Sunday, 4 December 2011

Manila: Jeepneys, Chinatown and Jose Rizal

I had forgotten quite how ubiquitous jeepneys are in Manila. They throng the roads, bus stations and petrol pumps, crowding out everything else. There are similar, if less extravagant, vehicles in Bangkok (called ‘song-tau’ in Thai) but since the introduction of the metro and the skytrain they have become something of an endangered species. This photo gallery includes Manila's Chinatown, a vintage jeepney factory, the Chinese cemetery, revisiting street children two years on, and the Jose Rizal shrine at Fort Santiago. Read my Philippines blogs »

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Movement of the masses: the Filipino jeepney

A newly-built jeepney at Sarao Motors, complete with five extra headlights.
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
I’ve been fascinated by jeepneys since the first time I first visited Manila in 2009. The psychedelic, graffiti-style artwork mixing religion and pop culture. The names and slogans emblazoned on the front, like ‘Evangeline’ or ‘God is Love’, dwarfing the actual destination. The myriad of coloured streamers and extra, false headlights that serve no practical purpose whatsoever. Decked out in all this finery, they speed up and down the main roads of Manila, picking people up and dropping them off apparently at random. They pile up at traffic lights, sounding their horns in a continuous cacophony and pumping black exhaust fumes into the already polluted atmosphere.

Jeepneys are the unofficial symbol of Manila, featured on T-shirts and found in model form at souvenir shops throughout the capital. Originally made from World-War-II-era American jeeps, they are now mass produced, extravagantly decorated and transformed into low-cost busses. They are the main mode of public transport in the Philippines and often as overcrowded as the islands themselves, with passengers hanging off the back or sitting on the roof. I simply had to try one out.

My boss, Angela, told me that jeepneys tend to ply the main roads through Manila in a more or less straight line so I clambered aboard the open back of one that was waiting at a junction for the lights to change. I took my place on a narrow bench along one side, nearest to the driver. Once the jeepney set off, other passengers started to pass their money hand-to-hand up the bench towards me. Slightly bemused, I passed the resulting wad of cash to the driver who, at the next junction, returned me a handful of change. I passed this back down the row and, in a remarkable show of honesty and cooperation, everyone took out exactly what they were owed.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Filipino history and the 'Pied Piper of Manila'

Carlos holds a portrait of Filipino ‘national hero’, Jose Rizal
Photo © Andy Brown/2011/Philippines
When I think of the great histories of the world – the Roman civil war of the First Century BC, the ‘Three Kingdoms’ of Imperial China, the British Raj and the partition of India – the Philippines doesn’t get much of a look in. But this oft-neglected corner of the world has a fascinating heritage that occasionally places it at the heart of global events in surprising ways.

I was first introduced to Filipino history in 2009 by Carlos Celdran, the self-styled ‘Pied Piper of Manila’, his diminutive figure and larger-than-life character dressed up in Nineteenth Century top hat and tails. Every week, Carlos takes tourists and locals around Manila’s handful of historic buildings – those that survived World War II – and treats them to, not so much a tour, as a piece of stand-up political theatre.

In this performance, Carlos charts the last thousand years of Filipino history, demolishing some of its central myths along the way. Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero, gets a gentle ribbing, while US General Douglas McArthur gets a savage mauling. All of this is delivered in a humorous and entertainingly over-the-top style. “There’s a Dutch word for people like this,” my friend Martijn said. “It translates as ‘pleasantly insane’.”