The Bartered Bride

In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines

by Stanley Karnow
Random House, 494 pp., $24.95

The US and the Philippines: In Our Image Neudel, KCET, Los Angeles

A three-part television series, produced by Andrew Rearson and Eric

Ermita: A Filipino Novel

by F. Sionil José
Solidaridad Publishing House (Manila), 258 pp., Pesos 120

I heard the story from Francisco (“Franky”) Sionil José, the foremost Filipino novelist in English: a group of American and Filipino friends at a smart dinner party were discussing the US bases in the Philippines. One of the Americans mentioned the increasing number of AIDS cases among American sailors. “That’s what you guys get for screwing us,” said a young Filipina, quick as a flash.

The image is apt. It is hard to discuss what Filipinos call the Fil-American relationship honestly without resorting to sexual imagery. Screwing, literally and figuratively, is the operative word. Filipino accounts of their national history leave the overwhelming impression of a people that has been screwed by powerful foreigners (and their local mimics) for centuries. The picture of a beautiful woman in native dress being raped by the alien conquerer has become a cliché of Filipino iconography. You come across her everywhere, in movies, cartoons, novels, and on posters displayed in street demonstrations.

Power often contains a sexual element, but the Philippines is somehow special. It is hard to think of the Dutch subjugation of the East Indies or the Spanish conquest of South America in terms of screwing; exploitation, certainly, large-scale killing, yes indeed, but not screwing. Is it perhaps because of a masochistic streak in Filipino behavior, a willing submission to superior might, which is degrading and at the same time almost voluptuous? As an American character in F. Sionil José’s latest novel, Ermita, observes to his Filipina girlfriend: “Filipinos get screwed because they like being screwed.” One of the best descriptions of the Fil-American relationship I have ever read is a Playboy magazine article about the US navy base in Subic Bay, by the American novelist P.F. Kluge.1 An unforgettable passage describes the ramshackle pleasure town called Subic City, “Home of the three-holer”:

And now, here you are, and it looks like a Mexican town, something the Wild Bunch might ride into, everything facing a main street, with jeepney after jeepney of sailors tumbling out, the smell of barbecue mixing with diesel fumes, cute, lively, incredibly foul-mouthed girls saying hello and asking what ship you’re from and offering head, and the juke-boxes from a dozen bars playing all at once, and the song you notice is Julio and Willie doing “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” and you climb to King Daryl’s, where dozens of girls await just you, and you take a chair right at the edge of the balcony, with a King Shit view of the street, and you have a beer in one hand and a pork-satay stick in the other, and a woman between your legs, which are propped up against the railing, and you know you have come to a magical place, all right, a special magic for a nineteen-year-old Navy kid, the magic of a place where anything is possible. And cheap.

Offering head to whoever happens to be king of the mountain seems to have become second nature to many…

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