issue 205 - March 1990
US military bases
rock 'n' roll
A disturbing couple of days
in a city prostituted to the US
It's a struggle to get to my hotel in Olongapo. The main avenue is sealed off to traffic and there are police checkpoints at every sidestreet. Nothing too sinister though. Banners and flags proclaim that the city centre has been given over to a street fair: the 'Entertainment Olympiad'. I pay my 25-cent entrance fee and trudge through with my bags.
I'm surprised, though, that there could be any more entertainment here. Olongapo is after all a city spawned by the adjacent US Naval Base at Subic Bay and seems to consist of little more than hotels and bars like the 'Touch 'n' Go' or the 'Elixir' or the 'Fantasy'.
The military bases in the Philippines are a World War Two legacy. The US agreed to give reconstruction aid in exchange for a rent-free network of air and naval installations. Five major ones remain, including Subic Bay and the Clark airbase. During the Vietnam War Subic became one of the busiest ports in the Western Pacific and Olongapo mushroomed as an 'R & R' (Rest and Recreation) centre.
The MGM Hotel recommended in the guide book looks a lot less glamorous than it sounds; just about seedy enough to meet my budget. I climb up to the first floor reception and am stopped in my tracks. Eight women are packed onto a wooden bench, and all turn to flash me expectant smiles. The MGM obviously offers the weary traveller much more than lodging, but I'm in no mood to look elsewhere.
As night falls the street outside comes to life. Crowds swarm across the narrow bridge that connects the Subic naval base with Olongapo. Sailors in their long shorts and 'Ollie for President' T-shirts hunt around in packs of four or five, 'bar-hopping' as the locals call it. The USS Shasta is the ship currently in port and its military police patrol the streets swinging their truncheons.
For Americans this is a regular home away from home. Johnny Cash thumps out of the juke-box in the Nashville Rooms. In front of the timber 'saloon' a violent mechanical bucking bronco hurls the brave and the drunk into the air to the cheers of sailors leaning out of the windows above.
Olongapo is probably one of the safest cities in the country because the city authorities clamp down on any crime which might upset the visiting sailors. Nor is there any prostitution, of course, since prostitution is illegal in the Philippines. There are, however, 600 or so bars and hotels which offer what Mayor Gordon calls 'entertainment with sex'.
The sex is provided by 9,000 'hospitality women' who are registered with the city and who have to submit to regular VD and AIDS tests. In total there are probably 16,000 women working as waitresses, bar staff or dancers.
'Oh, you're from England,' says a Filipino who stops me in the street. 'My sister works there as a maid.'
'Yes and my mother is going to visit her. Should she take money or credit cards? Could you show me your credit cards so she'll know which ones to take?'
I laugh at him - and he shakes my hand congratulating me at not being drunk enough to fall for that, though I do surreptitiously check that I still have my wallet.
The US bases are one of the hottest political issues in the Philippines right now. Some argue that they are an economic asset; there are, after all, two million Navy personnel passing through the base each year spending more than $55 million on their 'R & R'. And there are 22,000 civilians working on the base - mostly Filipinos.
But many other Filipinos, on both the right and the left, argue that the country will never become truly independent until the bases go. They were particularly outraged that US planes helped put down the last coup attempt.
Mrs Aquino, before she became President, signed a petition for removal of the bases. And the Constitution she introduced in 1987 said that the final decision would be left up to the Senate. Now she claims to be keeping her options open and is talking about holding a referendum.
Not much doubt about which way the vote would go in Olongapo this evening. The crowd milling round the streets seem to be having a good time. Children are stuffing their faces in a pizza-eating contest and hurling basketballs around. And at the announcement of a 'largest and smallest' contest a sailor with a huge beer belly rushes across the street, scoops up a surprised little girl and carries her up to the stage. He pats his belly, roaring 'San Miguel!' (a popular beer). The pair win by general acclamation.
The women always smile
Back at the MGM another sailor is regaling everyone who will listen with his life story. 'I used to be depressed and unhappy. Now I have seen a vision of God and I have a good attitude.' This appears to have driven out most of the hotel 'staff'. Those that remain tell me they can offer a variety of massage services: everything from a 'standard' to a VIP (which must be very invigorating as it costs a good $20).
Most of the women who work here come from other parts of the country, particularly from the poorest provinces of Samar and Leyte.
'Some come to try and strike it lucky and marry an American serviceman,' says Alma Bulawan. 'Others are single parents who need money for their children. For people without much education it's one of the easier jobs.'
Alma is one of the organizers of Bukiod, a women's centre which tries to give some support to the hospitality workers. She herself was working as a waitress until about a year ago. Alma once asked an American why he liked Olongapo.
'He said it was because the drink and the women are cheap. And besides, you can do what you like. In the US you can't say "fuck you" to a woman, she will slap your face. Here the women are always smiling. They pretend that they like it.'
The centre doesn't try to persuade women to leave their jobs. But it does offer them alternatives.
'We have courses in cosmetics. It's easy to find work doing that. You can go from house to house, for example, cleaning nails. About a dozen women come here each day - some will have been working up to 4am so they are very tired.
'There is also a drop-in centre for the children at night. Many of the women have Amerasian children of six or seven. It's not good for them to go to the bars.'
Working in this way doesn't necessarily make them very popular with the local authorities. 'Last February we had some harassment. The military said that we were communists and "anti-bases". The women were scared and stopped coming. We asked for help from our friends overseas and they wrote to the mayor. Now things are better and the women are coming again.'
Someone else not too popular with the mayor is an Irish Columban priest, Shay Cullen. I meet him at his 'Preda' centre on a hillside just outside the city. There's a striking view from here of the sweep of the bay with the ramshackle city on one side and the steely grey of the naval base neatly parked next to it.
'I came here 20 years ago during the Vietnam War,' he says. 'I became very concerned about the young people.'
Many of them were heavy drug users so he started a rehabilitation centre. He also started a handicrafts workshop, which, he points out, is the largest manufacturing enterprise in the whole city. This was partly to provide alternative employment for the families he was helping and also to finance the centre.
'We sell to the fair-trading associations - like Traidcraft in the UK. That helps us to be financially independent. We run our services here standing on our own feet'.
But it was Cullen's work for the street children of Olongapo which led to a head-on collision with the city authorities. There are about 3,000 street children in the city - many of them the offspring of previous American visitors. The centre provides a haven for those for whom life becomes too difficult.
Ian Khester is 13 years old.
'I left home because my father used to fight with my mother and to beat me and my younger brothers.' To survive Ian begged from the American sailors.
'Sometimes they give us one peso (five cents), sometimes five. Sometimes for an evening we might get 50 or 100. Then we would buy "rugby" (glue) and sniff it. We would sleep in the streets or in the bars.'
Jailing the children
The mayor's position is that there are no street children in Olongapo. And sometimes he is right, because if there are large ships due to dock at Subic he has all the children rounded up and put in jail. Ian Khester explains.
'The barangaytanos (volunteers working for the mayor) are the ones who catch us - or ask for money if we want to avoid being caught. In prison they beat us too. They take the money we got from the American sailors and use it to buy their cigarettes and food. If no-one pays to get you out you can be in jail for a week.'
Many of the children help each other, however, and club together to get their friends out of jail. It was through his friends that Ian arrived at Preda.
'I had some friends who were coming here. I asked if I could go with them and they said yes. I've been here five months. We have so many activities - like therapy sessions. And now I go to school.'
In a city whose only industry is sex it is hardly surprising that the children get caught up in it. This may start as abuse within their own families. Margarita, for example, is a 12-year-old who has had problems with her father.
'He says he loves me and that I am old enough now. I say I love you too, but not for that. He would come to me at two in the morning. I didn't tell my mother because I was frightened - she said she would kill me if I was not a virgin.'
Her friends suggested that she come to the Preda centre to get away. Now Margarita goes home at weekends but says her father still touches her.
There are about 20 children at the centre now, racing around and shouting (and teasing Margarita as we talk). They are very hard to handle, say the staff, because of the life they have led. And they do hanker for life on the streets.
When I go back to Shay Cullen I find him in earnest conversation with another of his staff. 'It was at the Mardi Gras last year. She remembers that she first went with this American guy in the Perlas Hotel.'
They're discussing what seems to be a growing problem: the sexual abuse of children by the sailors.
'It's only since we've had our own workers out on the streets and doing jail rescue that we've found out enough about it: children of 11, 12 or 13.
'We've decided to go after these guys because they get away scot-free; they are protected by the Navy. If they are ever accused of any sexual molestation they can invoke the Military Bases Agreement, go under US jurisdiction and get very light treatment. Justice should be done for these children. They are helpless. We have to give a message to the world that someone somewhere is going to take a stand and say so far and no further.'
Their plan now is to collect evidence and launch their own legal actions in the Philippine courts. In only one case has this been successful before.
'Rosario Baluyot was a 12-year-old street child who died a horrible death. We found that a sexual vibrator had been inserted inside her vagina and broken off and remained there. Her whole stomach rotted away and she died.'
'The local prosecutors were not very keen until we began to expose this continually in the press. Eventually a foreign tourist (an Austrian doctor) was convicted. But an injustice might have been done. He certainly is a paedophile and the evidence put him on the scene of the crime - the MGM hotel. But a sailor was initially accused and he claims the Navy framed him to clear their own man.
'Right now we know seven or eight children who are being sexually abused regularly. But we only see the tip of the iceberg. And we can only get definite evidence for two. We don't know if even that will be admissible in court but we're going to try.
'We experience a lot of harassment for our work here and our stand against the bases. Death squads have been operating to remove political opponents. So we've had our threats. We've had these political bodyguards asking our whereabouts and our travel arrangements. It gets a bit scary. But it's an occupational hazard.'
A few weeks later the Preda Centre is under siege day and night by a crowd demanding that Shay Cullen be deported because his allegations have insulted Olongapo's people. They shout obscenities and Rock Around The Clock is played constantly over a loudspeaker. The children inside are frightened and crying.
The hospitality worker
I've worked in Olongapo for six years now. I'm a waitress in the Soundtrack Club. There's no wage, only commission. I get 25 cents per beer. So I might earn $2.50 a night that way if there is a ship. If there is no ship, we don't eat.
If a customer pays the 'bar fine' I go out with him. I get $20 for a short time or $35 if it is all night. I always ask for the money first because that is my business, right? I like Americans but often it is boring; if they are drunk they just go to sleep so nothing happens.
Lots of customers are crazy; they can be sadists, taking drugs. I'm sometimes scared, especially when we go to a hotel. I try to get them to use a condom because I'm scared of getting AIDS. But some say they are clean. They just withdraw.
I did have a steady relationship for six months. His name was David and he came from Ohio. I saw him nearly every day. When he was finished working at the Base he would come to my house at four o'clock to spend the night. We might go bar-hopping or to the movies. He was a nice guy, always hugging. He gave me money for food and he bought things for my house like an electric pan, a radio-cassette and a bed. Then he went back to the States. This was in 1986. Maybe he's married now.
I have two children back in Cebu living with my sister. My daughter is 14 and my son 10. If I have money I send it to them. I'd like to go back to Cebu if I could get a job as a sales girl or maybe in a factory. I miss my kids. But maybe I will get married to an American.