An excerpt from Empire of Memory
AT HALF PAST THREE in the afternoon of July 5, 1966, a mob hired by President Ferdinand Marcos chased the Beatles out of Manila International Airport. I remember the jittery footage of the scene being replayed over and over on The News Tonite on Channel 5. A grim-looking commentator was saying the Fab but Discourteous Four had shamelessly humiliated the First Lady and her children by refusing to pay a courtesy call at Malacañang Palace. Imelda Marcos herself hastily issued a statement saying the Beatles were to be treated humanely despite the snub, but this was said after the fact—after the Beatles had been kicked, spat at, cursed, and chased into a waiting jet.
Julian Hidalgo, known by the nickname Jun, took me and my sister Delphi to the Beatles’ concert at Rizal Memorial Stadium. At that time he was courting my sister and was hoping to win me over by playing the older brother. They were both nineteen, and the rituals of this older generation meant nothing to me beyond free passes to a number of movies, where I had to chaperone Delphi. The three of us would witness, not by accident, the Beatles being beaten up at the airport, and for some time we would bond in a special way—conspirators mystically united by an adventure whose significance would only dawn on us long after the event had passed. Jun explained a few details about this incident to me eighteen years later, when, in the ironic twists of fate that coursed through our lives during the dictatorship, he and I became colleagues once again in the censorship office in Malacañang. But in 1966 we were young, brash, and bold with hope, and like the entire country, we seemed on the verge of a privileged destiny.
Three days before the concert, Jun rushed to our house with three front-row tickets. Delphi’s eyes widened like 45s. “Where did you get the money this time, ha?” she asked incredulously.
“The First Lady gave them to me,” Jun said proudly. And, in response to our howls of disbelief, “Well, actually, this reporter from the Manila Times gave them to me. The First Lady was giving away sacks of rice and tickets last week. This reporter owed me for a tip I gave him years ago, the one that got him the Press Club award. He wanted the rice, I asked for the tickets. He was one of those Perry Como types.”
Imelda Marcos had flown in friends and media to celebrate her birthday on her native island of Leyte. There was roast suckling pig and a rondalla playing all day. She herself obliged requests for a song with a tearful ballad in the dialect, “Ang Irog Nga Tuna,” My Motherland. To commemorate the sentimental reunion, each guest went home with the rice and tickets.
“Now that’s style,” Delphi said. Then, upon reflection: “They won’t let Alfonso in.”
“Of course they would!” I protested. I was just thirteen but I was already as tall as she was.
“That’s not the point,” Jun said impatiently. “I’m going to get myself assigned to cover the Beatles and we can talk to them ourselves.”
“All the other reporters will beat you to it,” I said. Jun was stringing for the Manila Times and was convinced that getting an exclusive interview would land him a job as a staff reporter.
“All the other reporters listen to nothing but Ray Conniff,” he said. “Besides, nobody knows where they’re staying. But I do.”
Jun’s modus operandi wasn’t going to be that easy. He managed to get stage passes for the three of us, which turned out to be inutile. It was the official pass, printed and distributed in London, that we had to wangle if we were to get near the Beatles.
“Go ahead and do your job,” Delphi told him icily. “We’ll see you at the stadium.”
“I can still get you the pass,” Jun said. “Somehow.” He was beginning to realize that concert security would directly affect his personal relationships. But not even his religious coverage of pre-concert press briefings seemed to help. Local promoters announced that the Beatles’ only press conference was going to be held at the War Room of the Philippine Navy headquarters, and that the concert was being staged, not by coincidence, on the fourth of July as a birthday gift to the Republic (July 4th) and the First Lady (July 2nd).
Other questions were left unanswered. Had the Beatles secretly arrived by submarine? “That’s confidential.” Were they actually going to stay at the Palace? “That’s confidential.” In the end somebody asked if the Beatles actually existed, and the joke was that that, too, was confidential.
The excitement was further fueled by a series of wire stories the dailies ran on page one, including coverage of the Beatles’ world tour, warnings of possible riots all over the world, and a rare discordant moment in Tokyo, where a reporter asked the group, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” The reply: “If you grow up yourself you’d know better than to ask that question.”
Radio stations kept playing the Beatles’ hits (most requested: “Yesterday” and “Help!”), and DZUW, Rainy Day Radio, preempted everyone and began playing the new single, “Paperback Writer.” The Philippine Security Corporation created the biggest stir when it insured the Beatles for a million pesos. Two hundred Philippine Constabulary troopers, seven hundred policemen, detachments from the Pasay City and Parañaque police, the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the Bureau of Customs, and the Marines were on red alert. The First Lady bought fifteen hundred tickets and distributed them to volunteer recruits to Vietnam, who were going to be the show’s guests of honor. Pro-Beatle fan clubs were staging rallies, counterpointed by anti-Beatle demonstrations where placards said, “No one is more popular than Jesus!!!” Government bureaucrats had to drive away contractors who were bribing them with concert tickets. On the eve of the Beatles’ arrival, a young colegiala threatened to jump off the roof of the Bank of the Philippine Islands building unless she was granted a private audience with the band.
Backstage at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, an air-conditioned dressing room was hastily installed a day before the concert, complete with state-of-the-art TV monitors and audio equipment. Quarter-page ads appeared in the dailies for a week, announcing concert schedules and sponsors. Finally, on July 3, the day of the Beatles’ arrival, a full-page splash appeared in all the dailies:
LIVE! THE BEST IN THE WORLD!
THE BEATLES IN MANILA
With Asia’s Queen of Songs Pilita Corales
Carding Cruz and his Orchestra
The Wing Duo
The Lemons Three
The Reycard Duet
and Eddie Reyes & The Downbeats!
Early that morning, Jun called us up. “Get dressed, both of you. We’re meeting the Beatles at the airport.”
“What do you mean, we?” Delphi asked.
“I told you we’d talk to them, didn’t I?” Jun said. “Did I ever break a promise?”
On many occasions, yes, but this was one promise for which Delphi was willing to risk her life—and mine, if need be. She drove our parents’ 1964 Ford to the airport as though she wanted to mow down everything in our way, laughing as irate motorists yelled obscenities at us.
When we finally met Jun at the parking lot, he handed us a pile of obviously used porter uniforms. “I paid the guy twenty pesos to rent them,” he said proudly.
“Does this guy know what you’re renting them for?” Delphi asked, crinkling her nose as she daintily held her uniform away.
Jun held up a bootleg 45, pressed in Hong Kong, in red vinyl. “If I get an autograph, we get a refund.”
THE CATHAY PACIFIC jet swooped in at half past four. The airport was jam-packed with the biggest crowd I had ever seen in my life: girls in bobby socks and leatherette miniskirts and boys in seersucker suits, all perspiring and scrunched against a chain-link fence. This was definitely the wrong place to be. As the jet taxied in, we tore ourselves away from the crowd and wormed our way to one of the departure exits, just in time to catch a baggage trolley rattling toward the plane. Jun hopped on, and Delphi and I awkwardly clambered after him. I was afraid Delphi’s bobbed hair would spill out of the cap she was wearing and blow our cover. But, having regained her composure, she stood handsomely in the last car, gripping the rail; it was no wonder Jun risked life, limb, and career for her.
The trolley rattled past armored cars, fire trucks, riot squads, and troops of motorcycle police who were wearing special cowboy hats for this occasion. As soon as the trolley cranked to a stop under the jet, Jun hopped off. He was about to head toward the stairs when a limousine careened and cut him off. Three official-looking men dressed in formal barong Tagalog got off the limousine and rushed up to the plane. What followed was an interminable, bated-breath pause. Jun walked up the stairs and saw the officials arguing with passengers near the plane’s exit. Somebody was saying, “Is there a war going on?”
Finally, one official tentatively walked out of the plane. This was enough to excite the increasingly impatient crowd, and immediately a cacophony of screams burst from the viewing deck. The screams grew louder as other officials and soldiers walked out of the plane. By the time Brian Epstein groggily stepped out, the screaming had reached earsplitting level—no matter that the soldiers surrounded the Beatles from jet to limousine and we caught glimpses of them only through spaces in the cordon sanitaire: George Harrison, his hair tousled by the humid wind, his red blazer flashing like a signal of distress, Ringo Starr in peppermint stripes and flapping foulard, Paul McCartney, round-eyed and baby-faced, and John Lennon, hiding behind dark glasses.
Jun hurried down the stairs and motioned for us to follow him.
“What happened in there?” Delphi asked him.
“I don’t know,” Jun said. “All I heard was a lot of words your folks wouldn’t want you to hear.”
“What does that mean?” Delphi asked.
“Nothing we can’t find out,” said Jun.
THE MANILA TIMES ran a story about the press conference at the War Room. Jun fumed over his colleague’s story, saying, “This idiot did little more than transcribe the Q&A.” It turned out, however, that the Beatles’ replies would be uncannily prophetic.
THE BEATLES! YEAH!
By Bobby Tan
When did you last get a haircut?
Would you be as popular without your long hair?
We can always wear wigs.
How much taxes do you pay?
What attracted you to your wives?
Do you feel you deserve the Order of the British Empire?
Yeah. But when you’re between 20 and 23, there are bound to be some criticisms.
How will you solve the Vietnam War?
Give it back to whoever deserves it.
What’s your latest song?
Mr. Lennon, what did you mean by Spaniard in your latest book?
Have you read it?
Then read it.
If there should come a time when you have to choose between the Beatles and your family, whom would you choose?
We never let our families come between us.
What is your favorite song?
“God Save the King.”
But it’s the Queen now.
“God Save the Queen” then.
What will you be doing ten years from now?
Why bother about ten years from now? We don’t even know if we’ll be around tomorrow.
ON THE EVE of July 4, Philippine-American Friendship Day, President Ferdinand Marcos urged Filipinos to “recall the lasting and valuable friendship between America and the Philippines” and issued a statement saying a revamp of the government bureaucracy was imminent. “Heads Will Roll!” the dailies shrilled, their bold prediction thrust audaciously by homeless street children against car windows along Highway 54.
At the Quirino Grandstand the next day, the President sat in the sweltering heat as troops paraded before him. Three stations covered the Friendship Day rites, but Channel 5 ignored it completely, running instead a 24-hour update on the Beatles. Marcos seethed on the grandstand, and cameras caught the expression on his face that might have said: Damned Trillos, they really get my goat. The Trillos owned the Manila Times and many broadcast stations and refused to accommodate the First Family’s whims. But Marcos had the last laugh. On this very afternoon, back at the Palace, Imelda and the children would be having lunch with the Beatles. All television stations and newspapers had been invited for a five-minute photo opportunity—all, that is, except the Trillo network. Marcos tried to stifle a smirk as he saluted the troops. Proud and dignified in his white suit, he stood out like some sartorial titan: people said you could tell he was going in for a second term.
CALLA LILIES were brought in at nine by Emma Fernandez, one of the Blue Ladies, so-called because Imelda Marcos had them wear nothing but blue. The flowers adorned the corridors of the palace all the way to the formal dining hall, where about a hundred youngsters, ages three to fifteen, listlessly waited for the Beatles. Imee, the eldest of the Marcos children, sporting a new bobcut hairdo, sat at the head of the table. Her younger sister Irene sat beside her, reticent and uncomfortable in Sunday clothes. Ferdinand Junior, master Bongbong to one and all, was wearing a bowtie and a starched cotton shirt, and his attire apparently made him restless, as he kept sliding off his seat to pace the floor. Around them were children of ministers, generals, business tycoons, and friends of the family, sitting under buntings of red, white, and blue and paper flags of the United States and the Philippines.
Imelda Marcos walked in at exactly eleven. Emma Fernandez approached her, wringing her hands, and whispered in her ear: “They’re late!” Imelda brushed her off, an imperceptible smile parting her lips. She kissed the children one by one, Imee dodging and receiving instead a red smear on the ear. She inspected the cutlery, the lilies, the nameplates: two R’s each for Harrison and Starr, check; two N’s for Lennon; and no A in Mc. She scanned the room proudly, deflecting the grateful, expectant faces, the small fingers clutching cardboard tickets to the concert.
At half past eleven the children began complaining, so breadsticks and some juice were served. Imelda walked around the hall, stopping to strike a pose for the palace photographers. “Good shot, Madame!” The photographers were the best in the field, plucked out of the newsrooms to accompany her on all her itineraries. They had been sufficiently instructed on which angle to shoot from and which side to take, and anyone who took the wrong shot was dismissed posthaste, his camera and negatives confiscated. The children were more difficult to shoot: bratty and impatient, they always came out pouting, with their chins stuck out. It was always best to avoid them.
Unknown to this gathering, a commotion was going on at the lobby of the Manila Hotel. On hand were Brian Epstein and members of the concert crew; Colonel Justin Flores and Captain Nilo Cunanan of the Philippine Constabulary; Sonny Balatbat, the teenage son of Secretary of State Roberto Balatbat; Captain Fred Santos of the Presidential Guard; Major Tommy Young and Colonel Efren Morales of the Manila Police District; and local promoter Rene Amos.
“We had an agreement,” Colonel Flores was saying. “We sent a telegram to Tokyo.”
“I don’t know about any fucking telegram,” Epstein replied.
“The First Lady and the children have been waiting all morning.”
“Nobody told them to wait.”
“The First Lady will be very, very disappointed.”
Brian Epstein looked the colonel in the eye and said, “If they want to see the Beatles, let them come here.”
At the stroke of noon, Imelda Marcos rose from her chair and walked out of the dining hall. “The children can wait,” she said, “but I have more important things to do.”
As soon as she was gone, Imee pushed back her chair, fished out her ticket, and tore it in two. The other children followed, and for a few seconds there was no sound in the hall but the sound of tickets being torn. Bongbong hovered near the plate that had been reserved for John Lennon. “I really much prefer the Rolling Stones,” he said. Photographers caught the young master at that moment, his eyes wide and blank. Imee looked at him and remarked, “The only Beatles song I liked was ‘Run for Your Life.’” She looked around the hall defiantly. She had never been so embarrassed in her life. People always said that among the three Marcos children, she was the sensitive one. That morning she seemed she was about to cry.
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