Subic revisited | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Last weekend we had to stop by and take care of some business in Bataan, which seemed a perfect opportunity to also visit Subic Bay. My wife and I had been planning to do that for some time.

We picked a hotel based on reasonable price and generally good reviews, told Waze where we were headed (to which the female voice responded with an enthusiastic “Let’s go!”), and crawled out of Metro Manila.

The problem with living in the southern end of the metropolis is that anything northbound means crawling through the city itself before one can get to North Luzon Expressway (NLEX), where giant billboards still dominate the landscape, until Mt. Arayat looms in the distance and the outskirts of urban blight give way to paddy fields.


The Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEx) is a joy to drive on; it keeps you off the provincial roads where chickens, dogs and toddlers wander across the national highway, but whatever time you might gain traversing it, you lose navigating the city.

In the end, it takes just as long to reach Dau now as it did in my childhood.


After the US military moved out of Subic Naval Base in 1992, the property has tried to partly package itself as many things, among others as a tourist getaway. But the beach is coarse volcanic sand, and it’s hard to heed the call of wild nature’s serenity when looking across the bay at the imposing metal bulk of the ships docked in the harbor, including a gray naval warship.


Full of history


There’s Zoobic, the zoo in Subic, where one can ride a jeepney with rather dodgy-looking iron bars and “experience the thrill of being chased by full-grown tigers on the loose!” It includes an old ammunition bunker featuring an attraction coyly called Mice Surprise, though I feel that the title sort of gives it away.


But, like Corregidor, Subic is full of history, as long as you’re with the right tour guide. The Spanish had established a presence there since the 19th century, as the old Spanish Gate in the center of town attests to.


The US took over after the Spanish-American War and immediately saw the strategic use of the bay, and after World War II, they built a fully equipped military base and city spread across an area the size of Singapore.


In its heyday it was glorious—like Baguio’s Camp John Hay but the size of a city, generating a parallel economy of “off-base” activities in Olongapo, just outside its main gates.


Most of the architecture dates back to the Cold War period, when an airstrip was built under the hill at Cubi Point, where the highest-ranking officers had their quarters; an Officer’s Club was where everyone gussied up to go for dinner; and a naval bar echoed with the war stories of soldiers from around the region.


The town of Binictican became the main residential area. Every building, every bullet-proof guard post, every aircraft hangar, had a number painted on it.


Behind it was the jungle. In its heyday it was a proper tropical rainforest, so dense that you had to hack your way through it, and only the Aetas really knew how to move through it. The Americans who were stationed there wrote about the jungle environment survival training (JEST) that they had to do with minimal equipment. For crazy people, JEST is still up and running, so you can learn to live on animals you’ve killed with your bare hands for P650 a night—although the veterans say that it is a much watered-down version of the original program.


If I were a better photographer, I would take highly symmetrical pictures of the forlorn buildings and disused military and industrial spaces for an exhibit entitled Re(Call)ing Dis/parity: Space and Identity in Post-Colonial Architecture and the Subject as Object, a three-year-long project in which the photographer explores the interplay of race, power, and reclaiming space, shot using long exposures on expired Pan-Atomic film. Walking among the derelict old buildings is at once creepy, awe-inspiring and oddly moving.


Missed opportunity


It’s also continuing evidence of how we can take something perfectly good and screw it up. The Subic Naval Base was not at its best in 1992 because it had been damaged, though not as badly as Clark Air Base, by the debris from Mt. Pinatubo the year before. But it was operational, the infrastructure was intact, and the harbor was as strategic and protected as it had always been.


The Subic of 2017 feels like the accretion of years and years of tremendous missed opportunity. I’m not a businessman who knows what goes through the container ships being unloaded in the docks; and I didn’t explore the far reaches of the territory to see manufacturing plants humming in action.


But the impression it gives the casual visitor is that there’s very little action apart from the port itself and the ancillary businesses, like cargo storage and hauling.


Bonifacio Global City is probably the best example of how to repurpose a former military space, but then it has the advantage of being close to Makati, which was already bursting at the seams. It also had substantial investment in infrastructure: power and telecommunication lines that run underground; an underground cistern to drain stormwater; and then subsequently the real-estate savvy of the Ayala Group.


Subic Bay could have been the technological and industrial equivalent of what BGC is for services—especially if the long-debated but much needed relocation of the Manila ports ever happens.


The monkeys in the Subic jungle seem to be running the show now. I mean that literally because they’re everywhere, insolently swinging from tree branches and swarming across the road.


The shops by the main intersection where the Navy Exchange used to be feel like a strip mall in a depressed neighborhood. Only one restaurant, the Xtreme Xpresso coffee shop (that serves excellent coffee and consistent food) seemed to be bustling; the others appeared startled at the sight of customers actually walking in.


If the status quo is kept, Subic will be reclaimed by either of the two original inhabitants who had been displaced to make way for it in the first place: the dwellers of the towns along the coast who had been relocated to Olongapo by the colonizing powers; or the jungle, which will swallow up the buildings as though they had never been there. —CONTRIBUTED