Naval Station Is Welcome In One Philippine City

Posted: November 01, 1987

OLONGAPO, Philippines — Covering one wall in Mayor Ildefonso "Ching" Arriola's office is a detailed U.S. Navy map of the Soviet military presence in Southeast Asia.

Orange circles encompass the flight range of Soviet Bear bomber aircraft and pinpoint the Soviets' Pacific Ocean naval base at Cam Ranh Bay on the east coast of Vietnam, a base built by the United States during the Vietnam War.

As mayor of this city of about 270,000 people on the northwestern coast of Luzon Island, Arriola occupies a singular position in his country: He is a man who must concern himself with Pacific naval strategy as well as his city's prostitute population and capital-improvements plan.

His is an office that in no small way represents the first line of communication between the people of Olongapo and what, for more than 50 years, has been their daily benefactor just down the street: the 14,000-acre U.S. Naval Station at Subic Bay.

"Olongapo exists because of the base," Arriola said recently while sitting in his office. "Without the base, Olongapo is nothing. Zero."


To appreciate the relationship that exists between Olongapo and the U.S. Navy, one has only to walk the four or five blocks clustered around the base's main gate. There, like possibly no other square mile in the world, exists the most striking and haphazard confluence of two cultures - the spartan culture of military discipline intertwined, sometimes perversely, with the gaudy and often tawdry culture of unbridled wish fulfillment.

No small part of that enterprise is the string of bars where Olongapo's more than 6,000 bar hostesses - municipally licensed prostitutes - ply their trade.

To be sure, the bar trade has cooled in recent days after two active-duty servicemen and a retired serviceman were killed Wednesday just outside Clark Air Base, about 50 miles northeast of Subic Bay. Since the shootings, Clark and Subic personnel have been restricted from all but the most essential travel off base.

"I don't think there's a great, overwhelming desire to go off the base at the moment," Lt. Cmdr. J.D. Van Sickle, a Subic spokesman, said on Friday. ''It's now a matter of prudence and precaution."

But while the night volume in Olongapo may have been temporarily turned down, it is still a city founded on the anticipation of dusk. Each night, its streets normally host a barely harnessed riot of rock 'n' roll, cheap sex, aggressive free enterprise and the most elaborate deification of military might imaginable.

Among knives, watches, cameras, jet plane models, wood carvings, massage parlors and tattoo shops are hundreds of contemporary culture's foremost message bearers - T-shirts.

Of the 6,000 military personnel at Subic, about 4,300 live off the base. The transition from the city to the base is like going through a time warp, moving from a carnival arcade into a suburban setting of emerald golf tees, palm trees and cream colored split-levels that might have been copied from a 1960s Florida retirement community.

As the Navy's largest facility outside the continental United States, Subic Bay employs more than 42,000 civilian Filipinos with annual salaries totaling nearly $83 million - about $70 million more than Olongapo's annual budget. An

average of 40 people apply for every base job and the annual percentage of Filipinos who quit their base jobs is a scant 3 percent.

The military trade has made Olongapo one of the most prosperous cities in the Philippines with the lowest number of residents living below the poverty line. It also has given rise to high rents, more costly food and other more dubious distinctions such as the highest per capita consumption of beer in the country.

The town's dependence on the base was described most succinctly by Lucing Azucena, owner of three souvenir shops there. "When you got no ship, business is dead," Azucena said. "When you got ship, business is up."

When the fleet puts in at Subic Bay, the merchants are waiting, hawking their fried bananas and grilled chickens by the curbside. The bar hostesses beckon from doorways and T-shirt salesmen pursue browsers for a block before dropping their sales pitch.

Given that business increases threefold when an aircraft carrier visits the base, shop owners are hardly likely to mount opposition to a renewal of the base's lease with the Philippine government, an agreement that will be subject to renegotiation next year before its 1991 expiration date.

Still, the cumulative effect of years of ebb and flow of sailors through the streets of Olongapo has engendered some cultural attributes and attitudes that are not always colorful.

Not so long ago, a local health clinic held an art contest for the hundreds of street children who roam the sidewalks of Olongapo often begging coins from strangers. Sketched in crayon and pencil by the winner was a picture of a tall, Asian woman wearing a revealing halter top, her arm wrapped around the waist of a short-haired man with a mustache. Penciled clearly on the man's shirt were the letters "USA."

Under the picture was an inked caption, apparently composed by the art contest judges. "A typical view of Olongapo," the caption read. "Notice the T-shirt of the American guy who is together with the bar hostess."

Also noted in the caption was the artist's name and age: "Marivic, 12."

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