The Asian mystique can sometimes be explained by visceral phenomena such as the changing modes of travel and mass transportation, writes Noel Tolentino
In the days of Asia’s kings, rajahs and sultans, main transport system was the horse or the foot. When populations exploded, the Chinese rickshaws, the Thai tuk-tuk and the Philippine jeepneys ruled over Asia’s roads.
Imagine the American war jeep. Add a ceiling and get Michelangelo to paint bucolic sceneries. Give Andy Warhol cans of spray paint for the exterior. Splash the names of eldest children in acrylic or psychedelic color combinations on the front and back. Pad the seats and headdress with foam and leatherette.
String stop lights and blinkers. Sprinkle stickers about macho drivers, sexy women and only loose change in the mornings. Glue luminous religious statuettes on the dashboard. Hang fresh sampaguita flowers on the rear view mirror.
Cover most of the windshield with government documents detailing the driver’s personal data, licenses and driving experience. Pack as many bodies as imaginable. Play Madonna, Britney or any slow rock music. And let loose. That’s the Philippine jeepney.
Fearless and not at all intimidated by size or strength, the jeepneys of the Philippines roar like a lion when they run – louder before they stop and loudest just seconds before they again speed off. These mechanical metal beasts display a fierce attitude while on a prowl for passengers along the paved tracks of the concrete jungles of the country. Surpassing the animal speed of a tuk-tuk, a jeepney also possesses the snake-like flexibility of a rickshaw when forcing itself into small crannies that it always miraculously finds along its often crowded path.
The jeepneys are what remained of the American military presence in the Philippines during the Second World War, used as troop vehicles against the Japanese army who occupied the archipelago during several years. After the Japanese army was defeated and the American military mission was completed, tens and thousands of these American Willy jeeps were left on the islands and soon presented themselves as a test on Filipino creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness.
And so, faced with the challenge to make something out of these metal boxes and transform them into money-making machines, the Filipinos stretched the length of the vehicle, constructed a roof, and then attached two long facing seats from the front to the back.
Later on, in a society devoid of any populist program for art, in a country where art is an indulgence just for a moneyed few, the jeepney became art on wheels, thanks to colors that scream, materials that glisten, and the rabid passion of many a frustrated or starving artist.
Galvanized sheets and stainless steel jumbled with a profusion of mirrors, grills and other accessories, along with randomly picked miniature art pieces, adorned the hood. The sides were wrapped with bold colors that were either painted or airbrushed.
Then the myriad of personal touches – horses and horns, flaps and guards, names and dedications, a color preference, an art theme, a religious icon or invocation, sometimes even a logo of a basketball team or of a famous automotive brand like Mercedes Benz for instance – all a composition of details that proudly carries a signature, a personal statement and ownership.
Very quickly, these Filipino handiworks went all over the place as an affordable means of transportation for almost every imaginable hauling requirement: people, goods, and sometimes even little animals. In fact, the jeepney became a Filipino icon. At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the jeepney was exhibited at the Philippine pavilion as a national image for the Filipinos and promoted as an essential part of any Philippine adventure.
Today, however, in an era of ground-breaking innovations and technology, many things have changed, with some people calling for a phase out of the jeepneys because of safety and environmental concerns, which had happened before the horse shit of the caretela and the noise of the tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuk sounds are now more musical, horseshit is now gone from roads, but jeepney fumes still reign over Philippine roads.
True enough, the jeepney has not changed much in the past decades. The back cabin is like a can of sardines made even tighter by adding “just one more passenger” on every stop, cramming up as many people as possible. So how many people can a jeepney carry? The answer is always “… one more!”
A jeepney driver always unbelievably manages to find room for just “one more passenger” to carry. And even when a jeepney is already overloaded, there is always a desperate soul who is willing to hold onto the outside railings just to reach his destination – an act considered dangerous and illegal, which all the more makes it more exciting, at times empowering, in a society where dodging small fines for petty crimes is often regarded as cool and courageous.
Meanwhile, riding front-seat on a jeepney next to the driver is like having an actual “Mad Max experience,” a description on which even actor Mel Gibson would probably agree. The dashboard area is the driver’s personal space where an assortment of control buttons and gauges, functioning or not, is found, along with other crude devises and mechanical knick-knacks fashioned out from plastic bottles and other scrap materials. Safety features are almost non-existent. Deadly fumes spewed on every roar of the engine.
The past decade has seen a slow decline in the jeepney’s dominant status as the “King of the Road.” To relieve traffic congestion, jeepneys are now banned from major passenger routes and largely replaced by more economical and more comfortable alternatives. Government franchise regulations and rising costs for engines also helped sound the death knell for some in the jeepney industry.
If Asia, taken as a whole, is a potpourri of cultures, the jeepney, taken in particular, is a microcosm of Asia for its mélange of art, kitsch and societal interaction in a compressed space. It is quite distinct from the tuk-tuk or the rickshaw but all three, nevertheless, were once kings of their own roads.
Today, sultans and kings have lost much of their power. One day soon, the Philippine jeepneys might lose theirs too.