(This article appeared in the Philippine Starweek Magazine on October 10, 2010)
Thirty well-worn cemetery plots with unusual markers are scattered along pine shaded, hillside pathways in the former American military, “rest and recreation,” base called Camp John Hay in Baguio City, Philippines. At five thousand feet above sea level, Baguio was America’s temperate retreat in tropical Asia. As a child I remember visits with my parents to this sprawling park-like camp, which invariably included a walk through this quaint cemetery. Instead of sculptures of mournful angels and grieving widows, there was a drunken pig, a monkey scratching its head, a smoking man who looked like a bulldog, a traffic cop, and even a witch. For close to a century now, this strangely humorous site has been called the Cemetery of Negativism.
In 1992 the Philippine Government took over Camp John Hay (named after a long forgotten American Secretary of State) and all other American bases throughout the Philippines. Left behind at the camp were cozy Adirondack style wooden cottages, a movie theater, a library, a PX, a golf club, a coffee-shop, a steakhouse, an officer’s dining room, a human-size Statue of Liberty on a pedestal, a seated Abraham Lincoln, historical markers, thousands of stately, mature pine trees and the Cemetery.
Each plot carried the “name” of its dearly departed, a witty riposte and a humorous figure on top. One burial plot has a lion holding a baton and the inscription reads:
KNOT A TEMPLAER
Born A Star
Lived A Meteor
Died in Flames.
There’s a seated black dog scratching his head and the tombstone reads “KANT DO NUTHIN WRIGHT.”
The inscription on another tomb decorated with a kneeling walrus says
LETTUCE WAITFOR D’BOSS,
Born 5 August 1883, Died waiting, 1 June 1903.
There’s a plot with the name BYE. N. BYE with a frog on top, and DOAN BUG MI on another with a cross-looking bear. Or just a plain white upright slab with a floral sprig named for KANT B. DONE and noted for having died before he was born.
Several tombstones have human figures as well. There’s a witch for a tomb inscribed BEN TRID B FOUR, a suited fat man with a stove pipe hat and brandishing a cigar for WHATZ INIT FORMI who was “born short, lived long and died in debt.”
This cemetery is an assemblage of late nineteenth century American “nay-sayings” carefully laid out in the midst of pine trees and flower beds, just steps away from the former residence of the commanding general’s New England style white clap board and shingle house. All this cozy Americana looks out across a spectacular mountain range which once sheltered warring tribes of head-hunters, up to the 1930’s, and several of Asia’s richest gold mine.
When the Philippine-American War ended in 1901, the United States became a world power with islands and
countries stretching across the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean, and part of Central America. The American civil government in the Philippines wanted a pliant and disciplined army to carry out its administration and to rout any remaining rebellions in the islands.
Many American soldiers were young and fresh off their farms in rural, frontier states with lackadaisical, individualistic and even rowdy attitudes. Alcohol was also one of the Army’s major problems in the early years of military occupation. Conscripted or volunteered, these young men had to be marched, barked at, and endlessly drilled until they were ready for duty both as soldiers and policemen in the new colony.
Baguio, nestled at the top of a northern mountain range with rolling pasture land, dotted with tribal communities, was a pleasant respite from hot and humid Manila. The new American colonial government quickly established a military recreation camp there. American teachers and civil servants soon followed, transforming the town into the summer capital.
In these tonic surroundings, vacationing soldiers needed reminders to ensure high morale. One of the early camp commanders came up with the clever idea of gathering frequently uttered negative statements from soldiers, ones that stymied orders and affected team spirit. These statements became the names of the departed and merited a burial plot, some with a witty riposte and fictionalized birth and death dates. Many of the dates centered around the first decade of the 20th century, about the time the Camp was established and first functioning.
If there was hemming and hawing from soldiers because “It’ll Rain For Sure,” or “It’s Too Late,” or “It Can’t Be Done,” the phrases got burial plots adorned with forlorn-looking figures. To “bury” them was to cease the negativity and instead, replaced with a more can-do attitude.
For soldiers who made excuses not to go to combat, there were epitaphs on the tombstones with names like “I.M.N. ONLY CHILE” or “KNOW DAM WAY.”
Those who didn’t want to take responsibility had the epitaph “I-THOUGHT-UWOOD-DOIT,” adorned with a drunken pig. Another was “EYE-FOR-GOT,” (with a monkey scratching his head) and yet another for “NOTT MEY JOBB.”
One can readily imagine, a hundred years ago, soldiers paying a call at the general’s residence and later strolling through the Cemetery of Negativism and getting the “message” with some guffaws included.
For many years, under American ownership, the cemetery was a tourist attraction, well kept, and re-painted periodically. When Camp John Hay was turned over to the Philippine government there were attempts to maintain it but in the last six years, neglect and a lack of appreciation for this bit of Americana has taken its toll.
The regular repainting has been done only to some, hastily painted white with black renderings with no longer the early flourish of colored highlights on the floral relief. The outlined faces in black, done crudely, have lost their melancholic charm.
Moss has covered the letterings of many making the plots unreadable. Figures have broken arms and in even sadder cases, some animal figures have been ripped up and stolen. A witch with a missing broom gracing the tombstone which read “BEN TRID B FOUR” was still poised to fly several years back. This month, shattered body parts were the only remnants.
Despite the Cemetery of Negativism being included in the government website as a tourist attraction, the
reality is that it has been neglected, not protected, and given slapdash paint when remembered. The Statue of Liberty nearby, bears a plaque completely illegible, the letters having long ago flaked off.
In the rest of the country, symbols of America’s half-century presence in the Philippines are being vandalized or fast disappearing. Markers commemorating World War II events such as the Bataan Death March are regularly defaced with graffiti or pasted over with campaign posters. More disturbing are several cemeteries with the remains of American servicemen who died in World War II, some in the hills of Baguio, that have been uncared for, the graves dug up, and the crosses stolen.
Academicians and newspaper columnists are quick to cite this disregard as evidence of the Filipino’s love-hate relationship with their former colonial master. I am afraid it is a little less profound than that. While neighboring Macau, Singapore and Vietnam clean up, refurbish and lovingly restore symbols of their colonial inheritance for heritage preservation and the accompanying tourist dollars, the Philippine tourism approach has been long stuck peddling beaches, nightlife and shopping malls.
It will soon be difficult to intone a love-hate relationship when no historical artifacts remain as evidence that there ever was a relationship between America and the Philippines.
John L. Silva is an author and former trustee of the Heritage Conservation Society.