How the Jeepney Became a Filipino National Symbol

Jeepneys | © Jojo Nicdao / Flickr
Katrina Escalona

Down the chaotic Manila streets, alongside large buses, private cars, and taxi cabs, an eye-catching, anachronistic vehicle carelessly makes its way through. It’s painted with bright colors and adorned with gaudy accessories. This is the Philippine jeepney, a post-World War II innovation, a cultural symbol, and the undisputed “King of the Road”.

What is the Philippine jeepney?

Locally referred to as a jeepney or jeep, this interesting-looking vehicle is an affordable mode of Philippine public transport. With designated routes, which are usually painted on their sides or displayed on their windshields, jeepneys stop anywhere along the way to pick up or let off passengers.

Girl hopping on jeepney

Jeepneys are stretched long enough to accommodate around 15 to 25 passengers, have open ventilation through windows all along their side and an open backdoor for easy passenger embarkation and disembarkation. Jeepneys are famously characterized by their vibrant, multicolored paint jobs and flashy decor, so much so that through the years, they have become a symbol of the country and its culture.

Jeepney in Baguio

History of the jeepney

The history of the iconic jeepney bears a resemblance to that of the equally iconic Filipino dish, sisig(sizzling chopped parts of the pig’s head): both were products of ingenious innovation. Just as sisig was created by making the most of cheap throw-away cuts of pigs from the US Air Base in Pampanga, the jeepney was up-cycled from leftover U.S. Willy Jeeps used during World War II.

Tourists on a jeepney ride

In the early 1950s, jeepneys began making their rounds in Manila. Soon, they became a solution to the post-war public transportation problem.

Cubao, Manila circa 1976

Filipinos lengthened the American vehicle to accommodate more passengers, and attached a roof to protect them from the scorching Philippine heat. The seats were removed and replaced with two benches that stretched lengthwise on either side, allowing more seating space, and leaving a narrow space down the middle for an aisle. Jeepney drivers started to adorn their new vehicles with striking colors and images of anything that suited their fancy, from holy Catholic imagery to pictures of the Philippine countryside to word art and their favorite cartoon characters.

Old photo of jeepney

One of the early jeepney producers was Sarao Motors. They began making the vehicles in 1953 and quickly shot to the top of the production ranks, recognized for quality output. They also contributed to the framing of the jeepney as a Philippine cultural icon.

Jeepneys as a cultural symbol

The jeepney as public transport is unique to the Philippines. It is a proudly Pinoy creation. Considering its history, it has also become a reflection of the Filipino spirit — resilient, innovative, and optimistic.

But another significant factor in making the jeepney a cultural symbol of the Philippines was Sarao Motors. The popular automotive manufacturing company created jeepneys that were shipped overseas and displayed in tourism exhibitions in cities like New York and London as a Philippine icon. Back home in the Philippines, movements promoting the jeepney as a Filipino symbol were being carried out as well. Today, not only are jeepneys flaunted in the streets of the country, but they also grace the shelves of souvenir shops in miniature form.

Miniature jeepney model

The Filipino jeepney today

Much has been said through the past few decades about phasing out the jeepney to make way for much more efficient modes of public transport. While there have been extensive debates on the matter, and even a decline in jeepney production in the early 2000s, one thing in certain: they are still around. Surviving nearly 70 years of the country’s struggles, progress, and change, this cultural symbol proves that the King of the Road can withstand even the arduous test of time.

Jeepneys in a line
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