Looking back 2017: The Year That Was

Looking back 2017: The Year That Was

Another year has come and gone, a year where we met and featured Filipinos and Filipino Americans who are creating waves in their respective industries. Like in the previous years, we met a lot of colorful personalities as we covered a slew of events.

From Broadway performers to book authors to chefs to politicians and history-making, glass ceiling-breaking, just simply inspiring personalities – we tried to capture their essence and share their back stories and beliefs with you.

Here, we look back at some of the 2017 highlights that made our cover stories.

Fil-Ams on Broadway: Miss Saigon’s Eva Noblezada, Jon Jon Briones, Rachelle Ann Go; Aladdin’s Don Darryl Rivera; Christine Allado of Hamilton (West End)

On separate occasions, we featured musicals that had Filipinos in the cast. At any given season, there are Filipinos performing on Broadway and this year was no exception. For 2017, we were excited to welcome Miss Saigon’s return.

Eva Noblezada was barely 18 years old when she was thrust into the limelight and cast as Kim in the West End revival of the musical back in May 2014. She was then a high school student at the Northwest School of the Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina.

We chatted with Eva at the Times Square office of legendary theater producer Cameron Mackintosh, the man behind Broadway hits such as Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins and Miss Saigon week’s before opening night.

“I’m ready. I’ve been preparing myself – not just for Broadway – but just in general. I just want to always be prepared and I feel like I’m ready to start again,” Eva shared as I asked her about her upcoming Broadway debut. “I’m excited to see what changes I can make to make my performance better.”

The Broadway production reunited Eva with some of her castmates from West End: Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer, Alistair Brammer as Chris and Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi. This makes Eva giddy in anticipation as she has built a strong relationship with them when they were still in London.

“I love them, I am a very lucky girl. I don’t think people realize how lucky I am. My relationship with Jon Jon, he’s like the older brother I never had. I consider his family my family. Alistair, I get along with him really well, along with his lovely wife. We have a good chemistry and we laugh together. Shin is my sis, I could tell her everything. I’m grateful for her and I’m glad that all four of us are making our Broadway debuts together,” she mused.

Jon Jon Briones and Rachelle Ann Go were both excited and ecstatic for their Broadway debut.

“Excited is an understatement,” Briones declared. “Lahat ng ginawa ko from 1986 when I started doing theater (in the Philippines) and growing up in one of the poor areas in Manila… if someone told me then, ‘You’re going to be on Broadway someday’, I would go, ‘Yeah, right!’, You know, it is unbelievable. This, being here and looking back to where I came from is mind-boggling, I’m freaking out.”

The day before our interviews with the cast was the company’s first day of tech rehearsals.

“It was my first time to be on a Broadway stage and I was a little teary-eyed,” Jon Jon admitted. He Facetimed his wife Megan (who was in Los Angeles) so he can walk through the stage door with her. “She is a part of this journey,” he added. “The show has been such a blessing.”

In a previous interview, Rachelle Ann told us how performing on Broadway became one of her dreams when she travelled to New York years ago for a concert with her fellow singing champions in the Philippines.

“I remember, I was right in the middle of Times Square and I said, ‘Someday, I will live here and I will work here!’” she shared. “And now it is happening, it is a dream of mine.”

On their first day of tech rehearsals at the Broadway Theatre, she admits she cried as she entered the playhouse.

“Pagpasok ko, sabi ko, totoo ba ito? I had goosebumps. I went on stage and looked around. I was overwhelmed with feelings. Thank you, Lord,” Rachelle Ann said.

A year later and Rachelle Ann is back in London achieving more of her dreams. She is part of the Hamilton West End cast as Eliza Hamilton, the wife of Alexander Hamilton. In a casting coup of sorts, she is performing alongside a fellow Filipina, Christine Allado who was cast for the dual roles of Peggy Schuyler and Maria Reynolds. Can you just imagine, Filipinas comprise two thirds of the Schuyler Sisters on Hamilton?

Outside Miss Saigon, there’s Aladdin.

We’ve featured the Filipinos in the cast of the Disney musical in previous years but it was only last year when we focused on the scene-stealing Don Darryl Rivera, a principal cast member of the musical where he plays the role of Iago, a role which he originated in Seattle in 2011.

Don Darryl considers himself blessed and lucky that the people behind Disney liked his performance and brought him along to Broadway where he is now living his dream.

“This is the dream. I majored in theater and to be on Broadway is the pinnacle. It’s where you want to be,” he told the Asian Journal.

Fil-Am Adam Jacobs, who used to play Aladdin on Broadway, is doing the national tour of the musical. His sister, Arielle, was Princess Jasmine in the Australian production of the musical last year.

With her brother out of the Broadway production, Arielle could now go after the role she wanted for a long time.

In a previous interview with the Asian Journal, Adam mentioned about not going after shows that have already cast Arielle as the female romantic lead. Arielle chipped in with her thoughts.

“That happened to us! He did Zorro in Atlanta and I would have loved to play the Catherine Zeta Zones part, but he was already cast as Zorro. The casting director called my agent and said they would love to see me and my agent told the casting director, ‘You know that Adam and Arielle are brother and sister, right?’ and they said, ‘Ohhhh, yeah. That won’t work.’ So they just cancelled my audition,” she recalled.

She also had an audition for Jasmine for Aladdin, and this was before they made the cast announcement because Arielle thought that at that time, they weren’t sure if he got the part.

This February, Arielle is joining the cast of Aladdin on Broadway, opposite Telly Leung who took over the titular role when Adam went on to do the national tour.

Off Broadway, we found the season’s hottest ticket: KPOP, a high-energy and dynamic musical that took New York by storm.

We met with Julia Abueva one cool fall afternoon after she finished five grueling hours of rehearsal for the show, which was presented by Ars Nova, “one of NYC’s most adventurous Off Broadway companies” (New York Times), in association with “the foremost incubator of new Asian American theater in the country” (Obie award) Ma-Yi Theater and Woodshed Collective, “the exceptional theater company” that turns “spaces into intimate vortexes of wonder”.

“It’s unreal. Grabe,” Julia told me as she sipped her iced matcha. I had asked her about how it feels like to be a part of one of New York’s hottest shows of the season.

In a nutshell, KPOP is about how stars get created and polished, whether they are solo stars or members of a girl group of a boyband. The audience gets to see the inner workings of a Korean company trying to cross over the American market.

“We worked hard for this show not knowing how the audience would react. Five-hour rehearsals today and a couple of two-show days, it’s crazy but it’s all worth it,” she said.  “I knew in my heart that New York hasn’t seen something like this before and I hope it is not the last that New York gets to see this.”

Filipino films making waves in NYC

From the MOMA to Lincoln Center’s New York Asian American Film Festival to the Asian American International Film Festival, Filipino films were showcased in New York for all film lovers in the city.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) unveiled A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema, which aims to celebrate the diverse genres and styles of what is now considered as the third golden age of Philippine Cinema.

Characterized by a prolific and dizzying array of genres and styles, the ongoing Third Golden Age of Philippine cinema is celebrated in MoMA’s extensive, unprecedented survey, A New Golden Age, which was on view from June 1 through 25 last year in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters. A total of 18 films by 13 directors were screened.

This is just a small sampling of recent Filipino films. We have a lot more but we had to choose and that was the hard part,” shared film writer Gil Quito, who co-wrote the Nora Aunor film ‘Merika. Quito joined curator La Frances Hui, associate curator of MoMA’s Department of Film in coming up with this list of films.

The festival-like celebration opened with the sold out screening of Motherland, a documentary by Ramona Diaz, the woman behind Imelda, Don’t Stop Believing: Everyman’s Journey and The Learning. The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in January, provides an inside view of Fabella Hospital, the busiest maternity hospital in the Philippines.

‘Birdshot,’ Filipino independent filmmaker Mikhail Red’s second full-length film feature, was the 16th New York Asian Asian Film Festival’s Centerpiece Film. The film went on to become the entry of the Philippines to the Oscar’s race for Best Foreign Film.

Last year, the film triumphed at the Tokyo Film Festival and gave Red the Asian Future Award. It went back to Japan for the Osaka Asian Film Festival as part of its new New Action! Southeast Asia Special Program.

So far, Birdshot has been screened in about 15 film festivals across the globe.

The film is a thriller that centers around two violent events that found an unlikely intersection as the film progressed. It stars veteran actors John Arcilla, Ku Aquino and Arnold Reyes, along with a young teen actress Mary Joy Apostol making her film screen debut.

We had a chance to talk with Red and Reyes prior to the film’s screening.

“Every time you’re in a film festival you are given a platform to share your story, your hard work with an international audience,” Mikhail said. “Just completing the film, it was a difficult film to make as it was almost ten times bigger than my first film, I had to parang jump off a cliff like bahala na, build your wings on the way down.”

A number of Filipino short films made it to the lineup of the 40th Asian American International Film Festival (AAIFF40), presented by Asian CineVision in association with Asia Society. The annual fest, held from July 26 to August 5 at Asia Society and Village East Cinema in Manhattan, is the nation’s first and longest running Asian interest film festival. This year, AAIFF40 is proud to present 20 feature films and 63 short films representing 18 countries.

Among these short film — Distance (directed by Craig Nisperos) and The Pleasure of Being Served (directed by Michael Manese) — made their way to the Sinehan sa Summer 2017, an annual month-long event sponsored by the Philippine Consulate General New York.

At AAIFF, both shorts were under the “Made in NYC: Love Letters to New York” program, which explains that with almost 8.5 million people spread across five boroughs, compelling New York City stories are being told every day. This program highlighted the diverse aspirations, failures, and energy of Asians in the Big Apple.

Two other Filipino shorts made it to the lineup at AAIFF40. Buang-Bulawan (Fool’s Gold) was screened under “Mad Mad World” while Flip the Record was under “Nevertheless, She Persisted: Stories of Women”.

Food and Travel

Filipino food and Philippine travel destinations continue to make it on the pages of mainstream papers and magazines, with places such as Boracay and Palawan lording it over other global travel destinations in multiple “Best Island” polls and surveys.

Madrid Fusion Manila, the global gastronomic gathering was back for a third serving and it was larger than ever. Its aim remains as such – establishing the Philippines as an important and vibrant culinary destination in the region.

Held for three days at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City, Madrid Fusion this year focused on sustainability in the culinary industry as the award-winning and Michelin-starred chefs invited to deliver their talks discussed ways in which they run their respective kitchens where they showcase innovations and cutting-edge techniques in creating exquisite dishes.

“The whole world now gets to see the Philippines as a culinary destination. We really want to promote the Philippines this way,” Tourism Secretary Wanda Tulfo-Teo told the Asian Journal. “More than just a celebration of gastronomy of the highest order, Madrid Fusion is instrumental in spreading the word that Filipino chefs are world-class and that the Philippines is poised to be the center of gastronomy in Asia.”

Helping promote Filipino cuisine outside the Philippines are Filipino and Filipino American chefs and restaurateurs who continue to push Filipino dishes forward, either in their own restaurants or on national television where there is a wider reach.

Among them is Filipino-American Chef Sheldon Simeon, who found fame and fans on the Bravo show Top Chef. He returned to the show for redemption last year, but in a similar three-way battle for the finale, he was unfortunately eliminated. The same spot where he was four years earlier.

“It was disappointing to be eliminated. When I went back to the show, there was only one thing I wanted, to go till the end and be called Top Chef,” the Hawaii-born Pinoy chef expressed. “I showed my feelings during the whole season and in the end, I am a winner because I got to be myself and I was able to share a lot of my culture. It would have been nice to be called top chef…”

A consistent fan favorite even during his first season, Sheldon was able to endear himself to Top Chef viewers because of his demeanor, work ethic and how he kept on producing dishes that wowed the show’s judges – Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi and Gail Simmons.

“My dream is to have Filipino food represented and looked at like Japanese food. Everyone knows what sushi is, ramen, sashimi. Why not adobo, why not pancit and be comfortable with that,” Chef Sheldon told the Asian Journal.

He admits that it is going to be a long journey but the more important thing is that we are on our way.

“We have mountains to climb but Filipinos in America are persistent so we’re going to continue to dream big and get it out there,” he said.

On the travel side, we got to personally see for ourselves again why Palawan always makes it to travellers’ “Best” lists, may it be through Conde Nast or Travel + Leisure.

We’ve seen gorgeous photos of the island but these photographs just don’t give justice to the beauty of the place. From the calm azure waters that effortlessly blend with the emerald forests and karst limestone hills that seem to jut out of the waters to the melange of boats and huts that dot the islands, believe me, there are no bad views.

I’ve been to Coron before, maybe a decade or so ago. Back then, we stayed on one island resort for the rest of our trip and I maxed out on adventure back then, from snorkelling to an attempt to a little scuba diving.

This time around, we stayed in the town, at the Two Seasons Resort.

It was like coming to a totally different place, especially when we ventured out to the sea and began island-hopping. Island after island, picture after picture, it dawned on me why readers of Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler would vote for Palawan as the Best Island year after year. Coron is blessed and that is why the Tagbanua tribe of Coron Island are taking good care of it, making sure that the place is not over-developed and that mother nature is protected at all times.

Fernando DaSilva, COO and partner at Miami-headquartered Brickell Travel Management has been to all seven continents but he has never been to the Philippines. He went with us to Coron and he had nothing but great words afterwards.

“Nature was very generous in Palawan. It’s a hidden paradise,” DaSilva said. “I must have taken over 200 pictures and none or all of them together can slightly do justice to this place. We are already working on a package that will include Coron, Kawasan Falls and whale shark swimming. It is my goal to go back next year and do this itinerary as well.”

Poets, Priests, Authors

Across Asian Journal’s different publications, we featured a number of Filipino American personalities coming from a variety of fields and industries.

Among them is Bishop Oscar Azarcon Solis. The 63-year-old native of Nueva Ecija, Philippines made history on March 7 when he was formally installed as the 10th Roman Catholic bishop of the Salt Lake City diocese.

With this position — to which he was appointed to by Pope Francis in January — Solis is the first Filipino to lead such a large congregation of Catholics in the United States.

The ceremony held in March followed ancient rites, including a formal reception and knocking of the doors, and the celebration of the Solemn Mass and Rite of Canonical Possession. Both were held at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in the Utah capital and were witnessed by nearly a thousand individuals.

“Firsthand, I experienced the warm hospitality of the people of Utah…So embracing, so warm, so welcoming, very hospitable. I have so many adjectives that I can use to describe it,” Solis shared.

Despite this momentous role that Filipino and Filipino-American Catholics — hundreds of them from across the country and overseas traveled to Salt Lake City to witness the bishop’s installment — have hailed, Solis said being a Filipino immigrant is simply a sidebar to his ministry work.

“I really don’t dwell on that, being Filipino and the historical element of being appointed as bishop here in Salt Lake City,” he said. “I consider myself as a priest and a bishop for everyone. It just so happens that I am a Filipino by birth and a Filipino American by citizenship.”

We also met Mia Alvar, author of In The Country, a book that was ten years in the making but totally worth the wait. In the Country is an engaging and engrossing collection of nine stories, each of them sharing bits and pieces of Filipino culture and history. Her stories are character-driven and are all well-crafted and polished.

New York Times has called her stories remarkable while New York Magazine said her debut collection is so well-drawn and plot-rich. Publishers Weekly gave a glowing review and said that the book is stunning and NPR called her book inspired, and yes, remarkable.

The book won the 2016 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction which honors an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose work—a first novel or collection of short stories—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise of a second work of literary fiction. And with the award was a $25,000 cash prize for the winner to pursue a subsequent work of fiction.

“I found out that I won during the actual awarding ceremonies, they wanted to keep it exciting. We didn’t know who was going to win. I prepared a little speech, just in case, because I am terrible at speaking off the cuff,” Mia told the Asian Journal in an interview.  “It was a great night for Pinoy writers in general, there were several of us who won that night.”

Then, there’s Dr. Amado Gabriel Esteban, Chicago’s DePaul University’s new president.

The Filipino academic leader became the first non-ordained president in DePaul’s 119-year history — considered the largest Catholic university in the United States — when he assumed office on July 1.

Dr. Esteban held the same position at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey since 2011, where he has overseen the development of new schools, ensured that the institution has stayed financially robust, and promoted its academic profile.

n early February, DePaul’s board of trustees voted unanimously in favor of the 55-year-old Filipino, regarding him as someone who aligns with the core principles of the Catholic institution. He was formally announced as the next president on February 16.

“What appealed to me were Saint Vincent [DePaul], the saint of charity, and the university’s mission to help the poor, marginalized and immigrant populations, which are some things very near and dear to our hearts,” Esteban shared.

As we commence 2018 with optimism and positive vibes, we look forward to meeting more inspirational, inspiring and inspired Filipino Americans who – whether they know it or not – are blazing the trail and opening doors for others to be able to follow suit.

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