The Once and Future King

SYMBOL of Filipino ingenuity and resilience, the jeepney has been a workhorse, dependable mass transport and barometer to the Filipino zeitgeist for more than half a century.

It has gone through floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, coups, riots, oil crises, and emissions restrictions and has survived virtually unscathed, a dirty hari always ready to make your day.

Born of war-surplus Willy’s Jeeps and the need for mass transport in a country pockmarked by bomb craters and shell holes, the first jeepneys were nothing more than military vehicles equipped with canvas canopies and wooden benches that enterprising survivors cobbled together from whatever was on hand.

A Willy's MB (Military, Model B) jeep (Mytwocents/Wikipedia)

Virtually everything-proof, easily maintained and with spare parts in abundance, it was inevitable that the old United States Armed Forces in the Far East jeeps would be adapted to civilian use. With their 80-inch wheelbases and four-wheel drives, the quarter-ton retired war machines were perfect for the rugged road conditions and the odd cargo that they transported. Food rations, Baclaran pilgrims, Batangas horses (admittedly smaller than Arabians), the jeepney could take them all, and still have room for one more passenger.
Soon enough, natural artistic flair and the Filipino’s penchant for decorating everything took over to create a style that can best be described as Pinoy Baroque: swirls of color, outlandish ornamentation and bursting with life and optimism on par with the French joie de vivre.

Taking design cues from the horse-drawn calesa and tartanilla carriages of the past, and drawing on three centuries of Spanish influence, backyard metalworking shops began chopping and lengthening the jeeps. They made the jeeps less boxy and gave them fluid curves and smoother lines. The bright colors, predominantly red and yellow, of the calesa were grafted onto the jeepneys, originally called auto-calesas as a direct descendant of the colorful carriage.

During the 1950s, the jeepney began reflecting post-war optimism and the hopes of a nation getting back on its feet. Jeepney-makers began attaching Ford and Cadillac fenders to their vehicles, giving them a more contemporary, more hep look.

The ’50s also saw the rise of big, semi-industrial jeepney builders. Moving from the backyards and front shops, manufacturers like Sarao, Fransisco and Legaspi established factories that could churn out up to 20 vehicles in a month.
Although things were still pretty much done by hand, from the metalworking to painting, it was a far cry from the home-based manufacturers who made five a month at most and frequently relied on selling one jeepney to pay for the creation of another.

As the supply of post-war military jeeps ran out, manufacturers turned to second-hand truck and car engines from Japan, installing them in hand-beaten and welded frames that followed the original configuration.

While the original jeepneys were drab affairs, the jeepneys of the 50s were multi-color machines with virtually no square inch of the stainless steel unadorned.

Afflicted with horror vacuui, a fear of empty spaces, jeepney artists painted swirls, curlicues, starbursts and diamonds everywhere from the hood to the sideboard to the rear bumper. Although the country was then entering an economic boom, poverty was still very much a reality, and in a culture of poverty, empty space is wasted space.

As the jeepney became more ubiquitous and indispensable to the Filipino’s way of life, it started becoming an extension not just of the driver’s personality, but of his virility and machismo as well. Macho icons like fighting cocks and horses became staple ornaments as a testament to the fighting spirit of the man and the machine.

Fighting cocks in mid-air and engaged in combat became common artwork on the sides of jeepneys, with names of champions painted about as often as names of their children. The fighting cock was such a powerful symbol that designs of entire jeepneys were based on it, as can be seen by the wings that adorn the fenders, the signboard and on the doors.

The horse was also a popular ornament, and these were not the short Batangas horses of the countryside, but Thoroughbreds that embodied the essence of speed and power that is a horse, or, more likely, Horse.

Jeepney drivers were cowboys: rough, tough, often with a heart of gold, but were just as comfortable wearing black hats during rush hour when tempers were short and travel times were long. Perhaps living up to the moniker of King of the Road, jeepneys can often be seen rewriting traffic laws, going the wrong way down one-way streets, cutting corners and driving on sidewalks. All part and parcel of the Filipino ideal of diskarte, getting by on one’s wits and guts.

As extensions of the driver’s manhood, jeepneys began sporting rockets, lances, superfluous antennae and other phallic representations. Testaments to the drivers’ charm and desirability were painted on mud flaps and wheel guards. Basta Driver, Sweet Lover was a particular favorite, proclaiming to the world that the man of their dreams was at the wheel.
Other nicknames were also scrawled onto the jeepneys, all proclaiming the driver’s prowess as a lover and seducer: Macho King, Pogi Boy (Handsome Boy), Chicks Killer, Totoy Mola (Studly Totoy who is hung like a horse) being common examples.

Those being different times, misogynistic messages were also common, with stickers featuring scantily-clad women and tongue-in-cheek slogans like Pag sexy, libre. Pag pangit, doble (Sexy ladies ride for free, ugly ones pay double the fee) and Di Natiis ang Kati, Di Kinaya ang Hapdi, a sexual innuendo that defies translation and basic decency.

Shocking as some of these slogans are, what’s even more suprising is that nobody gets offended. Not even the most conservative convent schoolgirl will get off a jeepney in protest or demand that the slogans be removed. They are written off as something closer to a joke than an actual assault on one’s sensibilities.

Besides, their shock value is cancelled out by the Sto. Niño icons, the rosary hung from the rear-view mirror, and the multitude of Catholic accessories that are standard issue on most jeepneys.

As more and more Filipinos leave home to seek their fortunes abroad, the jeepney took on a new role. Aside from a means of income for those left behind, they became testaments and moving monuments to loved ones toiling in foreign lands.

Filipino seamen, some of the first Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), were the first to be honored on family-owned jeepneys. Nautical symbols like anchors and dolphins became common and maritime motifs often included a rendition of a ship, generally of Norwegian register, with the name of the ship and its home port painted on whatever surface was available.

When the OFW workforce moved to the Middle East, mud flaps began displaying “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” or “From Saudi With Love, ” and images of camels, date palms and even the coat of arms of the House of Saud began adorning the new generation of Kings of the Road.

As the Filipino Diaspora spread throughout the world from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, jeepneys with motifs from other countries emerged on the streets. A painting of Mt. Fuji on one, for example, or a rendition of the Tower of London, or a gazelle from South Africa, or the Sydney Opera House, jeepneys became much like their owners: citizens of the many nations, with their heart home in one.
With the coming of the Information Age, and with rapid developments in the communication of ideas and cultural memes, the jeepney has adapted to the economic and intellectual forces that have brought the Philippines (kicking and screaming, one might say) into the 21st Century.

Anime characters now vie for art space with logos of NBA teams, hair metal rock bands, religious imagery, and homespun versions
of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. One is as likely to see a depiction of the Passion of Christ as one of Bambi or Bugs Bunny on the side of a jeepney, often together in one long mural that will baffle art historians for years to come.

Horses and fighting cocks remain a staple, of course, as well as off-color slogans, but even these have gained a more modern look, with air-brushing now the preferred painting technique and references to current hit movies and songs incorporated into the artwork.

Internet terminology has also entered the world of jeepney art with the various dot-coms appended to drivers’ names., one signboard might say, Three another. Some go overboard and try to trump everyone else with something like “” followed by the Yahoo! logo.As it was in the beginning, the jeepney aesthetic takes elements from whatever is available.

One troubling development, though, is the appropriation of jeepney art by Big Business. While jeepney art has always been about individuality and the driver’s particular tastes, several companies have started using jeepneys as rolling billboards. Coca-Cola, for example, has commissioned several jepeneys, painted them in company colors and slapped giant a Coke bottle on the roof.
Telecommunications giant Motorola has also followed suit, as are other companies looking for advertising space. While this is a relatively new development, and not common practice, economic realities might force the jeepney artists out of a job, and consequently, kill off one of the country’s examples of folk art.

That might not be so bad after all (GK Soong, Cubao, 2008)

After the economic slump of 1997, several jeepney manufacturers went out of business. Sarao Motors, one of the most well-known, and the biggest market share, went from a manufacturing high of 20 units a day to an average of four a month, eventually shutting down operations in 2001.

The company seems to have staged a comeback in recent years, but this does not mean that the trials of the jeepney industry are over.

Stricter vehicle-emission standards, more stringent licensing procedures, the rising cost of fuel, and the introduction of more comfortable and more efficient forms of transportation like the MRT/LRT train system have all posed threats to the existence of the King of the Road.

Over-saturation of jeepney routes and the emergence of the more versatile tricycles (essentially motorcycles with sidecars, not your little brother’s Big Wheel) have also cut into profits. The proliferation of cheap, dependable motorcycles from Japan and China
also means even less passengers except during the typhoon season.

With the emphasis on green technologies, there have been proposals for a shift to the electronic jeepney, an air-conditioned, battery-driven version, prototypes of which the City of Makati, the financial center of Metro Manila, has commissioned and is currently testing.*

Does this spell the end for the more than a century of the jeepney’s reign on the road? Hardly. The jeepney was born in adversity and scarcity, and will continue to thrive in such conditions.

Until a more efficient and dependable road system is built to serve not only the urban centers but the far-flung barangays as well, until potholes on major roads become nothing more than a distant memory, until flash floods are solved by a proper drainage and sewage system, the jeepney will be there like the ghost of Tom Joad, except in metal and chrome.

Until every Filipino can afford a car, the jeepney will remain the quintessential Filipino rush hour experience. The cramped benches,
the garish colors, the penitential patience required to endure haphazard driving through dimly-lit streets will all be part of our being Filipino.

And while we may curse it for being uncomfortable, for making us hang on for dear life, for flooding our lungs with noxious smoke and our ears with deafening music, when the rains come, or late at night, when even cab drivers fear the streets, the jeepney will be there with its obnoxious slogans and anachronistic metal horses. And, really, there will be only one thing to say: hail to the King.

[Based on a 2008 article for Genuine Pinoy, a magazine for Filipino-Americans in California. It seems to have stopped publishing, however.]

*Since this article was written, E-Jeeps have been tested in other cities and even in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

One response to “The Once and Future King

  1. Pingback: Hoopty Car, Hooray! « Mister de Santos·

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