The 1904 World’s Fair: The Filipino Experience

TITLE: 1904 World’s Fair: The Filipino Experience
AUTHOR: Jose D. Fermin
University of the Philippines Press
219 pages
historical nonfiction

Book Review by Allen Gaborro (published in the Philippine News, September 5-11, 2007 issue)

The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Missouri, also known as the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, was bathed in as much dispute and indignance as it was praised for its variety and dimension. A phenomenal piece of celebratory pomp and showmanship, internationalism and technology, the fair’s paying customers witnessed an array of grand architecture, newfangled cuisines, and miscellaneous carnival festivities. However, the affair was also a veiled exercise in colonial misrepresentation as white audiences betrayed a mixture of astonishment and insatiable curiosity at the fair’s gallery of Filipino historical and cultural exhibits.

The spectacle of the Filipino exhibits at the 1904 World’s Fair notoriously sketched Filipinos in exotic yet uncivilized manifestations. As is mentioned in his book “1904 World’s Fair: The Filipino Experience,” Jose D. Fermin once wrote that the fair could not have been more detrimental to the image ascribed to Filipinos just after the turn of the century: “Filipino tribes, passed on as representatives of the whole Filipino people, were exhibited as savages, headhunters, and dog eaters, a name that has stuck even today.”

The 1904 fair, which was up to that point the largest ever held anywhere else on the planet, took place at a time in history when the United States was beginning to throw its weight around as a world power, a power that had recently acquired several overseas territories, including the Philippine archipelago. The fair was the vehicle through which the United States flaunted its political and economic strength to the rest of the world.

A driving force behind the 1904 fair, as well as with other major U.S. expositions during this approximate period, was America’s belief in the racial superiority of whites over darker peoples. By publicizing the supposed backwardness of nonwhite races for all the world to see, the 1904 fair organizers were able to translate the United States’s national and global accomplishments into grounds for acknowledging the transcendance of Caucasian races over their “colored” counterparts. Fermin writes in his book that “In measuring their technological achievements and national progress against those of other nations, Americans laced the fairs with racism.” Hence, they “considered themselves above the nonwhite peoples of the world and regarded them with a negative and demeaning attitude.”

The Philippine Exposition Board, whose membership was primarily American, was formed for the purpose of putting together an exhibit at the 1904 fair that would convey to American audiences an ostensibly dispassionate and positivistic picture of what Filipino society and culture was really like. But Fermin writes that this was to conceal a “hidden agenda” that involved using the exposition as a propaganda instrument that would testify to the salutary importance of American colonial power, particularly as it was employed in the Philippines.

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The Weather Today: Thursday, 6 September 2007

Self was driving to the San Carlos Farmers Market, around 6 PM, when a segment on “the only desert in Europe” came on NPR. Self thought: that must be the area around Tabernas. And it was.

A small town, in the middle of nowhere, 3000 residents. Eleven years ago, self and hubby and son drove there, after a very dusty drive across southern Spain in rented red Fiat.

We had no plan. We met a couple named, improbably, Julia and Julian. They were on their honeymoon in Nerja. They told us about this place, “Texas Hoolleewood”, they called it, and they pointed out where it was on a map.

And on the way there (self thinks she already blogged about this) we stumbled on a small restaurant in the middle of a dried-up riverbed: there was only one person manning the restaurant, and there were dismembered dolls and a broken hairdryer on the front lawn, and the young woman was both cook and waitress, and she was playing the most gorgeous jazz records on a gramophone, and she spoke perfect English, and it turned out she had graduated from the London School of Economics, where self’s sister did her undergraduate degree.

And after that we entered Tabernas, and watched with great glee as Spanish extras re-enacted famous scenes from Clint’s old spaghetti westerns. Self even has a picture of son with his head in a noose from an honest-to-god set movie set, which was better than anything in Universal Studios, because there were hardly any other people — aside from the costumed extras, that is.

So, self was listening as she drove to San Carlos, and the sky had a very eerie grey pall, which she figured was from the fires burning just south of San Jose (and this was the day when self decided to have her car hand-waxed for $53.99), and she thought of Mojacar and wondered if she would ever go back there, to the Fundacion Valparaiso. She was really lonely and it was a good thing a painter named Eizo Sakata was there, because they ended up going to a lot of the local markets, and that eased her homesickness somewhat. At a local market in Vera, self stumbled upon a dentist who said he had lived for 20 years in Redwood City, California, which was so incredible self never forgot it.

This afternoon, she sent e-mail to Fundacion Valparaiso, and a woman named Pilar answered. Self remembers it was the end of August when she stayed there, but Pilar said the Fundacion had been closed in August for the last couple of years. Which self thinks is probably a very good idea, as it was so hot when self was there that she used to lie on her bed and stare at the ceiling and feel she was slowly melting . . . She couldn’t even rouse herself to walk to the bar: she tried it, once, and arrived dripping with sweat, and all the people inside turned and gaped at her as she walked, sweat-soaked, into the bar. And there was that white ass, whose butt was somehow always halfway across the only path to the town self knew about, and as she sidled around huge ass-butt, she always wondered whether she was actually taking her life in her hands, for one swift kick from that animal would have sent self tumbling down a ravine, for sure.

But, anyhoo, self survived the she-ass. She survived the heat. She survived the loneliness. Perhaps she’ll try applying again 🙂

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