It’s a series of videos that gained traction on TikTok last month: a Filipino guide touring a visitor from Australia around Makati, chronicling some very strange realities, including the fact that many Filipinos actually live in Manila South Cemetery.
But that sordid truth is not what got the attention of viewers—not the makeshift homes built atop graves nor the tombs ransacked for the dead’s possessions. It’s the guide’s English-speaking skills.
“Kuya passed the IELTS.”
“How did manong achieve that fluency?”
“Kuya’s accent and pronunciation are impressive.”
“Ang lupet ni kuya mag- English.”
“Ganito ako ka-fluent ‘pag lasing ako.”
The videos spawned thousands of comments like these and also searches for “Kuya Jojo English.”
One TikTok user posted, “Everyone’s applauding kuya for speaking English fluently and while he deserves credit for that, we should also focus on what he’s saying!”
Another wrote: “Would love to know more about Kuya Jojo’s story.”
We did, too. And so we set out to find him—the man who takes tourists to the cemetery.
Looking for Jojo
The search for Jojo would turn into a story in itself. He has no social media presence outside of the TikTok videos and so we reached out to Marco Roams, the content creator who had posted them. Did he know how we could get in touch with Jojo?
Marco had bad news for us. Jojo just lost his phone so we couldn’t just call him but, Marco said, “You’ll be able to find him roaming the streets in the Makati area … everyone knows him there so you can just ask around.”
Marco sent a pin to a location where Jojo usually is—that area near the Wendy’s branch on the corner of General Luna Street and Makati Avenue.
We sent someone to find Jojo and he returned with the phone number of a friend who was willing to lend Jojo his phone so we could talk to him. But every time we tried to call, that person was at work and not anywhere near Jojo.
And so we decided to just head to Makati to look for him. A buko vendor pointed us to Jojo’s house—a makeshift structure on the sidewalk just steps away from Wendy’s. It was painted black and decorated with boxes of Corona and Hoegaarden and the logos of Jose Cuervo and Budweiser. On the tiny door was a sticker that read “Jesus, the only one has the power to save!” and words painted in green:
But Jojo was nowhere to be seen. And so we decided to leave a note at his door. We’ll be back in a couple of hours, we wrote. When we returned, there he was, finally, sitting on a bench outside his home, in a white shirt and white shorts, a silver necklace with an anchor pendant around his neck, a belt bag around his waist and a white cap on his head—TikTok’s Kuya Jojo, full name: Jojo Himala Lopez.
We asked if he’d be game to go to Manila South Cemetery with us and he was. On the way there, our long conversation started—in English, of course.
We wanted to get the one question everyone wants to ask him out of the way: Why is he so good at speaking English?
As a child, he had been adopted by his half-Swiss grandfather, he said. They first lived in Bulacan and then Baguio. “Our rule at home was, if I wanted to ask him for something, I had to do it in English, even if he could speak Filipino.”
He was also allowed to watch only English TV shows. But, Jojo shared, “I was a slow learner. I had to repeat some years and I had to transfer from one school to another.”
He also wanted to try living with his biological parents, he told his grandpa. And so he did—first in Quezon City with his dad and then in Pasay with his mom. He spent some time living in the United States, too, he said—in California. “I looked for my relatives. I was on my own. I was in a hotel for a few weeks then I ran out of funds so I learned how to hustle on the streets. I found quite a few ways to earn money decently.”
Eventually, he ended up back in the Philippines—Makati, specifically, which he now calls home.
Jojo has been making his living as a tour guide for five years now. He takes clients around Makati, which he knows really well, but also as far as Tagaytay and Angeles City. He finds clients by talking to the many foreigners on the streets of Poblacion and the red-light district. “I greet almost every foreigner out on the streets. I take people bar-hopping in the evening.”Red light district
But he also tries to offer them other experiences in the country. “I want these foreigners to see that there are other things they can enjoy in the Philippines apart from the red-light district or sex tourism. I don’t want to promote that. There are many places they can go to, they can find out about history.”
And he encourages them to give back to the community.
He tells the people he’s touring, “If you want to do something good, let’s go to the grocery store and buy goodies for the kids. You spend so much money on women, on drinks, you can help the community.”
He likes helping the kids on Ponte Street in Brgy. Tejeros. “Maliliit pa sila and they’re starving, you know. These irresponsible parents, man, they keep getting their wife pregnant and they can’t even afford to raise the kids. And it’s not the children’s fault. We go there and these kids are so skinny.”
He did this with Marco Roams, too. “He told me he had been trying to find someone who can take him to a cemetery because he heard there were people living there. I said, sure, I can take you, I know a lot of the people who live there. He said he was going to compensate me for my effort and I told him, instead of that, why don’t we use the money you were going to pay me to feed the homeless?”
Jojo added, “I earn from the streets. It’s just right for me to give back.”
He also does this by cleaning around the area where he stays. “Kahit papaano makatulong ako maglinis man lang ng kalsada.”
It cannot be denied that many of his clients come to the country to meet women. And because of this, he’s had to deal with foreigners who get aggressive with the girls, or Filipinas who try to take advantage of their foreign customers. “I have to tell them, hey, not all Filipinas are like this. It’s crazy, the things you see on the streets, sometimes it’s unbelievable.”
There are some success stories, he says. He’s introduced couples who’ve ended up getting married, with the women moving with the men to the US or Australia.
Inside the cemetery
Soon, we were inside the same cemetery where those TikTok videos were shot. People recognize him from those videos now, Jojo said. “Some people have come up to me to say, ‘Hey, I saw you on TikTok. Ang galing mo mag-English ha.’ It’s not the subject matter. I’ll ask them, ‘Ano yung sinabi ko?’ ‘Hindi ko alam eh pero ang galing mo mag-English, may accent ka pa!’”
Around us, amid tombs and graves, people were going about their day—neighbors were chit-chatting, kids were playing, teenagers were hanging out. Jojo said, “As you see, it’s like a regular day. This is where they live. It’s just unfortunate for me to see little kids growing up in this area. This is a place for the dead. But kids are being raised here. They’re playing on tombs…that’s normal for them.”
There were people of all ages and multiple generations—from toddlers to grandparents.
“When you go inside the cemetery, parang nasa Dasma ka. Some of the people living here have cars, may videoke, mga motorsiklo…” Jojo said.
People fence off graves and use them as the base for their homes. “Mostly, these are the graves that have been abandoned, mga hindi na dinadalaw for a while.”
But where did these residents come from?
“Many of them came from the provinces, the slum areas…They work as laborers and come home here. A lot of the women working on Burgos live here. Some of these guys have habits. I’m not going to go into detail, but this is their safe haven.”
Jojo has friends in the area, he said. Sometimes he goes there to drink with them.
He’s seen all kinds of things at the cemetery, including tombs that have been ransacked for its contents. “You’d see a nitso that’s open, the coffin is there and you’d see a skeleton just laying next to it.”
Are you kidding? we asked him.
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” he insisted, adding that he’s even seen a body that hasn’t fully decomposed yet was dug up. “I wanted to throw up. You can smell it—I don’t know how people can adjust to it, yung halimuyak ng patay.”
He looked around the cemetery sadly. “You see a lot of little kids ‘di ba? These kids don’t deserve to be out here. This is not normal. My hope is for them to be given a relocation site to live a normal life. Imagine, the kids are being exposed to all this. ‘Maglaro tayo.’ ‘Saan?’ ‘Sa sementeryo.’ Think of your kid growing up in this area. How would you feel about it?”
HomelessWe were struck by his concern for the welfare of others. He said, “Nasa kalsada lang ako, I’m homeless but when you share something with others, it goes back to you tenfold.”
“Wait,” we asked, “you consider yourself homeless?”
“Oh yeah, I’m being evicted,” Jojo said nonchalantly.
And as we traveled from the cemetery back to his corner of Makati, he told us the story. “In the past, every time I needed a place to sleep, I earn a little bit of money and I go to cheap motels. It’s the same thing over and over for a couple of years.”
But then, he got lucky. “They let me build that shack there so I had free rent for three months.”
He’s developed a routine there. “I wake up in the morning, I go, ‘Thank you, Lord, for another day and hopefully you bless me with a few clients today.’”
He showers by his shack. “May balde ako, I also do my laundry. I manage to stay clean and presentable.”
He buys bread and cookies from Mercury Drug, he says, because “it’s cheap there.” Then he hustles. His clients hook him up with a burger or a meal or some regulars also hand him their leftovers after they dine in the area.
“No matter what, God always provides. Even on the worst days. Kung hindi ako napunta sa kalsada, I wouldn’t have that faith and belief in God,” Jojo sid.
He recalled those early days before he got used to life in the streets. “I’d get beaten up and I’d pray, Lord kung talagang mahal Niyo ako, when I go to sleep tonight, don’t wake me up no more. I don’t want to go through the pain and suffering the following day. I miss my kids, my family doesn’t want to have anything to do with me… you know, all that drama.”
His tiny home is right by an area that had been closed off for construction. And construction was about to start. “Construction materials are gonna be brought there this evening, so they told me, we’re gonna demolish tonight ha. I told him, give me a couple more days.”
We asked: How could he be so chill about losing his home?
“It’s all right,” he said. “Being out in the streets, being through the worst situations, di mo na iniintindi yung ganyang bagay. Ang babaw niyan. It’s not something huge. You’re already at rock bottom. Ano mang sitwasyon abutin mo, you already know how to be flexible. I already know what to do.”
Jojo added, “There’s only one reason you’re not gonna be able to survive out here. That’s when you’re lazy. Juan Tamad doesn’t exist no more. I know what I’m capable of doing. Sipag lang.”
Marco Roams is planning to return to the country soon and hire Jojo again. They’ll probably make more videos. Marco wants to help him, Jojo said.
And Marco—and anyone else who wants to reach out—will be able to find him, even after they demolish his home.
“I’ll still be around the Makati Avenue area. The people there will tell you where I am. Just ask for Jojong tour guide.”