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Saturday, 15 January, 2000, 10:27 GMT
The seedy side of Subic Bay
By Belinda Rhodes in the Philippines
The USS Sante Fe, a nuclear submarine carrying more than 100 crew, docked in Subic's sparkling blue bay under an enormous Philippine flag.
The old base has gradually been transformed into an industrial zone and the Santa Fe's chief of staff, by chance a Filipino American, said he was impressed with what his fellow Filipinos have made of the base.
He probably wouldn't have been quite so impressed with his crew, however, had he witnessed them, as I did, out on the town of Olongapo, beyond the old gates.
Though their activities weren't quite as wild as the old days, they were a worrying reminder of what can happen when young men with dollars to spend arrive in a poor town.
I've long been fascinated by the extraordinary social impact Subic naval base had on Olongapo, and have made many trips back since covering its closure in 1992.
This time I looked up two former prostitutes I got to know back then, Perly and Linda. They're both around 40 and have American-Asian children fathered by GIs.
They've struggled to bring them up without any financial or emotional help from the fathers, a story the slums of Olongapo can tell thousands of times.
Consigning sleaze to the history books?
Perly and Linda now work for a support group for former prostitutes so they were agitated about the USS Santa Fe. We decided to go out that night and see what its men were up to.
In the old days seedy, neon-lit nightclubs occupied almost every building in the streets immediately surrounding the base. But we didn't find any Americans here.
The new mayor of the town has vowed to consign sleaze to the history books and claims she has spies out checking the bars for signs of prostitution. But the business hasn't gone away, it's just sprung up in a village along the coast, catering mainly to tourists and Navy retirees.
'Use a condom'
Perly, Linda and I took a jeepney - a rusty cross between a military vehicle and a minibus - through the dark, humid night to that village, and there, in the Rock Lobster disco, we found a few tall, well-built men getting drunk and having fun.
A few of them were swaying about pelvis to pelvis with local women on the dancefloor. Another man, seated, was gripping a petite, long-haired woman's thighs tightly between his own, while she caressed him from baseball cap to knees.
Soon she summoned the manager. The American handed over the so-called bar fine - a sum of money split between the woman and the bar - and the couple got up.
Perly managed to grab the woman's arm before she left. "Be sure to use a condom", she said.
The woman said she had one but didn't know if she could get the customer to use it. Perly frowned. "Now there'll be another American-Asian child," she sighed.
Black stockings and cowboy boots
The next bar we visited, the Tahiti Club, upset my friends even more. At one end of the room five or six very young women in spangly bikinis were dancing halfheartedly on a stage.
Around the edges American men and a few other foreigners were seated within touching distance of the dancers.
One woman, wearing black stockings and cowboy boots looked drunk or high on drugs. She brazenly bent down close to the customers, tempting them to touch her.
Perly and Linda looked very troubled. Other scantily clad women were playing pool or darts with American men, as Perly and Linda often had in the past before being bought out for the night.
We stayed an hour or so. Perly talked to a waitress and surreptitiously took notes, while Linda, who seemed to have sunk into a low, pensive mood, simply stared towards the stage.
When we came out, well after midnight, we stood on the roadside chatting for a few minutes beneath a banner saying Welcome US Navy. Perly had learned the dancers earn just under $5 a night if they wear revealing clothes, only $3 or $4 if they wear shorts.
On our way back my companions seemed depressed. As the jeepney juddered and screeched round the bends down the hill back to Olongapo they closed their eyes as if trying to shut out the bad memories.
Perly jumped off in the town centre while Linda escorted me to my hotel. Just before we parted she asked me what I'd thought about the Tahiti Club. I searched for the right words, not wanting to offend her.
"I think it's very ... sad", I said. "Yes," she replied, "especially the young one who was drunk."
I thanked Linda, but she responded with something between a sneer and a sigh, as if thanks for such an evening were misplaced.
Filipinos are very hospitable and welcoming people, but I think my two friends at least wish they could say no to hosting any more foreign ships on their shores.
Links to other From Our Own Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.
Links to more From Our Own Correspondent stories
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