60th Courier Anniversary Issue
60th Anniversary Issue
Supplement Articles
:: Mayoralty Candidates & their vision for Baguio
:: What have we done to our city?
:: Leadership a
la Sudcordillera
:: If I could vote,
I would vote for...
:: A look at the northern youth vote
:: Shanty Town: rethinking
our mountains' development
:: Ma Fok's Secret
:: Ibaloi in international media
:: Preventing cervical cancer
:: Prostate cancer:
a brief perspective
:: Baguio Midland Courier goes online
:: Courier in the '60s
:: Baguio media notes and anecdotes
:: When headline writers become headline makers
:: The History of Baguio City National High School
:: 60 things to do and places to see in Cordi
:: How to make Baguio a child-friendly city
:: Election Cartoons
trisha Ma Fok's secret
Jimmy Laking

Whoever beat up Bagawe must have been so good that when I came by him a few minutes later, he was still writhing in pain, a crumpled figure on the narrow footpath that led to the stream.

“Who did this to you?” I asked.
“Ma Fok,” Bagawe howled as he cursed his luck. “Ay ayeh.”
“Ma Fok?” I pressed, unbelieving.
“It was him, manong.” He howled again, “Ay ayeh.”

My cousin was on his way to the stream that morning to take a bath when he found the narrow path blocked by Ma Fok, one of the village elders. On outstretched hands, Ma Fok was holding a thick rattan pole pointed at Bagawe’s midsection.

The old man’s posture struck Bagawe as odd. He knew something was wrong. Nevertheless, he managed to blurt out: “F’yo flafos Ma Fok (Good morning, Ma Fok.) I am surprised to see you here.”

The old man did not seem to hear. “Why did you beat up my grandson?” he asked in a voice loud enough for Bagawe to hear but which betrayed no emotion. “Nobody beats up Nga Dog and gets away with it. Not even you, mistolo.”

Bagawe said he was about to explain when the old man attacked. The old man was methodical. He began by dropping Bagawe on his knees with two swift strokes of the stick on the legs then followed it up with crippling thrusts upward.

Caught between a deep ravine and a high cliff on the narrow path, Bagawe was reduced to helplessness as he absorbed the punishment, letting off the plastic pail that contained his laundry for the week. He dropped to the ground, groaning in extreme pain.

Just as quickly as he appeared, Ma Fok left without a trace.
“He was too strong for his age,” said Bagawe later as I applied coconut oil on his welts at the teacher’s cottage. “I can swear it was no arnis.”

Then making sure no one was listening, he whispered in Kankana-ey: “By the way, manong, who is Ma Fok? It was no ordinary old man who wielded the stick out there. It was somebody else. He could have killed me had he wanted to.”
It took me weeks to find the answer.

I arrived at the village of Lamlahak in 1987 to replace the head teacher who sought transfer to Davao. I met Ma Fok a week later when the village elder Datu Alon had his youngest son baptized. He struck me then as a quiet man who was sparing with words. But he was friendly and had no known enemies. Mostly, he seemed to keep to himself near the edge of the forest where hornbills still marked the passing of time, and where he tended a green patch filled with coffee trees, root crops, fruit trees, and bananas.

Lamlahak sits on a small valley beside a tributary of the Allah River in South Cotabato, four hours by pony’s ride from the dirt road in Polomolok, the capital town.

Decades before Gen. Paulino Santos led the first batch of settlers from Luzon to the Allah Valley, the B’laans, such as those in Lamlahak, roamed the valley at will and traded freely with their Muslim neighbors along the coasts of Saranggani.

The school was into its fifth year when I came. A year later, Bagawe, on invitation, joined me. He taught math, agriculture, and physical education.

While I was frail and walked with some limp, Bagawe was well-built, sure of himself, and is physically buff. He studied under the respected Baguio Karate sensei, Arsenio Bawingan himself, and emerged with a black belt to his name.
Before long, he had assembled a dozen students of his own, teaching them the martial arts. Then, the trouble began.

One day when Bagawe was weeding at his cabbage patch, Nga Dog, Ma Fok’s favorite grandson, challenged two of his best students to a fight. It did not matter that they were his cousins.

When they refused to fight him, he kicked both. Stung, they retaliated and the issue was joined. From the window in the cottage, I saw Nga Dog, a fully grown boy at 16, took the fight to his much younger opponents. The odds did not seem to faze him. What he seemed to lack in skill, he made up for with speed and raw strength.

Bagawe arrived in the nick of time to pull out his students from the fight. Nga Dog, outfought and his face clearly marked, seemed to object to this. Had Bagawe not been watching, he would have been hit by a bolo punch aimed at his jaw.

But he saw it coming, ducked one way, swept Nga Dog off his feet, sending him sprawled on the ground. Nga Dog stood up, let out a curse, then left.
The morning after, it was Bagawe’s turn to be roughed up by the boy’s grandfather.
The incident, and Bagawe’s suspicions, led me to inquire about the old man. All I could get were sketchy descriptions at first.

And so it was that on one Sunday mor-ning, I saddled the school’s pony and prodded it along the trail uphill to the old man’s hut to where a small spring flows, an hour’s trek away as the crow flies.

He must have seen me coming as he restrained his dogs from barking. There, squatting on a piece of lumber, the old man was sipping a cup of coffee, his back to the sun.
“So you also come to fight me, eh mistolo?” he barked. A helpless man myself, I broke into laughter.

F’yo Flafos Ma Fok. I came here to taste your coffee.” Then I handed him a bag of sugar and packet of dried tobacco leaves I bought the previous Sunday from Polomolok.

This seemed to warm him up. At close range, I noticed what escaped me before. Although he was wearing a tubao or a headband, his eyes were clearly framed by two tiny slits and joined below by a slightly pointed nose that marked him out from his B’laan kin.

His skin was also fairer. While his cousins and the other men folk preferred a bolo for a companion, he was rarely seen without his four-foot rattan stick. Bagawe suspected he was an Arnis master who retired in those boondocks but was not sure. That Sunday was followed by another.

Jiro “Ma Fok” Yamaguchi was the product of a union between Hiroshi Yamaguchi, a businessman, and Mayang Sagumba, the daughter of a B’laan chieftain. Jiro’s father saw time as a businessman in Baguio City in the 1920s then migrated with several others to Davao where most settled as farmers, opening up the first coffee plantations in the periphery of Mt. Apo.

The couple operated a theater in Davao City and Jiro studied in the only Japanese school beside where the University of Mindanao now stands. At the tender age of seven, Jiro was introduced to Kendo (Japanese fencing) and was an adept at 15 when his father prepared to send him to Japan in 1941.

But the war intervened. Davao was bombed. His father joined the Imperial Army, leaving behind Jiro’s mother and the boy to tend to the family business.

In 1942, with guerilla activities on the upsurge, Jiro’s mother had his son sent to Saranggani, and from there to her father’s mountain village in the uplands.

Jiro’s parents did not survive the war. Jiro, renamed Ma Fok, grew up to be a respected community leader and married a distant cousin with whom he bore many children. Nga Dog was his 38th grandchild.

“So that does not make me a Japanese straggler if that is what you were thinking,” he said.

He had reasons to be wary.  In the 1970s, he made the mistake of joining his cousins in welcoming a Malacañang official who seemed to relish being surrounded by tribal women and children. The official, he said, took one look at him and declared: “You, you are no B’laan.” Ma Fok grinned but made sure he did not stay any longer.

It took months but eventually he came to forgive Bagawe. Something also seemed to have changed in the old man. Where he avoided strangers in the past, he was to be my frequent visitor, surprised that I could brew coffee like an expert.

He also frequented the school grounds and watched with amusement while Bagawe and his students, Nga Dog now among them, went through their martial arts lessons.

“So it is organized as that now,” he said when told by Bagawe that the system was being propagated by the Japan Karate Association.

He offered that in his time, his mentors simply taught him the applications. “No crazy dancing,” he said, referring to the forms or kata performed in his behalf. And as if reading Bagawe’s mind, he reciprocated by teaching him the finer points of Kendo.

Life in Lamlahak seemed to have lit up since then. On the side, my cousin taught the locals how to propagate cabbages or potatoes. Both of us have also taken a  liking of the tifas, the local wine fermented from the sap of the cabonegro palm tree. 

In time I was not surprised when Bagawe married one of the old man’s granddaughters, an attractive chinky eyed maiden who finished education at the Notre Dame of Marbel.

“Lucky me, she will do to stroll with along Session Road back home,” he boasted.

I left the place in 1995 with a promise to come back. I never did. Bagawe has since assumed my post and is a happy family man in that part. The ageless Ma Fok was still in circulation, never without the stick, chewing at his betel nut, going the rounds, every inch the legend of Lamlahak

This account reflects a real historical event. The rest is a figment of the writer’s imagination

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