The Philippines spent “300 years in the convent, 50 years in Hollywood,” Stanley Karnow observed in his book In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, a turn of phrase now often recited across the archipelago, proof of its resonance in reflecting the Southeast Asian nation’s unique colonial history. It is a past that has made the country a regional outlier, simultaneously putting up developmental roadblocks.
Today, while the devoutly Catholic nation retains threads to Spain through religion, language, street signs and surnames, it is the US’s historical presence, though much shorter in comparison, that is usually the most immediately evident. Indeed, this history is so engrained that it has manifested itself on the currency, where a US flag is prominently displayed on the 100-peso note, one of the few times I have ever seen a foreign flag on another country’s currency. Above all, high English language proficiency has transformed the group of islands into the world’s call center hub, gracing past India only a few years ago thanks to more pleasant spoken accents that even Indians are quick to recognize (as evidenced by the flight of Indian outsourcing companies to the Philippines in recent years).
However, the singe of the stars and stripes on the Philippines has left with it a few unsavory traits as well. As a result, the Philippines seems at times much closer to the US culturally than its Asian neighbors.
The Philippines has been handed down fast food, mall and gun-loving culture from its former liberator, which removed the Japanese from the archipelago in World War II. No need to look further than one of the country’s largest beacons of commercialism to find all three neatly nestled together. The Mall of Asia, the world’s fourth largest mall with a land area of 42 hectares, equivalent to 84 standard soccer fields, is not only a mega-hive of retail with food courts that blend typical Americana with Filipino fried food flare (Jollibee, Inasal, etc.), but is also dependably secured by metal detectors and guards armed with shotguns and surprisingly out-of-context smiles. Besides the acceptance of guns, which are crutch in a society build upon feudal fiefdoms, FIlipinos today find entertainment with their personal gun licenses, frequenting shooting ranges, where both sexes are just as likely to enjoy unloading their toys.
The Philippines has long maintained an inglorious Wild, Wild East image, taking the proliferation of guns to wartime heights. Not only have gun ownership laws been traditionally relaxed, but the Philippines has also become a factory for handmade guns, craftily made using simple mechanics and metal piping across the islands. Today it is estimated that there are nearly 1 million of such guns illegally owned and traded in the Philippines.
The country’s rough and raucous history could be to blame for its reliance on guns as well. Like the US, towns that cropped up far from urban hubs became wont to depend on themselves for protection instead of a stunted and aloof central government. Matters were best resolved in one’s own hands.
Scenes familiar to American Western films remain a part of life in the Philippines to this day. Across every part of islands, security guards brandish shotguns and large pistols in front of banks, fast food outlets, mall entrances — just about anyplace where hard cash is being actively traded. This omnipresence of guns instills fear in foreign visitors, seemingly misguided in a country that is quickly cleaning up its backwaters reputation. While homicide rates are among the highest in Southeast Asia (Quezon City in Metro Manila being the highest), this military-style solution to enforcing the law is looking increasingly anachronistic, at least in urban centers. (Revolutionary bandits still actively operate throughout the majority of rural regions.) With a monumental peace agreement on the horizon between the central government and the largest Islamist rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, serious terrorist threats against the country’s commercial capitals in the north that target civilians may be silenced.
In front of a shiny new mall in Manila’s upscale Fort Bonifacio district, visitors walk through metal detectors, incessantly sounding the alarm that appears to have no operational instructions. The security guards robotically check bags and pat down the shoppers, overlooked by another with a shotgun. Indeed, the guns are just as much for show; today, many of them are unloaded. The armed guard smiles at me, and I can’t help to return one myself.