Originally published in Edition Two (2023) as part of the As It Was column.
Do you possess an item worth its weight in gold?
An item whose monetary value is not high, but to you is priceless?
Perhaps it could be a ticking timepiece that once belonged to your grandfather.
Maybe a weathered image of the Blessed Mother, its edges soothed by your mother's hands for decades past.
It could be something that harkens back to a place or time when you felt pure joy or wonder.
A chipped piece of rock from the Grand Canyon, or a lucky sea shell plucked by seven-year-old you.
For me, amongst my multitudes of trinkets and toys, it is a book. Its pages have browned. Its typeface is reminiscent of an old typewriter. But its cover remains stark in colour and contrast. The book is entitled “I saw the Fall of the Philippines” by Carlos P. Romulo.
To understand why this book has etched itself permanently onto my heart and soul, we must travel back in time.
I have always been a collector. Whether it be stickers, shells, or old vinyl records, I am all-consuming. This hunger for accumulation is not only reserved for the tangible joys a band of gold with a heart-shaped stone or a dusty Dick Haymes record can bring, but also for the phantom of the past.
The older I get, the more I grow inclined to the who, what and when of days gone by. Growing up in the Philippines, the subject of history was often overlooked. The fields of business, commerce, and STEM were the most lauded, deeming the humanities “unprofitable.” Having gone to an international school for the majority of my primary and secondary school years, my peers and I were taught world history, Philippine history often reduced to a short study unit or footnote in a handout. It was not as if the school did not make any effort to educate and amplify our harrowing and heroic stories of days gone by, but it was still evident that we were on our own in illuminating most of the shadows of our nation's past. When I received my high school diploma, I knew more about Ancient Greece, Medieval Europe, and the British parliament than I did my own country’s history or system of governance.
It’s a disheartening feeling, knowing more about a foreign land's culture, history and significance than your own. Not realising that my own country’s history was just as fruitful and flowing. Unknowing of the glory and gore which occurred on the nation's shores, I took for granted the sacrifices of those who toiled to secure the nation's freedom and future.
It was only when I moved abroad for university did I realise this lacking within me. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Thus began my journey to uncover who I am as a Filipino, and to proudly state that I am from the Philippines.
This has been a slow but fruitful process, one built upon a small but growing collection of literature regarding Philippine history. However, I’ve noticed that the authorship of books I have found has been dominated by foreigners. While this is not a predicament in itself- these authors have poured countless hours of research and writing, seeking to illuminate a dark time in history- I have been in ardent search for literature written by and for Filipinos.
You can imagine my surprise when, from the corner of my eye, I spotted the word “Philippines” in a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne.
I doubted myself for a second. “What are the odds that actually says what I think it says?” I wondered to myself. But lo and behold, there it was. Sandwiched between the end of the bookcase and a large hardcover, a piece of Philippine history rested. It looked diminutive and unassuming amongst its surroundings titles about Gallipoli, Iwo Jima, and Vietnam. As I pulled it from its shelf I let out an audible gasp: the book was nearly perfect, both in content and physicality. The seed of doubt was replanted. “It’s probably a reprint,” I thought. As I thumbed through the first pages of the book looking for its publication details, I was once again floored. The date was 1943.
I couldn’t fathom that in a dank and dusty bookshop a continent away from home was a book older than my grandmother, older than the modern Republic itself.
I’m not sure what overcame me but I felt tears well in my eyes. I couldn’t believe it. Compounding my dumbfoundedness was the eloquence and detail that the author, Romulo, imbued into the book. It details the Fall of the Philippines during the Japanese invasion. A linear tale of destruction, desperation, and determination condensed into a single volume.
Who knew a small, dusty book would spark so much emotion in me on a winter's day? How could it be worth its weight and gold and remain unappreciated for years? Yet there it was, having waited in silence for who knows how long until the day one stray soul, in search of their identity, rediscovered its value.