Back in the 1940s, back when the cadence of black boots, barking propaganda, and brutal, random beatings echoed across the grim expanse of the city, a small, two-story wooden building stood at the perfect location: just across the road from Luneta Park, at the corner of Mabini and San Luis Avenue.
These days, San Luis is known as Kalaw Avenue. When author Peter Eisner visited the spot a few years ago, he found “nondescript buildings, a gas station, and a jumble of cars, motorbikes, and people clicking along in their flip-flops as they dodge the jeepneys.” He was doing research for his book MacArthur’s Spies, and the journey had led him from the National Archives of Washington, D.C. to this very street corner. He had been living with this story for years, but it was hard for him to imagine that more than 70 years ago, this was the epicenter of occupied Manila’s nightlife.
In this place, the sea breeze would roll in from Manila Bay, the cool wind almost enough to make you forget the day’s stuffiness. It would come in past the naval and merchant ships lined up at the docks, all flying the sunburst of the Japanese Imperial flag—it would sweep through the streets and through an iron gate and up the wide stairs to the second floor, swirl past the cream-colored lounge with the low tables and rattan settees, fluttering the lavender drapes set behind the stage. In those cool nights, the only thing sweating would be the cocktail glasses, and those pale necks under the starched military collars, craning to catch the attention of one of the club’s many hostesses, or the club’s proprietor, the legendary Madame Tsubaki herself.
The sounds of jeeps and passing cars and modern pop music fades away, and in its place you can almost hear the faint strumming of the songs of the Ink Spots. It is January 1, 1943. It is the night before the first anniversary of the Japanese occupation of Manila, and it is Madame Tsubaki’s turn at the mic. With the spotlight throwing her silhouette against the curtains behind her, she begins to sing “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.”
In those cool nights, the only thing sweating would be the cocktail glasses, and those pale necks under the starched military collars, craning to catch the attention of one of the club’s many hostesses, or the club’s proprietor, the legendary Madame Tsubaki herself.
ILLUSTRATION: Jasrelle Serrano
ILLUSTRATION: Jasrelle Serrano
The Ink Spots had scored their first big hit in 1939 with the syrupy “If I Didn’t Care”, several months before German tanks rolled into Poland. But the Pearl Harbor bombing gave their song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” a special resonance, especially to Allied troops. It was reportedly playing on the radio when the Japanese planes began swooping down on the Hawaiian base in the early morning of December 7, 1941.
The Japanese soldiers in the nightclub audience—and there were many of them that night—would probably not have been aware of this. It’s doubtful they would have cared, either. While the military government (and the Gestapo-like secret police, the Kempeitai) was trying madly to stomp out pro-American feeling across the islands, American pop music was still a popular choice in the many nightclubs frequented by the top Japanese brass, both military and civilian. Besides, they were just there to see the Madame Tsubaki sing.
She was a vision that night, according to Fely Corcuera, one of the madame’s close friends and trusted hostesses in the nightclub. She wore a body-hugging gown with a slit that went straight up her thigh. The club was small enough that she could look deep into the eyes of those seated at the cocktail tables, sipping their gin or whisky or beer. The band at the corner played with a Hawaiian lilt. In that cool tropical atmosphere, Madame Tsubaki could have easily transformed the Ink Spots’s wistful tenor into a sultry croon:
I don’t want to set the world on fire I just want to start a flame in your heart
“Madame Tsubaki” was obviously a stage name. Her non-Asian features gave that much away. To the authorities keeping tabs on foreign nationals from nearby Fort Santiago, she was actually Dorothy Fuentes, an American married to a Filipino, and therefore exempt from the internment that awaited most American expats. But she was also Claire Phillips, and Clara Mabel De La Taste, and, unknown to the many guerillas and prisoners of war she was aiding outside Manila, she was also High Pockets, their mysterious benefactor and informant. She was an American spy.
"Madame Tsubaki" was also Claire Phillips, and Clara Mabel De La Taste, and she was also High Pockets. She was an American spy.
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons
Claire Phillips, as she called herself after the war, said she got the code name High Pockets because she stuffed secret messages inside her bra. A fellow spy and sympathizer in the resistance, Peggy Utinsky, gave a different origin story. In a court case testimony unearthed by Eisner from the Washington, D.C. archives, Utinsky claims that they were walking down a Manila street when she, standing half a foot shorter than Phillips, turned around to face her. “She had on a little jacket with some pockets on it [...] and I was looking directly into her pocket, and I said, ‘How high your pockets are. [...] That’s a good name for you.’”
From the start, Phillips used the Tsubaki Club as a front to spy on the Japanese occupiers, and relay important information to the combined American and Filipino guerillas camping out in the mountains of Bataan. The money she raised from the club was also used to buy food, medicine, and clothing that—through an elaborate underground network that communicated via secret code names—were smuggled into a prisoner-of-war camp in Cabanatuan, almost a hundred kilometers north of Manila.
To succeed in her mission, the Tsubaki Club needed to be the hottest night spot in town. “Tsubaki” was the Japanese name for a camellia flower; a Japanese businessman with a crush on Phillips assured her that the name would give the club an exclusive touch. (Her biggest competition was a place called “Ana Fey’s”.) Liquor was provided at cut-rate prices by Juan Elizalde, owner of the Tanduay distillery, who knew exactly what Claire was up to and was eager to contribute what he could to the cause.
Undoubtedly, another reason for the club’s appeal was Phillips herself. Fely, too. There was also the half-American Fahny, whose expat father was a prisoner at a nearby internment camp, and Fahny’s sisters Anna and Lily. A handsome young man known as David was the club’s waiter. And then there was Walterina Markova, who was a gay man who cross-dressed when he danced for the club. He was often mistaken for a woman. When his identity was discovered during an unfortunate after-hours run-in with four lusty officers, he and his friends were kidnapped, raped, and brutalized for a month—an episode that inspired the 2000 Filipino drama movie Markova: Comfort Gay, which starred Dolphy in a rare dramatic role .
High-ranking Japanese men packed the club night after night. The captain of an aircraft carrier tried to court Fely Corcuera—he gave her gifts, watched her perform every night, even asked her out on a date to the Metropolitan Theater. Phillips, too, had her own share of admirers. Did anything more go on in the smoky corners and side couches of the Tsubaki Club? Phillips insisted from the start that her club wasn’t that kind of place, but there were many hotels nearby, and the entertainers could earn a lot more by stepping out with the lonely high-rollers out for whiskey and a little something extra.
And so despite her protestations, Phillips coyly encouraged the reputation of Tsubaki Club (and “Madame Tsubaki”). During one floor show, she even donned a skin-tight, cream-colored suit and danced seductively with two giant feathered plumes, the eyes of the audience members almost popping out of their sockets as they tried to see if she was really naked behind those feathers. The more drunk, curious, and horny the visitors, the better. Her girls could worm more information out of them that way.
The more drunk, curious, and horny the visitors, the better. Her girls c ould worm more information out of them that way.
How did Claire Phillips run her spy ring?
Take that New Year’s night in 1943. It had been one year since the occupation of Manila, and just a little over three months after the opening of the Tsubaki Club. Opening night had been a big success, with the head of the Japanese propaganda office and a Tokyo film star in attendance, as well as other military officers, Japanese businessmen, and Filipino collaborators. Even Juan Elizalde was there, possibly the only one among the guests who knew what the club was really for. The club’s floor shows became a fixture in wartime nightlife.
That night, as Phillips sang the Ink Spots' “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire”, her hostesses circulated around the crowd, bowing deeply from the waist as they approached each table. Failing to do so could mean a slap in the face, or a beating in one of the back rooms. In one club, one woman had even been forced to drink boiling water as a punishment for disrespect. If the guests were in a good mood, they would be asked to sit down. Would you like a drink? The hostess would accept, and a waiter would come around: liquor or beer for the men...and for the hostess, lemonade spiked with a little creme de menthe to make it look like a real cocktail.
The guest—army commander, naval officer, wartime dealer—would get progressively drunker and drunker, while the hostess, sipping away at her nth lemonade of the night, would innocently ply the table for information. What were the ships in port? Who were its officers and crew? Which squadrons were scheduled to move? Who commanded them? Were there any trade delegations coming in from Axis countries? At the end of the night, Phillips and Fely would write down any useful intel on little slips of paper that couriers would then smuggle—sometimes inside the soles of their shoes—to Bataan-based guerilla groups headed by Colonel John P. Boone.
By 1944, the spy ring that she and many others ran out of the club was so active and so dangerous that the Kempeitai viciously tortured anyone they suspected was involved in the well-hidden resistance.
ILLUSTRATION: Jasrelle Serrano
In March 1943, Phillips learned that her long-lost lover (and whose family name she later assumed for herself), John Phillips, had died inside a prisoner of war camp—the same one that she had been sending supplies to. That was one of the reasons why she had become a spy in the first place: to find out where John had disappeared to, to give him all the help he needed, to rescue him if she could. She had spent far too many nights, as the narrator does in the song, pining, alone, for a lost love. But now he was dead.
She fell into a deep, alcoholic depression. It took a note from the chaplain of the POW camp—smuggled out of Cabanatuan and delivered by courier to the camp’s benefactor—to snap her out of it. The men need you, the note implored High Pockets. I ask you not to forget the ones that are left.
Phillips carried on. By 1944, the spy ring that she and many others ran out of the club was so active and so dangerous that the Kempeitai viciously tortured anyone they suspected was involved in the well-hidden resistance. On May of that year, the jig was up. She was having breakfast with her adopted daughter when four military police barged into her home. “High Pockets!” they shouted. She was surprised that they had already figured out her code name. “Take us to your office!”
Caught in the dragnet were many of Phillips’s fellow operatives. Juan Elizalde, her liquor supplier, had been caught a few months earlier, and was tortured and finally beheaded inside the Fort Santiago prison. She saw one of her closest friends and accomplices, Ramon Amusategui, sentenced to death in front of her. She herself was interrogated, starved, beaten, and waterboarded. Whenever she passed out from the torture, they put out lit cigarettes on her bare legs to wake her up.
But Phillips was a survivor. When the Americans returned to recapture Manila on February 1945, more than two years after Phillips had opened the Tsubaki Club, they found her in an old prison hospital in the suburbs of the city. She had narrowly missed execution—the Japanese had instead sentenced her to hard labor. As American soldiers trooped across the hospital grounds, she touched the arm of one tenderly. When he smiled at her, she enveloped him in a kiss.
The battle to liberate Manila came at a terrible cost: the city itself. When the Japanese had marched in three years earlier, they did so without a fight; the Americans had abandoned Manila and declared it an open city. With the tables now turned, the Japanese would not surrender. The Americans responded with thunderous artillery fire, and later, vicious street-by-street fighting. “The Japanese standoff […] devolved into a month of unbelievable carnage,” wrote Peter Eisner, whose 2017 book MacArthur’s Spies gives the definitive history of Claire Phillips. Civilians were caught in the crossfire, or were mercilessly executed in pointless and random reprisals.
When the guns stopped firing, an estimated 100,000 Filipinos were dead, along with most of the Japanese defenders and some 1,000 US troops. Body parts were strewn across the city streets, and the smell of rot hung thickly over the city. There was no city anymore. Everything had been flattened by cannon fire and airborne bombing, or torched by desperate Japanese soldiers. There were ruins as far as the eye could see. “The scale of urban destruction in the capital of the Philippines,” Eisner wrote, “was a singular horror, rivaling the lethal battle for Warsaw, comparable to firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo.”
At the battle’s end, Peggy Utinsky, Claire Phillips' friend in the resistance who claimed to have inspired her codename “High Pockets”, returned to the Tsubaki Club. With her was a photographer from the Army Signal Corps, who took a picture of her standing in front of its gates.
In the photo, unbelievably, the sign is still intact, as well as the twisted remains of a lantern that hang above it—the only things left of what was once Manila’s most happening nightspot. Perhaps all the clandestine activity that had gone on under the songs and the lights had led directly to this moment of liberation. Who knows?
Peggy poses under the sign. She doesn’t smile. Beyond the sign and the gate and the lantern is nothing but a bombed-out ruin, just like the rest of the city.
Soon the skeletons of buildings would be cleared away, and new ones would rise from the rubble. Manila, for good or ill, would learn to quickly forget the deep, horrendous scars of invasion and occupation. Claire Phillips herself would enjoy a brief bout of fame after the war. She was awarded a Medal of Freedom, and then she wrote a bestselling memoir that was turned into a Hollywood movie in 1951. But controversy hounded her newfound fame, with the US government even rejecting her claims for wartime restitution in an acrimonious court case that found her facing down her old friends in the underground, including Amusatuegi’s spouse, Utinsky, Corcuera, Boone.
Within the decade, Phillips died of meningitis, obscure and forgotten. Like the club she built—where she and a courageous few bravely, brazenly stole Japanese secrets—her story lies buried under time and memory; just another casualty of war.
“Clavier vs. United States.” U.S. Court of Claims, 1957. https://www.leagle.com/decision/1957604153fsupp4511532
Eisner, Peter. MacArthur’s Spies: The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II . New York: Penguin Books, 2017.
Goldberg, Marv. More Than Words Can Say: The Ink Spots and Their Music. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1998.
“Markova: Comfort Gay in the Philippines.” Interview with Walter Dempster, Jr., by Ronald D. Klein. http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue13/klein_interview.html
Phillips, Claire and Myron B. Goldsmith. Manila Espionage. Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1947.