They say jack of all trade is usually a master of none, but whoever said that didn’t meet Ricky Lee.
Mr. Ricardo Lee, or “Ricky Lee” to almost everyone who knows him, is one of the greatest screenwriters the Philippine Cinema has seen. Aside from writing scripts for Filipino films, Ricky Lee is also a journalist, novelist and playwright. This only proves how much of a versatile writer he actually is while still being faithful to his writing style.
In a span of 40 years, he has written countless of literary pieces from essays, short stories, novels, plays, and over 150 screenplays, which has earned him more than 50 trophies from different award-giving bodies like FAMAS, FAP, Gawad Urian, Golden Screen, Maria Clara, MMFF, Star Awards, World Premieres Film Festival, and Young Critics Circle among others.
Ricky Lee’s notable works include screenplays for acclaimed films like “Himala”, “Jose Rizal”, “The Flor Contemplacion Story”, “Muro Ami”, and “Deathrow”. His two short stories, “Huwag Mong Kukuwentuhan ang Batang si Hweng Fu” and “Servando Magdamag” won first prize at the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards. Adding to his list is the upcoming historical movie, “Culion,” a Metro Manila Film Festival 2019 hopeful.
It is without doubt that Ricky Lee’s name is an epitome of success, but success didn’t happen overnight. Like most of the protagonists from his stories, he too had to overcome a lot of adversities before finally getting to where he wanted to be. His life is a bittersweet tale of perseverance and triumph.
He grew up as an orphan in Daet, Camarines Norte. His mother died when he was still 5 years old while his father was always absent. Ever since then, he was raised by his relatives and had to live a life of poverty. In the midst of all that, he would oftentimes find an escape into his own world by burying himself in books. He said that reading books turned out to be his redemption from a life of loneliness. The interesting things he read made him forget about hunger and deprivation. He would even tear out pages from the books and take them home as “baon”. It was his only reprieve.
Ricky Lee grew up to be an intelligent boy. He consistently topped his class from Grade 1 to high school. Eventually, he started creating his own version of the world by doing the one thing that would later on put his name in the pages of Philippine history: writing. It was also during those times that he made a deliberate decision that would turn his life around.
He was still in high school that time when he wrote a short story that earned him his first national literary award. After receiving the prize money, instead of buying himself a new set of clothes, he bought a bus ticket and went to Manila to pursue his dream. This decision turned out to be the catalyst that would propel him forward to his destiny.
But it wasn’t that easy.
Determined to pursue his study after knowing that his adopted family couldn’t afford to send him to college, Lee ran away from home together with his four other friends from Bicol. They arrived in Manila without any money nor place to go.
Thankfully, the four of them were lucky enough to eventually land a job. Lee and one of his friends ended up working as a waiter at a pizza parlor in Pasay, while the rest worked at an umbrella factory. Together, they rented a small apartment and called it their home. It was in that apartment that Ricky learned one of the most important lessons that became his driving force in the years to come.
The small dining table they had in their apartment only had four chairs. So everytime they would eat, one of them had to stand up and wait until one of the chairs would be available. While watching one of his friends waiting for his turn, Ricky promised to himself that one day the chairs would be complete.
Few years later, Ricky juggled many jobs while attending school at the same time. And in times when he would almost give up, when he would collapse in Avenida out of hunger, he would remember that one missing chair. So, he would wake up, stand up, and try even harder.
However, as the years went by, Ricky had come to accept the fact that in this life, there would always be one missing chair. The world will not give us all that we ask for. If we really want something so bad, we have to work hard for it. You have to work hard for the missing chair. And so, that’s what he did. Despite working many jobs simultaneously, Ricky enrolled at UP Diliman and studied AB English to become a teacher. Education was very important for him, but soon after that, his will was tested again.
During the Martial Law, Ricky became an activist. He set aside all of his personal ambitions for the love of his country and people. This lead him to be imprisoned for a year at Fort Bonifacio and resulted to him not finishing his degree until many decades later; a reminder to us all that even someone so great as Ricky Lee had to wait for many years to fulfill something that he desired so much. On May 8, 2019, at the age of 73, the renowned writer finally received his diploma at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines and delivered a very inspiring speech that moved his fellow graduates to tears.
“Akala ko hindi na ako ga-graduate. Ilang dekada ko rin itong hinintay,” Lee said at the beginning of his speech in the sea of around 3,000 people.
With a career spanning for many decades already, the great writer said he still has no plan of retiring, stating that writing for him is like breathing. If he stops writing, it will be like he’ll stop breathing too. The award-winning writer’s most recent screenplay was written for “Culion”, a historical film that tells the story of the lives of people afflicted with Hansen’s disease who were brought to the remote island of Culion to live a life away from their loved ones.
On writing “Culion”, Lee said that the story just flowed naturally.
“Hard work siya pero hindi siya ganoon kahirap in the sense na maluwag siya sa dibdib sulatin. Parang dumadaloy lang siya,” said Lee, who only spent a few days in writing the script, although he admitted that it took him many months to do the research, storyline and sequence treatment.
Ricky Lee made a conviction to only write his literary pieces in Filipino, and up until today, he has been true to his word.
“Dumating ako sa punto noong college pa lang na naniniwala ako na Pilipino ako. Gusto ko at kailangan kong magsulat sa Filipino para sa audience ko na Pilipino; tungkol sa buhay ng Pilipino. Kaya bakit ako gagamit ng lengwahe ng Amerikano na sumakop sa atin?”
Ricky Lee is truly an inspiration to us all and that’s not just because of his exceptional talent. How he paved his own way to success by defying all the odds and rising from his personal circumstance, his patriotism, and integrity make him an admirable person.
In spite of being on a pedestal, Lee stays humble. In spite of being a prodigy, he is not afraid to share his knowledge and talent to other people. In fact, he has been holding writing workshops in his own home for free since 1982, imparting everything that he knows to his students without holding back and expecting anything in return.
When asked what message he could give to the young aspiring writers who want to chase their dreams, Ricky Lee said the following powerful words: “Magsulat ka mula sa sarili mo; kung anuman ang totoo mong boses. Huwag kang magsulat ng gaya ko o kahit sino pang manunulat kasi naiiba ka eh. Nag-iisa ka. Magsulat ka bilang ikaw. Hanapin mo ang sarili mong boses.”