Let Your Imagination Take Flight 2016 NECRWA Conference

Do you notice how sometimes there are events that pull all the random brush strokes of your life into one cohesive painting? I felt like that this weekend. Thread number one: my historical romance novels were available for purchase in person for the first time at the Book Signing for Massachusetts Literacy Foundation, a part of the Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference of the New England Chapter of RWA. With me were two of my very first NECRWA friends, Kristen Strassel (@KristenStrassel) and Teresa Noelle Roberts (@TeresNoeRoberts) (see photo above, middle and left respectively).

Kristen and I joined NECRWA the same exact month, and though she has out-published me by a factor of at least thirteen, she has always been the most supportive, most helpful friend-slash-mentor a gal could have. While I hemmed and hawed, she ventured into the indie publishing world with gusto, starting with a delightful rock star vampire romance called Because the Night. Now she also writes about shifters, reality tv stars, country music stars, and more. She’s unstoppable. And Teresa won’t toot her own horn, but she is one of the best at characterization I’ve read, especially with her science fiction (kinky) romances. Despite whole new worlds, strange-looking creatures, and some odd names, the reader is never in doubt about who is who because everyone is just SO THEM. Try Thrill Kinky (Chronicles of the Malcolm, Book 1) to see what I mean.

Thread number two: my novels are set in the Philippines, my home for over four years and the second home of my heart forever. To showcase the great #romanceclass authors from the Philippines who have all been so good to me, I assembled a #MabuhayLove basket of books donated by the likes of Mina V. Esguerra (@minavesguerra), Ines Bautista-Yao (@Inesbyao), Bianca Mori (@thebiancamori) a.k.a. Katrina Ramos Atienza (@iggyatienza), Carla de Guzman (@somemidnights), Marla Miniano (@marlamini), and Chinggay Labrador. The basket was won by contemporary romance author Claire Casewell (@ClaireCasewell). I was sitting next to Claire when her name was called, and I could not have chosen a better winner if I tried. Claire spent part of her childhood in India, which means she loves mangoes—good, because she won almost two pounds of them—and was thrilled to add some Asian-themed reading to her list. She came up to me at the end of the conference specifically to say how much she was looking forward to the books. Woot, woot!

Romance Class Thank You Winner

If these authors are new to you, take a look through their booklists and pick the first thing that grabs you. It will not disappoint. Their work is fresh and full of great characterizations—and feels!—but they are not as beholden to the same formulaic pattern seen in so many American romances. Some play with story structure, like the parallel universes in Carla de Guzman’s Cities or the flashback structure of Mina V. Esguerra’s My Imaginary Ex. Or they toy with global settings, like Bianca Mori’s One Night at the Palace Hotel or (again) Cities. Yet no matter how innovative, they get you in the gut every time.

Joanna Shupe Jen Bowling 2016
The girls of Ohio take on NECRWA 2016.

Thread number three: here with me at this NECRWA conference was my high school classmate Joanna Shupe (@JoannaShupe)! I even got to moderate her workshop on “Dirty Deeds Done Right: Take Your Sex Scenes to the Next Level,” which was fabulous. She is funny as all get out. How two suburban girls from Ohio ended up on the East Coast writing historical romance set around the same time, I’ll never know. Maybe it was fate. Joanna’s new Knickerbocker Club series starts in 1888, only a decade before Americans arrived in Manila Bay. (And if you think the rise of New York’s Gilded Age elite is unrelated to America’s grab for empire, you would be wrong. It’s the economy, stupid.) The first full-length novel of her series is out this week: Magnate. Get it! I love a man who rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. Or takes his whole shirt off. That works, too.

Thread number four: I like sports. You might know that. I coach football in the day job, I run marathons (well, half-marathons these days), and I have a weakness for sports heroes after dating a baseball player in high school. It just so happens that my other great NECRWA friend Jen Doyle (@jendoyleink) has just written a wonderful, fun, and sexy contemporary baseball romance: Calling It. It’s smart and snappy, so pick it up! And we’re going to the Red Sox game tomorrow night—my first time at Fenway! I’ll post that photo tomorrow, if I can.

Thanks to the NECRWA folks who made this weekend possible. [Holding wine glass.] This one’s for you!

In short, it’s been an awesome weekend. This is living. #MabuhayLove!

*Mabuhay means “long live” and “welcome” in Filipino.

Mabuhay Love, Mabuhay #romanceclass

(“Mabuhay” means “long live!” and “welcome.”)

The best thing to come out of writing my Sugar Sun series—other than getting these characters out of my head and onto the page—has been connecting with the #romanceclass community. This is a group of Filipino contemporary, new adult, and young adult authors brought together by the indie publishing pioneerMina V. Esguerra (@minavesguerra).

RWR Romancing the World Filipino Romance

When I first picked up the December 2015 issue of Romance Writers Report, it hit me right in the face: “Romancing the Globe: Filipino Romance,” by Alyssa Cole (@AlyssaColeLit). Cole profiled four authors: Esguerra, Marian Tee (@authormariantee), Ines Bautista-Yao (@Inesbyao), and Bianca Mori (@thebiancamori). I cold-called all of them (or “cold-Facebooked”…whatever), and they were soooo nice. They spread the word in their very well-connected web of writers and readers and, all of a sudden, I had a network of people who understood why I was so obsessed with a Filipino sugar baron and an American schoolmarm. (And a priest, too, but he’s book three. That apple will take some time to fall from the tree.) I also developed a very long TBR pile, at which I am still chipping away.

RomanceClass

Just because these writers are nice, though, don’t underestimate their ability to get things done. Just as five women founded RWA in 1979, so Esguerra created #romanceclass in 2013. Eleven of her first 100 students published full-length novels. Soon #romanceclass grew into a lifestyle. The group now puts together classes, publishing support, podcasts and videos, book fairs, book launches, live performances, a stock photo service, meet-ups (last Sunday was April Feels Day), book signings, poetry readings, and so much more. Mina has even organized a full scholarship for 12 students at the Philippine Normal University! (She meant to sponsor two, but generosity from the larger #romanceclass community rounded that number up to a full dozen.) In the midst of organizing all this, Mina manages to write, as well. I’m not sure how, but here’s a Dear Author review to prove it.

The May 3, 2014, Manila Bulletin article by Ronald S. Lim (@tristantrakand) on Mina’s scholarships at the Philippine Normal University. By the way, PNU was started in 1901 by the Thomasites, American teachers like Georgina of Under the Sugar Sun—and do you see how we’re coming full circle here?

With American readers clamoring for more diverse reads, I wanted to spread the reach of these talented writers. For some, their primary market is already in the United States, but you may have missed a few of the others. And, if so, you are missing out. To prove that, with the generosity of #romanceclass authors, I’ve assembled a Mabuhay Love basket giveaway at the New England Chapter of RWA’s Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference next week! That’s April 29-30, 2016, at the Boston Marriott, in Burlington, Massachusetts.

Conference Logo

Here is what it includes (so far):

 

Sugar Sun series locations #5: Hotel Oriente

In Hotel Oriente the establishment itself is a character—but decidedly not a romantic one. The American guests cannot figure out how to sleep in the beds, the manager runs out of eggs at breakfast, and water pours down the walls when an upstairs couple gets too frisky in the bathtub. I embellished, but I was not that far off the mark: the first two happened at the real Hotel Oriente, and the last one took place at the Army hotel my father-in-law managed during the Vietnam War.

Hotel de Oriente Insular Cigar Blog
US Library of Congress photo of the Insular Cigar Factory (foreground) and the Hotel Oriente (background) on the Plaza Calderon de la Barca. Public domain image scanned and uploaded by Scott Slaten.

When the real Oriente opened its doors in 1889, it was the place to be. José Rizal himself stayed in Room 22, facing Binondo Church. Even the food was good. According to a contemporary journalist, a 21-year old woman from Maine: “Its chicken, chile peppers, and rice are a revelation…[and] it dispenses a curry equal to the finest productions of Bombay or Calcutta.” (Are you thinking, “What does a 19th century Mainer know about curry?” Me, too.)

The 83 rooms were always the hotel’s best feature. Another American account said: “I expected to find a regular hole, but really I have a nice large room, hard wood floor, electric lights, etc, etc. The bathrooms are all tiled, sanitary plumbing, fine large court, [and] tropical plants.” By the way, those plants entangle both Georgina and Della in their turn.

The Hotel Oriente rooms as photographed for a contemporary travelogue. Read more about the Oriente’s history at Lou Gopal’s fantastic website.

Of course, if you are getting the picture that Americans were difficult to please, you are right. Moreover, they never recognized their own provinciality. They especially had trouble with the mattress-less bed. The perforated cane bottom allowed the contraption to breathe, logically trading coolness for softness, but one guest had so much trouble figuring the thing out that he slept in the wicker chair by the window instead.

Still, the Americans thought that they improved every place they went, and the Oriente was no different:

What an establishment! How shiftless and dirty, and how it smells! The building itself is well enough, being large and airy, but it is conducted on the Spanish plan of dirt and sloth, by a manager whose watchword has evidently been mañana for all the years of his life. Now, he is forced to deal with a people who insist that all things be done, completed, finished, the day before yesterday. The result to his dead brain is almost insanity. He looks at us in a dazed manner and moans out that he has no rooms, muttering constantly the one all-expressive word: Americanos, Americanos.

I might have been muttering the same thing, too, and I am an Americano. While the Yankees had only been in the imperialism biz a few years, they had already adopted all the ennui and petulance of experienced Great Gamers.

Oriente Advertisement
An advertisement from the 1901 Commercial Directory of Manila and a close up of an 1898 map of Manila and suburbs.

One Minnesotan did try to whip the hotel into shape: West Smith, a volunteer who had fought the Spanish in the Battle of Manila in August 1898. He took over the Oriente in late 1902 and continued to manage it until it was transformed into the Philippine Constabulary headquarters in 1904. After that he worked for The Great Eastern Life Assurance Company. He met his wife, Stella Margaret Case, in Manila while she was visiting her sister, a stenographer for the Insular Ice Plant. If you see similarities in names here—Moss North from West Smith, and Della from Stella—you would not be wrong. It’s how I do.

And, speaking of names, the hotel itself had many. Hotel de Oriente was the name plastered across the exterior moulding, but all of the following were used: Hotel d’Oriente, Hotel el Oriente, Hotel Oriente, Hotel Orient, and then every single one of these in reverse order. I keep with the American tradition by using two names interchangeably as if I don’t know the difference. Ignorance is bliss, right?

Menu excerpts from the Hotel Oriente, 1900-1902. The top three are each relevant to a different scene from either Hotel Oriente or Under the Sugar Sun. IF YOU’VE READ THIS FAR, HERE IS YOUR REWARD: Be the first to identify at least one of these scenes and I will gift you an e-copy of my upcoming novella—on Rosa’s redemption—once it is released. Enter by commenting on this post below.

Sugar Sun series locations #4: Clarke’s

Early on in Hotel Oriente, our heroine Della ventures to the most “swell” confectionery in Manila, Clarke’s Ice Cream Parlor:

Located at the entrance to Escolta, Manila’s Fifth Avenue, the establishment proudly proclaimed its name on both the roof and on a half dozen oversized awnings facing every direction. Even without the signage, the place was clearly marked by a large crowd. The spacious wood-paneled room was full of businessmen and civil servants from all over the islands, officers of the army and navy, and tourists from half the world.

Clarkes on Escolta
Vintage postcard showing Escolta Street from Plaza Moraga, with Clarke’s on the right.

Clearly, M. A. “Met” Clarke, a native of Chicago, knew an opportunity when he saw it. In August 1898, only four days after the landing of American soldiers in Manila, he arranged a long-term lease in this fashionable shopping district. As one visitor wrote:

To the American bred boys in khaki, the place quickly became known as an oasis in a desert. Weary, thirsty, hungry, and wet with perspiration, the commands coming from or going to the firing lines halted there long enough to quench their thirst or to fill the aching voids. Incidentally, the soldiers helped Clarke along by spending their money freely.

Later Clarke would sublet a slate of rooms on the second floor, and his monthly income from these rents would pay his entire annual premium. But Clarke could not have been so successful if his food had not been exceptional. Fortunately, it was.

Clarke's Sun Shades
This photo and the featured image from Lou Gopal’s outstanding Manila Nostalgia website. Read more on Escolta there.

Clarke’s was the place to find the best gingerbread, the best candy, and the best pink (condensed milk) ice cream in Manila—and maybe in all of Asia, according to the foreigners who lived there. Despite being an ice cream and soda fountain, though, Clarke’s real claims to fame seemed to be bread and coffee. Clarke had three 16 x 18 foot ovens that turned out 36,000 pounds of bread a day. For our character Della, the value of fresh bread cannot be underestimated: “After three days of the atrocious food at the Hotel Oriente, her stomach almost jumped out of her throat to lay claim to a loaf.” (See more on the hotel’s disappointing food in the American era in the next post.)

Contemporary advertisements for Clarke's taken from Philippine Magazine and The Filipino Teacher.
Contemporary advertisements for Clarke’s taken from Philippine Magazine and page 326 of The Filipino Teacher.

Moreover, the coffee was locally grown in Luzon and roasted by Clarke himself. (I used to have a farm in Indang, Cavite, and they still grow beans in town and dry them out on every road and driveway available.) But don’t take my word for it. Read a contemporary account:

Clarke’s Coffee!—its delicious and aromatic flavor is suggestive of Arabian poetry and romance of deserts and camels of swift steeds and beautiful women. The beverage itself exhilarates you, gives you a feeling of buoyancy. Perhaps you are a connoisseur of coffee, and during your travels in Oceania or China you have been nauseated with the horrible concoctions served to you in hotels and on steamers—the vile black liquid that they call coffee. If you are, Clarke’s is the place for you. The coffee served to you there, nicely, daintily, temptingly, will make you smile with satisfaction, and you will begin to understand how the Americans do some things in Manila.

Another image of Clarke's, as published in the Magazine of Business in 1914.
Another image of Clarke’s, as published on page 77 of the Magazine of Business in 1914.

Clarke would have been the next Midas of Manila had he “not been a plunger,” according to the Magazine of Business account. He made and lost a fortune in gold mining and hemp-stripping machines. But this is the way of the early American period in the Philippines. Respectable businessmen (and women) had no reason to cross the Pacific. Those who did make the trip were often hucksters, carpetbaggers, and scoundrels. Clarke seemed one of the better of the lot, since he was not implicated in the quartermaster embezzlement scheme that rattled Manila in 1901 (and was the inspiration behind the scandal in Hotel Oriente):

Contemporary accounts of the quartermaster scandal in Manila, along with the destination of the guilty: Bilibid Prison.
Contemporary accounts of the quartermaster scandal in Manila, along with the destination of the guilty: Bilibid Prison.

Of course, Moss, our hero of Hotel Oriente, is not so certain that Clarke is innocent, just that he is crafty: “As if the police would know where to look,” he says. “That man has more warehouses than the Army itself.”

Sadly, Clarke’s empire was only to last until about 1911, when his losses in the mining industry sent him swimming back to California. Or did he really leave? Maybe he just changed his name to Starbuck…

Sugar Sun series locations #3: Escolta

Described as the Fifth Avenue of Manila, the Escolta was the central business district of the city. Named after the escort (escolta) that accompanied the Spanish governor-general in his excursions here, the street developed a reputation as the ritziest row in Manila. Felice Sta. Maria explained its appeal, as one could always find here “the snobbish precursors of the large department stores and the best of the limited-line stores.” A contemporary account said:

What cannot be bought on the Escolta…is hardly to be found in the city. Harness and hardware, dry goods and diamonds, beer, whisky and cigars, stationery, clothing, drugs, books, notions and wares from India, China, and Japan…

Advertisement from the Witten's Directory (1902) of Manila, as found on the website of the Pinoy Kollektor.
Advertisement from the Witten’s Directory (1902) of Manila, as found on the website of the Pinoy Kollektor.

This busy entrepôt was located outside the Spanish walled-in core of Intramuros—not so surprising when you learn that the whole area, Binondo, was also Manila’s Chinatown. For several hundred years, Hokkien merchants came from the reclusive mainland, loaded with silks, porcelain, and tea to sell to Spanish galleon crews, who were flush with Mexican silver. But though the Spanish needed the trade, they also distrusted their partners. For a long time, all Chinese—even those who had converted to Christianity or had been born in Manila, some to Filipino mothers—had to live within a cannon shot from the Crown. And that was not a passive-aggressive threat; it was aggressive-aggressive, as they did use their cannons on occasion. Hence it is especially ironic that while the Chinese built the prosperity of Binondo, the Spanish would later claim the most prosperous street, Escolta, as theirs.

1901 photo of Escolta from the photo collection of John Tewell.
Crop of 1901 photo of Escolta from the photo collection of John Tewell.

When the Americans first arrived, they installed their own cultural touchstones—bars. Helen Taft, the wife of Philippine commissioner and eventual governor, William Howard Taft, wrote about the “beery” odor and dangers to women there. By 1899, the saloons were forced to close at 10 pm, and in February 1900 they were banned from Binondo altogether. (Of course, bars did not disappear from the city entirely. By August 1900 there were over 1100 liquor-selling establishments in Manila. In the first ten months of the American occupation, alcohol imports quadrupled.) Once this street was again safe for women and their pocketbooks, new stores opened to cater to their needs, including Clarke’s Ice Cream and Heacock’s Department Store. Anyone who was anyone shopped and ate on the Escolta, and then headed out to the Luneta to be seen in the latest Paris or New York fashions. Not bad for a bunch of carpetbaggers.

An Escolta street scene from 1901. Note the liquor billboards in the upper right corner.
An Escolta street scene from 1901. Note the liquor billboards in the upper right corner.

Featured public domain image (1899) at the top of this post by J. D. Cress, found the Library of Congress.