I live in Olongapo City, right next to the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, in the Philippines. Over the course of time, I often mention certain aspects of living here, even if only in passing. Hopefully, the information I’m providing today can be used as an incentive to find out more about the place I call home. While I may not live here for the rest of my life, I own (or rather, my wife owns) property here and if nothing else, it will always be a first or second home.
The Philippines is officially known as the “Republic of the Philippines”. The country is an archipelago of 7,107 islands located in the western Pacific Ocean, situated between the China Sea and the Sulu Sea on the west side and the Philippine Sea on the east side.
The largest island is Luzon and the capital city of Manila is located in central Luzon. It is estimated that over half of the more than 92 million people of the Philippines live on Luzon. There are more than 11 million people living in Metro Manila, which is composed of 16 cities.
The Philippines has a long and diverse history behind it. After being ruled by three other countries, the Philippines has been a sovereign country since July 4, 1946. It is a mixture of eastern and western cultures and various influences.
The official language is Pilipino (patterned after the Tagalog language) and is slowly evolving into “Taglish”, a portmanteau of Tagalog and English. More than 78 million people in the Philippines speak English as a second language, more than the entire country of England. Filipinos use English as a bridge between the various languages in the Philippines, of which there are too many to list.
For more information about the Philippines in general, please read the Philippines Wikipedia page.
Usually simply called “Olongapo”, the actual Tagalog name is Lungsod ng Olongapo, which translates to “City of Olongapo” or “Olongapo City”. The city is at the southernmost edge of the Zambales province, bordered by the provinces of Bataan and Pampanga (just barely) and adjacent to the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, which sits next to Subic Bay (naturally).
The “village” of Olongapo existed prior to 1885, when the Spanish government built an arsenal on the land south of the river. At the time, the Spanish Navy occupied the entire area east of the Spanish Gate and the village itself was located on the “island’ that is now the Subic Bay Freeport Zone. During World War II, the village was destroyed twice in 1941 and once again in 1945. The only remaining landmarks are the Olongapo Parish Church (now called the San Roque Chapel, located on Dewey Avenue) and the ruins of the Spanish Gate (now located on Sampson Road).
After the war, development of Olongapo City began on the undeveloped north side of the river and the ruins of the village on the “island” were made a part of the US Navy base. The city developed slowly until the Korean war and zoning was completed in 1956.
Unlike the rest of the Philippines, Olongapo City wasn’t turned over to the Philippines until 1959. On June 1, 1966, it was converted to a chartered city with the help of the “father of Olongapo”, James Leonard T. Gordon. Despite popular belief, Olongapo City is not part of the Zambales province, or any other province, even though online services ask for it to be included in the address.
Today, Olongapo City is a highly urbanized city with more than 300,000 people living with the city limits. In recent years, with the advent of modern shopping venues and the proximity to the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, the roadways are incapable of providing sustained vehicular traffic during peak traffic hours for a variety of reasons. The old transportation workhorses, the jeepneys and the tricycles, compound the problems added by more and more people owning personal vehicles. Of course, the local tourism industry is also responsible for even more vehicles arriving from other provinces, which includes packed buses along with personal vehicles.
The latest shopping venue added in the city proper is called “SM City Olongapo” and it contains an indoor parking garage with reasonable parking rates. It’s located next to the Magsaysay gate (which used to be the main gate, but is only open to pedestrian traffic now) on Magsaysay Drive. It sits where the old Olongapo City Mall used to sit, but it’s much larger in height, width and length.
There are 17 barangays (administrative subdivisions) within the city, with Gordon Heights and Santa Rita (where I live) being northernmost, away from the downtown area. You can read more about the city and the surrounding area at the Wikipedia page for Olongapo.
Getting to and from the capital city of Manila is much easier these days. The Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) is accessible from National Road, just north of Olongapo City and from Tipo Road at the Subic Bay Freeport Zone. SCTEX connects to the Northern Luzon Expressway (NLEX) at Dau, which ends at the edge of Metro Manila. It takes about two hours to get to the end of NLEX, but it can take another hour to get through the city. It usually takes me three hours to get to the airport or the US embassy, which is next to Manila Bay.
Subic Bay Freeport Zone
The Subic Bay Freeport Zone, as it is called today, is a relatively new Philippine government reservation which has turned into something of a powerhouse of an economic zone. There are no taxes on purchases made at the freeport zone and no tariffs on imported goods, keeping the cost of imported goods lower than in the non-economic zones of the country.
The freeport zone started out as a chunk of land south of the current drainage canal (often called a river when it’s not). It belonged to Spain at the time and in September 1885, work started on the Arsenal en Olongapo for the Spanish Navy. They created the drainage canal to turn the arsenal into a defensible island. It was connected to the mainland only by the bridge at what is now called the Kalaklan Lighthouse Gate on the west side. The village of Olongapo, not to be confused with the current city, was situated between that gate and the Spanish Gate. After the Spanish-American war, the US government took control (December 10, 1899) and established a US Navy base. After World War II, the people left in the ruins of Olongapo Village were relocated north of the drainage canal and the entire island became the base.
On November 24, 1992, the base was closed and handed over to the Philippines government. It was converted to a freeport zone soon after that and millions of dollars (billions of pesos) have been invested in the infrastructure of the island so far. If you want to read more about it as a base, please read the Wikipedia article on the U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay and as the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, Subic Bay Freeport Zone.
The freeport zone is now a popular destination for tourists as well as the local citizens. As an economic zone, it encourages shopping seven days a week. The Harbor Point Ayala Mall is located between the Magsaysay Gate and the Rizal Gate on Rizal Highway. It’s huge, but it’s not the only shopping venue.
There are resorts, nature trails, diving establishments and whole lot more at the freeport zone for the casual visitor. It’s turning into one of the most popular destinations in the Philippines.