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.

The Philippine Exposition Board made an insistent case for fairness and objectivity in how it portrayed the Filipinos and their culture. But Chapter Two, titled “Imperialistic Fair,” and Chapter Six, titled “Racist Fair,” in Fermin’s book shed light on the 1904 World’s Fair’s complicity in advancing a vacuous and condescending perspective on Filipino culture. Thanks to the stereotypes spun by the fair’s exhibits, Filipinos, as they were depicted by the who’s who of Filipino ethnic groups (the Igorots, the Negritos, the Bagobos, the Moros), came across as primordial, slackminded troglodytes who in the eyes of the American beholders as Fermin points out, “could not count above five, did not erect dwellings, and had only semi-articulate speech.”

It is about time that a Filipino has written an entire book on the racist and colonial undertones that ran through the 1904 World’s Fair, an event that has been all but consigned to oblivion in the Filipino historical consciousness. Jose D. Fermin certainly deserves a lot of credit for putting in so much time and effort in such a project. If there is any blemish in “1904 World’s Fair” it is where Fermin contends that nothing whatsoever had been previously written or recorded “in print or otherwise” about the fair “from a Filipino point of view.”

Fermin is way off the mark here. Several Filipino writers, prior to the publication of his book, have touched upon the subject of the 1904 World’s Fair. Epifanio San Juan, Jr., Yen Le Espiritu, and Catherine Ceniza Choy can be cited in that regard. There is also Marlon Fuentes’s independent film on the fair, “Bontoc Eulogy,” which Fermin actually mentions in his bibliography.

Fermin though, can make a solid case that “1904 World’s Fair” is probably the most authoritative work produced so far on what Filipinos experienced and how they were perceived by others in that controversial, Midwestern American tableau over a century ago.


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