Postcards and the Storyteller

Postcard Storyteller logo

I started collecting postcards back in my late teens when I joined the International Youth Service (IYS). That was in the age of actual snail mail, well before email and the internet. Yes, back in the day when people knew how to use rotary dial phones, and we had this thing called a rolodex instead of the contact list on your phone or email account.

IYS was a student penpal service, matching young people with their preference of country, gender and age. For a minimal fee which you paid in international money order, you sent a form to Finland and waited to get an address to write to. I found some friends with whom I corresponded with for many years. One in particular, Clara from Hong Kong, has been a friend even to this day. Although there was a long lull in our correspondence, we managed to find each other again a few years back, reuniting in Hong Kong in 2018. We started writing when she was about to end high school, and I was about to go into college. She was able to visit the Philippines several times as a tour escort for outbound groups from Hong Kong to Manila, which is how we managed to make so many memories together through the years. I would’ve attended her wedding if I could, but that was not meant to be. Years passed, she was widowed and now with a grown daughter, and thanks to Facebook, we found each other again.

I learned a lot about other cultures through the many friends I found via snail mail, and one of the favorite ways by which we introduced each other to our respective countries was through postcards. Even back then, I considered them my window to the world. I really couldn’t travel out of the country then but found myself visiting all these foreign lands through these postcards.

When I started collecting, I collected all the postcards that I was sent, sending back postcards printed by the likes of National Bookstore, Bookmark, Goodwill, etc. Back then, at least half a row of shelves, and not just a rack, was devoted to different types of postcards, alongside 4-5x as many greeting cards. This was when people found a greeting card indispensable to send greetings and messages to friends and loved ones for any and all occasions.

Vintage postcards in my collection

I have to admit that at the start, I bought the Philippine postcards purely to exchange and send out. It took me a few years before I realized I should be keeping a copy of each card I sent, even before I made a decision to leave for New York.

When that time came in my mid-30s, my postcards made it to New York with my then fiancée, in one heavy shoebox. Another shoebox travelled with my balikbayan box when I finally moved in 2000. That, along with my pencils, were the only collectibles I took. I gave away my hardbound books and coffee mugs. (The mug collection would later make a return as I got into Starbucks mugs, a passion to this day.)

As I started my new life in New York, the postcard collection grew. I joined Yahoogroups and billboard lists which published postcard collector’s names and mailing addresses and collecting interests. We had roundrobins and swaps and swaplists. I can’t remember when it was that I started drifting towards maps and lighthouses. As I learned about different collecting categories and meeting people who collected them, I found myself just fascinated by these two. There were specific group swaps organized with these cards in mind. My collection grew. During local travels and vacations overseas, I looked for the maps and lighthouses. We even incorporated visits to lighthouses during our road trips when we could. When I suffered two miscarriages as we were trying to have a baby, we retreated to Montauk to visit the Montauk lighthouse and spend the weekend to heal. But I will not get into my fascination with these two categories today. That’s for another time.

Vintage lighthouse postcards

I somehow ended up drifting away from postcards as life got busier when I eventually had my son in 2004. There’s a definite demand on time and resources when you get into actively trading postcards, and although I never stopped collecting, I slowly lost interest in direct or group swaps. It was also around this time that I started sending postcards home every time we travelled, this time addressed to my son. I would pick up postcards wherever we went, and chronicle our trip and I would send them from the places we visited. Even when we were visiting family in the Philippines, I tried to send back postcards to give him something to go back to when he was older. All this time, I made sure to keep one postcard in mint condition for my collection.

Then around 2012, I discovered which seemed to be an interesting way to get back into the hobby. There I met other Filipino collectors, most notable of whom was Raine, a much younger then student of Architecture in the same University where I took my prelaw degree. She and I shared not just a passion for postcards, but a love for personal art and art exchanges. Because of Raine, I got into Artist Trading Cards and found Swapbot and ATC trading groups. I went back into postcards with a newfound interest in Philippine postcards to help me reconnect with everything I left behind. Swapbot also got me back into active swaps with other like minded collectors of postcards and other items. By this time, I had refined my collecting interests to include Vintage and Modern Philippines, New York and Paris. The first two were the places I called home, and the third, my favorite city after two visits many years before.

Vintage Philippine postcards

I got back into postcard swaps and trades with the same gusto as I did before and continued to add to my collection.   I joined a postcrossing group of Filipinos on Facebook under the banner of Postcrossing Philippines.   I  even got to attend two “unofficial” meetups in Manila while continuing to meet with Raine whenever I came home through a period of 4 years or so.. until some personal challenges made me stop once again.

In the beginning of 2020, I had tried to make a more determined effort to destash and shed the things that I no longer needed or didn’t have a use for.  The Pandemic and the lockdown that began in March 2020 made me look at my collection and I decided eventually, that the best way to trim it down to what I really wanted, was to go back to trading or swapping in postcard groups.

I started again in September, but the global slowdown of mail hampered my effort.  I picked up in November and December and have been back since.  I started an instagram account dedicated to postcards and my growing collection, under the handle “postcard_storyteller”.  I believe that every postcard is a way to tell a story, and I have a lot of those stories to tell.  Beginning with this one, and then some.

To date, I have also created a Youtube channel under the same handle and plan to produce more videos about the hobby.  I have joined a few other groups to widen my swapping circle.  All of those are stories for another time.  For now, it’s just me announcing to the world that I’m back, once again.  I don’t think my “return” will be complete without dedicating a portion of the blog to this newfound return to postcards, so let’s start off with this.  Here’s to more postcards heading my way, and heading out into the world to the homes of like minded souls who look through the same window to the world.

Looking for Mok Man Ha (a.k.a. Clara Mok) of Hong Kong

Way before the age of electronic mail and the internet, I gave vent to my passion for letter writing by joining the now defunct International Youth Service or IYS.  It was a penpal service for students which facilitated connecting young people from different countries through a matching service given your deomographics and request.  For a minimal fee payable in international money order or US dollars, you got to pick a friend-to-be in your country of choice.

My correspondence with youth from the different parts of the world helped open my eyees to the rewards of travel and gave me a bird’s eye view the world outside my own.  We exchanged not only stories but postcards, little presents, trinkets and other goods.  We wrote about the mundance things of life like school, boys, hobbies and the like.

While I managed to  begin several friendships this way, the best friends I found across the seas were from the Netherlands and Hong Kong.  Sadly, through the years, I had lost touch with my two closest penfriends: Jolanda and Clara.  Of the two, I managed to meet up with Clara several times, as she took had pursued a course in tourism which eventually led to her becoming a licensed outbound tour escort for tourists coming in from Hong Kong to Manila.

The recent incident where a tourist bus of Hong Kong nationals was taken hostage in Manila brought back my fond memories of Clara and I couldn’t help but worry she might have been the tour escort accompanying that contingent.  Tour guides, as opposed to tour escorts are locals who show the group around in the destination of choice.  Tour escorts on the other hand accompany the group from their mother country and make sure that all goes well for their clients outside of their home base.

I had long been searching for Clara whose Chinese name is Mok Man Ha.  Thanks again to technology, I managed to find out that she is still a licensed outbound tour escort, because her Chinese name came up in the list of accredited escorts in Hong Kong.  I tried contacting her through them, but a polite no was what I got as the group reportedly has a policy of not forwarding their members’ contact information.  I asked if they would forward my note to her, but apparently, they had no means to.  (Or something was lost in the translation as they say..)

She had initially chosen “Catherine” as her English name, but later on had changed it to Clara.  I have tried Facebook and the like but have not had any success either.  Even searching for her Chinese name has proved futile, as it appears to be a common name.  Although my last contact with her was right before she got married, she had taught me early on that married women retain their maiden name, so I know that she is still Mok Man Ha.

It’s a long shot but I tried her last known employer, and I emailed their Human Resources department hoping that she is still with them.  Perhaps this time, I’ll get an answer.

Clara and I used to write each other almost weekly.  Her letters gave her a chance to polish her English, and I got a first hand account of life in Hong Kong which proved helpful when I first visited in 1997.  I tried looking for her then but it was too hectic a trip, having been sponsored by my employer then whose regional office was in the beautiful Queensway Towers on the Hong Kong side.  I tried to do a random search in their white pages, but speaking to someone with no working knowledge of English on the other end proved very difficult.  My second visit the following year proved futile as well.

But I am going to keep trying.  For all I know, she might already be traveling as an outbound escort to New York, and like before, her job might pave the way for us to meet again.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping that someone out there might stumble into this post and tell her her Filipina friend is looking for her.  I’m not giving up — I’m still searching for my friend, Mok Man Ha.