I just wrote a hot sex scene for Sugar Moon that prominently features a wooden Ah Tay bed. It definitely makes an impression:
Ben’s hips flattened against hers, pinning her shoulder against the bed post. He nudged Allie harder and harder against the wood until she felt the carved floral pattern tattoo her skin.
I bet you’re wondering what that would look like—the carved bed post, not the sex. You can use your imagination with the sex.
The elaborate four-poster Narra frame, with its intricately carved Art Nouveau posts, was the creation of Eduardo Ah Tay, an ethnic Chinese furniture maker in Binondo. The kalabasa, or squash-shaped, dome design became “a status symbol for the nineteenth century mestizo elite” in their bahay na bato houses.
Cheaper beds—versions not made by Ah Tay—had spiral posts. They were not as desirable as an Ah Tay but were still better than sleeping on the floor. However, if you were expecting a mattress on any of these platforms, think again.
“Look here, North,” the congressman said. “You gave us unmade rooms!”
Moss had checked the rooms himself. “What are you missing, sir?”
“Most of my bed!” Holt huffed. “Why, there isn’t a stitch of bedclothes on the blooming thing. Not even a mattress! I raised the mosquito-netting and found nothing but a bamboo mat.”
Holt’s confusion was based on a real story of an irate newcomer to the Hotel de Oriente. The rattan platform, mattress-less bed was known among Americans for being “springless, unyielding, and anything but comfortable,” or “an instrument of torture, a rack, an inspirer of insomnia.” Even Philippine Commissioner Dean Worcester called the Philippine bed “that serious problem.”
The real genius of the bed though was air flow. Woven rattan was both perforated and strong, which made it the go-to technique for a lot of local furniture, including the sillon chair. This ingenuous use of local materialskept you cool before the advent of air conditioning.
Eventually, Commissioner Worcester came to like the bed—he even regarded it a luxury of the tropics. Traveler Burton Holmes agreed the bed had been “unjustly ridiculed and maligned.” He said, “It is…perfectly adapted to local conditions, a bed evolved by centuries of experience in a moist, hot, insect-ridden tropic land, and from the artistic point of view is not unattractive.”
But don’t try to sleep on an original Ah Tay: not only might it be in delicate condition, but most are far too small. (Humans have gotten bigger—both taller and rounder—in the last 120 years.) There is a decent sized one at the Casa Consuelo Museum in Tiaong, Quezon, and its owners even claim that it—and everything in the house—is authentic. Or you can build yourself a modern-sized reproduction, complete with solid mattress frame, like at the Museo sa Parian in Cebu.
Either way, this is the type of bed where Allegra Potter will bring her handsome, six-foot-plus suitor, Ben Potter. This is where she will debauch him in Sugar Moon. Look for it in late 2017.
(The featured image is an architectural drawing by interior design student Marinelli Fabiona.)
What is the chief end of man?—to get rich. In what way?—dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must. Who is God, the one only and true? Money is God. God and Greenbacks and Stock—father, son, and the ghost of same—three persons in one; these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme…
—Mark Twain, in “The Revised Catechism,” printed in the New York Tribune on September 27, 1871
Twain didn’t hold back, especially not when criticizing society’s ills. In fact, he is the one who coined the term the “Gilded Age” to describe a time of conspicuous consumption, wealth disparity, and pervasive corruption. Sound familiar? In fact, esteemed economists (here and here) claim that we are smack dab in the middle of a new Gilded Age: the era of the one percenters.
The robber barons of Twain’s time were innovators, though, not fund managers. They were builders, notfirm-breakers. They were self-made men who harnessed the raw power of the industrial age: Carnegie casted the steel, Rockefeller drilled the oil, and Vanderbilt laid the railroad track. Though not of noble birth—far from it—they were still the new kings, and they lived like them.
I recently traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, where the Gilded Age rich of New York spent hundreds of millions of today’s dollars building “cottages” that they lived in for only 8-12 weeks in the summer. Let me say that again: the equivalent of $30-200 million on a house used two months out of the year! Yeah, that’s almost criminal.
These days, the houses of Newport’s Cliff Walk and Bellevue Avenue are open to the public. Crowds mill through The Breakers, but I actually prefer The Elms, which was built by coal tycoon Edward Julius Berwind. It seems more livable—or just more endearingly excessive.
Interestingly, the Berwinds were particularly fascinated with Asian art. While the Vanderbilts built Italian palazzos and French châteaux, the Berwinds were the ones who added mahjong and black lacquer wall panels to the mix.
An Asian touch was fitting since the Americans were not the only ones who lived large at the turn of the twentieth century. Prominent Filipino ilustrados had risen to the top by virtue of their education, their enterprise, and their mestizo connections, and they had their own gilded treasures, as the León Gallery’s recent exhibition in Manila shows.
The gallery was able to repatriate previously unknown artwork produced by Filipinos, often for European patrons, including pieces produced by Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo for the General Exposition of the Philippines Islands, Madrid, 1887. The gallery owners wanted to show us that the Philippine Gilded Age was just as progressive and cosmopolitan as that of their arriving American conquerors. Javier Altarejos would agree.
Since I am stuck in New England, I had to send my always-curious friend Suzette de Borja to investigate. (Thank you, Suzette!) The furniture was beautiful. Suzette’s daughter especially loved the Manila aparador made from kamagong wood (above left), with a price tag of only P25 million, or about US$500,000.
Suzette and I have more modest tastes. I liked the bahay kubo painted on a local oyster shell, and she liked the drawing of the man with his fighting cock because it reminded her of this line of Under the Sugar Sun: “A local wag once said that in case of fire a Filipino would rescue his rooster before his wife and children—and hadn’t Georgie witnessed that with her own eyes in Manila?” You can also see a casco in the background, which is the type of boat that Della Berget comes ashore in at the beginning of Hotel Oriente. It is strange that Filipino artists wanted to immortalize such average scenes of local life because we all can agree that it is—and was—good to be rich.
But I know what you’re saying: weren’t these robber barons or hacenderos bad people? Why are we so fascinated with them?
Well, this is romance, so we romanticize them, of course. I romanticized Hacienda Altarejos, and I knew it while I was doing it. The true history of sugar in the Philippines is a story of great injustice. If you did not know that, there is a new documentary out there to guide you through that reality called Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar. The Gilded Age was fraught with labor disputes on the other side of the Pacific, as well—the Pullman Strike, the Haymarket Riots, the Coal Strike of 1902, just to name a few. This was the other reason Twain used the term Gilded Age, because all that glitters is not gold.
But historical romance has always been fascinated with the obscenely rich because wouldn’t we love to live that lifestyle? I mean we were raised on fairy tales of Cinderellas and Prince Charmings—and we hardly spared a thought about the peasants of the kingdom. I teach my students about the horrible injustices of the early industrial age, but you better believe that John Thornton of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South gets my engine going! (And, yes, it helps that he is played by Richard Armitage in the BBC version. Don’t worry, it’s on Netflix.) Gaskell wrote her novel in 1855—smack dab in the worst excesses of this period—and she still made a factory owner swoon-worthy.
What about our Regency bookshelf? We don’t ask where Fitzwilliam Darcy got his ten thousand (pounds) a year—which, in present value, could be close to $6 million, or, in prestige value, maybe as much as $18 million. Yes, he earned interest on government bonds, but where did he get his principal wealth? From the sweat on the brows of farmers on “his” estate, of course. And, according to Joanna Trollope, Pemberly was built on the proceeds of coal mines. As a granddaughter of a coal miner, I can tell you that line of work not only sucks, but it will also kill you.
And it gets worse: men like Darcy were probably invested in another lucrative crop, one grown across the Atlantic in the West Indies. You guessed it. Sugar again! This was the “dark underbelly” of the British peerage, according to Trollope. And the sugar industry in the Caribbean and South America was the worst in the world: the average life of a slave there was five years. Hacienda Altarejos is practically a hippie commune, in comparison.
So, if we squint hard, we won’t see the nasty side of our historical romances, leaving us free to imagine the great parties, the family sagas, and the romantic intrigue. This is, after all, entertainment.
A great thing about Gilded Age tycoons—whether American or Filipino—in comparison to our Regency heroes is that at least they had to do something to earn their money. This was the era of manliness, after all. You were supposed to roll up your shirtsleeves and get your hands dirty:
Javier placed the shovel in line with the stones, put his foot on the top of the blade, and pushed it deep. It slid into the soil. Georgie watched Javier reach down and grip the handle low, a position that gave him more control. He lifted the earth and placed it carefully to the side. When he raised his foot again to the top of the blade, the tight line of his trousers revealed a strong thigh and backside. Color rose to her cheeks. She felt a whole different kind of dirty watching him.
If you want more Gilded Age romance, Joanna Shupe’s Knickerbocker Club series has a very delicious hero, Emmett Cavanaugh, whose rags-to-riches story was the embodiment of everyone’s hopes and dreams in the period.
Emmett is rough, yet gentle. Arrogant, but thoughtful. He’s that classic Type A hero we love so much, but instead of spending his excess energy whoring or hunting as a peer would do, he’s actually got shit to do. (He does box, though. Yum.)
Another recent release with a Gilded Age merchant-on-the-rise is Marrying Winterborne by Lisa Kleypas. Rhys Winterborne is a Welsh department store owner, a terrific choice of occupation since these diverse enterprises, selling all types of ready-made goods to the blossoming middle class, were an industrial age phenomenon—a true “retail revolution.”
Do not forget that all of these men would have been snubbed by the vaunted ton of London. John Thornton, Emmett Cavanaugh, Rhys Winterborne, and Javier Altarejos—none would have received an invitation to Almack’s. But, as Kleypas herself said: “There’s something invigorating about a hero who has created his own success.”
The Gilded Age can offer you something no other historical romances can: a self-made Prince Charming—what else could you want? Just relax and enjoy the fairy tale.
Last week I discussed the clever, airy design of a native cube house on stilts, the bahay kubo. The Spanish saw these kubos and thought: how we could steal their environmentally-intelligent design, yet make it a whole lot more posh and expensive? The original bahay na bato (stone house) was born.
Though the stilts of the bahay na bato are hidden by a stone wall “curtain,” the concept is really the same. This bottom story, or zaguan—vaguely resembling a dungeon—is a combination garage, warehouse, office, and stables. From my character Javier Altarejos’s perspective, it is a highly practical design: “The stone base of the house served as a storeroom for everything that made the hacienda hum: carriages, rice, tools, chickens, and—of course—sugar.”
In fact, Casa Altarejos was modeled on the Museo De La Salle at De La Salle University-Dasmariñas, an ilustrado lifestyle museum built upon the models of the Constantino house in Balagtas, Bulacan; the Arnedo-Gonzales house in Sulipan, Apalit, Pampanga; and the Santos-Joven-Panlilio house in Bacolor, Pampanga. One thing a visitor will immediately notice at Museo de la Salle is that the building is a perfect square—a bahay kubo writ large. Georgina’s impression of Casa Altarejos mirrored mine at the Museo de la Salle: “A wooden top floor overhung the gray stone foundation by a few feet on all sides, an elegant-yet-clumsy layer cake decorated in white and green frosting.”
Javier again focuses on the logic of the construction: “The architecture was a…patchwork of foreign and native elements: stone foundations topped by light wood structures, an elegant yet practical design in earthquake country. Huge sliding panels opened up to the breeze, their rectangular frames checkered with iridescent capiz shells that let in light but wouldn’t shatter at every tremor. It was a mongrel style, and it suited Javier.”
A hacienda guest would enter through the zaguan, walk past the overseer’s desk and waiting workers, and ascend up to the second story: “The ‘princess’ steps had been fashioned deliberately shallow to allow for the modest ascent of a young lady in her skirts. Javier had stumbled down them many times, both as a child and an adult, and he never failed to swear up a storm as he did. Sometimes he wanted to take an axe to them, and he might have done that long ago if they were not such a rich Narra wood.” That’s such a guy thing to think, I suppose. Men didn’t have to wear full skirts with tiny slippers, nor did they have to worry about the grace of their entrance.
Like a bahay kubo, the real house is upstairs: the caida (foyer), sala mayor (sitting room), comedor (dining room), the cuartos (bedrooms), the cocina or kusina (kitchen), despacho (office), comun or banyo (toilet), often an azotea (open balcony), and maybe an oratorio (prayer room). None of these “rooms” are really separate, though. Georgina notices right away that “carved moldings—the design as fine as lace—divided the large space into separate salons.” In other words, none of the walls were complete. Air circulated freely through the entire story, and so did noise. As one author points out:
So much for privacy. However, in houses like these, residents found enough privacy to conceive, deliver and nurse babies, to care for the sick and the aged….When in need of solitude, a thin cloth curtain strung over an opening stakes out a private section. Temporary as the privacy may turn out to be, the fluttering illusion of an unlatchable door screens the rest of the family out. Blissful seclusion means not being able to see the others, but still remaining within full hearing range.
According to a friend of mine who is descended from Bacolod sugar royalty, everyone could hear a couple having sex, so this meant that enterprising couples stole any moment they could: dressed or not, standing or lying down, in a secluded corner or in the open portico walk that lined the house. The growing pack of children of Hacienda Altarejos will be proof that Javier and Georgina manage to find a little privacy wherever they can.
Here’s the thing about imperialism: every major colonial power sowed the seeds of its own destruction. How? Unwilling to do all the work of running a colony themselves, they sent the best and brightest of every generation off to be educated, sometimes in the home capital itself. Thus, Mohandas Gandhi studied law in London, and even scrappy Ho Chi Minh learned about communism while doing odd jobs in Paris. José Rizal and Antonio Luna, among others, were educated in Spain. Though we may consider these men elites, they often were of middle-class backgrounds. Like the liberal bourgeoisie of Europe, what made the ilustrados different was their education.
I don’t know you, but I do know that Rizal was smarter than either you or me. He was conversant in at least 11 languages and could translate another 7. He was an ophthalmologist by training and a patriotic novelist by necessity. And then there’s Luna. In addition to arguably being the greatest Filipino general of the Philippine-American War, Luna was also a widely respected epidemiologist and had a PhD in chemistry.
In Europe, these “enlightened ones” were taught the principals of liberal constitutions—rights that we take for granted, such as the freedoms to assemble, speak freely, practice a chosen religion, and have due process of law. All they asked was that these rights apply to the people of the colonies, too. Gandhi, Ho, and Rizal all wanted equality before they wanted independence. When the Europeans would not give it, their hypocrisy was obvious. Though Asian nations did not fully break away until after World War II, the seeds of revolution were planted at the turn of the 20th century with the ilustrados. (Featured image from the GMA series Ilustrado, which premiered October 2014.)