HONOLULU—Part of the reason Olongapo was included in the Philippine itinerary of the recent trade mission from Hawaii was that the city has become an outstanding model of local development after its previous long-standing image as a “City of Sin.” The trade mission was looking for Philippine communities outside Metro Manila interested in business partnerships with the Honolulu-based Filipino Chamber of Commerce in its future missions to promote closer Hawaii-Philippines economic relations.
The trade mission also recognized that Subic is a potential retirement home for thousands of Filipino elderly who retire every year but cannot afford the prohibitive costs of retiring in the United States. Subic offers the amenities of a developed country while providing a familiar home atmosphere. Even non-Filipinos, particularly the Japanese, want to retire in the Philippines where the cost of living is more affordable than in their home countries.
Dr. Dean Alegado, my host and former faculty colleague at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who has opted to retire in his native Olongapo, gave me a quick tour of the city as it looks today, including the once infamous R.M. Avenue just outside what used to be the US naval base at Subic Bay. Now a vibrant economic-zone community resembling “Little America” that is able to compete globally with its relatively developed socioeconomic infrastructure, Olongapo exudes an energy of entrepreneurship and vitality as the first Freeport City in the Philippines.
Of course, the visitor would be unlikely to miss the familiar “Gordon brand” of leadership displayed all over Olongapo. It is one of the most enduring examples of durability and continuity in Philippine politics. Political dynasties come and go but the “Gordon Knot” seems unbreakable and destined to last forever and a day in Philippine political memory.
The original patriarch, James Gordon, known as “the father of Olongapo City,” was assassinated in 1967. But his name and mantle of leadership have passed on since then to a string of Gordons—his widow Amelia, older son Richard or Dick, Dick’s wife Kate, and younger son and namesake James or Bong, currently the city’s mayor. While there, I was already hearing loud whispers that after Bong’s term expires, his wife Anne will be a “shoo-in” as his successor.
Politics thrives in the symbolism of memory. The late Mayor Gordon is enshrined as Olongapo’s “first paladin to fight against political ‘bossism.’”
He was a vigorous opponent of illegal logging in the watershed areas of the community and a firm advocate for land titles for city residents who did not own the lots that they occupied.
Bong Gordon, a musical artist to boot, has in effect become not just a son anymore but likewise the father of modern Olongapo. He is imbued with the ethics of hard work and competitiveness. His motto for running the booming city is “Fighting for Excellence.”
He proudly showed the trade mission delegates the “symbols of progress” under his watch, ranging from a day care center in City Hall itself for children of employees to state-of-the-art health facilities.
Supporting institutions to promote education, expanding resources for conventions and meetings, increasing library resources and initiating “best practices” in other public endeavors are all part of Bong Gordon’s visionary agenda. He is a proactive mayor determined to achieve the “pivotal transformation” of Olongapo from a former “Sin City” to a “topnotch destination” for both foreign and domestic visitors. Articulate and aggressive, he shows that his politics is about “winning and prevailing, amidst the odds.” He has become a paragon in his own right.
It is hoped that increasing political democratization is also part of Bong Gordon’s agenda. Expanding political participation, especially among the younger generations of leaders and citizens who will take over, will certainly boost further the stock of Olongapo as a model city for the Philippines and exemplar for good governance that we can all be proud of.
A Filipino trade mission delegate from Hawaii, Dr. Belinda A. Aquino is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she served as professor of political science and Asian studies as well as director of the Center for Philippine Studies for 35 years.