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Remarkable Philippine Jeepneys

"King of the Road" - A typical jeepney, from Davao City, Mindanao, Philippines.
[Photo Courtesy of UHM Center for Southeast Asian Studies, SPAS]

Jeepneys are the poor-man's transport in the Philippines, from Batanes to the National Capital Region (Manila) and down to Davao City, in Mindanao. Found only in the Philippines, the versatile, durable and colorful jeepney is truly a mestizo - half-local and half-foreign - reflective of the national character of this uniquely Asian country. Its engine is imported, mostly from Japan, as "surplus" (second-hand) material. However, its body or chassis is designed by artistic, Filipino autobuilders who adorn it with variegated images, bouncing psychedelic colors and eardrum-breaking sounds. An average jeepney can normally seat 20 adult passengers. But in the remote areas in the countryside where transport is scarce, the versatile jeepney is typically overloaded. Passengers often ride with non-human cargoes like farm produce, or even animals.

Jeepneys began plying the streets of Manila after World War II, when U.S. soldiers left thousands of unserviceable jeeps. An entrepreneurial Caviteņo named Leonardo Sarao saw in them a business opportunity for mass transport. He then remodelled the jeep to increase its functionality by extending the body to accommodate at least twice the number of passengers and by putting some railings at the back and top for extra passengers to cling to, and still leave some room for cargoes. When these GI jeeps ran out of supply, Sarao began importing surplus engines from Japan. Today, Sarao Motors proudly stands in Las Piņas City where the original jeepney is still being produced. However, competition has somewhat edged out Sarao as more jeepney factories and copycats have emerged, continually innovating and luring family buyers and transport operators alike.

What seems more striking about these jeepneys is, that they reveal something about the identity of their makers or owners. During this global age of transmigration and overseas movement of Filipino labor, it is not unusual to see markings on this vehicle's front side like "Katas ng Saudi" (literally, sweat from Saudi Arabia) to suggest that the owner bought the jeepney from his/her savings as overseas worker. Other items that catch the attention of a keen observer is the interior decor, with music loudly played from an improvised, removable radio-stereo set that keeps the driver awake. In front of the driver is a religious icon (usually a cross or a picture of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary), a lei made of fragrant sampaguita, and a "No Smoking" sign that the driver himself ironically ignores.

In a sense, the jeepney is a testament to the Filipino ingenuity. It symbolizes the diasporic, religious and sometimes perplexing character of a people colonized by two European powers.

More about jeepneys are found by clicking this site, or this fascinating narrative.

Text by fm@hawaii.edu

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