He Is Racing Against Time to Save the Philippines' Ancient Script

He Is Racing Against Time to Save the Philippines' Ancient Script

By Tammy Danan

Kristian Kabuay, in front of a mural in progress for the Salesforce Transbay Terminal opening in August 2018.
SourcePhotograph and videos by Jason Henry for OZY


Because the native Filipinos had a language before the colonizers arrived.

By Tammy Danan

“What’s that funny writing on the walls?” the child asked. “That’s how Chinese people write,” his grandfather replied. “Well, how did you write as a kid … growing up in the Philippines?” “We wrote in English,” the old man answered. Kristian Kabuay remembers being just 8 years old when he first became curious about alphabets, language and identity. Over the years, that curiosity would lead him on an exploration of calligraphy, graffiti, indigenous cultures and Asian writing systems, helping him evolve into a tireless advocate for reviving a dying language.

Kabuay is the Filipino-American artist behind Surat magazine, a printed periodical with content written exclusively in Baybayin, an ancient script used primarily by the native Tagalogs. “It’s doable, but it’s really hard,” he says. “You cannot be balat sibuyas,” his husky voice carefully phonating the Filipino expression that means being too sensitive about what others say about you. 

Surat launched on Kickstarter in December 2017. Less than a month later it was fully funded, and its 158 backers had raised triple the initial fundraising goal. It was an early success for something that started as a search for identity and an urgent desire to preserve the script from vanishing into the history books. 


Born in Pasig, a city on the eastern border of Manila, Kabuay and his family immigrated to the United States in the 1970s when President Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in the Philippines. Once settled in San Francisco, he remembers being driven by questions about his roots and heading to a public library to learn more. There he came across the Katipunan flag, a design of the sun with a letter symbol at its center. The flag, he discovered, had been used by rebels during the Philippine Revolution in 1896 to reclaim their country from Spain’s colonial authorities. At first, Kabuay thought the letter was “I” for independencia, but he soon learned that the symbol stands for “ka,” from the Baybayin syllabary, and refers to Katipunan. His interest fired up, Kabuay flew to the Philippines as soon as he finished high school, devoting years to mastering the ancient script and searching for others who could write it as well.


Artwork by Kabuay with Babayin alphabet.

His Baybayin art is a gateway to understanding that we had a writing system before the Spanish came through.

Natalia Roxas, co-founder of Filipino Kitchen

He eventually undertook a series of projects directed at raising awareness of Baybayin, an alphabet largely supplanted by Latin after the colonial period. Straight-faced with a vibe that’s at once serious and exuberant, Kabuay created an online school, a Baybayin app and a documentary; his online shop sells Baybayin calligraphy art, and he’s collaborated with other creatives to design clothing displaying the script. He also collaborated with Filipino-American supermodel and transgender advocate Geena Rocero, who is featured on the cover of Surat this month. 

Along the way, he developed a signature approach to writing Baybayin — a blend of the original calligraphy and Times New Roman — which grew out of his explorations of modern art and the script’s origins. Today it can be found in such places as Pepe’s Kitchen, a Filipino supper club in London; Guerrilla Street Food in St. Louis, Missouri; Kaliwa, a Southeast Asian restaurant in Washington, D.C.; and on a mural for the new Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco. “KK is such a great advocate,” says Natalia Roxas, a friend of Kabuay’s and co-founder of Filipino Kitchen, dedicated to raising the profile of Filipino food and community in the U.S. He has the passion that fuels most creatives, Roxas says, but there’s also a gravitas to his work: “His Baybayin art is a gateway to understanding that we had a writing system before the Spanish came through.”


Artwork by Kabuay: “Lakas” (Strong) and “Bahala Na.”

It’s a process, he explains, that takes time. “It all starts with an interest in cosmetics, and that’s fine,” he says. People are intrigued by the aesthetics of the script and then want to be educated, which is why Kabuay speaks often at universities, including Stanford and UC Berkeley, and local venues — most recently at the San Francisco Public Library and TEDx Pine Crest School. Phase 3 is when you “become a practitioner … actually learning how to write the script,” and the last is “becoming an advocate.” Until he sees more practitioners and advocates of the script — currently used by only one tribe in the Philippines — Kabuay will continue his efforts to “start a cultural renaissance.”

“The work that he does is crucial,” notes Leo Castro of Hibla Sanghabi, a nongovernment organization that travels around the Philippines to conduct Baybayin workshops. It’s ironic, he adds, that Filipinos had Baybayin even before the Spaniards introduced the ABCs, and yet it’s generally not understood today. It should be “basic knowledge,” Castro says, “but the fact that we’re conducting workshops, apparently, it’s not that basic.”

As younger generations increasingly read on tablets and communicate through texts and emojis, ancient alphabets are at risk of being lost forever. Activists are doing their part by arguing that Baybayin should be made the official national script, and legislation has been advanced to promote the writing system, but none has been passed into law. For now, Baybayin is gaining visibility on the recently redesigned Philippine banknotes, inside Filipino passports and as a popular design among tattoo artists. But as a symbol of Filipino heritage, more is needed to keep it from obsolescence. While Surat tries to keep the script alive, its founder, invariably dressed in a T-shirt bearing a Baybayin design, frequents Bay Area events eager to spark conversation.

“One of my goals is to open up a gallery in Manila teaching cultural practices,” Kabuay says. Then, with a few graceful strokes of his calligraphy brush, the ponytailed artist brings his beloved Baybayin to life.