The Tragic Beauty of Manila

Manila, the Philippines

May 3, 2010

There was no better way to know a city than by walking its streets. Though I had walked and known other cities, I was not inclined to accord the same intimacy to Manila, the city I worked in but would rather not walk in. There was always something that kept me off its streets: the mundane grind of real life perhaps, or the grime, crime, and grinding poverty. However, one sun-baked afternoon, cabin fever lured my friend and me outdoors to pound the city’s pavement.

A Calesa on the Sidewalk in Manila

Sidewalk Sleeper

The first thing that caught my eye was a calesa parked ON the sidewalk. Such was the opening salvo – the annoying Filipino habit of using the sidewalk other than what it was made for. It was not unusual to find people sprawled on it, snoozing comfortably. One man I saw was napping al fresco on an enviable hammock too! With our narrow sidewalks hijacked by sleeping people and vendors, pedestrians would take to the streets instead.

The sidewalk also doubled as parking space for cars and even a calesa, a two-wheeled carriage. I saw one which had been divorced by its horse. Forlorn and forgotten, its frame had obviously seen better days – now its colorful past had started to flake off. The abandoned calesa and the dead-to-the-world man on the busy sidewalk foreshadowed scenes I would see on this sweat-drenched promenade under the relentless El Niño sun.

Homeless Boy
Homeless Woman

Homelessness, almost immediately, made its in-ya-face presence – but with a welcoming smile. I met a kid on Padre Faura Street, just outside Paco Park, who asked me a rather odd favor: to have his photo taken. I obliged and showed him the shots. He grinned from ear to ear, seemingly satisfied with the results. Or maybe he just wanted to look at himself. A few steps down the road I met an old woman, presumably the boy’s grandmother, who was cradling and feeding two little kittens. They were clearly her pride and joy. A homeless woman giving a home to these kittens was a testament of humanity in the face of next-to-nothingness.

They carried on our tete-a-tete with such unexpectedly disarming civility. Never did they ask for money. I felt a sting of shame for initially having my guard up (though rightly so in this area) when they simply saw me as another human being, not a meal ticket. A little time and some human interaction were worth more than any coins I could spare them.

A Curvaceous Building on Padre Faura Street

With the national elections approaching, the entire city was festooned with all kinds of ugliness: posters, tarps, and banderitas of politicians running for office – a good number of them movie stars. In this country, there was a thin line between politics and showbiz.

Case in point: Isko Moreno, a former actor with a megawatt smile was running for a second term as vice mayor of the city. Like that boy I met, he was born in abject poverty and pushed carts for a living. Good looks propelled him to teen stardom, but before his matinee idol shelf life expired, he reinvented himself as a public servant. From the city’s filthy streets to the city’s august halls – that was a fail-safe inspirational story for the masses. In all fairness, he had been in public service for more than a decade. Still, it was enough evidence that democratic elections in this country were primarily popularity contests.

Isko Moreno: From Movie Ads to Political Ads
A Calesa in Manila

Our penchant for all things old and historical compelled us to explore the vicinity of Intramuros, the old walled city of Manila. However, we didn’t cut through its preserved and reconstructed heart (Fort Santiago and the cobblestoned Gen. Luna Street, aka Calle Real del Palacio). Instead, we randomly traversed the lengths of inner streets, such as Beaterio, Cabildo, Anda, and Solana.

The north end of Intramuros was noticeably more developed; many ancestral houses had been rebuilt with colonial architecture and converted into boutique restaurants, inns, and privately-owned museums. Though contrived, the attempt to recreate the old world ambiance was still a noteworthy effort.

Beaterio Street, Intramuros, Manila
Crossing through Time to Old Manila
A Shout Out to my Granny’s Hometown

Property development deteriorated going south. An increasing number of authentic colonial era structures were still extant; however, they were mostly decrepit, abandoned, taken over by informal settlers, or all of the above.

Old School Barber Shop
Casa Solanda Building, Anda St., Intramuros, Manila
Windows and Doors to a Bygone Era

This side of Intramuros was less touristy. There was a less obvious attempt to recreate a bygone era; the place just seemed stuck in it. The worn-out look, makeshift food stalls, rows of pedicabs (a human-powered type of public transport), and children playing on the streets were telltale signs that this was a living community comprised of schools, offices, old apartment buildings, banks, convenience stores, and carinderia (small roadside eateries), which I imagined to be teeming with people on a regular working day.

Despite the area’s functionality, building maintenance was rather inconsistent. Run-down structures looked like they would cave in during a mild tremor; freshly-painted old buildings looked anachronistic with air-conditioning units jutting out of their walls.

Pedicabs in Manila
Ramshackle Apartment Row

On a historical perspective, this area WAS all of Manila. The impressive houses exuding the vestiges of their glorious past were dwellings of our erstwhile colonial masters that had shaped our culture – for better or for worse. I wondered if Filipinos then, who worked and lived – nay, toiled, survived, and died – here, walked the same streets with the same reverence as I did. Perhaps they felt fettered by these stone and wooden structures.

I realized nothing much had changed since the colonial era. Most Filipinos were still stuck in perennial poverty and servile servitude, products of the policies of the colonial government. The repercussions of the encomienda system that created the elite and oligarchs in society were still palpably felt. More than 80 percent of Filipinos lived below the poverty line and they lived to serve the rich and powerful few. The sight of two girls peeking into a window became a simplistic representation of Filipinos then and now – on the outside looking in, even in their own country.

Outside Looking In
A/C Sticking Out like Sore Thumbs
A Carinderia Named Lutong Bahay (Home-Cooked Meal)

Still and all, the relics of the past must be preserved precisely to understand our present. Desecration of old buildings in Old Manila could be a two-headed hydra: unbridled development that may deviate from period architecture and sheer neglect of extant structures. I hoped that politicians and the people would be enlightened to preserve the historical nooks of Manila through proper restoration and vigilant maintenance. This area was, after all, a history book come to life.

A fitting final note to this historical walk came to light as we approached the end of the road, at the corner of Muralla Street at the southern end of Intramuros and Aduana Street.

Muralla Street, Intramuros, Manila
The Intendencia

The striking ruins of the Intendencia, built in the 1820s, stood dignified despite its decades-long desolation. It was the Spanish colonial government’s administration building, known then as the Marble Palace, and was gutted by numerous fires. Only a hollow shell remained, but the cultural stamp it left on its former colony had survived its destruction, stubbornly indelible to this day.

This Spanish influence had been forever preserved in our country’s name. Across from the ruins, I found a small triangular plaza, Plaza de Espana, with a statue that I had not noticed until then: the likeness of King Phillip II of Spain, the king our country was named after, towering over a globe as if the world was his empire – a solid reminder of foreign domination in our history and psyche.

Felipe II, Rey de Espana (King Philip, the Spanish king the Philippines was named after)

Indeed, Manila bore both the scars of its painful past and the faded colors of its old glories through its present-day landmarks and people. Exploring the city with street-level intimacy, I glimpsed her wasted magnificence peeking through the cracks.

22 thoughts on “The Tragic Beauty of Manila

  1. The Kalesa shot is very striking, as if, asking myself if they still exist or use as means of transportation. We can blame progress and the lack of local government to preserve these areas. If you visited Vigan, the local government has succeeded in preserving the old buildings, walkways and more. Residents cannot just make changes even if they own it. Preservation requires the support of the residents as well as the ordinance of the local government.

    1. Yes, Inno, the calesa is still used in Manila. Actually, I’m conflicted about its use. On one hand, it’s an effective way to experience a bit of our country’s past – just by merely seeing them or sometimes riding on them. On the other hand, the tired and emaciated horses they use never fail to grip my heart. I love horses, and I think they’re beautifully dignified animals. Seeing them buckled with all those harnesses and with their blinders on depresses me. 😦

      And yes I’ve been to Vigan. True, there should be a concerted effort by both the people and the local government. It’s the same deal in Kyoto. Residents cannot just put up any structure or redesign their own houses at will. They have to conform to a certain type of period architecture mandated by law. I don’t know if such a law exists for Intramuors. I hope so.

  2. What an enjoyable and thought provoking post! There is really nothing like an ambling stroll to either explore new places or revisit known ones with a fresh eye. I’m glad you invited us along on this one.

    It tugs at the heart to see the grand or not so grand structures of the past in decrepitude but you can’t change a living city into a museum. That’s why I’m happy to see structures reused while keeping at last the façade of their past recognizable. Certainly it hurts to see a fast food restaurant in what was a lovely old home but it does allow it to still stand.

    The faces of the people are bricks in the structure of a neighborhood too. Thanks for showing some of those. It’s terrible to think of so many living in poverty. I’m reading a book by a Filipino author right now and in a passage where the character is thinking about the historic upper classes he has a great line attributed to that group: “If life gives you lemons, have the maid make lemonade.”

    OK, this comment is getting to long. This was a great read. Thanks.

    1. Funny line about the maid making lemonade. 🙂 But it’s not just the historic upper classes that had maids (they’re now called domestic helpers to include men and old married women). Now even the poor have them. Case in point: me.

      In this country, no matter how poor you are, you can always find someone poorer than yourself. It’s like the Eskimos and their words for snow. We have all kinds and levels of poor here.

  3. Hello AJ,

    Beautifully written and a compelling history. I admit I am ignorant about much of Phillipine history and certainly have much to learn. Your view from the underbelly of the culture tells a part of that history that I am sure many tourists either don’t see or simply ignore.

    In my travels (less frequent now) I have always wandered off the path to see the real infrastucture beyond the touristy fascades. Your writing helps pull people into the story and there is a palpable feling while reading your work.

    Thank you for sharing the travelogues.

    Be well,

    1. Thanks Lynne. Yeah, Manila and Bangkok are twins in the intensity scale. But believe me, Bangkok would seem gentrified next to Manila’s grit and grime. 🙂

  4. These pictures take me to where they belong! Here, in India, we have something that looks just like Calesa. Just that it’s a human being who pulls it. You read it right! The government had banned it all over the place once, still they have some of these “haath rickshaws” in Kolkata. It’s a sad scene.

    1. I feel bad enough when I see a horse reduced to pulling a calesa! They’re such beautiful and dignified animals; they don’t deserve to wear blinders and get whipped. What more for rickshaw pullers? I hope they’re not made into literal whipping boys! I’ve seen these human-powered rickshaws and palanquins in Beijing and Kyoto, although they seemed to cater to tourists only.

  5. I know what you mean. We often forget to explore the place we live in… but it feels so awesome whenever we do. So many new discoveries. So many new experiences. 🙂

    Cool blog.

    1. Thanks for dropping in, Zeba! Isn’t it ironic that we do things when we’re travelling that we don’t do at home? Case in point: I’ve never eaten in a market in my city, but I almost always do abroad. I also talk to people in the street in a foreign place but never in my city.

      It pays to play tourist in your own city sometimes. It gives you a different lens through which you look at a familiar place, and the discoveries you make are just as enriching as those you experience in a strange land.

  6. Aj,

    This is such a great read. It leaves the reader (speaking for myself) some thought-provoking insights of the past and future. I found myself buried in my own introspection and can’t help but identify with the girls outside looking in. That, by the way, is a “picture that’s worth a thousand words.” I’m curious about the circumstance when you took the picture of the barefooted girls, were they watching television from outside the neighbor’s window? Quite a photo story there.

    This article/blog is really a spot-on. A reality-check. I love your blog a lot. I love your mind. Keep it flowing.

    I love you a whole bunch.

    1. Thanks for reading, Mrs. White! I’m into history, and whenever I visit a place, may it be foreign or familiar, I always try to connect the dots to get a bit of understanding. We are, after all, a summation of what we were.

      About the girls, I never got to find out what they were looking at. They were so engrossed; I didn’t want to distract them. I suppose they were watching TV through the window, which is commonly done here.

      Love ya too, Mrs. White! Drop in from time to time, ok?

  7. I agree that nothing has been changed since the colonial era, sad but true. Nationalism is not given that much importance, Americans taught us that this thinking is almost equal to communism. And so they never left this country, using their money and power to manipulate us and the other 3rd world nations, reaping benefits for their own rich land. Now look at other cities that greatly improved since WW2 due to strong nationalism, where we are now?

    I love old Manila, unfortunately this city is now being replaced with malls, mcdonalds, coffee shops that just remind me of how we become slaves of colonial mentality.

    1. You make a point there, Miss Forlorn. After the Americans hailed Manila as the Pearl of the Orient, they bombed it to smithereens during the WW2. These days, we are bombarded by American consumerism. Well, that’s globalization for you. But what I’m sore about is the ugly mix of wanton neglect and unbridled development in Manila (Metro Manila, for that matter). There’s a gnawing lack of sense of general aesthetics and preservation of historical heritage.

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