Tuesday, November 25, 2003


It was all over the papers this morning, which of course went well with the coffee.

We had entered the 4,000-MW coal plant of CLP (China Light and Power) at Tap Shek Kok yesterday. Hung and unfurled between the smokestacks a huge banner almost the size of two double-deck buses. Rebranded CLP as “China’s Leading Polluter” and spoiled the release of the CLP executives preparing their annual glossy financial report.

Happy. Tired as well. Going home; miss my wife and our kids; thankfully oblivious of whatever the political squall of the week was in the Philippines.

The ride to Hong Kong international airport was a fitful one, the dull growl of the bus’s engine calming but of little help. Sleep was a slippery slope competing with restless glances at the window, at dissolving images of past days.

Shantou City, east Guangdong, November 14. The roll-on-roll-off ferry to Nan Ao had already left by the time our bus arrived and the next ferry was scheduled to arrive after two hours.

It was windy and cold and good friend Jean Francois suggested we have some breakfast. We sat down in one of the stalls and the Belgian, being a Belgian, bought some cereal -- a large bottle of Zhujiang beer, which was somehow edifying at 8:30 a.m. with salty olives.

Tonya from the US and Xiao Qing and Yen from Guangzhou later joined our table and ordered kung fu tea.

We went to the great Dan Nan wind farm of Nan Ao that day. A farm of towering white 600-kW tubular wind turbines planted along the ridges. Tall as buildings yet so graceful, effortlessly powerful and essential like Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets.More wind farms were visible near the point of Hou Garden (which of course reminded Jean Francois and I of Hoegaarden; the Belgian preferred Rochefort). A few with old lattice-work towers; most fitted with modern tubes. We knew we were looking at the future of China that day. One of its possible futures, at least, since the great majority of China’s power comes from coal, much of it fi nanced -- and will continue to be financed -- by the likes of the World Bank and the ADB, the leading emitters of environmental rhetoric.

On the way to Shantou, we were reminded of China’s mortal struggle with an icon of the past as we passed a small town surrounded by residential buildings and framed almost perfectly by an amphitheater of small ascending hills. In the middle of the town was a monstrous fat smokestack fifteen times higher than the buildings -- like a gigantic smoking missile that struck the ground but which never exploded.

Then Sunday, while still in the Mainland, a text message informing me of Joe Burgos’s death. I remember I had to sit down.

I was 13 years old and working as a copy boy for Malaya when I first met Joe Burgos, the fiery editor, publisher and icon of the Mosquito Press, which operated under constant intimidation from the despotic Marcos regime.

For virtually every storm that the dictator Marcos threw at the Philippine Republic, Burgos and his obstinate team hurled back their own typhoons.

Burgos was named one of the 50 Press Freedom Heroes by the International Press Institute in 2000, but he’s been a personal hero for some time.

I remember lighting bolts emanating from the man. Malaya was still on West Avenue then, a smoky dusty labyrinth of belligerence, dark humor and high purpose.

At least that was how it appeared to a 13-year-old who went to work daily on a BMX bike with a lunch box in his backpack who, after punching in his time card, would ferry dispatches, pencils and notes and memos from desk to desk to desk, in total fascination of the universe of the newsroom.

I grew up quickly and stayed young in Malaya, tolerated by pugnacious reporters and charmed by the warm companionship of its support staff. My wonder years. The truth is, excluding my name and date of birth, the only item that has remained constant on my résumé is -- Copy Boy, Malaya, 1983-84.”

I received the news of the death of Joe Burgos with a squint and a deep, deep sigh. A sense of foreboding stains the country each day. Who but a fool would deny that we live in troubled times?

While in Guangdong, I encountered again the Chinese saying which reminds us that the best time for planting trees is yesterday, and that the next best time is today. And I think of Burgos and his team, who planted their trees years ago, and wonder if enough saplings will be planted today to weather the coming storms.

The day Joe Burgos passed away marks the first birthday too of my sweet daughter, Yla Luna, named after her beautiful mother. Apart from roots and wings, we hope to leave with Luna the moral compass of Filipinos such as Joe Burgos in order that she may find her way when she grows up.

Hoping that she too may plant her trees one day.

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