Tuesday, 12 March 2013

FEATURE: Japanese engineer relives the good life in Larap

A land bridge connecting the island of Calambayungan, site of the defunct pelletizing plant, to mainland Larap. - Photo supplied


DURING the years when the Larap pelletizing plant operated, the Vietnam War (1960-75) was raging, and almost every day B52 bombers in flight formation flew over this former mining camp a few hours after taking off from Guam.
Lording it over the North Vietnamese skies, these war planes dropped tons of bombs on communist positions day in and day out.
Among those who watched with amazement the silhouettes of the bomber planes was Takao Tanaka, then a young Japanese engineer who briefly worked at the defunct palletizing plant on Calambayungan island just a stone’s throw away from the mining village.
Despite being away from home, life was good for him and the rest of the Japanese engineers in the company of their Filipino colleagues.
And the most lasting legacy that Larap left with him was his favorite sport.
“I learned my golf on the runway of the Larap airport,” recalls Tanaka, one of the few bachelor engineers who worked in a core group overseeing the operations of the palletizing plant.
After the Philippine Airlines (PAL) shut down its flights to Larap, a local member of the then Philippine Constabulary (PC), Colonel Montemayor, decided to convert the runway into a driving range, with a five-hitters range.
“And every day I had practiced on this driving range …this was the start of my golfing days and I continued to swing up to these days …” Tanaka said.
The Calambayungan pelletizing plant was a joint venture between the Philippine Iron Mines (PIM) and the Kawasaki Sinter Corporation (KSC) of Japan, forged in June 1967.
KSC owned 90% of the company the called the Pelletizing Corporation of the Philippines (PCP), with PIM owning 10%.
Under the deal, KSC bought palletizing and iron concentrate from PIM, and exported the minerals to Japan.
However, after only seven years of operations in 1974, PCP shut down due to losses after the Philippine government shifted to the floating rate, in which the peso dropped to P40 versus the US dollar, from the highs of P4-P6.50/US$ in 1970.
This was coupled with the flooding of the underground mine due the big water leakage from the main pit, which could not be drained.
With this, the operations of the copper project and palletizing plant could not proceed.
Tanaka first came to Larap in May-July in 1965 as a visiting engineer and in November-December of the same year. Then, he came back in 1967 and stayed at the mines for two years till 1969.
Tanaka recalls: Larap was a lonely place for business bachelors like him who would kill time at the only local movie house.
“Larap had no peace and order problem … no criminality.”
But when going out of town, he and his colleagues engaged bodyguards for safety.
Living as bachelors, Tanaka and the six other Japanese engineers from KSC who were assigned in Larap had employed cooks, maids and errand boys.
On Sundays, they would go to a nearby island – then called Cuyugan Island – by a small boat.
Here, they enjoyed fishing, a weekend pastime they relished back home.
He loved his long naps under the coconut trees, Tanaka recalled.
And for their other R&R, they drove 30km to the outskirts of Daet to see the girls at the nightclubs, enjoying San Miguel beer with them.
Amazingly, Tanaka could still remember the name of the club were they had frequented – Arbor.
It was roofed with nipa palms. From under the roof’s shadow, they watched the brilliant stars twinkling against the dark blue skies.
Tanaka and his compatriots made a lot of Filipino friends – both workers and engineers -- and enjoyed local dishes.
They had a great time watching native dances such as the famous “Tinikling” and played ping-pong, basketball and their favorite game baseball.
Funny, some Japanese engineers were made “ninong” of their Filipino friends’ children; they were proud to carry the cherished label “compadre”, as it made them a part of the family.
After the shutdown of the palletizing plant, Tanaka and the rest of the Japanese engineers and about 50 Filipinos were transferred to the Philippine Sinter Corp, which had operations outside Cagayan de Oro and in Bohol.
“I worked for PSC and stayed in Cagayan de Oro during the years 1977-80 and 1991-96,” said Tanaka, who visited CDO almost every year in his private capacity and met with his former work colleagues that included Filipinos.
One day in 1993, he had a chance to see Calambayungan again on his way to Daet from Manila to attend the funeral of an old colleague in Larap – Nestor Yu (the elder brother of William Yu).
Says Tanaka: I was the only Japanese who visited Larap after the close of mining operations in 1974.
In one of his rare visits to the former mining camp, Tanaka had noticed a drop in the community’s population. During its heyday, Larap buzzed with activities that getting idle was unheard of.
Visiting around the old mining camp, he observed: The open pit has been changed into a big lake … a scenic view … all the buildings and steel structures at the palletizing plant had been torn down and made into scraps and only the concrete stack tower has remained up to now.
Tanaka described the tower a “landmark of a once happy place”.
Seeing the site of the palletizing plant during his last visit of the island, he found green grass had overwhelmed the place. It made him nostalgic.
Tanaka’s attachment to Larap has remained intact as he has continued his ties with Filipino friends from Larap through Facebook and other social media.
In fact, he is a member of the Laking PIM Ako (LaPIMA) group whose members are scattered worldwide, as overseas workers and citizens of many countries that include the US, Canada, Europe, and countries in Asia.
As a gift to the people of Larap, Tanaka, along with compatriot engineers Koichi Hayase, Akira Oda, Takashi Oshima and Filipino engineer G B Evangelista, charted the history of the Larap palletizing plant.
As a technical report describing the pelletizing plant’s structure and operations, and carried rare pictures from the operations, it was submitted to the Japan Mining History and Research Society as a resource material.
One thing sure is that, seeing the pictures alone would evoke memories from the heyday of Larap among its former residents.
And one of these days when Tanaka gets a chance to see Larap again, he would be amazed by the gradual, painstaking rebirth it is going through these days, thanks to the resilience of the local people, who continue to believe that their destiny is nowhere else but Larap.
For Tanaka and the children of the former mining community, Larap would remain as their cherished, common bond.

For comment, email the writer: ahernandez@thenational.com.pg alfredophernandez@y7mail.com


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