Over the summer, my family and I went on a cruise to Alaska. It wasn’t my first choice of a vacation destination, but being that this is a family trip and my mom’s 70th birthday wish, my familial obligations took precedence. However, being the academic nerd that I am, the week long cruise allowed me to make some interesting observations of the most glaring thing you’ll notice when you go on a cruise – the crew on the ship is comprised mostly of Filipinos.
With the advent of jet air travel and the subsequent decline of ocean liners for intercontinental transit, many ocean liner companies launched cruise ships and gained mass appeal beginning in the 1970s. The popularity of the TV show, The Love Boat, certainly aided in marketing the industry. However, to maintain the bottom line, cruise ship companies incorporate outside the United States to circumvent U.S. labor laws. Employing many able-bodied workers from the Third World is essentially the industry’s dirty little secret. Ships are filled with international workers from Eastern Europe, Russia, Indonesia, India, South Africa, and Latin America, but Filipinos comprise the vast majority.
From the casual conversations I had with some workers, many are contracted for these jobs, often for six to nine-months during the peak cruise season. They cook and serve food, they tend the bars, they clean the staterooms, they serve as security officers, and they maintain the ship, working seven days a week on meager wage. The majority of the Filipino workforce is male, but there are significant numbers of females as well. Surprisingly, Filipinos are not heavily involved in the entertainment division of the crew. Americans, Brits, and Australians hold many of the positions that provide “entertainment,” comforting much of the largely white, middle class clientele. Indeed, racial stratification among the staff was very much apparent throughout the voyage.
Yet, my observations of these workers on my cruise experience are less focused on their lives aboard the ship. There are other articles and studies of the roles of Filipino seafarers both in the shipping and cruise ship industries. (You can read some of them here, here, here, and here). Rather, I am more interested in their lives on shore and the physical spaces that Filipino cruise ship workers create, inhabit, or are created for them.
Every week cruise ships leave the U.S. West coast cities and sail non-stop to Alaska, stopping by Alaskan coastal towns. My particular trip brought us to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan, before heading back south to Victoria, Canada, then back to Seattle. Many of these towns have had a long history of Filipino presence dating back to the 1920s.
In Juneau, local residents established the Filipino Community Center and dedicated a traffic median as “Manila Square,” which pay homage to the long history of Alaskeros that labored in the area for nearly a century.
Ketchikan, Alaska was also a major stop for Filipinos of the Manong generation during the 1920s to the 1960s. Alaskeros came to the “Salmon Capital of the World” to work in the canneries during the summer and returned back to the mainland after a few months. The town was highly segregated, with many people of color relegated to the area south of the Ketchikan Creek.
A remnant of that era is Diaz Café, a Filipino restaurant dating back to roughly 1921. According to the Ketchikan Historical Commission, the restaurant was first opened as The Lucky Spot, serving the thousands of Alaskeros who labored in the area.
However, with the cruise ship industry, Filipino spaces in Alaska have shifted to accommodate a new mobile, temporary workforce. Filipino cruise ship workers, like the cruise passengers, disembark and seek a short respite from their lives on the ship. Close to a thousand Filipino crew workers emerge from these ships to venture into town. Ten percent of the Juneau’s population is made up of Filipinos, roughly 3,000 in total. When cruise ships make their weekly visit at Juneau’s ports, the Filipino population instantly skyrockets.
Yet, their movements are restricted by the temporal demands of their work on the boat. They are only allowed to go on shore if their work schedule permits. If they do go ashore, they travel only as far as time allows, tethering them to certain a geographic area. In light of these restrictions and their mobility, they are still able to carve out spaces of their own. In these spaces, Filipino cruise ship workers can maintain their familial bonds with their loved ones in the Philippines, satisfy their cultural, material, and gastronomical needs, and most importantly, suspend social and racial hierarchies brought on by the employment structure of the cruise ship if only for a brief moment.
Servicing the needs of these workers, budding entrepreneurs from the Filipino community have opened dozens of stores and restaurants near or around the port.
A handful of all purpose “sari-sari” stores serve as community centers for these Filipinos, who become Juneau residents for the day. Dressed in casual wear (men usually wearing the latest NBA basketball sportswear), Filipinos can buy Philippine snacks and other curios, remit money to their families in the Philippines, and watch TFC.
Right next to Juneau City Hall, there are two food stands, or BBQ-han, where hungry crewmembers can eat Filipino barbecue.
Further up the street, a turo-turo restaurant, Bernadette’s, serves Filipino dishes – Adobo, Sinigang, Munggo, and even regional dishes like Pinapaitan and Bicol Express.
Aside from filling their nostalgic needs of a home cooked meal, Filipinos largely take advantage of the free wi-fi – a resource they cannot access while on the cruise ship – to video chat with their loved ones back in the Philippines or somewhere else in the diaspora. Every town we stopped at, Filipino workers knew exactly where to log on.
Reminiscent of the “Little Manilas” that sprouted up during the 1920s and 1930s in U.S. towns, many young Filipinos “make tambay” along the sidewalks in front of these stores, making their presence visible in the town. To be certain, racial, gender, and labor dynamics are different from the pre-WWII period, but these spaces similarly service a transient labor population.
Skagway, Alaska is no different from Juneau. A small gold rush town during the late 19th century, Skagway is now fully dependent on tourism as its main economic driver. There is one restaurant that is a favorite among the Filipino cruise ship workers: Gold Digger.
The owners are a Filipina and her husband from Italy. They opened a small restaurant near the cruise ship docks called Mermaid Garden. Proving their model was quite profitable, the owners purchased the old Gold Digger restaurant on the main drag of town and changed the menu to serve Filipino food. (Why they didn’t change the name of the restaurant is beyond me). Their portions are enormous, which make the restaurant among Filipinos’ favorites. Here, one can hear laughter abound. Jokes and stories are abundant. And at times, workers vent about their work life on the ship. I heard one gentleman tell his fellow shipmates how idiotic his Australian supervisor was when doling out staff assignments.
The cruise’s last stop, Ketchikan, the state’s so-called “First City,” is the most popular place for passengers to buy their souvenirs. Like in Skagway and Juneau, many crew workers visit Ketchikan to run some much needed migrant worker errands. However, as one crewmember explained to me, many workers choose Ketchikan’s sari-sari stores to send balikbayan boxes to loved ones in the Philippines given the number of curio shops in town. It became such a popular destination for Filipinos to fill balikbayan boxes that Walmart capitalized on this global circuit of consumption. The local Walmart established a shuttle that takes cruise workers from the downtown area to its store some four miles away so that they could purchase material goods to ship home.
Today, Ketchikan has several Filipino sari-sari stores that serve the cruise worker community.
A week later, we were back in Seattle and ready to go home. When I exited the port terminal, I noticed a make shift “Crew Center” at the edge of the passenger pick-up area with a tent full of Filipino goods as well as a food truck. At first, I was surprised to see this pop-up market on the port grounds given the readily available Filipino stores in Seattle. After some thought about the limited mobility of these workers, I was no longer surprised.
Overall, these service stops are a double-edged sword. They act somewhat of an oasis from the cruise ship for the migratory labor force. Filipinos are able to eat their own cuisine, socialize with other workers, and communicate with their loved ones. They are spaces Filipino cruise ship workers and immigrant communities alike carve out to alleviate the alienation of being in a foreign place.
Yet, the comforts of the familiar these spaces uphold only reinforce the realities of global migration. These spaces allow them just enough familiarity and comforts of home to facilitate their exile from it. On the other end, these spaces also allow workers just enough access to get a taste of living in the First World. They are continual reminders of the political and economic confinement of workers in this global industry. As one worker told me, the stores in these Alaskan port cities remind them of how far they are from their families in the Philippines and yet how close they are to their extended family in the U.S. Left in limbo, Filipino cruise ship workers sail on.