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How the early Pinoy films found a second home in Hawaii and ignited an industry

After years of researching Philippine B cinema, Andrew Leavold, the man behind the docu The Search for Weng Weng, is telling the untold story of how our earliest films made its way to Hawaii—initially to entertain Filipino sugar plantation workers, but eventually sparking a lively, lucrative industry all its own.  
Andrew Leavold | Sep 22 2019

The Filipinos in Hawaii date back to the start of the 20th Century, immediately following the end of the American-Filipino War. Hawaii, like the Philippines, was a brand new Territory of the United States, and its economy centred on one product: sugar. Very quickly the Hawaiian archipelago became one enormous patchwork of plantations which, naturally, needed cheap labor – and certainly cheaper than the ones coming from white labourers.

An ad for Mahiwagang Binibini which was headlined by vaudeville star Atang dela Rama.
An ad for Ama at Anak, starring Gerardo de Leon and Tito Arevalo.

First came the Japanese en mass, then the Filipinos, mostly from Ilocos Norte and Sur, but also from Luzon and the Visayas: thousands of them, many crammed into makeshift dormitories on the fringes of the cane fields. To relieve the backbreaking labour and monotony of plantation life, the workers sought out distractions that would remind them of home. Cockfighting and boxing were staple pastimes on the plantations, as were musical performances at the plantations’ own theatres. As an integral part of a plantation’s self-contained community, these often rudimentary structures played host to touring Japanese and Filipino musicians and stage shows and, as movies began to command more of the public’s attention, foreign language film.

An ad for Bahay Kubo.

More than a simple distraction or amusement, cinema was a direct communion with the homeland, a reiteration of language, customs and traditions, as well as a moving postcard on fashions, superstars, and cultural icons. Theatres weren’t just a space to watch movies — they were evolving slowly but surely into a meeting place, social hub, organizational HQs. And, for an elite few, the business of distributing, promoting and exhibiting Filipino films in Hawaii even allowed for social mobility, financial security, and entry into the corridors of power.

Filipino plantation workers in Hawaii.

But when exactly was the first Filipino film exhibited in Hawaii? That’s when answering the question becomes just one chapter in a 90-year-plus mystery novel.

I can say for certain that the first documented screening took place in 1926. It was during the final decade of the Silent Era when film was slowly mutating from single or two-reel novelties, amusements, added attractions to musical and stage acts, into the main event itself.

Filipina entertainers in Hawaii.
Stage entertainment was a big thing for the Filipino communities in Hawaii, giving them a little feel of home.

On one side of the Pacific, Don Jose Nepomuceno formed his own company Nepomuceno Productions in 1917, and in 1919 – the date which marks the start date of the Centennial of Philippine Cinema – he made the first feature film, Dalagang Bukid (“Country Maiden”), a silent film, but with live musical accompaniment by its star Atang de la Rama. Vicente Salumbides, a well-heeled mestizo educated in Hollywood, followed in Nepomuceno’s footsteps, and between the two Titans of Philippine Cinema, dominated its formative years.

An announcement for Atang de la Rama's three months tour of Hawaii.

On the other side of the Pacific: Vicente Bosier, a recent arrival to the islands from the Philippines, formed the Manila Amusement Company in 1926 and showcased his initial presentation at the Park Theatre next to Downtown Honolulu’s Aala Park. It was, according to Bosier’s publicity, a coup: the first ever Filipino feature film screened in Hawaii, acted and directed by Vicente Salumbides opposite mestiza stage sensation Elizabeth “Dimples” Cooper. Much of the interest on The Miracles Of Love (1925) lay in the personage of Ms Cooper who, long before she caused a scandal as the mistress of General MacArthur, was renowned for the Philippines’ first mouth-to-mouth screen kiss in Nepomuceno’s Three Kisses (1926). The Miracles Of Love was described in a Hawaiian newspaper thus: “Many of the tender characteristics of love-making as it is practised by the Filipinos are included in the feature, and it is full of thrilling scenes.” Unbearably pretty (not to mention barely fourteen at the time), it would appear Ms Cooper’s presence was an irresistible drawcard which transcended boundaries of race, language and culture.

The Miracles Of Love (1925)

The Miracles Of Love screened for three nights, accompanied by an eight-piece orchestra, and was enough of a success for Bosier to ramp up his Manila Amusements at the Park and throughout Hawaii: Filipino vaudeville shows, his Manila Amusements Orchestra, trips to Hilo (the main town servicing the sugar plantations of Hawaii Island, also called Big Island), along with The Miracles Of Love and a second Salumbides/Cooper feature in 1927, Fate Or Consequence (1926), and an Islands tour of Manila songstress Atang de la Rama,

Fate or Consequences (1926)

Here’s where the story becomes more complicated.

In an interview, Ms. de la Rama hints that she previously toured Hawaii and the United States with one of her films. Could this be Dalagang Bukid? Did Atang de la Rama indeed accompany the film in the early Twenties, singing along with the film as she did in Manila in 1919? Sadly, there is not a single trace of Ms. de la Rama or any of her film titles in Hawaiian newspapers prior to 1926. So it remains an intriguing idea that the first ever Filipino feature may have screened in Hawaii soon after the start date of the Philippines Centennial of Cinema, and that the history of Filipino films screening in Hawaii is almost as old as the birth of Filipino feature filmmaking itself.

Announcing the arrival of films from outside Hawaii shores.

As far back as 1911, American venture capitalists were piecing together Hawaii’s first cinema monopoly. Rebranded as Consolidated Amusements in 1913, with only five theatres on their books, Consolidated grew into a fearsome beast, demolishing old buildings and building new picture palaces. From its earliest days Consolidated also ran Hawaii’s sole Motion Picture Exchange, so that even non-Consolidated theatres were forced to hire their prints from them.

It remains an intriguing idea that the first ever Filipino feature may have screened in Hawaii soon after the start date of the Philippines Centennial of Cinema, and that the history of Filipino films screening in Hawaii is almost as old as the birth of Filipino feature filmmaking itself.

With the advent of talking pictures, cinema exploded across the world, and by 1934, Consolidated’s network was so vast that it created Japanese and Filipino Film divisions to deal with the growing demand for worker-friendly talkies. Cornelio Gorospe, a merchant originally from Ilocos Sur, was made head of the Filipino division, with older brother Mariano in charge of the Hilo branch. The Gorospe brothers set to work supplying Consolidated’s initial batch of films from Manila — a total of 20 features for 1934 which included new talkies from Filippine Films, along with a few silents from Nepomuceno’s Malayan Films — to smaller, less prestigious, euphemistically-named “neighborhood theaters” close to pockets of Filipinos.

Premieres would usually screen at the Palama, a Chinese-themed 1,500-seater located in Downtown Honolulu between Kahili-Palama, a Filipino enclave affectionately known as Little Manila, and Chinatown, with its massive concentration of Chinese and Japanese families. Prints would then circulate around Oahu — the Waipahu, the Waialua, and the Kewalo, in addition to the Ewa plantation west of Pearl Harbor — before hitting the Empire in Hilo and the countless undocumented plantation theatres (possibly up to 100 of them) dotted around the Islands. The films eventually returned to Consolidated’s Film Exchange to await revival programming.

Another advertisement for a Hawaiian playhouse.

HERE IS THE COMPLETE LIST OF FILIPINO FILMS SCREENED IN HAWAII IN 1934:

Anak Ng Bilanggo (1934)
Anak Ng Pare (release date unknown)
Ang Anak Sa Ligaw (1930)
Ang Dalagang Pilipina (release date unknown) Ang Maging Ulila (1933)
Anting-Anting (1934)
Basag Na Batingaw (1934?)
Hinagpis Ng Magulang (1934)
Katuran Ng Mga Mahirap (release date unknown) Lantang Bulaklak (1932)
Ligaw Na Bulaklak (1932)
Liwayway Ng Kalayaan (1934)
Mag-inang Mahirap (1934)
Makata At Paraluman (1933)
Nahuling Pagsisisi (1933)
Pag-iimbot (1934,)
Sampaguita (1928)
Santong Diablo (possibly 1934)
The Tragic Death Of General Luna (1930)
X-3-X (1934)

It is important to note that there are three films on Consolidated’s list of 1934 purchases that are not included in the official Philippines filmography and for which no information exists. Could these films — Anak Ng Pare, Ang Dalagang Pilipina and Katuran Ng Mga Mahirap — in fact be three undiscovered titles from the Philippines’ earliest period? More missing pieces in an ever-growing puzzle.

By 1939, Consolidated was supplying their massive Filipino circuit with a new Tagalog title each week – a staggering fifty two per year, comparable to the total number of films produced each year in the Philippines. Added to the mix was a new rival to Consolidated: an aggressive consortium of American theatre owners led by Adolph Ramish who renamed their foundling chain Royal Amusements Limited in 1937, and started to accumulate cinemas – and from 1938, via its own Royal Film Exchange, Tagalog-language films, once the exclusive domain of Consolidated.

To counter the Gorospes’ until-then unchallenged Ilocos Sur Film Mafia, Royal secured the services of two businessmen from Ilocos Norte, now based on Kauai (the island north-west of Oahu). Mauro Madolora and Ariston Cabalona formed Madolora Cabalona Amusements, snatched from under Consolidated’s nose some of the biggest and most exciting new crowd- pleasers fresh from Manila: Bituing Marikit (1937), Sampaguita Pictures’ debut, featuring popular songstress Elsa Oria twittering the theme song and “Dahil Sa Iyo”; Madaling Araw (1938), another Sampaguita smash, set in Baguio’s military cadet academy, the ad promising a story of “TOMORROW’S PHILIPPINES vibrant with patriotism, musical romance, stirring pathos, and comedy”; Giliw Ko (1939), first film for LVN Pictures, with Zamboanga’s star-on- the-rise Fernando Poe Sr, Mila del Sol and Mona Lisa (billed then as Fleur de Lis); and Leron-Leron Sinta (1939), an early hit for hungry new studio X’Otic Films under the “technical administration” of Don Jose Nepomuceno, with Poe Sr. (now under contract) and Lucita Goyena as lovers torn apart by rich kid Poe’s parents. Another of Royal’s new attractions, new outfit Excelsior’s Arimunding-Munding (1938), played at Honolulu’s Palace on July 5th 1939, on its way to join a week-long program of Filipino films at the San Francisco World Fair. Royal gave these tent-pole titles their more impressive first-run movie palaces. Madolora Cabalona demanded column space and crafted gorgeous adverts to grace Hawaii’s newspapers.

By 1939, Consolidated was supplying their massive Filipino circuit with a new Tagalog title each week – a staggering fifty two per year, comparable to the total number of films produced each year in the Philippines.

In the space of thirteen years since Salumbides’ first screening, there was no doubt that the Philippines’ cinema had truly come of age. Even a Visayan feature, Nag Compeon Sa Calooy (“Being A Champion Of Mercy”), screened in Hilo in 1939, only a year after Bertoldo Ug Balodoy (“Bertoldo And Balodoy”; 1938), acknowledged as the very first Cebuano talkie, was produced.

Nag Compeon Sa Calooy, however, doesn’t appear anywhere in the official filmographies of Visayan cinema. Could it also be an undiscovered title, this time from the earliest days of Cebuano film?

Elsewhere in Hawaii, the soaring successes, the rise of LVN and Sampaguita, Fernando Poe Sr and X’Otic, were being replicated on an only slightly smaller scale. And in the business arena, there were two warring clans: the Gorospes versus the Madolora/Cabalona crew, Ilocos North versus South.

There was only one direction to go, and that was into actually making films. Flushed from the success of screening Filipino films for Consolidated, the Gorospe brothers decided to make their own feature, with Cornelio writing and directing, and Mariano as producer.

An ad for Karayo, the story of a Filipino college student who moves to Hawaii where he finds a job and romance.

In a series of firsts for Filipino cinema, Karayo (“Desire”) tells the story of a college student Arturo ( Faustino Gamboa, a radio presenter and stage actor from Ilocos Norte) arriving in Hawaii en route to the United States. To make extra tuition money, he finds a job on a sugar plantation where he experiences the hardship of the Filipino workers, and romance in the shape of Filipina lass Aurora (Katy Evangelio). Arturo eventually saves enough money to pay for his Stateside education, then returns to the Philippines to become “a leader of people.”

Aside from some introductory scenes shot in Vigan, Ilocos Sur, Karayo was filmed in Kalihi’s Aloha Studios and Farrington High School, with strategic location shooting taking advantage of Oahu’s gorgeous Waianae, Mokuleia, Dowsett Highlands, and the plantations of Waimanalo.

Filipino-Hawaiian film's first musical.

The film premiered on March 29, 1940 to a capacity audience of 1200 in Consolidated’s up-market Princess Theatre in Honolulu.

Described in the press as a story of “dual love for sweetheart and for country," Karayo is not just the first Filipino-Hawaiian movie. From what I can glean from the numerous articles swirling around its release (the Gorospes evidently pulled in every favour possible!), the film comes across as a time capsule of a unique time and place, and a genuine reflection of the Ilocano sugar worker experience, made more profound and poignant by the fact that the film was made in their own dialect (roughly 80 percent of the Filipino foreign workers)...and thus becoming the very first film ever in Ilocano. Plans were mentioned to export the film to the Philippines, but without Tagalog dubbing or subtitles, it would have been incomprehensible to anyone but Ilocanos.

A newspaper announcement that includes a mention of the premiere for Linglingay.

The response from the Ilocos Norte Film Mafia? Even before Karayo’s premiere was announced, a second Filipino-Hawaiian film in Ilocano was already in production — of course, with Madolora and Cabalona as producers. And for Linglingay (“Happiness”), Filipino-Hawaiian cinema’s first musical, the wily Kauai businessmen poached Karayo’s lead actor Faustino Gamboa, who wrote and directed the film as well as starred alongside Max Velasco, the “Swingopators”, and Ariston Cabalona’s daughter Fely. It’s difficult to tell from newspaper articles exactly the plot of the movie, but it appears to showcase the prolific singing and dancing talents of Honolulu’s Filipino community.

As for the public reaction, it’s also hard to gauge, but Linglingay had a well-publicized opening night at Roosevelt — not the flashiest of Royal’s theatres, but respectable enough — on the 10th of July 1940. The entire experience emboldened Honolulu’s own Orson Welles, Mr. Gamboa, to unveil an even more grandiose scheme: a Filipino Hawaiian film factory named Cadena de Amor Limited (under his close personal supervision, naturally). It produced a comprehensive slate of Hawaiian-Filipino features for home and abroad. Over the next few months Gamboa strutted around Honolulu's social gatherings, advertising for dancing girls for his new extravaganza “Hawaiian Cavalcade," filming screen tests for his self-described “allegorical” magnum opus “Our Flag.” In December 1940, however, he was charged with first degree embezzlement and sentenced to ten years in a penitentiary. And with no more features from the Gorospes or Madolora/ Cabalona, the dream of a Hawaiian-Filipino film industry was, along with Gamboa, put on ice.

Over the next few months Gamboa strutted around Honolulu's social gatherings, advertising for dancing girls for his new extravaganza “Hawaiian Cavalcade," filming screen tests for his self-described “allegorical” magnum opus “Our Flag.”

Meanwhile came a new Tagalog-language title from Consolidated every week, with Sampaguita and LVN Pictures leading a host of new production companies that had their own emerging talents behind the cameras — Ramon Estella, Carlos Vander Tolosa, Gerardo de Leon, Manuel Conde, and Lamberto Avellana. Filipino cinema was the envy of the rest of Asia, and it seemed nothing could halt its dizzying progression to the international stage.

And then on the morning of December 7th 1941 came the explosions that echoed around the world: the American Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor and Honolulu came under attack by Japanese fighter planes. More than 1,500 service men and civilians were killed, thousands more wounded. The United States was at war with Japan and Germany.

An eerie emptiness took over Honolulu for days afterwards. Theatres and bars closed. A curfew and a complete blackout was enforced, and people stayed off the streets.

But slowly the town came back to life, and theatres began to open its doors again, but with notable exceptions: a complete ban on all foreign-language films for national security reasons. Cinema was instead mobilized for the war effort. Patriotic flag-wavers, service comedies and anti-enemy propaganda were the order of the day. Still, the Hawaiian public, like the rest of the United States, found refuge, solace and distraction within the theatres’ darkened womb-like, tomb-like interiors.

Japanese films understandably remained prohibited throughout the war, but Filipino film screenings started again in April 1942, initially at Consolidated’s Palama and Aala theatres, and later at the Park and International, both former Japanese-owned theatres under new Filipino management and drip-fed Royal’s old prints. With supply lines across the Pacific now cut, familiar scenes of an idyllic pre-war Philippines continue to flicker on the screens of Honolulu. As 1942 progressed, however, Hawaiian-Filipinos could only watch in horror from thousands of miles across the Pacific as their beloved homeland fell to the Japanese invaders, and could only watch newsreels of the Philippines’ descent into darkness.

Free Madaling Araw screenings to war bond buyers, was so successful around the country that Respicio’s 2002 obituary reported a total of $2 million raised for the US war effort in the Philippines.

The Japanese occupation of the Philippines was swift and unspeakably brutal. The wholesale destruction of the Filipino soul had begun across the board, and cinema was not spared. Studios were looted, film equipment seized, and every print of every film were destroyed as part of a comprehensive policy of eliminating all discernible traces of what could be conceived as American cultural decadence. An entire generation of cinema – more than 20 years worth of films – was wiped from the face of the earth. Or so the Japanese believed.

The Filipino population of Hawaii were far from idle. Since the start of the war the Park theatre had taken on a new life as headquarters of the Filipino War Bond Drive, with its manager Elpidio Taok one of its chief co-ordinators along with Cornelio Gorospe, and Ilocos Norte-born reporter and civic organiser Faustino A. Respicio its chairman. Using a pre-war classic film — one that, in an ironic twist, no longer existed in its own country — as a rallying point, Respicio would commandeer the Park and International on a regular basis to sell war bonds to Filipinos, followed by a complimentary free screening of Madaling Araw. In fact, the entire package, of free Madaling Araw screenings to war bond buyers, was so successful around the country that Respicio’s 2002 obituary reported a total of $2 million raised for the US war effort in the Philippines, a great deal from impoverished plantation workers — thanks to a Filipino movie, and the men who showed them.

An eerie emptiness took over Honolulu for days afterwards. Theatres and bars closed. A curfew and a complete blackout was enforced, and people stayed off the streets.

The Liberation of the Philippines came in early 1945, and the war ended soon after. By 1946, the first shipment from the resurgent Filipino film industry arrived, in time to restock the well-worn prints, each screened multiple times, of the more than 100 pre-war Tagalog titles. In the Philippines those films had been wiped out of existence; in Honolulu, those hundred-plus prints sat in several warehouses and continued to screen until long after the war.

Where are those films now? Could they still exist in a warehouse in Hawaii somewhere?

There are hundreds more tales of Filipino cinema in Hawaii — from Fernando Poe Jr’s tenure as owner of  Zamboanga, to the bomba films mysteriously appearing during the middle of Martial Law in a hardcore porn theatre in Honolulu. I suspect, however, that Philippine Cinema’s greatest detective story might just be starting: the hunt for pre-war Tagalog Cinema’s lost film gold. Looks like I’ll be donning my trench coat and heading to Honolulu very soon with a torch and pickaxe.

 

For those interested to hear more, the author Andrew Leavold will have a talk called Aloha, Little Manila, a discussion on Philippine Diasporic Cinema in Hawaii, this Wednesday, September 25, 7PM, at the Archivo 1984 Gallery. It is in conjunction with Archivo 1984’s exhibit, “Manila Talkatone Studios and the Movie Art of Vicente Bonus," opening on the same evening. Archivo 1984 Gallery is located in Pasilio 18, 2241 La Fuerza Compound, Chino Roces Avenue, Makati City.

Sources:
“Filipino Program Planned At Empire Tonight”, Hawaii Tribune-Herald, 17th June 1926, p.4
The most comprehensive account of the islands’ rich cinema history is Lowell Angell, Theatres Of Hawai’i, Charlston NC, Arcadia Pulishing, 2011
Listed in Diamond Anniversary Of Philippine Cinema program, 1994
Marcelina Salausa, “Premiere Held of Filipino Film Made In Hawaii”, Honolulu Star- Bulletin, 30th March 1940, p.5