‘Kanto boy’ | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

‘Kanto boy’

Populist politicians have to play to public perceptions, picking up or creating issues that they feel will win them support, and never mind the moral dimensions.

We’re seeing that in the United States with Donald Trump, who rode to power playing on American fears of illegal migration. Facing plummeting public opinion ratings amid midterm elections coming up this year, he decided to use the migration issue to look tough by separating children from undocumented migrant families. That move has backfired with strong public criticism, and now he’s talking about keeping the families together… but in detention.


We are seeing a similar populist play on perceptions in the Philippines. When he was running for president, Rodrigo Duterte promised to wipe out the “addicts,” depicted as rapists and murderers who had no hope of reform. His ruthless war on drugs was really a war on “addicts,” initially accompanied by promises that he would wipe them out, and the drug problem, within six months. We will soon be entering his third year in office, and the President no longer talks about a timeline.

His popularity remains high, with people still hoping he will solve the drug problem. The “Tokhang” killings have been reduced because of adverse public opinion, but he also needs to keep an image of the tough punisher, so he has identified new demons who will be easier to control than the “addicts.”


Enter the hapless “tambay” or “istambay.” To understand the “tambay,” we have to go back to his ancestor, the “kanto boy.” Older readers will remember our elders warning us about them—those urban poor males hanging out at the corner (thus “kanto”) sari-sari store.

There were two stereotypes of the “kanto boy.” One, the more benign, was that of the idle guy, jobless supposedly because he didn’t want to work. The other stereotype was of the more sinister troublemaker, especially when “kanto boys” got together, smoking and drinking and harassing women (and gay men) passing by.

The fear of the “kanto boy” overlapped with the global moral panic in the 1950s and 1960s, with the emergence of a new human subspecies: the teenager. “Kanto boys” tended to be of that age, so they were really more of juvenile delinquents, not associated with big-time crime. Many urban poor parents were really more anxious about their sons turning into bums, or their daughters falling in love and eloping with some “kanto boy.”

The term “kanto boy” declined in usage through the years, fading away and almost becoming glamorized, as in the 1990s when four popular young singers — Billy Crawford, John Lloyd Cruz, Vhong Navarro and Luis Manzano — formed a song-and-dance group called Kanto Boys.

Rewind to the 1970s when a new moral panic emerged, not with the “kanto boy” but the “aktibista.” While parents complained in the 1960s about their good-for-nothing idle sons, in the 1970s they would grumble about both sons and daughters now trying to do too much, including toppling dictatorships and saving the world.

The “kanto boys” declined in number, some recruited into the Kabataang Makabayan and other activist youth groups. Those who stayed on as “kanto boys” became, well, the “tambay,” from the English “stand by.” They were sometimes scoffed at by the activists as the “lumpen proletariat,” or, simply the “lumpen,” to differentiate them from the revolutionary working class.

No longer limited to teenagers, the “tambay” included older men, and were seen as occupying the lower rungs of criminal syndicates, including those dealing with drugs.


Don’t you just love my new assigned column space? I only get to do 650 words now instead of 1,100, which makes life so much easier for me — unless it’s a topic as complicated as the “tambay.” So, I’m going to ask you to “tambay” till Friday to find out about the postmodern “tambay” and the political fortunes of Duterte.

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TAGS: anti-loitering campaign, anti-tambay campaign, Donald Trump, istambay, kanto boy, Michael L. Tan, Pinoy Kasi, populism, Rodrigo Duterte
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