Mel at his bookstore. Notice the old typewriter. ( Photo: Dahong Pilipino)
Man of letters is gone
By Ted Alcuitas
Last month at the Jim Wong-Chu Celebration of Life, I sat with Filipina author Eleanor Guerrero Campbell and I inquired about Mel Tobias.
“He’s not very well,” Eleanor told me and I could sense from the tone of her voice how serious his condition was.
“Will have to pay him a visit, “ I promised.
Sadly, I never did.
Mel passed away this month (October 7) after a long bout with prostrate cancer.
The last time I talked to Mel was at the Literasian Gala dinner in 2015 which we both attended.
He begged to leave early as he was not feeling well and I offered to walk with him outside to hail a cab.
“Why don’t we have coffee first? It’s been a long time we haven’t talked to each other,” he proffered in his typical mild-mannered way.
We couldn’t find any opened cafe and so both of us stood in the corner for a taxi and that was when he confided his condition to me.
“I had a prostate operation recently, that’s why I’m cutting back on my activities.”
The revelation hit me with sadness like the evening chill.
We talked about my current project of putting up an online paper for the Filipino community in Canada. While supportive of the idea, he cautioned me about the difficulty in reaching the audience I was hoping for.
And then the cab arrived and as I helped him into it, I wondered if that was the last time I would see him. I was even thinking of calling him if he arrived safely home that evening.
Mel was an engaging personality, an erudite that can keep you in a conversation for as long as you have the time.
He was most interested in Filipino movies (the old ones!) and he kept a collection of them at his cramped antique bookstore on west Broadway near Burrard. He even wrote about it – ‘100 Acclaimed Tagalog Movies’ in 1989.
The store’s upstairs also served as a venue for book launches and art shows which he generously hosted.
I still have the movie -‘Oro Plata Mata’ which he specially chose for me. The title refers to an old Filipino folk belief about about acquiring riches akin to the Chinese Feng Shui.
It reminded me of the nightmare I had designing a house in my early days as a young architect in the Philippines. The owner demanded that the last step in the stairway should end up in an ‘oro’!
I will try to view it again to remember Mel and his generous spirit.
Aside from his interest in theatre and the arts, Mel was also a prolific writer contributing to a number of publications including the Manila-based daily Philippine Star. He played a significant role in putting out the short-lived glossy magazine, Living Today.
Mel lived a full life and will be missed by the community he loves so much.