Public leisure in postcolonial Baguio

A trip to Baguio on any long holiday break would persuade any visitor of the paucity of leisure in our society.  This city on a hill originally founded by Americans for the rest and recreation of colonial bureaucrats has become simply too small and too lacking in facilities to accommodate Filipino families in search of a holiday.  No wonder, most of our people are content with finding recreation in the airconditioned glitter of shopping malls and the inexhaustible consumer culture on which they are founded.

I confirmed this for myself this week while vacationing with my family in this fabled summer capital, armed with Robert R. Reed’s fascinating “City of Pines: The Origins of Baguio as a Colonial Hill Station and Regional Capital.” Baguio today is not very much more than the hill station that Governor-General William Cameron Forbes built in the early part of American colonial rule.  Although the city’s population has, without doubt, grown immensely, the facilities that would make Baguio the “multifunctional hill station” that the U.S. Philippine Commission meant it to be have grown little since the 1900s.

Baguio was, in the first instance, meant to be a place for recuperation.  Its salubrious climate and pine-scented air made it perfect for people recovering from debilitating illnesses.  That is why a civil sanitarium was the first colonial project to be established in this wooded sanctuary as soon as it was decided that a wagon trail would be built connecting Pangasinan to Benguet.  This health facility was put up at the site of what later came to be Pines Hotel.  The health and resort functions were subsequently separated when a proper hospital was built on another site in response to the demand for a full medical center. Pines Hotel in turn became a complete lodging place for vacationists.

Of course, the residence of choice was, apart from the Mansion House of the Governor-General, the exclusive Baguio Country Club, which was inaugurated in 1906.  “It is interesting to note,” Reed observes, “that unlike most exclusive clubs in other Southeast Asian colonies, this institution was open from the beginning to Westerners and Filipinos alike.”  The latter referred to prominent Filipinos and colonial politicians and not to the public in general. Today, the Spanish and English-speaking elite no longer dominates the membership.  It now includes a growing contingent of rich ChineseFilipinos, reflecting the changing composition of the Filipino ruling class.  This gated club remains off-limits to non-members, unless they can show proof that they are guests of members.

With the departure of the Americans, Camp John Hay has opened its gates and facilities to Filipinos of all social classes.  But the amenities for recreational activities are woefully inadequate.  This huge facility is still very much a golfer’s dominion.  Provincial excursionists, who do not pack golf clubs in their luggage, can only choose between the skating rink and the mini-golf.

You realize there is something sadly missing in this historic mountain resort when endless tourist vehicles clog the narrow streets leading to the Good Shepherd Convent in quest of ube jam or peanut brittle. This is a commentary not on the good sisters’ products (for they are undoubtedly good), but on the sheer absence of alternative destinations within the city.  The same “ube” pilgrims are later to be encountered in the desolation called Mines View Park, in the shabby stable called Wright Park, and in the little Luneta cum Divisoria that we all know as Burnham Park.  Only the market has retained its charm and color throughout the years.  The rest of the public places and parks that Forbes built following the designs of Baguio’s chief architect and planner Daniel Hudson Burnham have been occupied beyond their limits and have deteriorated from lack of proper maintenance.

What Baguio will always have, long after the pine scent has vanished from the air as a result of pollution, is the enthusiasm of its visitors.  It took tons of enthusiasm for Baguio’s builders to create a dream city up in the mountains that was accessible only by a tortuous wagon trail.  Today that enthusiasm continues to be repaid by Filipino travelers from the lowlands who come to Baguio expecting nothing more than the sheer pleasure of getting there.

The exhilaration begins at Kennon Road.  Majestic mountains terraced by a highway instantly lift the traveler from the cares and problems of daily living.  Even though this road always seems unfinished, its rustic quality never fails to convey the perseverance of its builders.  Known originally as Benguet Road, Kennon Road was named after its main builder Major L.W.V. Kennon, who took over from the early efforts of Captain Charles Mead and chief engineer N.M. Holmes.  Completed in 1905 at a cost of nearly $2 million, the road, which was supposed to be converted later into a rail line, was one of the most expensive infrastructure projects undertaken by the American colonial government.

The huge expense was thought to be so unnecessary and whimsical that it became an issue against the American colonial government. The controversy was such that further appropriations to develop a railway became unwarranted.  Even the development of the city itself was put on hold.  Only the persistence and enthusiasm of W. Cameron Forbes and later of F.B. Harrison saved the Baguio project. Forbes raised the money needed to develop the city according to the plans prepared by Burnham by selling choice property to wealthy Filipinos and Americans.  He enticed members of the Philippine Assembly to come and visit and later to build homes in Baguio in order to make it easy for him to lobby for bigger appropriations for the emerging city in the Cordillera.

He persuaded the U.S. Philippine Commission to pass a resolution that would make Baguio the seat of the national government for four months of the year during the dry season.  This practice lasted only for four years as it was deemed to be too expensive and disruptive of government operations.  But a Teachers Assembly organized every summer to permit public school teachers from all over the country to congregate in Baguio for seminars as well as recreation has continued to this day.  Thus was Teachers Camp conceived.

A society need not wait until all its basic material needs are fully met before it begins to think of providing leisure for its citizens. Leisure is a basic human need.  Too often, leisure is forced upon us by illness. Yet it is illness of the body and spirit that leisure precisely seeks to preempt.

The American governors knew that leisure was a complement to the work ethic.  They built Baguio as a monument to this recognition. They came under severe attack for investing scarce public resources in what was deemed to be a playground for colonial bureaucrats and the elite.  In the context of the period, the criticisms were probably largely justified.  But we are today the beneficiaries of what might have been at that time a foolish idea.  A hundred years after the Americans built Baguio as a summer capital, we are hard-pressed to find anything that would equal its vision.

As a nation, we have treated leisure largely as an object of private enterprise rather than as a public responsibility.  That is why instead of parks, museums, open-air public gardens and promenades, we have shopping malls and movie houses.  Yet, in spite of all this, who will say, from the smiling faces of Filipinos, that we are an unhappy people?

It takes so little, as a matter of fact, to make us happy.  On a lazy afternoon in the middle of Burnham Park’s crowded lake, a father steers the rented little boat carrying his whole family through the chaotic traffic of mini-gondolas.  Momentarily, their boat strays into the jet stream of the fountain in the middle of the lake, spraying its occupants with a smelly mist.  Everyone shrieks in feigned panic. That rousing experience of a lifetime costs exactly eighty pesos.


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