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...
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QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004