February 17, 2020

How American GIs Helped Revive Batangas’ Balisong Industry

Image credit:  tactical-life.com.
Image credit:  tactical-life.com.
The first balisong or Batangas fan-knife, one of the lasting symbols of the Batangueño, was created by one Perfecto de Leon of the barrio of Balisong in Taal, supposedly in the year 1905. According to one Ciriaco Arcega, de Leon was forced into the creation of the balisong by a “failing bolo manufacturing business1.”

According to the so-called “historical data” for the Municipality of Taal, bolo-making was the chief industry of the barrio of Balisong early in the 20th century: “They [the males of the barrio] made artistic bolos with beautiful handles and shaped blades that commanded [a] large demand. These bolos were even exhibited in the Manila carnivals and the makers were awarded diplomas2.”
RELATED ARTICLE: “Balisong, the famed Batangas Butterfly Knife, May Not Have Been Invented in Batangas.”
It was, thus, likely that de Leon’s “failing bolo manufacturing business” was due to the competition he faced from within his own barrio. But how and why he crafted the first balisong, according to the “historical data,” was incidental. He was supposed to have purchased “a big case made of bronze” which, however, he could not use in the manufacture of bolos. Why he made the purchase, the narrative did not explain.

At any rate, de Leon made use of the bronze as the framework for the new knife that he was designing. “After several trials, he was able to finish one which was crude at first as compared with present knives.”

After overcoming the initial difficulties, de Leon presumably perfected his design and must have experienced increasing success in the selling of his product. So much so that others in the barrio started to copy it. “When others sought the finished product, they bought a piece of metal and tried to make their own.”

Before long, many in the barrio started to manufacture the knife based on de Leon’s design, to the point that it would ultimately be known as the balisong after the barrio’s name. Moreover, manufacture of the balisong would become the barrio’s chief industry, superseding the erstwhile bolo-making industry.

The new industry’s success, however, would come to an abrupt end with the onset of the Japanese occupation in World War II. First of all, there was a lack of materials because, presumably, metals were used more for the manufacture of ammunition. Second, the industry was prohibited by the Japanese.

Liberation could not have come soon enough for those formerly engaged in the balisong’s manufacture. As American soldiers of the United States 6th and 8th Armies marched into Taal in 1945, locals tried to sell their old balisong knives to GIs or military personnel.



The soldiers’ response was overwhelming because they saw the knives as not only a curiosity but as a possible souvenir to take back home when the war was over3. So overwhelming, in fact, that it almost immediately revived the industry.
“The Americans were so interested that they offered very high prices. The people became enthusiastic and the industry flourished once more. But because of [a] lack of materials… natives bartered their knives for different materials and tools that they could use in making the knives for the Americans. Because of the great demand, the prices soared higher and higher that an ordinary maker could earn from ₱20.00 to ₱30.00 a day.”
Of course, the war would end later that year and most of the GIs returned home to the United States. There are those who credit them with popularizing the balisong internationally.

In the barrio of Balisong, the industry was stimulated back to life to the point that even boys of school age had learned how to manufacture the knife. By the 1950s, income had declined from when the Americans were present during liberation; but the industry had been revived enough to survive. The “historical data” for Taal explained:
“At present, around twenty-five houses are engaged in this industry with an output of around sixty-five knives daily with an income of almost ₱425.00. This amount is only ⅒ of their income during and a year after liberation. Even before the war, the people of Balisong had this industry as their occupation. The knives where sold by the Manila Trading and its branches in the different provinces of the archipelago and under the Bureau of Commerce.”
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