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Growing Up in Muddas

by Anthony L. Tan1
I was beginning to lose my milk teeth
when into the town of Muddas blew the
fresh strains of a song I later came to
know is called Ill Never Smile Again.
Together with the other ballroom dance
pieces such as Moonlight in Vermont,
it was the craze of the young and the
once-young. My next-door neighbors
had the penchant for playing their new
records a little too loudly so that
everyone without a hi-fi (pronounced
hee-fee in those benighted years)
could enjoy a little music. This was
when Muddas had no electricity, and
the sound of two generators in the wee
hours of the morning was like the
heartbeat of the island itself.
I would wake up to the drone of
the generators at three, or thereabout, in
the morning, when through the
balustrade of the balcony I would pee
on the dusty sidewalk of the main
street. My brothers and I slept on the
balcony on moonlit nights. It was cool
and comfortable, and the loneliness of
the deserted night street, with the
bewitching moon about to set over the
mountain of Pandami Island, had a
romantic fascination for me.
Sleeping on the balcony was my
elder brothers idea. Not so much
because he enjoyed the moon-blanched
balcony but because he was excited by
the happenings on the street, the
midnight minstrels who passed by the
1

house, and much later by Abdul Sayid


who would sing out his favorite
Around the World, very much unlike
Nat King Cole, in his drunken voice,
this Abdul who had never traveled
farther beyond the shore of Muddas.
There were other goings-on the main
street had to offer: the street hand-tohand fights of drunken, one-nightmillionaire sailors who had recently
returned from Sandakan and Jesselton,
and had just squandered their
mercantile success on spirits in the
seedy
watering
holes
of
the
impoverished island; occasionally, a
gunfight where one liquor-soaked
combatant, shaking his right hand and
itching for a draw, in comic but earnest
imitation of Pinoy western movies,
would shout a threatening challenge at
his foe in broken Tagalog: Bumunot ka!
Once, a drunken sergeant of the 81st
Philippine Constabulary held the
pedestrians to a standstill when, with a
service pistol leveled at the passersby,
he threatened to shoot anyone who
moved. Even a policeman on patrol, his
automatic carbine slung on one
shoulder, was caught unprepared and
could do nothing to stop the verbal
abuse that emitted from the sergeants
mouth. In his impeccable khaki uniform
he was standing at the gate of the only
movie house in town. For a quarter of
an hour he held his ungallant post as

Born and raised in Siasi, Sulu, Anthony L. Tan took his MA in Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English
from Silliman University. For more than a decade, he was a faculty member of the English
Department and regular member of the panel of critics at the Silliman Summer Writers Workshop.
He authored two poem collectionsThe Badjao Cemetery and Other Poems and Poems for
Muddas. He is listed in the Philippine Encyclopedia of Philippine Arts and Artists. Story and the
notes on the author are reprinted from Mantala: A Quarterly Journal of Philippine Literature 1.1
(1997).

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Anthony Tans Growing Up in Muddas 2

soldier until his superior officer, 1st


Lieutenant Diego Santander, came
down from the PC headquarters to
disarm and pacify him and to bring him
back to the barracks.
Otherwise, the street, but for the
rustling of scraps of paper on windy
night, would be peacefully deserted.
Only Elvis, the dog of the neighbors
across the street, could be seen
scratching mightily, irritatingly, the
fleas off his neck under the fluorescent
lamp of one of the street posts. In the
cloudless sky the moon would be
spilling all its silver splendor and
solitude over the nipa roofs, over a few
galvanized ones that glinted in the
night, and over the south, just under the
majesty of the Southern Cross, the blueblack mountains of Pandami and
Siganggang. In retrospect it was a scene
that led many a meditation and fired
the poetic fancy, youthful dreams of
faraway lands that one day would lead
to inevitable exile from Muddas.
The area in front of the movie
house was the gayest and most welllighted spot in Muddas. It was owned
by a Chinese family, one bachelor and
his two spinster sisters. With an
assistant, he was in charge of operating
the projectors while his sisters manned
the ticket booth and the gate. There was
only one screening period, and that was
around seven in the evening. Before
screening time songs from the records
were played; and two loudspeakers,
mounted on both sides of the second
story of the movie house, broadcast the
tunes to all and sundry, inveigling
everyone to come and enjoy the show.
Every note of the songs was like a bell
announcing Hurry, Hurry. Clients
would mill around the ticket booth and,
after buying their peanuts or cigarettes
from one of the many box-like stalls that

nightly blossomed on the street across,


rush into the movie house with the
lights still on and settle not-so-snugly
into one of the long wooden benches,
mindful that they would not sit on one
with a lot of bedbugs. Once inside the
movie house, they would wait patiently
for the dark and for the magic images to
appear on the screen to carry them to
some places and events of their separate
dreams.
The bachelor was responsible for
playing the songs, usually his favorite
songs, or the latest hits one heard over a
Zamboanga radio station. From so
much repetition we kids learned to sing
Theres a gold mine in the sky far
away. But our favorite was I saw the
harbor lights, because one night we
saw a war movie where Jono Wine,
a.k.a. John Wayne, the hero, and his
companions were on a battleship,
watching the harbor lights fade away,
and the strains of the melody were in
the air. Made popular by Rudy Vallee,
Harbor Lights became our favorite
also because our favorite haunt was the
Muddas wharf, which was well-lighted
whenever a boat from Jolo in the north
was unloading cargo before it
proceeded to Bongao in the south, and
because there was so much longing and
sadness in the song whose words and
meaning we scarcely understood.
Hardly did we anticipate that one day
we ourselves would be on one of the
boats and someone we loved would be
left behind, never, never to see again.
One day the bachelor fell in love
with my lovely cousin who was then
only a high school lass. Being a shy,
secretive Chinese who could not, and
did not, express his feelings openly, he
could only suggest them to her by
asking her what songs shed like to
listen to when he played the records

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Anthony Tans Growing Up in Muddas 3

before screening time. Soon the evening


air was full of the melodies of Brenda
Lee, Bobby Vinton and Teddy
Randazzo, replacing those of Nat King
Cole, Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra,
and Stardust gave way to Moon
River. With these tunes the years
moved headlong toward mid-60s and
Beatles-time, inexorably carrying my
cousin to a far off city to study in
college, leaving behind the man who
loved her. Years later I heard he had
died a bachelor, pining for lost love,
without having left Muddas, for which
his songs were the sounds of the island,
and to which my cousin never returned.
In the fifties movies were few
and far in-between because the boats
that carried the canned films came to
Muddas from the north only twice a
week, sometimes once a week. There
was a time when for six long months
there was not one movie shown in
town, not because there was no boat,
but because there was no electricity. The
movies were mostly old westerns with
the likes of Durango Kid the masked
cowboy in black, and his sidekick
named Smiley; Lone Ranger, Silver and
Tonto; Gene Autry, the singing cowboy
and his guitar; Alan Ladd and Glenn
Ford, who was remembered as the
fastest gun alive.
The rest of the movies were war
pictures about the last war, the brave
Yankees and the brutal Japanese and
barbaric Germans. One criterion of an
excellent war picture was the absence of
women
because
their
presence
obstructed the on-going bloodbath as
the main actor had to spend some time
to talk to her about something we did
not understand. There were a few
romantic pieces, but these were for our
elder brothers and sisters and
unmarried aunts who swooned over

Robert Taylor and his sister (we thought


then) Elizabeth Taylor. We had a
number of tailors in town, but no one
went by the name of Robert or
Elizabeth, and anyway they did not
have long noses or white skin, and all of
them rather too short and down-toearth to qualify as stars.
The scarcity of movies did not
bother us too much. Though we kids
loved the movies, we did not miss them
as much as the adults did because we
had plenty of other things to occupy us
with in play. On movie-less nights we
could play balatin on the street, hideand-seek in the town plaza, or play
cuido and dikdik can (that is, kick the
can, in English).
But the night is nothing, in spite
of what Shakespeare said, compared to
the garish day; and the games we
played at night could not match the
excitement, intensity and hilarity of the
games we played during the day, and
especially if these were played at sea.
Muddas is an island surrounded
by water much as pan-yam is dough
surrounded by oil, though much of this
water is salty. The main commercial
section of the poblacion was once a
beach. On an unusually high tide, the
dusty sidewalk would be flooded. The
whole back porch of the house where I
grew up was on stilts and made of
wooden slats so that sometimes the tide
rose above the porch a few inches high.
It was not an exaggeration then to say to
my friends that the members of the
family could walk on water without
sinking, like some famed Arab religious
teachers who were said to have walked
on water during their itinerant
Islamization of Sulu, believe it or not.
The wet market building was also on
stilts as were the villages of North Laud
and South Laud where the houses were

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Anthony Tans Growing Up in Muddas 4

connected to one another by a labyrinth


of foot bridges, usually of one or two
uneven bamboo poles.
The sea was the best playground.
One of the games my friends and I
played was retrieving pebbles. The
leader of the group would throw, say, a
dozen pebbles into the sea and, when
they were mid-way to the bottom, we
would jump to the sandy sea bed.
Whoever got the lowest number would
be
punished,
and
the
painful
punishment was for his knuckles to be
flicked by each member of the group.
This game would go on until we grew
tired of it, or the most incompetent
would have swollen knuckles.
No sooner had we stopped with
one game than we would play a new
one, maybe this time, we would play
hide-and-seek. Play hide-and-seek in
water, yes, for by mid-morning the
jetties would be surrounded by the
vintas of the Badjaos, which provided
the perfect places for hiding. The rule of
the game was that while the hiders
could dive from one side of the vinta to
the other, the finders must swim
around the length of the vinta. The
finder would remain a finder if one of
the hiders touched any part of his body
before he could call out his name, and
the game would begin again. One
particular morning, in a reversal of
roles, the hiders were hiding and hiding
and waiting for the finder to find them,
but there was no finder so we thought
that maybe he drowned or something. It
was almost noon when he showed up,
no longer naked or half-naked like most
of us, hiding behind the vintas, but
already dressed. When we demanded
for an explanation, he said his mother
had asked him to run an errand and she
had forbidden him to go back to the
water until after lunch, and he

punctuated his explanation with a


question, Have you all eaten lunch?
Spear-fishing
was
another
exciting activity. With homemade
spear-gun and goggles, we would hunt
for danggit, kitong and mangilap, a rare
and delicious red and silver grouper
which lived mostly under the
warehouses and jetties of the Chinese
merchants. Or for more excitement, we
would cross the Muddas channel on a
banca and to Siganggang where, if we
could not catch fish, we could always
come home with a lot of sea urchins
whose edible gonads are a poor mans
delicacy. Another exciting, because
dangerous, activity was participating in
dynamite fishing. We did not actually
do the dynamiting ourselves, but some
older, experienced fishermen. We
would merely wait on the wharf or
banca, and watch intensely the whole
process of destruction. An explosion
was usually preceded by a shudder
under our feet, a sudden thud as if a
huge stone had dropped on a wooden
floor, and a portion of the sea would
rise several feet high. All these
happened in split seconds. As soon as
the
dynamite
had
exploded
(underwater, of course, or else we
would all be maimed and mangled, if
not dead), a school of dead fish would
suddenly materialize on the surface of
the sea, and we would all dive for them
and put them in our banca, giving three
fish out of ten to the fishermen.
Our sea playground had the
shape of a horseshoe. It was shaped that
way by a wooden footbridge and about
half a dozen jetties, all belonging to
Chinese merchants. The open end of the
playground led to the channel that
divides Muddas from Siganggang. At
the other end was the jetty of a wealthy,
ancient-looking, but amiable, Chinese

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Anthony Tans Growing Up in Muddas 5

who had a large family. It was wellknown that he was an inveterate buyer
of giant turtles, yet he detested the fishy
smell of turtle meat. So why would he
buy turtle every month, we asked.
Because it was believed that he knew
some magic ritual. Every month, during
the full moon and two nights after it, he
would set a small table on the jetty,
which was also the back porch of his
large two-story house. On the table
were a number of dishes and fruits and
a bronze censer with burning incense
sticks. He would be praying and
offering sacrifices to the sea spirit,
which to our young minds took the
form of the moons reflection on the
water right in front of his jetty. On the
third night he would set the turtle free,
and we imagined it would swim back to
the open sea by way of the Muddas
channel. For what end was this ritual?
Though the merchant, with his long
beard, looked like a priest from Shaolin
Temple, he was no religious man. The
revelation would come in a weeks time
when a group of Badjao divers would
come to his house to sell their pearls to
him. He would sell these to other
merchants for a huge profit. And that
was how he became wealthy.
Right where the sea from the
channel entered into our playground
stood a growing, yellow coral stone. If a
sea spirit guarded our playground, the
stone must be his enchanted coral
palisade. Or was he merely a minor god
of Neptune tasked with guarding one of
the outposts of the channel?
No matter. He was a feared god.
When we swam over this stone, we
closed our eyes lest we see something
dreadful. And no rowdy fun or boyish
pranks were allowed near the stone lest
we meet a fate that befell a Badjao who
tried to spear a mother catfish living

under the stone. She missed her prey


and instead hit the stone with her
sangkil, a barbed, single-prong Badjao
spear. The coral was chipped. Later that
afternoon her relatives came to
propitiate the angry god. Around the
stone they planted stakes with colored
buntings. They claimed the woman died
when she got home. A less fatal incident
happened to a playmate of my elder
brother. He was spear-fishing around
the stone. When he surfaced from the
water, his face was livid and twisted
like he had been slapped by a giant
hand. To this day he stutters, and he has
not
sufficiently
explained
what
happened to him underwater.
Yet some said that you could
stand on the stone and even fish nearby
and nothing would happen to you.
Only be sure you did not disturb the
god or make him angry. You should
know the proper prayer, you should be
careful. But we never went near because
we did not know the prayer and did not
trust ourselves that we could not get
careless. So we looked at it from a safe
distance, from the roof of the motor
launch, always regarding this yellow
stone and its mysterious tenant with
awe and fear.
The rich marine life of this sea
playground would be revealed on an
unusually low tide, when the water was
only a foot high. One could find sea
grass and the parasites that lived close
to ita harmless variety of eel.
Scattered all over the area was
anemones, tough, brownish-black sea
cucumber, and agar-agar. The latter was
a worthless, cellophane-like bag which
we picked up from the sea bed only to
throw in jest at our playmates.
On such a day my friends and I
would skip classes. And never mind the
truant officer whose job was to take

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Anthony Tans Growing Up in Muddas 6

absentee children back to school,


because he would have to wet his feet to
catch us. As far as we knew, no officer
had dared to do this unpleasant task.
Anyway, it was a holiday for us, it was
kulallit day. We would be beach
combing for kulallit, a white, snubnosed shellfish. To gather a basin-full of
kulallit, we would have to catch tiny
crabs that lived on the stilts of houses.
We would break each crab in two and,
over a wide area, but always careful not
too near the watchful, yellow stone,
plant each half on the sea bed with a
banana cue stick. We would leave this
for an hour or so while we looked for
other edible creatures that lived under
the stones and at the bottom of the stilts.
Almost always we would find baby
octopuses and a variety of squids locally
called kindat. These and other shellfish
would be thrown into the ever-present
aluminum basin. From the playground
to the next village of Tuhug-tuhug, half
a kilometer away, we would be turning
and turning every stone along the way.
After we had made sure that no stone
was literally left unturned, we would go
back to the playground. Behold! For
every banana cue stick twenty or so
shiny white shells had overrun the poor
crab. They would fill the basin to the
brim.
An elder sister or aunt of one of
us would volunteer to boil the shellfish.
With leftover rice, the shellfish and
vinegar-soaked octopuses and kindat
would make a filling mid-afternoon
snack.
But the day was not yet
complete. It would still be too early to
go out and walk the streets. The truant
officer might still be scouring every
street corner for us. So we would stay
indoors and play cards: lucky nine,
black jack, stud poker, sambilan, name it,

my friends already knew it before they


could read properly. The stakes would
be tansans, jolins, rubber bands,
wrappers of Herald and Union
cigarettes, and sometimes money. By
late afternoon the tide would have
risen, and to cap the holiday, we would
all go back to the playground and swim
and play hide-and-seek, not knowing
when to stop playing, until our
exasperated mothers would shout out
our names, always accompanied by a
litany of curses like Saitan bawi or kiawah
sin Saitan Manunggol.
The physical punishment of
being pinched hard on the ears and the
inner thigh, as soon as we got home, did
not deter us from repeating the rituals
of kulallit day. It would be the same
thing next time around, next year or
next month, whenever the sea god
decided to make the tide ebb so low and
reveal to us the abundance of his
domain. Unwittingly, we were his
young votaries, and our mothers were
not far from the truth when they
applied to us the curses, the epithet
Satanic pigs, only he was no saitan,
but a childhood god.
Of the many childhood revels at
sea, nothing could match the fun of
diving from the roof of a boat. During
the summer break when Muddas would
be enjoying the balmy weather locally
called uttarah, one would find the wharf
overrun with brown, naked bodies of
boys, ranging from 6 to 17. While the
longshoremen were busy loading the
cargo of copra, dried fish and other
marine products, the boys at play
would be climbing up the roof of the
boat and use it as their diving board.
Once up they dived down, once down
they climbed up, causing a lot of mess
to the boat and the waiting passengers.
The exasperated stewards prevented

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Anthony Tans Growing Up in Muddas 7

them from using the gangplanks, but


the boys would climb to the life boats,
using the rope cables, and from there it
was an easy climb to the roof of the
second deck, or even the pilots poop.
Diving from the boat was
possible only because the wharf was so
small that when the boat docked, only
half of it, from the bow to the middle
hoard, would be connected by a pair of
gangplanks to the wharf. Half the
length of starboard, down to the stern,
would be facing the sea directly, the
vacant area to the left of the wharf. This
space was where the divers would hit
water, allowing the idlers on the nearby
jetty to watch the morning exhibition of
gymnastic talents.
Diving,
jack-knifing,
somersaulting boys provided a summer
spectacle to the idlers and to the halfamused, half-irritated passengers on the
boat. The most spectacular diver was
the part-time fisherman Bokkoh with
his original sea-hawk dive which other
boys could only imitate but never
surpass. To make his artistic dive he
had to do it from the roof of the pilots
poop, the highest possible place from
which to fall down like a sea-hawk
attempting to catch a surfacing fish:
brown wings spread apart, the legs
straight as a spear rod, a Tarzan-like
scream, and scarcely a ripple when his
hands, like a pair of razors, sliced the
water.
Aside from Bokkoh the bigger
boys did the jack-knife and the
somersault. We the smaller kids did the
simple dive, arms directly in front in
order to protect the head. If we
happened to wear the short pants or
underwear of an elder brother, there
was the likelihood that the pants would
surface first before our heads, and the
spectators would have a laugh at our

expense. The next time we were on the


roof, we would plan our revenge: we
would create a big, wide splash on the
water, with the malicious intent of
soaking the spectators wet, we would
do the bomb: jump high, place the arms
around the curled-up legs and hit the
water with our butts.
Towards noon the impatient
horns of the boat would warn the
would-be passengers to hurry, as well
as the tardy, traveling merchants who
would still be sipping noodle soup in
the chambers of their mistresses. For us,
close to thirty of us, it was time to stay
put on the roof of the boat, to prepare
for one last dive when the boat had
departed from the wharf and was
somewhere in the middle of the
channel. Twenty yards away from the
wharf the smallest boys, almost always
completely nude and uncircumcised,
would start diving. Ten more yards the
next group would follow suit. The
bigger boys were the last to dive, and
often they did when the boat was halfway to the island of Siganggang, to
where they would swim and on whose
white beach they would spend the rest
of the dazzling summer day.
Some of us with short pants
would be prevented from diving by the
bigger, naughtier boys by holding us by
the pants. We would panic because the
longer we stayed on the boats roof the
farther was the wharf, and we feared
we would not have the strength to swim
back. So we would scream and scream,
and only when we had sufficiently shed
tears, were we released. Close to
hundred yards now we would make
our dive. It was like falling from the
sky. The temporary panic was all
forgotten, erased completely in the
overwhelming feeling that for a
moment one was flying through the air.

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Anthony Tans Growing Up in Muddas 8

The exhilaration of that final dive was


beyond compare.
It was a summer day that would
be repeated every year until I finished
high school. It was a day that seemed to
go on forever, but one fine day, like all
things rare and beautiful, it had to come
to an end. When that day finally came, I
was not even aware that my friends and
I had been through a glorious summer.
It was only many years later, with the
onset of manhood and the terrible
solitude of exile in the city, hundreds of
miles away, that I remembered I had a
happy childhood.
It was Albert Camus, that
Mediterranean poet of the physical,
sensual life, who wrote: In the depths
of winter, I finally learned that within
me there lay an invincible summer.
One morning I made my final
departure from Muddas. Apart from the
dream inspired by the moonlight and
the song of Abdul Sayid, four years in a
small college in the city had changed
my perspective of the island home. And
then the strangers from the hinterlands
had come down to settle in Muddas,
bringing with them their dreadful
worship of high-powered guns so that
they could perpetuate their equally
dreadful culture of vengeance and
violence. Then, too, the balcony of the
house had been so much reduced:
whereas before it had run the length of
the faade, it was no longer even large
enough for one to sit in on a rocking
chair. Though the moon was still as
large, as bright, as silvery. By them
some friends had died and some dear
members of the family. Yes, one cannot
go home again, not because the streets
have changed or the houses were gutted
in a fire, but because the people we used
to know and love are no longer where

they used to be when we were children,


or behave the way we remembered
them like Madame Swann in Marcel
Prousts Remembrance of Things Past.
Determined to find my own
spiritual Muddas, if not another
physical one, I boarded one of the boats
from whose roof I had made countless
dives. I could not restrain myself from
watching from the stern the froth of
water in the wake. Crystals of bubbles
churned up by the boats propeller
pursued me like a memorythe
memory of the molten summer sky, the
blue sea, the green shallows and the
coral on the sandy bed, of first love and
the half-Bengali beauty who had left
Muddas for California, of grandmother
and her old pots full of silver coins and
the appetizing smell of her turmericflavored, yellow rice, the happy faces of
my friends, and a thousand other
things, even the feared sea god, whose
coral mansion had been slowly
overtaken by filth and defile. I could not
shake off these things from my mind
although I was ready to barter them for
a newer, better destiny.
When I had wakened from my
reverie the Muddas mountain was but a
distant elevation on the blue plains of
the sea. There were no twilight strains
of Harbor Lights to accompany my
departure. Instead, when the boat
steered northeast and windward, and it
came near the crags of Lugus Island, I
heard the seagulls cry their quotidian
cry. Henceforth, it was another destiny,
a destiny I thought lay beyond the
horizon, beyond the sunset, where I
could be happy, not knowing in my
foolish heart that I had just left a happy
childhood and could never, ever be
happy again.

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