The housewife, the dictator, the Prima Donna and her 2,700 pairs of shoes

Venky Vembu

When I was new to Hong Kong, I met Nida at our weekly Chinese class. She was from the Philippines and was working in Hong Kong as a foreign domestic helper; she had an incredible sense of humour and a lively spirit, and in class, just when we were grappling with the tonal complexities of the Chinese language, she’d say the funniest things and have us all in splits. For some unfathomable reason, though, she never could get my name – Venky – right, and always and forever insisted on calling me ‘Bingo’. Such was her endearing charm that I let her have her way.

Once, while we were discussing politics, I told Nida that I greatly admired Corazon Aquino, the Filipina housewife who went on to topple the ruthless dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a peaceful ‘People’s Power’ revolution in early 1986. Instantly, Nida became all excited: she had, she said, participated in the protest demonstrations led by ‘Cory’ Aquino in Manila against the Marcos regime in 1986, and had been a small part of the Philippines’ exhilarating journey towards democracy. She then went into rapturous recollections of that heady time; so overjoyed was she that I knew of and admired her real-life heroine that from then on, she’d regularly bring me maja, a Filipino sweet dish made from coconut milk and sweet corn. It’s possible that if I had urged her, she’d have even got my name right just once…

In 1986, early in my career, I was working on the editorial desk of a newspaper, and lowly though my station in life was, I remember tracking every minor detail of that amazing story with great interest: right from the time Marcos faked an election victory through the street protests to the critical moment when the influential Catholic Church (and its improbably named Archbishop Cardinal Sin) and Army generals came out in support of her. It all culminated in Marcos and his Prima Donna wife, Imelda, being airlifted to exile in Hawaii – leaving behind, among other things, Imelda’s 2,700 pairs of shoes (which inspired this essay by Time columnist Lance Morrow).

Cory was sworn in President, and served for six years, but her presidency was pretty undistinguished – and not just because, like George W. Bush did years later, she believed she was carrying out “God’s will”. Much of her time in presidency was expended in putting down bloody coup attempts by Marcos loyalists; after one newspaper reported that she had hid under the bed during one such coup attempt, she invited journalists into her chambers to demonstrate that it was physically impossible for her to get under her bed!

But during those years, Cory, who saw herself as merely a transitional President, also oversaw the kind of Constitutional reforms that have ensured the continuance of democracy in the Philippines. That perhaps is one of her biggest contributions.

The end of authoritarian rule anywhere in the world makes for an inspirational story; the fact that in the Philippines it was a housewife who brought down a corrupt, brutal dictator and his Prima Donna wife – forcing them to flee leaving her 2,700 pairs of shoes – makes it a particularly stirring saga.

Corazon Aquino, who had been diagnosed with colon cancer a year ago, died early this morning. This obituary sums up her life succinctly when it says, “She was a good woman whose goodness alone, at the very end, was what proved enough, if only by an iota, to save her country.”

As Nida might say, “Bingo” to that!

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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