Maybe if you’re an American you know a lot about the Philippines, but more than likely, you don’t. But to understand the Jeepney — the colorful, open-window Jeeps stretched out to become public buses — you need to understand the role that America played, and indeed continues to play, in their history and national psyche.
The Jeepney (Jeep plus jitney, or maybe Jeep plus knee, no one really knows for sure) is easily the most iconic vehicle in the Philippines and the country’s most popular form of public transit. But they aren’t just constant attempts to refresh all those Willys Jeeps that America didn’t want to pay to haul back to the States after World War II. Jeepneys are a microcosm for the legacy of the undeniable Americanness that exists in tattered edges around the modern independent Filipino identity.
When WWII came to an end, American forces in the Philippines had a lot of used, and hard-used, equipment. This included a substantial number of surplus Army and Marine Corps Jeeps. There was little reason for the U.S. to keep these Jeeps, given their condition, the peace-time setting, and the significant fact that unlike Europe and Asia, North America hadn’t been devastated, or even really harmed.
Not only was the continental United States unscathed, but the expansion of production capacity for the war effort meant that American factories and their newly unrestricted corporate owners could proceed to produce a wide range of new consumer goods for the American (and to a much lesser degree, the international) populous. Where as Europe and Asia were looking to salvage whatever they could to begin to rebuild, there was no need for the little Jeeps to return to their homeland.
So, American forces gave them away or sold them for a few bucks en masse to Filipinos. And the age of the Jeepney began.
And the Willys and Ford Jeeps couldn’t have found a more grateful public. In addition to serving as the platform for personal vehicles and small commercial transports, the sheer number of the surplus Jeeps served to restart the public transportation sector in a substantial way. The nation had been decimated during WWII and movement around even the main islands and their urban areas, such as they were, was really difficult.
Large numbers of the Jeeps were combined with other materials to turn the very small military vehicles into rather large transport buses. While initially as much of the Jeep was used as possible to construct even the elongated Jeepneys, as time wore on and parts wore out, the most important parts marking the origin of the Jeepneys were the front ends: the bonnet/hood, the grill, the headlights. From straight on, they pretty much still looked, and even today, still look, like Jeeps. Their lineage, at least, is obvious.
A few of them, like the Grand Master above (which appears to be a private vehicle, not a “public utility vehicle” based on the license plate) looks like something I’d pit against anyone’s Wrangler, and more to the point, would make an excellent start on a Jurassic Park, Mad Max or Zombie Apocalypse vehicle (bring it on, Mighty Car Mods). It’s definitely a Jeep.... with extra benefits.
The most successful company in the heyday of Jeepney production, and which is somehow still limping along even with an emphasis on improved gas efficiency, higher safety, and better regulation across the Filipino transport sector, is Sarao Motors. Started in 1953 with just a fistful of, er, pesos (700, to be exact, which is enough for two cab rides now, but not worth a whole lot more then), the company ended up making millions.
It was forced to shutter operations for a while around the year 2000, but five years later the current head, Ed Sarao, sent production photos to the Philippine Daily Inquirer explaining that rumors of the company’s death were greatly exaggerated. I independently confirmed that Sarao is still in operation with the daughter of a current employee. Sadly, while I met the woman in Cebu, there was not enough time to arrange a visit to the Manila area production facility, although a tour had been offered.
While the physical production itself is a combination of American military styling and local ingenuity, the rest of the Jeepney really is representative of the mixed culture of the Philippines. There’s no real comparison to any other place, because only the Philippines is the Philippines, but I definitely couldn’t shake the feeling that I was visiting a place not too dissimilar in mixed culture from the New Mexico in which I spent my childhood.
The landscape is certainly different, but the mix of indigenous, Spanish colonial, and Americana influences meant the country seemed very familiar indeed. It felt a bit like if Las Cruces was on the beach, or maybe on a tropical island, and not right north of the Gadsden purchase, if that makes any sense at all.
And that same cultural mix is splattered across the Jeepneys themselves. While some Jeepneys are rather plain, and clearly used for public transport without much personalisation, other Jeepneys are completely off the wall in their designs. And if you look closely you will find classic and modern Americana side by side with Spanish, especially Catholic, symbology, with various quotes, phrases, and designs which are uniquely Filipino.
The rule with Jeepneys seems to be in the oldest parts of Manila like the Intramuros fortress area, the crazier they are, the better. Easier to stand out and get those tourist pesos, in addition to the fares of the locals.
Jeepney etiquette is actually pretty straight forward. To determine if a Jeepney is going where you want to go, read the side of the Jeepney. If the Jeepney says “private” or “family” or “not for hire,” then it is... a privately owned Jeepney, or a family vehicle, or... uh... not for hire. Pretty easy to figure out.
You can generally flag a Jeepney down by waving like you’d hail a cab. Although locals will have the nerves and reflexes to do a quick step out into the path of the Jeepney and back to the curb, I don’t advise it for tourists. That’s a really good way to end up getting to know a Jeepney up close and personal, with the added bonus of an extended tour of the Filipino healthcare system. There was a reason you didn’t make reservations for that tour, am I right?
No shoving, no cutting in line, no aggressive comments. You may rightly be denied entry into the Jeepney if you act like an asshole. These things are sketchy enough already, and accidents can happen easily in Manila traffic during stops if people are morons. So, as is so often the case with life in general, the rule when boarding and exiting is simple: don’t be a dick.
On each Jeepney, there is a two man crew (always a two man crew, I did not once see a single woman), made up of a driver and a conductor. If the Jeepney is fairly empty, the conductor may collect the fares. If the Jeepney is packed, then it is up to passengers to pass money forward. This is definitely an honor system, but peer pressure is intense. You’re going to stick out anyway if you’re not Filipino. And the general design of the interior usually isn’t conducive to cheating without a guilty conscience. Especially if, like me, you grew up Catholic, and you are surrounded by all the paraphernalia of Roman ritual. Yes, that is Baby Jesus on the dash. Don’t make Him cry.
A general fare is 20 peso, or about 40 cents in U.S. dollars. In my personal experience, the driver is also pressured to be very honest, and will hold up the fare he has been passed so everyone can see that he has, indeed, received the money and there will be no potential for a dispute later. In the photo above, the driver of a Jeepney I took on the way to see the Mall of Asia and the Ford Ranger is holding up my 20 peso, showing me he has received my fare. When you need to get off, you should say “para” (stop in Spanish, which is only used and understood in this context).
Some people have in the past used knocking on the top of the Jeepney, dinging coins on metal areas, or whistling to alert the driver to pull over, but this is increasingly seen as bad manners. Don’t be surprised if you see a Jeepney painted with the phrase “Ang katok, sa pinto; ang sutsot, sa aso; ang para, sa tao” which means “knocking is for doors; whistling is for dogs; para is for humans.”
I’m embarrassed to say that until about a year ago, my knowledge of Filipino history, especially given its parallels to the American Southwest in which I grew up, and its half a century under American rule, wasn’t much beyond “Admiral Dewey took Manila Bay in the Spanish-American war, and then we had control of the Philippines for a while, and then MacArthur something-something, and then the Japanese, and then more MacArthur, and then we let them go because they were too expensive for us to keep or something.”
Yeah, not exactly nuanced.
I’m embarrassed because I had 15 year old students, part or full Filipino (usually part Japanese as well, of course), who knew more about one of the most ambiguous military and colonial chapters of American history as children than I knew after three years of accelerated high school, four years of university, and two years of post graduate work... where I actually did touch on the Philippine-American war, but only in the sense of international relations and American military policy in Vietnam and the Middle East (that is to say, that the U.S. was no stranger to asymmetrical warfare).
We didn’t dwell, and I’m not sure how much I really retained. I had to ask myself how could I, as an American, know so little about this nation of more than 7,000 islands when America still looms so large on its language, institutions, and pop culture, and where its children have grown up in the historical presence of America’s intervention?
In my time in the Philippines I met a number of Filipinos who seemed to transverse these two identities and nationalities, regardless of which citizenship they held. I met Filipino citizens who had served in the American forces, but did not have U.S. citizenship after independence. I met U.S. citizens who were born in the Philippines, lived all of their lives in the Philippines, but didn’t have Philippine citizenship. I met plenty of dual citizens. I even met the family of the Philippine Ambassador to the Vatican, dual citizens, currently live in California, were originally born in Guam.
What I came to learn is that just as Americans should know the story of the Jeepney itself, because it’s interesting and unusual and unique on its own merits as a definitive jalopy subtype, they should also understand it as a microcosm of the modern nation it represents.
And in a wider sense, the Jeepney is a perfect example of how cars are more than just transportation — they’re a reflection of culture, of history, of people. They reflect who we are as human beings, where we’ve come from and where we need to go.
While no longer tied to the American political system (at least by obvious means), just as the Willys and Ford Jeeps are no longer tied to their original designs or purposes, when we look at Filipinos straight on, we should recognise within them a shared heritage. One that some might wish us to forget, because it comes from a chapter of our history which is anything but unambiguously glorious, but that can be seen so clearly in the grilles of the vehicles we left behind.
Images via Kat Callahan/Jalopnik.
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