When ukay-ukay is more than a challenge

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Where do ukay-ukay clothes come from and why do they continue to thrive? Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Wearing a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses with a leather fanny pack slung across his shoulder, David Guison introduces a new segment for his video blog, called “500-Peso Ukay-Ukay Challenge.” He talks in front of a camera with the four-storey ukay in Anonas as the backdrop, and shares how when he was in college, he would go to an ukay-ukay every week and hunt for one-of-a-kind pieces.

As soon as he promoted his video on Twitter, some users started calling him out for “gentrifying ukay-ukay,” for being “burgis,” for not acknowledging that shopping in an ukay-ukay is more than a “challenge,” especially since “[proletariats] treat it as a lifestyle.” Other users also came to his defense, saying that it is a non-issue when he certainly is not the only person of privilege who shops in ukay (for example, photographer Shaira Luna has talked about her love for ukay countless times) or that he’s not influential enough to actually “gentrify” ukay-ukays.

If anything, the issue brought to light an often understudied culture of shopping in an ukay-ukay. We see them in almost every corner in the Philippines: in wet markets, in dilapidated buildings, in side streets, and in plazas, among many others. And yet we seldom question where these are coming from, and how they continue to thrive.

For those who are in a position to choose not to shop in an ukay but do so, as well as for those who have the time, money, and energy to ruminate about these “non-issues,” there could be merit in attempting to understand what the ukay-ukay’s place is in our culture, history, and economy.

How did it get to the Philippines

In a study by Rina Locsin, where she zoomed into the culture of ukay-ukay in Baguio, she states that it is difficult to determine the exact date of when the ukay-ukay started in the country. But there have been notes from anthropologists like Lynne Milgram saying that “access to secondhand clothing already grew after World War II in Southeast Asia.”

Locsin says that this period after the second world war coincides with the time the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) gave billions of dollars worth of relief to Asia, which was around 1943 and 1949.

Reports state that ukay businesses generate ₱1.2 million daily. What once started as a charitable act has indeed become a multimillion-peso trade.

The market for secondhand goods grew vigorously across the world. During the Great Depression, Mormons built their chains of thrift shops to create jobs that could help the poor. Stores like Goodwill Industries in the U.S. and Salvation Army in the U.K., both distributed by Methodist churches, have begun to be a viable place for buying cheap clothes.

In the Philippines, non-government organizations (NGOs) in the ‘80s started selling tax-free clothing as a means to fundraise. Bambang in Manila have also become a “used clothing district” and Locsin says that thrift shops in the area became profitable businesses because a young generation looked into the ukay culture as “a source of vintage clothing.”

According to Luisito Abueg, who studied the economics of secondhand retail trade in the country, ukay items have largely been purchased in warehouses in Hong Kong that store Salvation Army’s clothes. These are then shipped to the Philippines, which are sold at less than half of the prices of the already cheap Salvation Army pieces.

Reports state that ukay businesses generate ₱1.2 million daily. What once started as a charitable act has indeed become a multimillion-peso trade.

Goods supposedly for the poor

The ukay trade, however, is not without its own issues of legality. In the ‘90s, an NGO received an unusually large volume of garments as donations that were supposedly for the poor. However, in an investigation by Newsbreak, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) found it suspicious for this particular NGO to be receiving two container vans of clothes monthly.

“All beggars in the country would have been clothed already — like fashion models at that,” DWSD’s Elma Pille said to Newsbreak. The DSWD apparently discovered that the NGO was only a face for a smuggler of secondhand clothes, which were then sold in Baguio.

Then-Vice President and Social Welfare Secretary Gloria Arroyo, who has experience in dealing with the textile and garments sector during her time as trade undersecretary, then issued a department order to prohibit the import of used clothing.

“She feared that since these NGOs are licensed by the DSWD, the department would be dragged into cases once they engaged in illegal activities,” Pille told Newsbreak. The Federation of Philippine Textile Industries was also worried that the ukay-ukay trade would affect the businesses of legal garment manufacturers.

When these stores become a disservice for whom secondhand clothes do not mean vintage or an ukay challenge, but simply cheap, then that’s when the danger actually resides.

For the poor, thrift shops have been the most practical place to shop for clothes because of its low prices. However, if these clothes were goods that were intended to be given to them anyway, they’ve only become another victim of an underground ukay trade that also rips off millions from the government.

Ukay-ukay stores being gentrified?

There have also been a surge of online shops that sell “vintage clothes,” style the pieces to make the pieces more attractive to “middle-class taste,” and sell them in a much higher price. Some thrift shops have even already marketed themselves as a seller of “class A” secondhand clothing.

Is this gentrification? Strictly speaking, gentrification is a term used by urban planners to refer to poor neighborhoods that have been renovated to cater to a more affluent market. If the term is employed to the context of ukay-ukay culture, then it possibly is. However, the practice of having video blogs about ukay like that of Guison is more a “mainstreaming” of the ukay-ukay culture, rather than “gentrification.” Also part of this “mainstreaming” are fashion and lifestyle magazines and websites such as Preview, Cosmopolitan, and Inquirer, which have featured the ukay-ukay culture on their platforms — from a list of ukay shopping tips to “ukay-ukay commandments every thrifty fashion girl must know.”

If we do see a change in landscape, meaning ukay-ukay stores having refined racks, closets, and displays and its surrounding areas having new parks, new security systems, or even new coffee shops, only then can it be safe to say that the area is becoming gentrified. Poblacion in Makati is a perfect example of gentrification, and yet does this stop people from going there?

This will only become truly problematic when a substantial amount of ukay-ukay stores across the Philippines do focus on selling “class A” items when there are people whose only option is to buy 50-peso (or less) clothes. When ukay-ukay stores become a disservice for whom secondhand clothes simply mean cheap and not “vintage” or “an ukay challenge,” then that’s where the danger actually resides.