by: Mikka Ella B. Perlas*

Ilonggos are, by nature, artistic.  They have shown this by the way they live, build their houses and produce their crafts and products.

I’m writing about the artistic jeepneys of Molo City High and SM City Proper.  This topic was initially assigned to me but as I began to research on it, my attraction for the jeepneys grew.  I began to see this piece of art in a different way.  Its unique design and practical use as transport for Ilonggos make it a part of our everyday lives.  Compared to other jeepneys, it is shorter in length. The stainless steel embossments prevail in these types of jeepneys. It is diverse from other forms of jeepneys because its ornaments are intricately done manually.

How did this icon start in the first place?  How did the Ilonggos add to its distinct beauty?  What are its chances of survival for the future considering the present trend of modernity and advances in technology?  Will it still remain to be a part of our Ilonggo life?

I visited which gave a historical perspective on the jeepney.  A  fact is that this vehicle was created right after World War II as a solution to the lack of public transport. This vehicle was a transformation of the surplus “Willy Jeep” used by the Americans during the war.  It became an instant success because of its affordability and practicality as a mode of transportation.  A sturdy utility jeep used for warfare was turned into a colorful vehicle with metal roofing, decorated with chrome, hood ornaments, loud horns, and flashing multi-colored lights. The body was extended to accommodate more passengers and it turned into a twin-benched minibus, where the passengers had their knees almost touching each other. Theory says that the word jeepney is a conflation of “jeep” or “jitney”, another word for a public utility vehicle, or “jeep” and “knee”, referring to its crowded face-to-face seating.

This mode of transport became so popular in Manila that several enterprising individuals from Luzon started to build factories that could manufacture jeepneys in large numbers.   Some of these were Sarao, Lawin, Francisco Motors, Fairlane and Melford.   The body was built locally while the motor engines were mostly from second hand vehicles.  Some of these jeepneys made in Luzon found their way to Iloilo in the 1960’s.  They became an instant hit and soon after, Ilonggos started building their own version of the jeepney.

To get some historical perspective on the life of the Ilonggo jeepney, I gathered information by interviewing the President of the Molo City High Jeepney Association,  61 year old Mang Romulo Antoniano, a jeepney driver-owner for the last 35 years.  He is one of the few remaining drivers plying the route Molo in the city with a vintage, Ilonggo-styled jeepney. This is what he had to say:

“In the late 1960’s, enterprising Ilonggos started to make their own version of the jeepney.   Although these were patterned after the popular brands from Luzon, they improvised on the design by manufacturing bodies made of stainless steel, embossed animal figures of different kinds on these metal sheets, adding headlights and accessories from vintage cars found being peddled in junk shops, and placing numerous animal metal figures, usually eagles and horses, of different sizes on the hood.  These were made by skilled lateros or fabricators from repair shops in the city.  This Ilonggo version of the jeepney was immediately accepted by the locals and became an instant hit.  The jeepney became a part of Ilonggo culture and became the preferred mode of transportation among the common folks.  The cost to manufacture a jeepney during the 1960’s was around P20,000 only.  However, as time passed, the costs for maintaining these jeepneys were becoming more expensive.  Labor costs to make stainless steel embossments with their elaborate design and unique hood figures were continuously rising.”

The vintage jeepney is very attractive.  With its colourful body paint, head and back lights from vintage cars, stainless steel embossments of animals of different types and shapes that cover the sides of the body, hood and dashboards, with the antique front grills of the old World War II jeep, it is indeed a great sight to behold!

After gathering information from Mang Romulo, I felt I still needed to know more about the jeepney so I searched for more facts. Luckily, while passing by Delgado street behind the UPV City Campus, there was this jeepney, probably the oldest one I’ve ever seen. Even it looked very rusty, the hammered stainless steel still looked very attractive and beautiful.

I also met Mang Boy Sermonia, owner of five (5) jeepneys plying the SM City – Iloilo City Proper route.  He believes that these kind of jeepneys are symbols of Ilonggo art. It simply shows that the Ilonggos who made these stainless steel sheets were very talented and hard working.

Plus, where else in the Philippines could you find jeepneys with lights and accessories from vintage cars such as Chevrolet and Cadillacs that are thrown away as pieces to-be-forgotten in junk yards? You can find these sorts in our beloved Province of Iloilo! Ain’t that cool?

Along with him was 65-year old Mang Freddie, a veteran and known latero or fabricator in Iloilo. He worked in a jeepney repair shop located in Villa, Iloilo City. Working for over 30 years, he has mastered the art of hammering patterns on stainless steel using chisels and mallets. The designs impressed on these sheets were from his own creative imagination. The designs that he hammered were artistic rhythmic patterns such as the “S” or rope-like embossments on stainless steel plates commonly covering the dash boards of local jeepneys.  His favourite design was the eagle embossed on plates.  This was inspired by his fondness for flying creatures.  Often, he would turn to the common, natural surroundings for more inspiration.  Metal screws, nails, or rivets are used to install the stainless steel sheets on the jeepneys. After doing so, these are smoothened by a grinder to make the embossments flatter but still visible. I’m amazed by his focus and patience in the pursuit of his art.  It took him weeks or even months to finish engraving sheets for an entire jeepney. He told me that his peak as a latero or fabricator was in the 1970’s to the 1980’s.  He earned more than enough to support a family of five.  Mang Freddie is now retired with a comfortable allowance from his children working abroad but still hangs out with driver friends and can be seen often in a sari-sari store along the main highway near the Villa plaza where the jeepneys are parked.

Mang Romulo and Mang Boy, owners of these vintage jeepneys, were constantly complaining about the high cost of jeepney repair and maintenance. Prices started to sky rocket during late 1980’s.  A four-by-eight feet sheet of stainless steel at the time would cost as much as P1,000.  To make ends meet they would find cheaper ways to repair and maintain their jeepneys. They started to fabricate cheap replacements for jeepney sidings and bought low cost vehicle accessories that one could easily buy from any ordinary auto supply shop just to make the jeepneys look vintage. Since the cheap accessories that they purchase is not that fake-looking, they were able to meet their purpose. Moreover, during this time too, competition was starting to heat up. Cheaper jeepney models with modern designs were being introduced into the market.  Mang Boy confirmed that after the vintage jeepney the Cimaron jeepney emerged, a modern-looking, low cost jeepney that was getting to be quite popular among the riding public. Next to the Cimaron jeepneys are the contemporary jeepneys. These are jeepneys copying the designs, usally the hoods, of branded vehicles. This kind is evident and common in our city until now. Because of these new generation jeepneys the vintage jeepney was displaced. Images of jeepneys evolve through time because of modernization.

Is there hope for the vintage jeepney?  Can we hope for a revival?

With the decreasing number of vintage jeepneys, stainless steel with embossed designs were no longer made due to their high cost of material and labor. The number of vintage jeepneys is dwindling each year.  In fact, only a few of them are left.  In the Molo City High Jeepney Association, only eight (8) vintage jeepneys are left.  The jeepney owners are switching to the more modern versions because they are easier and cheaper to maintain and are being widely produced locally.

I truly believe that these jeepneys will always be with us.  I find them to be the most expressive symbol of the Ilonggo identity.   It shows the artistic and innovative side of Ilonggos.  We must preserve it because it is part of our heritage and culture. The jeepney is a symbol where the traditional and the modern, the global and the local, the utilitarian and the decorative, as well as the past and the present meet, being personal and archaic at the same time. It is something truly Filipino and is the most appropriate mode of transport for our province.  It is also colourful, pragmatic, and artistic. It is a combined work of art, craftsmanship and dedication of Ilonggo artists and craftsmen. I believe it will continue to serve the Ilonggos and I trust it will take on more novel and more attractive art forms. As a matter of fact, while passing by General Luna Street. I saw a newly assembled vintage jeepney, truly attractive because of its unique embossments and blend of colors. This simply indicates that indeed the vintage jeepney has a very special place in the Ilonggos’ hearts.