Posted by: koolwine | April 22, 2011

Philippines: When the Elephants Dance

During World War II, a  group of fifteen bickering Filipino neighbors form a better understanding of each other while they   hide from Japanese troops.

Country Focus: Philippines

When the Elephants Dance
by Tess Uriza Holthe
Originally published by Crown, 2002.
My edition: Penguin, 2003.  368 pgs.

Acclaim: National Bestseller

Tess Uriza Holthe set her novel on the island of Luzon in February 1945, after American General Douglas McArthur returned to fight the occupying Japanese.  The title When the Elephants Dance is the beginning of an idiom that concludes “…the chickens must be careful.”  Holthe writes that the elephants symbolize the Japanese and the Americans fighting over the Philippines and that the chickens represent the Filipinos, although the Filipinos in her novel are not “chicken” in the least.  They all harbor vast (and sometimes unbelievable) quantities of mental and/or physical strength.  Karangalan, the last name of two of the main characters, means honor.

When the Elephants Dance is nine stories rolled into one and touches on Philippine history, customs, folklore and vernacular.  The main story, about fifteen Filipinos hiding in a basement from Japanese soldiers,  is divided into three sections, each narrated by a different character.  Their sections incorporate five stories told by their comrades.

Thirteen-year-old Alejandro Karangalan leaves the safety of the basement  in order to trade cigarettes for food.  He is caught by Japanese soldiers and accused of murdering a Japanese officer.  Holthe based this section of the novel on her father’s experiences during the war.

Isabelle, Alejandro’s sister, had also gone in search of food and witnessed  the beating and escape of Domingo Matapang, a Filipino guerrilla leader and the husband of one of her basement companions.  Isabelle is captured on her way back to the basement and brought to a hotel that has been turned into a brothel for Japanese soldiers.  A Makapili (Japanese sympathizer) who had been sweet on Isabelle prior to the war finds her.  Too late to truly “rescue” her, he sneaks her out of the hotel.

Domingo’s wife and two young children are hiding in the basement with the Karangalans.  He checks on them periodically, but his heart lies in the field with his guerrilla troops.  Two of those soldiers include a woman he loves and a teenage boy who is like an adopted son.  Domingo is torn between staying with and protecting his family and leaving to fight for his country and join his friends.

Throughout, Holthe explores the obligations and complications of love, especially the pain that results from being forced to choose one love over another.  As one character warns, “This you must remember.  Choose quickly, and do not look back…when you begin to think of returning to your old life, flee, flee to the opposite direction.   Or it will be very bad for all concerned.  For then you will be divided, and then you will be of no use to anyone.”

In my book, or what the Philippines mean to me and maybe you, too

Shooed away from the Philippines
That Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines, was able to get my teenage attention meant that she must have done something pretty outrageous.

Like buying 1,060 pairs of shoes.  Everyone at my school, whether jealous or outraged, was talking about Marcos’s unrivaled shoe stash.

If Marcos had only worn each pair once and changed her shoes three times daily, it would have taken her almost a year to cycle through her entire collection of kicks.  The money used to buy the shoes was likely embezzled by the Marcoses from their own country – one of the poorest nations on earth.  Their corruption caught up to them and they were forced to flee the country  in 1986 and leave the shoes behind.

In 2001, Marcos was brazen enough to open the Marikina City Footwear Museum in Manila, where many of her infamous shoes are on display.

The woman who easily filled all 1,060 pairs of Marcos’s shoes
My cynical history teacher enjoyed cracking jokes about the new President of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino, whose first name means “heart” and who had humbly written “Housewife” as her occupation on her application for the presidency.

Those jokes were heartless.  Although the Filipinos’ four-day nonviolent People Power Revolution in support of Aquino may have been more remarkable than her presidency, Aquino made headway in establishing the Philippines as a democracy and completed her six-year term despite half a dozen coup attempts.  A Time Magazine journalist aptly wrote that Aquino’s appeal came from “making serenity strong and strength serene.”

“Their ferocity grew as we marched”*
Up until this post, the phrase “Bataan Death March” was familiar to me but lacked any context.  I didn’t know where Bataan was or who marched  or when, just that it happened and not everyone finished.

On April 10, 1942, the Japanese mustered 78,000 POWs (12,000 American and 66,000 Filipino) and marched them up the east coast of the  Bataan Peninsula (on the Philippine island of Luzon) to Camp O’Donnell, 60 miles to the north.  The Japanese were merciless, killing anyone who stopped or slowed along the way –  over 11,000 soldiers.  An additional 22,000 died after they reached Camp O’Donnell.

*Capt. William Dyess, 21st Pursuit Squadron commander, U.S. Air Force



  1. Finally finished reading “When the Elephants Dance”. Enjoyed it. I liked the imaginative storytelling and the drama of the war. The love story section near the end seemed forced to me, not as well told as the rest of the stories. I appreciated learning more about Filipino culture and history, too. Good selection. Thanks for exposing it to me.


    • Yeah, I agree. The earlier stories were better, and I enjoyed their folkloric elements. Had never heard of a Tikbalang before.


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