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LIFE

Filipino painter sells his art to raise money for typhoon victims

After seeing the devastation from Super Typhoon Haiyan for himself, one Hong Kong-based Filipino decided to do what he could to ease the suffering of his compatriots, writes Mischa Moselle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 April, 2014, 9:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 11:22am

Last November's Super Typhoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, was one of the most powerful on record. Not only did it bring flash floods, landslides and immense destruction to the archipelago, the category five storm killed more than 6,000 people and displaced more than four million, including 1.8 million children.

For long-time Hong Kong resident Aldrin Monsod those statistics were put into perspective by the impact on his family and friends. His wife's village near Roxas City was destroyed as the storm cut a path across the Visayas islands. Bernadette Dado, a friend working in Cheung Sha, lost 12 family members. She returned to her devastated native village and asked for help to bring it back to life.

It was like an atomic bomb. I never imagined I would see such a thing in my life 
aldrin monsod

Monsod, who divides his time between painting and publishing a magazine devoted to improving corporate governance, decided to sell his art to raise money which he would then take to the Philippines to distribute. His first auction raised about HK$30,000, which he distributed on a three-day trip last December. That trip changed his life, leading him to downsize from what he views as an affluent Hong Kong lifestyle.

Over the course of this year Monsod aims to raise an additional one million pesos (HK$174,000) over three auctions and return with the money each time.

Not knowing anyone in the Visayas area, or having been there before, he relied on friends to give him contacts, which is how he met the Bolo family. Noreen Bolo, who had lost four relatives, met him at the airport and introduced him to other survivors, such as her uncle Kuya Bodgie who guided him round the devastated areas.

Monsod managed to get through to several villages with relief supplies and was able to support a programme that kept a village called Burak, in Leyte province, fed for two days.

He was also able to help Dado's village of Osmena in Samar province. Monsod encountered a great deal of hopelessness but this was, he says, outweighed by the resilience he saw. Half expecting to be robbed of his cash or at best be unwelcome, Monsod was also surprised at the warmth of the welcome.

He had a hard time eating due to the stench of rotting corpses still trapped under debris some seven weeks after the storm hit.

"It was raining hard; I could still smell so many bodies," he says. "I couldn't eat at all. But the Bolo family welcomed me into their home. They were responsible for mobilising people to help me. They were all victims but they came to pack food by hand."

Monsod rented a van despite the expensive petrol prices and, ignoring the potential dangers, distributed food and other relief supplies. "People were hungry and would do anything to get food," he says.

Monsod visited the worst affected area of Visayas, the port city of Tacloban.

"It was like an atomic bomb, seeing the city, that destruction. It was like pictures from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I never imagined I would see such a thing in my life, everything was gone," he says.

He also used a motorbike despite the roads being treacherous.

In other villages he met volunteer relief workers from a number of countries and was struck both by their presence and commitment.

Monsod was less impressed by some Filipino politicians flying in by helicopter to distribute aid, accusing them of merely seeking publicity.

"It's the culture of my country. It's not governed properly," Monsod says.

His experience has also led him to reflect on his own lifestyle in Hong Kong.

He says he felt ashamed because in the area he visited people who were already poor had lost the few things they did have. In Hong Kong, Monsod says, people, including himself, have so much - electricity, running water and food - but still complain about life.

"This totally changed my perspective.

"I really want to help the victims, as a Filipino, as a human being. This is too big. The government can't help everyone."

Among other things, Monsod now takes care not to waste any food.

"If I don't finish my rice, it's betraying those people I saw. I try to take only what I need and just eat enough. It's shameful to have so much. I know because I went there. I saw it [the destruction]."

The downsizing has affected even his four children, who have been warned not to expect too much for birthdays and Christmas. Being Catholic he was taught to always share and is passing the message on to his children.

"I'm encouraging my children to do more social activities, to volunteer and contribute to the best of their capabilities," Monsod says.

The artist's immediate goal is to raise the next HK$50,000. "I'm not sure I can do it, but I'll try my best," Monsod says.

An auction was held earlier this month at his magazine's annual awards ceremony. The magazine, Corporate Governance Asia, is not an obvious money-spinner.

"It's tough publishing to promote a message rather than make money."

The money raised at the auction, which has yet to be calculated, will be used for supplies and uniforms for two schools.

"[The students] have already lost everything. I want them to go to school or they won't have anything in the future."

Monsod was an activist before he was an artist, and he was vocal enough about social issues in the Philippines to earn the displeasure of the Ferdinand Marcos regime. He was expelled from a course in political science at the Lyceum of the Philippines University for his political activism, he says, afterwards deciding to follow in his father's footsteps and come to Hong Kong to earn a living.

Monsod campaigned against pork barrel politics, corruption, cronyism and monopolies. His key objections were to the way he felt provinces were run by political dynasties and that the country itself was run by just a small number of families.

He says: "That type of rule means ordinary people never have a chance.

"Many of us fought. I was just one of those kids who wanted to fight for a better Philippines."

That may have been dangerous, but Monsod smiles when he says "I guess there is always danger."

Whatever criticisms he has had of previous administrations, he believes Filipinos should give the government their support in its disaster reconstruction efforts, given the enormous scale of destruction.

Filipinos should even lend the government a hand in this crisis.

"The devastation of Yolanda is too big to rely only on our government to help the victims. All Filipinos should give a hand to the survivors - this is something we are all taught by our parents. And Filipinos are really caring people," he says.

But Monsod says his compatriots should still speak out about other abuses such as corruption, family dynasties and abuse of power by government officials.

"Activism is an art form. Do it in a very peaceful way, and participate in change. There should not be any violent change. It's difficult, but people will listen," Monsod says.

Painting is also a form of activism for Monsod, who says he doesn't care if people think his work is junk as he doesn't do it to please anyone else. "I believe art is all about expression and I'm just trying to express myself."

The medium is also part of the message - he'd rather use cheap, easily available materials than spend money on expensive oil paints. It's part of his effort to downsize.

As a painter of 12 years standing, his main inspiration is the work of his idol Jackson Pollock. He uses acrylics and industrial printer ink but also detergents and dishwashing materials from home on large (3m x 0.9m) pieces of photo paper. "I have my own special magic mixture," he says.

"I was a photographer and like to dabble around with ink and photo paper."

He took up photography in high school, using cameras borrowed from friends as he didn't want to burden his parents with the cost of buying him one. He also taught himself as he didn't want to ask his parents for money for a tutor. Fortunately, "I had many friends with cameras", he says.

Monsod is also a member of a group of Filipino artists founded 10 years ago called Haraya (Tagalog for imagination). While the artists formed the group to support and promote each other in Hong Kong's tough environment, they also have a shared aim of helping the Philippines, and this is another of Monsod's motives in distributing relief money - "the pride of Haraya". Other artists in the group, many of who work as designers and artists at the Post, have sold paintings to raise money for the storm victims. mischa.moselle@scmp.com

For inquiries about Aldrin Monsod's artwork, please e-mail: aldrinmonsod@yahoo.com