IN BINONDO, ONCE UPON A WAR By Amelia Lapena Bonifacio

Notes on a not-so-grey November day

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A LONGTIME friend and colleague, Amelia Lapena Bonifacio, has beaten me to the memoir game with a novel-length In Binondo, Once Upon a War published by The Manila Times recently.

Amel and I belonged to the original young writers group that NVM Gonzalez (later National Artist for Literature) nurtured in a fiction writers workshop that met not only in the classroom but also in his sawali cottage in the UP Diliman campus from 1950 to 1951.

Amel’s short story “Death of a Baby” was acclaimed as the best of that year by both professor and workshoppers. The themes of disenchantment and discovery (epiphany was a favorite word) characterized many of the stories put out in the workshop. Joyce’s “Araby” and “The Dead,” Hemingway’s “The Killers” and Chekov’s “The Lottery” were among the models studied carefully by the aspiring writers.

It was a pretty successful group because by the early 50s the young writers were winning the newly opened Palanca Prizes for Literature even over their own mentors.


They dominated the literary publications such as the Collegian New Review and the Literary Apprentice and appeared regularly in the magazines of the Sunday Times and Manila Chronicle.

Amel was chosen by the prestigious UP Writers Club to edit the 1953 Literary Apprentice which cover she designed as well, manifesting both literary and artistic prowess.

In 1957 she left for the University of Wisconsin in Madison on a Fulbright scholarship to study theater arts, and promptly won a top prize for her play “Sepang Loca” with a strong social message. It could have won the first prize had it not been for a witless judge who thought it was written by an American pretending to be a Third World dramatist. She won again a top prize for her play “Rooms.” Both plays were produced and seen by the audience, which included a number of proud Filipino students including myself and wife Elenita in the university playhouse.

It seemed then that Amel had found her métier in drama and rose over the years as a dramatist par excellence, in time focusing on children’s theater through use of puppetry. Her numerous awards, both local and international, affirm the title given to her as the “mother of children’s puppet theater.”

Aside from being an active dramatist she wrote a scholarly book The ‘Seditious’ Playwrights about the zarzuela at the turn of the century. She also became the director of the UP Creative Writing Center (now an Institute) within the College of Arts and Letters—holding workshops and seminars in the genres of fiction, poetry, drama particularly for children. She was honored by the UP appointing her University Professor and upon retirement she became university professor emeritus enabling her to continue teaching indefinitely thus reaching out to successive generations of would be writers and theater artists.

She has been nominated a number of times for National Artist for Literature but given the politics of getting appointed (including a petty incident where a spiteful National Artist for Literature reportedly disqualified her for not having a story published in Leopoldo Yabes’ anthology of short fiction in English), the award has eluded her so far.

No matter. Amel (like Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero) would sooner or later receive the highest award. For now she has the accolades here and abroad, from afficionados and most importantly from the children here and around the world that have joyfully watched her TeatroMulat perform.

In Binondo, Once Upon a War traces those critical and dangerous times before, during and after the war that traumatized a good number of our generation. It was an experience that shaped our outlook in life, to be resilient in times of hardship and to strive for excellence when opportunities for our generation opened up in a university that is home to literary, artistic, and scientific talent.

In effect the book is a novel, a bildungsroman, in that it renders the development of the narrator to full flowering—bringing honor not only for herself but for the country as well.

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2 Comments

  1. I have been privileged to know both of you, through our community if learners in UP Diliman, QC. As a young child, I sat on Tita Amel’s lap making my first pinwheel out of construction paper. I witnessed many of her plays at the Abelardo Hall and the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater. All of those experiences have left indelible marks in my awareness of the power of words, the essential moments of love and life being captured by fine craftsmanship with words. The human situation is complex and simple at the same time, and both you and Tita Amel have been the smiths that have conveyed it poignantly if not beautifully.

  2. Anima A. Agrava on

    Thank you, Sir Elmer Ordonez for writing again.
    Thank you, Manila Times, for this article by one of my favorite authors and literary giants in our country.
    Congratulations, Prof. Amelia Bonifacio-Lapena.