Manila Calling

Where can you find a place where Chinese gargoyles pose together with aquiline-nosed saints in white stone? Where American World War II cars are pimped up pre-MTV, choking the sidestreets cheek by jowl with rickety horse-drawn carriages from a bygone era? Where Korean bubblegum pop competes with Justin Bieber or a spoofed version of any of the latest from American Top 40? Where basketball, boxing, beauty contests, pork stew, grilled chicken, and tear-jerking television soaps reign as cultural icons? Where else but in Manila, where the weird genetic makeup results in a lot of mismatches that both confuse and delight.

The real Manila is not the Manila people read about in the news. My Manila is a place of hidden excitement waiting to fascinate those whose interests lie beyond beach-bumming. It may look drab and square on the surface, it’s true, but the wise would do well not to be fooled by what’s apparent. As omnipresent Manila-phile Carlos Celdran puts it, “We don’t put on a show here.”

I was born in Manila, but spent most of my growing up years in the country from age 6 onwards, but being a Manila boy never left me. I constantly longed for the lure of the place. I knew I’d be back someday. True enough, when I returned to be a resident once again, I hungrily made up for lost time by taking in its soul – its sights, sounds, smells – digging every corner for finds. Manila never changed, I found – the same inebriating cocktail of cultures that I expected it to have, only this time even better.

I am not talking about forced cosmopolitanism. I am talking about an authenticity anyone can observe in a typical Manila folk on the street patronizing everything even without the benefit of advertising. What the ignorant is quick to label as an unpretty outpost in the ‘Far East,’ those in the know will only laugh off dismissively, for they know that Manila has always been like this throughout its colorful history. Admittedly, writers don’t exactly wax poetic and novelists seldom choose it for their setting, but those in the know won’t balk at the idea. No less than the famous French figure of haute couture, Pierre Cardin, was certainly in the know when, in his visit, he immediately pronounced the city to be “an old civilization” and lauded its residents for being “cosmopolitan.” Now there’s an unbiased cue for everybody.

The uninitiated will be surprised to know that behind the Philippine capital’s history is a glorious story of global exposure, albeit at certain times bloody. Native son Nick Joaquin has duly noted this in his book Manila My Manila, i.e., how the city’s bay with its famed sunset turned this city into an economic crossroads, a cradle of global trade long before globalization became a buzzword. Its history of conquest by three imperial powers (four if we include the two-year British invasion) certainly enriched the city’s cultural life with layers of influences.

To think that Manila was almost expunged in WWII. Old Manila almost never recovered its original racial mix and the exchange of goods, glances, and who knew what else that ensued. (War records would routinely turn up with unlikely foreign nationalities such Germans, Portuguese, and French among the casualties; there was even a report of a Jewish synagogue somewhere along Taft.) But the city eventually expanded into a Greater Manila that continues to gobble up everything that it touches up to this day, continuously adding regional influences on top of an already thick palimpsest.

Here’s my very own view of the city, in segments, as a place where unexpected juxtapositions not just catch me by surprise but actually cause delight.


Despite the prewar damage, a few defining structures remain, resulting in visual diversity, albeit constantly endangered by the wrecker’s ball. (But thanks to the effort of intrepid groups like Ivan Henares’ Heritage Conservation Society, Manila’s heritage hemorrhage may be stanched yet.) Name an era in Philippine history and you’ll find a few standing markers, architecturally speaking. With Josefina P. Manahan’s Streetbound: Manila on Foot (2001) as guide, I’ve seen first-hand the beauty of the Spanish-Mexican colonial baroque (Quiapo Church), bahay na bato (the Hispanized version of nipa hut, in Intramuros), beaux arts (Luneta Hotel), art deco (Metropolitan Theater), art nouveau (ancestral houses in Quiapo), neoclassical (the wedding cake-like Post Office), palazzos, neogothic (San Beda), Streamline Moderne (Far Eastern University), Marcos-era/New Society-commissioned ‘building sculptures’ (Cultural Center, an abstracted version of the nipa hut), the Bauhaus (Ayala Tower One, Philamlife Tower, Enterprise Center, all in Makati; the new highrises in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig).

These structures make Manila a giant time machine for me. That Rizal Ave. corner where gorgeous neoclassical, baroque, and art deco buildings from different periods in history desperately try to survive feels like looking at a patient in the ICU, a sad/beautiful moment. I never know what will happen next. The Post Office, on the other hand, sits on the Pasig River bank, Parthenon-like, with such permanence, but with the flair of an eyecatching drama queen. The once-defunct and now being restored Metropolitan Theater is absolutely whimsical, but with class/restraint, its unforgettable structure and exquisite details the kind your eyes won’t ever tire of. The Luneta Hotel is equally interesting for its aura of French aristocracy. In stark contrast, Leandro Locsin’s Cultural Center of the Philippines is perhaps the architectural equivalent of a Mondrian painting.

I’ve gathered the above personal observations from the current architectural and history walk tours I’ve tried and highly recommend: Carlos Celdran’s tour of Intramuros, Quiapo, etc.; Ivan Man-Dy’s tours of Binondo, Chinese Cemetery, FEU, and San Miguel; and Lawrence Chan’s postal history tour. Each of these tours is an enriching experience, especially for a history- and culture-trivia buff like me.


I am especially fond of ancient temples, and my favorites among the colonial churches in the country are all found here: the neogothic San Sebastian Church, a prefab all-steel structure shipped from Belgium, and the baroque San Agustin Church, which is painted inside in the elaborate Italian trompe l’oeil style, and the Paco Church and Cemetery, which totally weirds me out.

The San Sebastian church is a marriage of steel with the gothic design idiom, a structure arising from Old Manila’s decaying streetscape like a pleasant surprise.

The San Agustin church, the country’s oldest stone church (completed in 1607), and its adjoining museum has a misleadingly simple exterior hiding an intricately breathtaking interior. Here, I get to stand on the lapidas of Manila’s founder Miguel Lopez de Legaspi et alii, like literally. The only survivor of that tragic WWII American Japanese bombardment of Intramuros, this place has been a repository of an unbelievable collection of disembodied heads of ivory saints that look Chinese but are dressed as Spanish. This strange combo meal is repeated in front and elsewhere: granite fu dogs (Chinese guard ‘dogs’ (lions?)) in front of blinding white European saints, etc. Among the most precious artifacts are the frames of pressed plant leaves originally belonging to the country’s first botanist, Fray Manuel Blanco, an Augustinian. The dark choir loft is a stunner, with its ornately hand-carved chairs made of molave, echoing the elegant main door, and a music guidebook with Gregorian chant notes.

The Paco Church and Cemetery, with its unique circular structure and such a dark history of massive death and destruction, is now a place of concerts and beautiful weddings/receptions –a happy irony! In Quiapo, there is a Muslim mosque with a golden sheen and an old and really quirky Japanese pagoda featuring add-on details best suited to a medieval European castle. Add one gigantic Virgin Mary santo inside and that amusing halo-halo feeling is complete.

I especially love Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown, for its unbelievable melding of three (or more) ancient cultural influences, as condensed, for example, in the little worship corner called Cristo de Longos along Tomas Pinpin corner Ongpin, where devotees burn joss sticks and whisper petitions to a wooden cross reportedly sourced from Mexico.


Manila’s appetite is not widely known, but it should be. Manila’s culinary attractions cater to any budget, from shoestring/backpacker to high-end. A cursory trip to Manila’s streets, malls, and resto strips will reveal diverse cuisines, both regional and international, all striving to be authentic. The variety improves year by year that, today, one can run to specialty houses for Ilocano, Ilonggo, Pampango, or Quezon comfort foods as well as Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Malaysian, Thai, Indian, American, Australian, Mexican, Spanish, French, Italian, Korean, and Middle Eastern cuisines. For an otherwise humid and grungy-looking metropolis that’s classifi ed as “Third World,” that’s far too remarkable. Imagine my delight, for instance, when I randomly bumped into one Mexican restaurant (Cantina) that offered a “Mexican inasal.” I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be in Guadalajara or Mexico.

The latest food fad to hit the city is ‘froyo’ fever (frozen yoghurt), and I am gladly infected. My enduring favorites, though, are the little cafeteria-style Chinese eateries in Binondo (Tasty Dumpling for its fried porkchop and steamed vegetable dumplings and winter melon juice, Wai-Ying for its braised duck and radishcake, etc.) and authentic Greek food at Cyma, where they serve saganaki and other delicious flambéed numbers with a loud cry of “Opa!” For this issue, we held a random toss-up of the excellent fine-dining places, and we had Zuni (Continental-Mediterranean) and Chateau 1771 (“borderless cuisine”) at Greenbelt 5.


Another of Manila’s best-kept secrets is its world-class museums. Stunning is the only apt word I could think of. My favorite showcases include the National Museum, where all the rarest and most valuable cultural and natural treasures of the archipelago are housed under one roof: Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium,” the Manunggul burial jar, Calatagan clay pot, Laguna copper plate, Jose Rizal’s boyhood sculptures, and other attractions that help define the hazy Filipino identity. One Sunday, I ran into tour guide Rommel Garcia giving a lecture on the famed paintings to visiting students from Poveda. I listened in and absorbed certain art and history tidbits I’d never learn anywhere.

If I want to further feel good about being Filipino, I go to the Metropolitan Museum for their vast collection of precolonial gold jewelry and other unique finds. I get astounded by ancient glitters and surprisingly advanced level of craftsmanship (circa 9th century). I am especially enamored of the “Niño Dormido,” a depiction of the sleeping Child Jesus in ivory encased in glass with fi ne gold lace embellishments of Chinese influence. “This is part of the Draper Loot,” according to the Met Museum’s May Cruz, “recovered by Jaime Laya of the Central Bank from a Sotheby’s auction.” One wonders how much else of that loot from the two-year British invasion (1760-1762), which brought us the British Indian Sepoys now dwelling in Cainta, Rizal, is still out there waiting to be reclaimed. This museum piece is singularly striking for its supreme irony: a supposedly poor God-child as helpless human royalty.

The Ayala Museum’s own precolonial gold collection looks like an extension of the Central Bank’s, and it is even more spectacular! I had to breathlessly note down these items to be among its highly unusual acquisitions: a pair of garuda (Hindu-Buddhist mythical bird) earrings, a kinnari goddess (outsize-breasted half-woman, half-swan vessel), a simple gold bowl, a highly original outlandishly designed death mask, exquisitely carved hilts, elaborate woven wear for the wrist and hips, and a baldric (shoulder belt used for carrying weapon), among other arresting finds. Together with the history dioramas, loaned costumes from the Netherlands, and boat replicas, these items make the Ayala Museum a must-see.


Manila sound is hard to peg down, “but it’s there,” as prodigious composer Ryan Cayabyab once put it. It’s there in multiple genres, with a band playing in some lounge or dive their chosen specialty, be it jazz, metal, ska, RnB, punk, rap/hip-hop, or reggae. There was a time when my favorite radio station was LA 104.9, which gave me a glimpse of the world’s music, from Afropop to zydeco. It’s now gone, but the restless enthusiast in me remains sated. The fads of late have been bossa nova and Korean bubblegum pop plus J-pop and Taiwanese acts. I am lucky to be a spectator, having been a part time music reviewer, struggling to be detached and objective, as I saw most acts live, such as Apo Hiking Society, Martin Nievera, Bamboo, Itchyworms, Hale, Up Dharma Down, Pedicab, Gloc9, MYMP, Cookie Chua, Drip, Sarah Geronimo, Christian Bautista, and Freestyle. With the advent of iPod and illegal downloads, it’s anybody’s guess what Manilans like me are up to.


Manileños’ film appreciation has likewise evolved through the years. I’ve been a long-time fan of foreign filmfests, with Manila’s resident embassies giving us an opportunity to view films from places as disparate as Finland, Brazil, Indonesia, Poland, etc. This adds an exciting novelty to what’s been dubbed as third golden age (i.e., these days) in Philippine filmmaking, spurred on by rising indie artists, a lot of them based in Manila.


From tiangges sidewalk stalls in Greenhils, Divisoria, and Baclaran, to the Weekend Markets in Salcedo and Magallanes (Makati), Ortigas, and QC, to the giant malls (SM North, Megamall, Mall of Asia), Manila has also been a shopping paradise even to this hesitant shopper who hates shopping and weekend crowds. My favorite malls are the elegantly designed malls of the Ayalas: Greenbelt, Glorietta, and Serendra. I also frequent the back of the Mall of Asia, a splendid location to watch the changing moods of the sea and the constant shifting of the clouds (those “ice-cream castles in the sky”!).


Huge parks are few and far between, so each one is precious to me, from Luneta (Rizal Park) to Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife to La Mesa Ecopark to the University of the Philippines’ Sunken Garden in Diliman. In the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife lagoon, groups of artists park their easels in the area and will sketch your likeness in charcoal for free if you’re lucky. Because I am also a birdwatching hobbyist, another favorite is the American Cemetery at Fort Bonifacio, which exudes an almost soundless, otherworldly air amidst the manicured greens. Binoculars in hand, I once joined Michael Lu and the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines in spotting endemic birds, such as the kilyawan (an oriole) and kulasisi (a parrot), whose calls pierced the tranquility in staccatos. Though not exactly a park, the Manila Ocean Park is likewise highly recommended, being a world-class oceanarium.

There are many other things I love about Manila. There used to be time when a jeepney ride inside Nayong Pilipino Heritage Park near the airport meant a microcosmic tour of the Philippine Islands. That’s sadly gone, but I refuse to “speak of Manila in past tense,” to steal somebody’s quote, for there are simply so many other things to like. Catching a glimpse of the giant orange ball descending on the horizon while I’m inside the LRT always reduces me into a pair of two big orbs. In La Salle Taft,

University Belt, UP, University of Santo Tomas, and the Ateneo, shamelessly ogling at the country’s future best and brightest, at their most beautiful stage in life, is always an infectious joy. (Manila should have a walk tour of all these school campuses.) Lunch-break at the Enterprise Center, LKG Tower, or PBCom Bldg’s Patio along Ayala Ave. gives me a good feel of the office and BPO crowd in Makati, the country’s new financial district (the old being Binondo). A limited glimpse of Malacañang Palace inside an air-con catamaran down the Pasig feels like an exercise in voyeurism against a Php20 bill. The beautiful modern structures arising like mushrooms in The Fort in Taguig smell of the future of Manila, which is to say, bright, prosperous, and clean. The lights and lanterns along Ayala Ave. on Christmas never fail to enchant me back into a devoted believer in visual magic. The other peculiar spots I am especially fond of because I bonded with them the most as a toddler, kid, and preteen include Manila Zoo, Luneta, Fort Santiago, Harrison Plaza, Paco public market, Pandacan, and Araneta Center in Cubao (Araneta Coliseum, Ali Mall, Rustans, COD), all reminding me of personal moments with my mother, aunts, and cousins, all containing untold personal stories.

The list goes on and on and on, but surprise… I never get to repeat myself or tire myself off it. In cosmopolitan Manila, I am instead deliriously disorientated. 


Nash Vendivil and Rommel Garcia (National Museum), Intramuros Administration, Rinnah Sevilla (Ayala Museum), Fralynn Manalo and May Cruz (Metropolitan Museum), Cyrus Cruz and Lucille Robinson (Chateau 1771), Andy Atienza (Zuni)