A Brief History of Angeles City
Yes I know what the title makes this article look like, but please, trust me and read on. This article will be miles apart from your everyday, boring, history lesson, in fact, anyone who has been to the AC bars will hopefully find this article both informative, and entertaining. There will of course be a section dedicated to the history of Clark which is inextricably entwined with the bars, but I shall try to make this as short as possible, and keep the main focus of the article on the bars.
By November 1991 Angeles was all but done and dusted (pardon the pun). The Americans had officially vacated the base, huge hills of lahar dominated the landscape, businesses had been closed down, buildings had caved in, the number of tourists was minimal as they preferred to stay in Manila, and the general feeling was one of pessimism and negativity. With the Americans leaving the guts had been ripped out of the town and it was definitely in a slow but sure death spiral. Having said that there were still a few bars, hotels and restaurants open, and these struggled on valiantly and survived on what little local business still existed, and the small number of price conscious tourists that visited.
The bar business (at least that in the Fields Avenue area), was composed of approximately thirty bars but the ones that stick in my mind are the following, Air Wolf Inn, Dreams, Birds of Paradise, Hobo Bar, Club Fantastic, Happy Hooker, Ziggys, The Irish Bar, Viking, Abbey Road, Buccaneer, Blue Hawaii, Stingers, Legs, Maverick City, Midnight Rodeo, DMZ and The Club. There are probably many more that I have forgotten about, but unfortunately at that time I was not into taking photos, and try as I might, I am unable to find many pictures on the net.
In 91 and 92 even though the town was down it was far from out, and there was a nice social scene that still existed. Some Australians who owned bars had stayed, as had a small number of expats, who were busy rebuilding their lifestyles, living in the up-market subdivisions that had previously been occupied by the American officers. Groups like the Hash House Harriers were very active in the bar scene and the bars would actually court their business.
The bars were still basic and would mostly feature pre-recorded music and one bar tender, who also doubled as cashier. San Miguel beer was 20 piso and local spirits were 25 piso. On average each bar would have a maximum of about ten girls and the bar fine was 300 piso. Back in those days there was a short time rate which was even cheaper than the 300 piso long time rate.
Most of the bars would have a decrepit little room out back and the girls when not sleeping there (five to one mattress on the floor) would service the customers if so required. These rooms were normally composed of a foam mattress on the floor, with 2 foam filled pillows, a dust covered oscillating wall fan, and a rickety old wicker cabinet with a mirror and a picture of a serene looking Jesus attached to the wall. On top of the dresser there was always a glass with two or three toothbrushes, and Colgate toothpaste. In some cases the girls would actually get Colgate in their mouth before performing oral service.
In terms of hotels the major player was the iconic Australian hotel in Diamond, named the Swagman. The “Swaggy” as it was referred to by the locals after the Americans left ruled the roost. This was the big hotel primarily because it had a bus service link which ran from the Swagman in Manila directly to the Swagman Angeles. Other hotels which I can remember were the Maharajah, The Oasis, The Clarkton, The Premier, The Bonanza, and at that stage the non haunted, America Hotel. The average hotel room in those days cost 500 piso per night.
At the end of 1992 and beginning of 93 Mayor Alfredo Lim closed down the go-go bars in Ermita Manila, and this was to provide the stimulus Angeles needed to survive. This stimulus came in the form of people who moved out of Manila and relocated their bar business in Angeles, and to a greater extent in the form of customers, who now having nothing to do in Manila, started to discover Angeles. From 1993 through to 1998 the bar scene in Manila slowly became smaller and smaller and at the same time Angeles experienced a new lease of life. It started in 93 - 94 with people coming up from Manila and looking to start their bars in Angeles. Some of the more memorable ones include Mark Smith and Steve Sharp who relocated Roadhouse bar, Rob Williams who was involved with Super Star in Manila relocated and built Illusions Bar (now Angel Witch), Doctor John and Brian Johnson, (who were involved with Blue Hawaii, Rosie's Diner and Brown Sugar in Manila), now relocated Rosie's Diner to Dau, and bought into Hobo Bar, which went onto become La Bamba. These people who relocated represented an expansion of the bar scene, a capital infusion into Angeles and most importantly they drew the Manila customers.
Another big bar that popped up around this time was Top Hat. This was situated where Golden Nile now stands. At the time Top Hat was seen as being somewhat unique because it had a main stage and a catwalk leading out among the customers. It was the new bar and the biggest employer in town, having at least 40 dancers depending on the time of year. Top Hat didn't last very long, but when it was started it represented significant growth of the Angeles bar scene
In those days there were two types of Manila customers who would frequent Angeles. Firstly there were the weekend warriors who would come up for the weekend. These guys normally had a life in Manila with a regular job and would use Angeles as their weekend party spot. It was far enough away from the wife and there were now some bars and people whom they knew from Manila previously. The second group was the tourists from overseas, who finding too little diversity in Manila started to head for Angeles, and rather than spending two nights in AC and two weeks in Manila, the schedule was reversed with Angeles coming out the winner.
In the nineties Angeles experienced slow but steady growth. President Ramos declared Clark an international airport and flights from Hong Kong started. These were soon followed by flights from Taipei, and then later direct flights from Malaysia, Singapore, and Korea. This was complimented by the fact that some big players from the Manila relocated in Angeles and basically invested their money in local businesses.
Another big advantage that affected the growth of Angeles was the credit card access. Prior to 1995 very few bars honored Credit Cards, but Roadhouse started it, and very soon it became hard to do business without a credit card facility. Some of the bigger hotels also took credit cards which meant the boys from Hong-Kong with corporate accounts could now come to Angeles to party and not have to be worried by the restrictions of carrying cash.
There was always an international market for the services offered in Angeles but from 1994 through to 2002, I would say the Australians dominated. There were more and more Aussies who came over for a holiday once a year and there was a significantly increased number of Aussies who moved to Angeles and invested money. They were complimented by the Aussies who worked overseas on oil rigs or other well paid jobs. These guys would earn top salary and they always had plenty of time off, so Angeles was a natural destination for them. As the number of Aussie tourists and expats increased, so to did the Angeles infrastructure along with the necessary goods and services.
The next big game changer or the beginning of a new phase came in 2000 when Richard Agnew built his first large bar, Neros. Neros was a game changer because it was the first large bar with a center stage, an expensive music system, a tangible theme, and most importantly it represented a serious investment. Lastly, by employing 100 dancers or more it changed the environment and rules in which people operated. Richard blatantly recruited girls from other bars, as well as managers, and he raised the proverbial bar, by offering everyone more money. Prior to Neros the bars never employed so many girls and they never really represented such a substantial investment plus they all played by certain unwritten rules. Before Neros there was a sort of loose unity among bar owners and managers where they agreed not to poach each others girls but Richard changed this forever, by opening Neros and quite openly poaching girls, managers and mamasans from other clubs. Neros was later to be expanded on with the opening of Blue Nile, Blue Nile Executive, and Cambodia. Together these clubs represented arguably the biggest investment in bars in Angeles history and certainly the most employees. Prior to the Blue Nile Group there had been other groups forming such as the Champagne group and other owners like Ray Kelly who had two or three bars, but Richard was the first to take it so high profile and represent such a large investment which of course changed the face of the Angeles bar scene for ever more. With the opening of Neros, Angeles had now entered the big money stage, and it would never be the same again.
In 2003 the scene was about to change again as it ushered in the big money players in the form of the DollHouse group. Buying out Wet Seals they ripped down the existing building and replaced it with the grand and sparkling new DollHouse bar. This was soon to be followed by Atlantis which was a supper sized three story bar, then Chrystal Palace, Tropix, Club Asia and Dragons Den. The DollHouse group changed the scene because these bars represented a serious financial investment in Angeles, they employed close on a thousand dancers, they were instrumental in raising the bar fine price and in institutionalizing shows and double ladies drinks. Richard had started the shows and Double Ladies Drinks but the DollHouse group took it to a whole new level.
The DollHouse group were also the first big group to operate without a high profile manager, preferring instead to leave it the Filipinos hands, they were the first ones to bring in a tiered barfine system, they were the first ones to spend lavishly on street parades and costumes for their show girls, they were the first ones to have their own kitchen for all staff and a complete production room which would produce anything from the T Back bikinis to a full on elegantly flowing evening gown. The DollHouse for better or worse were a taste of American glam, this was the same mentality that had driven Vegas and it had now landed in Angeles.
Developing along side the DollHouse group was the La Pasha group. Purchasing the old Irish bar the two Germans who had been in the Philippines since the late eighties designed a brand new bar, named it La Pasha, and the rest as they say in the classics, is history. The design job they did on La Pasha was absolutely phenomenal and it set the benchmark for future bars to follow. This design was basically one that incorporated the best of Thailand and the Philippines and was nothing short of spectacular.
La Pasha was an almost instant success and they soon expanded taking over the old Banana Nita’s redesigning it and changing the name to Typhoon. This was followed by Carousel and then Fantasy and Genesis which took over Viper Room and the Bourbon Street restaurant, respectively.
In present day Angeles there are five major groups which represent the bulk of the more high profile bars. These are the DollHouse Group, La Pasha Group, Champagne Group, the Golden Nile Group and the LGH group. The lessening of smaller bars and individual players has both advantages and disadvantages and it is not my intent to analyze those here.
In the last three years Clark has kicked in yet again and influenced the bar scene. There are now several flights a day arriving from Korea and as such the Korean presence that was once mostly refined to little Korea in Friendship has now expanded to include bars along Perimeter Road and even into lower Fields Avenue.
Over the years the market has changed dramatically as has the way the bars approach the business. There are now some seriously good restaurants some international standard hotels, huge malls, and substantial investments on Clark. Many of the bars have tiered barfines, shows and even girls who only go with Asians exclusively. Angeles is in a constant state of flux with new players coming and old players leaving all the time. There are also noticeable changes in the customer base with the Korean market becoming more and more dominant. The bar business is now extremely high profile and represents big money for everyone concerned, indeed Pampanga is the fastest growing economy in the Philippines.
What was once a dusty little town surviving on the back of US military presence has now expanded to become known in some circles as the center of Philippine prostitution, or in other words “Sin City”. It is now extremely high profile and Pampanga is experiencing rapid growth and this growth is primarily because of the bars and the tourists they draw in. In recent times there has been a concerted effort by some to redefine the image of Angeles, with people referring to it as Pampanga’s entertainment district and placing the spotlight on developments in Clark, but essentially the majority of money and image is still produced by the bars and everything that goes along with them.
What will be next for Angeles is impossible to predict with 100% certainty but some things are for sure, the bars in one form or another will be here, more money will enter the town, more raids and extortion attempts will happen, more men will come seeking companionship and enjoying the bars, and Angeles will continue to evolve.