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.
[Page 1 | Page 2]
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004