That crate at the base of an old building, surrounded by sheets of paper, lopsided and frozen mid-air, wouldn’t have piqued my interest. It wouldn’t have done so while I was crossing the street. The car speeding toward me wouldn’t have felt like it did so out of nowhere, and it wouldn’t have stopped inches before running me over. “Sira ulo!” the driver yelled. And I probably wouldn’t have heard that too.
But I wasn’t anywhere else in the Philippines. I was in the City of Manila, strolling along Escolta Street after losing my way around Binondo. Most establishments around me were already closed. The avenues flanking my path have dissolved into the dark and the notorious working-class bustle of the city has retired, giving way to a capital sluggish and mostly dead to the world. It was about 10 in the evening, after all. And it seemed that in such an hour, a car suddenly sweeping past me was a rare occurrence.
But given what I knew and saw of Escolta that night, the crate seemed like a greater anomaly.
Dubbed “the Queen of Streets,” Escolta was a small but high-end stretch fueling Manila’s economic mobility. It housed buildings as important as the Manila Stock Exchange, sold goods from the First World, and became the fashionable jump-off point for now iconic local institutions. According to the Philippines Free Press, “provincial folk [took] pride in telling people at home that they have seen or walked on Escolta.” “Took,” of course, was the operative word.
Somewhere in the story of Manila—a mercurial tale that involved economic hardships, political disarray and social confusion—the “Queen” fell from grace. A number of her stakeholders have left for the proverbial “greener pastures” and that evening, decades after her gilded years, she looked old, rundown and virtually forgotten. In a nutshell, she looked defeated. And I assumed that like a number of places in Manila, she has taken upon herself a crude and world-weary existence. I should’ve known better given where I was.
Even for locals, it is a common rule to never underestimate modern-day Manila. The city, after all, is a previously Islamic, now mostly Catholicized, World War II veteran bedecked with bombed medieval buildings, turn-of-the-century architectures and postmodern skyscrapers. It has a colorful history, a muddled heritage, and a penchant for proving people wrong. Make a turn in a seemingly docile neighborhood and that might be the biggest mistake of your life. Avoid a shady looking part of town and you could be missing out on something special.
That evening, at Escolta, that “something special” was at the base of the Panpisco Building, a shabby crate displayed behind glass where safety equipment used to be displayed. The lights that surrounded it were dim and incidental, but they were enough for me to see what needed to be seen: a small seemingly informal gallery, works of art held mid-air by strings and binder clips. There was an image of a stocky winged figure set ablaze, smoking bird heads, and seemingly unfinished abstractions of a clear general message that someone out there wants something to happen.
And something is always happening in this city. Never think that it’s down and out, or it might just sucker punch you with a car or, at best, surprise you with a sign of life.
Truth be told
Of all that can be said about Manila, this might be the first and most important thing that any tourist should know: “if you want to see it at its finest, then you need to give it the power to hurt you.” That, at least, is the theory; the bold and blasé banter of a longtime local.
“Trust me,” he said, brows tensing in insistence. “I know what I’m talking about.” And given what I knew of him, it wasn’t a challenge to believe.
For over 20 years, marketing consultant Kendrick Go has been dealing with Manila at its best and its worst. He was raised in Binondo, schooled in Bonifacio Drive, mugged a handful of times “here and there,” and had “the best years” of his life in the city. He is an archetypal Manileño. And at the roof deck of his apartment building in Binondo, a compact structure rising 25 stories from the ground, the thick rim of his glasses framed the big picture of a land he called home.
“If it can hurt you,” he said, “then that means you’re close enough. And if you’re close enough, you will know its truths.”
Not too long ago, a Dutch national by the name of Juliette Kwee got close enough to get hurt in the city. During her stay in Manila, the psychological consultant had a run-in with a motorcycle robber. Her backpack got nabbed, she got dragged a good few meters and got left with what is now known as one of her worst experiences in Manila. The encounter, however, has yet to overshadow some of the most fulfilling moments of her life. Ironically, she experienced them in the slums of Tondo—a Manila area infamous for its crime rate.
Seeking a life that doesn’t “deal with people as files and file numbers,” Kwee came to the Philippines to volunteer with Bahay at Yaman ni San Martin de Porres, a group devoted to improving the lives of disadvantaged youths. This then led her to organize a photo excursion in Barangay 105 of Tondo, taking with her 20 local photographers. During this event, Kwee got the big picture of the city: that even in its seemingly worst locations, there is something worth seeing.
“[Tondo] was such a special place with hardworking people, always smiling and being friendly,” she said. “It inspired me to see those Filipinos, living their lives resiliently without complaining.” Ultimately, this sparked what is now known as the Smokey Tours.
Established just two years ago, Smokey Tours is a group that provides safe, well-organized yet eye-opening explorations of various locations in Manila. It seeks to educate the privileged and financially aid local non-government organizations seeking to better the lives of the disadvantaged. At its current capacity, it has four tours which, of course, includes the flagship Slum Tours, an immersive nearly three-hour affair which takes guests through some of the city’s poor yet heartbreakingly resilient areas. All these come into play with the hope that foreigners would see what it is that Kwee sees in Manila—a “non-typical megalopolis” that “touched [her] heart;” a place worth the risk of getting hurt.
The burden to bear
Not all things said about Manila are positive. Back in 2012, Philstar reported that a popular Youtube channel, “All Time 10s,” dubbed Manila as one of the “10 Worst Cities to Live in” due to its susceptibility to natural disasters and its population density. The city ranked fourth on the list. In the same year, GMA News Online reported that a list compiled by CNNGo.com had tagged Manila as the “third worst city for driving.” And from Go’s roof deck, it was not difficult to see evidence that gives credence to such a claim.
When I met with him at his place, it wasn’t even rush hour yet and there were already cars struggling to get through Recto. Not more than an hour later, a road leading to Divisoria glowed like a colorful, unmoving necklace of headlights. And in Binondo, the people were in the midst of a daily ritual: the business suffering the incompatible marriage of a notoriously dense population and a now outdated urban design.
Go himself admitted to struggling constantly with the city’s “tightness.” The traffic in Binondo is such that, when I asked him how long it would take me to get to a cafe just a few blocks away, he gave an answer I initially found unbelievable: “if you decide to walk to it, it’ll take you about 3 minutes. If you decide to take a cab, it’ll take you somewhere between 15 to 20.” He was wrong. I took a cab and got there after half an hour in traffic.
But there are some places in Manila that are just worth the trouble. And a great number of them can be found in Binondo; no-frills hole in the walls like the Wai Ying Fast Food branch at Benavidez where people bear with traffic and long lines just to taste its delectable dumplings. Of course, Binondo isn’t the only place in Manila whose density is overlooked for its offering. And density isn’t the only thing people tend to bear with to get a piece of the city.
In her novel The Last Time I Saw Mother, writer Arlene J. Chai described Manila as “a city of extremes”—a melting pot where the rich and the poor live side by side. But it is not only the rich and the poor that regularly mingle in Manila, and the Quiapo district is a testament to this.
Back when I was working for one of the major Philippine dailies headquartered in the city, Quiapo, which sprawls right in the center of Manila, was an unavoidable part of my commuting route. And, not once had I ever seen it idle.
Since the 1970s, Quiapo—which is home to the largest mosque in Metro Manila, a statue of Jesus Christ that brings in devotees by the millions, and an army of capitalists in between—has been a principle figure in Manila’s urban life. Its offerings are diverse, and the people that come for those offerings are just as varied.
In my recent visit to the area, for instance, I chanced upon a young man taking photos near the entry of SM Quiapo; from his lips, pouring with a thick cloud of smoke, was a husky version of “I Feel Like Going Home” by Yo La Tengo, a song I have never once heard being played on local radio. Not a minute later, I was beside a stall selling bargain t-shirts; there, a man was practically chanting the first few lines of “Lord, Patawad” by Bassilyo, a song that I can’t seem to avoid no matter how hard I try.
Before heading to Quiapo Church, I passed by Hidalgo Street, the local photographer’s mecca. I was there to buy a reflector for a friend and, in my attempt to find the most reasonably priced one, I managed to walk into a shop and hear two girls squabbling intensely about the artistic merits of Andy Warhol’s Paul Morrisey trilogy. Of course, Manila, being Manila, it didn’t take long for me to encounter a less academic dispute—a scuffle between two grown women at a stall outside. They were fighting over change.
The deeper I got into Quiapo, the denser the crowd got. The denser the crowd got, the more it became apparent that this side of Manila is ruled by a mix of strange bedfellows. At Plaza Miranda, I saw throngs of devotees clogging the entry points of the Quiapo Church. A stone’s throw away, there was a line of fortune-tellers reading palms, shuffling cards and chastising anyone who would dare photograph them—at least not without paying for a reading first. At the center of the plaza, at the sides of the church and along the alleys coursing people in and out of the square, vendors peddled a laundry list of items: from plastic toys, to candles, to religious paraphernalia, to seemingly herbal concoctions billed as “medicine.” I’ve read and heard that there are people who sell abortifacients here, but I did not encounter anyone who offered.
I was offered a host of other things, however; from homegrown vegetables to a sense of assurance. Quiapo, after all, is an aggressive merchant, and its trade is anything between the concrete and the intangible.
Such is also the business of Manila as a whole. Thanks to its colorful, multicultural background, the city these days is capable of offering a myriad of experiences while satisfying various tastes. But according to a man I spoke with not long ago, its greatest strength lies not only with what it is now, but also what it was before.
Talking the talk, walking the walk
Prior to the Second World War, before the Americans and Japanese began a month-long battle that resulted in the deaths of around 150,000 people in Manila, the city had the luster and the importance to be called the Paris of Asia. But after February 1945, it all changed. War came to the city, lives were lost, and Manila suffered wounds from which it has yet to recover.
In Intramuros, some of these “wounds” still exist. They are scattered over a 70-hectare property secured by walls made of volcanic ash. They flank the stretch of the Pasig River, arc over roads leading to the rest of the city, and keep within their midst the remnants of an ancient district which once served as the very core of Manila. If these walls could talk, the things they might say can date all the way back to the 16th century. But since they can’t, there are those who diligently and passionately do the all the talking. Among them is local renaissance man, Carlos Celdran.
A thespian by passion and profession, Celdran has gained a measure of nationwide fame and infamy. He is known for being a vocal and colorful critic of local policies and the Catholic Church, bringing to light a number of social issues, and getting people—foreigners and locals alike—to appreciate the City of Manila through its greatest strength: “History, history, history,” he said.
In 2002, after his stint with the Heritage Conservation Society, the man spearheaded Celdran Tours. Through this, he leads a popular one-man show that takes his audience through a leisurely walk around Intramuros, while regaling them with facts, music and a lot of comic relief related to the city. In his blog, he calls this the “Classic Intramuros Walking Tour,” but at his home in Malate, a charming old world apartment, he told me that what he does “is totally not a tour.” It is, he said, “a multi-media, multi-venue performance using Filipino history as a subject for geopolitical performance art and stand-up comedy.”
That is a mouthful of a definition, but that doesn’t stop people from eating it up. Employing comedic chops, period costumes, and a healthy mix of wit and irreverence, the show—which is essentially a theatrical history lesson—is an engaging three-hour feat that doesn’t feel as long as it should. If Manila is a product, then Celdran is among its best PR agents. Of course, good PR can only take a product so far, which is why Celdran is thankful that he is selling something worth the money.
“If you can’t find beauty here,” he said, “you can’t find beauty anywhere
A space for the ‘future’
When I told a friend that I would be writing a story on Manila, she immediately gave me the number of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. “Technically, it’s in Pasay not Manila,” she said, “but if you don’t include it, where else in the vicinity can you find a regular place for contemporary art? You know, stuff that doesn’t involve a bunch of dead guys?”
“Just across the street,” I told her. Past the border between Pasay and Manila, at the basement of the Legaspi Tower, I found a young man on a small stage; he was very much alive even though he spent more than five minutes in the spotlight questioning the importance of his existence. Not long after him, a girl took his place and started talking about another girl whose cigarette smoke at a party is nothing more than a smoke signal for attention. On the same night, another girl who took the stage said her piece and had poet Mookie Katigbak, who was sitting in the audience, nodding her head.
It was Poetry Slam Night at Sev’s Café, and I came there with photographer Justin de Jesus on what appeared to be a full house. When its General Manager, environmental lawyer Ipat G. Luna, started the place with her husband, reporter Howie Severino, she wanted to create “a home for aspiring poets and artists,” and it is in nights like these when that dream comes to life.
“The concept is a hodgepodge of what we think is important in a society: art, culture, understanding, health and environment,” she said. “So we set it up to welcome all manner of dialogue on those and other things.”
Manila seems to be all about “dialogues” these days. And at the old and seemingly forgotten street of Escolta, the discourse has been both passionate and hopeful.
Recently, there have been talks about the street’s revival, and among the key players in the discussion from that side of town is 98B COLLABoratory, an art collective based in the old First United Building. Founded by Mark Salvatus and Mayumi Hirano in 2012, the group was spearheaded to create what its Co-Director Marika Constantino called “a platform of critical discourse” on contemporary art and how it can be brought to the people. And in an attempt to achieve this, it has established a number of events and settings that cater to the creative, the passionate, and the throngs that simply want to see the city thrive.
Among their projects is the Future Market, a once-a-month event that transforms the roomy ground floor of the First United Building to a venue for artists, collectors and ingenious entrepreneurs to sell a unique array of items; These range from witty statement shirts, to outdated currencies, to, of course, original works of art.
Meanwhile, at its office, the collective offers a free-to-use library with a formidable stock of art-related resource materials, a kitchen, a design studio and a venue for usually free talks that have, in the past, brought over foreign artists willing to share their craft with any local willing to listen.
“We try to think of different things to make creativity in general be accessible to promote contemporary art,” said Constantino. And in line with this, the group recently launched Pan///, a project space and open gallery located at the ground floor showroom of the Panpisco Building. Here, artworks showcased by the group indiscriminately confront the pedestrians of Escolta—a reminder to all who can see that the street remains alive and well.
It should be of note, however, that 98B is not the only one fighting for Escolta these days. The street may have suffered a number of abandonments in the last century but there are those who remain allied with it. At present, they make up The Escolta Revival Movement, a group composed of entrepreneurs, artists, heritage conservationists and fervent locals. In a recent show of force, the group launched #SelfiEscolta, a whole-day event that featured art performances, a street market and a lot of modern-day display of reverence for the old “Queen of the Streets.”
To be honest, on the day of the event, De Jesus and I weren’t aware of it. But we knew that something was happening after spending more than an hour in a car crawling through the streets of Binondo. When we resolved to walk so that he could also take photos of the nearby streets, that’s when we heard it: the enthusiastic strumming of guitars snaking through the cacophony of urban life. Tracing the sound, we found Escolta in revelry. Markets lined the sidewalks leading to Santa Cruz, children were walking around with painted faces, and women of age were dancing beside a group of guitarists playing Joey Ayala’s “Karaniwang Tao.” Near the stage area, Star Ore, a flamboyant levistick artist, was performing within a ring of crowd that best describes the Manila of today: a mishmash of different races, age groups and beliefs.
I entered the First United Building to take in a wider view of what was going on, but for awhile, I got distracted by what was nearby: tarpaulins recollecting the quotes that the Philippines Free Press had said about Escolta. Among them was a short and simple note: “Escolta is Manila.” And at that moment, in that old street brimming with life, it was nothing short of the truth.
Where to Shop:
It only happens at least once a month in Escolta, but when it happens, the Saturday Future Market spearheaded by 98B sells the rare, the “one-of-a-kind,” and the quirky finds that are well worth the wait. Buying something from the market is also a good and inexpensive way to support local artists.
Address: First United Building, Escolta St., Binondo
Operating Hours: One Saturday every month. 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
For exact schedules, please check: https://www.facebook.com/98Bcollaboratory
If one can’t find a particular book in some of the country’s biggest bookstores, it’s most likely in Solidaridad. Founded by National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, Solidaridad specializes in selling the works of local writers.
Address: 531 P. Faura St., Ermita Operating Hours: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
There’s much to photograph in Manila and there’s much need for photographic equipment too. This is why Hidalgo Street is so popular. Whether you’re a classicist keen on using analog devices or a modernist itching for the latest in photography, you can find something of importance here at reasonable prices too.
What to Do:
It’s “totally not a tour” according to Carlos Celdran, but you’ll still learn a lot about Manila through his Classic Intramuros Walking Tour. Go through the city’s history, visit some key sights, and hang out with one of Manila’s best ambassadors.
For bookings and schedules, please check: http://celdrantours.blogspot.com
Get real with Manila and try the offerings of Smokey Tours. Through its flagship Slum Tour, you can immerse yourself in one of the country’s most impoverished areas and find things people don’t normally expect from such a place: inspiration, dignity and hope. Through its Bicycle Tour, you can enjoy Manila through a different perspective and pace. Through the Cockfighting Tour, you can see the city’s longstanding connection to the sport. And finally, try the Market Tour to get to know the commercial areas of old Manila.
Get your fortune told at Quiapo’s Plaza Miranda. You can’t be sure if they’re being honest with you or if they’re as omniscient as they say, but the process can still be quite thrilling for anyone who has the slightest belief in the supernatural. Plus, the fortune-tellers of Quiapo can be quite interesting photo subjects. Sometimes, they’ll only let you take their picture if you pay to have your fortune read.
Where to eat and drink:
Sev’s Café serves food for the body and the mind. Aside from serving local cuisine with a twist, it also sets the stage for local performance artists and poets to share their work.
Address: Basement, Legaspi Tower, P. Ocampo St., Manila 1004
Operating Hours: 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm, Monday to Friday; 12 noon to 9 pm Saturdays. Usually open up to 2:00 am if there are events.
For event schedules, check: https://www.facebook.com/SevsCafe
In Manila, there is more than one branch of Wai Ying Fast Food, but its old branch in Benavidez remains to be its most popular outfit. The savvy try not to eat there at lunch time; they know they’re not the only ones who want a piece of Wai Ying’s delicious and reasonably priced Chinese cuisine.
Address: 810 Benavidez St., Binondo
Operating Hours: 7:00 am to 2:00 am
The Oarhouse Pub is a popular hangout for local journalists and foreigners. They’re mostly there for the beer, or the pulutan, the loose smoking policy and some of the most outgoing barmaids in the city that do their best to make guests feel at ease.
Address: 1688-B Jorge Bocobo St., 1004, Malate
Operating Hours: 4:00 pm to 1:30 am
Harbor View has become a now-timeless staple in Manila’s dining. What keeps it afloat? A popular menu that includes a number of spectacular seafood dishes and the Manila sunset.
Address: South Gate A, Rizal Park, Ermita
Operating Hours: 11:00 am to 2:00 am
Those who have a more flexible budget might want to try Uno Seafood Wharf Palace for some seafood hefty servings of seafood.
Address: 270 Calvo Bldg., Escolta St., Bgy 291, Zone 027, Binondo
Operating Hours: 11:00 am to 2:30 pm and 5:30 pm to 11:00 pm
For those who find Binondo too hectic, they can try to unwind at the Jing Si Books and Café where relaxing drinks and a clean, calming ambiance can give a much-needed break from the bustle of Chinatown.
Address: Ground Floor, Soler Tower, 1342 Soler St., Sta. Cruz Operating Hours: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm