Book fair incident stirs discourse on respect for artists 2
A screengrab of the 'hawi' incident at the Manila International Book Fair involving acclaimed screenwriter Ricky Lee Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach, and a security guard.

Book fair ‘hawi’ incident involving Ricky Lee inspires discourse on how public regards artists

Isn’t it ironic that what happened to Lee, one of the most recognizable writers in the country, happened in an event where writers were being celebrated?
JEROME GOMEZ | Sep 25 2023

To friends of Ricky Lee—and he has many—the incident at the Manila International Book Fair (MIBF) that involved the acclaimed screenwriter, an event security guard, and Pia Wurtzbach, is not the kind of thing the guy will raise a fuss, lose sleep, bang the gates of hell over. In fact, as he’s told colleagues and media over the past days, he wasn’t even aware it happened until someone made him aware hours after the fact. 

To fans and netizens who saw the video/screengrab of the incident, however—a security personnel trying to push Lee aside to seemingly keep the writer from shaking the hand of former Miss Universe Wurtzbach—it’s just not acceptable. What the guard did was disrespectful. That is just not how one treats a pillar of Philippine cinema and literature. That is not how one treats a National Artist. 

There are those, too, who’ve suggested Pia’s team somehow had something to do with the uncalled for “hawi” gesture. Which is just the farthest from the truth, at least if we are to follow the narrative from Lee himself who spoke to ANCX and recalled to us what happened, making sure we didn’t miss a detail. 

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How it happened 

Days before the event, the “Himala” writer and author of several books including the recently released sequel to the novel “Para Kay B” got a call from ABS-CBN Books’ Mark Yambot asking if they could finally have their much overdue lunch meeting—to talk about a possible project. Yambot, who’s also co-publisher of Wurtzbach’s debut novel “Queen of the Universe” suggested to Lee that, ‘Hey, since you’re cutting the ribbon with Pia early that morning to officially open the MIBF, why don’t we all just have lunch together?’ Lee, who hasn’t met Wurtzbach, welcomed the idea and agreed. 

During the lunch, where the beauty queen was joined by her entourage of around six, the veteran writer and the newly published author got to know each other. Before the meal was over: “Nangako si Pia na bibigyan niya ako ng libro,” recalls Lee. “Nangako ako na bibigyan ko siya ng libro.” 

All was well that ended well. Lee even rode with Wurtzbach back to SMX Convention Center where the MIBF was in full swing—she was due to launch “Queen of the Universe” that afternoon, and he was due to grace his own booth and sign copies of his books. But before that, in the car ride, Wurtzbach signed a copy of her novel for Lee. They parted ways but it turns out that wouldn’t be their last encounter for the day. 

Pia Wurtzbach
At the luncheon hosted by ABSCBN Books’ Mark Yambot (rightmost) for Wurtzbach and Lee. At leftmost is National Book Store’s Xandra Ramos-Padilla, President of National Book Store.

Once Lee got to his booth, he told his assistant right away to send the promised books to Wurtzbach—signed, we presume. After autographing another batch of books for his fans, Lee decided to walk around the convention center to give his tired legs some stretching. This was when he would cross paths again with his new friend. He saw Wurtzbach and her team arriving, in a seeming rush to head to her book launch. Recognizing Lee, a member of the beauty queen’s team called the screenwriter to greet him. And then Wurtzbach spotted Lee. “Nagbatian kami, nagkamayan kami.” She said, “Sir Ricky, thanks for the books.” 

“I think that’s when it happened,” Lee recalls. “Yung parang gusto akong hawiin.” 

As has been said, Lee wasn’t even aware any pushing transpired. To hear him say it, everything everywhere was happening all at once. There was a crowd waiting for Pia, there was spirited energy all around. The program emcee, after seeing Lee, asked the audience to rise from their seats to acknowledge the National Artist for Film’s presence. Along with the crowd, Wurtzbach would stand up from where she was seated as well. 


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Undue attention 

As his friends would tell you, Lee was never the type to seek attention, nor does he like it when the spotlight is trained at his direction. There was even a time he didn’t attend awards nights even when he’s nominated—but that’s for a different reason: he didn’t believe in pitting artists against each other. Already half a century into his film writing career, the man behind modern Filipino cinema classics as “Moral,” “Karnal,” “Brutal,” “Salome,” “Macho Dancer,” “Private Show,” “Gumapang Ka Sa Lusak,” “Narito ang Puso Ko,” remains painfully shy. Or maybe more accurately, as he himself would put it, “embarrassed by undue attention.” 

Nae-embarasss ako sa undue attention, and when this happened I felt embarrassed again,” he tells us. “Hindi dahil sa may kasalanan ako but there was so much attention, and I think that’s the reason why nung nangyari yung incident hindi ko napansin na binastos ako ng guard or whatever. Hindi ko napansin. Siguro I was caught in the moment, or hindi lang ako pala-pansin sa sarili ko.” 

So when it was brought to his attention that there was a ruckus online about a video that captured the “hawi” moment with Wurtzbach and the security guard, that people were making a fuss over the seeming disrespect shown him at the event, Lee was taken aback. Netizens were passionately expressing their opinion, and the comments just kept adding up. He knew Wurtzbach and her camp had nothing to do with the “hawi”, though. When she reached out to Lee later that day after learning of the video and how it’s been getting a lot of attention online, Lee told her she didn’t have to apologize for anything (“Sabi ko, ‘Pia, wala ka naman kasalanan. You were very gracious. Hindi ko rin napansin yung nangyari. You don’t have to apologize.’”). Yambot also got in touch with Lee to find out how he was doing after learning of what happened. 

All the attention online, compounded with requests to speak to media over the matter, felt overwhelming for Lee. But true to character, the writer thought hard about the situation and tried to decipher what all this attention was saying, and what possible good could come out of it. This is not about him alone, even when he’s at its center. He spoke to his friends. He went back to the online comments and read as much as he can. 

He was encouraged by the fact that there was discourse happening. Most of the people chiming in were not his friends, people he doesn’t know. “And yet concerned na concerned sila sa trato sa akin,” says Lee. “So sabi ko nagkakaron ng diskurso kung ano ba talaga ang tamang pagtingin, pag-respeto, pag-trato sa artist sa ating lipunan.” 

The guard was not entirely faultless, this is clear to Lee. “Puwede niyang gawin yung trabaho niya na mas respectful pa rin at mabait.” He adds: “Walang conflict ang pag-gawa ng trabaho at pagiging mabait at marespeto.” The guard could have been told he could be strict but also kind—not just to celebrities but to anyone, regardless of class, stature, gender, age. “Respetohin lahat. Kasi ang ginaguwardiyahan niyo lahat.”

But who’s to blame is no longer the issue here, at least for Lee. The issue is how do Filipinos see our artists? How do we rightfully acknowledge them? 

Pag may isang sports personality nanalo ng award abroad, may parade, may katakot-takot na premyo, may parangal. Pag may beauty queen [na nanalo abroad], may parade, may courtesy call. [Pero] may kaibigan akong filmmaker, na napakahusay, at nanalo ng grand prize abroad, pagdating niya ng airport [sa Maynila], wala siyang mahanap na taxi, tumawag pa siya sa kaibigan namin para magpasundo.”

For Lee, the discourse online is a healthy outcome of what happened at the book fair. And whether  the attention is still making him uncomfortable is not the question he’s interested to answer. Instead, he wants to know: “Anong klase ang lipunan natin kung ang trato natin sa artist ay hindi man lang mangalahati sa trato sa celebrities?”

Everywhere else in the world, people do pay more attention to who’s more popular, and show higher regard for personalities more familiar to them. Here in the Philippines, maybe it’s brought about by our education, or our many years of being colonized. Maybe because in this country support for the arts have always been dismal. “I think puwede pagtulungan ng educational system, ng mga magulang, ng mga writers na gawin nating mas aware pa ang tao sa papel na ginagampanan ng artists sa ating lipunan,” says Lee. “At bilang writer, alam ko kung gaano kalaki ang pinaghihirapan namin ibigay.” Without writers, there won’t be movies. Without writers, there won’t be books. Isn’t it ironic that what happened to Lee, one of the most recognizable writers in the country, happened in an event where writers were being celebrated?  

Lee admits that while he does feel uncomfortable with undue attention, some of the sentiments he’s read online has touched him, naturally made him feel special. “I felt na mahalaga rin ako bilang writer, bilang ako, na mahalaga ako sa kanila. Masarap maramdaman yan ng artist,” he says. 

“I suppose ang artist ayaw ng attention pero sabik talaga sa attention,” he adds candidly. “Kasi kulang talaga sa tamang attention.”