Sugar Sun series glossary term #21: bahay kubo

As Fernando Zialcita and Martin Tinio Jr. wrote in their beautiful book, Philippine Ancestral Houses: “Southeast Asians share many things in common: patis [fish sauce], bagoong [fermented fish paste], certain linguistic patterns, and a high regard for women’s rights. But the most visible symbol is surely the ubiquitous house on stilts.”

An 1898 photo of three American soldiers in front of a bahay kubo. This house is particularly low, so it does not include the thatched siding used for the bottom silong area, as seen in later photos.

In the Philippines, if you are looking for traditional architecture untouched by Spanish and American influences, look no further than the bahay kubo, or “cube house.” And though there are many regional variations, in the lowland areas a cube is a perfect description:

These houses are usually about fifteen feet square, with one large room, and are raised about six feet from the ground. Under the house is kept the live stock. When the family has a horse or cow or carabao the house is ten feet from the ground, and these animals are stabled underneath. In nearly every house or yard may be found a game cock tied by the leg to prevent him from roaming and fighting.

Street of nipa huts in 1900 Manila, in a photograph from the University of Michigan archive.

Americans often called these residences nipa huts, even though not all have roofs of thatched nipa palm. Anahaw palm leaves or cogon grass are similarly popular.

A village street postcard from the early twentieth century. Featured image is another similar postcard.

The frames are made of coco lumber, hardwood (if you were rich), and split bamboo. Again, here is Zialcita and Tinio:

A unique feature of the bahay kubo is that its floor is, by turns, a horizontal window, a permanent bed or a basket, for it is made of thin bamboo slats, each around two and a half centimeters wide and spaced from each other at regular intervals. Even when the wall windows are closed, light and air pass through the floor to ripen piles of vegetables or to soothe anybody sleeping on the well-polished slats. At the same time, waste matter can be thrown out through the gaps….For bodily needs, there are always the bushes; at night, however, especially when it is storming, the slatted floor becomes a convenient enough substitute.

Call me spoiled, but when my husband had our own bahay kubo built on our farm, I had him install a toilet. It was still bucket flush, but you’ve got to admit it was nice. His own choice of improvement was a wind turbine to power our computers, stereo and speakers, and wifi access. It was definitely a twenty-first century kubo.

The twenty-first century extras of our bahay kubo in Cavite: wind generation and indoor plumbing. both projects designed and completed by Mr. H, some some help. I was impressed.

Early American writers were fascinated with the one-room living accommodations of most Filipino families—how quickly they had forgotten that working-class houses in the United States and Europe were frequently one room per floor, and American frontier homes were single rooms, as well. In these northern hemisphere cases, the choice was essential because it was the easiest way to heat a home around a single stove. Where I live in New England, every town has proudly preserved its original one-room schoolhouse. But this is not all past glory. The single-room style has come back to modern architecture, just with a new name: open plan.

Of course, the bahay kubo does take open plan a step further than we would like—a step right into the bedroom. As Zialcita and Tinio wrote: “Nor does each member insist on a well-demarcated sleeping territory, a mat unto himself. Children sleep with their parents and grandparents on the same mat till they are ready to marry.” Again, though, this was the norm in American households through the early twentieth century. Either that, or you let the children sleep in the attic, which is exactly what Louisa May Alcott did at her house in Harvard, Massachusetts, at the Fruitlands Museum. I’ve seen her bunk, and I think I’d prefer a mat in the open-plan kubo.

Children of guests at our bahay kubo in Cavite, with sunflower in the foreground.
Children of guests at our bahay kubo in Cavite, with sunflower in the foreground.

The bahay kubo was actually ahead of its time in many ways. It was not only well suited to its environment, but friendly to the environment, as well. Architect Angelo Mañosa has said:

In its form, it already embodies all the design principles we think of as ‘green.’ It is made of low-cost, readily available indigenous materials and it is designed for our tropical climate: the tall, steeply-pitched roof sheds monsoon rain while creating ample overhead space for dissipating heat, the long eave lines provide shade. The silong underneath the house creates a simple, utilitarian space while allowing ventilation from below through the bamboo slat floors. The large awning windows, held open by a simple tukod (sturdy rod), provide cross ventilation and natural light. All of the materials used in it are organic, renewable, and readily available at little cost. And yet it is strong enough to withstand typhoons. The bahay kubo even survived the ash fall from Mt. Pinatubo, when more ’modern’ houses collapsed.

This is all true. However, Zialcita and Tinio are a little more ambivalent about the kubo’s resistance to the elements. As they point out, it does sway with the shock of an earthquake. “Indeed, even without earthquakes, the bahay kubo sways to and fro when someone within runs or moves about brusquely. Repeated shocks, however, can collapse the bahay kubo.” Moreover, it is no match for a strong typhoon. And then there’s fire.

An excellent photograph from the Philippine-American War Facebook group, moderated by Scott Slaten.
An excellent photograph from the Philippine-American War Facebook group, moderated by Scott Slaten and David Metherell.

While the above Tondo fire was believed to be set by insurgents, the Americans torched their fair share of homes. In fact, it was sometimes policy:

A piece of fiery thatch floated through the air near [Georgie’s] head. A fresh gust of wind blew it up and over the street toward a cluster of neighboring homes whose occupants were still in the process of pulling out their belongings. The fireball rose and fell, dancing through the dark sky in slow motion, until it landed on the grass roof of one of the huts, igniting in seconds.

Everyone, including the firemen, rushed to warn those inside, but somehow Georgie got there first. She climbed the ladder into the hut and found a small boy holding a baby. He looked at Georgie with wide eyes as if she, not the fire, was the monster devouring his home.

—Under the Sugar Sun

In the opening scene of my novel, the cholera police have set fire to a whole neighborhood to rid the area of disease—which, in fact, was one of the methods that American officials used in the terrible epidemic of 1902. (They believed they were being scientific, but they probably scattered the carriers of the disease farther than the old Spanish system of in-home quarantine.) I think that part of the American willingness to torch the homes was a suspicion of the kubo, which wore off on the locals, too.

It is true that kubos are not that durable. According to Zialcita and Tinio again, the bamboo rafters only last through about five rainy seasons, the rest of the bamboo becomes brittle in a decade, and (from my own experience) cogon roofs need to be patched and replaced far more often than corrugated iron. Some provinces like Surigao Del Norte still brag that over 50% of their houses’ roofs are made from natural materials, but city residences have embraced utilitarian concrete (and air conditioning). (Stone was a choice of the Spanish and mestizo elite, but most of the non-volcanic kind had to be imported, so it was not an option for most.)

A street scene in 1899 suburban Manila.

You cannot blame people for choosing the most long-lasting and comfortable option available to them individually, but at what social cost? How much material culture has been lost? In 2014 a town in Pangasinan revived its bahay kubo heritage with a fiesta display on the town square. Each of 21 barangays competed to build the best kubo to showcase its construction skills and to promote the local bamboo industry. But how long before a village cannot find someone to build a real, quality kubo—not just one of the roadside-style gazebos? Of course, this is an easy question for an academic like me to ask, but I did not live in my own kubo full time. Fortunately, Angelo Mañosa has come up with 18 ways to use the design elements of a bahay kubo as a template for a green modern house, a fitting way to preserve history and embrace the future at the same time.

A comparison of a large nipa house and an elegant nipa gazebo, designed and sold by Bonn Tumanda.

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 newspaper: “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.” Some Americans certainly brought their puritanical brand of Protestantism with them.

What harm in a bit of flirting? 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. And officers flirting 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….” Manila was still a field of battle in the Philippine-American War, true, but this author failed to realize that the Americans were the Redcoats here, not the patriots! 

Manila-map-1902

As an aside, 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 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 1909, the Americans reclaimed 60 hectares of land, the first of many expansions.

Colorized photograph of the Luneta provided as Sugar Sun series location by author Jennifer Hallock
Park with gazebos and benches in Manila, Philippines (1901). To the right is the Luneta Beach. The Ermita Beach went on south behind the tree. Roxas Blvd. of today goes along where the water line and beach is in this picture. Luneta Park area was filled in where the Manila Hotel, Elks Club, Army & Navy Club, and US Embassy are today. Original at the Library of Congress, provided by John Tewell.

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 and non-white to their own homes. Shame—especially since Mrs. Taft brought the idea of the Luneta back to Washington D.C. with the rededication of the Potomac Drive. Don’t ruin the original and then rebuild it halfway across the world.

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

One thing that hasn’t changed in Manila since 1900 is the traffic. The anonymous visitor who called the Filipinos “deceitful wretches” also said about the end of the evening: “there is a crack of the whip and a grand hurrah and one mad dash for the different homes. I wonder there are not dozen smash-ups each afternoon, but there are not. I used to melt and close my eyes, expecting to be dashed into eternity any moment, but I have learned to like it, and I don’t want anyone to pass me on the road.” We’ve all been there.

A vintage postcard of the Malecón.
A vintage postcard of the Malecón.

Some park goers did not wait for the end of the evening to race, though. With the old shoreline, the water went right up to the walls of Fort Santiago—or almost. There was a single open road there, called the Malecón, where carriages practically flew:

The two vehicles ate up the open road. Georgie did not consider herself a coward, but she was torn between fearing for the horses’ safety and for her own. Maybe sensing that, Javier put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer to his side. It was too cozy by half, but it steadied her enough to make the frenetic motion bearable.

The two nags kept changing the lead. One would break out in a small burst of speed, and then slow in recovery while the other made his move. They had at least a mile to go until the “finish” at Fort Santiago, and it seemed that Georgie’s original prediction was on the mark: the sole surviving animal would win. It was less a race than a gladiatorial bout. Unfortunately, their own horse showed signs of exhaustion first, probably because he pulled an extra passenger. His movements became choppy. His head drifted to the side, and he kept jerking it forward, again and again, as if the motion could create the winning momentum.

With every spasm of the horse’s head, the carriage jolted. Soon, the frame on Georgie’s side started shaking. The roof above them was supported by three thin pieces of bamboo, and she watched one pull out of its fastener. The front corner of fabric flapped wildly in the wind, pulling hard at the other two rods. Even more worrisome was the squeak of the wooden wheel to her left. If that splintered, the whole apparatus would collapse, probably pulling the two men and the horse right on top of her. The sound of hooves, wind, and screaming jockeys drowned out Georgie’s increasingly frantic warnings.

Or so she thought.

Javier tapped the driver’s shoulder. Hard. When the man didn’t respond, he grabbed the fellow’s arm and shouted. The driver argued back, probably insisting his animal could still win. Javier glanced over at Georgie briefly and added something in Spanish about “the lady.” He signaled again, this time his face quite stern. Javier’s scowl was, no doubt, the most effective weapon he had.

Georgie was grateful. They were finally slowing down. “The carriage is falling apart,” she tried to explain when she could finally be heard over the din.

“I know,” Javier said in quick English, peering over her lap to the wheel beneath. “We’ll make it, don’t worry. But I blamed quitting on you, so act like you might swoon.”

Georgie fanned herself wildly with her hand and threw back her head. Was that right? She had never before tried to feign fragility—it was not a safe thing to do in South Boston.

Javier watched her for a second, an unreadable expression on his face. Then he laughed—at her this time, not with her. “Wow, you do that badly.”

She gave him a little swat on the arm. “What a terrible thing to say.”

One eyebrow rose. “I don’t think so. I dislike weak women.”

“Then why put on a charade for the driver?”

Javier glanced up at the disappointed Filipino. “So he and his horse wouldn’t lose face. Honor matters even for a Manila cabbie, so I thought a little play-acting from you would be an easy solution. Now I’m not so sure.”

Georgie did not like her competency questioned, even in such a ridiculous arena. “I had no idea that theater was required. How convincing does this have to be?”

He looked at her intently. “Very.”

She slumped back in the seat, trying again to look helpless.

“Ridiculous,” Javier murmured under his breath as he reached out to her. Before she could react, he pulled her close, tucking her right shoulder under his arm and pressing her solidly against his chest. He gently brushed her cheek with his fingertips, the way one might soothe a skittish child. Up until that moment, Georgie had only pretended to faint; now she actually felt light-headed.

“Are you okay, mi cariño?” His words played to the driver, but they felt genuine enough to her.

She looked up. This close, she could see honey-colored circles in his brown irises. They looked like rings on a tree. Did she see in them the same fire she felt, or was this a part of the show?

Gently Javier tilted her chin up, his lips now inches away. No one had ever tried to kiss her, not even Archie–his amorous attentions had all been by pen. She thought about resisting, but that was all it was, a thought. Javier’s breath was clean. Only the smallest bite of scotch lingered from lunch. Given her past, Georgie had never believed alcohol could be an aphrodisiac, but on this man the crisp scent was provocative. He smelled of confidence and power, yet his lips looked surprisingly soft—

Under the Sugar Sun

Ha ha, I think I’m going to leave it there. You’re welcome.

Lessons of Empire in 30 Minutes or Less…Guaranteed!*

In French, the word histoire can mean either a chronicle of the past or a fresh fictional tale—and, as a historical romance author, I love that flexibility. No matter whether I am writing my Sugar Sun series or the actual history of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, I embrace the story behind the events.

There is good reason for this. My day job for the last twenty years has been teaching history to intelligent, discriminating teenagers. (Yes, such a beast exists, I am happy to report!) Like any good teacher, I strive to keep my presentation lively, informative, and seasoned with humor. Sometimes that humor comes in the shape of snark, but so it goes.

And thanks to the indulgence of my employer, I am lucky enough to teach one of the few courses in the United States—at any level—devoted to just this era: American colonial rule in the Philippines. (It may be the only one. I don’t actually know.) And if I can teach this history to seventeen year olds, people, I can teach it to you.

The Americans in Manila, an early 20th century photograph.

Therefore, my next venture is to take this show on the road. I have put together a 30 minute presentation, complete with illustrations, on the history of American rule in the Philippines:

  • I will tell you why Americans came to the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century, and how this endeavor fundamentally changed our role in the world—and launched some of our best known political and military figures, to boot.
  • I will tell you the good, bad, and ugly how of the Americans ruled—and why, despite it all, the Filipino-American friendship is still so strong today.
  • I will tell you why this matters to you in the twenty-first century, particularly as the two countries renew their strategic (read: military) partnership in Asia.
  • Finally, I’ll give you a few stories of my own in the fabulous Philippines, and how these experiences have shaped what and how I write.
  • Did I mention I have pictures? A whole slide show, in fact.

If you live in the New England area, I hope to bring this talk to a library or historical society near you! The best part is that I will do it for FREE. Please feel free to get your librarian in touch with me. I have PowerPoint and will travel (within reason), and I am available starting August 2016.

What do I get out of it? The author in me hopes to expand my readership by getting my books in the public eye. Duh. But the teacher in me wants you to know about this pivotal period in American history, one that for too long has gotten only a terse mention in your textbooks. The American in me wants you to see how this period shaped the American Century to come, while the long-time-resident-of-the-Philippines in me wants you to know how intertwined our fates still are.

Mr. Hallock and I in a tricycle after a 26-hour bus ride from Samar. That little sidecar felt spacious, if that tells you anything about the bus.

As to my credentials: I am an award-winning teacher with two decades of experience here and abroad, including the Philippines (obviously), Lebanon, and Thailand. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in international affairs from Georgetown University, with a focus in Asian Studies. I have authored articles in several peer-reviewed journals, as well as fact-checked and edited others. I speak barely intelligible snippets of all sorts of languages, which means I mostly get by on my smile and other people’s indulgence.

Most importantly, I write the Sugar Sun series, inclusive historical romance “for those who love their romance with a little more plot” (Carla de Guzman for Spot.ph). Laura Fahey of the Historical Novel Society said of my debut novel, Under the Sugar Sun: “Intensely absorbing…the charged political climate of the day is drawn with refreshing nuance.” She added that the series promised to be a “groundbreaking fictional treatment.”

So, you know, call me. (Ahem, not really.) In the interests of limiting spam, please comment below if you are interested in bringing me to your library or historical society. I will get in touch with you via email.

Thank you for letting me spread the histoire!

My Border Collie, Grover, on our farm in Cavite. Our dogs have one up on Magellan—they really have circumnavigated the globe. In baggage class, Grover would like to point out, but nevertheless…world travelers!

Featured image at the top of this post is 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.

*My timing is not really guaranteed. But, on the plus side, neither do I charge for this presentation, so there’s that.

Sugar Sun series map(s) #2: The Visayas

Sugar-Sun-series-Philippines-Visayas-map
Most of the Sugar Sun series takes place in the Visayan Islands in the central and southern Philippines.

While most of the action in Hotel Oriente takes place in Manila itself; and Tempting Hymn is centered in DumagueteUnder the Sugar Sun and Sugar Moon bounce around: from Manila to Dumaguete to Bais to Cebu to Catbalogan…and a little more. (What bang for your buck! What punch for your peso!) With new books in the series, there will be even more locations to explore. Still, this should help you set your itinerary for now. Enjoy!

Maybe I should get a kickback from Negros tourism? I’ll take my pay in bodbod, tsokolate, and rum, please.

Sugar Sun series glossary term #10: Thomasite

beta-theta-pi-thomasites-philippines
Teachers from the Beta Theta Pi fraternity (and female friend) on the USAT Thomas. Photo courtesy of the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive at the University of Michigan.

In August 1901 over five hundred American teachers arrived in Manila aboard the USAT Thomas, and the term “Thomasite” was born. A strategy begun by the Army to “pacify” the islands, the American colonial authorities established a coeducational, secular, public school system throughout the Philippines. Often seen as the best thing the Americans did in the islands, it is not without its critics. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Thomas-ship-brings-schoolteachers-Philippines
These days, the USAT Thomas would definitely be pulled over for “smoke-belching.”

The Good: Many Thomasites were flexible, adventurous people who truly loved their students and their host towns. Some never left. I modeled Georgina Potter on some of these people, including Mary Fee, who will come up again. The best, most democratic administrator was David Barrows, who emphasized solid academic subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic so that Filipinos could find professions, not just jobs. He also implemented a test-based scholarship system to American universities. Barrows opened more schools and trained Filipino teachers to take them over—something now termed sustainable development.

laura-reed-thomasite-Calasiao
Miss Laura Reed, an American schoolteacher at Calasiao, Pangasinan, north of Manila. Photo courtesy of the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

The Bad: In his time, Barrows was considered a failure because Filipino students were not achieving to the level of Americans in standardized testing—yes, back then we were just starting to “teach to tests.” A thinking person might understand that this is because Filipino students were being taught in a foreign language. This is a good time to mention that everything was taught in English. Why? The Americans said that Filipinos had not learned enough Spanish to justify that medium, and the local languages were too many and too varied to be practical. Most importantly, the Americans—particularly the Easterners and Midwesterners who came to the Philippines—only spoke English. Moreover, they already had the textbooks printed. Hence, Filipino boys and girls were learning poems about…snowflakes? Fortunately, Mary Fee and others rewrote some of these early readers with local themes, proving that not all Yankees are idiots.

Comparing the Baldwin Reader to the Philippine-published First Year Book.
Comparing the Baldwin Reader to the Philippine-published First Year Book.

The Ugly: The next superintendent after Barrows returned the educational system to its original focus: industrial education, based on what were then called “negro schools” in the States. White (really his name) thought that Filipinos should be taught “practical subjects” like carpentry and gardening, as well as “character training” like cleanliness and conduct. (Such prejudice was so prevalent at the time that English-speakers had not yet coined the word “racism.” It was simply the norm.)

Harry Cole’s wife, Mary Scott Cole, is pictured with her class in Palo, Leyte. Photo from the University of Michigan Bentley History Library.

And then there were some individual Americans who, in the words of Javier Altarejos, were “unfit for travel abroad.” Harry Cole, stationed in Palo, Leyte, wrote that “when I get home, I want to forget about this country and people as soon as possible. I shall probably hate the sight of anything but a white man the rest of my life.” My antagonist, Archie Blaxton, channels good ol’ Harry quite a lot. (I did not have to make up horrible, racist stuff for my characters to say. I just looked up what real Americans did say. It was not encouraging.)

its-up-to-them-web
1901 Puck centerfold entitled “It’s ‘Up to’ Them” by Udo J. Keppler.

In the end, the educational program was successful in making Filipinos believe that a brighter future was possible under the Americans—not fighting the Americans. Whether this was cynical manipulation by the colonial government or a sincere intention to do good abroad, that’s up to you to decide. From my research, the two were tied up together in what President McKinley termed “Benevolent Assimilation.” Many Filipinos did like the schools, and they certainly respected their teachers. Most importantly, some families managed to do what Barrows wanted: to “destroy that repellent peonage or bonded indebtedness” in which they found themselves. And the Thomasites gave me great plot ideas, so I’m not complaining.

1899 Puck centerfold shows Uncle Sam as a teacher, standing behind a desk in front of his new students who are labeled “Cuba, Porto Rico, Hawaii, [and] Philippines”; they do not look happy to be there.
Featured image of students from Noveleta, Cavite, from the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive.