How western writers and journalists have been getting the Philippines wrong for 200 years

Writing towards the end of the last century, the intellectuals Edward Said and Alain Grosrichard argued that Western imperial and economic objectives in the Middle East have, over time, informed numerous distortions, misrepresentations and stereotypes across a wide spectrum of media – from French Enlightenment essays on “Oriental despotism”, British Victorian travelogues of Egypt, to 1980s American journalism on the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

More recently, scholars have repurposed this “Orientalism” thesis to show how Western writers have legitimised, excused, downplayed or just plain ignored the often brutal exercise of Western military, fiscal, cultural and diplomatic power elsewhere in the Global South.

The Philippines in the Age of Empire

In this context, the case of the Philippines is unusual and nuanced. By the mid-nineteenth century, much of the archipelago had been a Spanish colony for almost 300 years, its native populations oppressed and impoverished by ruthless, land-grabbing bureaucrats and Catholic priests. In the 1840s, the US naval commander Charles Wilkes and the Scottish merchant Robert MacMicking visited Manila and wrote about its mismanagement by the Spanish, subtly hinting that it was time for a more competent, efficient and Protestant empire to take control. Free market capitalism, they and other contemporaries claimed, was badly needed to discipline and incentivise the “lazy native” Filipinos, whose “lethargy” had come to infect their Spanish overlords like a tropical disease.

These remarks were prescient. Eager to exploit the region’s resources and establish a strategic outpost in Asia, the burgeoning American Empire annexed the Philippines from Spain in 1898. To suppress a popular independence movement, the Americans committed a white supremacist genocide (more politely known today as the Philippine-American War) that killed anywhere from 200,000 to a million Filipinos. US troops exterminated women and children, burned down villages of civilians and tortured suspects with methods such as waterboarding, which today we more readily associate with the contemporary – and catastrophic – “War on Terror”. Adventure novels of the turn of the twentieth century by H. Irving Hancock and Edward L. Stratemeyer (better known for his Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries) mobilised various literary techniques to conceal or understate US war crimes. Stratemeyer’s novel The Campaign of the Jungle (1900) was particularly audacious in this regard – in one scene, a US infantryman kidnaps a native woman and uses her as a human shield before abandoning her in a forest. It is, wrote Stratemeyer, a stroke of “good luck” that the woman is a “relative” of a rebel leader who will not fire on the American for fear of harming her.

A flawed, sleazy simulation of the West

From 1898 to 1941, the US ruled the Philippines colonially, extending rather than reducing Spanish cultures of corruption, racial segregation and political repression. During this time, Western media and literature shifted from representing Filipinos as terrorist villains to childlike or effeminate beings in need of educating and civilizing by the white man. The American architect Daniel Burnham began renovating Manila’s roads, public buildings, parks and canals in order to “create a unified city equal to the greatest of the Western world with the unparalleled and priceless addition of a tropical setting”. American foreign correspondence, travel writing by Frank G. Carpenter and memoirs by the likes of the “Thomasite” colonial schoolteacher Mary H. Fee began to imagine Manila as a simulation of an American city, though one with tell-tale imperfections. After World War II, when the Philippines gained ostensible independence but remained in economic and political fealty to US ‘dollar imperialism’, DeLoris Stevenson and Maslyn Williams presented Manila, now a big market for cheap American goods, as a crude, kitsch spoof of New York or Los Angeles. As the British-born travel writer Pico Iyer put it in 1988, “Master of every American gesture, conversant with every Western song [...] the Filipino plays minstrel to the entire continent.”

The 1990s saw an increasing number of British tabloid reporters describing the Philippines as a sleazy paradise of sex workers and “mail order brides”. Unsurprisingly, none of these stories acknowledge that sex tourism was – and still is – an outgrowth of the Philippines’ subject position in global capitalism. Compelled by poverty, many Filipino women and children have become just another product for sale on an international market catering to jaded male desire.

Distorting Duterte

Since 2016 and the election of the quasi-fascist strongman Rodrigo Duterte, the tone of Western constructions of the Philippines has changed significantly. With justification, the reportage of James Fenton and Jonathan Miller has focused on the appalling campaign of extra-judicial murder Duterte has directed against narcotics suspects and political adversaries, which has thus far claimed 30,000+ lives, according to some estimates. While these writers have provided a much-needed boost to Western public awareness about such atrocities, their narrow liberal analyses have overlooked the connivance of the West in Duterte’s political success. Over the last four years, British arms corporations have sold £88 million of weapons to the Philippines and Joe Biden – hailed by over-optimistic centrists as a major improvement on Donald Trump (who got on famously with Duterte) – is in the process of vending $2 billion worth of assault helicopters to the regime, despite some of his own Democratic Party senators proposing to sanction Duterte on human rights grounds. Furthermore, the British and American media are reluctant to mention the role of US neo-imperial interference in the Philippines and the neoliberal policies of the World Bank and IMF in contributing to exactly the kind of disgruntlement that compelled large swathes of the public to support Duterte’s brash chauvinism.

Fighting back

While an article this length can’t do justice to it, a counter-narrative has been challenging these Western clichés and simplifications about the Philippines for decades. From the short political fiction of Manuel Arguilla in the 1930s to the contemporary travel narratives of the Australian aid worker Tom Bamforth, progressive writers – Filipino or otherwise – have worked valiantly to provide a more balanced picture of the Philippines, highlight the deleterious effects of imperialism and global capitalism on its society and debunk harmful, wrong-headed stereotypes. America is in the Heart (1943), Carlos Bulosan’s classic novel drawing on his experiences as a migrant labourer in the Great Depression, reveals the hypocrisy of white American racists who profit from running brothels and casinos while “victim-blaming” the Filipinos who use them.

Such resistance on the level of representation is a key dimension of wider political action that must redress the power imbalance between the Western-led rich world and the poor world, to which the Philippines continues to belong.


Tom Sykes is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth. You can learn more about the topics explored in this article in Tom Sykes’ new book Imagining Manila: Literature, Empire and Orientalism (Bloomsbury/I.B. Tauris).

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