Jeep to Jeepney: Transformation as Repair (Part I)

That machines instrumental to war, colonisation, and imperialism were converted/altered/modified/changed/transformed into vehicles for low-cost public transport is emblematic of human, and this case, Filipino ingenuity. The conversion of the surplus Willys Jeeps in Manila after World War II to the Jeepney by Sarao Motors does not, at first thought, seem like an act of ‘repair’. The reason for this may be that, typically, when something is said to require ‘repair’ the unstated inference is that the object in need of repair is ‘broken’. But what makes the Willys MB jeep broken in postwar Philippines? How does one theorise ‘broken’? Does brokenness have to do with functionality, i.e. does it work in the intended way? Does it have to do with damages to the physical nature of the object in the case of ruptures, tears, cracks, shreds, rust, dents, fragments? If these were some of the conditions that defined ‘broken’, it would appear that nothing is necessarily broken in the Jeep. And perhaps, in a way, this is true — no thing is broken. The engines work, the vehicle moves, and there are no physical damages. But can brokenness exist outside the conditions of physical damage? Can something that continues to function in the manner that was intended still be broken?

Left: Willys MB Jeep, 1943, designed for US Army, Wikimedia commons. Right: Sarao Jeepney, Philippines, 1973, Wikimedia commons. Click and Drag the slider to see both images.

1. The Jeep: Colonisation and ‘Broken World Thinking’

Steven J. Jackson in his chapter ‘Rethinking Repair’ introduces what he calls “broken world thinking”, a component to the repair approach which relies on: 

“an appreciation of the real limits and fragility of the worlds we inhabit — natural, social, and technological — and a recognition that many of the stories and orders of modernity (or whatever else we choose to call the past two-hundred odd years euro-entered human history) are in a process of coming apart, perhaps to be replaced by new and better stories and orders, but perhaps not.” 

Steven J. Jackson, ‘Rethinking Repair’, 221

The appreciation of the natural, social, and technological fragility as Steven J. Jackson describes in his conceptualisation of ‘Broken World Thinking’ is often not an easy state of mind given our reliance on systems but this fragility simultaneously offers hope for an alternate and more sustainable order. In the Philippines, as in the case of many countries, liberation from centuries of colonial rule meant having to establish/re-establish a self-government amidst economic and civil chaos. The Spanish colonisation started roughly in 1565 and lasted until 1898 when they were defeated by the US in the Spanish-American war. This marked the beginning of American colonialism which lasted until the Japanese invasion and victory against the U.S. – Filipino army during World War II in 1942. It was not until 1945 that the Philippines celebrated their independence after the battle of Leyte Gulf. (Click here to read more). The concept of ‘Independence’ here becomes a stand-in for a certain condition of legality that implies self-government. However, neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism continue in sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant ways post-independence through technological and cultural hegemony as observed by David Arnold and Erich DeWald in their article ‘Everyday Technology in South and Southeast Asia: An Introduction‘:

“American penetration of the region had a long history: the Philippines, perhaps unsurprisingly, was one of the leading consumers of Singer sewing-machines, but this (originally) American brand-name was to be found virtually throughout South and Southeast Asia along with Remington typewriters, Ford motorcars, and Hollywood movies. […] What does this tell us about the Americanization of territories, along with its local technological practices and its technological imaginary, which were still formally under the imperial sway of European powers—or about the extent of post-independence de-Americanization?”

Arnold and Erich, Everyday Technology in South and Southeast Asia: An Introduction, 12-13

Considering the colonial history and American technological hegemony in the Philippines as elaborated by Arnold and DeWald in Everyday Technology in South and Southeast Asia: An Introduction, I wonder again what is it that makes the jeep ‘broken’ in post-WWII, independent Philippines? Can brokenness exist in narratives as it does in stories, personal memories, and history? Can it exist in the cultural which is inextricably linked with the infrastructural? If this is the case then, what does the jeep represent? What are is its unique political implications? And how can we determine the politics of the object using the language that is constructed around it? To attempt answering this question, below are two quotes as displayed on the present-day Jeep company website describing the history of the Willys MB jeep:

The jeep can represent different ideologies. As read in the description above, the object represents American nationalism and a valorisation of war. The object is guided by language like: “forged by the fire of combat”, “honed in the heat of battle”, “the GI’s best friend — second only to his rifle” indicating a clear tone of glorification of the vehicle, its history, and its service during the war. The ideologies represented by this language and by extension the object itself, may find itself out of place in a country that gained independence after decades of colonisation by the same actors that are represented by the jeep. My attempt at a response to what is ‘broken’ in the jeep therefore, is not the machine itself but everything that it represents, the narratives that it embodies, its cultural identity as materialised by its infrastructure in the space it occupies. The engines may work, there may not be any physical damages, yet it is ‘broken’ in its representation of a colonial past that is out of place in a newly independent nation.

2. Jeepney: A Symbol of Ingenuity and Repair 

LIFE Theater north of Quiapo Church along Quezon Blvd. Manila, Philippines, Oct. 1949
Looking north. A very busy day in Quiapo, Manila. American WWII Jeeps converted to Jeepney passenger carriers.
 Photograph taken by a “Life” magazine photographer.
Photographer: Jack Birns
For personal non-commercial use only
This image is copyrighted by © Time Inc.
(Source Link)
(Creative Commons License)

If the cultural narrative surrounding the jeep is ‘broken’ in postwar Manila, how does ‘repair’ feature into the conversation? Is ‘repair’ only understood as mending, fixing, putting together, restoring, patching up, etc. of physical, material, and infrastructural? Or can repair also include as Stephen Graham and Nigel Thrift theorise in ‘Out of Order’, “improvement, innovation, and growth” (6). Steven J. Jackson describes the repair approach as:

“The subtle acts of care by which order and meaning in complex sociotechnical systems are maintained and transformed, human value is preserved and extended, and the complicated work of fitting to the varied circumstances of organizations, systems, and lives is accomplished.”

Steven J. Jackson, ‘Re-thinking Repair’, 222
A typical jeepney, which plies the Legazpi-Daraga route, waits for passengers in front of the LCC Supermarket along Penaranda Street, Legazpi City, Albay, Philippines.
Source Wikimedia Commons

Here, I would like to think of transformation as not only a process that takes place during repair but transformation as repair. What does the transformation of the jeep’s structure, appearance, and name do? The modifications from jeep to Jeepney are plenty: from its interior where additional seats are added so as to seat more passengers to its colourful, eye-catching exterior. The structural transformation becomes indicative of the need to monetise on limited space; the exterior transformations from the ‘earthy’ tones of the jeep meant to blend or camouflage to the bright art of the jeepney, emphasises visibility. Additions and deletions from the Willy’s Jeep become a practice of re-imagining the vehicle to suit the Filipino transportation requirements and cultural identity. The transformation also becomes essential to stripping the jeep down from its glorified status and stripping its American identity. In claiming the jeep and ‘repairing’ it, the transformation may be read as a means to actively occupy space and in effect, reclaim the streets.

I conclude this post with an idea: I would like to think of ‘repair’ as a means of ‘re-pair’ or re-pairing (pairing something with something). Re-pairing as that which detaches something from its past life and purpose and re-introduces it to serve a new function as in the case of recycling, up cycling, re-invention, upgrading, or other craft traditions. The object as in this case may be in need of physical or cultural re-pairing, or both so that it may work in newer and possibly better ways. As Graham and Thrift put it:

“it becomes increasingly difficult to define what the ‘thing’ is that is being maintained and repaired. Is it the thing itself, or the negotiated order that surrounds it, or some ‘larger’ entity?” — (out of order, 4)

Graham and Thrift, Out of Order, 4

In the case of the jeep to jeepney transformation, the object is ‘re-paired’ by detaching it from its colonial narrative and re-inscribing a narrative that subverts, resists, and occupies. (More about jeepneys as sites of repair and subversion in the next post).

References:

  1. Jackson, Steven J. “Rethinking Repair.” In Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality and Society, 221–40. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2014.
  2. ARNOLD, DAVID, and ERICH DeWALD. “Everyday Technology in South and Southeast Asia: An Introduction.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1–17., https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/modern-asian-studies/article.
  3. Graham, Stephen, and Nigel Thrift. “Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 24, no. 3, 2007, pp. 1–25.