Manila, the Philippines
July 20 and November 24, 2019
The urban squalor depicted in the acclaimed Brocka film Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag in the 70s persisted like a stain that wouldn’t come off. The glory days of Manila were long forgotten. In the 80s, I could not unsee children and grown men hanging from embankments and pooping directly onto Pasig River in full view of morning rush hour traffic. Thirty years later, little else had improved. Until Mayor Francisco Moreno Domagoso – popularly known as Yorme Isko – came along. Barely warming his mayoralty chair, he set out to scrub off the decades-old grime of our capital city.
Bonifacio and the Katipunan Revolution Monument
The good mayor started the clean-up drive closest to his center of influence – the City Hall and its surrounding public spaces. Poopers in Quiapo’s part of Pasig River in the 80s must have moved their toilet to this plaza across from the mayor’s office no less. The video of Yorme Isko accidentally stepping on crap became viral. But he hit the ground running. The next day, the plaza was washed clean and the shrine repainted.
KKK Foundation Site
Another KKK (Philippine revolutionary society, not the white supremacist group) shrine that had been cleaned and cleared was the one at its foundation site in Recto St., Manila. The shrine showing Bonifacio and five other founders was stuff for Philippine History 101. I had forgotten that the revolution was born in this corner where a KKK member’s house once stood.
Manila City Hall
The trees around the shrine had been adorned with yellow lanterns to coincide with the holiday season. Along with the Christmas tree and the City Hall’s iconic clock tower, the place was radiant and welcoming to the public, not the dark, dirty, and dangerous place that used to be avoided for decades.
Martial Law Memorial Wall
Who knew that a series of marble plaques engraved with the names of those martyred by the Marcos regime was erected between the City Hall and Mehan Garden? Given the current political climate and historical revisionism, the memorial was all the more unexpected and necessary.
Another surprise was the statue of Sisa, the fictional character in Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. But then, the tragedy of Sisa could well be the individual stories of the disenfranchised roaming the city.
Considered by environmentalists as “the lungs of Manila,” this former botanical garden was endangered in the name of urban development (read: more buildings and concrete). It had been revitalized as a public park, although when I was there, the gates were closed. My beshies and I had to ask the caretakers to let us in, if only briefly. A few trees and flowering plants effectively kept the chaos and pollution of the city at bay.
What used to be a dimly-lit and stinky pedestrian underpass choked with vendors and vagrants had been cleared of obstructions and outfitted with lights. There should be no reason for undisciplined Pinoys to risk life and limb jaywalking above.
But another social ill reared its ugly head just days after the clean-up. A group of militant students vandalized the newly-painted walls with their unsightly slogans, proving why we could not have nice things. This nuisance to society could not comprehend that freedom of speech came with social responsibility and artistic expression came with aesthetic standards, both of which they lacked.
A burst of fireworks drew Ki and me toward the Spanish Era bridge. By chance, we caught the inauguration of the newly-restored Jones Bridge. Our jaws dropped. Old World lampposts, the handiwork of Paete artists, and arch lights reflecting on Pasig River exuded Parisian romance and elegance. Two of its La Madre Filipina sculptures were reinstated to their original posts at the bridge plinths. To enhance the Old World ambiance, kundiman (folk music) played on loop at the bridge. Yorme Isko enlisted the heritage restoration expertise of Mr. Acuzar of Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar fame for this project.
Manila Central Post Office
The best of the view of the imposing neoclassical building could be had from Jones Bridge, both structures designed by Juan Arellano. What a romantic way to showcase two of the architect’s glorious works. Its mirror image cast on the placid Pasig River told of the origin of postal delivery coursed mainly through waterways. We chanced on a couple in the midst of their pre-nup shoot on the bridge.
With modern technology rendering postal service practically obsolete, I wondered what would become of the building. Rumors had it years ago that the Post Office would be repurposed into a hotel, but nothing came out of the plan.
I never bought into partisan and personality politics. Nation should be greater than government. I would, perhaps, make an exception for Yorme Isko, a mayor after my heritage-loving heart. With his political will and hands-on approach to governance, Manila could indeed be in the claws of light, grasping at fragile hope to reclaim her lost glory if only in terms of proper utilization of public spaces and infrastructure.
It would have been nice to thank and wish the good mayor well in person right there at Jones Bridge, but I could not cut into the mob of media types and sea of cellphones swarming around him.
Once again, in this square stood the likeness of Andres Bonifacio, the revolutionary Supremo. As one of our national heroes, he demonstrated love of country in action – uncompromising, passionate, vigilant – traits required of both public servants and the public for nation-building. A strong mayor with a heart could only get half the job done. Citizen cooperation would complete the makeover of the city. If people could not do something good, at least they should not do something bad.