Journal Jottings on a Coup d’état


I have stacks of steno notebooks, a.k.a., my journals. Writing in them has been my way of paying attention to the world around me and saving my observations for the future.

In recent years I haven’t been journaling much. On the other hand, I am making good use of some old journal entries.

The novel I’m working on now (working title: Diana) is set in the Philippines near the end of 1989. The dramatic events I wrote about in my last two posts, an assassination, the declaration of martial law, and the People Power Revolution, happened before my novel starts. By 1989, the lovely wife of the assassinated senator had been elected president, and everyone was living happily ever after.

Not. Sorry. Troubles are never ending, and they didn’t end with the election of Corazon Aquino. During the first four years of her presidency Cory survived four plots, two incidents, and four full-blown coup attempts, the most serious of which was the attempted coup of December 1989.

My husband and I lived in Manila then. Our three daughters were in college and graduate school in the States.

On December 1, the rebels, having done some serious planning (or semi-serious), got off to a good start. They seized Fort Bonifacio and several air bases, shut down the Manila International Airport, and came close to seizing the presidential palace.

Expatriates like us watched from a distance. We snickered a bit about the rebels’ planes. T-28 Trojans (tora-toras) would have been nothing to joke about in 1941. But in 1989 they looked like toys. Even so, the rebels had captured the government air bases, so for a few hours their little tora-toras ruled the sky.

According to my journal, we onlookers wavered between concern and enjoyment of the spectacle. I went up to the rooftop of our apartment building and watched the tora-toras and later the Philippine Air Force F-5 jets and then the US F-4 Phantom jets from Clark Air Base.

A touch of Hollywood drama hung over the whole undertaking due in no small part to the rebels’ swashbuckling leader. Gregorio Honasan, who was known as “Gringo” for his cowboy tough-guy attitude, had led a previous bloody coup attempt after which he’d twice been captured and twice escaped. During the second escape he’d convinced his guards to escape along him. The man was not lacking in charisma.

With previous plots and coup attempts having come to nothing, we weren’t seriously worried. That changed on the second day of the coup when foreign tourists and many of our friends found themselves smack in the middle of the action. The rebel Scout Rangers, having decided to abandon Fort Bonifacio, marched into nearby Makati.

Makati, besides being the premier financial district of the country, was also the favorite place for expats to live. On the morning of December 2, Scout Rangers bearing their firearms, mortar tubes, and Howitzers marched down Ayala Avenue. Then they proceeded to occupy 22 high-rise buildings in Makati and place snipers on the rooftops.

Government forces couldn’t dislodge them, not with more than a thousand foreign tourists and business executives trapped in hotels and office buildings and readily available to use as hostages. Instead, the government blocked off escape routes. And for the next five days tourists and Makati residents were trapped.

You won’t read in Wikipedia about the many phone calls of friends checking on friends or about the rumor that rebels were marking the homes of Americans with a cross and circle so they could use them later as hostages. You won’t read about the Vietnamese woman who needed ingredients for her husband’s dinner and was killed in front of Makati Supermarket. You will, however, find those details and others in my journal.

Some of those journal entries just might make their way (in a fictionalized form) into my new novel.

Diana is still a long way from being finished. But if you haven’t read my first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, you can find it on Amazon,, and Apple iBooks. If you can’t find it in your favorite bookstore or library, they can order it for you. Just ask.

Here’s a video of American coverage of the coup attempt (Peter Jennings on ABC).

















About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
books, expatriate life, Philippines, Tiger Tail Soup, writing , , , , , , ,


  1. No doubt your journals are fascinating, Nicki. I’m curious why you don’t journal as frequently?

  2. Those are a lot of journals kept from over the years. They look very neat, and I’m guessing they are arranged in order, or some sort of chronological order. Amazing to hear you are working on your second novel and from what you have described, it sounds like an action packed one. Had no idea that you and the locals were trapped in Makati when the invasion happened. It sounded like it was very forceful and no mercy was shown. Thankfully it did not last too long. But it is interesting to note that some things that happened were hushed. Maybe it was a deliberate cover up, or there was just no media or news broadcast to the outside world.

    Sometimes you don’t know a place until you’ve actually been there and experienced it.

    • War and rebellion in the Philippines have a unique Filipino aspect. On the one hand, the soldiers will smile and joke around, trying their best to present themselves as friendly good guys. It’s all one big party. On the other hand, like men everywhere, they’re drawn to the excitement of war and the power they have with weapons in their hands. The official casualty toll for this coup attempt was 99 dead (including 50 civilians) and 570 wounded. Some of those civilians were boys who rode their bikes over to watch the fun.

      Some of the events I jotted down were mainly of interest to expats. That’s why you won’t find them elsewhere. However, they did keep the help Cory received from the Americans hushed up for a while. When it came out, her choice to involve the United States was strongly criticized.

      • It is sad some boys thought the war was something to watch for fun…but who are we to know what’s dangerous when we are that age. It is quite a big number of casualties and wounded – and I am sure after that kids realised how serious warfare and weapons can be.

        Sometimes you have to do what you have to do to save your life, or lives. And in the end, that can all turn into an ally.

        • I don’t know what it is about men and sometimes women that attracts them to danger and fighting, whether it’s taking part in a street fight or watching a boxing match or going to war. They know there’s a big possibility of harm or death, but that makes it all the more enticing for some people.

  3. Wow, Nicki! It’s great that you have those journals. which help you tap into the emotions felt during that time. What a frightening time, as the news confirmed. Oh Nicki. To be trapped there, not knowing what was going to happen. And then to witness such atrocities. 🙁

    • It’s funny. Looking back through my journals, I find that I remember a lot of it quite clearly. All it took was a little reminder to bring it all back. But then, there are some things I’d totally forgotten.

      I think I always expected they would eventually get things worked out. We just had to stay out of the way. Even though I didn’t see any killings with my own eyes, there were a couple I heard about that stuck with me.

  4. Looking forward to this book!

  5. Wow, that’s beyond fascinating! Can’t wait to see the book. I love hearing the historical details that have been forgotten.

    • We’re living through such an important historical period now, and when you hear commentators with differing viewpoints describe what just happened, you’d think they weren’t talking about the same event. I wonder if historians will get it right. And what will they leave out?

  6. Can’t wait to read the new book!!

  7. The line that shocked me the most in this post:

    “Our three daughters were in college and graduate school in the States.”

    Kids grow up so F~A~S~T! Why it seems like just last week that they were peering over the gate at the end of the drive with their nanny! 😀

    • I know! It is shocking how fast kids grow up … and how long we lived in the Philippines. We did live in two places for a while during some of the turmoil in the Philippines, with me traveling back and forth and my mom staying with the girls when I was away. But as soon as the youngest left for college, I was back in the Philippines full time.

      Even more shocking is the fact that one of those little girls on the gate has a daughter who is graduating from college this June, my sweet granddaughter, Catherine.

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