I began writing SugarMoon in 2013. I began writing this blog in 2016. In both cases, that’s a long time ago. It includes years of writing about the Philippine-American War, and in particular the Balangiga incident—a central event shaping the character of my redemption-seeking-hero Ben Potter.
Let’s say you know nothing about what happened in Balangiga—or even nothing about the Philippine-American War. Don’t worry, you won’t need to in order to read Sugar Moon. But let’s say you’re a history geek like me? Well, I’ve written a lot of content just for you!
I have tried to organize this by the most logical questions. Read the captions, and if you want to know more just click on the link below the image. Geek out!
Question 1: Where is this book set?
Question 2: Why were Americans in the Philippines?
Question 3: What happened in Samar?
Question 4: What else do I need to know about a soldier’s life in 1901?
Question 5: What else should I know about the world of Ben Potter?
Question 6: What should I know about the world of Allegra Alazas?
And you can find out more about Allegra, her home, her family, and her background by reading through these annotated glossary posts:
Question 7: Where can I find some excerpts from this book?
In Hotel Oriente the establishment itself is a character—but decidedly not a romantic one. The American guests cannot figure out how to sleep in the beds, the manager runs out of eggs at breakfast, and water pours down the walls when an upstairs couple gets too frisky in the bathtub. I embellished, but I was not that far off the mark: the first two happened at the real Hotel Oriente in the Escolta area of Manila, and the last one took place at the Army hotel my father-in-law managed during the Vietnam War.
When the real Oriente opened its doors in 1889, it was the place to be. José Rizal himself stayed in Room 22, facing Binondo Church. Even the food was good. According to a contemporary journalist, a 21-year old woman from Maine: “Its chicken, chile peppers, and rice are a revelation…[and] it dispenses a curry equal to the finest productions of Bombay or Calcutta.” (Are you thinking, “What does a 19th century Mainer know about curry?” Me, too.)
The 83 rooms were always the hotel’s best feature. Another American account said: “I expected to find a regular hole, but really I have a nice large room, hard wood floor, electric lights, etc, etc. The bathrooms are all tiled, sanitary plumbing, fine large court, [and] tropical plants.” By the way, those plants entangle both Georgina and Della in their turn.
Of course, if you are getting the picture that Americans were difficult to please, you are right. Moreover, they never recognized their own provinciality. They especially had trouble with the mattress-less bed. The perforated cane bottom allowed the contraption to breathe, logically trading coolness for softness, but one guest had so much trouble figuring the thing out that he slept in the wicker chair by the window instead.
Still, the Americans thought that they improved every place they went, and the Oriente was no different:
What an establishment! How shiftless and dirty, and how it smells! The building itself is well enough, being large and airy, but it is conducted on the Spanish plan of dirt and sloth, by a manager whose watchword has evidently been mañana for all the years of his life. Now, he is forced to deal with a people who insist that all things be done, completed, finished, the day before yesterday. The result to his dead brain is almost insanity. He looks at us in a dazed manner and moans out that he has no rooms, muttering constantly the one all-expressive word: Americanos, Americanos.
I might have been muttering the same thing, too, and I am an Americano. While the Yankees had only been in the imperialism biz a few years, they had already adopted all the ennui and petulance of experienced Great Gamers.
One Minnesotan did try to whip the hotel into shape: West Smith, a volunteer who had fought the Spanish in the Battle of Manila in August 1898. He took over the Oriente in late 1902 and continued to manage it until it was transformed into the Philippine Constabulary headquarters in 1904. After that he worked for The Great Eastern Life Assurance Company. He met his wife, Stella Margaret Case, in Manila while she was visiting her sister, a stenographer for the Insular Ice Plant. If you see similarities in names here—Moss North from West Smith, and Della from Stella—you would not be wrong. It’s how I do.
And, speaking of names, the hotel itself had many. Hotel de Oriente was the name plastered across the exterior moulding, but all of the following were used: Hotel d’Oriente, Hotel el Oriente, Hotel Oriente, Hotel Orient, and then every single one of these in reverse order. I keep with the American tradition by using two names interchangeably as if I don’t know the difference. Ignorance is bliss, right?
Early on in Hotel Oriente, our heroine Della ventures to the most “swell” confectionery in Manila, Clarke’s Ice Cream Parlor:
Located at the entrance to Escolta, Manila’s Fifth Avenue, the establishment proudly proclaimed its name on both the roof and on a half dozen oversized awnings facing every direction. Even without the signage, the place was clearly marked by a large crowd. The spacious wood-paneled room was full of businessmen and civil servants from all over the islands, officers of the army and navy, and tourists from half the world.
Clearly, M. A. “Met” Clarke, a native of Chicago, knew an opportunity when he saw it. In August 1898, only four days after the landing of American soldiers in Manila, he arranged a long-term lease in this fashionable shopping district. As one visitor wrote:
To the American bred boys in khaki, the place quickly became known as an oasis in a desert. Weary, thirsty, hungry, and wet with perspiration, the commands coming from or going to the firing lines halted there long enough to quench their thirst or to fill the aching voids. Incidentally, the soldiers helped Clarke along by spending their money freely.
Later Clarke would sublet a slate of rooms on the second floor, and his monthly income from these rents would pay his entire annual premium. But Clarke could not have been so successful if his food had not been exceptional. Fortunately, it was.
Clarke’s was the place to find the best gingerbread, the best candy, and the best pink (condensed milk) ice cream in Manila—and maybe in all of Asia, according to the foreigners who lived there.
Despite being an ice cream and soda fountain, though, Clarke’s real claims to fame seemed to be bread and coffee. Clarke had three 16 x 18 foot ovens that turned out 36,000 pounds of bread a day. For our character Della, the value of fresh bread cannot be underestimated: “After three days of the atrocious food at the Hotel Oriente, her stomach almost jumped out of her throat to lay claim to a loaf.” (See more on the hotel’s disappointing food in the American era in the next post.)
Moreover, the coffee was locally grown in Luzon and roasted by Clarke himself. (I used to have a farm in Indang, Cavite, and they still grow beans in town and dry them out on every road and driveway available.) But don’t take my word for it. Read a contemporary account:
Clarke’s Coffee!—its delicious and aromatic flavor is suggestive of Arabian poetry and romance of deserts and camels of swift steeds and beautiful women. The beverage itself exhilarates you, gives you a feeling of buoyancy. Perhaps you are a connoisseur of coffee, and during your travels in Oceania or China you have been nauseated with the horrible concoctions served to you in hotels and on steamers—the vile black liquid that they call coffee. If you are, Clarke’s is the place for you. The coffee served to you there, nicely, daintily, temptingly, will make you smile with satisfaction, and you will begin to understand how the Americans do some things in Manila.
Clarke would have been the next Midas of Manila had he “not been a plunger,” according to the Magazine of Business account. He made and lost a fortune in gold mining and hemp-stripping machines. But this is the way of the early American period in the Philippines. Respectable businessmen (and women) had no reason to cross the Pacific. Those who did make the trip were often hucksters, carpetbaggers, and scoundrels. Clarke seemed one of the better of the lot, since he was not implicated in the quartermaster embezzlement scheme that rattled Manila in 1901 (and was the inspiration behind the scandal in Hotel Oriente):
Of course, Moss, our hero of Hotel Oriente, is not so certain that Clarke is innocent, just that he is crafty: “As if the police would know where to look,” he says. “That man has more warehouses than the Army itself.”
Sadly, Clarke’s empire was only to last until about 1911, when his losses in the mining industry sent him swimming back to California. Or did he really leave? Maybe he just changed his name to Starbuck…
Described as the Fifth Avenue of Manila, the Escolta was the central business district of the city.
Named after the escort (escolta) that accompanied the Spanish governor-general in his excursions here, the street developed a reputation as the ritziest row in Manila.
Felice Sta. Maria explained its appeal, as one could always find here “the snobbish precursors of the large department stores and the best of the limited-line stores.” A contemporary account said:
What cannot be bought on the Escolta…is hardly to be found in the city. Harness and hardware, dry goods and diamonds, beer, whisky and cigars, stationery, clothing, drugs, books, notions and wares from India, China, and Japan…
This busy entrepôt was located outside the Spanish walled-in core of Intramuros—not so surprising when you learn that the whole area, Binondo, was also Manila’s Chinatown. For several hundred years, Hokkien merchants came from the reclusive mainland, loaded with silks, porcelain, and tea to sell to Spanish galleon crews, who were flush with Mexican silver. But though the Spanish needed the trade, they also distrusted their partners. For a long time, all Chinese—even those who had converted to Christianity or had been born in Manila, some to Filipino mothers—had to live within a cannon shot from the Crown. And that was not a passive-aggressive threat; it was aggressive-aggressive, as they did use their cannons on occasion. Hence it is especially ironic that while the Chinese built the prosperity of Binondo, the Spanish would later claim the most prosperous street, Escolta, as theirs.
When the Americans first arrived, they installed their own cultural touchstones—bars. Helen Taft, the wife of Philippine commissioner and eventual governor, William Howard Taft, wrote about the “beery” odor and dangers to women there. By 1899, the saloons were forced to close at 10 pm, and in February 1900 they were banned from Binondo altogether. (Of course, bars did not disappear from the city entirely. By August 1900 there were over 1100 liquor-selling establishments in Manila. In the first ten months of the American occupation, alcohol imports quadrupled.) Once this street was again safe for women and their pocketbooks, new stores opened to cater to their needs, including Clarke’s Ice Cream and Heacock’s Department Store. Anyone who was anyone shopped and ate on the Escolta, and then headed out to the Luneta to be seen in the latest Paris or New York fashions. Not bad for a bunch of carpetbaggers.
Read more about these carpetbaggers falling in love in Hotel Oriente, the prequel novella of the Sugar Sun series, which takes place mostly in Manila.
I could easily live in Dumaguete. Despite the advent of modernity—traffic, diesel, plastic, and concrete—this is still the same city that charmed the early Presbyterian missionaries who chose it over Cebu and Iloilo for their new industrial-institute-cum-university, Silliman. In the words of Reverend Arthur J. Brown, D.D., location scout for the Board of Missions in 1901:
The location is the most healthful and beautiful that I saw in the Philippines. The land rises gently from a pebbly beach to a noble mountain range.The lower levels are covered with plantations of tobacco and sugar cane, higher slopes with hemp, and the summits of the mountains with heavy forests of hard woods. Across the clear water, the islands of Siquijor and Cebu are seen, and farther away, but in plain view, are the outlines of Bohol and Mindanao.
You can see on the above image, a vintage postcard from the turn of the century, there was no port or esplanade to speak of back then. Visitors had to be brought up to the beach by banca—or, for those with loftier colonial preferences, be carried by litter.
Once on shore a visitor would stroll through a lovely town dominated by the local Catholic church, St. Catherine’s, and its old stone belfry.
Though the iconic Silliman Hall (below) would not be built until 1909, the university has nevertheless dominated the landscape of this city for a full 115 years, ever since its founding in 1901.
Yet I never mention Silliman once in my books. This presents an interesting question for my readers: how closely do I keep to the facts? One person recently noticed that the Americans in my version of Dumaguete do not come off well, which was the observation that inspired me to put together this post.
Alas, fans of Dumaguete history, do not despair! First, if I bother to rename someone or something, it is because I plan to use artistic license in service to the needs of my story. So the Silliman Institute, named after donor Horace Brinsmade Silliman, became the Brinsmade Institute instead. (Maybe not so clever, but it sounded good.) Real founders David and Laura Hibbard became the fictional couple, Daniel and Mary Stinnett. While there is some passing resemblance between the two men, Daniel Stinnett was designed as a conflation of the many American missionaries who helped colonize the Philippines. Some of the self-righteous words that come out of Daniel’s mouth can be attributed to the real David Hibbard, and others are from his contemporary brethren, but much of his personality I entirely made up—plucked it right out of my head and threw it on the page. And in an upcoming novella, Daniel will truly outdo himself with priggishness—because my story needs that conflict. It won’t be out of step with American attitudes of the time, but it is still fiction. See how my hero Jonas Vanderburg of Tempting Hymn will find his way through this prickly history with his heroine, Rosa Ramos.
So don’t get too hung up on my intentions. Mostly, I want the story to feel grounded in a real place with real people, but I take lots of liberties on dialogue, characters, and sexual mores (and how!). The real Silliman University is an outstanding institution, and I especially enjoyed its anthropology, history, and environmental sciences museums, all open to visitors.
If you get the chance, you should go visit, and while you’re here check out Bais, too. I’m already jealous…