Sugar Sun series location #12: Benguet Road

The opening scenes of Channel 4’s Indian Summers shows British families making the journey up the foothills of the Himalayas to Shimla, the Crown’s summer capital. There they will relax in the temperate climate: “dance and forget,” as one Indian observer says. “A hotbed of political, social and romantic intrigue set amid rolling hills,” the Guardian wrote, “no place encapsulates the global ambitions as well as the parochial desires of the Raj better than Shimla.”

Benguet Road Baguio location post for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

The Americans may have been late to the Great Game, but they would still have time to fashion their own Shimla in the Philippines. It was not until five years into American rule—on June 1, 1903—that the Philippine Commission officially designed Baguio as the Summer Capital of the Philippines. But the site had been chosen years before as a way to escape the heat of Manila:

There are hotter places than the lowlands of the Philippines—hotter places than Manila—but there is none where there is such a never-ending, boundless continuity of heat, day in and day out, week after week, month after month, throughout the whole cycle of the year—none so insidiously saps the vitality and relaxes the springs of energy native to men from colder climates.

Major L. W. V. Kennon, Tenth Infantry

Nestled in the Cordillera Mountain Range, this outpost offered “rolling, turf-covered hills, studded thick with fragrant pines, and swept by all the breezes.” The Americans now had a chance to create a town from scratch, one that represented everything they thought they were in the Philippines to provide: an orderly, beautiful center of transparent governance and intellectual inquiry. Yes, American colonial officials took their “City on a Hill” idealism seriously. The only problem was they did not have a way to get up the Hill.

The Yanks envisioned a railroad up the mountainside to Baguio, but they had to settle for a wagon road along the Bued River Canyon. This “simple” trail cost enough to build that by 1906 there was no money left to build a railroad—or to fully develop the city of Baguio itself. And though it was just meant to be a temporary passage, Kennon Road (Route 56), named after the American engineer in charge of the project, still exists. It is the shortest route to Baguio, and one of the most dangerous roads in the Philippines.

Benguet Road Baguio location post for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Rockwork on the first big cliff above Camp 1 in 1901.

The danger is what made construction so expensive in the first place. Initial work began in January 1901 on a cliff above what would become Camp 1. Workers needed to first climb up to dangerous heights, then set dynamite charges, and finally get to safety before the charges blew. Some workers were a little reluctant to scale the cliffs in the first place, and they had to be shamed into it:

On reaching the 50-foot ladder, the men had categorically refused to ascend, proving equally deaf to threats or appeals, and had only done so after the disgusted foreman had ordered his wife to mount: “She did so and the whole party, following her, moved on its way.”

Quoted in Greg Bankoff’s “‘These Brothers of Ours’: Poblete’s Obreros and the Road to Baguio 1903-1905”

Benguet Road Baguio location post for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

And if the working conditions did not kill you, the other workers might: “a timekeeper was attacked with bolos…and several horses were mutilated by the same means.” Having started construction in the midst of a fierce guerrilla war, recruitment was an even bigger challenge than cutting down cliffs.

The original workforce was made of impressed Igorot tribesmen, considered to be “a vastly superior animal” who could be trusted “without the necessity of a white foreman to watch him,” according to one of the American engineers. (Even when trying to pay compliments, the Yanks could not help but be paternalistic and racist.) The Americans disparaged the Spanish-style corvée method—after they had already used it to construct over 1,000 miles of roads in the islands—because they felt the need to “raise” the Filipino by offering “fair wages, training, and education.” (Despite their grand talk, they did also try convict labor. But shackled prisoners were not great choices for cliff work. Moreover, the men were a flight risk.)

Benguet Road Baguio location post for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

The result was initially almost no workers at all. By January 1903, at the time of the official designation of Baguio as the summer capital, there were only two to four men at work on the road each day. Something had to be done. The Americans started hiring whomever they could get: Native Americans, Hawaiians, Mexicans, Peruvians, Chileans, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, Germans, Irish, English, French, Swedes, Spaniards, and all the peoples of the northern Philippines, from Ilocanos to Visayans.

The most problematic were the Tagalogs, according to Kennon. But he really meant one particular Tagalog: a labor recruiter named Pascual Poblete. At the center of the Kennon-Poblete controversy is the American definition of what constitutes “fair wages.” Poblete had recruited hundreds of workers with talk of one to two dollars gold a day, as long as the Filipino did the same amount of work as an American laborer. This may have been a possible negotiation point, but the starting rate for Filipinos workers was twenty-five cents gold—a quarter to an eighth what these men had been led to expect, and an eighth of an unskilled American’s salary. When they got to Twin Peaks, they found out the truth about “fair wages.” And they walked out.

Benguet Road Baguio location post for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Though the Poblete worker walk-out was a cause célebre in Manila, it was only mentioned once in the New York Times. Note that despite the Times‘s claim that Chinese were the best workers, 500 to 1000 were let go for being “difficult to manage,” according to scholar Greg Bankoff.

As the disappointed laborers made their way home, they met other Poblete-recruited workers heading out to Benguet. These latter men heard tales of abuse and maltreatment by Americans—not all of which seems possible given the short tenure of their employ—and a crowd of angry workers flooded back to Manila to rally around their recruiter. Poblete, who also happened to own the nationalist newspaper, El Grito del Pueblo, wasted no time in embarrassing the new civil administration under Governor Taft. His most hated targets, though, were the Filipino collaborators in the Philippine Commission and the members of the Partido Federal who were advocating for US statehood. This labor event became a rallying cry for all those who saw the Americanistas as “los mismos perros con distintos collares,” or “the same dogs with different collars.”

The men who stayed in camp to work were divided into three groups for bunking and eating: Americans (including all Europeans and Africans), Orientals (Chinese, Japanese, and Indians), and Natives (Filipinos). Americans were paid the most and ate the best:

Benguet Road Baguio location post for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

The Americans did try to help out their Filipino workers keep their “fair wages” by not allowing labor agents and patrons to siphon twenty percent off the top in kickbacks. Any foremen taking money from their crews in such an arrangement would be dismissed. One white foreman was sentenced to six months in Bilibid Prison for this kind of graft. Eventually, workers would be encouraged to bring their families up to the road as a way of keeping the men happy and tranquil. There were bands who played during work hours so the men could let “the dirt fly in time to the music.” And there were dances, saloons, and even a cockpit.

By October 1903, there were twenty thousand men at work on the Benguet Road, just under half of whom were Filipinos. A large number of these were folks from northern Luzon, particularly Ilocanos. Despite the full complement of workers, though, most experts predicted that it would still take at least three years to build the road. They did not count on Kennon’s eagerness to win a bet. Someone wagered him that the road would not be passable by January 1905, so on the 29th of that month, Major Kennon drove his calesa from Camp 4 into Baguio—along the most difficult and dangerous stretch of the route, a portion known as the Zig-Zag. Though the road was not quite finished, it would only take another year and a half Kennon handed it over to the Philippine Commission to administer in November 1906.

Traffic on the road was mostly mule teams and ox carts from 1906 to 1909, when Stanley Steamer cars were introduced. The next year, they brought in De Dion-Bouton petrol buses, with the world’s first 70 horsepower, 8-cylinder engines. A ride on these Benguet Auto Line buses was included in a railroad ticket from Manila, which cost P27 per person (about $365 in 2016 dollars) for a first-class fare, and P23 ($311 now) for second class.

Benguet Road Baguio location post for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The first petrol buses heading up the Benguet Road. Photos courtesy of the American Historical Collection at Ateneo de Manila, reprinted at the Surrey Vintage Vehicle Society.

That’s steep compared to the $15 bus fare today, but even a $300 ticket would not make up for the cost of building the road itself: P3,923,694. That equals $1.9 million in (gold) 1905 dollars, and $53 million in 2016 dollars. The cost breaks down to P147,895 per mile, or $2 million per mile in today’s terms. Before you call the road a boondoggle, though, know that $2 million a mile is about right for a new 2-lane undivided road in rural areas, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. (Admittedly, they are talking about a paved road that is not regularly washed out by flooding, but who’s quibbling?)

Baguio lost its accreditation as summer capital in 1913, but that did not stop Americans from playing there. One regular use was by the Thomasite teachers, who developed a Vacation Assembly Camp. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post on that.) Moreover, the first Episcopal bishop of the Philippines, Charles Henry Brent, build his school for American children in Baguio, the first of what is today three international school branches, including Manila and Subic. Not only did I work in the Manila branch of Brent School, but the founder’s son of my current school worked at the original in Baguio. And, in my upcoming book, Sugar Moon, the story will begin with the Benguet road construction and end with Teacher’s Camp.

In my career, all roads lead to Benguet—once the Americans built them.

[Featured image courtesy of the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.]

Sugar Sun series glossary term #33: water cure

I spend a lot of time writing about the good stuff, like sex on traditional Philippine furniture. (For example, here and here.) But my blog is not all fun and games. I have set my novels in the Philippine-American War, and that was a horrible war. I have posted before on how the war began, how it was conducted, and a little bit about battles and operations—but I have avoided this particular post for a long time. This is the post on the water cure.

If you’re not feeling like anything disturbing, heavy, or possibly enraging, do go check out those other posts about sexy times on antique furniture. Come back to this another time.

Warning: If you do choose to stay, please note that this post discusses a practice at least partly motivated by racism. A few of the historic sources include racist language or judgments.

35th US Volunteer Infantry illustrating the water cure in the Philippine-American War
The 35th US Volunteer Infantry Regiment in what is thought to be a staged photo of the water cure. The fact that this group of men did stage it reveals a lot about how normalized the practice was to them.

The water cure is a little different than modern-day waterboarding. In waterboarding, water is poured over a cloth covering the face to simulate the sensation of drowning. That may seem like it’s some sort of fake out, but it does cause real injuries. The water cure, though, is even more physical. In this practice, they laid a prisoner on his back, stood another man on each hand and foot, and forced a hollow tube into the victim’s throat. Through the tube they poured an entire pail of saltwater, dished up with a little sand to inflict a more severe punishment. When the prisoner did not give up, they poured in another pailful. Once the unlucky victim’s belly was “distended to the point of bursting,” a soldier would “tap” it with the butt of his gun. If the water did not spout high enough, they would jump up and down on his stomach. In the words of A. F. Miller of the 32nd Volunteer Infantry Regiment: “They swell[ed] up like toads. I’ll tell you it [was] a terrible torture.”

According to historian Darius Rejali, “Even a small amount of water in the glottis causes violent coughing, initiating a fight-or-flight response…triggering desperate efforts to break free. The supply of oxygen…is exhausted within seconds. While this is sometimes called ‘an illusion of drowning,’ the reality is that death will follow if the procedure is not stopped in time.” And it did.

Facsimile of a Woodcut in J. Damhoudère’s Praxis Rerum Criminalium, Antwerp, 1556.

This cruel technique was first introduced in the Spanish Inquisition and then spread throughout medieval Europe. The Spanish brought it to the Philippines, trained local scouts in the practice, and then those scouts taught the American soldiers. Some soldiers were more eager than others to use it. Major Edwin Glenn and “Glenn’s Brigade” were infamous for water curing thirteen priests of Samar—half of the clergy on the island—and they even killed one of the priests in the process. This was a part of the “howling wilderness” period.

When the American public found out about what Glenn had been up to in the islands, he was court-martialed. Actually, Glenn was brought to court three times. The first time he was found guilty of uncivilized conduct in war, despite his claims that the water cure could be a remedy for dengue fever. (Yes, he really did try that excuse. He even called witnesses to testify to this. It’s in the 1902 archives of the Manila Times.) He was given a one-month suspension and fined fifty dollars. (In comparison, the man he water cured that time, the mayor of Igbaras in Iloilo, was sentenced to ten years hard labor for what he was confessed under duress.) Glenn was court-martialed a second time for killing seven prisoners of war, though he was acquitted. Finally, he was sued in civil court for $15,000 (over $420,000 in 2016 dollars) by a former revolutionary named Calda. I have never found out how this last case ended, but I do appreciate the hutzpah that encouraged it. Since Glenn retired as a brigadier general from the Army, I can assume that nothing stuck.

Rays Daughter novel including illustration of water cure by US volunteers
One US veteran wrote a series of fiction novels about the war, and he included an image of the water cure in the preface illustrations.

Stories like the ones about Glenn’s Brigade were said to have “covered with a foul blot the flag which we all love and honor” by Senator Hoar (R) of Massachusetts. This led to an official inquiry in the Senate by the Committee on the Philippines. The discussion was fractious. Henry Cabot Lodge, another Republican senator from Massachusetts, chaired the committee—not because he wanted to uncover atrocities, but because he wanted to steer the committee away from doing any such thing. (Yes, two senators from the same state and the same party were sworn enemies on this issue.)

Lodge in particular did not want to criticize anything that soldiers did in the name of empire. He said that the water cure had:

…grown out of the conditions of warfare, of the war that was waged by the Filipinos themselves, a semicivilized people, with all the tendencies and characteristics of Asiatics, with the Asiatic indifference to life, with the Asiatic treachery and the Asiatic cruelty, all tinctured and increased by three hundred years of subjection to Spain.

Way to pass the buck, dude. (I’d like to remind readers that the water cure originated in Europe, not Asia.)

Life Magazine cover on the Water Cure on 22 May 1902 after Senate Lodge Committee hearings on atrocities in the Philippines
The 22 May 1902 cover of Life magazine captures the national (and international) discussion about the water cure. The British veterans in the background are saying: “Those pious Yankees can’t throw stones at us any more.”

Despite Senator Lodge’s and Senator’s Beveridge’s (R-IN) staunch support of “military necessity,” soldiers did testify to atrocities they witnessed in the Philippines. Even Lt. General Nelson A. Miles told the Secretary of War that the conflict had been fought with “marked severity.” The evidence, and Miles’s remarks, were printed in the newspapers across the United States.

Novelist and prominent anti-imperialist Mark Twain wrote about the hypocrisy of Americans fighting a war to “civilize” another country and then succumbing to the very barbarism they sought to expunge. His essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is one of his best and most biting pieces of satire:

The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: “There is something curious about this — curious and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” …And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one — our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.

Mark Twain redesigned Old Glory with skull crossbones and black stripes reprinted in Vietnam anti-war protests
The Twain version of Old Glory, as republished in 1968 on the cover of Ramparts magazine.

In the midst of the 1902 crisis, President Theodore Roosevelt tried to limit the damage to blaming a few weak men:

The temptation to retaliate for the fearful cruelties of a savage foe is very great, and now and then it has been yielded to. There have been a few, and only a few, such instances in the Philippines, and punishment has been meted out with unflinching justice to the offenders.

But was this truly just a few bad apples? Certainly, many of the soldiers knew of the practice. They even sang songs to it.

Water cure battle cry song as published in Life magazine
A soldier’s song as published in Life magazine 8 May 1902. Some sources suspect that the lyrics were originally written as satire, but others report it being sung widely by soldiers in all seriousness.

The commanders in the field knew better than to underestimate the problem. In 1903, an expedition in Surigao declared:

…let there be no water curing or severity that is not plainly authorized without straining interpretations of [the] law of war… .Anyone who disgraces our uniform by engaging in such barbarous practices will be punished on the spot… .Success will not be marred by any well founded complaints of undue severity and flagrant misconduct.

What does this prove? That seventy years before Vietnam and one hundred years before Iraq, there was a national conversation about how America should exercise its authority abroad. Unfortunately, though, nothing was concluded. The controversy was quelled by a conveniently timed declaration of “peace” in the islands on July 4, 1902. (It was not peace, though: fighting would continue until 1913, including other, bigger atrocities, like the hundreds of civilian dead at Bud Dajo.)

When the military handed power over to a civil government under Governor William Howard Taft, Americans at home believed their problems were solved. However, because America did not finish the conversation, the public was forced to have it all over again in 1969 (when the My Lai massacre story broke) and in 2004 (when the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal broke). Does the end always justify the means? What if the means makes the end goal—peace—impossible? Unfortunately, Americans may be tiring of these questions before they can come to a consensus about the answers.

The administration of President Donald J. Trump has recently declared its intention to hide a 2014 report describing the CIA’s harsh detention and interrogation programs. By returning the document to Congress, this shields the report from ever being accessible to the American public through the Freedom of Information Act. Throwing this 6700-page report down the memory hole has more of a precedent than we would like to think. We’ve forgotten before.

(Note: Featured image is a cartoon by William Carson, which was printed in the Saturday Globe (Utica, New York) on 8 April 1899. It shows Uncle Sam sinking into the quagmire of the Philippine-American War as Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo resists his American “rescue.” The caption says, “A bigger job than he thought for.” Uncle Sam says: “Behave, you fool! Darn me, if I ain’t most sorry I undertook to rescue you.”)

What’s So “New” about Imperialism?

In my last post for the Edwardian Promenade, I called the Edwardian Era an age of New Imperialism. What was so “new” about imperialism, you ask? Well, there were new players: Germany, Japan, and the United States, to name three. And there were new technologies: industrial transport and communication opened up the interiors of Africa and India, as well as tying together the disparate islands of the Pacific.

New Sea Power

But one of the most puzzling aspects of New Imperialism was its doctrine: “Yes, we are here in your country, ruling your people, and pilfering your resources—but it is all meant to help you, not us.” Cue the world’s oppressed people saying: “Are you kidding me?”

Cartoon from the April 1899 issue of Judge magazine.
Cartoon from the April 1899 issue of Judge magazine.

Well, no, the imperialists were not kidding. In fact, they wrote poetry about how much they were not kidding. Here is Rudyard Kipling telling the Americans that it is their turn to play the game:

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child….

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

The people may hate you for it, Kipling was saying, but it is the Americans’ duty to colonize the Philippines and refashion the islands in the mold of Anglo-American civilization. You see, it was 1899. The previous year, as the opening salvo in the Spanish-American War, the United States had seized Manila. One small problem: they did not know what to do with it. Could this be the Americans’ own foothold in Asia, their economic entrepôt to compete with the Great Powers in China?

December 1898 Puck cartoon shows Uncle Sam welcoming world trade in his off-shore entrepôt.
December 1898 Puck cartoon shows Uncle Sam welcoming world trade in his off-shore entrepôt.

President William McKinley thought so. And, unlike those gauche Spaniards, the Americans would be enlightened rulers. He proclaimed:

…we come not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights….[The American military must] win the confidence, respect and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines…by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule. [emphasis mine]

William Howard Taft, the first civil governor of the Philippines (and eventual President of the United States), was credited with saying that the Filipinos would be our “Little Brown Brothers,” which—get this—was too nice for the tastes of most Americans. U.S. soldiers on the march in the Philippines sang in response: “He may be a brother of Big Bill Taft, but he ain’t no brother of mine.” (The ditty was eventually prohibited by officers because it did not give a great impression, to say the least.)

its-up-to-them-web
“It’s ‘up to’ them.” Uncle Sam gives the Filipinos the choice of either a soldier or a schoolteacher: the stick or the carrot. This Puck centerfold was published on 20 November 1901.

To be fair, there were some attempts at benevolence by the Americans. To name a few: the establishment of the first secular, coeducational public school system in the islands; the creation of American university scholarships for the brightest Filipino youth; the building of ports, roads, telegraph lines, irrigation systems, hospitals, schools, and universities; the creation of a Filipino National Assembly; several Filipino Commissioners to advise the American governors; and a Supreme Court of the Philippines, led by a Filipino chief justice. This was not really democracy, but it was not the Belgian Congo, either.

american-chastisement
From left to right: The trench of dead Moros at Bud Dajo (1906), a demonstration of the “water cure” by the 35th Volunteer Infantry, and the news headlines about General Smith’s orders to kill all Filipinos capable of bearing arms, which he defined as over the age of ten.

Still, there were plenty of ugly aspects to American rule in the Philippines, as you can see above. Occupation is always dirty. There was the Moro War, the water cure, and the Howling Wilderness of Samar. And, of course, there were the double-standard economic policies of the insular regime. The Americans set up a system by which American goods were sold in the Philippines tariff-free, but Filipino goods were taxed twice, both when they were exported from the Philippines and when they arrived in the United States. Where did that tariff revenue go? To pay the tab of the American administration, of course.

The hypocrisy of New Imperialism prompted English writer and politician Henry Labouchère to write the “Brown Man’s Burden”:

Pile on the brown man’s burden
To gratify your greed;
Go, clear away the “n—”
Who progress would impede;
Be very stern, for truly
’Tis useless to be mild
With new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child…

Pile on the brown man’s burden,
compel him to be free;
Let all your manifestoes
Reek with philanthropy.
And if with heathen folly
He dares your will dispute,
Then, in the name of freedom,
Don’t hesitate to shoot.

Before you pat Labouchère on the back for his progressive skewering of Kipling’s motives, do know that he was an homophobic campaigner whose most lasting legacy was the Labouchère Amendment that made all sexual activity between men a crime. (This is the law that Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing were prosecuted under.) And Labouchère was not the only anti-imperialist who might disappoint our modern sensibilities. Both Andrew Carnegie and William Jennings Bryan were anti-imperialists, but their opposition was actually based on racism of all things. Carnegie wanted us to only take land that would “produce Americans, and not foreign races,” and Bryan worried about Chinese and Filipino immigration “exciting a friction and a race prejudice” that would damage America’s homogeneity.

Images of Carnegie, Bryan, and Twain from the public domain.

Before you despair, though, let’s move onto Mark Twain, whose essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is one of the best pieces of political satire ever published, in my opinion:

Shall we? That is, shall we go on conferring our Civilization upon the peoples that sit in darkness, or shall we give those poor things a rest? Shall we bang right ahead in our old-time, loud, pious way, and commit the new century to the game; or shall we sober up and sit down and think it over first? Would it not be prudent to get our Civilization-tools together, and see how much stock is left on hand in the way of Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim Guns and Hymn Books, and Trade-Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion), and balance the books, and arrive at the profit and loss, so that we may intelligently decide whether to continue the business or sell out the property and start a new Civilization Scheme on the proceeds?

In a similar vein, Twain also “updated” the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Howe’s abolitionist hymn, to more properly reflect what he felt Americans had been doing in the Philippines:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

And, if that was not enough, Twain redesigned the American flag to include skulls and crossbones instead of stars. Twain gives us some faith that not every American bought into the plunder-but-call-it-progress ideology of New Imperialism.

mark_twains_american_flag_1901
The American Flag as redesigned in 1901 by Mark Twain. Image found here.

Featured image at the top of the page is the 20 March 1901 cover of Puck.

Sugar Sun series location #6: Luneta

Wealthy doñas, notoriously late risers, would bathe and dress just in time to catch the evening breeze that cooled the bay and blew away the mosquitos. Once there, they would catch up on the latest tsismis, gossip passed from calesa to calesa like a tattler’s telegraph. Then they would be off to eat and dance at a friend’s house, returning home shortly before dawn to sleep through another morning. Meanwhile, their servants ran their households, farms, and shops.

Javier’s carriage got in line with the others circling in comfort, leaving the poor to walk the shoreline. Calling the Luneta a park was a bit generous, considering the utter lack of trees or foliage. The only decorations were incandescent gas lanterns circling the perimeter, sort of like candles on a vast birthday cake.

Under the Sugar Sun

The Luneta at sunset.

Called the “Champs-Elysées of the Philippines” by a French physician in the early nineteenth century, Luneta Park was also dubbed “the favorite drive of the wealthy [and] the favorite walk of the poor people.”

There were three good reasons for this. First, as one American wrote: “The sunsets from the Luneta have been more than pyrotechnic, and I now believe that nowhere do you see such displays of color as in the Orient, Land of the Sunrise.” Troubling Orientalist fetish aside, I think he’s right. And the sunsets may have actually gotten better with pollution, as long as you like the color red. Hey, don’t blame me—Scientific American actually agrees.

Creative commons image of a Manila sunset by Randy Galang.

The second and third reasons for the popularity of the Luneta come from Edith Moses, wife of one of the first Philippine commissioners: “There is always a breeze and there are no mosquitoes; besides that, one meets everyone he knows, and ladies visit in each other’s carriages in an informal way….There is the comfort of dispensing with hat and gloves, and many ladies and almost all young girls drive in low-necked dinner or evening dresses.” It boils down to (2) no mosquitos and (3) a serious party.

If the Luneta was the place to be, naturally it was where Javier took Georgina on their first “date,” though she did not realize that’s what it was. He’s a sly dog, that Javier. He’s also part Spanish, and the Spanish were the first to ritualize visits at the Luneta, including the rules of the road, prompting Georgina to ask:

“What would happen if we turned the carriage around and circled in the other direction?”

Javier laughed. “You are a rebel, Maestra.”

“No, really,” she urged on. “This whole orderly migration—I just can’t reconcile it with the chaos of the rest of the city.”

“That’s why the Spanish liked it,” he answered. “Only the archbishop and governor-generals’ carriages were allowed to pass against the line. That way you had no excuse but to recognize and salute them as they passed.”

“You could get in trouble for forgetting?”

“Absolutely. The Peninsulares believed it important to punish people for small sins lest they attempt any larger ones. It’s not an uncommon assumption among occupiers.”

Under the Sugar Sun

Ouch. Javier was not a huge fan of the newly-arrived Americans, as most readers know, which is why of course he was destined to fall in love with one. But he had a point: the Yankees ultimately ruined a good thing.

A close up of an 1899 photo of the Luneta. These girls look like they're having fun!
The featured 1899 photo of the Luneta. These girls look like they’re having fun! (Umm, that was sarcasm. Look at the companion on the left with her arms folded across her chest.)

Maybe it was because the Luneta was not grand enough for them. The wife of Governor William Howard Taft was underwhelmed at first:

“And now we come to the far-famed Luneta,” said Mr. Taft, quite proudly.

“Where?” I asked. I had heard much of the Luneta and expected it to be a beautiful spot.

“Why, here. You’re on it now,” he replied. An oval drive, with a bandstand inside at either end—not unlike a half-mile race track—in an open space on the bay shore; glaringly open. Not a tree; not a sprig of anything except a few patches of unhappy looking grass. There were a few dusty benches around the bandstands, nothing else—and all burning in the white glare of the noonday sun.

While Helen Taft did eventually warm to this “unique and very delightful institution,” it was not love at first sight. She was not the only one, either. One American wrote a letter back to her friend in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which the friend sought fit to publish in the local Republican: “The Luneta is crowded every afternoon with officers dressed in spotless white from their heads to their heels driving fast horses and flirting with other men’s wives. The husbands, as a rule, are at the front and only get in occasionally, tired out and dirty, and it makes me sick.”

There had always been a social side to what went on at the park—innocent courtship right under the friars’ and nuns’ noses—which is why the place was an early favorite of my character Allegra. But it took American naval officers to add infidelity to the list of pastimes. Officers courting a querida was common enough that it was captured in this awesome 1899 Harper’s Weekly centerfold, of which an original hangs in my dining room (because eBay makes such delights possible).

G. W. Peter’s illustration, “An Evening Concert on the Luneta,” which was published in Harper’s Weekly as the centerfold on 25 November 1899. I color-corrected a high resolution image I found to bring out the American soldiers on the right side.

There seems to have always been music at the Luneta—small bands were ubiquitous in the islands, and every village had at least one—but the Americans congratulated themselves for adding the Philippine Constabulary Band to the regular roster. These musicians, led by African-American conductor Lt. Walter H. Loving, were widely noted for their excellence. They not only traveled to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair, but they were also invited to play at President Taft’s 1909 inauguration.

Part of the March 8, 1909, feature on the band’s concert for Taft’s inauguration. In an earlier Boston Globe article, it quoted Maj. Gen. Franklin J. Bell, of American reconcentrado fame, as calling for an end to “freak features” of the parade. Even the above article, which was very favorable to the band, claims that the men had “never seen an instrument” before the American arrival, which is so preposterous a claim that only other Americans would believe it.
The band in the March 1909 blizzard inauguration of President William Howard Taft.
A photo of the band in the March 1909 blizzard inauguration of President William Howard Taft.

One of the Constabulary Band’s favorite numbers was one Americans would still recognize, as it is played by modern university marching bands at football games:

“Hey, that’s ‘Hot Time in the Old Town,’” Georgina exclaimed. “How’d they learn American music?”

“The ‘Hototay’ we call it,” Allegra said. She sat between Javier and Georgina, but she was too tiny to be much of a barrier. “The song is everywhere, even funerals. Filipinos think it is your national anthem.”

Georgina laughed. “Maybe it should become yours.”

“You suggest we adopt the drinking song of an occupying army?” Even before Javier finished the question, he regretted asking it. Hay sus, why couldn’t he keep his mouth shut?

—Under the Sugar Sun

Maybe Javier was a bit sensitive, but Georgina certainly did arrive in the Philippines with the “benevolent assimilation” bias of the other Insulares and Thomasites, though she will take her mission to an interesting and sexy extreme. Though it is important to point out that even at the beginning, she was not hateful. Many were. Take the author of those 1900 letters published in the Scranton Republican, who said: “As soon as the concert is over, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is played…Every soldier and sailor and all the Filipinos (deceitful wretches) stand with uncovered heads until the last strains die away…” (italics mine).

Maybe you can forgive the woman her racism because Manila was still a field of battle in the Philippine-American War, but maybe not. The Americans were, after all, the intruders. My husband gave me a huge coffee table book from 1899 entitled Our Islands and Their Peoplea threatening premise, as if “their people” are infesting “our islands,” and how dare they! The text of the book is pretty neutral, and the photographs themselves beautiful, but the captions are outrageous. You can read more on the racism of the day here.

The Americans believed that they were improving the islands, but they did not improve the Luneta. In fact, they may have ruined it. If you have been to the Luneta, you are probably confused by everything written above because the main body of the park is most definitely not along the shoreline—not anymore. In the construction of the port of Manila in 1903-1908, the Americans reclaimed 200 acres of land along the bay.

By 1913, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “Today the Luneta remains as it was in the old Spanish days, but its chief charm, the seaward view, is gone. This is due to the filling in of the harbor front, which has left the Luneta a quarter of a mile from the waterfront.” On their new land, the Americans built a “Gringo Luneta,” in the words of Nick Joaquin, and it was here that they eventually put their own exclusive social clubs, like the Elks Club, the Army and Navy Club, and the Manila Hotel—all gated or indoor establishments. They managed to keep the seaside space for themselves and relegate the poor to their own homes. What a shame.

A postcard from the Commonwealth period, 1934-1946.
A postcard from the Commonwealth period, 1934-1946.

Another thing lost in the American expansion was the beautiful shoreline drive, called the Malecón, a whole new post!

Sugar Sun series location #3: Escolta

Described as the Fifth Avenue of Manila, the Escolta was the central business district of the city. Named after the escort (escolta) that accompanied the Spanish governor-general in his excursions here, the street developed a reputation as the ritziest row in Manila. Felice Sta. Maria explained its appeal, as one could always find here “the snobbish precursors of the large department stores and the best of the limited-line stores.” A contemporary account said:

What cannot be bought on the Escolta…is hardly to be found in the city. Harness and hardware, dry goods and diamonds, beer, whisky and cigars, stationery, clothing, drugs, books, notions and wares from India, China, and Japan…

Advertisement from the Witten’s Directory (1902) of Manila, as found on the website of the Pinoy Kollektor.

This busy entrepôt was located outside the Spanish walled-in core of Intramuros—not so surprising when you learn that the whole area, Binondo, was also Manila’s Chinatown. For several hundred years, Hokkien merchants came from the reclusive mainland, loaded with silks, porcelain, and tea to sell to Spanish galleon crews, who were flush with Mexican silver.

Escolta tour by Jennifer Hallock author of the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The post office along the Escolta, part of the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive.

But though the Spanish needed the trade, they also distrusted their partners. For a long time, all Chinese—even those who had converted to Christianity or had been born in Manila, some to Filipino mothers—had to live within a cannon shot from the Crown. And that was not a passive-aggressive threat; it was aggressive-aggressive, as they did use their cannons on occasion. Hence it is especially ironic that while the Chinese built the prosperity of Binondo, the Spanish would later claim the most prosperous street, Escolta, as theirs.

Crop of 1901 photo of Escolta from the photo collection of John Tewell.

When the Americans first arrived, they installed their own cultural touchstones—bars. Helen Taft, the wife of Philippine commissioner and eventual governor, William Howard Taft, wrote about the “beery” odor and dangers to women there. By 1899, the saloons were forced to close at 10 pm, and in February 1900 they were banned from Binondo altogether. (Of course, bars did not disappear from the city entirely. By August 1900 there were over 1100 liquor-selling establishments in Manila. In the first ten months of the American occupation, alcohol imports quadrupled.)

An Escolta street scene from 1901</>. Note the liquor billboards in the upper right corner.

Once this street was again safe for women and their pocketbooks, new stores opened to cater to their needs, including Clarke’s Ice Cream and Heacock’s Department Store. Anyone who was anyone shopped and ate on the Escolta, and then headed out to the Luneta to be seen in the latest Paris or New York fashions. Not bad for a bunch of carpetbaggers.

Escolta was destroyed by the American bombing of Manila in World War II, but it is rising again. Check it out!

Left: Ben and I at the Oarhouse. Right: Ben, Gina, Paul, Derek, me, and Regine at the Fred’s Revolución in Escolta.

Featured public domain image (1899) at the top of this post by J. D. Cress, found the Library of Congress.