December 2018 – January 2019

Vox

by Margaret Simons

Revisiting the kids of Angeles City

Three years on, how are the Filipino children of Australian sex tourists faring?

The Jollibee has a big bottom, striped in yellow and red. His wings are tiny appendages. This bee will never fly. He wears a white chef’s hat and big yellow boots, and he is always happy.

He is the eponymous mascot of the Filipino answer to McDonald’s. Jollibee is a fast-food chain that serves sweet spaghetti, fried chicken and the Amazing Aloha Yumburger.

The Jollibee shook my hand and gave me a high five. His assistants – two young men clad to colour match the bee – hauled me and photojournalist Dave Tacon to the front of the room and asked if we knew any words in Tagalog, the local language.

Dave could think of only one word, tokhang, which is the term for what police do in President Rodrigo Duterte’s lethal war on drugs. Journalists tend not to know nice words.

Literally, tokhang means “knock and plead” – or visit drug addicts to ask them to surrender. It has come to mean being shot dead by police.

This was a children’s party. Dave decided to tell the bee that the only Tagalog he knew was the word Jollibee. That earned us another high five.

Then the children and their mothers danced and sang.

We had returned this year to the neighbourhood of Hadrian’s Extension in Angeles City, the centre of the Filipino sex tourism industry. We were in the Jollibee restaurant near the red-light district. This was our third visit to the region since we came to report on the abandoned children of Australian sex tourists for The Monthly in July 2015.

It was a story about abandonment, responsibility and consequences. We had met Kevin, then 10, the son of an Australian paedophile who groomed his mother, Rochelle, online before visiting and getting her pregnant. When he heard she was expecting he cancelled his Yahoo email address, and she never heard from him again. Kevin was living next to a rubbish dump in a humpy shared with his mother, grandfather and uncle. He was illiterate and not attending school, but he clung to us – to Dave in particular, carrying his camera bags – and rode with us on the sidecar scooters that are the main means of getting around where he lived.

We met little Francine, whose Australian father sent two lots of money to her mother, Susana, before disappearing.

We met Pedro, who had Australian citizenship and an expired Australian passport. He and his mother, Grace, had visited his 91-year-old Australian father in Noosa Heads a couple of times, but the man had found another Filipino girlfriend and stopped paying child support. The modest house he had bought them in Angeles City kept them from abject poverty.

Then there was 11-year-old John, whose father was acknowledged on his birth certificate. We traced the father to a block of flats in Melbourne’s east, but he refused to talk to us about why he had stopped paying child support. Meanwhile, John was being raised by his grandmother’s cousin. There was enough money to feed him, but not enough to keep him in school. John was angry, and running wild.

We asked the Australian government why it didn’t make it easier for these mothers to claim child support, and received no satisfactory replies.

Crazily, we did things like clip Kevin’s hair and fingernails, thinking that perhaps one day it would be possible to match them to a criminal database and find his father. Those samples still sit in my filing cabinet. The police are not interested.

Our July 2015 story went on to win a Walkley Award. More important, the story touched hearts, and people wanted to help. They sent us money, and we began to send it to the children and their families.

Two and a half years later, our nascent, unofficial charity has just been incorporated and is directly helping nine children of foreign sex tourists – mostly Australians – and another three or four families through intermediaries.

Journalists usually fly in and fly out, maintaining professional distance. Despite ourselves, Dave and I are now committed. We want to see these children grow up.

They have come to expect our visits, in which we quiz them and their families on their weekly income, ask the children their ambitions and take their pictures.

And on this visit, we shouted a party at Jollibee for the children and their mothers – past and present sex workers.

Most sex tourists never see where the women and their children live in the district of Hadrian’s Extension. The sex workers go home from the pole dancing and the low-rent glam of the red-light district to a tumble of corrugated-iron and concrete-block slums on the slope down to a littered, nameless stream.

It is the smell, like souring milk, that hits you first. Closer to the dump it is more pungent. Here you find the poorest of the poor – including women too old for the sex trade – earning what they can from combing through the fetid piles for plastics and metals they can sell for recycling.

As evening comes, mothers still young enough to work leave their children with grandmothers and aunties; they set out for the bars, where they will change into their “uniforms” of short black dresses or tiny tight pants.

They will earn about $4 a night if they are dancers – cavorting on a stage with a crowd of others. If a man takes them back to his hotel room for sex, they will get about $40.

We are journalists, not aid workers. When we started we knew nothing about what it would mean to suddenly inject cash into a community as poor as this one.

Money helps, but it is not fairy dust. The mothers are often themselves the children of a previous generation of sex tourists. They have few role models, few ways to aspire to or even imagine a better life for themselves or their children.

The best-paid jobs in Angeles City are at the call centres serving big international companies. Call-centre workers earn about $15 a day, more than doctors, nurses or schoolteachers. But to get one of those jobs you need good English and, in most cases, a college degree. Most of “our” mothers didn’t finish high school.

Thanks to Australian sponsors who saw our stories, Kevin lives in a decent house in a relatively new subdivision with his mother and other members of his family. After private tutoring, he is going to school. Having missed the first few years he is still well behind, but while we were there he sat a test to advance to the next grade.

Francine, thanks to sponsorship from the writer Alice Nelson, is attending a private school – the only decent education in this place, where the local public school teaches in two shifts a day, 55 children to a class, and struggles to afford pens and paper.

Francine still lives in an earth-floored shack with her mother, grandparents and siblings, but her school uniforms hang clean and pressed from the timbers that support the corrugated-iron roof. When we first met her she wanted to be a teacher. Now, aged 10, she wants to be a model.

Pedro and his mother are in an awful situation. A while ago, desperate to reconnect with Pedro’s dying father, they sold the house he had bought them to pay for a trip to Australia. However, Pedro was left nothing in his father’s will. They now rent a small apartment in Angeles City and scrabble every day for enough money to get by.

John, meanwhile, has been moved by his family to a remote province to minimise the risk of him becoming a drug addict. He lives with his mother and, thanks to money from an Australian who read our journalism, is attending school. He is in touch with his father – who has a new Filipino girlfriend.

Although we have given some children a chance, they live complicated and tenuous lives. We learn that one of the mothers we are supporting still begs for money in the restaurants, and sometimes takes her daughter with her.

Some estranged family members want to reconnect when they hear their relative’s child is attracting the interest of foreigners and bringing in money.

Francine’s siblings wonder why she gets to go to the good school and not them. The answer, of course, is that her father is Australian, and so we feel some connected sense of responsibility. But abandonment by foreign fathers is such a routine story here as to be barely remarked upon.

Today is party time. The mothers are dancing with the children and the Jollibee. They are, of course, very good dancers.

We watch the mothers put lipstick on their daughters – some as young as eight – and wonder whether this should be understood as preparing them or just as fun. We wish we could relax.

Food is served. Nothing is wasted. What the children don’t eat, the mothers carefully pack up and take home.

When we first came here, it was the poverty that struck us most. Now, on this return, I wonder if I am no longer capable of being shocked, because I notice not only the things that don’t work but also the things that do. These include the routine help that comes from family members, and the way an unsupported child will be adopted, and loved, by a family that can barely afford to feed its own.

It seems strange to say that things might have improved a little, given the generally awful political situation in President Duterte’s Philippines, but we did see some small improvements. One of the main roads through Hadrian’s Extension, which used to be a dirt track, has been concreted. This means houses that used to flood regularly during the monsoon are now dry, at least.

The local government has supplied training scholarships in dressmaking, and this has resulted in some women being able to get jobs in factories making clothes – one of the few kinds of employment that does not rely on the sex industry and does not require high-level English-language skills.

These incremental improvements have been achieved thanks to a recent captain of the local barangay. A barangay is the base unit of Filipino local politics (the closest word in English would be “ward”). Each barangay typically has a population of about 50,000 to 60,000, and is run by an elected captain who has great power and influence. In some of the places we have visited, the captain has been feared by families on the wrong end of the “war on drugs”. Corruption is present at every level of Filipino politics.

But last time around, the barangay in which our families live, Balibago, got a good one. A former local police captain, Rodelio “Tony” Mamac organised the improvements and has also somehow managed to keep the murderous “war on drugs” at bay. With all the other hardships they face, our families are relatively safe when it comes to being shot at by police.

In the Philippines, barangay captains can only serve for three terms. Mamac’s final term ended last year. His wife ran – this is a country of political dynasties – but didn’t win. We have yet to see whether his successor, Carmelo F. Lazatin, continues the good work.

We are coming back. We hope to cover the midterm elections next year, which will be one of the first tests of whether Duterte remains popular with his people.

And we will be back again the next year, and the next. One day, we want to sit down with an adult Kevin, and a reflective and mature Francine, and ask them what they think about the difference we made, and whether we did the right thing.

At the party, little Maxine – previously malnourished and always ill, now living in a small apartment and doing well at school – sings us a song of gratitude, and we wish she didn’t feel she had to perform.

We are Australians – all understated and laid-back. The Filipinos are nothing if not sentimental. When Maxine sings, the Jollibee brushes away an imaginary tear from his plastic face.

 

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Margaret Simons

Margaret Simons is an author and associate professor in journalism at Monash University. She is the author of numerous essays and articles and ten books, including The Content Makers.

@MargaretSimons

Photograph by Dave Tacon

December 2018 – January 2019

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