This was my first interview, and I hope I did justice to RJ, who also happens to be a childhood friend. It’s one of my favourites.
Filipino-Australian entertainer RJ Rosales took the bold step of moving back to Manila to live his dream. He talks to PINOYexpats about what it’s like to be an expat then a balikbayan, and how he copes with living out of a suitcase.
There’s something lightly surreal about talking to a childhood friend whose face regularly appears on television and whose voice draws audiences from around the world. So it’s a relief to discover that chatting over the phone with RJ Rosales is just like, well, talking to an old friend. Which is just as well, because it seems he’d just gotten out of bed when I rang, though I wouldn’t have guessed from his cheerful tone. He eats his breakfast as we talk, and the conversation is laced with humour and just a touch of homesickness.
RJ’s expat status is immediately obvious when I ask him a question about home and he quickly checks, ‘Which one?’ Currently shuttling back and forth between Singapore and Manila, RJ spent his early adult years in Sydney where his family still resides. It’s clear that each of these cities means a great deal to him.
The Rosales family migrated to Sydney when RJ was thirteen. ‘It was scary,’ he recalls. ‘I was only starting to make friends in high school when I had to leave that behind. I also heard things about Australia being a racist country.’ He considers himself lucky to have only had a couple of incidents at school where race became an issue.
But there were other things to deal with. Like many Filipino immigrants, RJ’s family initially lived with close relatives. ‘Can you imagine?’ he asks in disbelief. The question is tinged with nostalgia. ‘We lived with my uncle’s family, their in-laws, and my grandparents. There were eight of us and seven people [already in the house], so fifteen of us. It was chaotic.’ Luckily, the local Filipino community was a vibrant one. ‘Being introduced to other Filipino families, gatherings at fiestas and church — those things made it less difficult for all of us, especially for my parents.’
RJs performing career, as I remember it, began with love ballads sung at a local Filipino fiesta in the suburbs of Sydney. I recall my friend declaring quite seriously, ‘We all fall in love with RJ every time he sings.’ When he landed a role in the Sydney production of Miss Saigon, we took up two rows at the Capitol Theatre, cheered like mad, and knew it was only a matter of time before he quit his day job. Eventually, he did. His mother alternated between pride and worry as RJ prepared to move to Singapore for what would turn out to be a critically acclaimed role in the 1999 season of Chang and Eng – The Musical.
But it was the two-year contract offered by ABS-CBN in 2001 that he considered too good to pass up. I ask RJ if the decision to go back to the Philippines was a happy coincidence, or something he always planned to do. ‘It was the dream I was going for,’ he confesses, his tone still carrying some of the excitement he must have felt at the time. ‘I wasn’t disappointed. I was living my dream.’ RJ moved back to Manila, appearing on ASAP as a host, and acting in several TV series. He serenaded contestants in the Miss Earth pageant, held successful solo concerts, and tucked several recording credits under his belt, including Together Forever, a duet with Carol Banawa. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the MMFF Best Movie for 2005, Blue Moon.
RJ has also been a guest performer at concerts by Philippine pop icons, such as Regine Velasquez and Pops Fernandez. He considers performing alongside childhood idols, such as Martin Nievera and Dolphy, as his ‘biggest moments’ and admits to being ‘blown away’ and feeling surreal. ‘They gave me their [phone] numbers not knowing what a potential psycho and stalker I might be,’ he laughs.
But the journey home hasn’t been easy. ‘In the beginning, I was scared because of the culture. I was so used to the Western lifestyle and mentality.’ This period of adjustment was daunting, and RJ faced challenges during his three years as a balikbayan. When the novelty wore off — the first thing he did was reacquaint himself with Dunkin’ Donuts, Max’s Fried Chicken and Jollibee — RJ found himself re-evaluating his expectations about living in Manila. Everything was strange — from the way people communicated, to the pollution, to the sound of people singing karaoke in the middle of the night.
‘Prior to moving back to Manila, I was living in Singapore, which was very similar to living in Sydney,’ he says of the interaction between poor and rich. As a Sydneysider, I immediately understand this — that while wealth is a social divider, there’s a certain level of equality afforded even the neediest, and recognition that wealth does not automatically command subservience nor imply an obligation. Things are different in the Philippines, and it seems RJ still struggles with this disparity. ‘The attitude towards me was like I was obligated to [other people less well off]. Or they would always feel uncomfortable around me and call me Sir. [Hearing this] from someone who [I felt] was equal to me made me feel uncomfortable.’
He also had to suppress his Australian tendency to speak plainly. ‘You have to be careful, be polite, be sensitive to people’s feelings so you don’t offend them. That was the most challenging task, especially in the [entertainment] industry.’ It sounds like a painfully learned lesson as he acknowledges that there were a couple of incidents where a minor comment or the wrong tone of voice was misinterpreted.
Even the work back home is different. Singapore, he explains, has a smaller industry that allows him to be flexible and try new things. ‘In the Philippines,’ he says, ‘I probably won’t do something like that. They’ve seen me on TV and expect a certain image. You have to be more selective in the jobs you do.’
RJ admits to being taken aback by the level of poverty he encountered. ‘For some reason, having lived in Australia and Singapore where everything is so advanced and comfortable, you kind of hope that the Philippines is moving ahead as well,’ he says with a touch of sadness, echoing a familiar refrain of balikbayans. ‘When I got back, the biggest surprise was that nothing had changed, especially in my hometown.’
Despite these drawbacks, RJ firmly believes that Filipinos are some of the most resilient people. ‘Despite the poverty, we see lots of people smiling and having fun. The Filipinos are the most happy and fun people to be with.’
Nowadays, RJ travels between Singapore and Manila as his work dictates. He doesn’t rule out more travelling in the short-term. In the past, he has performed in the US, Thailand and Malaysia in a variety of roles for TV, film, theatre, and live concert appearances. His next role will be in a musical called Man of Letters by Singaporean pop icon Dick Lee. ‘I really enjoy just travelling back and forth. Maybe I should have been a flight steward,’ he chuckles. I get a mental picture of RJ singing the pre-flight safety messages in Broadway musical style. Perhaps it’s just as well he’s not working for PAL.
RJ clearly loves what he does. His biggest peeves about constantly being on the move are mere trifles — getting eyebags and packing. ‘I can’t figure out which clothes to wear and what shoes to match,’ he says. I have to check that he’s being serious, and he insists it’s true. ‘I always have excess baggage and I take hours, especially since I do it at the last minute.’ The most essential items in his suitcase are… videos. (I don’t ask too much about this because, well, I’m not sure I really want to know.) If that sounds a little pedestrian, he does mention ‘whips and chains’ as he bursts into laughter. ‘Can you imagine [bringing those] nowadays, with all the security?’
But the jet-setting artiste also expresses a wish to settle down — ‘Not as in getting married,’ he’s quick to point out — and base himself in one location for a couple of years. He mulls over the possibility of coming back to Australia and getting a day job — he has a degree in Mathematics — while performing at night. The local music industry has potential, but musical theatre, his first love, offers limited opportunities. ‘There’s still a typecast for Asian male actors to do Asian roles,’ he explains. ‘For a solo singer doing lounge acts, the limitations [diminish] if you sound good, are talented, and have a rapport with the audience.’ He has only performed in Sydney once, after he left in 1999, as a guest performer at a Vina Morales concert. He seems to have relished the experience. ‘It was like playing to a home crowd.’
When pressed about which city he considers home, RJ doesn’t hesitate. ‘Home is where your family is. It’s the place closest to your heart.’
This article was first published in the April/May 2006 issue of PINOYexpats, an e-zine for Filipino expatriates. The accompanying photo is a publicity photo provided by RJ.