Review by Apa Ongpin
November 25th, 2006.
Is Bob Ong the future? And if so, of what?
The success reaped by the author whose pseudonym is Bob
Ong should come as no surprise to the readers of this
publication. If you are surprised, or if you have never heard of
Bob Ong, you may be out of touch with Filipino popular culture.
Bob Ong, by his own telling, once held down a number of
typical salaryman jobs. At one point, he put up a website, which
he originally called “bobongpinoy” (translated, dumb pinoy). The
website, which debuted during the Erap Estrada era, was a
political rant against the stupidity of Filipinos for electing
morons and thieves to be their leaders. He got a lot of response
to the site. Some of the funnier responses involved mistaking
the website’s name, bobongpinoy...for the name of the author, as
in Bob Ong, Pinoy. So he adopted this persona as his online
A few years ago, Bob Ong decided to quit his job and
become a writer full time. The reasons for this are revealed in
the book Stainless Longganisa. So he sat down and wrote
ABNKKBSNPLAKO?, which, in case you haven’t figured it out, is a
text-language style cipher for the phrase “Aba, nakakabasa na
pala ako?!” (Oh, I can read?!).
The book is about Bob Ong’s experiences as a student.
He recalls incidents from the very earliest grades, all the way
to college, from his classroom blowing apart during a typhoon to
games that can be played with ballpens and paper. It is written
in a style that is a cross between a personal journal and an
improv stand-up comic. It is a very entertaining read, and has
since snowballed into a big (by local literary standards) hit.
Bob Ong has done for Filipino literature what the
Eraserheads (the irreverent and wildly popular band) did for
Filipino popular music a decade ago—he has revolutionized it.
Here are four things Bob Ong has done:
1. Bob Ong writes his books in street Tagalog, the kind
of language people speak right now, right next to you. It is not
the turgid prose of Balagtas nor the intellectual precision of
Virgilio Almario. Most importantly, it is not the media Tagalog
of sitcom scripts or noontime variety hosts; it is not the
cloying “pa-uso” of agency copywriters, inflected by showbiz
gayspeak and fad. Bob Ong’s language is REAL.
2. Bob Ong writes about real things and real people
(mostly himself), everyday experiences, and makes them not only
entertaining but somewhat philosophical. What he writes about is
3. Bob Ong’s books are not unduly clever (although they
are often cleverly written). Nor are they intellectually
demanding, which is a good thing, in that it has brought him an
audience wider than the usual circle of UP, Ateneo and La Salle
professors, who consider it their life’s work to keep Filipino
literature alive by making their students purchase the books for
class. Yet, Bob Ong’s books are not pulp romances or insipid
entertainment. Bob Ong’s writing is for people who THINK.
4. Bob Ong has something to say. Almost everything he
has written is about “The System”, more specifically, the
tragically flawed set of values that makes us Filipino. Bob Ong
is quietly, but truly SUBVERSIVE.
I was once told, and I’m not sure how true this is any
more, that once upon a time, the bestselling book in any
language in Philippine history, aside from the Bible, was Dekada
70 (The 70’s) by Lualhati Bautista. When I asked why this was,
the answer given to me was that, quite apart from being a pretty
good piece of writing, Dekada 70 is written in Tagalog, which
simply makes it accessible to so many more people.
Media in this country has been subject to elitist bias,
which is to say that if anything seems clever or sophisticated,
it is believed to be suitable only for a small, English-speaking
audience, while anything meant for mass consumption is
automatically done in Tagalog, and consciously “dumbed down.” It
is a widely accepted belief in media circles that the masa
audience is simply stupid.
It thus seems like simple na´ve ignorance on the part
of Bob Ong to write books for a thinking class in Tagalog.
Actually, anyone who agrees with the foregoing statement is
suffering from na´ve ignorance far more than Bob Ong. The fact
is, the great majority thinking classes of the Philippines today
are far more at home in Tagalog than English. For this we have
to thank, not the pathetic educational system (delightfully
skewered by Bob Ong in “ABNKKBSNPLAKO?!”), but, ironically, mass
media itself, notably the recently deceased Filipino film
industry, and the TV stations, particularly ABS-CBN, who led the
charge into high-capital local production two decades ago.
There is no question that there is far more room for
intellectual growth in the Filipino-language media and
literature. The culture is finding its voice. The question is,
like in the case of the Eraserheads, will there be enough other
real talents to fill the gap?
Once a celebrated man
about town, Apa Ongpin is now a writer, project head of Maxim
and assistant manager of ABS-CBN Publishing.
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