The Gangster of Love

Clockwise From Top Left: Imelda Marcos, Jimi Hendrix, "Gangster of Love," hip-hop artist "Rocky Rivera." Background: Manila

The Carabao Kid (an excerpt)

It was 1973. “Hoy sister.” He calls out when I stroll past Manong Joey’s Kayumanggi Barbershop on Kearny Street. I’m on my way to see what I can shoplift at City Lights Books, but I can’t ignore that loud and insistent “pssst, pssst.” Filipino greeting. “What the fuck?” I mutterd, annoyed. I stick my head into the dark, tiny storefront. Old Filipino men glare back at me from their pomade-scented gloom. Even in their humble circumstance and advanced age, they exude gangster flash and style, chewing on fat cigars while they wait for their haircuts. Acting like millionaires and preening like peacocks, they wear pimpy suits with rakish wing tips of white patent leather loafers on their feet.

Manong Joey is in the midst of putting the finishing touches on some aging used-to-be gigolo’s modified pompadour. The beat-up radio’s tuned to KJAZ. In this bastion of macho vanity and sartorial glamour, the Carabao Kid stands out in his chinos and muddy work boots, his graying hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, his goatee wispy. He’s right at home, claiming one of Manong Joey’s unused barber chairs and swapping tales with the manongs. They are obviously very fond of him. Kid and the old guys could blah-blah all day and all night. “Talk story,” the Kid used to call it…

The Shop (my story)

Growing up in South City, I would get my hair cut for free by Auntie Remy. She worked at Ely Lynn, the local barber shop that we referred to as The Shop. It was conveniently situated next to a Goldilocks where I spent weekends of my childhood ordering halo-halo and pretending I liked the red beans. But unlike The Gangster of Love, The Shop wasn’t filled with gangster manongs. Instead, that’s where the sisters Ely and Lynn ran their business of cutting hair and watching after the neighborhood kids. I’m sure there were choice gossip tidbits flying back and forth between the sisters and the other aunties who came to get their hair did, but my American ears weren’t privy to the tsismis spoken in Tagalog.

Auntie Remy was the mother of my brother’s best friend, hence the free haircuts. Once, I made the mistake of trying to use a round brush to curl my hair the morning I was supposed to take a school picture. I remember rolling the brush up to the my roots and trying to unroll it. The more I tried to unroll the brush, the more my hair tightened around the bristles. Panic ensued. Eventually, I emerged from my bathroom to show my mom my handiwork and she immediately called Auntie Remy. The Shop wasn’t open yet, so we made the two-minute drive to their house where Auntie Remy performed hair surgery with fantastic results: my hair was smooth and silky looking in my school picture and not the black cloud of tangles it was earlier that morning.

The Gangster of Love

I had many more flashbacks like this of mychildhood while I was reading The Gangster of Love. From her recollection of driving past the Alemany Farmer’s Market in San Francisco to the characters’ names (I knew someone in my life with about ninety percent of the characters in the novel) to the names of the cities (Daly City and South San Francisco are hot spots for Filipino communities) to Hagedorn’s skillful way of integrating Filipino history and culture into the storyline, author Jessica Hagedorn writes protagonist Raquel “Rocky” Rivera as though any young Filipino/a could have experienced the world through her eyes even if they were born in the US.

The Kid tells jokes. The atmosphere tingles with pent-up energy and nervous laughter. The Kid and his disciples believed that in the long run, everything could be reduced to a joke. Maybe that was the point all along, and Filipinos knew it. Jokes were in our blood, and very Zen of us. Four hundred years of colonization and Catholicism couldn’t erase it from out consciousness: Bahala na, ha-ha-ha.

An old Filipino man goes before the judge for his citizenship papers. The manong’s really nervous. He’s been in America since 1930, waiting for this Big moment all his life. The judge isn’t too friendly. He says, “Excuse me, Mr. Manong, but before you can get your citizenship papers, I must order you to compose a correct sentence in English, using the following words: deduct, defense, defeat, and detail.” The manong jumps up and down with excitement. “Ay! Very easy, judge! Very easy. See? De duck jump over the de fence. First de feet, den de tail!”  (I told this joke to my dad and he cracked up.)

A few reviews I’ve read about the book criticized it for being “unfocused,” “odd and confusing.” Yes, there are definitely some chapters in the novel where the narrator would change from Rocky to Elvis, or dreams that were written like scripts for a play. But that was the beauty of the novel! Hagedorn did a marvelous job of transporting me to the 70’s where Rocky and her crazy crew experimented with sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Of course the book will be confusing! Things are never straightforward when you’re high.

Besides being my favorite book (for now), Gangster of Love was an inspiration for me to start writing again. The stories of the Filipino or Filipino American are so unheard of; we have things to say, too! When I was growing up, I remember writing novel after novel of drama, suspense and comedy. But what I really spent time on was creating characters with cultural backgrounds that I grew up around including Filipino, Chinese, Latino and African American. Reading Gangster of Love was like a breath of fresh air for the young writer in me who so constantly kept searching for validation. It’s only a matter of time before my memoir is released…*wink wink*


Hot Summer Nights

I’m a Vintage Fan No. 2, Old Crow Farm

Last night, KFK and I stowed our comforters away and brought out the electric fans.

“It was almost a hundred degrees yesterday,” KFK said with amazement. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. He had started to stockpile ice cubes in the freezer and our plastic pitchers are always filled with iced tea. My days lounging out on the patio at Zephyr have been numbered, thanks to the Valley’s rising temps.

But those warm summer nights are pure bliss. Last night, I sat in front of a coffee shop and relished in the balmy air. Wearing nothing but a loose black dress sans brassiere, I lost myself in The Time Traveller’s Wife.

I just realized, when it’s so hot, it can be a challenge to bring interest to the clothes you wear because, well, you’re not wearing much of anything! At the office, I toe the line between professional and fortune teller, I wear so many flowy things! A simple trick I use to class up my beach wear is by switching those sandals to simple black pointy flats and adding a black blazer (with three quarter sleeves so I’m not too stuffy).

At night, it’s simple. Vintage slips with satin folds that glide over my body like a second skin. And while we slumber, those electric fans are whirring me to sleep.

Only Where The Sun Shines

Four walls. A desk. A bookcase and file cabinet. I was understandably excited when work bestowed me with my own office. But over time, I’ve grown restless with the endless hours cooped up in a room, never to see the light of day, especially in the winter time. I sigh with relief as my analog clock strikes 12:00, releasing me from my little cave and into the open air. Now that summer has settled in, I just want to play (and work) in it.

While I understand the practical nature of working inside an office, I feel more creative and free with my thoughts, literally thinking outside the box. Outdoors, my inhibitions are lowered, I’m released from the pressures of others’ expectations. I can imagine the setting: A balcony made of white stucco, lined with soft, plush Moroccan pillows where my body can lounge but my mind can think. I’m flanked by stacks of books; academic journals mixed in with magazines and summer reading. My laptop is the only form of technology, necessary only to record my thoughts. A flowing caftan covered in exotic prints complements the ideas surging forth while the sun supplies a blazing furnace for the imagination.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a Libra that I’m so concerned with my surroundings. It sets the tone for how well I perform. Luxurious comfort, earth tones and ethnic patterns ground me the way gentle breezes and vegetation breathe life into my surroundings. And who is the epitome of luxury than Elizabeth Taylor circa Cleopatra with her kohl-lined eyes and overabundance of gold accessories? I’m a firm believer that work can be fun and still appropriate to dress up like the Queen of Egypt. Whatever gets the job done.

I still feel like I’m a ways away from living the dream. It’s not impossible, though. Confidentiality would be easy to mask and my current favorite outdoor hangout carries all the necessary ingredients, not to mention a hookah bar for those smoky cravings! (Heh, I don’t smoke, but the scent is delightful! Much better than incense or cigarettes.) And now that summer has rolled around and the office is much more lenient about wardrobe standards, my swingy skirts and see-through blouses are seeing the light of day. Now, I only have to figure out how and when to implement said dream, then it’s hasta la vista, baby! when paperwork comes a callin’. Stayed tuned for that episode of Cleopatra and Talitha Gone Rogue

On Safari: A Metaphorical Journey

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot 


I mourn a young adulthood with glaring gaps where worldly travels and experiences are meant to be, but it only means I can indulge in such aspirations that much more later on. My journeys are only limited by my imagination and, truth be told, I’ve recently ventured into uncharted territories where my mind is as vast as the Sahara desert and ancient artifacts are intangible mysteries uncovered from my past. 


Like any explorer, curiosity and courage are the keys to discovery. What answers are you willing to seek? What beasts are you ready to face? And in some cases, what are you going to wear???  


As for me, this juncture in my expedition calls for a pith helmet and a string of animal charms that even Dora can appreciate. Onward, explorers! See you on the other side…

Portraits Of The South

I marvel in the faded colors of the cloth she’s twisted into a makeshift turban, its ends tattered and frayed, probably from long hours working in the sun and dusty terrain. A piece of toughened leather bejeweled with rows of cowrie shells encircle her neck almost like a yoke. In a society where people are desperate to cling on to some sort of unattainable ideal through silicone breasts, synthesized beats and infinite internet access via I-Pods and I-Pads, the creativity and vibrancy that emerges from using nature’s most simple materials humbles me.

Their confidence isn’t found in the size of their breasts (clearly) or how much they’ve embraced technology in any shape or form, but in they way they carry themselves. The portraits are inspiring because it reminds me that life can be simple and still fulfilling.

This portrait of a young woman is one of the most compelling portraits I’ve seen. Her stance suggests an air of nonchalance and relaxed self-assurance. A hint of a smile plays around her lips as she regards the camera with an easy gaze. Stylistically from a Western point of view, she complements her shape with a gorgeous piece of what I presume is some kind of animal pelt hanging loosely around her neck like a halter accompanied by layers of wooden beads, metal and leather. Symmetrical piles of copper and silver bangles adorn her arms like rays of sunbeams. She is Nature, Nature is She. It was never meant to be more complicated than that. 

The camera is but a distraction. She turns away because she has more important things on her mind. Fashion isn’t commercial to her; it’s creativity, it’s a way of life, it’s in the way she cares for herself and the way she cares for others. Her turban resembles a mind fruitful with wisdom, her bare shoulders free from the weight of a pressured society. “Lighten the load,” she says. I strive to find that kind of balance in the way I express myself so I, too, can turn the other cheek to insignificant things in my life.

What looks like an ordinary sheet of cloth is transformed into a majestic shawl for the queen that it shields from the sweltering sun. I respect the process of finding beauty in even the most seemingly mundane things.

They bring color to her life, little reminders that what is beautiful is not always tangible, it’s not always contemporary, it’s not always exotic. It touches and connects with the soul without rhyme or reason and exists only in the eye of the beholder. In fashion, inspiration exists outside of the designer department stores and off the runways; they are but pedestals for gods and goddesses who have risen and fallen season after season. If only I can take these reminders with me on a daily basis, I will gain truth in my own creative journey.

images from Philip Gatward

High Tops

Big hair of the ’80’s. Hair bands. Pompadours. Rapunzel. Marge Simpson. No matter how you spin it, hair is weighty with cultural and social significance. They’ve always been an indicator of power; the more of it you have, the more powerful you are. Why do you think male lions sport that gigantic mane of theirs? Or that Fabio gets all the ladies?

This season, runways are embracing powerful women in the workplace, the military and in sports. And although it hasn’t been spoken of in this way, hair is another catalyst for discussions on power. Back in the Queen Elizabethan days, big hair and giant hoop skirts were symbolic of immense wealth and high status. If you could afford to pay for huge amounts of luxurious fabrics, then for damn sure you had money! It’s not much different from those who like to flaunt their wealth (or make it seem like they are wealthy) with imports and designer jeans.

I looked to Studio Marisol for examples of big hair. You’re more likely to see these hairstyles on the runway than on regular people, but frankly, they’re way more fun to look at.

Okay, this chick’s hair isn’t big at all, but the dread-like braids give the romantic look a Rastafarian vibe.

With Fall collections struttin’ down the catwalk, it’s apparent that fur is comin’ back in a big way. A collab between Studio Marisol and CuldeSac introduce the idea of using real human hair as a raw material for socially conscious purposes. 

“Hair is a woman’s most powerful accessory.” – Frederic Fekkai

My cousin and I had a riveting conversation via google chat the other day about hair woes. I come from a family of long-haired divas, a common aesthetic amongst Asian/Pacific Islanders, and cutting our hair is a big deal. B had cut hers chin-length in January and is still waiting for it to grow out to a comfortable length. Although I’ve gotten more adventurous with my hair, I’m style wary of letting it get anywhere near scissors.

Truth be told, long hair does have it’s drawbacks, especially in this growing-out phase where the layers are less visible and it just looks and feels heavy. I usually end up pinning it back into a loose chignon twist with strands of hair framing my face quite nicely and nothing weighing on my shoulders (literally and figuratively).

In other words, I often dream about having short hair.

But how hard is it to literally cut yourself off from all that power? As a long-haired vet, it’s very hard. Perhaps the fantasy is also triggered by my current mood: heavy, weighed down, stuck. Whereas long hair implies the burden of power, short hair can mean freedom. However, I’m willing to compromise. Inspired by one of my favorite style bloggers and Vogue’s recent photoshoot with Amber Valletta, I’ve made the conscious decision to purchase a short-haired wig.

Hair does have transformative power. Even without the sets and the costumes, Amber would look like totally different people just based on her hair alone. For me, the power to transform is what makes fashion so alluring. We are in hard times which makes it difficult to escape realities of the day-to-day grind. My only way out is through my appearance. If I can just feel like someone else, or influence changes in my mood through the clothes I wear, then let’s hear it for playing dress-up! Hurrah!

Gypsy Queen

Stereotypically, fashion is seen as a vapid industry, perpetuating shallow depths and vain aspirations. And with good reason. We have plastic surgery, reality shows and Facebook to thank for intensifying that mess. However, I’m of the camp that perceives fashion as more than a tool of vanity; it is a creative outlet for self-expression. It was Coco Chanel who said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

I used to be perplexed by how I would vacillate between dark and brooding looks enveloped in dark neutrals and metallic accents like safety pins and more free-spirited styles like my current obsessions with the nomadic, jet-setter divas. But I’ve come to realize that the schizophrenic swings in my style palette is completely based on my mood. I cruise my usual style haunts on a daily basis, cataloging and blogging on any style tidbits that speak to me in the moment.

For example, the weather has been warming up to the highly anticipated summer months dancing around the corner, and my mood is following suit. I spent an awesome weekend with KFK and my aunt and uncle who are 10 years older than we are but infinitely young at heart (we spent 3 hours drooling over toys at Frank & Son, for cryin’ out loud!). It’s always a buzzkill to have to trudge drearily into work on Monday morning, knowing that this is only the beginning of a week of hellish survival.

I thought Alexander Herchovitch’s Fall 2010 collection would be a lovely way to translate my emotional limbo between summer euphoria and the workday blues.

Top left: West Elm side table; Bottom center: Loeffler Randall safety-pin sandals

The collection is a visual feast of Gypsy sensibilities as evidenced by swooping chains, headdresses and eye-catching Eastern-inspired fabrics, and bridged seamlessly with urban accents like artfully slashed dresses, fishnets, combat boots and full plaid pantsuits reminiscent of Westwood’s punk couture.

I tried to embellish more on the Gypsy queen’s earthy qualities by interspersing Herchovitch’s looks with Brett Manning‘s ink illustrations. I’m captivated by her emphasis on combining what is man-made with natural elements such as feathers and animal horns.

Sruli Recht : Cross, monolith and pyramid belt buckles made from concrete; rough uncut diamonds unscrewed and screwed into white gold ring.

I love how Recht writes about each project in poem form. Here is his description of the belt buckles:

I took my horse and I took my house
and dragged four stones along that road
to wipe the dust
from mortar, cold steel and flesh

I took the cement powder
claimed rusted steel nails from the forgotten grounds of hope
the horse’s hide, beaten now by time and toil, I tanned
and left with my gaze and sweat
to bend that steel and harden that stone.

and with what was shed I am left to atone
and postpone.”

I just thought this following Brett Manning image was totally cool. I see this woman in her drawing and feel a sense of freedom and strength both in mind and body. She has direction and purpose; she knows where she wants to go. Besides that, I love how that single left earring isn’t overpowered by her untamed hair; did I ever mention that I used to have a fascination with Native American cultures? I loved reading and writing short novels about them when I was younger. They were always such strong people to me, living off the land and never feeling life was more complicated than it had to be. Perhaps that’s where I need to be right now…

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