Saipan in the 1960s
In launching a large Micronesia program, the Peace Corps had advertised, only half ironically, that it was going to paradise. The result was an ambitious, overextended, and controversial program involving hundreds of volunteers. We joked that if the same ratio of volunteers to locals prevailed in, say, India, there would be no young people left in the United States.Saipan Today
The Saipan we came to was no paradise, that was clear. Almost a quarter century had passed since the shooting had stopped, and yet the place was still shaped, defined, by the battle that had been fought here. Long after the combat stopped, long after the naval administration walked away from its camps and Quonsets and airfields, the island was ... well ... haunted. It was like a theater that had been abandoned by actors and by audience, a place still littered with costumes and props, ticket stubs and programs in the aisles. Have you ever, driving around America, gone past an old outdoor drive-in theater, the big screen still standing, weeds in the parking lot, long semicircular rows of those little parking-meter-like poles evenly spaced, and the ruins of a rickety, graffiti-marked projection booth in the middle of it all? That was what Saipan felt like.
It had a kind of sullen magic. Scarred, handsome, and in its way, beautiful. It invited exploring. It made you think. And it was all about the past; it was about some of you who gather here now. It was about you, this sighting out from the invasion beach at landing craft and tanks impaled on the reef. It was about you, when I went swimming off the rusting breakwaters and half-sunken barges at Charley Dock. It was about you, traveling in and off the islands, waiting at little Kobler Field for a DC-3. You were there, your spirit lingered at Isley Field, with overgrown bunkers and revetments, all the giant footsteps of another time. Saipan then was one of those rare, dear places where you could confront history without a ticket, a tape-recorded spiel, a forced march through a museum, and a sign warning you about all the things you weren't supposed to do. In the villages--Garapan, Susupe, Chalan Kanoa--it was about you, in the remnants and ruins of destroyed Japanese buildings, bullet-pocked walls and cisterns, overgrown gardens; about you as well in the scrap metal and lumber taken from the emptied internment camps, hammered into houses, and collected and rehammered after typhoons, when people came back from bunkers and old Japanese buildings where they had taken shelter during the storms. You were on the roads, in surplus jeeps the Saipanese had purchased at $1 each. You were in the roads themselves, those roads that, more than anything else, made Saipan special: it was the only Trust Territory island west of Majuro where you could spend more than a minute in third gear....
Now, in an island vastly transformed since becoming part of America, there remains cause for celebration and concern. What I love, maybe more now than before, is the wild-card vitality, the buzz and hurly-burly, the characters who landin some cases, wash uphere, searchers, dreamers, tax-dodgers, flimflam men, the hits just keep coming. What characters, what schemes, especially in the early years: an X-rated Doonesbury cartoon. This was let's-make-a-deal time, the coming of disco, duty-free karaoke, poker machines, etc, etc. A time in which opportunity shaded into opportunism. The world discovered Saipan; Saipan discovered the world. Things got complicated and still are. The Saipan tourist industry is at the mercy of ups and downs in Japan, the wanderlust of mainland Chinese, the health of airlines, the outbreak of SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome], the risk of terrorism. The garment industry thrives in the shadow of regulations, soon to go into effect, that will permit Chinese garments made in China into the US market. Will Chinese need to come to Saipan to sew? In its moment of greatest strength, Saipan is singularly vulnerable to outside forces beyond its control. All this is another way of saying it has ceased in an important way to be an island at all. Forget your images of island life: Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Shakespeare's Tempest, Fantasy Island, Napoleon on St. Helena. Forget the familiar island adjectives: remote, isolated, lonely, insular, self-sufficient. They don't apply. Saipan's not an island anymore. It's all connected.No island is an island anymore.
The island's main export may be irony. I saw the first Japanese tourists in the late sixties: decorous, dark-suited, camera-toting groups, middle-aged and older. I attended the opening of the first hotel, the Royal Taga. First and last, I thought. Was I wrong! Who could have guessed that a World War II battleground would turn into a Japanese Florida? Or that its transformation would mimic the 1944 campaign, first taking the invasion beaches, then heading north toward Marpi, duty-free shopping, souvenir and convenience stores and gaming emporia shooting galleries following along behind? And, among these nearly 500,000 visitors per year, there are fewer and fewer who come for the reasons that unite us today. They walk past pillboxes and monuments on their way to the beach. Was there a battle here? Well, that was then and this is now. A famous victory? Never mind: sunburn lotion is their armor. Against this tide of indifference and forgetting, the memories we share and renew may amount to more than history. They may offer guidance in times ahead.
Talk about garment industries, talk about hotels and realize that they have one thing in common: a reliance on outside capital and outside labor. The Saipanese are agents, middlemennot bosses, and rarely employees. Where are the Saipanese? The most enthusiastic celebrants of the US Commonwealth--and there is much to celebrate: hospitals, businesses, a likeable junior college--turn quiet when I inquire. The Saipanese are outnumbered, nearly two-to-one, on their own island, that's for sure, outnumbered by those waves of foreign workers, garment makers, security guards, barbers and beauticians, hostesses and maids, farmers and hard-hats who have come to do the island's heavy lifting. There were around 11,000 people in the Northern Marianas in 1967, mostly local, and now there are 75,000, mostly alien. Be careful what you wish for. Saipanese are a minority on their own islands--an elite minority, to be sure, and determined to stay that way, but a minority nonetheless. What, then, are they up to? What is their work, job, occupation, trade, calling? Their purpose or their passion? This is something that they may still be discovering. It's taking time. For the moment, most island citizens who work are employed by local and commonwealth government. That is cause for wonder. It will take a few trips to know whether the situation I've described can last: an entrenched government contending with outside money, transient workers. I will not predict the worst: the island has a way of dodging bullets, pulling through. It has some magic. But if I predicted happy endings, we'd have to define terms.