Read Ghosts of Manila Online

Authors: James Hamilton-Paterson

Ghosts of Manila

Ghosts of Manila


My thanks to Jun Bautista, Jim Gomez, Sen. Ernesto Herrera, Gene T. Javier, Frank Sionil José, Lynda T. Jumilla, Sen. Orlando Mercado, Elmer Mesina, Wilfredo P. Ronquillo and Armand C. Sebastian, as to all my friends in Caganhao. Especial gratitude is due Policarpio R. Mabilangan for his insights into aspects of Manila police work and, above all, to Tony Bergonia for patience and help during long sessions after-hours in ‘Remember When’. It is a pleasure to acknowledge the tenacity and courage he and his press colleagues share.


I must stress that the characters in this book are entirely fictitious and that they, like the ‘Philippine Heritage Museum’ and its director, bear no relation to existing people or institutions.


J. H-P.

‘Like other exotic disorders, amok does not require a unitary disorder to explain it. Its sudden pathognomonic onset is usually due to the fact that previous symptoms of distress have gone unnoticed, rather than to their sudden appearance.’

Lee Sechrest
(in Caudill & Lin [eds],
Mental Health Research in Asia and the Pacific
, 1969)


‘The researches of many commentators have already thrown much darkness on this subject, and it is probable that, if they continue, we shall soon know nothing at all about it.’

Mark Twain

out of night above certain tropic cities our gummy eyes take in the pinchbeck Manhattan of a new commercial centre, the crowded low-rise blocks slashed by grey arteries of highway thickening with morning’s commuters, the brown photochemical bruise already rising among the layered airs and wisps of dawn. The hour is unreal, the place not obviously either destination or stopover. As the aircraft’s PA system bings and bongs with needless advice and expressions of sycophantic goodwill, there come glimpses of ponds and fields dotted among the sprawl below. They are the last vestiges of a rural canker the city is slow to purge from its body, being indolent in its own massive inertia. By the time we have reached the ground and sunk back in a taxi we have forgotten these green and ochre patches. The view is once again of grimy streets full of the fluffy braying of exhausts, of shacks and shops and construction sites knitted together by overhead skeins of cable. It conforms all too neatly with the memory of previous visits and is easily dismissed as part of the necessary gauntlet to be run before the hotel, the cold shower, the bed can be reached. We never remember that behind these very streets – beyond where the side roads fray into muddy alleys and lead, in turn, along pathways of improvised duckboards through the perpetual slime of squatter areas – must lie those realms neither precisely fields nor waste lots which from the air looked briefly like implausible flecks of true countryside. On the ground they hide themselves with the stealth of cemeteries.

Such places are only ever flown over, never visited. They comprise a no-man’s-land of a stuff which has especially low visibility, like the abandoned triangles between motorway junctions and flyovers everywhere, now lying beneath the elevated levels on which life takes place. Thus in broad daylight entire terrains can sink from view. Yet if the traveller to that distant city were to brave the directionless tangle of slums on foot, to persevere across rickety bridges over noxious black estuaries and along unpromising stretches strewn with the rusting chassis of dumped vehicles, he might win through into this hidden land. It exists as much in acoustic as in territorial terms, a demarcation of comparative quiet between the tumult of the city and the airport’s intermittent thunder. Chickens are audible as they scratch the earth and comment on their findings. Ducks paddle in a plot of freshly irrigated taro plants. Beneath a mango tree, which would have been old before the first aircraft ever flew, a water buffalo is tethered, licking the flies from its nose with glutinous tongue. Far away between the white toadstools of water towers and the backs of hoardings an occasional high slab of primary colour moves across the horizon like the sail of a barge along an unseen canal. It is the tail fin of an airliner turning at the end of a runway or rumbling around the perimeter. Parching breaths of kerosene blow over the land.

Jet fuel is not the only thing to be smelt. Somewhere a sour heap of rubbish is always smouldering: melted plastic, scorched eggshells, singed leaves; while the various sheds dotted here and there are like as not the centres of cottage industries, each with its pungency. In one of them car batteries are being dismantled and the recoverable parts put into heaps outside. There is a hillock of plastic casings, a mound of electrodes, boxes of old terminals and other scraps of lead, some of which are presently being rendered down in a trypot over a butane stove. For many yards around the soil is bleached and bare, steeped in sulphuric acid. Some way off a man in a conical straw hat is spreading pig dung over his smallholding. His hut is in the shape of a parallelogram, leaning away from the airport as if it regularly took the blast of jet engines. This seems implausible; but just now a vast Boeing on its final approach is sagging overhead, lights blazing in broad day, so low the lines of rivets are visible, the entire monster ragged with extended flaps and dangling undercarriage doors and air brakes. Although it passes less than three hundred feet above the hut it leaves
no appreciable wake, just the familiar smell of burning Jet A-1 and sonic vibrations which shake the air and batter the earth. It is sheer din, then, which causes the farmer’s hut to lean. He himself never glances up but forks and throws, forks and throws the reeking nuggets.

Still nearer the airport, in a belt of tall reeds or perhaps sugar cane, there is a building rather larger than a family garage: a workshop solidly built of concrete blocks with a tin roof. Sometimes an appetising aroma of cooking drifts from it. Certainly the place is seldom without a few scavenging dogs skulking in and out of the reeds and sniffing the wind with fanatic glare. We would not be surprised to find a van drawn up outside with a sign in Chinese on it which mentioned
something containing little porky
at any rate. There is in fact a van drawn up but it belongs to the police on one of their regular visits. At the instant when the distant Boeing touches its wheels to the rubber-streaked runway two men are carrying a yellow bundle from the van into the workshop. Almost at once they re-emerge with a folded ochre tarpaulin, climb into the van and bump away along a track leading off through the screen of reeds towards a barbed-wire enclosure containing arrays of identically-angled lights to guide incoming pilots. Dwindling, the van skirts this and vanishes in the direction of the airport highway, on a raised section of which the coloured wink of traffic can be seen.

Behind the closed doors of the workshop a radio is playing Madonna’s ‘La Isla Bonita’ and four Chinese are busy. They wear cotton singlets, shorts and rubber sandals, for despite twin extractor fans the air is hot and steamy. They also have on long aprons of clear plastic as well as surgeons’ gloves. There has been some debate between them as to whether they ought to be wearing full protective clothing including masks, for wild rumours have reached them of Aids, described variously as being harder to catch than TB or else of the toxicity of plutonium, such that a single atom of infection within a hundred yards infallibly homes in and condemns one to death. But then, it’s a foreigner’s disease and the body the police have just brought in is unmistakably that of a local, a young man probably in his early twenties with a wisp of moustache. He has two stab wounds, one in his chest and one in his back. Quick, in any case: heart, lungs and liver. Where he came from, who he was, nobody in the shed knows or
wants to know. The chances are (for it is a fresh corpse) he is one of the police’s own victims, street trash efficiently killed with an eye for a sale since apart from the two wounds the scrawny body is unmarked – unless one counts the gang logo tattooed on one buttock.

In the early days of this cottage industry the bodies had tended to be unidentified remains washed up on the foreshore or found ripely rotting, stuffed inside drainpipes or into barrels, still with their hands securely bound amid the bloat. Missing limbs, bones shattered by gunfire or bent by malnutrition had made the men’s task harder. They would disassemble such skeletons entirely and put the bones into labelled polythene ice-cream containers. These were referred to as ‘spare parts’ which might later be useful for ‘mix-’n’-match’. The men wore gauze masks soaked in cheap cologne which, even with lysol and alum crystals crunching underfoot, did little to sweeten the task. They were carried through more by things such as Madonna and gallows humour. Had they been apprentices thirty years younger they would have held maggot races in their lunch breaks. The irony was that now they had their business well established and could afford to deal almost exclusively with fresh bodies in reasonable condition, the end of the trade was in sight. The good old honest materials would no longer do, apparently. Everything nowadays was a substitute, a fake, phony. Plastic was on – and in the case of dentures, between – everybody’s lips. Plastic was replacing cash. Plastic was replacing bone.

The building is divided into four areas corresponding to the stages of production, each jocularly named as if in a workshop specialising in the restoration of old vehicles. There are, in turn, ‘the body shop’, ‘steam clean’ and ‘blow dry’, ‘the paint shop’ and ‘rebuild’. (It is in ‘rebuild’ that the skills of ‘mix-’n’-match’ have sometimes to be deployed. For instance, with the rise of Japanese gangs in the city Yakuza members turn up now and then with their left-hand wing mirrors missing: the top joint of the little finger. These have to be replaced from spare parts.) A long copper cauldron, much discoloured and holding 100 gallons, is held in a steel cradle above three gas burners. It is covered by a sheet of tin and, with steam escaping at the edges, looks like a monster fish kettle. One of the men goes over and with tongs lifts a corner of the tin. The water is bubbling fiercely so he turns down the gas to an economical simmer. The cauldron has been
so long in use the steam smells of corrupt broth which mixes unhappily with the carbolic reek of lysol from the body shop. Two of the men now take down butcher’s knives from a magnetic rack. As they do so another airliner passes low overhead, drowning the radio and rattling the roof. They pay no attention but quickly cross themselves in a perfunctory gesture which, apart from a crucifix on one wall with the legend ‘Bless This House’, is their only sign of superstition. All four Chinese are, as a matter of fact, Catholics. One takes the upper half of the body, the other the lower. Deftly they remove the arms and legs. Leaving the trunk lying on the stainless steel table with the gutters they transfer the limbs to polythene cutting blocks where they swiftly flense as much muscle and flesh as they can without nicking the bone. The meat goes into an orange plastic bin. They are intent as they work, their faces closed as against thought or smells. Neither face is harsh. Each might in time fall into the same deeply etched lines of their older companions to form expressions that only the most sentimental Westerner might have the confidence to call sorrowful. Soon one man takes the limbs, now ragged pink-and-white branches, still articulated, and drops them into the cauldron, turning up the gas. The head is meanwhile being dissected away from the top cervical vertebra. In this way the spine can be processed intact, leaving the discs of cartilage in place so that later they can be sterilised and dried out to the colour and consistency of hide dog chews. Nowadays, of course, in keeping with the general plastification of life, the discs can be replaced with silicone inserts, but the men prefer to work in the way they always have. They are none of them young and, watching them, one would think that in their deft, efficient manner they are craftsmen.

With the head off, one of the Chinese can easily work up from under the chin, removing tongue and palate. Then he slits from the back of the neck up through the middle of the scalp and down the forehead to the bridge of the nose. Changing to a smaller knife he separates the scalp from the skull, rumpling each half down in a rough roll of skin and hair. The victim’s eyes are semi-closed, dry eyeballs gleaming dully between his lids. With his hair – which he must have had cut only a few days ago, his last-ever haircut – in a ruff about his ears and with his white peeled dome rising through it, this boy suddenly starts to look mutilated whereas before he looked like a body being dismembered. These, then, are the lips (now being sliced away from the
gums) his mother suckled, she who just might still have young children somewhere; these the cheeks she powdered against heat rash; this the face (now removed in two halves and dropped into the orange bin) of her son, her child, hope for the future, despair of the present. This face is dumped that was uniquely his own, the one which only yesterday afternoon friends and enemies still recognised in the street, which lovers had gazed at and fallen asleep by. Left are snarling teeth, popping eyes and, incongruously, a broad nose intact between them. A minute later it and the eyes have gone too and the pulpy mansion of his mind is being extracted through the hole in the base of his skull with a long-handled scoop. This is the technique pioneered by the ancient Egyptians, except that they more often removed the brain through the nose as one of those useless bits of stuffing which it was advisable to replace with sawdust and pieces of rag to prevent putrefaction. This present victim’s head is likewise swiftly emptied. Grudges, memories, his mother’s expression on his elementary school Graduation Day, the smell of copra drying one September morning in a province far away, the sound of Madonna herself – all these meld into a scrambled whitish heap. The empty skull is placed in a wooden box and rinsed out with short bursts from a high pressure water jet. Then it joins the limbs and torso in the cauldron. Another Boeing is homing in overhead. Businessmen reset their watches a hundred and eighty feet above the orange bin among whose contents is a wispy moustache. The roof stops rattling, a lid is put on the bin, the copper bubbles and the men sluice down the body shop. It has taken them twenty-seven minutes. Extractor fans whir and outside amongst the scrub the curs lift their noses.

If the victim’s dismembering was efficient, his rebuilding is expert. After many hours’ boiling the bones, all marrow leached out, leave ‘steam clean’ for ‘blow dry’: a large cabinet artfully constructed from the heating element and fans of a commercial tumble drier. They are then spread out on a table and inspected for adhering gristle, shreds of cartilage and the like. Again they are brought to the boil in a pickling solution containing formaldehyde and left to steep and cool for twenty-four hours. During this time the bactericide penetrates areas of finely divided bone such as the sinuses in the skull. The next day the bones will be redried before the young man’s dismantled chassis is laid out on the long table in ‘rebuild’ and painstakingly fitted with a graded
assortment of ready-made loops of brass wire. These are inserted in holes drilled with a small HobbyKraft air drill and fixed with clear Araldite epoxy resin. Phalange by phalange, metatarsal by metatarsal, the skeleton comes together. A larger brass ring is let into the top of the skull. The final stage will be in two days’ time, when after passing once more through ‘blow dry’ it is hung in the ‘paint shop’ cabinet and sprayed with clear lacquer. Special orders sometimes require the ribs to be numbered in indian ink before being varnished. Usually the skeleton emerges unmarked, gleaming white, the loyal framework of a man who, four days ago, still walked the city’s streets, cracking jokes and making mistakes like getting into police patrol cars. So,
: one export-quality skeleton for the use of medical departments, museums and ghoulish students thousands of miles away from his native land.

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