What a word “juicy” is. Think juicy and, maybe because you’re reading a newspaper right now, you think of juicy news, especially when it’s gossipy. Juicy can be suggestive too, meaning oozing with the sensual.
Now, can you think of President Duterte as juicy?
That’s what I thought a few months back when newspapers all over the world took a one-day break from his expletives and speculated, as he was heading out for Japan, about whether he would break another kind of protocol in a scheduled meeting with no less than the emperor. The Japanese are obsessed with protocol and were worried that our President would, during the imperial encounter, begin to chew gum, which he does quite often in public functions. But then the emperor’s brother passed away, so the meeting was cancelled. Gummy problem solved.
Or, I should have said juicy problem solved.
I’m am dispensing with the quotation marks since you must have picked up by now that Juicy in Filipino English also means chewing gum, thanks to the Wrigley product. The President is only a few years older than I am, so I can imagine how he acquired the gum-chewing habit. Juicy was, after all, part and parcel of street culture, with street vendors hawking the gum with cigarettes, a natural combination because even in the 1960s and 1970s, when smoking was still fashionable and chic, smokers were aware that it left your breath quite stale—and I’m being polite here. In came Juicy and Chiclets and other products to mask your breath.
Somehow, the juicy and the cigarettes converged to project a grown-up image. American movies in the 1960s projected smart-aleck, rebellious teenagers as people who chewed gum. Think of James Dean. Oh, but the Filipino is so much more economical with words, the chewing gum image being summarized in one word—siga.
The President was in college then, a time to be siga; and from the short biographies that have come out about him—not all of them complimentary—it’s not difficult to imagine him smoking cigarette. . . and chewing gum.
All these images around chewing gum didn’t come about accidentally. In the Philippine context, Juicy represented “Stateside,” accessible to all Filipinos. We mainly relied on imports of Wrigley gum from the 1920s onwards and the demand was so high that in 1965, Wrigley put up a local plant to produce the gum here.
There’s some irony here because the 1960s was a decade of emerging nationalism, yet the stateside gum remained popular. Marcos became president in 1965, young and charismatic, although I have never seen photographs of him chewing gum. Before his first term ended, street protests in Manila had become common. I entered college the year he ran for and won a second term. More protests, the street vendors joining the rallies because activists smoked a lot—and never seemed to stop chewing gum.
Maybe it was the stress. Maybe it was to stave off hunger. Stress and hunger were the reasons given by jeepney drivers, among the most militant sectors; so it was properly proletarian (working class) to smoke and chew gum, even if they involved Stateside products.
Let’s go further back in history, world history even, and it seems chewing gum seems to be part of being human. In 2007 a student archaeologist in Finland found a piece of gum, complete with teeth marks, made from birch tree tar. It was tested and dated to go back 5,000 years. Newspaper headlines called it Neolithic gum.
It was the Mayans of Central America who gave us the “modern” gum. They had been using, for centuries, the latex from the sapodilla tree, a close relative of the chico. The Mayans were said to have used the gum to suppress hunger, freshen the breath and keep the teeth clean. They called this gum “tziktli” which meant “sticky stuff,” and the word became “chicle” when the Spaniards borrowed it.
Chicle was used by Wrigley for their gum, while another company used the word itself to produce the brand name Chiclet, which also gained popularity in the Philippines.
Today’s chewing gums rarely use chicle, relying instead on synthetic rubber. I know it’s hard to imagine chewing on the tires of your cars—now that would really be macho— but it’s the rubber that can make you chew on a piece of gum forever.
Over the years, I could sense that bubble gum has grabbed its share of the market, the product having the same basic ingredients as chewing gum, with a greater percentage of the synthetic rubber.
Bubble gum or chewing gum, you still project the same image and, through the decades, it has become a negative one. The worse thing you can do when you’re looking for a job is to chew gum while you’re being interviewed. The image now is not so much that of a siga than of a juvenile, almost with connotations of insecurity.
But then chewing gum didn’t prevent someone from getting “hired” to lead the country.
If you’re a man or woman on the street though, chewing gum does raise another question of whether you’re going to be responsible enough to dispose of it properly. Wrigley products (Juicy Fruit is different from Spearmint) at least came in a wrapper that you could use in disposing of an exhausted stick of gum; but even then, the temptation for the litterbug Filipino is still to just spit the gum out onto the street, never mind who ends up stepping on it. The more “polite” and discreet would stick the gum under the seat, the bane of janitors in schools and movie theaters.
One last historical footnote from a recent article—“Is Chewing Gum Good for Toddlers? Or Anhone?”—in the New York Times: Wrigley is credited for having launched the first mass direct marketing campaign in the early 1900s, mailing out free gum to every address in phone books with a letter that started “Dear Toddler” but was meant, of course, for the mothers. The letter extolled gum as a way to improve children’s dental health. One line reads: “It’s good for children’s teeth, which needs more exercise that they get with modern soft food.” Interesting how chewing gum, which is indeed an ancient practice, is touted as a solution to modern diets, healthy gum for healthy gums.
For decades, even dentists believed this ancient claim about the gum, but in recent years the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry changed its mind, warning of how the chewing gum’s high sugar content contributes to tooth decay. The American Academy of Pediatrics, on the other hand, has issued warnings about gum being a possible choking hazard in children below the age of 5.
Enter sugar-free gum. I have a feeling though that the market for that kind of gum would be older people, yes, even as old as our President.
If I might get back to the bubble gum, I have wondered about its appeal to our teenagers. Could it be that there’s something siga blowing out the bubbles like we used to do smoke rings?
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