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Cigarettes and Filipino nationalism

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Looking Back

Cigarettes and Filipino nationalism

/ 09:28 PM September 20, 2011

Overheard this joke about a man who returned a freshly bought pack of cigarettes that had the warning: “Smoking causes impotence.” He handed it back to the tindera saying, “give me the one that causes lung cancer.” This made me wonder why some “pasaway” are contesting No   Smoking ordinances enforced by MMDA, but do not contest the same in Makati. Tobacco was introduced into the Philippines from Mexico and   became so lucrative a cash crop that a “Tobacco Monopoly” was established in the 18th century to maximize revenue. This explains why some areas in Luzon like the Ilocos and Cagayan were planted to tobacco instead of staples like rice and sugar.

It is fascinating to trace present proposals for “sin taxes” on tobacco and alcohol back to their roots deep in the Spanish colonial period. For a comprehensive and readable study there is nothing better than Edilberto de Jesus’ “The Tobacco Monopoly: Bureaucratic Enterprise and Social Change, 1766-1880” (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1980). That, however, is not the last word on the topic because one area remains unexplored and these are the various cigar and cigarette labels that were made in the Philippines from the late 19th century to the pre-war period. Hundreds of small mom-and-pop companies concentrated in Binondo packaged cigarettes with labels that deserve serious study because these are not just works of art but a mirror of the times.

I once read a confidential police report in the National Archives regarding a cigarette factory in Binondo whose labels allegedly contained “subversive” designs. Then in the early American period when a Flag Law prohibited the display of the Philippine flag some cigarette labels carried designs that reminded the public of the Philippine Revolution, the Philippine-American War, or the short-lived Malolos Republic. An innocent-looking cigarette label “Filipinas para Filipinos” (The Philippines for Filipinos) openly pointed towards   independence. Then there was Inang Bayan, a Filipina in Filipiniana attire, pointing towards the dawn (bukang liwayway) of progress or independence. This made smoking literally dangerous to the health of colonial administration in the islands.

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Tobacco has been part of Philippine life for a long time and early photographs show men, women and even children enjoying leaf tobacco   rolled into crude cigars longer than their arms. Tax collected on tobacco supplemented government revenue from the 18th century to our day and actually saved the post-galleon trade economy of the Philippines in the 19th century. If you look at the expenses of the First Philippine Republic you will notice recurring disbursement for   cigarettes distributed to weary soldiers and revolucionarios-proof that smoking fueled, in part, our struggle for independence and nationhood.

Before the World War II and the entry of branded foreign cigarettes there were hundreds of factories in Binondo that employed armies of workers, mostly women, who deftly sorted and rolled cured tobacco into cigars and cigarettes in the thousands. These cigarerras were, like domestics and prostitutes, part of the labor force. Over a thousand different cigarette wrappers are preserved in private collections in Manila dated from the late 1800s to the 1930s that have outlived   their specific function and have become a record of Philippine graphic or commercial art. These labels were basic marketing tools that not only advertised specific  brands, but expressed signs of the times, including nationalism. The lithographic process made it possible to print in the thousands, many of them in full color. Because these were common and were often discarded, it is a miracle that many have been preserved for us to study and enjoy today.

These cigarette labels normally carried a brand or trade name and a colored illustration that was somehow related to the trade name or the sentiments of the factory owner. These labels also carried an address and a taxation number. Historians can date these labels from a simple linguistic shift from “Islas Filipinas” to “P.I.” (Philippine Islands)   that reflect the change from the Spanish to the American colonial period. Art nouveau motifs and designs appear in many labels dating them to a period after 1910. Jose Rizal’s face and name appear in many labels and were given stiff competition in the 1930s with the advent of politicians like Manuel Luis Quezon and Sergio Osmeña whose faces  also appeared on cigarette labels. Some Filipino ideals like Pagkakaisa or Magkaibigan were expressed in brand names. Scenes of   tourist attractions like Antipolo and Mayon found their way on labels together with one label with a couple of Japanese geishas who were popular with men in the Philippines who knew them as “karayuki-san” today we export Filipinas as “entertainers” and Filipinos as “hostos” to Japan.

I once collected Filipino cigarette labels, hoping to write a source book on early Philippine design, but when I was refused a feature in an inflight magazine on the basis of their no-smoking-in-the-cabin policy, I gave up and sold my collection. Quite sad really because today’s cigarette packages are not as aesthetic as the old ones. Vintage cigar and cigarette labels are visual fragments of Philippine history, taste and culture.

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