By Mei Magsino, VERA Files
If there is a landmark worth erecting in Batangas province in northern Philippines, it would be the sculpture of the balisong (fan knife) that has defined the unique art, craft, and culture of Batanguenos for centuries.
Though Barangay Balisong in Taal town, also known as the balisong capital of the Philippines, is now suffering from the dwindling supply of knife experts, Diosdado Ona, owner of the Ona Blades store, sees a chance of reviving the dying industry.
"I think if the government would support the balisong industry, and promote it by putting up the fan knife landmarks in all the entrances to the province such as Laguna, Cavite, and Quezon, people will know and appreciate the industry," Ona said.
In front of Ona's store along the highway of Barangay Balisong is a six-foot balisong.
He said the fan knife industry is fast losing its experts as they are growing old and their children who are supposed to inherit the art and craft of making the weapon would rather prefer the cellular phone.
"The balisong is our identity," Ona said. "It defines us as Batanguenos. We can't just let the industry die because of politics and cell phones."
Through his business which is known all over the world, Ona is doing his best to help revive the industry by producing collectors' type balisong and constantly improving on the the quality of the knife which has become his passion.
"Balisong is not only my passion, it is also a fascination," he said. "In 1970, this fan knife saved my life from an attacker who retreated after he saw how fast I was with my balisong, and realized that his small weapon was no match for my bigger fan knife."
Ona started his balisong business only in 1999 after his 19-year stint as an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) in Saudi Arabia and Taiwan. Through all those years, the passion for the blade never slipped his mind.
He said: "In 1999, I wanted to continue the art, culture, and craft and business of balisong. It was a dying business then, (a) dying craft. When an expert balisong maker reaches the age of 50, his 20/20 vision is gone."
The perfect 20/20 vision of the expert balisong maker ensures that the holes and the pins that connect the housing and blades of the balisong would be balanced and perfectly aligned.
Making the fan knife is no easy task. First, the liner (or magtatalag) makes the housing of the balisong from brass, aluminium, and stainless steel. Its handles are made of horse bone, carabao horn, deer antler, hardwood such as narra and kamagong, and lately, some have experimented on plastics.
The magbabalakbak then makes and sharpens the blade, which usually comes from junk steel from the junkshops. The junk steel are usually from the housing of bearings or leaf spring of vehicles, high grade metals that are forged in fire, continuously pounded, and shaped into the blade.
The magbabasyada combines the housing and the blade to finish the product.
Sometimes, expert balisong makers can do all of those, from the lining to the completion of the knife. A balisong maker gets 30% profit for every fan knife he makes.
Forty percent of Ona's clients are foreigners while the rest are local clients who collect or sell the balisong all over the country.
In 2007, about 50 members of the World of Martial Arts Federation went to Taal to buy Ona's famous balisong. His balisongs, sold at P200 to P900 apiece, have reached all of Europe, United States, Australia, and Asia.
His balisong business also maintains regular clients in Manila and internet sales. Regular clients from Hong Kong also bring in the big sales.
For Ona, the secret to staying in the business is to continuously upgrade the quality of the balisong, and select the best balisong maker. He employs four of the best balisong makers in Taal.
There are balisong art pieces in his store, including the100-year old balisong, which his grandfather used to own. Collectors always pick those with unique designs, the most popular of which is the Rambo-type blade used in Sylvester Stallone's hit movie series.
His miniature fan knives include the fancy key chain Kampilan used by the Philippine National Police Academy, and the sugar cane cutter called Pangtadtad.
Ona also has a sexy balisong called the Busisi, which is likened to a circumcised penis where the tip of the blade juts out of its housing.
He said: "I'm happy because through this business, I was able to know many famous people. Showbiz personalities, politicians, and businessmen are my friends now. My dream is to have a stock supply of balisong for the next 100 years, that is, if I win the lottery."
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")