Monday, September 4, 2017


When I was in elementary school, we were given pen pals. I got one from the Philippines, and we wrote back and forth for years. I would always send her little things like pennies, keychains, whatever I could fit in an envelope that didn’t weigh much. She would send me little things like shells, little paper beads and stuff like that. Occasionally, I’d send her a dollar or something. We wrote back and forth for years. In 1991, Mt. Pinatubo erupted, and it was the second largest eruption of the 20th century. It spewed more particulate in the air since the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 (I was super fascinated by this event after I read Twenty-One Balloons). I never heard from her afterwards. 

The islands were given its current name by the Spanish, who arrived during the mid-1500s. They named them after King Phillip II of Spain. It had changed names several times, but nothing too incredibly far from this name. After WWII, it officially became the Republic of the Philippines. 

The Philippines are a group of over 7600 islands in South Asia. Taiwan lies directly north of the island chain; Palau is to the east; Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei lie to the south and southwest; Vietnam is to the west; and China lies to the northwest. The South China Sea stands between the Philippines and mainland Asia; the Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea stand between them and Indonesia and Malaysia; and the Philippine Sea is between these islands and other Pacific Islands to the east, extending up to Japan. Because of its proximity to the equator, it stays warm all year round and has a tropical climate. And because of its location along the Ring of Fire, they experience frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. 

One of the earliest peoples to call this group of islands their home was the Negritos, who are thought to have originally come from Africa. Other Austronesians from China, Taiwan, and elsewhere throughout southeastern Asia began to settle there later on. For the most part, each island or group of islands were pretty isolated and independent from each other, like island states. They traded with Indonesian, Malaysians, Chinese, Japanese, and other Pacific Islanders. Eventually Indian and Arab traders arrived and set up small ruling territories as Hindu and Islamic states during the 14-16th centuries. In the early 1500s, the Spanish arrived to expand Christianity and claim the land for Spain. Of course, the Spanish had to put up a fight to be there. And even after they established new trading partners with Latin America, they put down quite a few revolts and fought with the Moros (Muslim rebels) for hundreds of years. As a result of the 1898 Treaty of Paris negotiated after the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Islands were handed over to the US. The US did manage to suppress some of these rebellious states and was given Commonwealth status in 1935. The Japanese invaded during WWII, and the Bataan Death March was considered one of the most tragic loss of life events during the war (est. 5600-18,000 American and Philippine POW deaths). By the end of the war, it’s estimated more than a million Filipinos have died. After the war, the US recognized its independence, and it became a part of the UN. However, they have had trouble with stability in government. During Corazon Aquino’s term as president, the US finally abandoned their military base (something we should do everywhere). Today, their controversial president Rodrigo Duterte continues to make the headlines over his aggressive War on Drugs policies.

The capital city is Manila, located on the northern island of Luzon (the largest island in the Philippines). The name may refer to the phrase “place where there are flowering mangrove trees.” Located on Manila Bay, it’s one of the densest cities in the world. It has many examples of European-style architecture along with one of the largest Chinatowns in the world. The city has a modernity that rivals other major cities while still holding on to its traditional shops and restaurants. 

The Philippines are transitioning from an agricultural based economy to one that’s based on industry and services. They are strong exporters of fruits, coconut oil, copper products, petroleum products, garments, and electronic equipment (including semiconductors). They are also really expanding their science and technology sectors. After WWII, the Philippines had one of the strongest economies in Asia, behind Japan. Since then, they’ve went through some recessions and growth. Goldman Sachs considered the Philippines as one of the Next Eleven economies.

Although it’s listed as a secular state on the book, the majority religion is Christianity. Nearly 80% follow Catholicism (as introduced by the Spanish), and around 10% follow Protestantism (as introduced by the Americans). There is a significant number of Muslims (10%) living in the Philippines, mostly living in a couple of states. There are also Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, Jews, and followers of traditional religions. 

Both Filipino (Tagalog) and English are listed as official languages. There are actually 186 languages in the Philippines, but only 182 of those are still spoken (four of those have died off). Chavacano is a Spanish Creole that was spoken there. Because it was part of Spain for so long, Spanish used to be a lingua franca, but it has since lost that status. However, there are still quite a few Spanish loan words in the Filipino language that are still used today. Arabic is used mainly in Islamic Schools, and a number of other languages are taught as foreign languages.

Cell phone advertisement in the Philippines.
There are so many things about the Philippines that make it stand out, well, on one of those “little known facts that have a great impact” kind of level. The yoyo has its roots as a Filipino hunting weapon. The antibiotic erythromycin was created in 1949 by a Filipino doctor who worked for Eli Lilly and has saved the lives of millions of people who are allergic to penicillin. Filipinos also text more than the US and Europe combined (I’d get along well here). And if you think we push the Christmas season, you’d probably scream if you knew some Filipinos start their celebrations in September – a retailer’s dreamland (or nightmare, depending on how you look at it).

Up next: art and literature

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