Re-Transformation of Subic Bay, Philippines?

The New Olongapo City.

As NIKE® used to spell out in their commercials, sometimes you “Just Do It”, and in my case, I had to “do it” in order to answer the question for myself. I lived and worked in the Subic Bay Freeport Zone (or SBFZ as it is now called) years ago and met my wife there. And while being gone and during those 26+ years, the question would always come to mind…I wondered what Subic Bay was like today. This once sprawling American Naval Complex was handed over to the Philippines government in the early 90’s and today is a bustling Freeport Zone that combines ecotourism, industrial parks, beautiful resorts, great restaurants, an Ocean Adventure Park, and beaches, into a destination for everybody, both young and old, foreign and domestic.

For me personally, I wanted to see it for myself as I once remembered it. So two years ago (April 2012) we popped in for a visit. It definitely wasn’t the same place. The main drag, Magsaysay Blvd, had been transformed. No longer visible were the iconic super-sized night clubs of the past, or the many quaint and grungy little street bars filled with enterprising lovely young ladies. During my stroll down Magsaysay, I witnessed maybe 2 or 3 spots to enjoy a cold beer. Businesses had replaced all the popular night spots. Older buildings had been replaced by new structures. And it was obvious – there were no shortages of fast food franchises with Jollibee’s, McDonald’s, Shakey’s, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Dunkin Donuts, KFC and others of the like, all staking claim for their portion of tourist dollars and local pesos.

Texas Joe's

Texas Joe’s on the SBFZ

It was a different kind of atmosphere…quite different. It was seemingly civil. A walk out the old gate and down Magsaysay Blvd. proved to me that Olongapo was no longer the party town reminiscent of years past. The old Olongapo suffered from a nearly lifelong addiction of dependence – a city dependent on U.S. military presence – and service personnel who’s spending contributed significantly to the Philippines GDP (some estimate as high as 10%). Multi-millions of dollars were spent annually in Olongapo City and the surrounding barangays. This, in addition to all the DOD incomes earned by local Filipino base workers and their own remittances into the local economy, was what supported Olongapo and it’s residents. With the removal of all that cash flow, Olongapo was forced to grow up and learn to survive on its own. It has been a hard and difficult transition for the many local residents who live here, and what has been accomplished is nothing short of a monster transformation into a vibrant and more traditional Philippines city with a self-reliant economy that depends on both industry and tourism. No more do they have to rely on the trading of US Dollars for services. Eco-tourism and industry have both dug a foothold here and the people have adapted… after all, it’s what Filipino’s do best. Today, I swear I see more SUV’s than jeepneys.

Big screen TV set up to watch Pacman fight.

Big screen TV set up at the Shisha bar to watch the Pacquio fight.

On the old Base or the SBFZ, there was now a restaurant for every taste and liking. There are casino’s and jet ski rentals, para sailing, and dive boat operators along with deep-sea fishing charter boats. The old Navy marina is full of motorboats and sailing yachts. There are very few buildings that I could remember from the early eighties as many have either been renovated or torn down and replaced by more modern structures. The housing areas are mostly still there and the old football field and track still remains at Subic, but aside from that very little was recognizable to me. From the buildings I could recognize though, age has taken it’s toll – in Filipino style – with little or no maintenance.

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Pier One on the SBFZ

On the waterfront, “Pier One” is a popular waterfront night spot (and aptly named for its location) that features an open-air restaurant (indoor dining is also available) and outdoor covered stage and seating with bands that play nightly. You can dance the night away or sit in the sand on the beach with your drink and audibly sort out the lapping waves from the live music, should you choose. There are no worries here, only an abundance of good food, drink, music, and fun….and the occasional brave meandering vendor that isn’t officially allowed to be there of course. Located all along the waterfront you will find hotels and restaurants, souvenir stands, beaches, and other activities like skateboarding and horseback riding, Over where the old Commissary and Navy Exchange was located is now a busy intersection mostly composed of car dealers, department stores, grocery outlets, and gas stations.

SM Mall Subic Bay just outside the “Main Gate”

Just outside the old main gate on the right sits the new 5 story SM Mall (old Gordon Ave fell victim to this development) and today just inside that same gate on the west side is the brand new Harbor Point Mall. There is definitely no shortage of shopping to be had these days for those who feel the need to spend money.

Now Open!

WILLIS Bar Now Open!

Another Transformation?

Today however, it looks and feels like Olongapo might be transforming once again in search of the mighty foreign currency…and maybe a new identity. Last week when we walked down the street during a Saturday evening, we witnessed another transformation; we entered the streets that were blocked off to traffic. As day turned to nightfall, tables and chairs appeared on the street and sidewalks. Music began emanating from nearly every direction. Vendors were seen setting up along the streets and street hawkers were preparing to sell their BBQ’s, At 7:00pm, a ZUMBA dance session began in the street and numerous ladies showed up for the freebie workout (my wife not excluded – she jumped right in!) There was even a huge stage with lighting set up at the end of the street ready for that evening’s band. It was like the Magsaysay Mardi Gras atmosphere of the past, without all the military personnel. If this wasn’t a deja vu experience, then I don’t know what you would call it. Maybe it was a homecoming celebration of sorts and someone forgot to mention it to us! Of course it wasn’t. Of all days to leave my camera in the hotel room, this was not the day…but I did. Come to find out, these periodic Friday and Saturday night street festivals are a recent brainchild of the city designed to promote and attract more traffic to the local businesses, who all stay open late on these days. It appears that it began as somewhat of a Chamber of Commerce event and is growing into something much more than that. Upon closer inspection on both sides of the street, I now noticed the lighted signs. I realized now that there were no longer the 2 or 3 nightspots that I noticed two years earlier. Now there were dozens (The following day, I actually took 26 photos until my wife grew somewhat suspicious) of watering holes just on Magsaysay Blvd. alone! The side streets are also hosted to a few new bars and KTV (Videoke/Karaoke bars) establishments as an apparent increased demand for space spilled over outside the traditional Magsaysay Blvd. corridor. Some readers may remember the old “Cork Room” well it recently opened as the Willis bar in that same location! I noticed two newer bars this particular evening that were both flying large “Soft Opening Tonight” banners. Even the old landmark “Naval Bazaar” is sporting a new sign these days.

Harbor Point Mall

Harbor Point Mall

Enhanced Defense Cooperating Agreement.

With the Philippine and U.S governments just finishing up some late rounds of talks surrounding an agreement that would bring U.S. forces back to the Philippines, and with President Obama scheduled to visit on the 28th of April (week after next), I can’t help but speculate that it is already a done deal. Many a sailor and Marine who lived here years ago can attest to the efficiency of the well-known (and sometimes feared) bamboo telegraph. For example, if you wanted to find out about a particular navy ship’s future scheduled arrival, you would never go to the classified source (government), you would simply ask a local trike driver or a working girl in the Barrio. They always seemed to be strategically well-informed and knew what was happening in advance.

All these new bars? So many, so fast? My guess is maybe the old bamboo telegraph got a makeover and is a little more high-tech these days. Something is for certain…There is some adapting going on. Something maybe be unofficially official, but something is happening.

New Naval Bazaar

New Naval Bazaar