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As a former screenwriter in Philippine cinema from the late Fifties to the early Eighties, the one film I wish I could have written is The Battle of Manila, presented a-la Rashomon, that classic Japanese motion picture about a killing, recounted from different perspectives.
The Battle of Manila Bay has mainly been told from the US perspective (which is understandable because history is usually told from the point of view of the victors). My dream film would attempt to correct that. It would cast three sets of characters — Americans, Spaniards and Filipinos — and would recount that battle-from their respective viewpoints, applying the Rashomon format.
The American version would tell how the US fleet, commanded by Commodore George Dewey, gallantly attacked the Spanish armada at Manila Bay and handily routed it. The Spanish version would have a different twist: How the Spaniards decided to readily raise the white flag in order to spare Manila from being destroyed and innocent civilians from being slaughtered.
The Pinoy version would recount how the Filipinos were double-crossed by the Americans and the Spaniards, thus sparking the Philippine-American War (which the US characterized as an insurrection).
It should be noted that Aguinaldo and his troops had been fighting the Spanish colonizers, in the thick of the Philippine Revolution that erupted in 1896. In December 1897, the Spanish government and Aguinaldo’s forces signed a truce, the Pact of Biak-na-Bato, by which the Filipino revolutionaries agreed to go into exile in Hong Kong. When the US declared war against Spain and attacked Cuba and the Philippines. Aguinaldo decided to side with the Americans. He was, in fact, transported from Hong Kong on board the USS McCulloch on May 19, 1898, following the Battle of Manila Bay.
A few weeks later, on June 12, 1898, Aguinaldo and the Katipuneros declared Philippine independence in Kawit, Cavite, believing that the Americans were on their side. But America refused to recognize Philippine independence and signed the Treaty of Paris with Spain, thus taking over colonization of the Philippines.
That sparked the Philippine-American War. And the rest is history.
None of these historical antecedents is mentioned in the plaque on the Dewey monument that has stood proudly, since 1901, at Union Square, the main plaza in the heart of San Francisco.
The marker reads: “On the night of April 30th 1898 Commodore Dewey’s squadron entered Manila Bay and undaunted by the danger of submerged explosives reached Manila at dawn May 1st, 1898, attacked and destroyed the Spanish fleet of ten warships — reduced the fort and held the city in subjection until the arrival of troops from America.”
There is no mention at all of the Filipinos, an oversight that bothered the Filipino-American community in San Francisco for years. Almost three decades ago, Fil-Am community leaders Rodel Rodis and Dennis Normandy made an issue of this in the media, but to no avail.
But the historical omission continued to fester. In 2005, another Fil-Am activist, Rudy Asercion, decided to pursue it. Asercion, a member of the War Memorial Veterans Commission and, subsequently, Northern California regional chair of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), had just set up an exhibit on the Philippine-American War at the War Memorial building in San Francisco. In this context, it occurred to him and his associates that something was not right with the Dewey monument.
Asercion decided to mount a campaign to install a supplementary plaque on the Dewey that would set the battle of Manila Bay in a more accurate historical context. It seemed like a Quixotic undertaking. In spite of a relatively large Fil-Am population in San Francisco, Pinoys had very little political clout.
But Asercion persevered, knocking on the doors of various commissions in the city, until he succeeded to get the issue on the agenda of the San Francisco Arts Commission. It took some string pulling with the help of Carmen Chiu of the City Assessor’s Office and Marian Philhour, a Pinay and senior adviser and interim chief of staff of new San Francisco Mayor London Breed. Asercion also had to secure the cooperation of Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents the district where Union Square is located.
At last, on Oct. 17, a large group of Fil-Am community activists, myself included, spoke at the meeting of the San Francisco Arts Commission. We all appealed for fairness and historical accuracy. I cited the Rashomon context and asked that the Philippine perspective of the Battle of Manila Bay should also be told.
The Fil-Am proposal was unanimously approved to the loud cheers and applause of our delegation. The text of the supplementary plaque reads:
“The people of the Philippines struggled against Spanish colonial rule for over 300 years. At the outbreak of the Spanish American War, Filipinos joined with American forces and rejoiced in Commodore George Dewey’s decisive defeat of the archipelago’s Spanish fleet in the May 1, 1898 Battle of Manila Bay.
“Within a month of that naval victory, the Philippines declared its freedom from Spain, marking June 12, 1898 as Philippine Independence Day. Filipinos took the historic occasion to declare their national sovereignty and to establish the first republic of record in Southeast Asia.
“The Spanish American War ended with the Treaty of Paris in December, 1898. However, the United States’ continued military presence in the Philippines led to the conflict later known as the Philippine-American War. In that dark period, 4,400 American soldiers died, together with 20,000 Filipino combatants. Civilian lives lost numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The Philippines remained a colony of the United States from 1899 to 1935, and granted commonwealth status thereafter.
“The crucible of World War II bonded together the United States and the Philippines as never before against a common enemy. The extraordinary sacrifice and heroism of Filipinos in that struggle for freedom led to the United States’ acknowledgement of Philippine Independence on July 4, 1946.”
Fil-Am activism has yielded some sweet results of late. In October last year, another Quixotic Fil-Am group, Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetsREP), led by retired US Army Major General Antonio Taguba, saw the fruits of years of lobbying with the conferment of the Congressional Gold Medal on Filipino World War II soldiers, living and dead. The CGM is the highest civilian award given by the US and its first recipient was George Washington.
The job of Asercion and his fellow workers isn’t quite done. The final design and typography of the supplementary plaque still has to be worked on and funds need to be raised to cover the cost of the bronze marker, its installation and the ceremony that will be held for it.
The plan is to install the plaque on the Dewey monument on June 12, 2019. And the unveiling will be in October 2019 on the occasion of Filipino-American History Month.
For his efforts in the face of daunting odds, I believe that Rudy Asercion deserves a Presidential Award from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.