The sky bruises at the same time each day in Angeles City. Then the rain comes. The weather is so similar – steamy heat, then rain and evening relief – that it can seem as though time is circular, and the same day recurs. It can seem that life in this Philippine city is lived on a vast wheel of actions without consequences.
But that would be wrong. Children are conceived and born, and they grow older. Here, in an area called Hadrian’s Extension, the laneways are made of compacted rubbish, rubble and dirt. Mid-afternoon the children are playing a game of throwing their thongs, or slippers, as they call them, at an old tin can.
Eleven-year-old John* wants to be a doctor. Kevin, ten, wants to be a pilot. Francine, seven, hopes to be a teacher. Another child, Pedro, lives a little distance away in an actual house on a paved street. He wants to be a lawyer, to help himself and all these other children.
All of them have Australian fathers. Some of the fathers paid to support their children, then stopped. Some never paid at all. Some don’t even know they have children. Kevin’s father was a paedophile in his mid 50s called Peter. He groomed his victim, Kevin’s mother Rochelle, from Australia using social media. He visited her for two nights of sex then cancelled his Yahoo email address, the only contact she had for him, when she told him she was pregnant. She was 14 years old.
Hadrian’s Extension is named after the nearest thoroughfare that could conceivably be called a road. It is a hidden place. Google Street View has never been down these laneways. There are people who have lived in Angeles City for decades who don’t know Hadrian’s Extension exists. Yet, even here, there is a hierarchy. The poorest live next to the rubbish dump, where people open the stinking bags in the heat to comb for saleable plastic and metal.
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This is where Kevin lives, in a 9-metre-square shed patched together from scraps of building refuse. He and Rochelle share it with his grandfather and his uncle, who work as labourers in the construction industry and look as though they are made of sinew and leather. The family sleeps on sheets of cardboard and cooks on an outside open fire. There is no running water.
Just beyond the whiff of the dump, John is being raised by his grandmother’s cousin, Lilia, and her family. They are comparatively well off, living in a solid house, five people in three rooms. They have a small farm and sell the produce to their neighbours from a tiny shop. There is enough to eat and to pay the bills, but not enough to send John to school.
John’s Melbourne-based father is acknowledged on his birth certificate. He used to visit John, and his Facebook page includes pictures of them playing together. Intermittently, he paid about 5000 pesos (A$145) to Lilia to raise his son.
That allowed John to attend a private school, the only decent education in Angeles City. Now the money has stopped coming and John’s father has blocked the family from contacting him on Facebook. John has been pulled out of school. Until the bill is paid and his school report is released, he won’t be able to attend even the dilapidated public school, where kids are packed like sardines, educated in two shifts because there is not enough room, and the teachers have to buy chalk and paper out of their meagre salaries.
The Spanish colonialists named this place Pueblo de los Angeles, or “town of the angels”. It sits 85 kilometres north-west of Manila. During the Vietnam War it was the home of the Clark Air Base, then the largest American military facility outside the US. The base stayed open until 1991, when an eruption at Mt Pinatubo, the volcano looming 15 kilometres to the west, precipitated its closure. By then, the town of the angels had become one of the centres of Asian sex tourism.
According to the local department of tourism, more than 4.7 million foreigners come to the Philippines each year. More than 60% of them are men, and Australians are among the most numerous and are the third biggest spenders, behind the Americans and South Koreans and just ahead of the Japanese. The US Department of State report on human trafficking states that Australians are also one of the groups most active in child sex tourism, although in Angeles City, it seems, most of this is not “preferential” but situational – men who have sex with prostitutes, and simply don’t care about their age.
In 2011 the then US ambassador to the Philippines, Harry K Thomas Jr, stated that 40% of male tourists visited the country for sex, and no other reason. His statement was both controversial and impossible to prove. He backed down. But nobody who has been to Angeles City doubts that he was right.
Figures are one thing. The experience of being in Angeles City is another.
The only people who visit here are sex tourists and, in our case, those who report on them – my 55-year-old self and 39-year-old photographer Dave Tacon. The entire town – with a population of about 350,000 – is a brothel, and its support system. We did not see a single Western woman. I was the only one. It was odd at first, and a little frightening. Then it was corrosive, mad-making. There was no obvious hostility. Merely puzzlement. What was I doing here? Did I really exist?
The cleanest and most “normal” places are the shopping malls, where the beggars are kept away by guards carrying pump-action shotguns or military assault rifles, and sometimes a pistol strapped to their hip for good measure. The canned music includes Tina Turner belting out her anthem ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’.
The centre of the red-light district is Fields Avenue. By day it looks like a low-rise, third-world Las Vegas. At night, it is what the sex holiday websites call the “non-stop merry go round, a piece of heaven that caters to all tastes”.
Sexholidayasia.com says “the sheer volume of girls is staggering”.
Angeles City is the most popular and infamous travel and sex destination in the Philippines, and for good reason. The main difference between Angeles City and Manila is that one price pays for everything. Once the bar fine [payment for taking a woman out of the bar] is paid, the lady is yours for the night, sex and everything included. Bar fines can be as little as 1800 pesos or $40 USD! … Sex in the morning and afternoon are also usually included. If you really want to pinch pennies you could head over to Blow Row or Santos Street. These areas offer blow-jobs for as little as 500 pesos or a BJ/sex combo for 800 pesos.
In the front bar of the Walkabout Hotel on Fields Avenue, you sit elbow-to-elbow with middle-aged, board-short-wearing Australian men who could have been plucked from any suburban shopping mall. More of them are on the street, surrounded by women, moving like lords of creation. There are middle-aged or older Americans too, and younger South Koreans, who are said to be the growing market for Philippines sex tourism.
There are plenty of businesses to make the Australians feel they have arrived at a better kind of home. The Eureka Hotel advertises the screening of AFL football matches. The Boomerang Hotel sells Aussie steaks, and Bunny Burger Restaurant’s lead menu item is an Aussie burger with the lot.
Across the road from the Walkabout is a bar built to look like a Viking boat, packed with women who call out to the passing men. There is a young woman dancing in the street in top hat and tails, all perky and buoyant. There are, quite simply, women everywhere. Tiny, happy-looking, loving women. It goes all night, and the night repeats and repeats. It is a blur, the men say. An endless party. Heaven.
In front of the Walkabout Hotel a Filipino woman is walking with an Australian man. She touches his face and gazes into his eyes. His gut spills over his board shorts. She throws her arm about his waist, but can’t reach all the way round. She grabs a handful of his polo shirt to keep her hand in place. There is something infinitely sad about this – the joy in his eyes, the pathos of his shirt rucked up above the elastic of his shorts. Watch the traffic on Fields Avenue for long enough and you find yourself becoming suspicious of all signs of human affection. Have you ever been truly loved, or was it all transaction?
There are social-media sites that cater to Angeles City’s many repeat visitors. They are an ocean of loneliness, hunger and anger.
Men talk about Angeles City in tones of religious experience, their first visits as revelations and rebirth. On one Angeles City–focused blog the author “Stickman” observes “one … thing you won’t see in [Angeles City] are western families, wives or girlfriends giving guys disapproving, judgmental looks for messing around in the pool with a girl 1/3 their age … Angeles is a judgment-free zone.”
An American writes about his first trip, “I thought I could return to my normal life without any disruptions. I was wrong … All I want now is to go again. I dream of the first night in Angeles City that changed my life forever …” and so on through his encounter with “two gorgeous, sweet girls, naked with me in the hotel swimming pool”, and the “girlfriend experience” with Maricel, “only 20 years old with a soft, sexy, purring voice … My wish was her command … Sometimes I would just lay there listening to her soft breathing next to my ear while she slept. It was heaven!”
It is not only about the sex. That would be to make this place comfortably simple. It is also about loneliness, about finding a home. Angeles City is marked out from other Asian sex tourism sites for what is described as the Girlfriend Experience, or the GFE. Women will stay with you all night, or for a week or a month or more.
Many Australians move here and marry. In the centre of the red-light district, migration agents advertise their services obtaining Australian visas for the women and citizenship for the kids – because the children of an Australian father are eligible, if parenthood is acknowledged or can be proven.
There is even a sub-branch of the RSL, with 600 members. The president, retired Yarrawonga lawyer James Curtis-Smith, also acts as consular warden for the Australian embassy. He estimates there are up to 4000 Australian residents in Angeles City, or about 1% of the population, plus about 1000 visitors at any one time.
What brings them here? Curtis-Smith first nominates the low cost of living. A retiree on limited superannuation can live like a king. Then there are the “personal freedoms”, such as the right to drive home after a few beers without fear of being breathalysed.
Almost coyly, he comes to the women, “who are lovely, of course”. Curtis-Smith moved here himself after meeting a “particularly attractive” hotel waitress on a holiday with his mates. Most of the men in the RSL, he says, are well over 60 and have young wives, and primary school–aged children or babies. At 73 years old Curtis-Smith has been married three times – once to an Australian woman and twice to Filipinos – and has 12 children in all, ranging in age from seven to 47.
The RSL tries to do good, in its own way. It raises funds to pay for medical missions to the slums, and to buy hearing aids, wheelchairs, asthma medication and regular medical checks for the poorest children.
Why are there no Australian women in this community? The men say that they want a different kind of woman – someone who puts the home and the family first. Their attitudes belong in the last century. They cheerfully acknowledge they would be out of place in most modern Australian institutions and societies. But they marry the women. They love their children. They send them to private schools, and organise Australian citizenship.
In Angeles City, this makes them moral giants. By the time we found them, it was a relief to be in their company.
The RSL headquarters is in the Australian-owned Ponderosa Hotel, which sits at a distance from the main sex strip of Fields Avenue. Pepper steak and roast beef are on the menu, and Victoria Bitter on tap. The bar girl greeted us. Confronted with the unfathomable sight of a middle-aged Western woman and a younger man, she hedged her bets. Within seconds her breasts were pressed into my back, and she had one hand on my thigh, and one hand on Dave’s.
Meanwhile, the departure of the regular shuttle service from the Ponderosa to Fields Avenue was announced, and some of the men left their bar stools to take the ride.
In the bar of our hotel one night there was a dreadlocked and tattooed African-American man sitting with two young girls. Working on my laptop, seeing them in the corner of my eye, I subconsciously registered them as a family group, forgetting for the moment that nobody has family holidays in Angeles City.
Then the man rose and took the girls upstairs to his room. They could not have been more than 13.
Dave and I sat and looked at each other. What could we do? If we did nothing, we would have to live with that fact.
We walked up the street to the police station, where we sat for a while with a view of a tiny cell, smaller than a teenager’s bedroom, crammed with more than 20 semi-naked Filipino men. The police officer shook our hands. We told him we had seen underage girls taken up to a hotel room. “Ah,” he said. “That is illegal. Perhaps in your country too?” We assured him that this was the case.
We gave him the address of our hotel. He thanked us for making the report and told us they would check, then shook our hands. He did not take a statement from us, or ask us our names. That was the end of it. The dreadlocked man was hanging around again the next night.
From the window of my room, I could see Mt Pinatubo on the horizon looking like a cartoon volcano, the crater neatly symmetrical. Its 1991 eruption was the second largest of the 20th century. Lethal ash rained down, and the effects were felt worldwide.
I imagined, perhaps wished for, another eruption. Fire and brimstone, raining down on the city of angels. On the damned and the innocent. And on the rest of us, who are implicated.
Morning in Hadrian’s Extension. The women are waking up, or making their way back home after the night. Some of them come late, because they got a bar fine. A man paid to take them back to his hotel, and they will get a cut. Given this is the last week of the school holidays, they are talking about buying shoes and uniforms. They will not speak in detail about the night’s routine. Here in their ramshackle homes they are mothers. They pack away their work with the rising of the sun.
Judith, 19, is planning to return to work tonight for the first time since she gave birth to her now three-month-old son, Jaden. His father is an Englishman in his 50s by the name of Colin. He picked Judith up in the bar, and doesn’t know he has a son.
She will be paid 180 pesos (A$5) for turning up tonight. If a man buys her one of the specially priced “ladies drinks” she will get a cut – perhaps as much as 220 pesos (A$6). But if Judith wants to maximise her earnings, she can’t afford to get drunk. “The men like us to drink alcohol. They get angry if you want soft drink,” she says. She has become adept at pouring her drinks on the ground when the men aren’t watching. If a man pays a bar fine, she can expect to get as much as A$20 for having sex with him, and sometimes there are tips on top of that.
Judith’s sister, 29-year-old Janice, has two children – seven-year-old Angelo and three-year-old Bien. Angelo’s father is an American who doesn’t know he has a son. Janice is not resentful. “Perhaps he has another family to support.”
She and Judith share a 16-metre-square rented room with three of their children, which costs them 2800 pesos (A$80) a month. “It’s all we can afford. There aren’t enough customers on Fields Avenue and they don’t even leave money in the tip tray.”
Susana, 34, is getting old for bar work. She claims she no longer seeks the bar fines, and tries to earn her money from ladies drinks alone. It’s hard. The bars like to maintain the promise of “staggering” numbers of “girls” and that means there are many nights on which, no matter how much she smiles and calls to the men, no matter how happy and fun-loving she manages to appear, she doesn’t get a lady drink. On those nights, she takes home 120 pesos (A$3.50). She has six children and lives with ten other family members in a three-room structure, a mix of cinder-block walls and corrugated iron tacked to timber, with an earth floor. Her mother is a street sweeper, and Susana must work seven nights a week to keep the family fed. “Every day is the same for me,” she says.
One of Susana’s children, Francine, has an Australian father, Thomas, whom Susana met in 2006. “He was nice. He was bald. He was about 60,” she says. They stayed in touch for a while, and when she told him she was pregnant he sent her two Western Union transfers of about 10,000 pesos (A$290) each. The transfers were made from Australia. Then the money stopped, and she has no idea where he is or if he is still alive.
Outside, the faces of the children playing in the streets of Hadrian’s Extension speak of the community of nations. There are Nordic features and Korean faces and kids who could have stepped off a street in New York City or Sydney or Los Angeles, if it wasn’t for their rags and the dirt on their faces.
The idea that these women come from the provinces, naively seeking the city lights, is out of date. Most of them are second-generation city dwellers. Many completed school, but that is no guarantee of anything. Jobs are so rare that even fast-food outlets require their workers to have a degree. A job in a call centre is the best that can be hoped for, but that requires high-level English language skills. Among men the most common occupation is to be a labourer in the construction industry (building hotels for more tourists) or a garbage collector (carrying away the refuse of the only industry of any size – the selling of sex).
Abortion, like prostitution, is illegal in the Philippines. There is medicine available, for a price, that makes you bleed. Once you are haemorrhaging, the hospitals will take you in, but it is dangerous. There are also traditional midwives who can bring on an abortion, but that isn’t safe either. Women have died. Meanwhile, the contraceptive pill is regarded as sinful, and in any case unaffordable.
Some of the women themselves are children of sex tourism. Grace, 35, is the daughter of an American serviceman whom she never met. She was the youngest of six daughters, all of whom had different fathers – most of them American servicemen. Now she is the mother of eight-year-old Pedro, whose Australian father, Max, apparently chose his son’s second middle name in honour of a Melbourne Cup winner.
Grace started work as a dancer in the bars at the age of 20, and met Max when she was 23. He was 79 years old and widowed for the second time, visiting Angeles City because a friend had thought it might be the cure for his loneliness.
“He was looking for company and we were talking and he said, ‘You won’t have to work any more in the bar.’ So we were together after that.”
Max bought a house for Grace and Pedro. They visited him twice at his home in Noosa Heads. He helped Pedro apply for Australian citizenship, and today the boy holds an expired Australian passport. But Max discouraged Grace from thinking she and Pedro might settle in Australia. Why would they, he said. In Angeles City she could live like a queen on the money he would give her.
Grace and Max’s relationship lasted for 12 years, but in 2010, on another trip to Angeles City, he found a new girlfriend. Shortly afterwards he was fitted with a pacemaker, and the child support dropped to 3000 pesos (A$85) a month, and then stopped altogether. Grace has been forced to rent out a room of the house to make ends meet. Five men – security guards and construction workers – share her spare bedroom.
She last saw Max recently when he visited Angeles City. She had a charge made out against him for failure to support his son, and he was jailed temporarily. After that, the child support stopped entirely until a few weeks ago, when he sent her 3000 pesos to pay for Pedro to have some dental work. It was the first money for seven months.
Max, now 91 years old, has asked her to drop the charges against him so he can return to Angeles City. He still loves the place. Meanwhile, Grace believes he has nominated his brother as his next of kin. Grace doesn’t know if Pedro, Max’s only son, will inherit anything when he dies.
Australia and the Philippines have a reciprocal arrangement whereby a child-support assessment raised under Philippine law can, in theory, be enforced against an Australian resident.
In practice, it is a fiction. The Australian Department of Human Services, asked to spell out the procedure by which this can be done, advises that mothers should lodge their request first with the Philippine solicitor general. Neither the Philippine solicitor general nor the public advocate, who is meant to provide legal aid to the impoverished, responded to numerous attempts to make contact. There is no hint of the correct procedure to claim child support on the Philippine government websites. Nor could I obtain any information about the costs involved, which would in any case almost certainly be prohibitive for the families of Hadrian’s Extension.
Finally, the mothers assured me, there would be bribes. This is part of the way business is done in the Philippines. Nothing in government moves without payment.
During our time in Hadrian’s Extension we heard that a social worker, employed by a charity that claims to help the women, was taking a cut from money a European donated to help one of the children. This social worker was alarmed by our presence and tried to prevent us from talking to the mothers.
We had expected this organisation to help us. Perhaps we should have been less outraged, more realistic. Perhaps the only hope here is compromised.
Attempting to investigate this charity, I went to City Hall to do a land-title search. After queuing for half an hour I sat down opposite a clerk who was signing a stack of land transfer documents for a man in a blue shirt. I passed my card across the table and introduced myself as a journalist from Australia. At that moment, the man in the blue shirt returned and handed the clerk a roll of 1000-peso notes. What timing. The clerk met my eyes. On the wall was a sign urging people to report “fixers” and corruption.
It was like the moment in Fawlty Towers when they open the biscuit tin to serve the hotel inspector, and there is a rat inside. Everyone goes on serving cheese and crackers as though it isn’t there. What else was there to do?
Perhaps Angeles City sent us mad.
By the time we left it was clear there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of children with Australian fathers. We were discovering a new one every day. We could not interview them all.
Kevin had been following us around, grinning wildly, hitching a lift on the back of our motorcycle trike. In his case, there seemed to be no hope of tracing his paedophile father. He would be in his mid 60s now, and in all likelihood retired, living anonymously somewhere in Australia.
But one night, we thought, Perhaps not. Perhaps he was a registered sex offender. Perhaps his DNA would be on a police database. We told Rochelle it was the thinnest of chances. Kevin cried when Rochelle plucked his hair and cut his nails. Now I have on my desk a ziplock bag containing Kevin’s toenail clipping, a strand of his hair and a tissue used to swab his mouth.
I contacted the Australian Federal Police, who have a liaison officer in the Philippines. Might there be some hope of tracing the father, of child support, perhaps even victim-of-crime compensation? Might, one day, Kevin fulfil his ambition and be a pilot?
The answers were unsurprising. The AFP does not handle child-support issues. Sex offenders are a priority, the spokesman said in an email, and the AFP shares intelligence with local authorities. “The AFP can use its extra-territorial powers … to prosecute Australian child-sex offenders, and provides information about travelling registered sex offenders to the destination country. It is then up to this country to decide whether they allow the individual entry.” In Kevin’s case there was insufficient information to conduct an investigation. And no, his DNA could not be run through the database.
I contacted the Department of Human Services with details of the cases of John and Pedro. Was there any help for these families to pursue child support, or would they have to attempt alone the all-but-impossible job of registering a claim with the Philippine authorities?
I asked, given the reciprocal arrangement, how many child-support cases the department administers where one parent is in the Philippines and the other in Australia.
The information on the number of cases was not readily available, I was told. Finding it involved data recovery, for which I might be charged. The department could not comment on individual cases, because of privacy laws.
Before the department would accept an application for child support, it would need to be satisfied about parentage. Acceptable evidence included the naming of the parents on a birth certificate, meaning that several of the children we met would qualify.
But in all cases, the first step was to approach the Philippine authorities. “If a child-support liability is established in the Philippines, the parent can lodge an application for recognition and enforcement of that liability in Australia by having the Philippines’ office of the solicitor-general forward the relevant information to the Department of Human Services in Australia.”
As for my question about how many such arrangements are actually in place, and are currently resulting in money for the Filipino children of Australian fathers, at the time of writing I am still waiting. Common sense and the experience of Angeles City tell me that the number is likely to be low.
Meanwhile, I tracked down John’s father. He lives in a block of flats in Melbourne’s east. He works in middle management in a sign and digital printing company. An online profile shows that he supports Save the Children. The causes he claims to care about include human rights and animal welfare. His Facebook page reveals that he is in love with another Filipino woman, whom he met in March 2012 and to whom he became engaged later that year.
I rang him. I told him I had met his son. He acknowledged that he had stopped paying child support but, not surprisingly, did not want to discuss the reasons why with a stranger.
John’s Filipino family has written to this man. So far, they have not had a reply. I have given them the address of the Philippine solicitor general, and suggested they write to start the formal proceedings, and send a copy of the letter to the Australian authorities. I am trying not to raise expectations. It will, I say, be long and slow and uncertain.
Meanwhile, in Angeles City the children are growing older. Every day, in the mid-afternoon, the sky bruises and it rains.
* Some names have been changed.
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