Jeepneys - The Places They’ve Been


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            Hello everyone! Kumusta ka! Welcome to today’s episode, and I’m pretty excited for this one. Even though it might be a bad topic for an auditory medium. You know, it’s a very visual thing. Today’s topic, that is. Like, the full experience of this thing comes when you see it and ride in it.

You know, I don’t know why I’m being vague. There’s nothing subtle or secretive about the way I title these episodes. I guess, I’m just a little flustered by how excited I am to talk about this despite how little you might care. I mean, I’m sure you do care—you are here after all—but not as much as I do. This is a sentimental nostalgia talking. 

            Because my family used to have a Jeepney. And I loved it. Riding in it when I was visiting was one of my favorite things to do, even if I didn’t really have anywhere to go. It belonged to my uncle, but he had scrawled my father’s name across it as a tribute to the Kuya he had always admired despite that my dad had married into the family and had never been well enough to make a visit. You see, my uncle was working in Hong Kong when my mother’s was, and when my parents met, my uncle was along for the ride.

            But that’s not a story you are interested in hearing. Or at least, that’s not today’s story.

            And I do have something vaguely akin to a story to share with you all today. It’s a very truncated history of the cultural icon that has a very special place in my heart. I don’t think I could have a podcast on my Filipino heritage without discussing it. Merits of such, aside.

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            Jeepneys are a national icon of the Philippines, traditionally being the go to for many Filipinos travelling to the next town or market over and given that their very distinct and individual decorations—meant to distinguish the jeepneys and draw the eye of the rider—are a staple of visual Filipino culture. But if you need a more practical explanation, Jeepneys are the large bus-type vehicles with names and religious iconography painted across the—often—otherwise exposed metal body. Much like (quote) traditional buses, they have a somewhat set route they drive down, and people jump on through what is often an open back door, pay a set fare, and hop off when their stop comes.

            Oh, and I should probably add, that the other iconic aspect of the Jeepney is that if you can find some way to jump onto one to get where you need to go, you do it. If you can squeeze in, you do it. People cram together in those things or even on those things because—well—we all have some place to be, right? We’ve got to make the most of it. Jeepneys don’t always have a set schedule. A specific driver might, but that’s about where it ends. Mass coordination isn’t easy.

            And look, it’s not that the government isn’t trying to step in to keep dangerous overcrowding from happening. They are worried about people’s safety, particularly but not only in the more extreme cases you sometimes see on the internet. The problem is that old habits don’t go out without some sort of fight.

            And to add that problem, jeepneys do have their mechanical weaknesses. Namely, that they can be hard to control sometimes. And I mean that in a couple of different ways.

            If you’ve ever seen what traffic can be like in the Philippines, you’ll know that road rules aren’t always followed, particularly in the more provincial areas and pretty much everyone is in agreement that these aren’t harsh restrictions, which at least softens the blow somewhat. Jeepneys, despite their high passenger count, aren’t immune from this. Drivers will load and unload passengers pretty much anywhere. They have the incentive to make room for passengers whenever they can and to fill up whatever space they can make as soon as possible. In short, the logic is always going to be: the more fares the better because more fares means more money. And there’s no way of stopping it, really. After all, all of this is based on regular judgment calls from the driver, who knows his route better than any official trying to impose guidelines.

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            It’s not really a matter of danger all the time, although that can come up. It’s more a massive inconvenience and a great traffic producer.

            On the other hand, jeepneys might not be the most structurally sound cars, even when properly maintained, and given that the number of jeepneys on the road isn’t zero, yeah, odds are there’s at least one or two jeepney owners out there who might be cutting corners to save a quick buck. But even if that wasn’t true, decorations or roof coverings can affect the driver’s ability to see what’s happening around him, making an accident more likely. And they are relatively top heavy even when packed properly, which can make navigating roads more difficult.

            I think you’d be hard-pressed to pretend there are no problems with these cars. After all, nothing manmade is perfect. But these are things that could be improved upon. No matter the logic, though, it’s hard to step in and moderate or regulate a pre-existing relationship. It’s not just the attempt to limit a perception of self-direction but the perception of an intrusion into something that we value and cherish. Because even someone like me—raised an ocean away—can still feel a sense of connection to these vehicles.

            Or that’s one way of thinking about it.

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            However, despite my love for jeepneys, I didn’t know the full history about them until very recently. Like this episode, recent. I guess I just took this and other things for granted. After all, I could vaguely recognize the underlying pieces of the jeepney, why should I need to know the rest?

            I mean, I needed to know the rest. It’s a part of my personal history, after all. And there’s something incredibly Filipino about the jeepneys. In that, so many elements of Filipino history find themselves represented there. I’ll explain that in…. literally a few moments. But for now, there’s the more obvious, surface-level observations. And that is the look of each jeepney, in so far as they have similarities. Like I said, there’s a point of pride in decorating each jeepney to be its own unique entity.


            Overall, the art style behind all of the decorations typically has Spanish element and color schema to it. And these decorations often feature the religious iconography of the Catholic Church, like the Blessed Mother or the saints, specifically the saints that might represent one’s hometown. And that leads to another common feature. The surnames of the Jeepney’s owner or the linguistic representation of their familial unit, you could also call it, is often painted on the sides or the side. And Filipinos value the family unit above all things.

            Do you see what I’m getting at? You have church and family. We see—at once—what Filipino culture has come to be. Yes it draws heavily from the traditions the Spanish colonial government brought with them, including and especially the religion. For another example, I should point out that modern Tagalog has Spanish words and phrases leaked into it. “Kumusta ka” is a few shades away from “Cómo está.” And despite the prevalence of Buddism in the region, the Philippines is super Catholic, although it holds on the stereotypical filial piety one finds across Asian cultures.

            In many ways, the Philippines is at the crossroads of east and west, and I find it interesting that the art style of this iconic vehicle tends to show that. You have the Western religions and the Western painting style amongst this underlying callback to family and home

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            The vehicle itself, though, has a bit of a different history. It wasn’t just the product of Filipino hands following what feels right to make. But both of the two sources in the description explain that the original jeepneys were American jeeps, left on the islands in the 1950s after the US soldiers fighting in World War II left. Filipinos were just left with the mess they made, which included these large cars, something they didn’t really have otherwise, and no clear direction on what they could or should do with them. On the other hand, they also didn’t have anything akin to a public transportation anymore. The war had taken that out. It was enough to spark an idea rather than being an end-all-be-all. Filipino ingenuity at work, you could say. Fairly accurately, I should add… 

            Basically, to simplify the transformation that ended up happening. There were three major changes. First, they elongated the cab to create more space, and then instead of having the backseats run horizontally relative to the rest of the car, they took out the seats entirely and replaced them with two benches that ran across the sides. Finally, a roof was added to the design to make riding in the cabin a bit more bearable now that you wouldn’t in direct sunlight anymore. I mean, speaking from experience, it can still get pretty hot just not as hot.

            Because of that heat, air-conditioning was later added into what can be thought of as the second-generation jeepneys.

            These new metal bodies are made domestically, though it can be a long and labor-intensive process. Often times, the engine is still imported. And that’s really the only piece of it that is.

            But beyond the previously discussed issues, the Jeepney’s popularity has been instead decline since the Asian financial crisis in the late 90s, though the BBC article in the sources goes into more detail than I’m about to include. But basically, the market shifted after that crisis. And jeepneys, despite being iconic, started to seem less and less practical to buy or even operate. There were already quite a few out there, car ownership was an increasing possibility for more Filipinos, and even in areas where that was not the case, there were other alternatives to get around. And those alternatives were cheaper to operate and repair. Because—the things is—huge pars of the body had to be individually constructed; there’s no standardization here. And as for the engines, because they are imported, well, parts for that aren’t any easier to come by.

            To add to those plights, Jeepneys aren’t the most environmentally friendly. In fact, they might be on the other end of that spectrum. And the air-conditioning added to the so-called second-generation jeepneys aren’t standard issue. And even if they were most jeepneys don’t have solid windows to help with circulation and the perception of space in a crowded vehicle. With that in mind, adding air conditioning would be a change that’s harder to implement.  

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            As hard as it is to believe, the future of the jeepney is a bit unclear. The Philippines is evolving, and while it seems unlikely they would complete reject this cultural icon or reduce it to status as a mere relic, I don’t know where builders can go or what comes next. There is a push to make jeepneys more environmentally friendly, having them powered by electricity or some other “green” alternative, but that doesn’t address the other drawbacks that exist in the practical realm.

            And this is coming from the niece of someone who had to sell their jeepney when the operating cost came to be too much and the driver he trusted needed to move on to something else in his life. I understood why my uncle did, but it still felt a little sad. It felt like the end of an era in my family at least to me. And call me overly-sentimental because it’s accurate, but I wonder or fear that this is going to become part of a much larger trend.

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