“Amerikana”: Not A White Man’s Clothing

Filipinos in Jazz Age America

After 300 years of being told that we’re not worthy or equal to the Spanish rulers and wealthy Filipino-Mestizos, the arrival of the Americans gave the Filipinos a sense of acceptance, freedom, and equality. One of the positive outcome of McKinley’s “Benevolent Assimilation”, the Filipinos were given a chance to belong in society by (sometimes forcefully) assimilating to western culture. It was unfortunate that this lead to losing a majority of Filipino cultural identity, but for most Filipinos, it was a chance at equality and it was accepted with open arms.

 

Filipino Wedding 1910
Filipino Wedding 1910

 

Barong Tagalog
Barong Tagalog

“Barong Tagalog” was worn by Filipinos in the (North) tagalog region. The Spanish preferred this suit due to its see-though fabric which allowed the authorities to see if a native is armed. During the American occupation, western clothing became more accessible to regular Filipinos. By early 1910-20’s, most Filipinos predominately wore western style clothing, known locally as “Amerikana”.

Filipinos in Jazz Age America
Filipinos in Jazz Age America

“The 1920s was a period of intensive cultural borrowing and experimentation. The inter-ethnic urbanites, particularly a newly emerging middle-class of professionals and officials in harbour cities like Manila, Cebu, Batavia, Surabaya and Singapore, took part in this process as both producers and consumers, enjoying theatre, literature, cinema and phonographic recordings. New forms of music, theatre, literature and fashion (dress, hairstyles) have, often implicitly, been associated with burgeoning popular culture and the interrelated upsurge of media technologies such as the gramophone, radio broadcasting, motion pictures and the print media”. “Jazz’s hybrid European and Afro-American origins–the involvement of bothAfro-American and white musicians who appealed to ‘black’ as well as a ‘white’ audiences–evoked debates and controversies in the late 1910s and 1920s. Jazz music, related social dances such as the Charleston and the Foxtrot, and its venues and audiences aroused interest beyond mere entertainment: jazz induced people to question and reconstruct the boundaries of race,class, national identity, gender and the modern (Keppy, Peter | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2013). In my opinion, just as how Jazz appealed to both black and white Americans, Jazz appealed to Filipinos, particularly to proud Filipinos who’s seen the “Amerikana” as a white man’s clothing. Jazz was popular culture that was not dictated by the white man.

Filipino Wedding 1920's
Filipino Wedding 1920’s

Filipino’s living in the US west coast,  the Jazz age was an inclusive multi-cultural experience. “Jackson Street was a unique part of Seattle’s nightlife and jazz was one of its “allurements.” Although the Northwest Enterprise did not mention jazz clubs explicitly, one could call Jackson Street’s jazz scene the catalyst for racial mixing and comradeship. Indeed, historian Quintard Taylor remarks that the Jackson Street clubs “were the only places where well-to-do white businessmen and socialites met black and Asian laborers and maids as social equals.” While the musicians on Jackson Street were mostly Black, they played for crowds of whites from all over the city as well as for Blacks and Asians. Carlos Bulosan, the Filipino American novelist and poet, remembered that noisy jazz music kept him awake as a child while he stayed in a rundown hotel on King Street, the heart of Seattle’s Filipino community. Bulosan’s memory is testament to the presence of a Filipino community just a block away from Jackson Street, illustrating the multiracial—as well as musical—character of the Yesler-Jackson community.

This multiracial character was partly a product of what Quintard Taylor calls Seattle’s “admittedly benign racial environment.” While there is no doubt that racism and discrimination were widespread, they did not have the “harsh, caustic edge” seen elsewhere in the country. This allowed Black migrants, Asian and Filipino immigrants, and whites to interact with relatively few conflicts. Nevertheless, some Seattleites—particularly upper-class whites—disapproved of the abundance of vice and racial mixing on Jackson Street. Prompted by distaste for vice, as well as their own racist sentiments, city officials and police began to take action against Jackson Street clubs’ illicit activities, and police raids increased during the Depression.” (Kaegan Faltys-Burr | Jazz On Jackson Street, 2009)

These days, “Amerikana” mostly pertains to a suit or a suit jacket worn by a man. But Amerikana is not just a white man’s clothing. Amerikana represents multicultural America; an open and evolving culture that gave the Filipinos a chance to thrive in the modern world.