Ronald Klein and the last living comfort man of World War II
By Ronald Klein
This is a story about a story. It stretches back 60 years, is about history and memory, Japan and the Philippines, film and reality, the tragedy of war and the comedy of living on. The story takes place in Manila, a city where it is impossible to connect the dots with a straight line, where strands of the narrative merge, diverge and weave like the traffic in its streets. It includes characters like Justo Justo, Bernie Barbosa and Seiko, the Philippine man who became a Japanese woman. But mostly this is Markova's story, the last living comfort man of World War II. And, oh yes, there is sex, plenty of that!
Let me first say that I am an academic; I study literature, not history. However, on a research trip to Manila in early 2001, looking for Philippine literary views of Japan, my colleagues at the University of the Philippines asked me if I had heard about Markova, a comfort gay. It seemed everyone in Manila knew about him.
A movie based on his life had just been released and won some awards at the Metro Manila Film Festival. A big splash, starring Dolphy, one of the Philippines most popular film comedians, and two of his sons. No, I hadn't heard of Markova. I also had never heard of the existence of comfort men. I was intrigued. The movie was not available, not even on the streets, where I thought everything was available, especially bootleg videos.
On my next trip, I was staying with my friends Butch and Lei Aldana, who were also hosting the actress Tita Munoz. After dinner one night, Tita got me in touch with the production company, who confirmed the tape was not in circulation, because of piracy threats, but was making the rounds of film festivals. There was nothing I could do.
I let the Markova story sit while I got on with my work. Back in Japan I asked around to see if anyone had heard of comfort gays and I got the same shocked reaction — Ehhhhh? I read George Hicks' and Yuki Tanaka's books on comfort women and several books about the Japanese Occupation of Southeast Asian and the Philippines in particular — but no mention of comfort men. The less I learned the more skeptical I became. Maybe it was true, that Markova was comforting men, but perhaps he was freelancing, like other Filipino women were, to get by during the war. But then, again, gay soldiers probably comforted each other during wartime. My curiosity grew.
In August I made another trip to Manila to follow up on my research. In between trips, Butch and Lei had tracked down Markova. He was staying at the "Home for Golden Gays," a retirement home run by Justo Justo, a gay city counselor in Pasay City in Manila. I was looking forward to meeting Markova in such a quaint-sounding place, but shortly before I arrived, the word was that he was no longer living there. Lei put in calls to the counselor's office trying to track him down, but they didn't know where he was. Then suddenly two days before I arrived, out of the blue, a call came through from a man called Bernie Barbosa, who said he was a friend of Markova's. He had heard that someone wanted to meet him. By the time I arrived, Lei had gotten Bernie to arrange a meeting. She also found an office that would lend me the film to watch.
After dinner the evening I arrived, we called Bernie Barbosa. Lei made the introductions and put me on the phone. "Hello, Bernie," I began. "No, this is Walter, Walter Dempster." I was talking to Markova, himself. "Do you want to come talk to me? Yes, that's fine." In five minutes a date was made and directions given.
The next day, Lei and I tracked down the video in a nondescript office at the end of a long corridor in an office building in Makati. Hanging on the wall was a poster of the movie: "Markova: Comfort Gay, A True Story" with a striking photo of the three Markovas of the movie – the teenage Walter, the exotic dancer Walterina, and the older Markova—all dressed as women wearing turbans, jewelry and bright red lipstick. I got a copy of the poster to take with me.
That afternoon, we went to Agnes's place to watch the movie. Agnes lives in one of those gated communities where Lei had to surrender her driver's license to the guard at the gate. She also has her own security guard inside her private gate. Plus two body guards on the street, who accompany her daughter around town. (Kidnapping is a lucrative business in Manila.) But inside the gate is the world of a sculptress – two houses and a studio enclosing a swimming pool and a sculpture garden filled with larger-than-life installations of sexual deities, including a reclining woman emerging from a field of Japanese-style raked sand. We settled on cushions on the floor in a soundproof room used for band rehearsals and watched the movie.
This is the story of Markova's movie:
The film has three phases. It begins with the older Markova, who lives in Councilor Justo Justo's "Home for Golden Gays." In response to watching comfort women coming out with their stories on television, he decides to "out" his story. JJ puts him in touch with a TV journalist and we go into the flashback. It is the late 1930s and Walter is a very effeminate teenager, trying to hide his feminine side from his macho brother who routinely beats him. When he is 15, he is raped by his brother's best friend. Shortly thereafter, his brother dies and only then can he freely dress as a woman.
The war comes and Markova and four other friends are dancing (as women) in a club for Japanese officers. One night some Japanese officers take them back to a hotel where they are discovered to be men. The officers get furious, slap them around and have them dragged off to a warehouse. Shortly thereafter a truckload of Japanese soldiers arrive and the five are gang raped with bayonets pointing at their heads. Back at the "Golden Gay" Markova dismissingly says that some time afterward, they escaped.
The flashback continues with the five living together. One is intent on vengeance and goes out at night to seduce and murder Japanese officers. One is publicly tortured as a thief. Soon the Americans arrive and Markova is back in action, with an American boyfriend. The interview is over and the journalist suggests doing some background research to verify his story. Markova gets indignant, "I just opened my heart to you and told you the truth of my life – and you don't believe me!" and throws her out.
The last part of the movie, much lighter and warmhearted in tone, shows the older Markova's relationship with his two remaining comrades. One is dying of AIDS and the other of heart disease. Markova alone, still looks young and energetic. The film ends with the three Markovas doing an exotic dance, individually and together.
The movie has had a life of its own since its premier in Dec. 2000. It continues to tour at film festivals — Los Angeles, Denver, Stockholm, Brussels – and continues to receive awards. In Brussels, Dolphy and his two sons jointly won Best Actor award — AND Best Actress Award! The production company applied to enter it at the Tokyo and Fukuoka Film Festivals, but was told (surprise!) the entries were filled.
But back to Manila... that afternoon, Lei took me to feel the cool bay breezes behind the Manila Film Center off Roxas Boulevard. The Film Center was one of Imelda Marcos' imperial edifices making up for in size what it lacks in taste. The rumor is that in its rush to completion, several workers were crushed by a falling roof and are now a permanent part of the building's foundation. Ghosts and bad luck linger, they say. However, it is now home to The Amazing Philippine Show, a tourist-oriented Las Vegas-style revue of songs and dances with earsplitting music and gorgeous costumes, performed by the most beautiful women in the Philippines — except that they are all male cross-dressers.
Sitting on the wall behind the Film Center, we watched some cast members taking a walk before the show, ambling along like deer, with long legs and short short pants. Lei remarked at how remarkably feminine they were. A few minutes later, two of the members passed our way. We exchanged greetings and they came over to chat.
When I said I was from Japan, one of them started speaking to me in Japanese. Her name was Seiko and she had been living in Kobe for 11 years as an entertainer. She was even married to a Japanese man.
Now let me say right now that my friend Lei is not shy, and she was the one who asked most of the questions. "Your figure looks so womanly," she started on Seiko-san. "Oh, but I am a woman," Seiko-san replied proudly. "I had an operation! One hundred thousand pesos for this one [pointing to a breast], one hundred for that one [pointing to the other] and two hundred for down there [pointing down there]." Plus a little facial work.
"You mean those are silicon?" I asked, trying to make conversation. "Oh, no!" Seiko-san retorted, "Saline solution—better than silicon. Do you want to see?" And so she pulled open her blouse for a closer inspection. Lei was clearly impressed, "But they look so real, like a young girl's!" "Do you think I could, er, touch one?" the researcher in me asked. "Sure!" Seiko-san said proudly. And sure enough it felt like a real breast.
Our conversation was interrupted by a phone call from her husband in Japan. She returned to us with the flush of romance. This is her story: During her time in Japan as an entertainer, she met a nice married salaryman. As these things happen, they fell in love. But then, as these things don't usually happen, he decided he would leave his wife and children. But then, he decided that he would make his male love interest into a legitimate woman and paid for the operation. For Seiko-san, as with most gays, this was a dream come true. Now while she was waiting in Manila for her spouse visa to get processed, she found work as a dancer in The Amazing Philippine Show.
The other performer's name was Joanne. Joanne was younger (19), prettier, and a little shyer than Seiko-san. This was his first job as a dancer. Did he sing and dance before this? No. Did he ever dress up as a woman before? No. But he knew he could do it, auditioned and got the job. He said that he was happy to have found a group of men who felt the same way as he did. He has started taking hormones to soften his face and round out his figure.
But Lei wasn't finished. "Tell me, how is it down there now? During the operation did they have to, you know, cut something?" Seiko-san took on a clinical tone. "Oh no! Nowadays, they have a way of turning it around inside, so that it doesn't show. Then they make an opening." "But can you feel anything when he comes inside?" (I told you Lei wasn't shy.) "Oh yes... kimochiiii..." Seiko-san said knowingly.
The sun was setting and the girls had to get into their costumes, so we said good-bye and started walking. A few minutes later, though, Seiko-san found us and invited us to the show that evening. Unfortunately, we had to meet Butch for dinner, but we promised to catch the show on Saturday night.
Several days later, on Saturday, Lei and I went to see Markova. He was waiting for us outside Bernie Barbosa's kiosk shop on the main street of a barrio in Las Pinas. He greeted us warmly. "I'm Walterina Markova. It is nice to meet you." He was wearing a subdued plaid cotton shirt and black pants with traces of make-up around his eyes, perhaps. I gave him a box of Japanese sembe and a string of paper cranes a friend had folded for me. We settled down on a bench in front of the shop and I turned on the tape recorder.
His story pretty much followed the film—early cross-dressing, first rape by his brother's friend, flirting on the street, dancing on stage, serial rape by Japanese soldiers, post-war flirting with the Americans, retirement from the stage, and recent resurgence as a celebrity with the film version of his story.
Without the film, Markova's episode would be just one more story of secret shame, one more example of Japanese abuse during their wartime occupation of the Philippines. After all, thousands of civilians were killed, thousands of men tortured, thousands of women raped. What makes his story so arresting, though, is that he was a man, who was raped day after day by Japanese soldiers. In my research of the comfort woman I never found any other instance of soldiers raping men. Nor had any other academic I spoke to. Clearly this was an unusual practice.
My original skepticism about Markova's role as a comfort gay quickly dissolved. No, he was not servicing Japanese soldiers on his own. No, he was not part of the government-run comfort station system. He and his friends were forcibly taken to a series of army barracks where they were gang raped, 10-20 times a day, every day, for five months. They were not provided with clean clothes, bedding, access to washing. They were kept as slaves, cleaning the barracks, washing clothes, polishing shoes, cutting grass, moving furniture — plus providing sexual services in the afternoon and night. The nightmare ordeal ended when they escaped from a truck taking them away to an unknown destination at midnight. The truck had broken down and while their guards went to the front to check the engine, Markova and his friends held hands, jumped off the truck and ran for their lives, dodging bullets fired after them.
Clearly he had told his story before and didn't need much prompting to go into his narrative. Yet his story was about much more than his wartime horror. It was the story of a Philippine gay. Throughout his talk, he referred to himself not as gay, the adjective, but as "a gay," the noun. From my perspective they were one and the same but that led to some confusion:
Markova: My first love was the son of a character movie actor.
RDK: Was he gay?
Markova: No, he was a real man.
RDK: But he was your boyfriend?
Markova: He was my boyfriend for five years, but he was not living in my house. But everybody, even his parents, knew that he was making love to me.
RDK: But he was not gay?
Markova: No, he was not gay. He was a real man.
RDK: But he was making love to you?
Markova: Even his mother and father and sisters agreed that he was my boyfriend.
RDK: Wait, I don't understand. You're a man and he's a man.
RDK: And you're gay, but he's not gay.
Markova: No. He's a real man.
RDK: But you're having sex?
RDK: Gay sex?
Markova: Because the boys at that time, even though you are a gay and they know that you are a gay, they make love to you.
Markova: Yeah, if a man falls in love with you, he will make you up as if you were a woman. He will go to work just for you. Even most of the movie actors during this time were gay lovers.
RDK: But not gay?
Markova: They are not gay.
RDK: But, what's the difference?
Markova: I don't know.
RDK: I don't know either.
Markova: They just love gays.
RDK: But they are not gay?
Markova: No, I had many boyfriends during that time. I had many because I was very flirty at night...
I had to leave my confusion behind and get on with the interview, but something kept nagging at my mind that I didn't understand about his story. What did he mean by being a gay? And what was "a real man?"
Toward the end of the interview I had asked him if he was filing compensation from the Japanese like the other comfort women?
"I don't know if they're going to believe me, because I'm all alone. All my companions are dead. I got interviewed by two Japanese newspapers, and after the interview, one reporter asked me, "Walter, supposing the Japanese government will recognize you as being a comfort gay, what do you want to do?"
I said, "As for me, I want them to make a public apology. Do you think your Japanese government will recognize that.
And she said, "I don't know. Maybe, maybe."
So, I'm not interested. God will provide. I leave it all to God."
Despite the horror of his past, his wartime enslavement was only one episode in a very eventful life. He is a survivor is more than one sense. Markova still projects a coquettishness and charm that makes it easy to imagine how flirtatious he must have been 60 years ago.
Immediately after his Japanese enslavement, he continued his gay lifestyle, working as a taxi dancer in the provinces and then as a seductive gay during the American Liberation. He was on a truck about to leave for America after the war but when he saw the American soldiers in the street, he got off the truck and stayed behind.
"So, do you know what I did that night? I dressed myself up. I had short hair, so I gathered this hair and then I put a flower here. Then, I am a girl. So I flirted that night. I went flirting to the Americans. Everyday when I went out with American soldiers, they gave me boxes and boxes of canned goods – figs, soup, pork and beans – all American foods. When I went inside the barracks, I came out with blankets, bed sheets, boxes of cigarettes, soap, everything. Imagine, I still have one GI blanket. It's very old now. I pressed him, "And what were you doing in the barracks? Just flirting?"
"Not flirting. Something happened. But you know what I did? We did everything with our hands. We put it underneath our body [demonstrates]. Then he thinks that I'm a woman. He didn't know that it's my hand. That's how tricky we were. That's why we say, "The hand is quicker than the eye." Markova smiled coquettishly, obviously pleased with his lucrative deception.
After a few hours of talking, we had come up to the present — his work as a make-up consultant for the Japayukis hired to work in Japan, his estrangement with Councilor Justo Justo and subsequent leaving the Home for Golden Gays, his recent accident being hit by a truck. Then he brought out a folder of photos, newspaper clippings and thank-you notes from college students who have come to interview him.
There was one photo of his pre-war friends, several of his post-war festival queen days, several of the film set of the movie. There were newspaper articles about him and about the film, including the Daily Manila Shimbun, the local Japanese-language paper. Obviously his film has been seen and his story known by the local Japanese community. But had people in the embassy passed on the information? Not a word about that.
Before leaving, we made plans to bring Markova along to see The Amazing Philippine Show that night. He had heard about it, but hadn't seen a show like that for many years. He was looking forward to seeing what modern show dancing was like. I asked him to autograph the film poster I had brought along and he did. Above the picture of Dolphy and his sons, he wrote largely: The Real Markova—Walter Dempster, Jr.
On our way back from the interview, I was questioning Lei about what a "real man" was. She hadn't heard the term either. I wondered if there was more of a sexual ambiguity among Philippine men, which would make it acceptable for straight men to have sex with gay men. Casually, Lei asked her driver, "Julio, have you ever had sex with a man?" "Yes, ma'am," he answered matter-of-factly. "But you've just had your second child with your wife!" "Yes, ma'am. But that was before I got married. He took me out and bought me some things." "Was this just a short fling." "No, ma'am, over a year." "But are you gay?" "Oh, no, ma'am. I'm a real man."
So there we had it – a real example of a "real man" in our very own car!
Later I got in touch with Neil Garcia, author of the definitive study, Philippine Gay Culture. According to him, you shouldn't confuse gender identity with sexual practice. In the Philippines, bakla are men who feel they have the soul of a woman and who tend to cross-dress and act like women. Usually they are the initiator of sexual advances and find "call boys" or other "real men" (tunay na lakake). The motivation for "real men" having relations with gays is usually financial and there is little emotional involvement in the relationship. These partners may or may not be homosexual, but are certainly not "gays." A bakla would never consider having relations with another bakla. In Markova's case as an entertainer, dancer and hostess, he was pursued by men. Acting as a woman, he obviously enjoyed flirting with boys and having them "make love" to him, which for him was 1940s slang for innocent banter and exchange of compliments and sometimes, as with the American officers, he was even able to convince them that he was a woman.
While this explanation helps understand the cultural context of gays in Philippine society, it fails to explain the motivation of the hundreds of Japanese soldiers who had sexual relations with Markova and his friends. Were they "real men" in the same sense of the word? Or was their action one of symbolic subjugation and degredation, with the same purpose that they raped women in the countryside? Was it merely a lustful sexual release, saving them a trip to the local comfort station? Was it one long ordeal of punishment? Or was it the oft-mentioned homo-erotic backdrop of Japanese militarism, exemplified by Mishima? Neil Garcia had no good answers, since in Philippine culture, it is the bakla who initiates the advances. Certainly, this was not the case in Markova's situation. Garcia considers it an aberration, but one which was perpetuated for a long time and by many individuals.
That evening Markova joined Lei, Butch (a real man, no pun intended by his name), and me for the show. Earlier I had stopped by the theatre and picked up tickets, mentioning that we would be bringing Markova. The staff was thrilled. Markova was one of the first gay dancers, performing 60 years before. And now, with the film out, he was a living legend in the field.
The taxi dropped us off and we climbed the rows of steps to the entrance. Markova, for all his 78 years, was spry and energetic, setting the pace for the rest of us. The inside of the theater was as devoid of style as the outside, an enormous barn of a hall with over 1000 red velour seats and no balcony. A few Korean tour buses discharged its contents into the cavernous hanger. The four of us were escorted to front row seats The performance was grand, a succession of large-scale place-theme dances (Hawaii, Korea, Disneyland, Egypt) or lip-synched songs, performed by gorgeous women wearing ever more elegant costumes. A thrust stage brought them close to the audience where they could wink at the customers. Several times they walked off the stage to mingle, shake glove-covered hands and flirt.
Throughout the show, Markova and I kept a commentary going "Look at that one! Did she have an operation? She looks very real." Or, "They have very nice make-up—store-bought. Not like my time when we had to make our own." Or, "Very nice legs" "Beautiful dress." It would have been interesting enough to see the show for its inherent quirkiness, but seeing it through Markova's eyes gave it another twist, watching the development of an art form. Markova was clear to point out, though, that when he danced, it was never in a group like this, "Only solo! When I did my Egyptian exotic dance, I never danced with anyone else."
After the show, the cast greeted the audience in the lobby, in their finale costumes, posing for photos, for tips. For a change, it was Markova who was sought out by the young dancers to have their photos taken together. Of course, Lei and I found our old friends, Seiko-san and Joanne, even more beautiful than ever. I gave Seiko-san my card and told her to let me know when she got back to Japan. We've exchanged letters since and she is still waiting for her visa, still dancing in The Amazing Philippine Show.
We said goodbye to Markova after the show. I told him I wanted to have his movie shown in Japan, but I didn't know how I could do that. After a life like his, you learn not to expect anything from empty promises. He has learned to accept what life has given him. The shame he held secret for over 50 years has been released, and even made public. He has made his peace with Japan and the world.
As he said toward the end of the interview, "You know, they compare my story with the comfort women story. When Korina Sanchez [television announcer] interviewed me, she said, "When I interview Nana Rosa, [comfort woman] she is crying. But when I interview Walter, he keeps on laughing."
I said, "Why should I cry? That was way back. It's bygone now. There is nothing to cry for. Past is past. I'm just happy I'm alive."
I hope the movie comes to Japan. It will be a good chance for the Japanese audience to see how one of their wartime victims has transformed his experience. And maybe thank him for showing his great courage and humanity. You see, in the end, this really is Markova's story.