June 9, 2000

My Neighorhood's 15 Minutes of Fame

By Rene Ciria-Cruz

MANILA — For a brief moment in May, the world paid attention to Pandacan, my old neighborhood.

A herd of FBI agents and international correspondents came, hunting the source of the "Love Bug," the computer virus that drove mighty governments and corporations nuts.

Residents say it's the most excitement they've had with foreigners since American GIs drove the Japanese away and set up camp nearby, toward the end of World War II.

I was born and raised here, and although I will always love the place, I never saw any reason why foreigners would want to visit. Imelda's legendary shoe collection is in a different neighborhood, across the polluted Pasig River.

Foreign correspondents found my neighborhood an improbable birthplace for the worst ever computer virus, but ambition and mischief are nothing new to Pandacan.

It was so eager to rise up against Spain in 1896 that the local chapter moved a day before the agreed date. The Guardia Civil executed a dozen young men.

Then, as the Filipino rebel army approached the walled city of Manila, where the last enforcers of Spanish rule cowered, lines of the Nebraska Volunteers, U.S. Army, stretched from Manila Bay through Pandacan, blocking the rebels. Soon the Philippine-American War of 1898-1906 would break out, taking the lives of 600,000 Filipinos and 4,000 Americans.

But these foreigners were looking for one computer hacker.

"The FBI men were looking all over Pandacan for young people between the ages of 22 and 24 who are good with computers — all over," says Josie Sia, a dressmaker, who lives across from my grade school.

"When I went upstairs, a white guy was already talking to my Frederick," Sia says. "I was crying. I was afraid for him because he has a very short temper, and he might say the wrong thing."

Agents and reporters even knocked at our old house, looking for my sister-in-law, the local council chairman. But she was so nervous she became too sick to see them.

"I looked out my window and there was a big commotion," says my cousin Olga who lives next door. "Wow, naman! CNN knocking at our front gate. Can you imagine?"

Reporters insisted on describing Pandacan as lower middle class but most people here are poor. The houses are swarthy with urban grime, often sagging under the merciless humidity.

I recognized my old haunts right away from television footage of FBI agents, cops and reporters swooping down on the Barangay Housing Project, looking for the Love Bug hacker.

I could even smell the scene. What the Washington Post describes as a "fetid canal" meanders by our backyard, and there's no better place for any kind of virus to breed. It's like smelling an old friend.

Barangay was built with U.S. aid money in the 1950s for families of policemen and other government workers.

Some distant cousins of mine are neighbors of Onel de Guzman, who may have released the virus accidentally.

"The Americans will surely take him," says Eric Salvador.

Yes, I say, they could extradite him.

"No, no, they'll take him — hire him — for covert operations," he says. He is a contract worker in Saudi Arabia where his "American friends say no way America will let the Russians and the Chinese get to him first."

Eric's brother Otet takes me to de Guzman's back door. The place is empty.

"They disappeared the very next day the cops came," says Danny Villanueva, who lives next door. Someone comes in at night "like a ghost" to feed the dog, he says.

Villanueva occasionally drinks with Reomel Ramones — the boyfriend of Inez de Guzman, Onel' sister. Ram-ones, a bank employee, was apprehended but cleared — he doesn't even like the Internet, he told the press.

Villanueva thinks Onel de Guzman is not guilty. "He's a little different, he hardly mixes with the neighbors, but I don't think he's a criminal."

"I play basketball with him sometimes, but he never wins," laughs Clarence, Villanueva's teenage son.

"I think he will get rich because of what he was able to do to the whole world," says Raymond Ando, 13, who has sauntered by. Neither he nor his friend Lillian Manto, 14, know anything about the Internet — nor do most people in the project, says Villanueva.

Pandacan was once renowned for its musicians, composers and zarzuela singers — it was called "Little Italy" when the fetid canal was a romantic estuary.

Josie Sia, the dressmaker, comes from one of the old families here. They retain quaint monikers linked with occupations or events from way back in the neigh-borhood's rural past — the Sugar Family or the Vinegar Family, for example. Josie Sia belongs to the Salamander Family. Why Salamander? I'll have to ask my mother.

Rene Ciria-Cruz is editor of Filipinas Magazine.

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