Where Fools Fear to Tread — A Snapshot of the Philippines (Metro Manila and the Calamian Islands)

This past June, Una and I visited the Philippines. While she was born and raised there, it was my first time in the country and only my second visit to Asia. We spent a week in Una’s homeland before taking off on the next leg of our vacation, to Korea. The following is a record of my impressions — hastily formed but hopefully not wholly uninformed.


INTRODUCTION TO THE PHILIPPINES

The Republic of the Philippines is an island nation in Southeast Asia. It shares maritime borders with Indonesia, Malaysia, Palau, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Its territory encompasses 7,641 major islands. It’s frequently divided into three geographic regions: Luzon, Mindanao, and Visayas. The country has an area of 300,000 square kilometers, making it slightly smaller than Italy, or to put it another way, roughly 71% the size of CaliforniaThe Philippines is a multi-ethnic country. About 28% of Filipinos are Tagalog, 13% Cebuano, 9% Ilocano, 8% Visayans/Bisaya (excluding Cebuano, Hiligaynon, and Waray), 8% Hiligaynon, 6% Bikol, and 3% Waray. Immigrants from China, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Spain, and the US comprise the bulk of the foreign-born population.

The capital of the Philippines is Manila. Quezon City is the most populous municipality and the largest in terms of area. Both cities — along with Caloocan, Las Piñas, Makati, Malabon, Mandaluyong, Marikina, Muntinlupa, Navotas, Parañaque, Pasay, Pasig, Pateros, Taguig, and Valenzuela — collectively comprise the urban area known as Metro Manila. To give a sense of Metro Manila’s size and density, the entire sixteen-city region occupies less than half the area of the city of Los Angeles (the US’s most densely populated metropolis) but is home to more than three times as many residents.


A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PHILIPPINES

Uranium dating suggests that humans have lived in what’s now the Philippines for at least 67,000 years. The earliest arrivals may’ve been the ancestors of the modern Aeta, Ati, and other Negritos — the so-called black Asians who, along with the Andamanese, Semang, Maniq, and others who, though indigenous to Asia, are largely marginalized in their own homelands and unknown to outsiders. 

Most archeologists content that around 4,000 BCE, successive waves of Austronesian peoples began arriving in what’s now the Philippines from what’s now Taiwan — located about 100 kilometers to the north. More recently the islands absorbed successive waves of Chinese, Malay, and Indian immigrants. Abrahamic religion was introduced in 1380 by Arab trader Karim ul’ Makdhum, who explored Sulu and Jolo and established the Sheik Karimal Makdum Mosque on Simunul. In the years that followed, various maritime states were established on the archipelago by local rulers variously including Datus, Lakans, Rajas, and Sultans.

Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan claimed the islands for Spain in 1521, shortly before he was killed in battle on the island of Mactan. In 1542, explorer Ruy López de Villalobos collectively designated the islands of Leyte and Samar,Felipinas,” in honor of Philip II of Spain. Ultimately, the spelling changed to “Filipinas” and came to be extended to the entire archipelago, which Spain claimed although it wasn’t until 1565, when Miguel López de Legazpi arrived from Mexico City, that Hispanic settlement of the islands began. For the next three centuries, the Philippines would be ruled by Spain, which introduced — among many other things, both positive and negative — Western cutlery, avocados, beer, bread, coffee, cows, guava, pigs, potatoes, squash, Spanish family names, and, of course, Christianity. Today, the Philippines remains predominantly Christian, a status shared elsewhere in Southeast Asia only by East Timor.

The Philippine Revolution (1896-1897) ended the Spanish occupation of the Philippines and led to the establishment of the First Philippine Republic, Asia’s first constitutional republic. However, in December 1898, Spain sold the Philippines to the US and the Philippine–American War erupted in February 1899. American forces captured the Philippines’ president, killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, and crushed the country’s dreams of democracy. 

The Philippines remained a possession of the American Empire until 8 December 1941 when nine hours after the bombing of America’s military base on Hawaiʻi, Japanese planes attacked Clark Field, America’s main military airbase in the Philippines. By 8 May 1942, the Japanese Empire prevailed. Their brutality nearly matching that of their predecessors, tens of thousands of Filipinos died under Japanese occupation, which lasted until their surrender to the Allied powers in 1945. The US finally relinquished its claims on the Philippines on 4 July 1946.

Early on, the independent, democratic Philippines looked like a success story. After Japan, it was the second wealthiest nation in East Asia. However, in 1972, as he neared the end of his presidential term, Ferdinand Marcos ended democracy with his declaration of martial law. Economic prosperity plummeted and, backed by American might, political repression, censorship, and human rights violations were commonplace. Marcos’s dictatorial reign finally ended when the People Power Revolution drove the kleptocratic dictator and his wife, Imelda, into exile in the US. Marcos died in 1989 and his wife was allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991, where she still lives.

Although democracy was restored, six Philipinne presidents have presided over a country nicknamed “the sick man of Asia” while neighbors like Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan, have outpaced it in development and modernization. Current president Rodrigo Duterte is a vile man, even by the low standards of politicians. However, I can’t help but suspect that the Western media fixation on him has as much to do with his cozying up to China as it does moral concern; as reprehensible as he may be, he’s hardly exceptional… and surely more blame for the underdevelopment of the Philippines and most of the Global South lies with ongoing corporate criminality and centuries of colonialism, the deleterious effects of which were apparent everywhere.


METRO MANILA

Even though I’d been warned beforehand about the wealth inequality and poverty of the Philippines, flying into Metro Manila was a shock to me. More than four million Filipinos live in the low-slung shanties which dominate the cityscape. From above, much of Metro Manila undulates like a sea of corrugated metal roofs, punctuated by clusters of skyscrapers which rise like gleaming icebergs. There are middle-class Manileños, of course, who live neither in slums nor luxury high-rises and I have no doubt that my harsh characterization owes largely to the fact that I’d never been to a city that so vividly and architecturally illustrated wealth inequality.


GETTING AROUND (OR, NOT GETTING AROUND)

I was also warned about the miserable state of traffic in the city but nothing in my imagination matched the reality of the Manila streetscape. It was night when we left the airport and the streets of the city were rather dark  — in spots illuminated primarily by the headlights and the occasional streetlights to reveal a frantic, free-for-all pitting buses, motorcycles carrying entire families, taxis, scooters, mopeds, automobiles, pedestrians, and jeepneys against one another. Traffic signals in Manila are seemingly regarded by all drivers as mere suggestions and are almost universally ignored as motorists aggressively zig zag in anxiety and nausea-inducing pandemonium. Two quick honks of the horn seem to accompany every move and announce a variety of messages. After one week, I consider myself lucky to have only been in two minor collisions — neither of which resulted in the drivers exchanging information or even exiting their vehicles. Normally when I’m driven around a city, I like to gaze from the window, but in Manila, I often found it preferable to just look down and trust the driver to get me to my destination in more or less one piece. 

Despite this, I’ve read more than one article in which a writer claims that Los Angeles has the worst traffic in the world. There’s probably no surer sign than that claim that the author hasn’t seen much of the world — or that they only consider the US to be the world. I can honestly say that Thursday evening rush hour in Koreatown, compared to a normal day in Manila, is akin to a particularly leisurely walk in a particularly serene park. In Koreatown, after all, there are dedicated bus and bicycle lanes and, for the most part, they are respected as such. In Koreatown, sidewalks haven’t been shaved to slivers in the mistaken magical belief that somehow accommodating more cars will result in less traffic. While on a personal level, the majority of Filipinos strike me as exceptionally friendly (sometimes even aggravatingly cheerful), behind the wheel they all seem to transform into remorseless monster motorists. Communication on the road is nearly always limited to two short beeps, which seem to convey a variety of meanings but most often can be summed up as, “yes, I see you but no, I have no intention of slowing or stopping, even if it means running into or over you.” 

When it comes to transportation in a functioning city, sane urbanists regard automobiles as the last resort. In Manila, though, they’re seemingly viewed by most as the only resort. There are bicycle lanes, I’ve read, although I didn’t notice any. There is a minuscule rail network, too, begun in 1984 and which after 33 years is comprised of just three lines. Far be it from me to tell Manileños how to fix their city but I can’t help but think that nearly every problem would be solved by banning the use of privately owned automobiles — excluding commercial vehicles (delivery vans, trucks, construction equipment, &c) and vehicles for hire (jeepneys, trikes, taxicabs, paratransit, ride-hails, &c).

Consider this, the entire National Capital Region (NCR) is smaller in size than Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley — and much more densely populated. The whole of Manila, at its greatest width, is only about 8.5 kilometers wide, a distance which the average, able-bodied person could walk in less time than is usually required to drive. Fewer cars also mean cleaner air and cleaner water — two significant hazards facing Manila’s residents. More cars mean more heart disease, social isolation, climate change, lung disease… but without a fancy car in which to sit in traffic, how will anyone be able to convince their neighbors that they’re a “big deal”?


MALLS OF MANILA

Conspicuous consumption, while neither invented by or limited to the US, is surely another of America’s lasting and most apparent colonial legacies. One of the most surprising relics of America’s consumerist culture is the enduring popularity of the shopping mall in Manila. Whereas nowadays American malls seem almost quaint — windows into fading suburban twilight — in Manila, malls are still very much “where it’s at.” 

Like the emblematic Jeepney, which took an American relic and altered it into something almost recognizable and uniquely Filipino, the malls of Manila only somewhat resemble those that I recall from their 1980s heyday. Firstly, they are urban, whereas the malls of America were nearly always surrounded by vast parking lots and located outside city centers, where land was plentiful and cheap. Filipino malls are also protected by security guards who tote machine guns and search you upon entry — not exactly Paul Blart, then. American malls were stalked by popped-collar preppies and speed-walking, shell-suited seniors. Young people who weren’t preppies generally avoided them except to hang out at arcades, browse at music and book chain stores, or take in a movie at the multiplex. Manila’s malls seem to have a broader appeal, though, and the only people dressed remotely like the dreaded preppies of my youth were the mannequins and models — the latter always unnaturally pale and looking not at all like any Filipinos I remember encountering. There were similarities, though, with the malls of America — the slightly putrid, sickeningly sweet smell of department store perfumes and colognes which so closely resembles that of plug-in air fresheners and urinal cakes.

Mall Church

One of the more bizarre, if not unexpected, features of the Filipino mall is the chapel. It is not uncommon for these temples of consumerism to include a temple to the Messiah who forcefully drove the money-changers from the temple, admonishing them to “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” Still, the Son of Man said nothing about climate control and I suspect that at least as many Manileños come to the mall for the air-conditioning (or “aircon”) as they do for religious reasons. 

Bonifacio High Street
The park-life, if mostly deserted, courtyard of Bonifacio High Street

Una and I headed to a mall almost immediately after dropping off our luggage in Forbes Town Center. We headed over to a mall called Bonifacio High Street for Una’s birthday dinner with friends at The Wholesome Table. Promotional literature for the mall, completed in 2007, promises “a revolution in city living” and claims to take its inspiration from “cosmopolitan cities worldwide such as Tokyo, Singapore, or Soho and Tribeca in New York.” Though clearly meant to evoke a vibrant public space, like all malls it is privately-owned. As with many malls in Manila, the developers of Bonifacio High Street are a real estate company founded by a Spanish family during the colonial period.


BONIFACIO GLOBAL CITY

We spent a few nights in the aforementioned Forbes Town Center — a cluster of residential towers surrounded by a country club, a polo club, and a financial district known as Bonifacio Global City (BGC). Like most financial districts with which I’m familiar, it’s not exactly a bustling, cultural hotspot. In a way, though, it was nice to spend the first night after a long flight somewhere boring, to allow for a bit of jet lag to subside and acclimation to occur before heading off to more appealing locations. The weather at night was wonderful, too — cool and breezy. Unable to sleep I wondered how many of my temporary neighbors would seize the opportunity to go for a walk along the sidewalks or a dip in the pool. Peering from my window, I realized that, like all financial districts, this one two becomes a ghost town at night — the only signs of life the occasional window illuminated by television and computer screens. 

Forbes Town at Night
Forbes Town at Night

In the morning, we awoke better rested and walked around the neighborhood. I read somewhere that exploring BGC could almost make one forget that one was in the Philippines, rather than Singapore — until a blast of sewer gas rockets the explorer back to reality. This was our experience too, in a shiny, clean, and occasionally very stinky neighborhood. In contrast with the traffic which dominates most of Manila, even by day the BGC was disquietingly quiet. Both streets and sidewalks were strangely devoid of activity. For breakfast, we popped into Wildflour Cafe & Bakery. The food was pretty good I was disheartened by the realization that perhaps nowhere on Earth is safe from the suffocatingly ubiquitous aesthetic of subway tiles/chalkboard menus/communal seating.


QUEZON CITY

Quezon City (QC) was created by (and is named after) Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon in 1939, to replace Manila as the capital — and did so from 1948-1976. We met up with a friend of Una’s in QC and then used a ride-hail service to take us to the Laging Handa neighborhood where we lunched at a restaurant (or “resto” in Taglish) called Kanin Club. The prices were quite cheap and since no one wanted to share, I ordered a bottle of white wine which I drank by myself. After lunch, we walked around the neighborhood a bit, which even (or especially) in a buzzed state I found almost infinitely preferable to that of sitting in the back seat of a zig-zagging car, nearly all of which have that “Uber scent” of second-hand vape smoke and synthetic air fresheners. 

Quezon City Monument
The Boy Scout Circle And Monument in Quezon City

It would’ve been the perfect opportunity to take the Manila Metro Rail Transit System (MRT-3) but instead, we chartered another ride hail another ride-hail for the short, five-kilometer journey back to Manila. After grabbing another bite at Cafe Churro, we entered a dark and very warm nail salon where I finally fell asleep — barely bothered by the sweating aircon which dripped on me throughout the experience. 


PALAWAN

Cebu Pacific
Cebu Pacific

Not surprisingly, though tourism is a major contributor to the economy of the Philippines, most visitors waste little time after landing in Manila heading to some other destination. In our case that destination was Palawan. Flying on Cebu Pacific, I scanned the ocean below for signs of Bajau, a maritime people with whom I became fascinated after watching a couple of documentaries. I saw many boats but Una assured me that none were the country’s famed “sea gypsies.” 

Storm on the horizon
No sign of bajau

Una and I comprised a small part of the 19% of tourists in the Philippines who come from the Americas.  About 11% of the Philippines’ visitors come from Europe whereas 59% come from three of the country’s neighbors — in descending order of numbers — Korea, China, and Japan. In the islands Busuanga and Coron, I heard Korean spoken more than any non-local language. I can’t completely wrap my head around the status of English in the Philippines. Filipino and other local languages are what one more often hears spoken aloud — whether in real life, on television, or in films. In print, however, nearly everything is written in English, including traffic signs, menus, newspapers, print ads, &c. School instruction is apparently conducted in English but not all Filipinos go to school. The colonial tongue, then, seems to connote both education and class. Regardless, nearly everyone seemed to understand English and so I turned most of my language-learning efforts to Korean, in preparation for our trip to Seoul.

The Islands

Before leaving Los Angeles, Una’s mother had implored me not to go to the Sulu Sea, where she assured me pirates and terrorists murder Americans every single day — susmariosep! Luckily, I wasn’t murdered on any of the days of our stay and although I consoled myself with the fact that Una’s mom is similarly worried about voyeurs, drug addicts, cancer-causing vegetables, tap water, and urban super predators wandering the streets of our decidedly safe city (by American standards, at least), I still felt myself to be in a heightened state of alert. I turned to the internet for solace and although found no accounts of any Americans in the area running afoul of either pirates or terrorists, I did read about a tourist who died there after stepping on a venomous fish, of which there are apparently 323 species in the Philippines! At that point, I decided to limit my research to history. 

White sands pano.jpg

Palawan is province and part of an archipelago which stretches from Mindoro in the northeast to Borneo in the southwest. It is located between the Sulu Sea and the West Philippine Sea (aka the South China Sea or East Vietnam Sea). Its capital is Puerto Princesa. Humans first settled the islands more than 50,000 years ago and the Palawano and Tagbanwa are possibly descended from Palawan’s aborigines. Subsequently, populations of Aetas, Negritos, Chinese, Malay, Indonesians, Japanese, Arab, Hindu, and Spanish arrived and intermixed with the locals and one another to created residents of Palawan, who are known as Palaweños — but not to be confused with the aforementioned Palawanos.

After we landed at Francisco B Reyes Airport we packed ourselves and our luggage into a van filled with tourists. As we rode down Coron-Busuanga Road through the pouring rain, past farms, jungle, a few homes, and a rice mill. When arrived at Coron Westown, and upon entering the lobby were collectively greeted as “mamser,” another of those uniquely Filipino adaptations — a gender-inclusive contraction of “ma’am” and “sir.” Initially, it confused me but once explained became an overused addition to my vocabulary — and one which if adopted in the US will have the added benefit of annoying America’s gender obsessed bathroom patrol.

Coron Sunset
Night falls over Coron Westown

The fact that the resort was filled with tourists calmed my nerves more than my research about insurgents and poisonous fish. Surely, if faced with the daily threat of annihilation, tourists would reschedule their stay — but nearly all of them were Filipinos or Koreans. For the Filipinos, perhaps it was just business as usual — and Koreans seem to be masters of facing existential threats with stone-faced indifference. Everyone (except the Koreans) seemed to be so cheerful though. Here and there I’d overhear various members of the hotel staff singing to themselves, sometimes to the music playing over the speakers, at other times with the music in their head. 


MUSIC IN THE PHILIPPINES

Music, it has to be noted, is practically inescapable in the Philippines. It is played in cabs, in dining rooms, and even on long flights when you’d think passengers would just want to sleep. At least I didn’t want to have my mind invaded by an airline jingle annoying repeating “the heart, the heart of the Filipino” after a trans-Pacific flight. Nor did I want to hear some banjo-driven (but still gratingly commercial) pop tune on another — although everyone else seemed to know the words and eagerly sang along. Not that not knowing the words is a problem — nor is there not being a song. It’s perfectly normal to repeat a word over and over, sung in a simple, two-note melody — to use two actual examples — “yummy yummy yummy yummy” and “malikot malikot malikot malikot.”

I’m not sure when this relationship with music began but the phenomenon of the house band began under American occupation and continues to be popular. In the colonial period, many traveling Filipino musicians made a living traveling and performing western popular music for Americans stationed throughout Asia. Today local cover bands contribute nearly as much to the economy as do the remittances sent from overseas Filipinos. Regardless of ability, seemingly every Filipino is a singer and every Filipino household has a MagicSing karaoke machine.

Indigenous Filipinos, of course, made music long before the arrival of either the Spanish or karaoke. Much of the traditional music of the Philipines features the kulintang — an instrument which includes toned gongs and drums. Later, Spanish instruments were adapted to create the bandurria and the Spanish rondalla became the Filipino rondalya.

That the term OPM, for “original Pilipino music” had to be coined to differentiate from covers says something about the dominance of western pop during the American colonial era. Other post-colonial developments include the Manila sound and Pinoy Rock; of the latter, perhaps the best example is the massively talented Freddie AguilarFolk derived ballads, known as kundiman, are exemplified by the “Queen of Kundiman,” Sylvia La Torre.

As much as original Filipino music interests me, I’m especially fascinated by the widespread Filipino cultural appropriation of western pop music. Soft rock groups like Air Supply, Bread, and The Carpenters all have their fans in the west but are largely unknown to younger audiences. In my MagicSing catalog, there are more mellow numbers by the likes of Kenny Rogers, John Denver, and Crystal Gayle than you’d find if the machine were programmed by an American — even though the artists in question are all themselves from the US. Filipinos have taken them and made them their own, as they did with karaoke itself. Although the world’s first karaoke machine was invented in Japan, it is a Filipino, Roberto del Rosario, who holds the machine’s patent.

Sophisti-pop is another phenomenon more appreciated in the Philippines than at home. The term may’ve been coined in the UK but utter it to a non-Filipino (or Vietnamese) and you’re likely to be met with confusion. In the US, sophist-poppers like Spandau Ballet and Swing Out Sister are barely-remembered one hit wonders. Still, they’re bigger than Private Lives, Care, or Prefab Sprout — none of whom achieved anything more than the scantest of cult followings in the US. The situation is different in the Philippines, though, although I know of no Filipino sophisti-pop acts. 

Freestyle, on the other hand, seems only to be made by Filipinos anymore. Freestyle originated in the early 1980s in New York City with groups like The Cover Girls, Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam, and Sweet Sensation. It later flourished in Florida, producing briefly popular artists like Connie, Debbie Deb, Stevie B, and Trinere. Dance-pop and house music stole its spotlight but Pinoy artists like Jocelyn Enriquez, Damien Bautista, Kuya, Pinay, Buffy, Kim Del Fierro, Korell, Sharyn Maceren, and One Vo1ce all kept singing over those Casio claves and synth trumpets.

I’m less familiar with Filipino rock and pop although I’ll share what little I know. The Eraserheads were popular in the 1990s and I became aware of them Shazaming their song, “Ligaya” whilst walking the aisles of Seafood City. After subsequently recognizing the same song at Arko, I saw Ely Buendia perform in Little Tokyo. I’ve also seen Clem Castro perform as Dragonfly Collector in Panorama City and, more recently, in San Francisco, where his backing band was comprised of Bay Area indie bands Starry Eyed Cadet and Sky FactionI can’t forget Glenn Jacinto’s (of the band, Teeth), Laklak Fest, which took place in Filipinotown. Finally, a couple of nights ago I attended my second Jologzfest, in Westlake. It’s interesting going to Filipino rock shows in Los Angeles — home to the largest community of Filipinos outside the Philipines. Other than myself, there’s almost never anyone who’s not Filipino and it drives home the depth of diversity in this city, where entire scenes exist of which most people are completely unaware — and are never covered in the event sections of alternative papers and websites like the LA Weekly.

Anyway, most of the newer Filipino music which has appealed to be could be classified as either indie pop. I imagine some cultural watchdogs might be rubbed the wrong way or at least taken aback by the studiously twee and glaringly Anglophile affectations which permeate that the Filipino indie scene — although the same might be forgiven of other, just-as-not-English bands from elsewhere within the Anglosphere. I guess the English-ness doesn’t bother me much because Filipino musicians have elevated imitation and authenticity to a competitive level, both with cover bands and karaoke singers — so why not indie bands? Anyway, some Filipino bands are quite good and since making this playlist, more than a few times have I noted that a particularly good song by Apple OrchardThe Camerawalls, The Gentle Isolation, and Your Imaginary Friends


FILIPINO TELEVISION

Whilst on the subject of Filipino culture, I suppose I’ll address Filipino television. For all the talk of this being the Golden Age of Television, I don’t assume that anyone is including Filipino television in that description. As in most of the world, it seems, Filipino television is dominated by cheaply made game shows, variety shows, reality shows, and novelas. Somehow Eat Bulaga has been on for 38 years and seems to be on 24 hours a day — although I get it confused with It’s Showtime. Unable to watch them for more than a few seconds, I absorb them as background noise — and they’re both very noisy — providing a constant din of weird canned laughter, *boi-oing* noises, sad trombones, and other sound effects. Although I’ve never seen an episode of Howdy Doody, the Gong Show, or Love Boat — I imagine they’re what you’d get if you crossed all three.


FILIPINO CINEMA

Filipino Cinema is more highly regarded — or at least, some of its filmmakers are, but I’m even less familiar and so have to rely again on research more than experience. Film was introduced to the Philippines in 1897 at the Salón de Pertierra in Manila. The José Nepomucenofollowing year, Spaniard Antonio Ramos shot the first actualities in the Philippines using a Cinematograph. The first true Filipino film was José Nepomuceno‘s Dalagang Bukid (Country Maiden), released in 1919. Local literature and theater provided the sources of many Filipino films in the formative decade of the 1930s. The 1950s are sometimes considered the Golden Age of Philippine Cinema. The 1960s, by contrast, brought a rise in commercialism and is characterized by crowd-pleasing westerns, pornos, and action films. In part as a response, an independent cinema arose in the 1970s and continues to attract most of the critical praise of not commercial attention.

There’s also a long tradition of making Hollywood films in the Philippines, sometimes ”cooperatively between Hollywood and Philippine interests.” In the 1950s, many Hollywood war films like Bataan, Back to Bataan, They Were Expendable, American Guerrilla in the Philippines, and Huk! were made in part in the Philippines. The Philippines have also long been Hollywood’s stand-in for anywhere tropical, especially Vietnam, which it portrayed in Nam’s Angels, The Boys in Company C, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and Born on the Fourth of July. The Philippines stood in for Indonesia in The Year of Living Dangerously, Thailand in Brokedown Palace, and an unnamed island in the cinematic benzodiazepine that was Castaway.

It was also in the 1970s that a tradition began of shooting low-budget exploitation films in the Philippines for America’s drive-in and grindhouse circuits — as recounted in the documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010). Especially popular subjects were the so-called Women in Prison movies, which sounds like exactly what it is. During this period, the Philippines produced its own B-movie auteur, Cirio H. Santiago (aka Leonard Hermes), who with his wife Adela Hermoso founded the misleadingly named Premiere Productions, and many of whose films were produced by Roger Corman. His best-known films, in the US at least, include T.N.T. Jackson, Ebony, Ivory & Jade, and Savage!

FROM WHAT IS BEFORE | Lav Diaz | Trailer from blendentanz on Vimeo.

At the other end of the critical spectrum are filmmakers Auraeus Solito, Brillante Mendoza, Jeffrey Jeturian, Lino Brocka, and Lav Diaz. Diaz is of special interest to me, as a purported exemplar of the slow cinema movement and someone who is often compared to several of my favorite filmmakers. That said, his films tend to be quite long, up to ten and a half hours, and I’m not sure whether someone can make a film that long without being a sadist nor whether my bladder (not to mention my stomach, eyes, and attention span) would be up for the challenge of sitting in front of a screen for more than ten hours.


Returning to our vacation…

Coron Town.jpg

After dropping our bags off in our hotel room we headed into Coron Town on a trike, a form of transport less emblematic of the Philippines than the Jeepney but one perhaps better suited for small, winding, country roads — and undoubtedly my favorite way to get around the countryside. Most people in Coron Town, historically, were farmers. Under the Japanese occupation, work turned to manganese mining. After independence, the economy shifted to deep sea fishing and, in recent years, tourism. There were several resorts in town and in many shop windows are the telltale red and white flags which symbolize scuba diving.

Trike
A trike parked at Coron Westown
Coron Town road side
View from the back of a trike

First, we headed to the base Mount Tapyas, and Una asked our driver to return and take us to Maquinit Hot Spring, where relaxing in a hot spring might sound like a good idea even in the heat after climbing a mountain. Scaling the mountain proved not to be especially challenging, but for the sticky heat, as 700 stairs lead visitors to a large cross near the peak where one can take in the view.

Mount Tapyas.jpg

On the way to the hot spring was passed schoolchildren hailing trikes and walking home unaccompanied by adults — something almost never seen in the US anymore, where helicopter parents insist on driving their children to and from school and everywhere else in between, lest they end up like Johnny Gosch — or worse, self-sufficient and transit literate! Meanwhile, our driver told us that five days earlier, some tourists had been abducted from the hot springs, murdered, chopped up, and dumped into the ocean. He smiled as he told us that the killers were his neighbors and had been caught, so presumably, we could breathe easy.

Hot Springs pano

The driver’s tale turned out to be true, although the killing had been of two yakuza by a Puerto Princesa organization, Commando Brotherhood, who’d in turn been hired by other yakuza. Of course, I didn’t know any of those details at the time and given the fact that I don’t generally enjoy bathing or sitting in hot water (unless there’s a cold rain falling and a scotch in hand) I had an especially difficult time relaxing. The surrounding mangroves, however, and the view across the water were both quite beautiful.

Mangroves.jpg

Over the next couple of days, we hopped from island to island, snorkeling in the ocean and Kayangan Lake. The scenery above and below water was stunning and I scarcely noticed my sunburn and the mosquitos which drained me of blood — and in the end were the biggest enemies I faced.

View from above lake

At the lake, we bought coconuts and turon for ourselves and the boat’s crew. In Twin Lagoon we were overheard by another American, who decided to complain to us about what a “PP” we live in when we’re required to wear life vests. When I asked was “PP” meant, he exclaimed as if surprised by my ignorance, “pussy planet!” and went on to explain that he, unlike me, only enjoys life when he feels like he’s facing death. Without arguing or agreeing, we simply swam away.

Resting dogs
Dogs resting on an island

Swimming off the coast of the CYC (Coron Youth Club) Island, a man in a boat sold me a Red Horse and a San Miguel. Elsewhere we snorkeled above a sunken Japanese warship. We snorkeled on a reef crowded with fish of many species, none of which killed me. We ate on Banol Beach. On two beaches, I watched a middle-aged duo pumping house music from a speaker hung around one’s neck furtively but doggedly pursue and irritate three young women who apparently wanted nothing more than to take hundreds of selfies in different poses. Another day, one of the crewmen whipped me up a vegetarian meal which provided me with my first taste of sea grapes.

Sea Grapes 2
A vegetarian meal whipped up by the first mate/ship’s cook

FOOD IN THE PHILIPPINES

As a vegetarian of 28 years, I’m used to non-vegetarians wondering what I eat when I travel and how I survive in places where meat is heavily consumed. On the other hand, like all vegetarians or anyone with any kind of dietary restrictions, you quickly find yourself easily able to avoid what you choose not to eat no matter what or where.

That being said, Filipino Cuisine is generally very meaty. When there is no meat, it’s additionally both heavily salted and often so sweet that it causes my toes to curl. When there are vegetables, they seem nearly always to be cooked into mushy, nutrition-less oblivion. Nevertheless, every year food writers proclaim that this will be or is the year of Filipino food. I remain skeptical. I can’t help but think that the food fad forecasters are staking their reputation on Filipino food crossing over because it seems like an inevitability given the number of Filipinos in the US, where among Asian-Americans they’re outnumbered only by Chinese. And Chinese food, or versions of it, have conquered the US. That didn’t happen overnight, though, nor was any year the single year of Chinese food in the US. Chinese cooks went out of their way to adapt local ingredients for American palates and set out on purpose to establish Chinese restaurants in any town of over 10,000 people. Filipino cooks, most anyway, don’t seem to care about crossing over to non-Filipinos. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but should they ever decide to they might think about ambiance and presentation. Although brown stews scooped from heated aluminum trays, dolloped onto styrofoam plates, and consumed with plastic silverware doesn’t offend my senses, I can imagine some Westerners being put off. Californians, too, are notoriously health-conscious (some would say unhealthily so) and I suspect the excessive use of salt and sugar in already meat-centric dishes (and usually washed down with soda) might be harder to stomach than the taste of bitter melon and copious usage of vinegar.

In the end, I wonder whether or not any year will be the year of Filipino food. It wouldn’t bother me either way nor, I suspect, most Filipinos. I’m from Missouri, after all, and if I found out that no non-Missourian has ever enjoyed Ozark pudding, St. Paul sandwiches, St. Louis style pizza, Cherry Mash, toasted ravioli, Kansas City BBQ, Budweiser, or cashew chicken, then what would it be to me? Although this might be tempting outrage, might I suggest that not all cuisines are equal? Consider some of the Philippines’ regional neighbors: Burma, Fujian, Guangdong, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Show me someone who eschews any of those in favor of Pinoy spaghetti (augmented with sugar, sweetened condensed milk, and banana ketchup) and I will show you someone who is either Filipino or trying to get on the good side of one.

Cartel's Mexican
Mexican food in the Philippines

While I’m hardly a champion of Filipino cuisine, that’s not to say that I haven’t greatly enjoyed an occasional Filipino dish (albeit more often, stateside, including at home, Marharlika NYC, and Sari Sari Store) and there are, of course, more types of food to be found in the Philippines than just Filipino. There are many American, Chinese, French, Indian, Italian, Korean, Middle Eastern, Persian, Spanish, Taiwanese, Tex-Mex, Thai, and Vietnamese restos. I had unmemorable Mexican at a place I will not name. My favorite meal, though, was at Dohtonbori, a Japanese restaurant. 

What’s more, no human is a carnivore — not even the bros who avoid soy products as if their delicate masculinity depended on it. There are vegetarian foods in every culture. There are about three dozen dedicated vegetarian restaurants in Metro Manila. In fact, if one ignores fish, fowl, and the animals introduced by the Spanish, there are quite a lot of healthy plant widely produced and consumed in the Philipines including pili nuts, ube, pandan, sea grapes, coconuts, acacia, purslane, screw pine, water spinach, bitter melon, eggplant, asparagus beans, cassava, pechay, taro, papaya, rice, tomatoes, maize, sweet potatoes, calamondin, saba (and other bananas), okra, chayote, bamboo — and some of the most prized mangos in the world.

Not that all vegetarian food is healthy nor am I immune to the appeal of junk food — and the Philippines produces and consumes a staggering variety of desserts, snacks and junk food — far too many to name, in fact. However, I have personally enjoyed buko pie, puto, pulburón, lengua de gato, turon, halo-halo, flan, taisan, bibingka, kutsinta, and mamon. Although I don’t recommend ice cream with chunks of “Velveeta processed product,” it is another vegetarian dessert and it does exist. There are far too many varieties of mass-produced junk food and too many brands to choose even a few representative ones  — although when I’ve pointed out that Jack n’ Jill Chicharron Ni Mang Juan is actually vegetarian, the response has always been one of surprise and disbelief. 

In many ways, Filipino food and snacks seem sort of early 20th Century Middle American — as if trapped in the Depression and War ration eras in which processed foods were promoted over whole foods — and the US occupied the Philippines. I doubt it’s coincidental. Throughout the Pacific, where the US focused its imperial designs, there are people who’ve developed an collective, unhealthy taste canned cheese food, canned ham, (canned) corned beef, and those giant, wooden forks and spoons — all of which for the most part disappeared on the American mainland at the end of the Tiki eraMang Tomas, a condiment made from sugar, vinegar, and bread, sounds like something from the Joan Crawford cookbook but is actually a liver-less (and thus vegetarian) lechón sauceIt’s not surprising that, like Americans, Filipinos also suffer in inordinately large numbers from diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hypertension, stroke, sleep apnea, and types of cancer — yet another lingering contribution of colonialism.


CITY OF DREAMS

City of Dreams
The view from City of Dreams

The final leg of our trip to the Philippines was spent at a large casino district known as City of Dreams, located on the fringes of the city. Our room was paid for in part with Una’s credit card miles and the casino itself was paid for, in part, by a Chinese firm, Melco International Development (新濠國際發展有限公司). I thought for sure, based purely on the Trumpian aesthetics, that it was built circa 1971 — so imagine my surprise when I found out it opened in 2015. Not that our accommodations were spotless and comfortable, mind you — and I’ll take Central Asian oligarch chic over chalkboard menus, subway tiles, and Edison bulbs any day.

Casino hallway
A not-at-all Shining-like hallway in the City of Dreams hotel

Una caught a bug which convinced me that we should put on hold our plans to explore more of Manila, even though I suspect that doing so I would’ve further come ‘round to its charms if I could’ve uncovered more and which meant abandoning plans to check out a museum. Instead, we ate at in the casino at Cafe Society and Una fed a little money into slot machines. Nonplussed by the experience, she apparently has a stronger immunity to that sort of bug than the ones one might catch from “service water” or street food.


FILIPINO ART & LITERATURE

Not going to the museum gave me more time to read about Filipino art and culture, of JoseRizal-1which I remain shockingly ignorant (although Una’s father, Rey Zipagan, is a respected painter). Painting was introduced to the Philippines by Spain but the Philippines by then had a long established arts tradition exemplified in pottery, weaving, and sculpture. The introduction of written language allowed for the recording of Filipino traditional oral folk literature, such as the 15th century epic of Ibong Adarna. Poet and playwright Francisco Balagtas is considered one of the Filipino languages greatest authors and José Rizal, in addition to writing novels, is widely regarded as a national hero.


Bondage theme bar
Apparently, a bar with a bondage theme

Before leaving, we revisited a food hall, Open Kitchen, convincingly built to resemble an industrial adaptive reuse project — but nevertheless an imitation. There we hung out with members of the recently-reformed Orange & Lemons, drink beer, and hang out before leaving for Korea. There’s a good chance that I’ll return to the Philippines in the future. The music and culture of Mindanao has long intrigued me, everyone seems to agree that Visayas is beautiful, and the weather of Cordillera Central sounds ideal. Up next, though, Korea!


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other varieties of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAist, CurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 GalleryHe is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaFacebook, GoodreadsInstagram, MubiTwitter, and Weibo.
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