By: Victoria Smith
I noticed it during my first Philippine homecoming in 2008, fourteen years after I’d immigrated to the U.S.: a building frenzy everywhere, with no apparent rhyme or reason, as it was impossible to deduce any sort of rational urban planning standards enforced from the way shanties coexisted side by side with decrepit-looking albeit new structures, held up only, it seemed, by omnipresent Gordian knots of electric, cable, and telephone wires that banded streets likewise choked by Gordian knots of vehicular traffic in all urban centers. I’d barely recognized my own hometown, Angeles City, two hours north of Manila. I remember how I wept then as I wept now—mourning the passing of the beauty of the cities I’d loved in my youth, for what I’d seen during my Philippine visit in the last couple of months is nothing compared to what had struck me sullen in 2008. I was overcome by grief that inspired this recent blog post on my author Facebook page:
“GHOSTS OF MANILA PAST. I feel like Rip Van Winkle, awakened after a hundred years in the city of my youth, only to find the old playgrounds and playmates are gone, and in their place lie strange dominions manned by the new guard—a millennial people who’ve taken the art of worldly shopping to otherworldly heights, reframed the art of living by the windows of cars forever stalled in traffic, and I have thus become, like the ghosts of my past, a multo that haunts the soul of this city crying, ‘Where have you gone, my Love?’”
For there’s an even bigger building frenzy now, pushed on by the Duterte administration’s simplistic economic plan summed up by posters all over Metro Manila that screamed, “Build! Build! Build!”, as if competing for attention with the noise and chaos of gigantic billboards, honking horns, and wailing sirens. And this—in the grim wake of the recent forced closure of the whole island of Boracay due to dangerous levels of water and land contamination—so much so that swimming in the waters off of Boracay’s otherwise enviable powder-white beaches could be a death sentence. It appeared that in all the years Filipinos celebrated and partook of Boracay’s investiture among the most beautiful islands and beaches of the world, the Philippine government and private sector alike had allowed the island to be literally used as one giant toilet for the tourist industry. Sewage was shamelessly drained straight into the ocean or into the ground, thus polluting not only the sea but also well water. I felt ashamed in remembering how our family had gone twice to Boracay in previous Philippine visits—and therefore, complicit in bringing about this environmental disaster. But how could we have known? In a civilized and modern society, one must be able to assume environmental standards were followed in developing beach resorts. The lawyer in me asked what happened to all those strict environmental law and regulations that our professors made us memorize in law school. The political science student in me replied with the usual, “What do you expect from a typical corrupt Third World Country?”
But was the Philippines still really a typical “Third World” country? One wouldn’t think so— what with the almost diabolical sizes and number of shopping malls that have proliferated not only in the country’s capital, but also in other urban centers all over the country. In an age when shopping malls and brick and mortar stores are a dying breed in the U.S., shopping malls are not only alive and well in the Philippines, but thriving! They’re building many more of them—and these aren’t the run-of-the mill shopping malls of America either. They’re as luxurious as any First World metropolis could build them, carrying the most upscale world-renowned designer brands; enough for any First World economy to salivate over.
To walk within these mansions of luxury shopping, one was bound to ask, “But who could possibly afford to buy such things?” I—a Filipino American with American dollars the value of which rose daily against the Philippine peso while I was there—was embarrassed to discover that I, too, could not afford them! There was certainly no bargain for luxury goods here —they came as pricey as they came in the shopping Meccas of America! A Cartier, Alexander McQueen, or Jimmy Choo was priced same as it was on Rodeo Drive.
A local friend suggested that luxury brand stores weren’t really there to sell their wares, that they were mere marketing outlets—the equivalent of advertising pages in a glossy magazine. Or, in other words, a business presence in the form of a billboard pretending to be a store; a very beneficial corporate tax deduction, thus. This made sense to me. But it still didn’t account for the number of people who flocked to the malls in the thousands—and not only on weekends. A Tuesday night required a reservation in popular mall restaurants. That was my first clue. It led me to realize that what most people actually bought in the malls was food, food, and more food! There’s been a foodie explosion in recent years that’s still popping on the Philippine gastronomic scene. This was generally good news for culinary entrepreneurs. If your food isn’t good enough to the exacting Filipino palate, your restaurant or food stall was dead on opening day. You knew at once, which enabled you to cut your losses. On the other hand, if you succeeded, you succeeded big time. Eating out and eating well with family and friends were absolutely an expense item Filipinos were always willing to splurge upon, even beyond their budgets, helped on by the increased availability of plastic financing to most income earners. I wondered whether the Philippines wasn’t already on the list of credit card bubble economies that would sooner than later implode. But that’s not the whole story, though, because global food chains—not necessarily gourmet class, but easier on the budget—do very well, too. A McDonald’s can hold its own side by side with a Jollibee. And even if it were only for the price of a Starbucks coffee, people went to the malls. Which led me to the ultimate realization: Filipinos frequented the malls as a necessary respite from the tropical heat and humidity outside. Who knew that the malls of Manila were thriving because of global warming?
Filipinos swear summers are getting warmer and longer; typhoons stronger and more frequent; and daily life inconceivable without air-conditioning, both at work and home. This made me even more thankful that in my U.S. Pacific Northwest island home, we didn’t need air-conditioning. In fact, most homes had none—which definitely played a role in our decision to move away from California, which has been experiencing more droughts and wildfires in recent years. I shivered in the Philippine heat imagining what would happen to masses of Filipinos in case of a power failure. Who could possibly sustainably live and work in THAT heat?
This in turn led me to ask how the Philippines was planning to energize all that “Build! Build! Build!” economic thrust. More buildings meant radical significant increases in the need for electrical power for air-conditioning, elevators, lights, technology, and machines. I knew that the Philippines has always been a big hydroelectric and geothermal power user—but I doubted there were significantly more sources for such energy since twenty-five years ago, unless the country was planning to go nuclear at last. A friend who happened to be in the know as regards the power grid revealed the sad truth: The Philippines, following China’s development design, likewise has turned to the same energy source fueling China’s economy: coal. The Philippines was in fact building more coal-powered plants, according to a lawyer friend overseeing some of the contracts. Now I knew the prime suspect for the cause of that tickle in my throat that refused to go away and made me cough during the entire two months I stayed in the Philippines. And I’m sure it was no coincidence the symptoms went away once I returned to the U.S.. I shivered again thinking how long before this all changed in the U.S. now that Trump pledged to bring back coal big time.
All these recalled to me the big question we university students asked the dictatorial Marcos regime as regards its development policy back in the 70’s and 80’s: “Development—for whom?” Bigger economies and bigger cities weren’t always better; quality of life has to be considered—most especially, the question of quality of life for whom. The Philippine building boom is all well and good for the Ayalas’, Lopez’s, Robinson’s, and SM real estate development companies—in other words, the traditional Spanish-Filipino and Chinese-Filipino ruling economic oligarchy. In contrast, it’s the poor that’s going to carry the brunt of that kind of development’s cost—not only in terms of higher living costs, but more critically, health risks due to environmental pollution. This is a déjà vu that is deeply troubling. The years have not brought us real progress— we just have more concrete in the cities and even worse traffic than before! The ordinary Filipino who goes to the mall to enjoy a few hours of air-conditioning is definitely paying for such simple comfort in much more than the price of a Starbucks cup of coffee, just as surely as Trump is costing Americans and America much more than the monthly fee of cable network reality TV.
Wordsworth’s poem, “The World is Too Much”, remains as relevant today as it was during the Industrial Age that inspired it:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!”
(William Wordsworth, Poems in Two Volumes, 1807).
(All rights reserved. Copyright ©2018 by Victoria G. Smith. For updates on her author events & publications, go to VictoriaGSmith. com. “Like” her on Facebook at Author Victoria G. Smith. “Follow” her on Twitter @AuthorVGSmith)