[REVIEW] β€œSifting Through The Rubble: Reading Philip Bowring’s π‘‡β„Žπ‘’ π‘€π‘Žπ‘˜π‘–π‘›π‘” π‘œπ‘“ π‘€π‘œπ‘‘π‘’π‘Ÿπ‘› π‘ƒβ„Žπ‘–π‘™π‘–π‘π‘π‘–π‘›π‘’π‘ β€ by Jose Santos P. Ardivilla

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Philip Bowring. The Making of the Modern Philippines: Pieces of a Jigsaw State, Bloomsbury, 2022. 272 pgs.

The thing with a jigsaw puzzle is it is a mental pursuit of completion; that somebody shuffles and connects the pieces together. Who, indeed, has the power to complete the jigsaw puzzle? Thus, a metaphor for the nation of the Philippines is earmarked by Philip Bowring (b. 1942) in his book The Making of the Modern Philippines: Pieces of a Jigsaw State. Describing this countryβ€”an archipelago of more than 7,000 islandsβ€”as β€œjigsaw pieces” suggests it is incomplete, something that needs to be sorted. Again, who is to complete this jigsaw puzzle? Or is completion not the point but to play and to look at disparate pieces in a quest for cohesion?

Modern Philippine history is a site of nation-building in different iterations: be it a clamour for representation in the Spanish Empire, or in collaborative colonialism with the Americans. This is, so to speak, a look at people and institutions that get to hold and shuffle the jigsaw pieces and call it a nation; and to whose benefit? In a way, Philippine history, as Bowring and many Filipino scholars have declared, is written by people who demanded a place at the table and to gain power, and once having attained that, exacted power to dictate who should be excluded.

Bowring has this penchant for stringing together striations from the past that still resonate in a complex way today. He is a journalist and historian who chronicles the history of Maritime Asian history and free trade, which had its nascent beginnings in the Asia-Pacific region. What he has written in a series of compact chapters are the stories of what led to the formation of the modern Philippines, and, arguably, its still current state of being disparate and desperate. In these pages, one can glean from the essays the frustrating aspect of the Philippines being the nation that produced β€œthe first modern nationalists fighting Western imperialism” (1) to its current state of having elected the son of the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos. To many Filipinos who may have been distraught at the rolling back of the gains of democracy at this return of the plunderers to power, Bowring’s book offers credible insights as to why there are moments of heroism and irruptions of shame in the Philippines.

Bowring asserts that the Philippines has a unique place in Asia, not just in its history but its placement. This situates the Philippines as being a juncture in geology (the archipelago sits on different tectonic plates), at the fringes of Asia as a continent which has allowed the islands to be a point of several contacts that allowed a β€œunique” hybrid of cultures. Thus Bowring dutifully traces the history of colonial domination in succession. What bears mentioning is how the locals participated in this. Herein lies the crux of the book, participation. In the Philippines this is bracketed politically into two paths, the participation of ordinary citizens, and the participation of the elite.

Setting the requisite chronological formation of the Philippines aside, Bowring takes a deep look at how β€œnationhood” has coalesced through the islands. Colonialism has always relied on the collaboration between the European dominant powers and the local elite to subjugate the people and to extract resources. The Philippines has a protracted sense of privilege, by which some local families gained their power through the Spanish encomienda system, which was then transposed to the American colonial machinery and, thus, we have in the Philippines, the local intelligentsia elite. This participation is seen as a readily and willing co-optation by local families to whichever the dominant power may be. Bowring, as many Filipino scholars have pointed out, shows how these emerged as the bane of the nation in the Philippines: the rule of the view to serve their interests. This kinship has proven to be strong that the Filipinos have seen how political dynasties gained more power through intermarriage with celebrity and economic echelons of power.

It has often been said that in the Philippines, merit is not as strong as bloodlines. This is why certain politicians appoint relatives in positions of power regardless of their achievement (or in many cases, a severe lack thereof). Personality politics overruns the nation. It bears mentioning that the recent Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has ingratiated himself to the people by being seen as a father figure. Being nicknamed β€œTatay Digong” (Father Digong) created for Duterte a space in the existing patriarchal and parochial sociopolitical modes for many Filipinos. He is looked upon fondly despite being associated with mass murder and corruption.

It is no wonder Filipinos still elect these convicts to power, even when they are declared guilty. Bowring makes these observations throughout this book on how Filipinos who have been subjugated have enabled a class of privilege to rule with impunity. β€œThis was a forgiving society where family and other bonds proved more powerful than principles.” (82)

However, Bowring suffers some occasional blind spots, particularly with regard to Filipino labour migration. He writes: β€œIs it due largely to the failure of successive governments to provide opportunities at home? Or is it the natural response of free individuals to move to richer lands, just as Europeans once flocked to America?” (161) I agree about the government failures. However, to ask if this is like the Western experience of migration (and, dare I add, land-grabbing) in Continental America assumes that Filipinos are equal beneficiaries of white supremacist domination. This is not the case. The Philippines had already been a part of transoceanic labour exploitation even before the Mayflower dropped anchor in Cape Cod. (See Tatiana Seijas’s Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians.)

Bowring’s musing about the migration of the Filipinos being like European migration to America does not focus on the vital reason why Filipinos migrate in the first placeβ€”as an extension of coloniality. Under the powers of multinational corporations and global financial institutions, the Philippines, like many nations of the Global South, finds itself in a neo-colonial system of continuing to supply the world with cheap labour. Most Overseas Filipino Workers are called migrant workers and not expatriates or sojourners. That, itself is a colonial and racist indication of the position Filipino workers in the Global North.

It must be said that Philippine history has its own host of Filipino historians who have written substantial works on the nation with a firmer grasp than Bowring’s. The likes of Filipino historians Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino are to be commended for their sharp views on the enduring problems of the Philippines that are, indeed, rooted, entrenched in history. That said, Bowring has presented a highly readable and informative work, with the information abbreviated and condensed in chapters that flow like overlapping tides. This is a work that seeks to explain why the Philippines is the way it is with a clear and precise take on how the rule of the few ravages the lives of many.

In the current state of Philippine politics where online myth-making takes the form of fake news, this book offers a meme-like approach to the history of the nation. This is not to diminish Bowring’s works as a mere meme, but it reads like a compact approach to issues that can effectively run counter to the dominant narratives produced by state-acknowledged troll farms. Bowring’s book’s power lies in its succinct punches, like a meme, but with endnotes.

In a recent venture of a propagandist film revising the narrative of the EDSA 1986 revolution that ousted the Marcoses, an actress who played one of the Marcos children commented that history is β€œlike chismis” or like gossip. This prompted a firestorm online about the trivialisation of history, particularly the history of the struggle for democracy, that has some Filipinos seeking duress and correction in what they feel as a backsliding of their nation. Yet, this trivialisation is endemic.

Bongbong Marcos and his troll armies infected many Filipinos, moving them to think of his dictator father’s regime as the golden age. This is far from the truth. Under Ferdinand Marcos’s grip, the nation fell as Asia’s sickly laggard. Many of those who voted for Bongbong Marcos were reminded of what Bowring has written that β€œMarcos focused on handing out monopolies and easy profits to those who would kick them back to him.” (72) But this was ignored by a slew of revisionist YouTube videos and memes. This goes to show how weak history’s hold is on the Philippines. Bowring’s book answers a need.

In current threats to history, this book can be a beacon for many distressed Filipinos who feel that their nation has been led astray. Perhaps it is Bowring’s training as a journalist that leads to his writing as direct, accessible and, thankfully, bereft of sonorous academic language. This book is for Filipinos who want to make sense as to why we are where we are, fractured and sifting through the rubble of our faith in democracy. What is a jigsaw puzzle but a state of fragmentation?

How to cite:Β Ardivilla, Jose Santos P. β€œSifting Through The Rubble: Reading Philip Bowring’s The Making of Modern Philippines.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 15 Nov. 2022,Β chajournal.blog/2022/11/15/modern-philippines/.


Jose Santos P. Ardivilla (b. 1978) is an Assistant Professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UPD) College of Fine Arts. He is a political cartoonist and a printmaker. He has written on popular culture, digital humanities, gender, and diaspora. He has presented his papers on a number of international academic conferences. He has been part of several group exhibitions in which he showcased his art that delved into the realms of political commentary. He graduated cum laude with a BA in Fine Arts major in Visual Communication. He has earned his MA in Art Studies major in Art History as well as an MFA. He is currently a Fulbright scholar pursuing a PhD in Fine Arts at Texas Tech University. 

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