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Because of You, Queen Kong

It was Imelda as much as Ferdinand who brought about the country’s ruination

This piece is part of the notebook Against Forgetting, with art by Neil Doloricon.

In the 1970s, when the late great poet José Garcia Villa was holding court in his rent-controlled, West Village apartment, after his gin martini–infused poetry workshop session was over—not, however, the drinking—he would regale the workshoppers (myself included) with tsismis (gossip) about what was going on in government, but demand strict adherence to Las Vegas rules: what happens in Las Vegas remains in Las Vegas—he was after all part of the staff at the Philippine Consulate on Fifth Avenue, really a sinecure given that he was a National Artist for Literature. 

He had two pet peeves: one was Carlos P. Romulo, then Foreign Secretary to Ferdinand Marcos Sr., whom he blamed for his not getting an ambassadorial appointment. Villa, ever confident in his social skills, felt he would have made an excellent envoy for Malacañang, never mind if a despot were in place. If only Romulo were wise enough. Which he clearly wasn’t. (Knowing of Villa’s prickly temper and that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, I suspect Romulo knew this as well.)

The other even bigger pet peeve was the First Lady, Imelda Romualdez Marcos. To my delight, he dubbed her “Queen Kong.” I was eager to hear the backstory. I had heard from reliable sources that he and the dictator’s spouse and partner—in what came to be called the “Conjugal Dictatorship”— were on good terms. As Villa recounted it, on the occasion of the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s 1973 visit to the Philippines, Imelda hosted a dinner in his honor at Malacañang Palace. Naturally, Yevtushenko was seated at the head table, alongside Imelda. Villa, by then the National Artist for Literature, was at the dinner as well, but not at the head table. 

Yevtushenko turned to Imelda and asked her where the national poet was. Realizing her gaffe, or perhaps it was her social secretary’s, Imelda ordered an aide to approach Villa and ask him to join Imelda and Yevtushenko. The aide did so but was rebuffed by the poet, which the aide dutifully reported to Imelda.

Not one to take no for an answer, Imelda ordered the aide to return and this time insist that Villa accept the invitation. The poet held firm, quipping, “It’s too late!” Thus was a cordial relationship turned to ice. And thus the moniker of Queen Kong.

That, more than Steel Butterfly—the better-known term for Imelda—is in my view a more fitting appellation for La Imelda and her Vida Loca. In my recollection of the martial (marital?) law era, it is Imelda who dominates the landscape. Exactly like Queen Kong.

She was always larger than life, and not in the flattering way that phrase is meant to be taken. The martial law years provided her the platform to grow, not in wisdom but in greed, not in humility, but in vanity, not in self-knowledge but in unbounded delusion. Born into genteel poverty, she was determined to inherit as much of the damn earth as possible. One could ridicule Ferdinand, but it was way more fun to make fun of La Imelda. Demanding to be on center stage all the time, as a faux tsarina complete with not one but two tiaras, she deserved the slings and arrows flung her way. It was she as much as Ferdinand who brought about the country’s ruination. 

That she had pretensions to royal status is evident when you visit the elaborate and grandiose Santo Niño Shrine in the Visayan city of Tacloban, on the site of the old, modest Romualdez home that she had bulldozed in order to invent a more glamorous past. There on the second floor, intended as a ballroom, are two thrones, His and Hers, and looming behind the thrones is a huge portrait of Imelda as an Asian Venus arising from the sea, at once benevolent and controlling, the power behind the throne. 

Another image stands out: on a late February day in 1986, before fleeing Malacañang for the balmy isles of Hawai’i and Uncle Sam’s benevolence towards its fascist strongmen, the conjugal dictators and their family stood on a balcony, to celebrate the fact that Macoy (the irreverent name for Marcos) had just been sworn in once again as president, though he had clearly lost the elections to Corazon “Cory” Aquino, the less than vengeful widow of the assassinated senator, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. In front of a small crowd of cheering loyalists gathered on the palace grounds, Imelda serenaded her husband with her rendition of “Dahil Sa Iyo (Because of You),” a popular kundiman and traditional ballad of love and loss. Even now, watching that scene once again on YouTube, I am reminded of the total lack of irony in Queen Kong’s choice. To a whole nation that had suffered grievously and was now on the verge of digging itself out of a deep, deep hole, that song could have easily been interpreted as a Brechtian indictment of two decades of brutality and plunder wrought by the conjugal dictatorship.  

Because of you, in 1986, foreign debt ballooned to $26 billion, from $600 million in 1965.

Because of you began the exodus of citizens seeking better lives elsewhere, with ten percent of the nation’s populace now living in the diaspora.

Because of you, an archipelago that was once Asia’s second-strongest economy after Japan, is now the region’s sick man.

Because of you, extrajudicial killings, or salvagings (as they were termed then), have become standard if unofficial ways of silencing peaceful activists and even the hapless poor. 

Or perhaps the Queen was unwittingly rehearsing her defense at her 1990 federal trial in downtown Manhattan, that it was her late husband’s machinations that caused all that she was accused of under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, of investing illegally acquired funds into U.S. real estate. 

Her chief lawyer, cowboy-hatted Gerry Spence, relied on a blame-the-dead-man strategy, that the poor, innocent loving widow, dressed modestly in black, was unaware of her spouse’s misdeeds—just like any Mafia boss’s wife. And the jury—certainly not one of her peers—bought it. Thus was she acquitted on July 2, her sixty-first birthday, no less. Whisked away in a limo to St Patrick’s Cathedral, surrounded by paparazzi, she walked on padded knees to the altar, to give thanks to the Almighty, and especially to her late husband, attributing the verdict to his divine intervention: Because of Him.

And because of her, once martial law was declared in 1972, here in New York, some of us founded a satirical newsmonthly Ningas Cogon (Brushfire). We named it thus as none of us knew how long it would last, just like a brushfire that burns intensely but quickly dies out. The periodical was really a reincarnation of Imelda’s Monthly, a Manila underground satirical tabloid created in 1971 by Imelda Nicolas and some friends, the title ostensibly referring to Ms. Nicolas but really to the then First Lady and her monthly “visitations.” 

Unfortunately, Imelda’s Monthly ran for only two issues before Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. Right away, the military raided the publisher’s house and confiscated all her copies. Friends quickly squirreled theirs away. (Another target was my late sister-in-law Beatriz Romualdez Francia’s café Los Indios Bravos. A niece of Imelda, Betsy had been a critic of her aunt’s extravagant lifestyle. Due to the spurious charge that marijuana was easily available at Indios, Betsy was detained overnight at a military camp and released the next morning: a public humiliation decreed undoubtedly by Queen Kong.) 

The original issues of Imelda’s Monthly are now available in an e-book, edited by Imelda herself (Nicolas, that is).

Here in New York Imelda’s older sister, then immigration lawyer Loida Nicolas Lewis, took on the task as publisher of recreating the tabloid, with a small purely volunteer editorial crew that included myself, the late journalist and writer Nelson Navarro, and the late brilliant satirical cartoonist Severino “Nonoy” Marcelo. 

We had a tiny office right off Union Square, in a commercial building at the corner of East Seventeenth Street and Broadway. The typesetter was at one end of the building, right across the street from the offices of Andy Warhol’s Interview. (One afternoon, there to pick up the page proofs, I looked across and spied a mountain of a young man, his magnificent upper torso bared as he flexed his enormous biceps: Arnold Schwarzenegger being photographed for the magazine.)

Needless to say, the Consulate, headed by a Consul General who was a rabid Queen Kong loyalist, took a dim view of the publication, pressuring Filipino stores not to carry Ningas Cogon. Some buckled, some didn’t. Everyone on the masthead was blacklisted, including our resident gossip columnist. I found out later that my name had been misspelled and the order reversed, i.e., Luis Francia metamorphosed into Franco Luis. Which meant that immigration officials at Manila International Airport could not have matched my passport to any of the blacklisted names. 

So in January 1982, I attended the first Manila International Film Festival (MIFF). By then I was working as a copy editor for the now lamentably defunct The Village Voice, doubling as a freelance writer who wrote news and arts features related to Philippine as well as Asian and Asian American issues. Hence, the invitation to the Queen’s latest expensive boondoggle. She had long fantasized about Manila being a cultural force on the international stage, with her as its principal promoter. This festival was to be her calling card. 

It wasn’t film per se that she was interested in, but the glamour, the stars, the parties. Especially the parties—the fiesta aspect was the more important part. Interviewing Satyajit Ray, the great Indian director and chair of the festival jury, I asked him how the selections for the prize were coming along. He complained that he barely had time to view the films in competition. Too many parties, it seemed, with the queen requiring him to be present at her side. 

Assuming she had seen them, which I doubt she had, I suspect she would not have been appreciative of Ray’s films: lyrical, truthful, and even elegiac depictions of Indian society, far from your typical Bollywood product. Her favorite film it seemed was The Sound of Music. To her it fits admirably her prescription of what a film—and art—should be, that it portray the good, the true, and the beautiful. She was reported to have said that the ideal Filipino film should make its viewers desire to be Filipinos. She must have believed that viewers of The Sound of Music would emerge from the theaters ready to move to the Alps and sing their hearts out while looking remarkably well-fed, scrubbed—and white.

Hers was a la-la-land aesthetic so very different from the films being created by Filipino film directors then, particularly Lino Brocka, the great neorealist auteur of many of that era’s most powerful films: Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (Weighed But Found Wanting), Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light), Jaguar, Bona, Insiang. Through the stories of his proletarian characters burdened with dead-end lives, and often set amidst the teeming slums of Tondo, his works are an explosive indictment of the greed, corruption, and moral rot of contemporary Philippine realities, and therefore an indictment of the martial law regime. 

Brocka refused to attend the festival, deeming it one of the “smokescreens of the administration to cover up and to neutralize its human rights violations and excesses of repression and oppression.” In a filmed interview after the conjugal dictators fled, Brocka declared he would have unhesitatingly served on a firing squad to execute the couple.

Manila Bay was to be the picturesque backdrop for the festival, set to open in January 1982. In order to be ready for opening night, construction of the Film Palace (again, that royalist touch), as it was called then, required four thousand workers, working in three shifts 24-7.  The lobby took seventy two hours to construct, rather than the estimated six weeks. Costing approximately $25 million, the Film Palace did open on time.  

A dark cloud loomed over the festival, however. On November 17, 1981, at 3 a.m., a third-floor scaffolding collapsed, and 169 construction workers plunged to their deaths, suffocated in quick-drying cement that had just been poured onto the floor below. Rescuers and ambulances were prevented from going to the site, until her majesty could assess the situation and have her lackeys prepare an official statement. In the meantime, a news blackout was imposed. Nine agonizing hours later, rescue operations finally got underway, but it was too late. 

The official government tally? Just seven fatalities that the authorities claimed were given a proper burial. All the others were interred within the building’s structure as the construction proceeded, and there lie their bones.

In spite of the news blackout, some photographs taken clandestinely emerged. One continues to haunt me to this day: that of a young worker on the verge of death, his lower half submerged in the hardening cement, his arms extended and held up by his fellow workers reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pieta. With rescue teams prohibited from entering the site for nine hours, all his fellow workers could do to comfort him was to sing Christmas carols. 

That young man who died helping to build a monument to the Dream Factory, within which he lies entombed, is the perfect albeit tragic symbol of, and unwitting coda to, Queen Kong’s disregard for the lives and welfare of her fellow countrymen, giving the lie to her frequent proclamations that she was, and is, the nation’s caring mother. Femme fatale is more like it.

You can rest assured that, with the ascendancy of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to the presidency, Queen Kong will once again reprise her favorite role—woman and power behind the throne—but with the Dream Factory now a recurring national nightmare. 

A haunted nation. Because of You.