Revisiting the 60s from Manila Nostalgia

LEAD Magazine's photo.

LEAD Magazine


Caroline Kennedy visits the Philippines, particularly Metro Manila, the Mountain Province and Palawan, this April. In 1968, the blonde British writer met BenCab at Indios Bravos as the café was colloquially called. “Although these days,” she told me, “I refer to him as my ex — Ben.”

BenCab drew Caroline’s portrait on an ordinary paper napkin and signed it, “bencab ‘68 INDIOS BRAVOS.” Added Caroline,
“He was going to throw it away as he thought it was a really bad sketch. But I picked it up and saved it, for some reason. Perhaps because I was falling for him and wanted it as a memento.”

Caroline & Betsy in Bambang Market
Caroline & Betsy in Bambang Market

BREATHING BOHEMIA. Shacking in a rented flat with his parents in Bambang, Sta, Cruz, Manila, BenCab sighted repeatedly from its window the vagrant woman Sabel clothed with sheets of plastic discards.

After leaving the district, he turned the ground floor of the apartment adjacent to the cafe into Gallery Indigo upon Betsy’s encouragement. The gloomy second floor had rooms which he used as studio and living quarter and served as stockroom.

1966 was the year Ben held his first solo exhibition there. Adopting the stylization of his full name into “BenCab” as his artistic alias, he introduced into his work “Sabel” as the subject that depicted the Filipino as a destitute in his own country.

Caroline was on her way to Laos and Vietnam to cover the clash between South and North Vietnam as a journalist for the English newspaper, the Sunday Mirror. On a boat from Tokyo to Hong Kong, she met poet Betsy Romualdez and film-maker Henry Francia.

Henry & Betsy's Wedding at Remedios Church
Henry & Betsy’s Wedding at Remedios Church

Betsy insisted Caroline come to Manila to attend her wedding to Henry. Mulling to stay on in Manila after, Caroline moved into a room above Betsy’s cafe, “Indios Bravos”. By accepting Betsy’s invitation rather than pursue her journalistic goal, Caroline told me, “It changed the course of my life and ushered in some of the most amazing and happiest years.”

Then she proceeded to breathe bohemia into Manila’s stiff and stuffy ethos.

CK in Manila comic strip 2
Caroline Kennedy as “Caroline London”, the visiting English hippie, in Nonoy Marcelo’s “Tisoy” comic strip in the Manila Times.

Cartoonist Nonoy Marcelo made her a character in his iconic comic strip, Tisoy. With the Pinoy’s eternal fascination with Western ideals, she was recruited to take roles in local movies such as Tisoy with Pilar Pilapil as Maribubut, and the cowboy parodies El Tigre with Jun Aristorenas, and Ponso Villa and the Sexy Mexicanas with Chiquito.

Then in early 1969, Nick Joaquin published a satirical Valentine’s article in The Free Press about Caroline’s love life, entitled “Filipinos Are Clumsy Lovers.” It was intended to raise a laugh but it angered and offended many hot-blooded Filipino males! Not BenCab, however. Undeterred and undaunted he propose


EXHALING WORLD-CLASS. That same year, BenCab was nominated as the Philippines’ representative for painting in the Paris Biennale. Travelling out of his country at 27 while Caroline was an inverterate traveler, they headed for Europe together via Thailand, India, Nepal, proceeding to Italy, Switzerland and Spain. Then, after attending the Paris show, they arrived in England and married in Chelsea Registry office on Nov. 3, 1969.

“Travelling in Europe influenced his work, no doubt about that,” Caroline said about the impact of the exodus to BenCab’s artistic evolution. “His nostalgia for the Philippines featured strongly in his works.”
Finding early books, maps and prints on the Philippines, they sold them in stalls at the Chelsea Antiques Market and Portobello Road, including Indian, Nepalese and Tibetan art and artifacts from their trips.

Caroline & Ben
Caroline & Ben in the UK

“At that point I had no special dream other than being a good mother and, perhaps, one day, becoming a successful writer,” she revealed. “And for Ben, I hoped for recognition in Europe for his work as he was already recognized in the Philippines.”

BenCab produced his most innovative works in London, among them the Larawan series using old photographs of Filipinos using the trompe l’oeil technique; the drama of draperies in the Drapes series; the oddballs of London in the Punks series; and the Expat Filipinos series in the Larawan style.

“He had to earn a living. He loved London. But his ties to the Philippines were very strong,” recalled Caroline. “He had several exhibitions in there, but his heart was in the Philippines. But he did it, he succeeded, he accomplished his dream. So I admire him.”

“I also accomplished my dream — writing a bestselling book,” Caroline said about her first book, An Affair of State, published in 1987, about a sexual scandal in the 1960s in the UK and the resulting miscarriage of justice trial of the main character, Stephen Ward. (Andrew Lloyd-Weber subsequently penned a musical based on her book).

“I can’t remember our combined dreams, if we had any,” she looked back. “But, as far as our own careers are concerned, we had our independent dreams.
“He didn’t want to lose his connection to the Philippines,” she added, hinting at what probably caused their differences of ideals and their eventual separation. “He was far more deeply rooted in his country and his culture than I was in mine.”

“Maybe we were destined to fulfill our dreams independently, not together,” Caroline mused.
After 15 years dividing their time between London and Manila for holidays and BenCab’s exhibitions, in which three wonderful children — Elisar, Mayumi and Jasmine Isabel — were born, Ben and Caroline divorced. He returned alone to the Philippines in 1984 and she proceeded to raise their brood single-handedly with the financial assistance of her mother.

Sabel painting
Sabel painting

Looking back, Caroline waxed about Sabel: “She has evolved enormously from the ‘60s. She is, by now, a Philippine icon. There is even a theatre event based on her, which is part of the 50th anniversary celebrations. Sad to think she never suspected her fame or benefitted from it.”

Like Sabel, Caroline provided BenCab fresh inspiration and insight, a muse in the real sense and an icon of Filipino daydreams and difference.



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