Dear Charlie and Jack,

We got to read and review a Filipino American book this week. This book was published 13 years ago. Very few books that feature Filipino American kids like Lakas, and you, have been published since then. We have a long way to go still but we’re inching along as best we can.

Crossposted here at the Sawaga River Press site:


Lakas and the Manilatown Fish (Si Lakas at ang Isdang Manilatown)


By Anthony Robles
Illustrated by Carl Angel
Published by Children’s Book Press, and Imprint of Lee and Low Books, 2003

About (Spoiler Alert!):
Lakas, a Filipino American boy, dreams about a Manong (old Filipino man) who tells him about a fish who not only can walk but can also speak both English and Tagalog. According to the Manong, the fish lives in Manilatown. Inspired, Lakas, with his Daddy, set out to Manilatown to look for the fish. They find such a fish in the market. However, the fish escapes from its tank and leads Lakas, his Daddy, the fish vendor, and a host of other characters, on a chase that takes them through Manilatown and eventually for a swim in the San Francisco bay.

This bilingual book, touted to be the first of its kind, has Tagalog on the left pages and English on the right. (And although this is not a contest as to which language is better, the Tagalog strikes us as more poetic. Obviously, because we are Filipino and fluent in Tagalog, we have our biases.)

Jack’s Favorite Pages:
1.) “BABA!” Jack says. Jack loves baba  (Bisaya for piggback rides).

Lakas and the fish vendor grow tired from chasing the fish up Kearny Street so Daddy gives them both a piggyback ride. The Manong, in his fish print underwear, isn’t tired but Daddy gives him a piggyback ride, just the same. With all three on his back, Daddy chases the fish all the way down Columbus Avenue and all the way to the bay.

2.) “Hoy, Hoy, Pilipino Boy!”

Jack now likes to call himself “Pilipino Boy”.


Favorite Filipino Tidbits:
When Lakas wakes up from his dream and eats breakfast, his Daddy serves him the classic Filipino power breakfast: bright red, greasy, pan fried hot dogs with white steamed (or maybe garlic fried) rice. Behind them, on the kitchen wall, hang the quintessential Filipino dining room decor: a giant (presumably wooden) spoon and fork.

The Story Within the Story:
This book aims to raise young readers’ awareness of some aspects of the Filipino American history. The fish takes them through San Francisco’s Manilatown where many Filipinos settled when they first arrived in the United States in the early 20th century. Most of the early Filipino immigrants were men who worked as seamen, cannery workers, and seasonal farm workers. They raised their children, ran their own restaurants, grocery stores, pool halls, barbershops, and other family based businesses in Manilatown. However, many other Manongs did not have families. These Manongs lived in boarding houses and hotels. Manilatown was the heart of the Filipino community until 1977 when the last Filipino Manong resident was forcibly evicted by the police from the International Hotel, amidst community protests.

What of the fish? What does it symbolize? What does it all mean? That’s for the readers to figure out. The author does tell us that steam from fish Sinigang (sour soup), which the Manongs loved to cook, regularly wafted down the halls of International Hotel.

What the Kids Say:
“I like that the fish likes to kiss!”
“I don’t understand. How can the fish take the old man’s teeth?”

What We at SRP Say:

We love the imagination at play in this book. It is both fun and challenging to read beyond the literal. Read it!

And for more info on Manilatown, here are a couple of links:

There’s  plenty of online info on Manilatown! Go and dig! Happy researching!