Here and There – The Philippines

Usually, when I write about a place I have visited, I have a reasonable recall of some of the events, hotels, meals, shops (!!), and adventures.  Given this, I am rather surprised and considerably embarrassed by how little I know about the Philippines, and how poor my recollection is of my one visit there.  My slim body of data comes from being invited to facilitate a workshop for the senior staff of a luxury hotel in Manila.  As it happens, the workshop was held away from the hotel.  I was in Subic Bay, and it was a concentrated, short, working visit, and … well, despite my interest in where I was, I saw little of the place, and this is a work of reconstruction, rather than a set of crisp and vivid memories.

The starting point in this probably needs to be an admission as to my appalling lack of knowledge about the Philippines anyway.  That ignorance is evident in a very basic way.  I thought the place was called The Philippines, not the Philippines, and I had considerable difficulty with spelling – Phillippines, Phillipines or Philippines.  That’s not all.  It has a population of around 110m and occupies around 120K square miles.  That means it is smaller than I thought:  in world terms it comes in at only 72nd in area.  At least it is the 12th largest by population!  However, that 110m is smaller than Mexico and (shrinking) Japan, and it’s only a little larger in population than Ethiopia and Egypt.  At least it is at the top in one regard, as it comprises 7,641 islands.  The national language is Filipino, but that was only established in 1946, after the Second World War:  prior to then, at different times English and Spanish had been the de facto languages for commerce and government.

More to the point, the history of the Philippines, and especially in the 20th Century, helps in explaining the curious place it is.  From the 16th to the 19th Century, the Philippines had been a Spanish colony.  It was towards the end of the 19thCentury that revolutionary activities became evident, especially after 1872 , when three activist Catholic priests were executed, an act that inspired a movement for political reform in the Philippines.  However, external events were pressing on the colony and it was drawn into the Spanish-American war of 1898.  This spurred on what had been a fairly quiescent revolution, and the Philippines declared independence from Spain on June 12, 1898.  Just six months later, the islands were ceded to the United Sates, along with Puerto Rico and Guam.  A nascent revolution was set aside as the country came under the hands of a new set of colonial masters!

The end of the Nineteenth Century did include a brief moment of freedom.  Escape from Spain led the country to declare itself the First Philippine Republic on 21 January 1899.  The US refused to accept the Republic and declared war on its newly acquired colony:  The Philippine-American war lasted two years, during which between 10,000 and 20,000 Filipino soldiers, as well as somewhere between 200,000 and 1,000,000 civilians, died,  most from famine and disease.   Many Filipinos were transported by the Americans to concentration camps, where thousands died.  After the fall of the First Philippine Republic in 1902, an American civil government was installed.

Despite its status as a colony, the push to carve out a national identity remained, and Tagalog began to predominate over other local languages.  Progressively, the US gave the Filipinos various governmental functions, and in 1934 steps began for the creation of a Commonwealth of the Philippines.  However, that stuttering progress came to an end with the Second World War, when the Japanese military invaded.  It was another disaster for the country, and by the time Allied troops defeated Japanese in 1945 over one million Filipinos were estimated to have died.  On October 11, 1945, the Philippines became a founding member of the United Nations, and on July 4, 1946, the country’s independence was recognized by the United States.  A step forward in what otherwise had been a miserable recent history.

Independence, but with the US maintaining bases in the country, the country faced a volatile political system.  First the first twenty years of independence, a number of attempts were made to pull the country together, despite outbreaks of communist insurgency.  One disaster followed another, culminating in the election of Ferdinand Marcos in 1965.  In a rule dominated by martial law, repression, censorship and gross embezzlement, Marcos was ousted in 1986.  The leading opposition leader, Benigno Aquino, had been assassinated in 1983, but continuing protests saw Aquino’s widow, Corazon, installed as president.

Despite this, the country remained volatile, and attempts to  return to full democracy and government reform were stymied by continuing corruption, coup attempts and growing debt.  Aquino was succeeded in 1992 by Fidel Ramos.  The pattern of change and uncertainty continued, and Ramos’ rule was overwhelmed by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.  He was replaced in 1998 by Joseph Estrada.  Estrada’s reign was short, and he was followed three years later by Gloria Arroyo in 2001.  Almost as if following a script, her administration successfully brought about economic growth for the country, but at the cost of yet more corruption and yet more political scandals.  That story has continued with successive  Presidents since Arroyo’s time pursuing dubious development paths, right up to Marcos’s son winning the Presidential Election in 2022.  It seems the country is back to the world of 1965, with a likely return to yet further corruption and self-serving government.  What a mess!

However, I was in the Philippines in the relatively benign time of Arroyo.  Knowing very little of the history ensured I had a partial and completely inadequate background for a visitor.  In other words, I was extremely ill-prepared for my visit.  Perhaps that didn’t matter, as I flew into Manila, and immediately was taken across to Subic Bay, on the west coast of Luzon island, about 100 kilometres (62 miles) northwest of Manila.  Where was I?

I learnt that Subic Bay had been the site of a huge US Navy facility, which had been closed following the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption.  However, it had retained its US influence and character, especially with the development of the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.  Today it is advertised as “the best place to be when it comes to outdoor activities. Make a break for it and experience a journey of untouched forestry and grand transcendent scenery. With its spectacular theme parks and walking and trekking trails Subic Bay is a nature lover’s wonderland.  A place where family friendly activities and kids at heart, embark on a memorable escapade, it can be a whole day trip or an overnight itinerary; there’s a lot of goings on for everyone to enjoy”.

Twenty years earlier, most of that promised character had yet to be realised.  The Subic Bay I saw was really three places.  The first of these was US Subic Bay.  Some US Navy activities remained, although the base was gone.  There were sailors in uniform, stores with US goods, and several imposing buildings.  Then there was the emerging ‘resort’, with clubs, yachts, various facilities like golf courses and guided tours.  Finally, there was Filipino Subic Bay, a home for the dependent service economy living off tourists and government administrators.  The majority of the locals working in support roles and were concentrated in downtrodden part of the town and its environs.

In my over-excitement – a new place to see – I went to have a look around.  A car was made available, and I was driven to Crown Peak and the Freeport zone, and then back through town and over to Olongapo, and finally up the cost to the Bluewater, and went out Back Beach and Whiterock resorts.  It reminded me of a visit I’d made to Cape Town, except there weren’t any barricaded houses.  However, the existence of wealth close to poverty, elegant houses only a few hundred yards away from slums, and beaches where tourists and the affluent were present, with the locals selling cheap goods and drinks from the edges.  It was all very familiar.  This was another of those divided parts of the world, where local people ‘knew their place’, and difference was accepted.  If the Philippines had been characterised by revolutionary movements towards the end of the 19th Century, in the 20th Century that was a matter for history books only!

As if to give my observations even more reasons to despair at the country’s situation, my time in Subic Bay was followed by a visit by the planning group to Manila, to stay in the company’s five-star hotel in the Makati district.  In some ways, this was a city quite familiar to me:  I could have been in Jakarta.  Well, almost.  However, when our taxi arrived at the hotel, we got out, and then staff searched underneath with mirrors.  If they were looking for a bomb under the chassis, I couldn’t help feeling this might have been a little late in the process!  Out of the car and into the hotel, our journey over to the Reception desk involved going through an individual security screening that would have made most international airports happy with the amount of care and scrutiny involved.

I was about to face one more striking contrast.  The rooms, and the restaurant, were beautiful, the food excellent. However, the bar area and the hotel vestibule looked as though they were a set for a 1920’s gangster movie.  Dress was vivid (except for us boring hotel guests), drinks prolific, food on tables dotted around the space, and, in my by now severely over-heated imagination, I was convinced half the guests were carrying guns:  an outbreak of automatic gunfire would not have surprised me.  Had I been transplanted into Las Vegas of the 1930s?  Or the late 1940s?  Perhaps I was on a film set?  No-one seemed surprised by anyone else, from the prosaic team of strategic planning staff of which I was a subdued representative through to the brightly dressed Filipino band playing over on one side.  I should add the band could sing, sing with swing.  It was almost infectious (and I can’t even dance).

I know I am offering an odd perspective on this visit, but it was an odd few days.  What made it even odder was not so much the variety I saw in Subic Bay and Makati, but rather my acceptance of it all.  Another American colony (or ex-colony, to be more accurate).  A dependent indigenous population, pushed into the background by overseas visitors, visitors who, in my jaundiced gaze, included many who were in Manila for a ‘good time’ (yes, with all the unfortunate connotations of that phrase).  I am sure it has improved since then.  The brochure for Subic Bay today presents a far better picture.

Do the residues of colonies, empires and military bases always have to look like this?  It is as if the former colonial administrators simply up sticks and clear out, leaving behind a mess, and little support to help re-organise.  An uncharitable observer might feel that the former occupiers had looked at what was needed to create a vibrant country happily managing its own affairs and decided it was too difficult, and, anyway, not their responsibility.  Do we always seem to abandon former colonies without due care, or is it that the country wants the colonials out as fast as possible?  Whatever the reason, it is hard to walk around and feel proud about what had been ‘given back’.

When I started this account, I hadn’t intended it to be so morose.  However, I should have known better.  All I am describing, if perhaps worse in the Philippines than in many cases, is the typical situation of many luxury hotels in a tourist country.  Quite often the task is to place a (rose-tinted) sheet of glass between the guest and the world outside the hotel.  The task of the hotel group is to offer guests a wonderful experience.  In practice that means time inside the hotel is carefully curated to offer luxury, great dining experiences, and rooms, bars, spas and other facilities that are exceptional.  At the same time, all these facilities have to be familiar, so the guests enjoy their time without being worried about facing any confusion, unpleasantness, uncertainty, or anything else that might be disconcerting.

Some hotel groups have made their reputation in this regard.  Four Seasons hotels were well known for providing an environment and experience that is essentially the same everywhere, so that the (American) guest could enter the hotel and feel ‘at home’ at once.  That might have changed in more recent years, but the expectations of rich American guests are probably much as they always were.  The luxury hotel group with which I have spent a little time over the past couple of decades represents a sincere attempt to get past that kind of insulated experience, offering a ‘sense of place’.  It’s a challenging balancing act.  Distinctive places, distinctive experiences, while ensuring the guest feels safe, comfortable and pampered.

Certainly, twenty years ago a luxury hotel in Manila offered a subtle insulation from the realities of life in the Philippines.  Perhaps I should remove the word ‘subtle’:  when I was there, entry into that hotel was almost like one of those science-fiction films where the doorway takes you into another world!  The cuisine and services in the hotel had a distinct US character, despite attempts to promote the Philippines.  Back then in Makati what I saw was the extraordinary lasting impact of US colonisation which had ended some fifty years earlier.  English was spoken with an American accent.  Hoardings offered US products.  If Subic Bay had the residue of the US military presence, Manila had the lasting culture of US lifestyles.  Not the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but the lifestyles of middle America, with all that entails.  The fact that many servicemen had married and settled in the Philippines added to the picture.  I had to blink twice to make certain I wasn’t in Palmetto Estates, southwest of downtown Miami.

Have you sometimes found a collection of photographs you took twenty or thirty years before.  Once you have got over the shock of seeing yourself as you were back then – if you were foolish enough to allow yourself to be included in shots – the bigger surprise is seeing what these remnants of your experience suggest.  Those cars!  That décor!  That fashion! Good grief, was it really like that back then?  Everything, including shots of your own home town, looks so ‘third world’.  So it is with my recollections of the Philippines.  What I remember isn’t an accurate representation of what I saw at the time, but images and experiences warped by time, by half-remembered experiences, and by an accumulation of stories and interviews in newspapers and magazines over the years.

That was my brief trip to Subic Bay and Makati.  I don’t even have any photographs to curtail the work my imagination has done over the years.  I’m confident that it was an Americanised experience.  I am certain there were many leftovers from the days of the US military.  But the rest?  As I read through this account, it comes across as more like the picture drawn by a second-rate thriller writer, just before the first body turns up!  Sadly, if my one trip there has left me with one deep impression, it is that I have no interest in returning:  it wasn’t my kind of place, and I have managed to convince myself it never will be.  Anyway, I’m not planning to find out – those film set style memories are more than enough!