Monday, October 24, 2011

Pinoy West End Star Comes Home to Do Us Proud

As Fantine in Les Miserables
 Originally published in Pinoycentric in April 2008

She is to the West End what Lea Salonga is to Broadway. Theater actor and singer Joanna Ampil was 17 when she was whisked off to do Kim in the London production of Miss Saigon.  Over the years, she’s made a name for herself, playing Mimi in Rent, Eponine and Fantine in Les Miserables. She was even handpicked by British composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to do Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar.

But for two months, Pinoy audiences who have only heard her her sing in the 1995 recording of Miss Saigon will finally get to see her perform live as Maria in the Stages-produced West Side Story, opposite Christian Bautista as Tony. It’s the first time that she’s performing for a Pinoy audience, and yes, she admits to still getting the jitters on opening night.

In this interview, Joanna talks about her experiences in London, what she misses the most about the Philippines, how she looks forward to experiencing Pinoy-style Christmas, and what she had to give up to give back to her kababayan back home.

It’s your first time to do a musical in the Philippines. What made you decide to do it?
It’s always been my passion to be in West Side Story. It’s my favorite musical, and I saw it in London a few years ago and the part really appealed to me.

What did you have to give up in London to come home to the Philippines to do this show?

I have an agent in London, and I asked him not to put me up for anything in the next six months because I really want to concentrate on this, and I think it’s really important to do this for my fellow Filipinos. I feel complete to be able to do something for them. It’s important that I’m here and not distracted with anything.

What are the differences between West End and Philippine theater?
We have longer hours over there. Here its approximately 4 to 5 hours. I know we’re not as rich as West End or Broadway, so we have to use whatever resources are available to us here, and I think it’s a good thing because it makes us more creative and imaginative.

What are the good things you’ve seen in West End theater that you’d like to be replicated in Philippine productions?
I guess it’s the professionalism–being on time all the time. The Filipino way is being late a lot, so I try to come early to show people they have to be early. So far everyone’s been good. I couldn’t complain. Of course, there have been instances when people were late and you don’t know who’s gonna turn up or what time.  Hopefully people learn to communicate, especially because there’s a lot of texting going on in the country.

You’re a veteran of several opening nights. Do you still get the jitters when you open a show? 
Absolutely. I do a lot of breathing and I pray. And I do certain exercises and meditate.

Since you’re doing many shows, how do you take care of your voice?
It’s a skill you have to develop because in the West End we do eight shows a week. Here, for West Side Story, we do only weekends, and less pa for me because there’s Karylle who’ll also be doing the show. I make sure I don’t go out very late. I drink a lot of water. Everything that a singer does. You just have to be very  disciplined if singing is your passion.

What is your advice to Pinoys who want to make it in musical theater?
Persevere and stick to your passion and your dreams. And never ever take anything personally.

Many Filipinos who have performed abroad say the Filipino audience is very hard to please. What can you say about this?
That actually makes us perfectionists and I think am that way too. I am pretty hard to please, and I totally understand why.

How do you keep yourself busy in between shows?
I try to keep myself busy by training and exercising. It’s important that you keep your stamina when you’re doing shows. I did kickboxing in London for a few months before coming over. I know it’s not very ladlylike, but it’s what I wanted to do. Also some dancing.

What music do you dig?
Pop and R&B. My favorite performers are musical theater performers, but before I left the Philippines, I was very much influenced by the likes of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.

What music player do you own and what are your top 10 favorite songs?
I have an 80G iPod. My top 10 . . . I love Puff Daddy’s “Come with Me” because the beat is a bit fast and I can exercise to it. I also have a lot of Mariah  Carey and Whitney Houston songs in it. I also like Chaka Khan. There’s a lot of ’80s songs in there.

You’ve been away for 16 years. What do you miss the most about the Philippines?
The food and the hospitality of Pinoys. And people wanting to pamper you all the time. I love that.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Conquering the World, One Design at a Time

Originally published in Pinoycentric on April 16, 2007

Kenneth Cobonpue needs no introduction to people who know furniture and design. The Cebu-born furniture designer went to Pratt Institute in New York and apprenticed in Florence, Italy, and Munich, Germany, for woodworking, upholstery, and cabinet making. Aside from winning the 2005 Design for Asia Award for his Lolah collection, Kenneth's craftsmanship has been acknowledged in the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, the Singapore International Furniture Design Competition, IIDA/Hospitality Design Product Competition, and the High Point Show. He is also a member of Movement 8, a select group of Filipino designers.

Kenneth is also known for his A-list clientele, including Hollywood actor Brad Pitt, who bought one of his Voyage beds, and Warner Brothers, which commissioned him to furnish a casino set for the movie Ocean's Thirteen.

In this Innerview, Kenneth talks about the design process, growing up with a mother who is also a furniture designer, and his aversion to feng shu.

Pinoycentric: You once said, in an interview with Generation Rice, that you grew up with the smell of lacquer, wood, and varnish, so we can probably say you were “destined" to be a furniture designer because your mother was also into furniture design. But had you had not chosen this path, what would you be doing now? Was there a conscious effort to pursue other inclinations?
 Kenneth Cobonpue: I think every kid harbors a secret desire to blaze a trail completely different from his parents and still make them proud in the end. As a teenager, I was very fascinated with plays and musicals. It’s amazing how you can transport people in a couple of hours to another world under stage lights. I found out that the world of design is like that no matter what field you are. With my furniture, I see people react and connect to them in ways I never imagined possible. And that’s what makes my work worthwhile.

How does the design process go for you? Do you have "a-ha!" moments that you can share with us? How long does it take to come up with a design (from design to prototype)?

The design process can take a month to a year to come into fruition. And even then, it never stops. I still find myself tweaking my original designs 10 years down the line. We usually start with the material and play with it like children. We approach everything three-dimensionally and we build models from the early stages of the design process. That’s why my designs have a very sculptural feel about them. My team and I go through “a-ha” moments, only to be doused with water along the way when we start thinking about cost, manufacturability, and stability. But we always pull through in the end.

A furniture consultant once said that a furniture designer can never get too attached to his designs. Do you agree with this?

On the contrary, every design of mine is like a special child that enters into the world complete with its share of birth pains. After I baptize them with names, I never agree to have them renamed or redesigned by other people. I tell people who want to change my designs to go and make babies on their own.

Do you have one particular design that you loathe selling? Can you tell us the story behind it?
I have these chairs that look like your generic Ikea design wrapped in leather. They sell so well, but I don’t want to even have anything to do with it.

With Brad Pitt's having bought one of your designs, the entire Philippines suddenly took notice of you. How did you feel about this?
Brad Pitt has five of my designs in his collection, which he bought over three years. The press caught on to it only last year. It’s kind of ironic that you need a celebrity to validate your work in most parts of the world. But that’s just the way it is.

How has your increasingly popularity and the fact that you're from Cebu City helped the local furniture industry to establish a global niche?
With increasing competition from China and our other Asian neighbors, I like to think that I showed fellow Filipinos an alternative way to win in the global market by not thinking about quantity but quality. Design is the last competitive advantage that the Philippines has when it comes to manufacturing objects.

Most of your designs can be afforded by only the rich, which may have some people thinking of you as too elitist. Is there a conscious effort to break away from this mold? Are you coming up with less-expensive and affordable designs too? Do you also envision every Filipino family having a Cobonpue design at home?
Every designer dreams of creating something that everyone can afford, including me. It’s just not possible right now because my factory cannot produce goods of superior quality in high volumes. Designing things for every Filipino home is high up on my list of things to do before I expire.

Do you also also take feng shui into account when you're designing? Do you apply it in your home? How do you balance design theory and feng shui?
I think feng shui as we know it today should be a natural and subconscious extension of one’s way of life. Either you live your life in a peaceful and contented way or you don’t. No amount of furniture switching and mirrors can change your life. I loathe at the thought of hiring a feng shui expert to re-arrange your life according to invisible forces in the universe that you know nothing of.

Can you give us three "fast tips" on designing a home? What should one remember when arranging furniture? What colors should one stay away from? What colors should one gravitate toward?
Design is a lot like life. You have to get your values and priorities in place. When designing a home, you need to know what the dominant or focal point of the whole scheme is. It’s the plot in a story, the refrain in a song, the long neck of a giraffe. Every other element in the home should visually support that dominant piece. That’s why museums are painted in appropriate colors to highlight the pieces on display, places of worship are quiet so you can listen to your Creator speak, and drum rolls precede smashing cymbals.

You have made the world take notice of the Filipino designer with your creations. What do you think aspiring designers should do to achieve world-class standards like you have?
In order to be noticed by the world, you have to offer something unique. The world has enough of everything. You can start by taking inspiration from others or by even borrowing. But you have to look inside you and transform it into something personal and unique until you can call it your own. In my case, it was the combination of natural materials, organic modern design, and innovative craftsmanship.

The PinoyCentric tagline goes: "All things brown and beautiful," pertaining, of course, to the Pinoy and the Philippines. What makes Kenneth Cobonpue distinctly "brown" (not literally, of course) and "beautiful"?
My designs are usually brown because of the materials I use. (Laughter) Seriously, everything about me is Filipino from the materials I use, the craftsmen who make them, and the inspirations my designs come from. I think the most beautiful thing about my adventure is that Filipino design culture has finally become global.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Finding Healing in Her Mother’s Land

Originally published in Pinoycentric on April 28, 2009
Filipino-American musical theater actor Stephanie Reese’s journey to find her roots in the Philippines occurred three years ago, at a “time of great despair.”

“I gave up my singing and acting career because the man that I had fallen in love with died in a car accident. It turned my life upside down,” relates the Seattle-born soprano.

From being an ambitious and successful actor and singer—she played Kim in the European production of Miss Saigon, and Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tuptim in The King and I, both in West End—Stephanie became withdrawn and was ready to give up on life.

And then she met Gawad Kalinga founder Tony Meloto, who invited her to come to the Philippines. It was the first time Stephanie would ever set foot on her mother’s homeland.

She would find the healing she was looking for in the Philippines. Through Gawad Kalinga, a movement that raises money to help build homes for poor Filipino families, Stephanie met people who had also gone through difficult times in their lives. The immersion opened her eyes and inspired her to go back to her music and revive her theater career.

“Tito Tony [made me realize that] we always need a higher purpose in everything that we do. I felt that here in the Philippines, and I am forever indebted to this country,” Stephanie says.

Finding her roots
Stephanie’s homecoming was also a chance to know more about her Filipino roots.

Raised in the US by an American-Japanese father and a Filipino-Chinese mother from Camalig, Albay, Stephanie says, “I didn’t know how it was to be Filipino until I came to the country. I am of mixed blood and heritage, but after coming here, I feel I am a hundred percent Filipino.”

She has since taken great pride in representing the Philippines in her performances. “I’d like to break stereotypes of what people think and believe of Filipinos. There’s more to Philippine culture than just karaoke singing. I’m so proud to be able to represent our culture,” she says.

This Pinoy’s got talent
Now back on her feet, Stephanie is making a name for herself in the US through her unique singing style. Dubbed “The Standing Ovation Queen,” she’s wowed fans and industry insiders with her diverse repertoire of Broadway, opera, ballads, pop, kundiman, and even hip-hop. What’s more impressive is that she can switch from one genre to another without missing a beat!

Her recent concert in Beverly Hill’s Crustacean Restaurant, where she sang with Patti La Belle and Natalie Cole, has “put [her] on the Hollywood map.” Her rendition of the aria “Nessun Dorma” had the audience on its feet and impressed La Belle, who called this five-foot-one-inch singer “the little girl with the big voice.”

After conquering European musical theater and Hollywood, Stephanie is coming home to share her gift with her countrymen in a first solo concert, “I Am Stephanie Reese,” at the Teatrino in Greenhills on May 4.

“I really want to create a name for myself [here in the Philippines," she admits. "I want to share my music from the north to the south, to give back to the people, [because] when I come here I always feel a sense of healing. My grandparents and my mother are from here, and so I would really like to honor my grandparents and my heritage by embracing this culture.”

We got to talk to Stephanie Reese during her meeting with the Philippine press last week, and this Q&A is recreated from a one-on-one interview and her answers during the press conference.

PinoyCentric: How was it like growing up?
My mom raised me to be [very Filipino]. Everyone asks me, “Are you sure you were born here?” because they say I’m more Filipino than American, and I take that as a big compliment. I’m very conservative.

Did your mother ever make an effort to introduce you to the Pinoy culture?
She tried her best, but we were living with my dad’s family who were American, and it was hard for her until my grandparents came. So that was her effort: in bringing them to live with us.

My [lola] was my inspiration for my love of music. From the time she lived with us, she’d sing songs to me every day. She really planted that seed of the love of music in me. My first stage, I’d like to think, was my own living room.

Do you have a favorite Pinoy dish?
I love Bicol express and laing!

What do you consider the landmark of your career?
Originally I would have said Miss Saigon, but as I began as a solo artist, I’d like to say it’s my one-woman show, The Journey. [Editor: Stephanie writes, produces, and directs this autobiographical show.]

What’s "The Journey" all about?
It’s about my life–my life story told through music. It’s similar to what I’ll be doing in Teatrino, but because I’ve lived my life since I wrote it, I had to rewrite it to include my journey in the Philippines, so it’s gone now from this autobiographical story to [the Teatrino concert] “I am Stephanie Reese.”

There aren’t a lot of singers who write their own songs. What inspires your songwriting?
Life–people that I meet and whatever I experience in life is what I make comments on. When I get a little [idea] in my head, I just follow that inspiration.

How did you find your way to Miss Saigon in Germany? Did you have to know German?
I auditioned in New York. No [laughter], I didn’t know German. They just cast me and taught me phonetically.

How long did it take you to learn German?
They don’t give you much time—I had eight hours a day of phonetics. I had about a few weeks before I could go onstage.

What advice can you give to those who are starting out?
I would tell them to keep singing and to know that it is the biggest gift you can share with others. Know that when you’re given a gift from God, you have to take care of it. Your goal shouldn’t be to be famous or to make money but to share.

Sing anywhere and everywhere you can. Don’t wait for other people to give you opportunities. Create your own opportunities.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Mom's Pork and Beans

There are only three dishes that my mom has mastered in her 60 years, and one of them is her own version of pork and beans.

I say this now, not with disappointment. Prior to an early retirement prompted by her dimming vision, my mom had been a schoolteacher and spent eight hours teaching grade school and tutored Chinese scions after work, so she rarely had time to cook. Lucky for her, she had a patient husband who didn’t mind doing the cooking.

Because a meal cooked by my mom was a rare treat, we always looked forward to the special occasions when she would whip up her special dishes: chopsuey, which she perfected during our years in Baguio City; and pork and beans and mongo, two one-pot meals she prepared with the patience of Job, as they required all-morning cooking over charcoal.

Sundays were Mom’s turn in the kitchen. I remember her getting up at 6 a.m., and my dad would drive her to the nearest market to get fresh produce and meat for a special Sunday lunch.

Mom’s secret ingredient in her pork and beans was pata or pork leg. I would wake up salivating to the aroma of pork leg simmering over charcoal. Mom wasn’t one to rush her specialty, which made it all the more delicious.

We’d leave for church and come home hurriedly, looking forward to Sunday’s piece de resistance: a pot of cooked pork and beans, waiting to be seasoned with salt and tomato sauce. The meat–simmering over charcoal for four hours–was soft, cooked just right, its fiber flaking off, its fatty part chewy. If that wasn’t heaven on earth, I don’t know what is.

House guests who have been treated to Mom’s pork and beans leave with a lot more respect for this one-pot wonder, their prior acquaintance of which was limited to the canned Hunt’s kind. (Even today, you can never make me eat a can of pork and beans, having grown up with my mom’s homecooked version.)

One American missionary we invited over for dinner once said my mom’s pork and beans tasted the same way his grandmother’s version did. He had been away from home for quite too long and was missing his favorite Western-style pork and beans.

In college, when I lived away from home for the first time, it was Mom’s pork and beans that I missed the most. During the rare times that I came home, wherever my nomadic family happened to be,  Mom never failed to prepare her pork and beans. I’ve tasted my maternal aunt’s version of the pork and beans, but always, what remains my biggest favorite is my mom’s, maybe because hers is cooked with a lot of love and patience for a child who, though grown up, will forever be her baby at heart.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Nikki Alfar: Writing with Courage

Photo credit: Dean Alfar
Originally published in on June 26, 2007

“It took a long while before I got enough confidence to admit that I’m not Butch Dalisay, but that’s okay.”

For someone who once did not have enough courage to write, fictionist Nikki Go Alfar has certainly covered considerable mileage, judging from the awards she’s received.

In 2001, the comic book Isaw Atbp, which she edited, earned a National Book Award. Her short story for children, “Menggay’s Magical Chicken,” won third prize in the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 2005. A one-act play, “Life After Beth,” also won last year.

Nikki was named among the “13 emerging women writers” by the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings, which cited her work as editor of Mango Jam, a girl power comic series.

At six, Nikki already knew that she was going to be a writer. “I started writing Nancy Drew-type stories, then I moved on to the Sweet Dreams type. I used to get in trouble a lot in school because my notebooks were full of stories but had no notes,” she relates.

“Pretty much from the start, I was really into this whole speculative fiction bent. One of the first novels I read was Stephen King’s Cujo and later The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien,” Nikki remembers.

Her parents were not as encouraging, however. “My mom brainwashed me, ‘If you’re going to be a writer, you will be poor!’ and I didn’t want to be poor. I’m kikay [stylish], so I can’t be poor!” she laughs.

Enrolling at UP Diliman’s creative writing program didn’t provide much encouragement either.

“You know how it is,” she explains, “in grade school and high school, you think you’re very brilliant—and then you get to college and you realize: hey, there are other more brilliant people and you’re just okay!”

While she put her writing ambitions aside, Nikki continued to participate in a writers’ group, where she would meet playwright Dean Alfar, who would later become her husband.

“After college, I did a lot of other things—I was a flight attendant at Air Philippines and later a bank manager—because I wasn’t brave. You see, when you start in writing, it’s not a lot of money, and of course, since I had just come out of college, I wanted money!”

(Her husband Dean, who had won three Palancas before they got married, also went on a writing hiatus for the same reason: “When I got married, I decided that I should prioritize my real life [because] there’s a certain sense of duty, of obligation. You have two mouths to feed, and honestly, writing doesn’t pay the bills,” he said in a previous Innerview with PinoyCentric.)

Getting the groove back
It was in Hong Kong, where the Alfar couple lived briefly, that Nikki slowly eased her way back into writing, first for magazines and later for comics catering to an adult audience (“I wrote porn!” she exclaims, “but somewhere in the course of the last couple of years, I seem to have lost the ability”).

Sometime after moving back to Manila, where Nikki gave birth to their daughter Sage, now five, the couple started writing fiction again.

Nikki reflects: “The first year that I joined, we both lost, and I felt, oh my God, I’m not just not good, I’m bad luck!”

It was her second entry to Palanca—“Menggay’s Magical Chicken”—that got Nikki her first award in 2005.

“By that time, I had been married to Dean for many years, and he’d been winning a lot, and I was used to going to the award ceremony and receiving things for him, so when I got an envelope, I assumed it was for Dean. I opened his, and said, Yay, he won!” (This was for Salamanca, which won the grand prize for novel that year.)

The other envelope was for Nikki. “I honestly thought when I was reading it, siguro naman they’re not gonna write to tell me I suck, di ba? ‘Dear Nikki, you suck, don’t join again.’”

Because of her speculative fiction leanings, Nikki’s stories are mostly a blend of the modern and folklore or mythology. In the short story “Heritage,” for example, the protagonist makes a life-changing decision with some guidance from Lola Basyang.

“I have been told that I tend to be funny, although I don’t try to be so. I guess my sarcasm and cynicism come out in my writing, as well as my mad obsession with folklore,” she assesses.

“I wouldn’t say it’s unique because my idols—Gilda Cordero-Fernando and Jing Hidalgo—have delved into that. Maybe mine is a freakier version!”

These days, Nikki works mainly from home, which gives her more time with Sage and also allows her privileges that a corporate setup does not offer—cigarettes, for example.

“I can’t think without my nicotine! If I don’t smoke, I write two or three sentences and then nothing,” she says. Years back when she was doing full-time copywriting work, she’d go out of the building and, after two puffs, would run back to the office and write.

There also has to be absolute silence. “I have to not have people talking when I’m writing. I can’t even listen to music with words. It has to be instrumental or else I’ll follow the words.”

Sometimes when she’s stuck in a story that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, she shifts gears. “I usually move on to a different story, or I play an online game until I can get back to what I’m writing. My husband has a theory that there’s no such thing as a writer’s block: All it takes is discipline.”

Nikki is certainly braver now than she was years ago. “It took a long while before I got enough confidence to admit that I’m not Butch Dalisay, but that’s okay.”

To talent and courage, add discipline, Nikki says. “Having studied creative writing in college, I believe one cannot teach a person how to write, but you can teach someone how not to write. The only way to write is to read and write.”

Monday, December 13, 2010

Taste of Home in Hong Kong

I asked a Hong Kong-based colleague to recommend a Filipino restaurant in the city, and she gave me instructions on how to get to Mang Ambo’s Filipino Restaurant on Jaffe Road. It’s hard not to miss this hole-in-the-wall. If you’re coming from the Hong Kong Exhibition Centre (or the Wanchai pier), the canteen is to your right.

The legendary Mang Ambo was not there, although I caught a glimpse of his photo from a newspaper clipping posted by the cashier. This turo-turo attracts Pinoys from all walks: from the domestic helpers to the musicians; the occasional Pinoys on business trips to the fashionable Zara-wearing bureau editors.

Having come from cocktails, I was full, but I decided, what’s wrong with a stick of pork barbecue? But the cashier offered, “Mas mahal po, ma’am, pag isang ulam lang.” I had no choice but to get their set meal, composed of a cup of rice and two viand choices. Tonight, there was kare-kare, dinuguan, mechado, bistek, and pork barbecue, among others. I decided on bistek and pork barbecue. Plus a can of Coke, the evening’s damages amounted to HK$31, or about PhP180+.

While Mang Ambo’s would certainly not merit high marks in terms of ambience, I’m certain they’ll earn brownie points for offering a taste of home away from home.

Mang Ambo’s Filipino Restaurant
120 Jaffe Road
Wanchai, Hong Kong
+852 2143 6877No Tags

Your Friendly Pinoy Grocer in Hong Kong

If you’re a Pinoy living in Wanchai on Hong Kong island, you probably buy phone credits for your Philippine SIM at Tindahan ni Mang Ambo (or “Mang Ambo’s Store”) on Lockhart Road. In fact, we bet you probably get your stash of instant pancit canton, Ligo sardines, balut and itlog na pula (salted egg), Rexona, Maxi-Peel, and RDL at the same grocery.

I passed by Tindahan tonight on my way back to the hotel from work, after having a quick dinner at Mang Ambo’s Filipino Restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall that serves authentic Pinoy food. Both establishments are owned by the elusive Mang Ambo (who was not present at his carinderia the night we dropped by).

The woman tending the place, Marissa, who has been living in Hong Kong for eight years, says the grocery has suppliers who bring in Pinoy food and personal care items regularly. And that’s not all! Would you believe the shop actually has two Internet-enabled computers, equipped with webcam? Marissa says a half-hour of Internet use costs HK$15, or PhP90. There are even DVDs of Pinoy movies!

Tindahan ni Mang Ambo
147 Lockhart Road
Wanchai, Hong Kong