I’m leaving in two days for the Philippines!…snowstorm permitting. Then, again, it’s New England. We’re used to this crap. We have four seasons up here: winter, more winter, mud season, and construction.
For those of you who are under the sugar sun in the Philippines (see what I did there?), I can’t wait to see you! Where? I’m glad you asked. I have two public events planned:
First, I will be on the steamy romance panel of Romance Writers of the Philippines RomCon at Alabang Town Center on February 19th! Starting at 3pm, Bianca Mori, Georgette Gonzales, Mina V. Esguerra, and I will be talking about our deliciously naughty novels. We will answer all your questions—ALL of them. If you’re too shy to ask something, find me afterwards. I’ve taught health and human sexuality to teenagers for almost 20 years. It is very hard to embarrass me.
Second, I will be giving a talk called History Ever After at the Ayala Museum on February 24th at 2pm. It’s sort of a mix of history and fiction. Don’t worry—I’ll tell you which is which…most of the time. I will also be talking about my latest novella in the Sugar Sun series, Tempting Hymn, which releases that very day! Real events write the best fiction, don’t you think? Mina will be there, as well, encouraging you to ask me the tough questions. (See disclaimer above. Bring ’em on!)
My novella Tempting Hymn is the second in my series to mention the 1902 cholera epidemic in the Philippines. The book’s hero, Jonas Vanderburg, volunteered his family for mission work in the Philippines, only to lose his wife and daughters in the same outbreak that Georgina Potter dodged when she arrived in Manila in Under the Sugar Sun. Do I just need a new idea? I would argue that I’m writing about what people feared most in the Edwardian era. Before the mechanical death of the Great War, disease was the worst of the bogeymen.
My books may be historical romance, but this post will not romanticize the history. Census figures put the total death toll from Asiatic cholera in the Philippines (1902-1904) between 100,000 and 200,000 people. Even that number might be low. This strain of the disease was particularly virulent, killing 80 to 90 percent in the hospitals. The disease progressed rapidly and painfully:
Often the disease appears to start suddenly in the night with a violent diarrhea, the matter discharged being whey-like, ‘rice-water’ stools…Copious vomiting follows, accompanied by severe pain in the pit of the stomach, and agonizing cramps of the feet, legs, and abdominal muscles. The loss of liquid is so great that the blood thickens, the body becomes cold and blue or purple in color…Death often occurs in less than a day, and the disease may prove fatal in less than two hours. (A.V.H. Hartendorp, editor of Philippine Magazine)
The Yanks saw cholera as a personal challenge to their colonial ideology. They had come to the Philippines to “Fill full the mouth of famine and bid the sickness cease,” in the words of Rudyard Kipling. What was the point of bringing the “blessings of good and stable government upon the people of the Philippine Islands” if they could not prove the value of their civilization with some “modern” medicine?
Cholera was not a new killer in the islands, nor did the Americans bring the disease with them. Though the Eighth and Ninth Infantries were initially blamed, the epidemic had its roots in China. As Ken de Bevoise said in his outstanding work, Agents of Apocalypse: “The volume of traffic…between Hong Kong and Manila in 1902 was so high that it is pointless to try to pinpoint the exact source.” However, just because Americans did not bring cholera does not mean that they are off the hook.
War weakens and disperses a population, leaving it more vulnerable to disease. And the way the war was fought south of Manila in 1902 was particularly brutal. General J. Frederick Bell had set up “protection zones” where all civilians were forced to live in close quarters without access to their homes, farms, and wells. Once cholera hit these zones, there was no escape: 11,000 people died. Even worse, mass starvation forced the general public to ignore the food quarantine, meant to keep tainted vegetables from being sold on the market. The Americans blamed Chinese cabbages for bringing cholera spirilla to the Philippines to begin with, but then gave the people no other choice but to eat (possibly contaminated) contraband to survive.
Inside Manila itself people were also quarantined—not a terrible idea on the face of it. The traditional Filipino home quarantine had worked well in the past: infected homes were marked with a red flag to signal people to stay away while loved ones were cared for. But the Americans thought bigger. They “collected” the infected and brought them to centralized hospitals outside of the city. Hospitals…detention camps…who’s to say? According to De Bevoise, eighty percent of the time, when the patient was dragged out of their home and carted off to this “hospital,” which suspiciously also housed a morgue and crematorium, that was the last their family saw of them. Despite the Manila Times portraying the Santiago Cholera Hospital as a “little haven of rest, rather than a place to be shunned,” and bragging that it was staffed by the “gentle…indefatigable, ever cheerful” Sisters of Mercy, people knew better. They would do anything to keep their family members from being taken there. They fled. They hid their sick. Because cremation was forbidden for Catholics at this time, the Filipinos hid their dead.
And the disease spread.
My book Under the Sugar Sun began with a dramatic house burning scene, where public health officials destroyed an entire neighborhood in the name of sanitation. The road to hell is not just paved with good intentions. It is also littered the corpses of industrious, exuberant, and dogmatic government officials. Any houses found to be infected were burned, “because the nipa hut cannot be properly disinfected,” in the words of one American commissioner’s wife. People were forced to find refuge elsewhere in the city, carrying the disease with them. Because it was such a bad policy, Filipinos thought the American officials must an ulterior motive in the burnings: to drive the poor out of their homes, clear the land, and build their own palaces. The commissioner’s wife, Edith Moses, herself said: “Sometimes, when I think of our rough ways of doing things, I feel an intense pity for these poor people, who are being what we call ‘civilized’ by main force….it seems an act of tyranny worse than that of the Spaniards.”
American instructions to the sick were also confusing—and sometimes bizarre. Clean water was a necessity, but this was not something the poor had access to. Commissioner Dean C. Worcester claimed: “Distilled water was furnished gratis to all who would drink it, stations for its distribution being established through the city, supplemented by large water wagons driven through the streets.” But no other source mentions such bounty. In fact, as author Gilda Cordero-Fernando pointed out in her article, “The War on Germs,” in Filipino Heritage, most people treated distilled water like a magic tonic, it was so rare: “Asked whether a certain family was drinking boiled water, as prescribed, one’s reply was ‘Yes, regularly—one teaspoon, three times a day.’” Even worse, though, was this advice by Major Charles Lynch, Surgeon, U.S. Volunteers, which was reprinted in the Manila Times:
Chlorodyne, or chlorodyne and brandy, have been found especially useful; lead and opium pills, chalk, catechu, dilute sulphuric acid, etc., have all been used. With marked abdominal pain and little diarrhea, morphine should be given…Ice and brandy, or hot coffee, may be given in small quantities, and water, in small sips, may be drunk when they do not appear to increase the vomiting…cocaine and calomel in minute doses—one-third grains—every two hours, having been used with benefit in some cases.
Lead pills. Opium. Morphine. Chalk. Cocaine. And do you know what “calomel” is? Mercurous chloride. If the cholera doesn’t kill you, Dr. Lynch’s treatment will! Though the coffee and brandy sounds nice…
When the Americans could not control the spread of the disease with their ridiculous treatments and counterproductive policies, they blamed the epidemic on the victims. As public health historians Roy M. MacLeod and Milton James Lewis wrote:
American cleanliness was being undermined by Philippine filth.The Manila Times lamented the cholera deaths of “clean-lived Americans.”It identified the “native boy” as “the probable means of infection” since in hotels and houses he prepared and served food and drinks to unwitting Americans.The newspaper reminded its American readers that “cholera germs exude with the sweat through the pores of the [Filipino servant’s] skin”and that “his hands may be teeming with the germs.”
According to the Manila Times, the Americans organized their cholera hospitals by race: the tent line marked street A was “Chinatown,” street B was for the Spanish, street C for white Americans, street D for black Americans, and E through G for Filipinos. Though trade with China had been the cholera vector, Chinese-Filipinos actually had the lowest death rate of any group, including Americans. A Yankee health official ascribed this to the fact that they “eat only long-cooked and very hot food, in individual bowls and with individual chopsticks, and that they drink only hot tea.”
The epidemic reached its peak in Manila in July 1902, and in the provinces in September 1902, before running its course. Its decline was probably due to the heavy rains cleansing the city, increased immunity among the remaining population, and a strategic call by the Archbishop of Manila to encourage Filipinos to bury their dead quickly—but Americans still congratulated themselves on their efforts. And they had worked hard, it is true: Dr. Franklin A. Meacham, the chief health inspector, and J. L. Judge, superintendent of sanitation in Manila, died from exhaustion. The Commissioner of Public Health, Lt. Col. L. M. Maus, suffered a nervous breakdown. Even the American teachers on summer vacation were encouraged to moonlight as health inspectors—for free, in the end. The wages paid to them by the Police Department were deducted from their vacation salaries because no civil employee was allowed to receive two salaries at once. (The relevant Manila Times article explaining this policy is not online, but its title, “Teachers are Losers” is worth mentioning.)
All their hard work might have been for nought, though. Filipino policies of quarantine would have probably been more effective, had they been given the chance to work. Whipping up the population into a panic was exactly what the Americans should not have done. In the name of containing the disease, they caused the real carriers—people—to disperse wider and faster throughout the country. We all need to be on guard against such hubris, which is why I write my love stories in the middle of strange settings like cholera fires and open insurrections. Come for the sexy times, stay for the political history. Enjoy!
Featured image is of the cholera squad hired by the Americans in the Philippine outbreak of 1902. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Do you remember when New Year’s Eve 1999 was dominated by Y2K fears? (I know, it seems so naive and innocent, in retrospect.) Was there a similar Y1.9K crisis? What were Edwardian era fears? Thanks to the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America catalog of historical American newspapers from 1690 to the present, I was able to take a peak into the past. Through a search of front pages on New Year’s Eve 1899 and New Year’s Day 1900, I found both more and less than I expected.
In terms of hard news, the concerns were much as any other day, and any other year: war, terrorism, natural disasters, fires, religion, disease, health care, and politics. I did not keep track, but the most prevalent story seemed to be the Boer War in South Africa. And, no, the Americans were not a party to this conflict, but that did not mean Americans did not have opinions. (Do Americans ever not have opinions?) The war was a part of Britain’s attempt to annex two gold- and diamond-producing Boer Republics, where descendants of Dutch colonists lived. They wanted to stitch them into a British-federated South Africa—and they would eventually be successful. But, at the end of 1899, the Boers were winning. The Boers had besieged three cities and won several significant battles against the underprepared and undermanned British. In the United States, sentiment was generally unfavorable to British—especially in areas of large Germanic or Dutch settlement in the American Midwest, where newspapers depicted the British as mired in a “densely stupid policy.” According to the New York Sun, the American Irish also gave widespread support for Boers, based upon their hatred for British. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And so it goes.
The Boer War was a guerrilla insurgency similar to the Philippine-American War—which was happening at the exact same time—and generally the papers who were critical of British efforts to “pacify” the Boers were maybe a little more honest about the difficulty of “pacifying” the Filipinos, too. One way they could do this was to cover an attempt by Filipino partisans to launch an assault on the funeral of General Henry Ware Lawton, the only American general to be killed in action during the conflict. The Americans caught wind of the plan and found a stash of four bombs meant to be dropped from the rooftops, along with five hundred rounds of ammunition and a few firearms. Other papers, interestingly enough, did not mention the “diabolical plot” at all. Instead they gave detailed coverage of the people at the funeral and the new cabinet planned by Governor Leonard Wood.
Some papers were admiringly local in their coverage. Both Hawaii papers (The Hawaiian Star and The Evening Bulletin) were devoted to either island news or, at their most global, Pacific Rim events. One such story was the Black Plague outbreak in China. The Tombstone Epitaph reported on local weather and wedding announcements on the front page. Both Richmond (VA) papers were darned near full of advertisements—for the city itself. The Richmond Dispatch reported on “A Year of Great Prosperity” and that the “Future [Would Be] a Brilliant One.”The Times (of Richmond) proudly proclaimed that “Everywhere in Virginia People Busy and Happy.” How nice. The Brownsville (TX) Daily Herald was an odd little paper. Their front page was devoted to vignettes and humorous stories collected from other papers. One revealing piece applauded how the people of Leadville, Texas, ran two law-abiding Chinese (“celestials”) out of town.
And, of course, some papers did not cover hard news at all. The New York Evening World’s front page was dedicated to the results of the McCoy-Maher boxing bout. Pugilism mattered to the readers of the Daily Inter Mountain of Butte, Montana, as well.
The Ocala (FL) Evening Star and the Morning Appeal of Carson City, Nevada were all advertisements. One product featured in the Carson City paper was one of the biggest patent medicines of the turn of the century: “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription for the relief of the many weaknesses and complaints particular to females.” This gave a “fountain of health for weak and nervous women.” The nostrum was a botanical mix of many relaxants designed mostly to help with menstrual pain—though no one would say such a thing, of course. It was just a “weakness” or “complaint.”
Y1.9K did have some technological fears, especially centered around the newest invention of the day: the horseless carriage, or the automobile. There were no alarmist articles about how motorized transport would lead to lazier Americans, more fractured and transient communities, suburbs, and eventually mechanized weapons. Nope, the sentiment was more subtle, as captured in a political cartoon of Father Time saying: “They want me to try that. Guess I’ll stick to wings.”
I am not sure what I expected when I began this search, but I think I wanted the papers to seem a little silly. A little quaint. (And Dr. Pierce’s medicine was both of those.) In the end, the biggest surprise may have been the optimism of some of the papers. At first I snickered, but now I realize that this positivity is the very reason I write romance. After being the cynical, hard-headed history teacher all day long, I love the idea that love can triumph over all. Maybe not “everywhere,” but at least somewhere people can be “busy and happy”—even if in my mind. May your New Year be full of happily-ever-afters.
In February I will be boarding a plane for Manila. It will take me 24 hours airport to airport, and that will feel like a long time. I will probably complain about how tired I am, or how small airline seats have become. Both will be true.
But my Edwardian sisters—known as “Gibson girls” after popular illustrator Charles Dana Gibson—would be shocked by how spoiled I am. For them, a trip from Boston to the Philippines would have taken seven weeks. And they thought themselves lucky, since the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal had cut the trip in half. Their bargain ticket would have cost $120 in 1900—the equivalent of almost $3500 today. My ticket cost around $800.
I also have another advantage: knowledge. I know what the Philippines are like. Things may have changed in the last five years, as things do, but generally I know what I will find. But my three Gibson girls featured here—Mary Fee, Annabelle Kent, and Rebecca Parrish, M.D.—did not. These women either had no information or bad information about the Philippines. For example, a United States senator, John W. Daniel, from Virginia explained that “there are spotted people there, and, what I have never heard of in any other country, there are striped people there with zebra signs upon them.” To you or me such drivel is beyond racist to the point of being ludicrously stupid, but Senator Daniel thought this information important enough to pass along in the middle of a government hearing.
If travel to the Philippines was long, expensive, and potentially dangerous, why did women like Fee, Kent, and Parrish do it? Their reasons probably varied. Fee, a teacher, may have gone for the good salary; Kent wanted to prove that she could travel the globe alone; and Parrish was a medical missionary whose faith led her to the islands. But there is one thing all three women had in common: they were more adventurous than the average man of their day. And they were probably more intrepid than me.
Let’s start with Mary Fee, principal of the Philippine School of Arts and Trades in Roxas City. Fee was one of the first teachers sent by the U.S. Government to establish a secular, coeducational, public school system throughout the Philippines. The Thomasites, as they were called, were sent all over the islands with their Baldwin Primers to read lessons on snow, apples, and George Washington—and none of the students knew what the heck they were talking about. Mary Fee realized that the point was to teach her students to read and write in English, not to have a comprehensive understanding of American meteorology. Soon she was one of four authors (including another woman) of a new Philippine Education series. The First Year Book had lessons about Ramon and Adela, not Jack and Jill. They learned about carabao, not cows. Stories included the American flag, but it was small and in black-and-white, not a full-page color spread. The women went to market for fish and mangoes, and they wore traditional clothing. In other words, the book made sense to the children who read it.
I relied upon Fee’s memoir, A Woman’s Impressions of the Philippines, for help in creating my character Georgina Potter in Under the Sugar Sun. I exercised artistic license, of course: Fee’s faithful description of the Christmas Eve pageant, for example, was turned into a courtship opportunity for my hero, Javier Altarejos. Though Fee would eventually return to the United States—not marry a Filipino sugar baron—I am happy to say that her spirit lives on.
In comparison to my careful researching of Mary Fee, I stumbled upon Annabelle Kent’s raucous description of arriving in Manila by ship. While everyone else had horrible seasickness, Kent thought the bumpy ride a blast. The ship bucked like a bronco, and she reveled in it. As I read more, though, I found Kent’s explanation for her sturdy sea-legs: she was deaf. She traveled the globe by herself without an ASL interpreter, and that took guts. It seemed to have started on a type of dare. Kent wrote:
A deaf young lady made the remark to me once that it was a waste of time and money for a deaf person to go to Europe, as she could get so little benefit from the trip. I told her that as long as one could see there was a great deal one could absorb and enjoy.
I knew right then that Annabelle Kent would be my model for a new character, Della Berget, in Hotel Oriente. At a time when American senators were postulating about people striped like zebras, Kent was getting a steamer and seeing everything for herself, including schools for the deaf in China and Japan. The book is the most joyful travel memoir I have ever read.
My final Gibson girl, Rebecca Parrish, was used to being a trendsetter. She was a doctor at a time when medicine was a possible career choice for a woman, but not a common one. And, in the Philippines, it was unheard of. One of her first skeptical patients asked, “Can a woman know enough to be a doctor?” Parrish had to prove herself a million times, by her own account, but she did.
Parrish built a 55-bed hospital in Tondo, the Mary Johnston Hospital, that operated on the principle that no one could be turned away. The hospital began its working life fighting a cholera epidemic but transitioned into a maternity clinic with a milk feeding station. Today, it is a teaching hospital specializing in internal medicine, obstetrics, gynecology, and pediatrics. Parrish also opened a training institute for nurses. If the doctor seems like a busy woman, you are correct. She wrote: “Hundreds of days—thousands of days, I worked twenty hours of the twenty-four among the sick, doing all that was in my power to do my part, and hoping the best that could be had for all.” I get tired just thinking about it.
Maybe these Gibson girls—Mary Fee, Annabelle Kent, and Rebecca Parrish—did not go “wild” in the cheap DVD series kind of way, but by contemporary standards they were braver than Indiana Jones. My trip to Manila will be tame by comparison, but I will try to honor the memory of those who came before me…and pick the in-flight movie they would want me to see.
An hour later they safely stumbled into a cluster of chromatic light. Georgie wondered if she had fallen under some kind of enchantment….Surrounding the church were hundreds of colorful star-shaped lanterns hanging off white-blossomed frangipani trees. Georgie stood frozen in place, overwhelmed by the feeling that she had entered a secret village of wood sprites.
Want to know a secret? This passage is wrong. Sort of. Maybe.
One thing is right. Those “colorful star-shaped lanterns” are the ubiquitous symbol of Christmas in the Philippines: parols. They are everywhere: on houses, in malls, along highways, and—their original purpose—lighting the path to church. The original star design was reminiscent of the Nativity story:
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. (Matthew 2:9-10)
I am still overjoyed when I see a parol. In fact, so much so that I brought one back with me, and it may be the only one of its kind in rural New Hampshire. And, okay, that’s fine—we live in a globalized world these days—but would Hacienda Altarejos really have had a parol or two in 1902? Eh, close enough. The parol—from the Spanish farol for lantern—did originate in Spanish times, so that’s good for my timing. It even seems that the Mexican piñata got jumbled in the origin story somewhere, accounting for the bright colors of crepe paper or papel de Japon (Japanese rice paper). But I think they looked a lot different, more like the regular lanterns they were named after.
It was not until 1908—when a salt vendor in Pampanga named Francisco Estanislao slapped together some bamboo strips in festive shapes—that the tradition we know today was born. And, if Estanislao did not invent this “real” parol until 1908, and he was all the way up in Luzon, wouldn’t it have taken a few years for the tradition to spread to the island of Negros, where my story takes place? Okay, so I was a little off. But no one has called my bluff—yet. I think this is because to anyone in the islands, the Christmas season requires parols. I would have gotten flack if I had forgotten them!
Parols today do light the way to mass…and the way to Starbuck’s, too. Whatever gods ye worship, people! Back in the Edwardian era, the main light sources were candles or coconut oil lamps. These days there are at least three hundred tiny light bulbs in just a small parol. This is why mine had to be refitted for 110v before we shipped it back. (Thank you to Edith Rocha Tan for help on that!) Now, those three hundred lights give unsuspecting New England drivers fits as they drive by at night. Sweet.
Fortunately, the art—and it is an art—of parol-making is still being passed down the Estanislao-David-Quiwa family:
When we were kids, my brothers and I would play with our toy trucks and attach our own parol drawings on cardboard, simulating the position the way the real arrangements of actual giant lantern festival entries were supposed to be during competitions. We simulated a mini-competition in our home and let our tatang [father] judge who among the siblings had the best design.
The giant lantern competition Arvin Quiwa was emulating is Ligligan Parul in San Fernando, Pampanga, which takes place the week before Christmas. And there are similar competitions and displays all around the greater Pinoy diaspora. I’m telling you: it’s not Pasko without a parol, no matter where you are. Maligayang Pasko! (Or Malipayong Pasko! in Cebuano.)