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Mixed fortunes of two icons

Philippine icons: bahay kubo and jeepney

While the Philippines’ dwindling Liberal Party continues to work itself into a lather over the real possibility of the death penalty being re-instated: albeit, exclusively for high-value illegal-drugs traders; while it tirelessly calls foul over the arrest and detainment for alleged drugs profiteering of its self-styled Jean d’Arc, Senator Leila De Lima, now availing herself of government accommodation in Camp Crame, headquarters of the Philippine National Police – while all that’s going on and burning up oxygen at a rate that threatens climate change even further, we’re altering the tempo by looking at the changing fortunes of two remarkable Philippine icons.

The first of these concerns the ‘nipa hut’ (photo) or Bahay Kubo – a bamboo, hardwood and palm stilt-house construction that predates the Spanish era, making it well over 500 years old.

Consummately Filipino, though over time it’s incorporated Spanish, Chinese, American and Japanese designs, this small house has been home to countless generation of families living in the Philippine countryside. Cheap and sturdy, it’s as ubiquitous in the rural Philippines as those portable round tents, ‘yurts’ or ‘gers’, are on the steppes of Central Asia and Mongolia.

Where you wouldn’t expect to find a nipa hut though is in Scotland. But all that’s about to change. In fact, they’re going to be appearing there in May – at least 12 of them are. That’s the first consignment to make the 40-day sea passage from Laguna on the Philippine island of Luzon to Grangemouth, a port town on the east side of Scotland’s Central Belt.

And it could be the first of many such shipments. The importer, Scottish entrepreneur, David Symon, who runs a decking and double-glazing business in Argyll has already been contacted by UK multinational home-improvements retailer, B&Q, to set up a meeting to discuss the product, presumably with a view to marketing it across its 300 UK stores, 17 of which are in Scotland.

As of July last year, B&Q has a customer base of 7 million – approximately three quarters of which research products on the company’s website prior to store purchase. So far, Symon’s own website has received more than 15,000 hits from people viewing the nipa hut. So it would seem that there’s plenty of interest already for the humble dwelling.

Symons got the idea of importing the huts when he was on holiday in the Philippines at the end of last year. He first saw one being used as the outside dining area of a restaurant and it was love at first sight. His immediate reaction was that there could be a market for them as garden rooms back home – their ethnic design and internal layout providing a new concept for a sector dominated by garden sheds and summer houses.

And given B&Q’s market penetration, if a tie-up with the retailer is made, there should be plenty of profit in it. Symons nipa-hut prices start at £2,000 – that’s about PHP123,000 a pop. Prices in the Philippines for nipa huts of around 30 square metres average between PHP40,000 and PHP60,000.

Certainly, these are tough structures and will be able to withstand any amount of Scottish gales. Bamboo has a greater strength-to-weight ratio than graphite which explains why In the Philippines these structures can withstand the regular pummeling they get from typhoons and tropical storms.

So one day, who knows, to the nipa hut’s Chinese, Japanese and American makeovers might be added a Scottish one – a crofter’s-cottage look maybe – and it could go on to take its place across all of Britain’s gardens alongside Japanese maples and flowering cherry; Chinese chrysanthemums and stands of bamboo.

The point is, this is another uniquely Philippine product – made of plentiful local materials and fashioned by local craftsmen – that could become another export item. And the country needs as many of those as it can find in order to broaden its product range and open-up new markets. Hopefully, someone at the Department of Trade and Industry will be tracking the progress of Mr Symon’s enterprise.

But while that Philippine icon is getting a new lease of life on foreign soil, another could be on borrowed time back at home.

Once again the future of the ‘jeepney’ (photo) – the popular people-carrier, characterised by its ghetto-blasting music and its colourful bodywork, complete with religious affirmations – is in doubt, with renewed calls from the government to phase it out of existence. As well-known and as patronised on the country’s roads as the Black Cab is on London’s streets, it’s hard to imagine the urban landscape devoid of them.

This distinctly Filipino vehicle has been around for half a century and, like it or not, it’s the most popular mode of transport in the Philippine capital and everywhere else in the country. But it’s become a problem. And nowhere more so than in the capital, Metro Manila, where the proposed phase out will start.

First of all there are too many of them – around 80,000 in the National Capital Region alone. They’re also a major contributor to carbon emissions and now pose a major health risk. In Manila, motor vehicles are believed to create 80% of the air pollution and jeepneys are seen as a main malefactor.

On top of that, they’re responsible for much of the staggering levels of congestion in the towns and cities, stopping at will and blocking traffic to take-on and disgorge passengers. Rarely do they observe road discipline.

According to a study, conducted in 2012 by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Japanese Government’s development-assistance agency which has an advisory role to the Philippine Government, Manila’s snarled traffic – ‘Carmaggedon’ as it’s known locally – is costing at least at least PHP 3 billion a day.

Often mechanically unsound and poorly maintained, they’re also gas-guzzlers. According to one study, a 16-seat jeepney consumes the same amount of fuel as a 54-seat air-condition bus.

Once responsible for a small yet thriving auto industry, government restrictions and regulations aimed at controlling pollution output have put many of the smaller jeepney makers out of business while many of the larger ones have been forced into other lines of manufacturing.

Now the government’s determined to remove them from the roads – at least in their present form. Recently, the Department of Transport (DOT) released plans to phase them out, stating that jeepneys aged 15 years and older have to be scrapped.

Under the scheme, owners who have a Certificate of Public Convenience – an operating permit – will be able to purchase new public-utility jeepneys provided they meet government standards and are “compliant with guidelines in low-carbon, low-emission technology”. In other words electric jeepneys – ‘e-jeepneys’ – or those with ‘Euro-4’ compliant engines. But the purchase price of these are high – starting at around PHP700,000 for an e-jeepney – and beyond the reach of most owner-drivers of regular diesel-fueled jeepneys.

There’ve been a number of attempts over the years to cull the jeepney fleets, but resistance from drivers associations – like the recent rash of transport strikes by jeepney operators across the country – succeeded in keeping them on the roads. This latest initiative, however, being pushed by DOT Secretary, Arthur Tugade, and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board – the DOT’s compliance agency – looks to be more determined.

As usual, jeepney drivers are angry. They claim that the measures will directly affect the livelihood of 250,000 operators and 650,000 drivers. Add to that their families plus those involved in peripheral businesses such as auto parts and vulcanising, and – according to the jeepney operators – that figure could balloon to 5 million.

The phase-out is expected to take about two years. In that time the government hopes to switch more and more commuters over to the expanding Light Rail Transit system which is straddling the capital.

Whether it actually happens this time only time will tell, though with Art Tugade now running the show it has a good chance of success. He won’t be as fazed by the demonstrations and protests as his predecessors seem to have been. His plans for dealing with ‘Carmaggedon’ are bold and broad and the jeepney issue is just a small part of all that.

But the jeepney will never fully disappear – it’s part of the urban culture. And so even if it disappears from the roads to be replaced by the less vibrant e-version, it will still be found in souvenir shops and as a popular pictorial for postcards and make appearances in movies. Something as colourful and uniquely Filipino as the jeepney can never simply vanish.

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