By Broderick D.V. Chow

The essay that this piece accompanies, which appears in the September 2018 issue of Theatre Journal 70, had a long and difficult journey to publication. It began as an invitation in 2015 to present work-in-progress research at the London Theatre Seminar. The invitation coincided with a contemporaneous obsession I had with a particular mode of Philippine digital-cultural production: basically, Filipinos performing American pop music and doing it really, really well. I did not know how to theorize what I was seeing, but I loved watching these videos. Ever the Icarus, I jumped at the invitation to submit this work to Theatre Journal.

That 2015 talk was a mess. I leaned heavily on a body of Philippine theatre scholarship that was (at the time) totally unfamiliar to me and I threw everything in a paper about three YouTube videos. I tried to write a “grand theory” of Filipino performativity. With hind sight, my scholarly overreach had something to do with my complex feelings about being a Chinese-Filipino-Canadian academic in the historically white space of the academy. As an Asian person, I felt a strong desire to avoid being marginalized by the disciplinary labels of “ethnic studies” or “area studies”; but I also felt a responsibility to tell our stories, which raised more difficult feelings of guilt, shame, and being an imposter. Who am I to tell our stories?

We are not supposed to talk about feelings in our research. Donatella Galella, in her article “FeelingYellow,” writes that “[w]hen I first began grappling critically with my emotional responses to musicals, I hesitated to narrate my experiences because I had been conditioned to think that theorizing my feelings did not constitute legitimate scholarship.”1 But Galella’s feelings turn out to be the very archive upon which she is able to launch a critique of the racist practice of yellowface. Similarly, in composing my essay, it is the complex feelings around race, diaspora, and authenticity that accompany my writing about the Philippines that I turn into performance theory.

In the essay, I theorize what I call “feeling in counterpoint.” The concept draws on Edward Said’s idea of “contrapuntal reading,”2 which comes from music theory—two melodic lines moving in different directions at the same time—and that posits the necessity to analyze texts from the points of view both of the colonizer and the colonized. Feeling in counterpoint is spectatorship that describes the multidirectionality of “feelings” (by which I mean both affect, which I interpret as bodily response, and emotion, which is socially recognized), history, coloniality, and migration. It is about identifying a colonial and racialized formation—for example, what it means to call something a “Filipino performance”—but also showing how that formation is moving and dynamic.

I apply this spectatorial lens to several performances of what has, in previous schol-arship, been called Filipino “mimicry”—performances where Filipinos are perceived to perform like Westerners.3 The content of these performances (American pop songs and musical theatre) did not suggest anything Filipino, and yet they felt, to me at least, deeply Filipino. The performance went beyond mimicry—a term that suggested a one-way direction of colonial influence. And these performances resonated with me, as a diasporic Filipino person, in a way that I could not put my finger on. I could analyze them in materialist terms, in political terms, their place in a digital economy, and their relation to the Philippines’ neocolonial relation to the United States. What I could not rationalize was how they made me feel. Thus feeling in counterpoint became a way to hold in mind both the historical, political, and material contexts and the feelings thatthe performance provoked; it was a way to listen for the lived experiences that often resist incorporation into a larger historical interpretation or narrative.

Or, perhaps feeling in counterpoint was also a way of coming to terms with myown “bad objects”—those cultural objects we are attracted to but feel conflicted about.4 After all, these performances are meant to be evidence of a “colonial mentality”—the internalized oppression that Filipinos feel after over 350 years of colonization. I am not supposed to like them . . . and yet.

In the end, feeling in counterpoint is not only about some YouTube videos, but rather the difficulty of reconciling lived experience with identity categories. Sometimes I feel like a bad Filipino. I am Canadian; I do not speak Tagalog. My mother comes from a Chinese Mestizo family; my dad is Chinese. I live in London. But sometimes I feel, to quote the Filipino American comedian Rex Navarette, “Hella Pinoy.”5 I say “open the light” and “close the light”; I eat balut and diniguan; I love karaoke; to every summer graduation I wear the barong Tagalog my father was married in and give a history lesson to anyone who calls it a “shirt.”

And sometimes it does not matter how I feel. Once, in a pub in Covent Garden after the theatre, a white British woman asked me, “Where are you from?” “Canada,” I replied. “Oh,” she said, “you look more tropical!”

Whenever we try to evidence (or disprove) the authenticity of identity, we encounter a complex knot of political and personal forces: migratory histories and diasporic attachments; new citizenships and visas; quotidian signifiers of a “homeland” you have never lived in; the racist colonial gaze that only sees phenotypical difference and proclaims you to be “tropical.” And sometimes, if we listen closely, we can hear, we can feel all these things in the voice of a Mindanaoan girl as she belts out a pop song.

 

THE PLAYLIST

This playlist consists of three performances discussed directly in the article, as well as a few others that are not discussed therein but provide further context. 

Darren Espanto, “Chandelier” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCgP-MJ7rQ8

Like me, Darren Espanto is Filipino Canadian; he moved from Calgary to Manilain 2014 to compete on the popular television show The Voice Kids. This cover of Sia’s international hit, “Chandelier,” was recorded in the Wish 107.5 Bus, a roving radio station in Quezon City, when Espanto was only age 14. What is interesting is how the video provokes a kind of racialized gaze from non-Filipino viewers in the supposed gap between (Asian) body and voice. But this racial gaze is tempered by the fact that, in the second chorus (from 2:10 onward), Espanto “nails it.” He pushes the falsetto high F sharp into belted register, throws in a series of grace notes, and ends with adescending riff. It is a powerful vocal performance that demonstrates an embodiedpleasure in performing in excess of pure mimicry of the original text. See figure 1.

Figure 1. Darren Espanto.

HugKnucklesTV, “DARREN ESPANTO - CHANDELIER [SIA] LIVE COVER REACTION!!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fB_3LDSxnQk

Josh and Sam Brooks, or HugKnucklesTV, create “reaction videos,” mainly focused on Filipino performers. Their effusive, showy reaction demonstrates how the affective labor of the Filipino performer (moving the audience), is met by an overflow of “being moved.” See figure 2.

Figure 2. HugKnucklesTV.

Zendee Rose Tenerefe, “I Will Always Love You” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=023CWTfHiWs

Zendee Rose Tenerefe went viral online as “Random Girl,” with the video standing as an example of exceptional talent in an unlikely place. How, commenters asked, could this “random [Filipina] girl” sing exactly like Whitney Houston? In this video, however, you can hear how Tenerefe is performing for a small, local crowd, enjoying her ability to move the audience. Her riff, on the climactic third verse, stretches past Houston’s original vocal performance to a high Eb5. It is completely unnecessary andtotally moving. See figure 3.

Figure 3. Zendee Rose Tenerefe.

Rachelle Ann Go and the cast of Hamilton (West End), “Alexander Hamilton” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ECzlMYRKLg

I have followed Filipina actress and pop singer Rachelle Ann Go’s career since she was cast as Gigi Van Tranh in the West End revival of Miss Saigon. I felt a strange kind of ethnic pride when she was cast as Eliza Schuyler, the wife of Alexander Hamilton, in the West End transfer of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Although Go’s performancerepresents a broader process of Filipino assimilation to global (American) culture and economy, there is something that resists being fully incorporated in the role (or thenarrative). In this video, it is the faint struggle of her Tagalog-accented open vowels against the clipped, sharp consonants of Miranda’s text. See figure 4.

Figure 4. Rachelle Ann Go and the cast of Hamilton.

Jake Zyrus, “DNM” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JtrT4e6mjI

Let’s just say it, this track is totally awesome. “DNM,” or “Dulo Ng Mundo [End of the world],” was released this year by Jake Zyrus. He is a 26-year-old transman who began performing under the name Charice with a female gender identity. At age 15, Charice was invited to the United States to perform on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show after DeGeneres had viewed the videos online, and subsequently by Oprah Winfrey, who introduced Charice to the producer David Foster. As Charice, Zyrus was billed as the “little girl with the big voice” and dressed like a doll. Charice’s performances were fascinating because of a supposed disjuncture between the deep, soulful voice and the tiny Asian body. After the release of his first album, Charice returned to the Philippines and began his gender transition in 2017. Of Charice, he says, “I feel like she’s a different person. I don’t want to totally erase her from my life. When I watch my old videos, I just see her as a little sister.” See figure 5.

Figure 5. Jake Zyrus.

Sarah Geronimo, “Flawless & 7/11” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grH_nZ5kp8Q

Sarah Geronimo (pronounced “Hair-onimo”) is my favorite Filipino pop singer. When I said this to an academic from University of the Philippines Diliman at the Performance Studies International Conference in Shanghai (2014), she laughed at me and said, “Sarah is totally unable to do an authentic performance.” Perhaps it is her inauthenticity, her mercurial ability to perform anything from Eminem to Disney princesses that I like. This video shows a highly popular form of television performance in the Philippines, called “party” shows—ASAP and Eat Bulaga are among the most famous—where musicians perform a mix of covers of Western pop and OPM (Original Pinoy or Pilipino Music). For me, it is a televisual reflection of the Filipino cultural love of karaoke. However, further research is demanded by the appropriation of black aesthetics in much Philippine pop performance, similar to questions around blackness and K-pop within Korean culture. See figure 6.

Figure 6. Sarah Geronimo.

Noel Cabangon, “Kanlungan [Shelter]” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxyIyWDJZFo

This lovely song by legendary singer-songwriter Noel Cabangon is an example of OPM, which essentially refers to the country’s home-grown popular music; in otherwords, songs written by Filipino writers, usually in Tagalog or other Philippine lan-guages. “Kanlungan [Shelter]” demonstrates the multiple influences on such national genres. On the one hand, Cabangon’s softly plucked guitar seems drawn directly from American folk music; on the other, the longing lyrics buried in memory and thesustained melodic line hark back to the kundiman, a native form of sung love poetry, often addressed to an absent lover. See figure 7.

Figure 7. Noel Cabangon.

Notes

1 Donatella Galella, “Feeling Yellow: Responding to Contemporary Yellowface in Musical Perfor-mance,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 32, no. 2 (2018): 67–77, quote on 68.

2 Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1993), 51.

3 See Abigail de Kosnik, “Perfect Covers: Filipino Musical Mimicry and Transmedia Performance,” Verge: Studies in Global Asias 3, no. 1 (2017):137–61; and J. Lorenzo Perillo, “’If I was not in prison, I would not be famous’: Discipline, Choreography, and Mimicry in the Philippines,” Theatre Journal 63, no. 4 (2011): 607–21.

4 On “bad objects,” see Marissa Brostoff, Lakshmi Padmanabhan, Ned Riseley, and Andrea Long Chu’s collaborative writing project on Sex and the City, “The Slow Burn,” available at http://post45.research.yale.edu/2018/07/the-slow-burn-volume-4-an-introduction/.

5 Hella Pinoy is Navarette’s 2003 filmed stand-up comedy special. The joke of the title exaggerates stereotypical Filipino characteristics (“That’s so Pinoy”) to an absurd degree (“That’s hella Pinoy”). “Pinoy” is a diminuitive for Filipino (the feminine adjective is “Pinay”). See Navarette’s Hella Pinoy on YouTube, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doFUZOWVlSc.