requires them to live and work only in their employers’ residences, making them vulnerable for long hours of work and domestic violence and abuse, according to Mission for Migrant Workers.

The Filipino community also call for strong implementation of anti-discrimination ordinances and for multiculturalism education to be “more extensive and intensive.”

They will pursue their planned action on April 26 in Central to echo the “message of non-discrimination and social inclusion throughout Hong Kong.

Hong Kong domestic workers want to junk ‘excessive’ fees


This article is first published by The Diplomat.

By Lorie Ann Cascaro

HONG KONG — Feliza Guy Benitez, 58, first came to Hong Kong in 1993 as a domestic worker. She was to be paid a monthly salary at 3,200 Hong Kong dollars ($413). She thought a contract of two years would be enough to help her family back home. But the family faced a series of financial problems, coaxing her to sign a new contract after another.

“I didn’t plan to stay here longer,” says Feliza Guy Benitez, 58, pushing a stroller in Kowloon with the one-year-old daughter of her fifth employer. Sturdy but short, the stroller’s handles come up to her chest.

Over 22 years, her salary has increased a total of HK$810, from HK$3,200 to HK$4,110 this year.

“Almost all of my salary went to my family,” she recalls, citing the hospitalization of her mother, who died in 2005. “When my mother died, I had no choice but to re-loan because I needed a huge amount for all the expenses.”

Then her grieving father’s health worsened, leading to another round of expenses for medication and a caregiver, until he finally died in 2011.

After supporting her family during their trying times, Benitez can now start saving up for herself.  But she has to renew her contract one last time to access the state pension.

Benitez was among 105,410 Filipino domestic workers that arrived here in 1993, as recorded by the Hong Kong Immigration Department. In 2012, their population stood at nearly 156,000, about 98 percent of them women, according to the Mission for Migrant Workers.

Before they can leave the Philippines, overseas Filipino workers had to pay up to Php150,000 ($3,400) in fees imposed by the government and recruitment agencies, says Dolores Balladarez-Pelaez, chairwoman of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong (UNIFIL).

Some 200 Filipino domestic workers, representing at least 100 organizations, called for “unnecessary” state-imposed fees to be eliminated, at a national consultation held here on March 29. The meeting was organized by the UNIFIL and the alliance of Filipino migrant workers, Migrante Hong Kong chapter.

Different government agencies earn a total of about Php21 billion (or more than $470 million) a year from the 5,500 Filipinos who leave the country each day to work overseas, notes Balladarez-Pelaez.

Fees are paid for police clearances, the National Bureau of Investigation, electronic passports, membership with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), a terminal fee, Philippine Health Insurance, pre-departure orientation seminar (PDOS), Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), and Home Development Mutual Fund or Pag-IBIG Fund, among other things.

While in Hong Kong, Filipino domestic workers face more fees, such as annual renewal of the OWWA membership, contract authentication and verification, and overseas employment certificate.

Workers want the Philippine government to offer lifetime membership with the OWWA, to scrap the POEA processing fee, and to relax PDOS rules. They also want to remove the mandatory insurance, as the Hong Kong government already requires employers to pay insurance for their domestic workers.

To give strength to their demands, the meeting participants established the Network of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) Opposed to Excessive Government Fees, or NO FEE.

It is a revival of the Coalition Against Government Exaction (CAGE) in 1998, which was able to end some state fees through series of protest actions, says Eman Villanueva, secretary general of UNIFIL-Migrante Hong Kong.

CAGE was successful in its campaigns, Villanueva recalls, to reduce the passport fee from HK$510 to HK$435 and the processing fee from HK$500 to HK$87; to open the Philippine Consulate General office on Sundays; and to lighten the OWWA fee regulations. The coalition was also able to require officials, staff and personnel to wear identification cards at work, he added.

Currently the chairwoman of Filipino Migrant Workers Union, Benitez has taken an active part in campaigns of OFWs in Hong Kong throughout her years here.

Had her salaries been higher, she would not be signing more contracts before she could actually save money for herself, she says.

Hong Kong has more than 360,000 domestic workers, representing 15 percent of the city’s women workforce, according to MFMW.

They are also drivers of the economy, Villanueva says, but they have been excluded from society.

Each foreign domestic worker has two years of employment under the standard contract established by the Immigration Department in 1974, providing also a minimum wage for all domestic workers.

Their minimum allowable wage, which was set by the Hong Kong government to exclude foreign domestic workers from the statutory minimum wage, was lowered in both 1999 and 2003 due to the decline of the city’s economy.

“As the economy recovered throughout the 2000’s, increases in the MAW did not correspond with this new prosperity,” the MFMW, along with Asia Pacific Mission for Migrant Workers, said in its October 2013 study.

Most foreign domestic workers opted to stay longer by finding new employers or renewing their contracts, as they had not finished paying their debts or their obligations with their families.

Like most of them, Benitez wanted to go home and finally be with her family for good.

“But I don’t want to leave empty-handed,” she said, wiping away tears with her wrinkled, calloused hand.

Lorie Ann Cascaro is a journalist from the Philippines.