Manila’s Amazing Jeepneys

Meant as a temporary answer to post-Liberation Manila's transport crisis in the mid-1940s, the public utility jeepney (PUJ) continues to confound critics with its swaggering staying power. Periodic attempts by lawmakers to phase it out as a traffic and ecological hazard since the Sixties have been just that. Besides, how does one bump off a landmark widely hailed as Symbol of Filipino Ingenuity?

What the Filipino did four decades ago to tons of G.I. jeeps his U.S. Liberators left behind is a revelation of national character. Finding the original body too square, too bare, for his Latin-Asian taste, he transformed the vehicle into a cozy twin-benched minibus, and much else: a surreal carriage out of some Arabian Nights fairground. He called it jeepney, a word now in the international lexicon, a phenomenon uniquely Filipino but for its engine block and chassis, and thereby hangs a Third World tale. That much of it is handcrafted - and that no two PUJs are ever alike - should be welcome news to those who deplore mass cloning in today's high tech.

Moves to ban the PUJ are doomed as long as no other transit system is adequate to take on Manila's commuting millions. Think of the masses it serves by plying not only main streets but also byways inaccessible to big buses. Think of its versatility as a carry-all (ask anyone who has hired one as an election bandwagon or pickup to ferry anything from farm produce to a live pony.) Think of its legions of small, independent operators and drivers. their extended families and the sub-economies they have spawned from wayside eateries to barkers. Then you have some idea of a lobby with the clout to stun the entire metropolitan work force. Whatever its occasional drawbacks --- speed freak driver, rock-hard upholstery, air-polluting belch or disco-loud cassette -- it remains a most convenient means of getting around.

There is another reason for letting it be. It is a symbol of the Filipino Fiesta Spirit. More than a landcraft. the jeepney is an expression of folk baroque aesthetics reflecting the psyche of the average Filipino male. What those profuse curvilinear forms, candy-bright colors and image clusters reveal is his exuberant sense of public relations. That -- and fear of empty space --- compels him to crowd bumper. hood, side and rear with psychedelic polyurethane polychrome and glittering metal and plastic trimmings.

There is more to the razzle-dazzle. Those multiple zinc sculpture horses, studs and fins, horns and rockets, disc mirrors and flabelliform antennas streaming with plastic tassles, those painted bullrope and chain-link motifs. all smack of machismo. The coronet on the roof displays a fascination with feudal power. The varicolored wings sprouting from the windshield's upper corners represent a love affair with the magical and mystical. Reinforcing it inside the vehicle is a religious icon. enshrined above the mirror panel between ceiling and steering wheel, an affirmation of faith in the miraculous.

The wings are a carry-over from the late Fifties when the artwork was all by brush and dominated by an abstraction of that mascot of macho folk culture - the gamecock. Comb, wattle, wing and tail feather patterns filled appropriate sections of the jeepney body. They gave early assembly plant models an ethnic look and pictorial coherence as stylish as that flamboyant representation of the Muslim totem bird, the sari-manok. Thereafter, metallic decor of the reflecting, flashy kind came into vogue among such noted bodybuilders as the Sarao brothers, who made the jeepney a cornucopia of tactile effects.

To its regular passengers, the PUJ's multisensory imagery exudes the optimism of a fantasy object. A life of making do could use such a cheer-upper to cope with adversity. Written all over it from windshield to rear mud guard are slogans and epithets E~ whose gutsy comics humor of `' hyperboles and puns can lift eyebrows in puckish, not cynical, amusement.

Jeepney art has undergone changes in recent years, becoming more pop than folk, the effect of entertainment media and consumerism on the urban masses. Much of the pop variety, a tacky show of uncoordinated whoopee, is easier to maintain in leaner times than a state-of-the-art paint job and the hoopla of multi-horses and mirrors typical of the folk. Which explains the current rage for unpainted gray bodies of galvanized iron or steel---ah, but often specially treated to simulate the gleam of chrome or silver. Everywhere the Shiny-ls-Beautiful syndrome appears to he edging out folk-painterly razzmatazz.

But look again. The decor may be growing spartan, but the real creative action these days is concentrated on an oversized signboard like a gaudy theater marquee atop the windshield. It projects the PUJ unit's name in blockbuster or serpentine art nouveau script, carnival hues and glaring metal cutouts. Its flamboyance all but overwhelms the letter underneath, spelling out the vehicle's routes in smaller print. These super sign boards carry intimate, personalistic messages (Crying Jot elt'n, Raised ht' Lola, Bo 'vet and .Malou. Contpadres II, Loving Son), flaunting fealty to kin, godparenthood and patronage. Or ego-tripping ones that read: Macho Star, Raniho King, Matador, Lad killer, Road Warrior, Different Class, Supersweat. As ever, the sexist feudal mind-set is highly visible, but this time in typographical rather than pictorial terms.

Super signboards also serve as socio-economic barometer. A fair number recently sighted allude to exotic tastes and places: Levis, Juice of Saudi. Savonara, Chickago, Stars and Stripes, D'Sheik. In the Eighties they signify not so much the Filipino colonial hang-up as job opportunities galore abroad. For the typical wage earner's premiere fantasy these days revolves around an exodus and a vision of making it elsewhere. But wherever he goes, his constant thoughts will always be of a homeland of seasonal, moveable and instant folk feasts.