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The Making of Imperial Baguio (Review)

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Rebecca Tinio McKenna. 2016.
American Imperial Pastoral: The Architecture of US Colonialism in the Philippines
Chicago: University of Chicago Press
ISBN 9780226417769

For several decades, the geographer Robert Reed’s City of Pines: The Origins of Baguio as a Colonial Hill Station and Regional Capital (University of California Press, 1976, second edition 1999) was required reading for anyone wanting to familiarise oneself with the foundational history of the fabled American hill station in northern Philippines. The City of Pines framed the genesis of Baguio City within the larger colonial endeavour of the setting up of similar hill stations for brief recuperative respites from lowland tropical heat and disease (versions of the nebulous ‘Philippinitis’) throughout South and Southeast Asia by the British, French, and the Dutch.

Until the publication of Patricia Okubo Afable’s edited volume, Japanese Pioneers in the Northern Philippines (Filipino-Japanese Foundation of Northern Luzon, 2004), provided an important intervention, the portrayal of American engineering ingenuity and business acumen in the enlivening of the city was given more prominence. Elided or underplayed in this grand narrative were the myriad contributions of various indigenous Igorots (‘highlanders’) and the diverse migrant ‘nationalities’ who converged to labour on the Benguet Road linking the lowlands to the hill station, many of whom later stayed behind to carve out new lives in the fledging city.

In this regard, Rebecca Tinio McKenna’s book makes for a compelling and fascinating read. While covering roughly the same historical period and depending on much of the same archival materials as her predecessor, the tone and ambition that her project embodies is distinctively different. With a keen and trained scholarly eye attuned to the standpoints of post-colonial theories on orientalism, imperialism, and empire formation, American Imperial Pastoral is not so much a history of early Baguio City but more a critical analysis of a colonialist project that recruited emergent ideologies of capitalist entrepreneurship, race, landscape, and health in creating an American pastoral retreat in the tropics. She draws from the seminal insights of Leo Marx, Raymond Williams, Michel Foucault, Ann Laura Stoler, David Brody, and Paul Kramer in productively illuminating the particular ‘architecture of US colonialism in the Philippines’; viz. how the work of capital and subject formation was effected through enclosure, ‘a process by which things held in common – land and national resources, ideas, and even time – became cordoned off, either literally or figuratively, for the exclusive use of property owners, states, and corporate entities’ (p. 7). In focussing on the singular act of dispossessing local indigenous Ibalois for the creation of Baguio City, McKenna suggests that this story also ‘exemplifies the United States’ dispossession of Philippine sovereignty and its enclosure of a political future’ (p. 7).

The writing strategy deployed by McKenna to make transparent how these acts of dispossession took material form and deep root is astute. After laying out the immediate historical context for the military takeover of the Philippines from the Spanish by the Americans – to gain direct access to the China market and Orient trade – and the quest for an antidote for “Philippinitis” in the Cordilleran highlands not long afterwards, McKenna focuses on four distinct but interrelated sites to plot and anchor her argument. They were chosen because they were the most talked about and photographed – the spectacular Benguet Road, the panoramic town site identified by urban planner Daniel Burnham, the hill station’s colourful market place, and the exclusive premises of the American private home and the country club. Not surprisingly, except for the residence of Governor General William Cameron Forbes which was destroyed during World War Two, these same spaces continue to be tourism magnets and flashpoints for Ibaloy land claims and urban heritage debates today (for instance, see ‘The Baguio We Want Forum’ on Facebook).

Carving out the 34-km zigzag Benguet Road (later renamed Kennon Road) through treacherous mountainous terrain eventually involved some 4,000 workers from 46 nationalities. Securing contractual paid labour for this enormous task was not just seen as a monumental engineering feat in itself but also framed as a way to liberate Filipinos from the culture of passivity believed to have been inculcated by centuries of enforced labour under Spanish rule. To be sure, this perspective indexed a shift in governmentality. Unlike the Spanish, the Americans saw the construction of an extensive network of roads as vital for pacification as well as for the expansion of commercial enterprise. Through a close reading of the colonial archival documents, McKenna reveals that, notwithstanding the discourse of the rational agent as liberating, extra economic means were used to secure coerced free labour, not least of which were successive laws that separated people from their means of subsistence and producers from their means of production.

Similarly, securing Ibaloi pastureland for what would become the core of Baguio City was a vexed and ambivalent affair. McKenna provides a detailed and insightful account of the legal challenge posed by the prominent Ibaloi elder Mateo Carino against the Insular Government. While there are merits to the ruling taken by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in recognising indigenous land rights, she argued that it also ultimately advanced state-building efforts in the Cordillera begun under the Spanish. By marking a temporal and spatial distinction between the settlement of the US West (the 1903 Native American Lone Wolf vs Hitchcock) and the administration of the new insular possessions, Justice Holmes was also creating new and similar categories of subject peoples by making possible the alienation and commodification of land across the US West and concluding that the Constitution did not follow the American flag into the Philippines (p. 93).

Once possessed, the administrators worked on transforming Ibaloi pastureland into an American pastoral mountain retreat. Unlike before, ascent into the mountains now became not a sign of barbarism but a privilege and perk of the civilized (p. 25). Premised on the spatial and aesthetic ideals of the City Beautiful selectively appropriated by Daniel Burnham, the administrators eventually created an oasis of Little America that reminded visitors of what the Philippines lacked and what was available in the United States and through its benevolent patronage – good sanitation, smooth roads, sound nourishment, refreshing air, leisure, and so forth. Similarly, the market place whilst ostensibly promoting trade and industry as a vehicle for turning subjects into citizens was, at the same time, also used to exploit difference and entrench divisions among Philippines peoples and between colonialists and colonized (p. 113).

Central to Baguio City’s perennial charm has been Nature. Its temperate-like climate and bucolic setting for outdoor recreation, fresh produce, and landscape views readily work together to give the illusion of transporting the visitor far away from the tropics. However, McKenna contends, far from being a retreat from political machinations, Baguio City became very early on an idyllic and amiable setting for colonial business where American commissioners and governor generals, entertained local Filipino business and political elites in their exclusive private homes and the country club. The Igorots too were occasionally invited to these events, ironically making them guests in their own land. Indeed, in their traditional attire Igorots became, more often than not, curiosities and as part of hill station boosterism – they served as signs of the untamed mountain provinces justifying colonial rule and protection from the lowlanders. Nature and its children were enlisted to obscure exercises of power and the many acts of dispossession and enclosure.

American Imperial Pastoral is an erudite, elegant, and outstanding piece of scholarship. While it adds to the corpus of scholarly literature on colonial hill stations in Asia – among others, the work of Pamela Kanwar’s Imperial Simla: The Political Culture of the Raj (Oxford University Press, 1990) and Eric Thomas Jennings’s Imperial Heights: Dalat and the Making and Undoing of French Indochina (University of California Press, 2011) spring readily to mind – it also helps to understand the workings and durability of power relations through the aura of the built and natural environment.

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