Friday, June 12, 2015

Rizal Weather (or: Undressing Josephine Bracken)--an interview with writer and historian Austin Coates


Belatedly for Independence Day, an old article (note: any factual errors are strictly my own responsibility)

Rizal Weather (or: Undressing Josephine Bracken)  

WE WERE IN THE CHAMPAGNE ROOM of the Manila Hotel, talking to Austin Coates, Rizal biographer, novelist, historian, and a former high-level official of Hongkong. "We" were film director Tikoy Aguiluz, Monica Feria, managing editor of Graphic Magazine, George Asiniero, and myself. The weather outside was a blustery grey, sheets of rain splattering against the hotel windows.

"Rizal Weather," Coates declares. He was a neat, elderly man with immaculate white hair. "We were in Heidelberg one morning when we looked out the window and saw that the sky was pouring. We had plans in the afternoon, now the trip was spoiled. And--God--quarter past two, just when we were prepared to go, the sun came out. It always happens. The rest of the day was a glorious afternoon, and I remember we loved the sunset. When we got back at 6:30 it was pouring again. It rained for another three weeks. There you are--Rizal Weather." 


Tikoy started the interview in earnest: "We used several sources for our film on Dapitan: one of them is Leon Ma. Guerrero. We felt he was writing from the Church point of view, however." 

"Personally," I said, "I feel your biography was the best written of the lot." 

"Yes. Leony. Yes." Coates said. It took me a moment to realize "Leony" was his nickname for Leon Guerrero. "The trouble with Leony is that his book isn't a book about Rizal; it's really a book about Leony." He gives a delighted laugh, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "Trust me, he was that type of man. You'll find that Rizal isn't born until about page 3." 

"His writing is, uh, a bit dry," I ventured after Coates had finished chuckling. 

"The strange thing is," Coates said, "in person he's an ebullient man. Very nice, very engaging companion." 

"We're curious about Bracken," Tikoy continued. "We found a lot of fake manuscripts sold by people to make money. We weren't successful in tracing anyone who knew her." 

"There isn't anyone left alive who knew her," Coates said. "I've interviewed literally everyone who did know her, back in 1950. There's nobody left. There were very few even in the '50's. Her adopted father, Taufer--" 

"He was American, wasn't he?" Tikoy asked. 

"He had an American passport. He got one on the basis of his parents emigrated from Germany. His brother was a much nicer, much more reliable person. George Taufer was an out-and-out womanizer. And he had syphilis as well. That was why Rizal couldn't treat him at all." 

"You're the only one that mentions that Bracken was Eurasian." Tikoy said. "All the rest say she was Irish. Guerrero says she was Irish." 

"Oh she liked to say she was Irish, and her father definitely was Irish. You see, James Bracken was on the verge of retirement--he was an army soldier. He had gotten a girl into trouble; she gave him a daughter. He was stuck with finding somewhere to put her. It was a question of honor, an unwritten code with the British that after whatever you've done the child should be well looked after. And afterwards, the same thing probably happened the next year! He was that type of person. When Elizabeth Bracken died, it was Taufer who suggested that Josephine be registered as Bracken's legitimate daughter. The army had no way of knowing that his wife was dead; the death of a soldier's wife was recorded London, not Hongkong, and that was how he was able to pull it off. But not in the cathedral register; the cathedral register is true." 

Tikoy asked: "There's a story that the Rizal family, who lived in Hongkong, and the Taufers , living next to each other, knew each other." "That's part of the Josephine myth," Coates replies. His eyes roll. "Oh, the myths about Josephine!" 

"What about Manuela Orlac?" Tikoy asked. 

"Manuela Orlac was a carrier. The Dominicans were always plotting against the government. They didn't use a telegraph service; they used Manuela as carrier, and there have been others. She would carry messages from Hongkong, hidden here," he indicated where she would hide the note between her breasts, "so that the Governor-General wouldn't be able to see it. The Dominicans are such unmitigated bastards!" 

"They were the invisible government at that time," Tikoy said. 

"They were rather visible too," Coates said. "Syphilis and all." 

"How did Taufer contract syphilis?" Tikoy asked. 

"You see, there were three women in Taufer's life," Coates said. "Two were actual wives. And the circumstances of the wives' death, I hear, was that both wives were syphilitic." 

"We heard that Rizal was set up by sending Bracken to Dapitan," Tikoy said. 

"Maria, Rizal's sister, suspected," Coates said. "I think everybody did. Trinidad was absolutely sure; you sensed this sort of thing." 

"What was Orlac's relation to Bracken? Was Bracken like an agent?" Tikoy asked. 

Coates thought about it. "No. Josephine was too simple." 

"About Josephine's miscarriage," Tikoy continued. "They say that Bracken miscarried because she was confronted with the rumor that she was working for the friars. What do you think of that?" 

Coates frowned, then said carefully: "The Rizal family would know. They were there." 

"What about the marriage at Fort Santiago?" Tikoy asked. 

 "Did it ever happen?" I asked. "There were documents that recorded it," Tikoy observed. 

Coates shook his head; his answer was forceful and emphatic: "At no account whatever, in whatever circumstances, under Spanish military law, would the wife be allowed into the prison on the day of a convict's execution." Tikoy nodded. "How about the priests?" 

Coates eyes rolled. "Ooo," he said, which made all of us grin. 

"No? Never?" asked Tikoy. 

"Never. Anyway, the prison was largely dominated by freemasons." Rizal was a mason, which meant--if Coates was right--that the prison guards would tend to be on his side. 

"Oh," Tikoy said. "There's a story that Josephine, after Rizal died, went to Hongkong and contacted the Freemasons there. She went to the masons one night, told the story of her and Rizal. We have the name of the Englishman mason, I don't know if you've ever heard of it." 

Coates frowned. He leaned forward in his most serious manner "The Josephine myth--" Tikoy laughed. Coates smiled. "There's no end to it. No end to it, really. The number of people who ask 'where is Josephine's monument--tear it away!' Oh, dear." 

"She died in Hongkong," Tikoy said. 

"Yes, as a pauper." 

"Do you know where?" I asked. 

 "In the colonial cemetery, somewhere. There is no record of a pauper's grave." 

"Do you have any record of her getting Rizal's property?" Tikoy asked. 

"She tried to get control of the library." 

"She never got it," Tikoy said. "She wasn't his wife." 

"That's exactly it. When she got to Hongkong, she wrote to Jose Maria Basa, Rizal's friend. She lived with the Basa family for about two--three months. And then, unknown to the Basas, her adopted half-sister, Sarah Taufer, returned from the Philippines with her husband. He was English. They were truly down and out, terribly poor. That Sunday afternoon, in the middle of August, 1897, she slipped out--and was never seen again. No member of the Basa family ever heard anything about her. 

"The next thing that happened was that a solicitor's letter arrived, saying 'The widow of the late Jose Rizal required possession of his library.' Which was in Basa's safekeeping. Basa went to see the solicitor. He asked: 'Are you sure this is the real widow of the late Jose Rizal?' It would have been very easy for the solicitor to find out; all he had to do was contact the Cardinal of Cebu. When Josephine heard that, she changed tactics...she invented a nonexistent will, signed by Rizal, and wrote to Blumentritt, asking his help in rescuing the library. 

Monica spoke up. "What did she want to do with the library?" 

"She didn't want it, it was Sarah's husband. Sarah's husband was English mind you, and he was employed as a godown nightwatchman--a job done by very poor Indians." 

"So why would he want the library--?" Monica asked. 

"Money. They were desperate. They lived in a cubicle. A truly ghastly place, four houses in an awful location. One was a sailor's guest house. That was where Josephine met Abad, her husband. He was a throwout. His family, who owned the Farmacia Abad in Binondo, a reputable firm, they didn't want anything to do with him." 

"So the Abad Josephine married was a disowned Abad" said Monica. 

"He was playing a highwayman's game with his family. When Josephine was having her baby, he was writing his family: either his family sent him enough money for him, Jospehine and the child, or he would come home. And while Josephine was pregnant, the men of the Abad family would go back and forth by steamer from Manila to Hongkong, desperately trying to keep this terrible man from coming back to Manila. They eventually came to a compromise. They agreed that Josephine and the child would be received by the family, but not Abad. Abad was to stay in Hongkong. 

"All this very nearly stymied the marriage. Josephine was married when she was eight months gone with child. The child was born three weeks after the marriage. The marriage picture of Abad and Josephine was taken--you can see she was not pregnant--after the baby was born. The picture was taken in a Chinese shop, and they were both wearing hired clothes, which were hired from the Chinese photographer. It's a very sad, terrible story." 

We were silent for a moment. "What puzzles me" Tikoy finally said, "is that when Rizal left Dapitan, he left things with this friend and that, but nothing to Josephine." 

"She was going with him. She would be looked after by his family." 

"He never planned to die," Tikoy said. Coates nodded. 

Monica spoke: "You wrote your book on Rizal thirty years ago." 

Coates smiled. "Did I really?" 

"My question is--now, today, is there anything you would have written differently?" 

Coates sat up. "Oh, what an interesting question. No. No--no. Except there was a mistake--no, two. Once a year the galleons came bearing silver, not gold. Because the Chinese wouldn't trade except in silver." He started leafing through a copy of the book for the other mistake. 

Monica persisted. "What about the things that have been discovered since?" "No, I'll tell you why. There's been a great deal more discovered since about him, yes. But you see, a biography, to be readable, must have life. You ask yourself: did such and such a thing that happened reveal anything about Rizal? If it didn't, cut it out. Because it's an enormously documented life. I can get quite ruthless on that sort of thing." He spread the book open. "Yes, here we are: 'Early in 1898, after the death of her adopted father she returned to her birthplace.' That's not true. She returned in 1897, after spending three weeks in Cavite." 

"She joined the Revolution," Tikoy said. 

"She was up there for about three weeks," Coates said. 

"Not three years?" Tikoy asked. 

"She was completely useless. Well, with the life she was used to, she couldn't adjust. I mean, carrying water from a well--where she came from, water came out of a tap. Josephine had never seen a field until she reach the Philippines. She was there for 21 days, then Paciano (Rizal's elder brother) got her back." 

I ventured a question. "You wrote in your book that Taufer attempted to molest Josephine--" 

"Oh, absolutely, there's no question about that Taufer." 

"How far did he get?" 

Coates was stopped completely on his tracks. "Why--why I haven't any idea. Josephine, she was scared of him..." 

Tikoy tactfully intervened. "Rizal was her saviour then," he observed. 

"Yes." 

"I heard a story that she was a Shanghai dancer...entertainer...uh..." 

"There was no such thing as European women entertainers in either Shanghai or Hongkong. Only Chinese." Coates said firmly. 

"But she was Eurasian?" 

"Who would see a Eurasian dancer? Singing and dancing Chinese entertainers, yes. No, there's no possibility, except--" Coates grew thoughtful. "She had a little way about her. Those 'come hither' eyes, see. That's a description of her. You can see why Filipinos...got this idea of her character." 

"Did Rizal love her?" Tikoy asked. 

"Yes, he did, there was no question." 

"But he fell in love with all the women in his life." Tikoy pointed out. 

"He was himself attractive to women and attracted to them." 

Tikoy changed tack. "If you were approached by a producer to write a screenplay about Rizal, how would you go about it?" I had to smile: it wasn't a subtle question, but it was interesting. 

"I would never write it. It isn't a movie thing." 

"Why not?" 

"Well... there isn't a romantic thing in it...it ends up in a dreadful trial and death. It's an intellectual life, far too complicated." 

Tikoy persisted: "How would you bring him to the masses, to ordinary men?" 

"Well, if you can take bits of Rizal, incidents...a short interlude, some incident..." 

"Like Dapitan..." I offered. 

Coates nodded. "Like Dapitan. But you see it's something an artist wouldn't like...there's no action..." 

"I'd like to see what kind of character would you give Rizal" Tikoy said. "Is he a reluctant hero, the indio who's equal to any Westerner, the Renaissance Man?" 

"Was he self-absorbed?" I asked. 

Coates looked besieged. He frowned. "He was absolutely--European." 

Tikoy nodded. "He felt he was their equal." 

"I don't think it would have occurred to him that he wasn't their equal," Coates said. "Teodora Alonza, his mother...was a great, grand lady. They were superior to any Spaniards they came across. The Rizal family was superior to those ghastly friars...terrible people who stank of sweat." 

Monica asked: "How did you come to learn about Rizal?" 

"February, 1950. I came to Manila, leading a HK delegation to the Jaycee World Congress. I was staying here, in Manila Hotel. I got up early in the morning, and saw this monument--the Rizal monument in fact. I went out to look at it, find out who it was. I remember I saw that name on a postage stamp when I was a schoolboy. And I thought it was a Latin American dictator! 

"I knew Mahatma Gandhi. I knew the Tagore Family. I never met the poet, he died three years before I met anybody. I knew the Sun-Yat-Sen family all along. We were very close indeed. And I thought: this was absurd. Now here was evidently a very important person, and I knew nothing about him. So I disappeared into the bookshops that morning and came away with everything I could find about Rizal." 

The rest of the interview was small talk. Tikoy showed Coates pictures of the film he was doing, titled Dapitan, about Rizal and Bracken and their life together. He showed Coates an Asiaweek photo of the lead actor, Albert Martinez, and asked if he looked the part. 

Coates looked at the photograph. "His nose is a bit sharp," he pointed out. "But--yes. Oh yes. And he has Rizal's stance, his posture." 

 Monica had one more question: "Why Rizal? You mentioned Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Sun Yat Sen in your book. Why spend sixteen years of your life writing about this man?' 

Coates' final answer was as direct and illuminating and lively as his prose. "So much has been written about Mahatma Gandhi. As for Tagore, everything he writes reveals volumes about himself. Dr. Sun Yat Sen is difficult to write about; he's such a complex, contradictory character I would imagine only a Chinese can do it properly. Nowadays, I'd add Mao Tse Tung, who's just as famous. 

"Rizal had ideas and achievements as important as they had, but he's relatively less known." Coates shrugged and smiled. "I thought I'd do something about it." 

From The Manila Chronicle, September 96

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