Saturday, March 24, 2012

Filipino Thoughts

The Philippines is divided into three main regions: the large islands of Luzon and Mindanao in the north and south respectively, and the cluster of islands in between that is known as the Visayas. It was to the Visayas that the first Europeans came. It is here that the Spaniards first converted the locals to Catholicism, here that they founded their first capital at Cebu (although at the time, in true Catholic fashion, they called it Villa del Santísimo Nombre de Jesús, until they realised that they were spending half their time writing the name on official documents). That the Visayas was the epicentre of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines is evident from the local place names: Toledo, Compostela, Sevilla, Santander, Cadiz and Valladolid all named after great medieval Spanish cities. However political and economic power has long since moved to Manila, with the local Manila language of Tagalog being imposed as the national one despite the fact that more people speak Cebuano and Visaya, a fact which still rankles amongst the locals.

The Baroque church of Miag-ao is the best example of the merging of Spanish and local architectural influences. The main relief shows Saint Christopher walking through a landscape of papaya trees and coconuts.

Although not the first European to visit the Philippine archipelago, the most famous was, of course, Ferdinand Magellan, who, as we all know, was the first man to circumnavigate the globe ... except he didn't. No, he liked the Philippines so much that he decided to stay. Except that's not true either. In a gross error of misjudgement Magellan decided to teach the upstart local chieftain Lapu Lapu the folly of not accepting the suzerainty of the king of Spain. With only 50 men he went to teach Lapu Lapu a lesson in European weapons technology, but even the fancy Spanish crossbows and armour couldn't cope with 1500 natives armed with sharpened bamboo sticks. Most of the crew managed to escape, but Ferdinand was cut down on the beach at Mactan and never made it back home.

Magellan's Cross. A wooden cross that is said to encase the original planted by Magellan when he landed on the shores of the Philippines.

Many critics of the Philippines say that it has no culture, no history. And of course if you compare it to its neighbours in the region: Indonesia, Thailand, China and Vietnam then there is no denying its paucity of recorded history or lasting material monuments prior to the Spanish colonial period. Filipinos certainly took wholeheartedly to Spanish Catholicism and Spanish words clutter the vocabulary of local languages such as Tagalog and Cebuano (although to the casual visitor they may not be so apparent as they blend into the languages far more than the recent English loanwords which sound more dissonant and conspicuous). But it's not a simple copy-paste and the Iberian influence has undergone a distinctly Pinoy transformation: baroque churches have distinctive thick walls, many doors along the sides to create a breeze, and tropical motifs in their decorations. There are even local, home-grown, Christian denominations such as Iglesia ni Cristo.

In culinary culture the Philippines is quite a melting pot: Chinese, Spanish and local influences jostle for position blending steamed dumplings, asado and young jackfruit and banana core salads into a unique and tasty cuisine that is, thankfully, light on the chili. The Spanish touch is particularly evident in the availability and quality of baked goods. Generally in east Asia bread, biscuits, cookies, cakes and the like are rare and of poor quality (almost nobody owns an oven - but then again on the other hand in Europe when we try and cook rice it's generally pretty awful too) but here there are bakeries everywhere with a wide assortment of galetas, coconut pies, pastries and buns; my personal favourites being those filled with ube (a sweet, purple yam). Although the Americans were here for only 50 years their impact is just as strong, or at least more visible. Perhaps most obvious when walking along any Filipino high street is the profusion of fast food chains. But here again it is not a slavish following of American tastes and instead the most popular restaurants are by far and away the local chains such as Jollibee, Chowking and Mang Inasal. In fact Jollibee is so popular that McDonald's is forced to offer spaghetti (Jollibee's most popular item) on its menu in an effort to compete. Music is also an ever-present constant in the Philippines, whether it be blaring from the heavy bass of a souped up jeepney with flashing neon lights, a drunk guy at a karaoke bar singing wildly off tune and out of time or from a band playing in a streetside club. For my ears, at least, the sounds are far more familiar than those I have heard ever since entering Asia with English-language pop dominating the radio waves. Not that this is necessarily a good thing (or better than local music) but it does make me tap my feet. It is also one of the Philippines' great exports. They may perhaps be better-known as domestic help or nurses, but throughout Asia most live music bands, of the sort that play in bars, clubs and small music venues, are Filipino. From Sapporo to Singapore singers who honed their skills on videoke (the local term for karaoke) entertain the masses.

Jollibee, the Philippines' home-grown answer to McDonald's.

In a way the Philippines reminds me of India in how it has been shaped by, and has shaped, its anglophone colonial heritage. Both countries retain figures of speech and etiquettisms that have long since died out in the US and UK respectively. Both have a fondness for Byzantine bureaucracy and have made a religion out of their imported sports: cricket in India and basketball here. Similarly both inherited the idea of democracy from their colonial masters, but despite the succession of elections true democracy has failed to take root as the pillars essential for meaningful democracy to be effective - a free press, an educated population, freedom of speech and a strong and impartial judiciary and rule of law - are not there in sufficient measure.

As a transient traveller, just passing through, this isn't something you really notice or experience, but I like poking my nose around and talking to my local hosts about politics. The only outwardly visible sign that something isn't totally kosher is the preponderance of signs declaiming the general fantasticness of the local mayor for erecting the local basketball court or putting up benches in the park (as if that wasn't their job anyway). It's all self-promotion and part of the subversion of democracy that is endemic. Here families run provinces like personal little fiefdoms. It's not uncommon for the governor's wife to be the senator and their children to be mayors and congressmen, and those offspring that are not in politics run business monopolies. It is thought that only a hundred or so families control all the political power in the country, with three quarters of the parliament made up of members of established political dynasties. Cronyism is endemic and abuses of power myriad. The ruling elite are never brought to justice which further perpetuates the sense of impunity that, in its most extreme form, led to the brutal and shocking Maguindanao Massacre two years ago. A convoy of journalists, women, children and aides (as well as some unconnected bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time) travelling to file the candidacy of an opposition figure in upcoming elections were mercilessly gunned down by the son of the incumbent governor (who was himself running for the post as his father had reached the limit of his two terms) and his henchmen. Here if you are in the ruling elite you need to kill 58 people before you're brought to trial. And it's not isolated but permeates the country. I have spoken to many people who can relate their own experiences of small businesses being blocked or forced out, or who have had family members disappeared due to human rights activism, their abductors (and probable killers) almost certainly in the military or government.

It's truly sad to see such a beautiful country, with a friendly, bubbly and hard working population being so abused by its rulers. Following WWII the Philippines was the second most developed country in Asia, behind Japan, but since then has stagnated thanks to chronic mismanagement and corruption. There have even been popular, and successful, revolutions that have ousted dictators from power, but things have invariably always slid back to their pernicious ways. Whether things will improve I don't know, but certainly don't envisage in the near future, though I certainly hope so. People like to bandy about Maistre's quote that "every country has the government it deserves". Filipinos certainly deserve better.


Anonymous said...

Reading your travel blog made me feel sorry for my country and fellow countrymen, for I am totally with you that we, Filipinos, definitely deserve better than this circus we call government.

There are a lot of patriots, one is a group called Magdalo, who drive the citizens to resist against dynastic oligarchy but yet to be successful, primarily because we tend to turn a blind eye on everything, allow convicts to leave prisons as they wish (the case of Rolito Go), and a vote is worth a hundred pesos (that's less than $2, depending on the current exchange rates).

However comedic our government is, the 99% of the citizens are, like what you have mentioned, honest and hard working, and are only but victims of the 1% of the elites we call business magnates (more like monopolists), politicians and high ranking military officials.

I hope you come and visit us once again. The situation will probably be the same, probably it will not be in this lifetime that we will notice a positive change, but still, I hope that visitors such as yourself will get to enjoy our country before we are sold to China.

Erik said...

I'm glad that you, as a Filipino, saw something true in what I, as only a transient visitor, was able to see. I truly enjoyed my time in the Philippines, and although I don't know whether I will ever go back (not because I don't like it, but because I am constantly drawn to places that I have not yet been) I certainly hold a lot of affection for it. I certainly hope that your country gets the government it deserves (and not the one it has now).