A small archipelago in Southeast Asia and a small country in Central Europe—that’s how geography pinpoints the Republic of the Philippines and the Czech Republic. Bridging that distance involves more than physical travel across the 10,059 kilometers between the two nations.
Czech diplomat and author Jaroslav Olša, Jr. assumed his post as the Czech Republic’s Ambassador to the Philippines in July 2014. His four-year tour of duty in the Philippines brought forth a wealth of cultural diplomacy that are both refreshing and innovative—and his imminent return to his home office in Prague will have Filipinos, especially those who’ve been part of his initiatives in the Philippines, remembering his sojourn here with much fondness.
Speaking with editors of the Philippines Graphic and the Business Mirror at the BM Coffee Club Forum recently, Olša recapped the highlights of his stay here.
“You will remember the Czech Republic each time you see photographs of the chandeliers—excuse me, glass art—at Malacañang Palace,” he said with a broad smile.
Those pieces of glass art hanging from the ceilings of power were made with Czech glass by artisans who also happen to be Olša’s compatriots.
Besides the most visible of Olša’s interactions with the people of the Philippines (the literary and cultural sort, of course), his work in the Philippines included plenty to do with bilateral trade between the Philippines and the Czech Republic, as well as humanitarian work in areas of the Philippines that needed it.
“I am probably the best Czech beer salesman here in the Philippines,” Olša said “even if I don’t drink beer or wine.”
Every Czech Embassy function saw free flowing Pilsner Urquell, the grandparent of all pale pilsen beers (yes, including our local versions) and Czechvar beer. Filipinos love their beer, so both beers have met a growing and happy welcome.
A highly-industrialized country, the Czech Republic is the second largest car producer in the world—an export that has yet to be brought to the Philippines, and one Olša would like to see happen soon.
With a population of 10 million, the Czech Republic’s biggest revenue-earner is trade, Olša said, even as he noted that trade between the Philippines and his country is robust—mostly with the Czech Republic importing Philippine products.
On a more personal note, Olša’s favorite Filipino dish is sinigang na hipon (shrimp in tamarind broth), and he has expressed a desire to see the works of Filipino writer Lualhati Bautista (of “Dekada ’70” fame) translated into English (maybe even Czech).
“I saw the movie, and enjoyed it very much and, if it is true that the book is better than the movie, then I truly want to read the book,” he said.
Since his busy schedule doesn’t give him as much time to “commit” to reading novels as he’d like, that is high praise indeed.
When told he’s tall “like a basketball player,” Olša’s reaction is witty and visceral.
“You have it all wrong,” he replied. “I am a reader. I told my mother that whenever she’d tell me to go out and play or do sports: I read. I am staying put, reading.”
His normal reading rate? Olša tries to read a book a week now—a slower reading pace than in his youth, since he has many, many things on his diplomat’s plate now.
THE WORD ON OLSA
Diplomatic duties aside, the good Ambassador Olša “is also author of books and articles on history, culture and literature of Asia and Africa and historical relations of the non-European countries with the Czech Lands,” according to the Czech Embassy in Manila website.
“He also widely wrote about science fiction and edited dozen anthologies of Czech and international science fiction. He has published in a wide-range of publications such as Czech edition of the National Geographic, Nový Orient (New Orient), Světová Literatura (World Literature), Mezinárodní Politika (Foreign Policy), Mezinárodní Vztahy (International Relations). He contributed to various Czech and foreign-language encyclopedias. He was also a curator of art exhibitions, member of jury of 2011 Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival and initiated numerous cultural exchanges and activities.”
He has also been very visible in the literary and arts scene in the Philippines over the last four years and he was a much-welcomed regular VIP guest of the Graphic at its annual Nick Joaquin Literary Awards nights.
Every time this writer meets Olša, he is witty, smiling, quick, efficient and knowledgeable—and very, very fun to talk to, especially for the considerable substance he can bring to any discussion.
“I love to read,” Olša said at the Coffee Club forum. “You learn many new things by reading, especially encyclopedias and history books.”
Olša likes to mark the books he reads, annotating them when they are mistaken and correcting those mistakes. This is a man with a fascination for learning. That much is obvious. He’d begun coming to the Philippines years ago, before he became the Czech Ambassador to Manila.
“I’d always go home with a few books from here,” he explained.
The books he bought were from a small bookstore in Malate called Solidaridad, where he met its owner, National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose.
The “SF Encyclopedia” on the other hand, said Olša, “started the major Czechoslovak fanzine Ikarie XB (1986-1989), which turned into the first Czechoslovak and Czech [science fiction] monthly magazine Ikarie (published 1990-2010, now published as XB-1) of which he was for a time assistant editor.”
The encyclopedia noted that Olša’s “major role in [science fiction] studies has been as co-editor of the Czech Encyklopedie Literatury science fiction [“Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Literature”] (1995) with Ondřej Neff. He has edited about a dozen [science fiction} anthologies, among them the first anthologies of Czech [science fiction] in English (published in India), Ndebele and Korean. He has contributed to Czech, Polish, German and other [science fiction] publications, also to Locus and Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction; has compiled bibliographies of Czech and Slovak fanzines; and wrote entries for this encyclopedia.”
Olša has also opened a new market for Filipino writers, especially in the speculative fiction genre that encompasses fantasy and science fiction writing. He did this by working with authors and publishers to create translations into Czech of selected titles, mostly of short fiction and other prose, so that these books could be sold in his homeland to a fresh audience few Filipinos since National Hero Jose Rizal have reached.
He also unveiled the first poetry jukebox in the Philippines, an innovative and interactive installation at the One HSB Park on High Street in Taguig’s Bonifacio Global City invented by Czech culture activist Ondřej Kobza. This jukebox recites poetry for free, without need of coins. All a poetry lover needs to do is stop for a while, press the button, select a poem and listen. Kobza made his first installations of poetry jukeboxes in Prague and New York.
The BGC poetry jukebox, which is the first such installation in Asia, plays 20 poems (nine from Czech poets, one from a Slovak poet and 10 by Filipinos) and is a gift from the Czech Republic to Taguig City to commemorate the 100th independence of Czech and Slovak Statehood.
Poetry-lovers and passers-by can listen to the verses of Czech poets Antonín Sova, Vítězslav Nezval, Jiří Orten, Václav Hrabě or Fráňa Šrámek, Slovak poetry by Eleni Cay and the works of National Artist for Literature Virgilio Senadren Almario, Joselito D. Delos Reyes, Mikael De Lara Co Gemino Abad, 2016 NJLA Poet of the year Mookie Katigbak Lacuesta, Jerry B. Gracio, Allan Pastrana, Ildefonso Santos, Roland S. Tinio and Krip Yuson.
Olša and the Czech Embassy expressed their appreciatoin for the support given to the project by writer and publisher Angelo “Sarge” Lacuesta, who helped select the poems and produce the recordings.
When asked about his preferred genre when writing, Olša’s face took on a mischievous cast.
“I like to write about what other writers should be writing and how,” he said.
Literary criticism it is, then.
CULTURE AND FUN
Olša’s four years as the Czech Republic’s man in Manila also saw strong cultural exchanges between both countries, with the embassies of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovak Republic, in cooperation with the UP College of Music, setting up a concert of classical music from Central Europe dubbed the “Soundscapes of Central Europe,” at the UP Abelardo Hall Auditorium.
The event featured a piano ensemble, piano trio works and art songs by composers from the Czech Republic (Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák), Hungary (Franz Liszt), Poland (Frédéric Chopin) and Slovakia (Alexander Moyzes) to be interpreted by the UP College of Music Keyboard Department Faculty and the Lozada Piano Trio.
The concert marked the 45th anniversary establishment of diplomatic relations between the Visegrad countries and the Philippines and the remarkable progress of bilateral relationship since its establishment in 1973.
According to the Czech Embassy in Manila website, “the substantive bilateral cooperation in various areas has yielded remarkable outcomes especially in the area of bringing tangible benefits to both peoples (especially the cooperation in tourism, culture and education).”
Olša was also at the spearhead of the celebration in Manila of the 100th year of Czech Comics, where he unveiled famous works by notable Czech comic artists in exhibit “Meanwhile, Elsewhere…”. This was displayed at the NCCA Gallery in Intramuros, Manila in September. Moravian Museum art collections curator in Brno Tomáš Prokůpek served as curator of this exhibit that was part of the commemorations of the centenary foundation of Czechoslovakia (1918).
It seems that Olša is also good at a light, cheeky form of diplomacy, one that is just as effective as high-brow event diplomacy, but more fun.
He opened the celebration of “International Table Top Month” in Manila, with a recent exhibition match between Team Manila and Team Czech Embassy in a match of the globally-successful Czech board game called Codenames.
Created by Czech board games genius Vlaada Chvátil and Czech Games Edition in 2015, Codenames tests players’ insight and intellect in “contacting the right agents” through one-word clues. Two designated spymasters know the secret identities of the twenty-five agents, while their teammates know the agents only by their Codenames. The teams compete to see who can make contact with all of their agents first. This mind-boggling game of word association, deduction and team play is popular all around the world since its release and has found its way to the hearts of Filipino gamers. In recognition of this, Czech Games Edition teamed up with a Philippine company, Gaming Library, to promote the game.
There is now a Codenames: Philippine Edition infused with the colorful and quirky aspects of the Filipino culture.
The Czech Embassy in Manila and Museo Pambata also screened the “Krtek comes to Manila” Exhibition, showcasing Czech cartoon and animation character Krtek (The Little Mole).
Krtek is the most popular Czech cartoon and animation character of all time, and has been loved by five generations of Czech children.
Created by Czech animator Zdeněk Miler as a one-shot character for a single educational film for children more than six decades ago. Miler came up with the Krtek cartoon after stumbling over a mole-hill while walking in his garden.
Before arriving in Manila, Krtek’s new adventures involved visiting the jungles of Mindoro, the turquoise beaches of Palawan and Bohol, bathing in the waterfalls of Negros and working with farmers in Mindanao, as well as enjoying views of the Makati skyline from the tops of high-rise buildings in BGC.
Olša and his embassy have also brought Czech classic and science fiction films to Filipino audiences, as well as brought Filipino writers to visit more than just the Church of the Infant Jesus in Prague.
Writer Jessica Zafra and filmmaker Pepe Diokno launched a six-part TV documentary about the Czech Republic aired on CNN Philippines in April titled Czech Trek, in which Zafra, Diokno and their team explored Czech cuisine, the castles this lovely country is right to boast about, and the hometown of Ferdinand Blumentritt, the famous Czech friend of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal. Their relationship can be seen as a sort of historical connection between the Czech Republic and the Philippines.
FRIENDSHIP AND BUSINESS
The Czech Republic also, under Olša’s watch, helped establish a new water supply for the people of San Roque village in Guimaras by building two concrete tanks and repairing an old deep well. This stabilized the water supply for the residents of San Roque and provided a reliable water supply for the mango farm that employs the townsfolk.
“Thanks to a successful and developing cooperation between Mendel University Brno, the mango farm is being used also for training and internships of their students,” according to a Czech Embassy press statement on this assistance.
Having an “established water source enables intensive use of the mango farm and ecopark, not only for Mendel University students but also the other cooperative universities from the Czech Republic,” said the press statement. The project was undertaken with financial support from the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for “small local development projects.”
Olša’s tenure also saw the Mendel University and the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod collaborate on the creation of a network of hiking trails based on the methodology of the Czech Tourist Club from two distinct starting points in Gintubdan, Northern Negros.
Six tourist trails were identified and marked in the area, measuring a total of 19.5 km. The final trail system consists of two starting points and a network that contains the following: first, two adventure trails leading to either Ezy falls or to Twin falls; and second, four “ecotouristic” trails leading to Oro falls, Buslugan falls, Salas Pavillion and other remarkable natural spots.
These trails are equipped with markings, marking posts, stabilization objects and relaxation points. All interesting nature exhibits and specifics about the National Park at Mt. Kanlaon are highlighted as well.
As Olša said, trade is very important to his country’s 10 million people, so his diplomatic efforts also included opening up opportunities to build strong trade relations between the Philippines and the Czech Republic. These included two workshops on export opportunities in the Philippines, which were held in Prague and Brno last year.
The Czech Embassy in Manila issued a press statement on these seminars, saying they “revealed a huge potential for the trade and business with the Philippines, thanks to its demographic boom, young population and growing middle class. For an export company, it is necessary to have a clear business vision and to choose a reliable local partner to succeed on the complicated Asian market in the Philippines.”
With Olša’s departure for his home office nearing, the Ambassador’s schedule has been growing more and more full of farewell functions—proof of just how well-loved the Czech envoy has come to be in his host country.
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte recently conferred the Order of Sikatuna with the Rank of Grand Cross (Datu), Gold Distinction, to Olša during Olša’s formal farewell call at the Music Room of Malacañang Palace.
Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Undersecretary Ernesto Abella and DFA Office of European Affairs (OEA) Director Indhira Bañares were with Duterte during Olša’s visit, along with the Czech Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Jana Peterková, and Trade Economic Counselor First Secretary Benjamin Žiga.
As the Coffee Club Forum drew to a close, we editors of the Graphic and Business Mirror asked Olša questions about what, of all these things he’d been part of, he wanted to see grow. We also asked him what new developments in Czech-Philippines relations he wanted to see.
“I definitely want to see the cultural exchanges continue, especially, of course, those in the literary scene,” he said. “I would very much like to see more Filipinos enjoying Czech beer, and exchanging ideas. Perhaps, soon, we will see Czech cars on Philippine roads.” G