Manila, the Philippines
April 25, 2019
In my 50 years as a Filipino citizen, I never set foot in Malacañang Palace, the seat of power in the Philippines. As the office and official residence of presidents since a century ago, it never piqued my curiosity even as a historical site. A palace implied royalty; last time I checked, our form of government was never a monarchy. The opportunity came in the form of an invite from a colleague and docent-in-training. Her connections in the Presidential Museum secured our group a spot in their weekday guided tours.
The hour-long tour revolved around Kalayaan Hall, the oldest and best-preserved part of the palace. The building contained the Presidential Museum & Library (PML), the only part of the palace open to the public.
Malacañang’s American colonial architecture consisted of airy features, such as balconies, open galleries, and high ceilings, security concerns notwithstanding. As a product of colonial times, the palace could well be a symbol of elitist rule and Machiavellian machinations, except that this time fellow Filipinos were at the helm. But I was getting ahead of myself.
John Victorino, our tour guide, began with the basics. Where did the name Malacañang come from? No one knew for certain. A generally accepted etymology was that it was Spanish for “place of the fisherman,” the palace being located at the banks of Pasig River, but my rusty Spanish could not make sense of the translation. The Tagalog “ma lakan iyan,” meaning a place of noblemen, sounded more plausible. I preferred the Spanish mala caña, or “evil cane,” referring to nuno (dark spirits) dwelling within dense bamboo forests, because it was a closer meaning to the context of my time. Metaphorically, of course. Or not.
It was said that the Americans dropped the final G and printed Malacañan in documents. This was retained in present plaques in the palace itself despite the letter’s comeback in the spelling. I might have heard that Malacañan referred to the palace and Malacañang to the entire complex, but I could just be imagining it.
I and my girl squad (“the ladies who lunch,” as they literally did a lot of that) shared our time slot with students on a field trip. We were all shuffled to five state rooms we would visit in Kalayaan Hall.
The Marcos Room (Old Governor-General’s Office)
Our first stop was the main colonial administration office remodeled as a replica of the office of President Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. when he declared martial law on September 23, 1972. The dark hardwood desk and chair on which the dictator signed the historic declaration blended with the shadows of the dimly-lit room. The document, encased in glass, hung above the desk.
The moment took on profound resonance as I pondered history with my colleague, a former journalist who went to the mountains to interview some of the targets – real or imagined – of the draconian law.
The Osmeña Room (The Old Cabinet Room)
The next room was used by President Sergio Osmeña, Sr. for meetings as a member of the Cabinet and Council of State during the American era prior to his presidency. Its faux stucco walls and embellishments designed by sculptor Isabelo Tampinco were a striking departure from dark hardwood panels of other state rooms.
The Quezon Room (Quezon Executive Office)
Named after President Manuel L. Quezon, the room was notable for less historic and more historical features. Its Czech crystal chandeliers that survived WW2 were said to have been taken apart crystal by crystal and reassembled back after the war.
The room was also known for being the first air-conditioned room in the country. Prior to the late 1930s, American governor-generals had to fan themselves. Renowned American painter Leon Gordon’s portrait of the president, seated and dressed in a suit, graced the main wall.
The original desk and chair used by Quezon had been preserved and passed on to succeeding presidents and one named Gen. Fabian Ver. If walls and furniture could talk, indeed.
The Quirino Room (The Council of State Room)
Hanging above a console table, an Amorsolo portrait of President Elpidio Quirino dominated the room named after him. This was a room of succession. Quirino took his oath of office here after President Manuel Roxas died of a heart attack as did Vice President Carlos P Garcia after President Ramon Magsaysay perished in a plane crash.
Cabinet meetings, conferences, and ceremonies of state were conducted in this room until the time of Marcos who used it as a broadcast studio. As in the Quezon Room, original furniture and artwork still outfitted the room.
The Roxas Room (The Roxas Cabinet Room)
Another Amorsolo, this time the portrait of Roxas, also dominated his room. Marcos turned this room into a studio as he did the Quirino Room.
Main Hall and Library (Gallery of Presidents and First Ladies’ Gallery)
The main gallery of Kalayaan Hall on the second floor, formerly a dining hall for state dinners during the Marcos regime, was turned into a museum housing books and memorabilia of all former presidents and their first ladies. Official functions had been moved to an undisclosed location, but at least the masa to which I belonged could have a glimpse of the fruit of our taxes.
John led the group to a particular balcony, surely a historic one. At the height of the 1986 People Power Revolution, I was glued to the TV watching Marcos make his last stand on February 25 before fleeing to Hawaii, ending his 21-year dictatorship. Marcos lost his grip on power in a hall First Lady Imelda Marcos called Maharlika, a word he had wanted to rename the Philippines with.
I looked out from the same balcony and remembered history unfolding in real time. I wondered what it was like for Marcos at that moment and for the Filipino people up to that moment. In my moment, I could see the Philippine flag waving in the wind on palace grounds. Power was impermanent as freedom was fragile.
As the tour drew to a close, John directed our attention to the Impressionist painting, Las Nereidas by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, donated during Quirino’s term by an American philanthropist fondly called the Big Alma. The painting was reportedly worth a fortune that it took top priority should evacuation be necessary. I expected to see vulgar displays of extravagant jewelry and controversial war medals, but this artwork was the jewel in the palace.
What a timely piece it was too. The 1886 mythological painting conveyed an uncanny metaphor more than a century thenceforth. I saw it as a depiction of the country sinking under the tempest of the incumbent administration’s unbridled corruption and unabashed incompetence.
State gifts and personal effects (a yellow baby grand piano given to President Corazon Aquino in 1986 among them), portraits of presidents and their first ladies, ornamental and structural artwork densely packed the rooms and gallery. There was a myriad of items and as many stories to tell, but that would be for another time, perhaps if the country stayed afloat on the high seas.
Many thanks to John Victorino for the informative and engaging tour and to my friend Joy for the invite.