World on Fire
Japanese-Occupied Manila, Philippines, January 1, 1943.
The woman they called Madame Tsubaki sashayed onto the nightclub floor after dark in a spotlight that cast her exotic silhouette against creamy drapes. She began to sing a tune from America, a song of love and longing:
I don’t want to set the world on fire
She searched the eyes of the men around her—officers of the Japanese occupation, businessmen, and the Filipinos who did their bidding. Many spoke enough English to understand, though her gaze and the husky sound of her voice served well enough.
I don’t ever care to rise to power
She could look around with satisfaction as she sang. Tsubaki Club was packed; they had turned people away. Everyone wanted to see the floor show at the Tsubaki—the name meant “camellia,” a rare, delicate flower in Japan. The club was at a busy intersection across from the Luneta, a romantic downtown park where palms and acacia leaves rustled, not far from Manila Bay. Outside on San Juan Avenue nighttime and the gentle wind softened the tropical heat that had stifled the city during the day; streetlights cast shadows at the entrance of the two-story wooden house set back from the street.
At the start of the evening, Madame Tsubaki had welcomed each of the guests at the head of the long, winding staircase. As they climbed to the second floor, the slit in her long, elegant gown made an alluring line from her ankle to the lower part of one thigh, intoxicating as the experience of entering the club was intended to be.
For the things that one can buy
Are not worth a lover’s sigh
She led them to one of the cocktail tables around the room or to rattan chairs on the periphery, where they could lounge and drink and relax and watch the show. When it was her turn to sing, they all were close enough to breathe her scent and admire the curves of her clinging dress. So she looked into their eyes and they all tended to fall in love.
In my heart I have but one desire
And that one is you, no other will do
Beautiful Filipina hostesses circulated in the room; each approached a table, bowing respectfully, as one must, and then waited to be asked to sit down. So sweetly they accepted offers of a drink. Yes, they could join them; the men smiled and the young women sat with them as if they were geishas ready to serve. A waiter would glide from table to table—beer, wine, whiskey, rum, gin, or some snacks. The men ordered, and the waiters bowed and returned. All for a fantasy, because whatever the women asked for, they drank only lemonade. The men received real drinks and paid a premium along with tips for their favorite hostesses; the women laughed and everyone smoked, a haze floating among them. All the while the band played with a Hawaiian lilt that sounded perfect in the Manila night.
Why not dream about an alluring singer and her song? It was a night for celebration—January 2, 1943, marked the first anniversary of the Japanese occupation and the ouster of the Americans. The puppet Philippine leader, Jorge B. Vargas, was exultant as he declared one year of “benevolent” rule by the Japanese: “The day is one of thanksgiving, especially for the residents of the City of Manila, because on that day they were enabled to resume a life of peace.”
Why not be festive? The war was going well enough. The Japanese officers had a chance to relax and dream far from the front. Some led the original occupation force, and some were bureaucrats fortunate to have safe administrative jobs beyond the line of fire. Others had rotated in for a while. None of them knew how long it would last, but for now they could brag of their victories this past year. If the Japanese soldiers blocked out the embarrassments—Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo and the Battle of Midway—they could focus on the fact that Japan controlled a swath of Pacific territory from Manchuria to Indochina and south to New Guinea. Early still in the war, a Japanese officer could take pleasure in such an evening in Manila, having ushered in a new Asian Empire of the Rising Sun: “Asia for the Asians.” Madame Tsubaki smiled and shimmied just a bit as she sang:
I’ve lost all ambition for worldly acclaim
And with your admission that you’d feel the same
I’ll have reached the goal I’m dreaming of . . . believe me
While she sang, Madame Tsubaki could look around the room: A full house meant good money on the night—more than enough to pay the bills, perhaps enough alcohol to loosen the tongues of the homesick, lovesick men. Madame Tsubaki had trained the alluring young women to be ready to ask questions.
Darling, the dew-eyed women would ask their Japanese guests. Why must you leave so soon? Where are they sending you? Can I write to you? When will you come back to me?
Soon. I will come back soon, the officers would say, innocent as it was, speaking to a beautiful girl, even if they never came back: off to New Guinea, or to bomb the Americans from a carrier, or to a submarine patrol. And they would say, As soon as I fight the Americans and shoot down their planes and sink them in the sea, then I will come back.
Banzai! the men would shout, raising their glasses. Banzai! And Madame Tsubaki and the young women would shout, Banzai! Banzai! with them and salute the defeat of the Americans. And Madame Tsubaki would keep singing, beseeching:
… Believe me
I don’t want to set the world on fire
I just want to start a flame in your heart
Midnight curfew approached and some of the men would want to take the lovely young girls with them and would offer them money. A few of the young women went along; it was good business and good money. A hostess could make tips, but if she went off with a customer, she could earn many times her salary at the club. Some of the women would just escort the young Japanese officers to a side couch for a bit of privacy. They could make extra tips that way and ask more questions. How long will you be away? Where can I write to you?
At the end of the evening, Madame Tsubaki said good night to the last of the guests. Women could be seen leaving arm in arm with their soldiers of the night. The Luneta and the Great Eastern Hotel were just a short walk away.
Madame Tsubaki retired to her dressing room, took off her gown, and wiped off her makeup. Some nights she had to fight men away from her own door. Most nights, though, she was quickly out the back door and down the steps in time to beat curfew, hoping to avoid a possible soldier with an attitude who might slap her for breaking the rules. She and everyone else under occupation knew that Japanese “benevolence” tended more to random stops on the street, a slap in the face for not bowing or not bowing deeply enough or making an unintelligible remark under one’s breath. People preferred to avoid such encounters, but it could happen. Once in the street, Madame Tsubaki became Dorothy Fuentes—one of her many aliases. But if by chance she was stopped on the five-minute walk home, she could mention the name of an officer or bow and smile or hope that someone else on the street—some Japanese officer—might know that this was the gracious Filipina hostess who had entertained his fellow troops at Tsubaki Club.
It was three blocks home; only there could she relax quietly, hoping not to wake up her two-and-a-half-year-old adopted Filipina daughter, Dian. She might smoke a cigarette, have a real drink, and hope to fall asleep. The next morning she would go to the club after breakfast and gather reports from all the women. They collated the names of the men and their units and, if they were lucky, the destinations of their ships, their ports of call, and the times their ships were leaving port. A runner from the hills or one of the waiters could then hide the report in the fake sole of a shoe or in the lining of a shopping basket, then bring the latest intelligence to their American guerrilla contacts in the hills. Before long, Madame Tsubaki would prepare for the next performance that evening, hoping to set part of the world on fire.