Issue 11.2: April / May 2008

City on the Edge of Forever

story by Michael Shapiro

The remnants of Typhoon Mita, which had hit the eastern coasts of the Philippines hard the night before, enveloped Manila in a solid, wet wall of gray. It was the second hurricane that week. But life went on as usual: An unbroken line of red taillights crept down Roxas Boulevard toward The Mall of Asia, where Manileños, like their American brothers and sisters, were ferociously shopping for Christmas. Everyone was just as unruffled by the small earthquakes that had rocked the city since my landing two days earlier. A little tremor now and then is certainly no sweat for people living in the geologically restless Philippines. A raised eyebrow and a wry grin was generally the only acknowledgment that the earth had just shivered beneath our feet … again.

And, oh yes, there was also a coup. Maybe you read about it. Long story short: A group of rebels had holed up in the Peninsula Hotel in the upscale Makati City area and refused to leave unless President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo stepped down. She didn’t. You don’t get picked by Forbes magazine as the world’s fourth most powerful woman by being skittish, I suppose. A few tense hours passed while the rebels awaited the popular uprising they hoped would coalesce. It didn’t. The rebels surrendered, and that was that. The whole thing took six hours, start to finish. A citywide curfew was imposed that night, and by the next morning, Manila had returned to the rollicking, barely contained chaos it calls normal.

But back at the largest mall in Asia (called—what else?—The Mall of Asia), people went on shopping, ice-skating, eating, movie-going—far too busy to participate in a popular uprising. If my cab driver hadn’t explained the situation, I wouldn’t have known anything unusual was going down. “Bahala na!” he’d said through his grin, a phrase that well describes the Filipino outlook. It means

“Whatever may come,” and “Leave it to God,” and “S**t happens.” Like banzai!, it also prefaces reckless acts of gumption—a coup, for instance.

Later that evening, confined by the curfew, I make my way to the hotel bar. “Budweiser, Joe?” says my bartender. I tell him my name’s Michael, and he chuckles at my naiveté. Filipinos call random Americans “Joe,” he explains, a holdover from the days when most Americans in the Philippines were servicemen or “GI Joes.” I ask for “something local,” and he pours a San Miguel beer. He’s curious about what I, a Kano (another slang for “American”), think of his hometown.

“It’s been a busy two days,” I say, “I’ve seen earthquakes, typhoons and …”

“And a mutiny!” he says, laughing as he pours himself a drink. “That’s Manila! You never know what’s coming. It’s crazy, but it’s never boring.”

“Bahala na.” I shrug.

“Bahala na!” he replies.

Manila is a freewheeling, riotous blur of color, sound and odor, a simultaneous party and hangover where anything goes and often does. As a third-world metropolis of 12 million people—the most densely populated city in the world—it’s afflicted with the usual problems of overcrowding and grit. Still, Filipinos are among the happiest, friendliest, most unassailably cheerful people on Earth. In 2007, a global research firm found that Pinoys rate second only to Asian Indians in optimism and happiness. Suggesting again some truth to the old saw westerners love to repeat but never believe: Money really doesn’t equal happiness.

“Manila’s feral,” Carlos Celdran tells me over semi-cold San Miguels. “It’s the wild west.” Carlos is an actor and performance artist who runs an artists’ co-op near Remedios Circle in the hip (think downscale Greenwich Village) area of Malate. He’s outspoken about all things Filipino; while he’s quick to excoriate Manila’s problems, he’s also clearly—and deeply—in love with his city. “There’s a poetry here,” he says. “If you look under the surface, you’re going to find a city rich in history, with museums, shops, cafés. Manila’s always been gritty; the cacophony, the dirt—it’s part of the character. Once you can hear through the cacophony, you’re going to hear the poetry. If you can’t find beauty in Manila, you can’t find it anywhere.”

Carlos invites me to join his popular walking tour through what he calls the soul of Manila, Intramuros (literally “within the walls”). Built at the mouth of the Pasig River in the sixteenth century, Intramuros is the walled city from which Spain exerted control over its farthest-flung colony. We begin at Fort Santiago, the garrison that protected the Spanish colonists from the huddled masses beyond the walls. The Philippines’ Spanish discoverer, Miguel López de Legazpi, apparently put a good deal of thought into choosing the fort’s namesake, Santiago Matamoros (literally, Saint James, Killer of Muslims). Fort Santiago was the stronghold from which the Spanish established dominion over the Muslims who’d been trading (and proselytizing) in the Philippines centuries before the Spanish arrived in 1565. Today, Intramuros is one of only two places left in Manila where one can experience the ambiance of the Spanish colonial period.

Americans might remember Intramuros for the role it played in the Second World War; the Japanese occupied and later mined the area. Douglas MacArthur, returning as promised, opted not to risk ground troops in the booby-trapped maze of the old city. Instead, the Americans bombed Manila more or less indiscriminately; while they succeeded in dislodging the 3,000 or so Japanese soldiers, more than 100,000 Filipinos died in the crossfire. (Grim Filipino humor: MacArthur returned, but we wish he hadn’t). When the dust settled, whatever remained of Intramuros, the buildings the Japanese hadn’t destroyed, was gone. Except for the baroque San Agustin Church, miraculously the only building left standing, everything a visitor sees in Intramuros today is a reconstruction.

It’s a deeply felt narrative in Manila, one of the defining stories of its culture. Before the war, Manila enjoyed a reputation as Southeast Asia’s most modern, cosmopolitan city. But in four short weeks, from Feb. 3 to March 3, 1945, it was reduced from the Pearl of the Orient to the second most devastated allied city of the war (Warsaw took first prize). While it has been rebuilt, it has never recovered its prewar character. Today, wandering among the ochre-colored walls and tranquil lily ponds of Fort Santiago, redolent with approximated old-world charm, that history seems a near-distant echo, a voluble ghost.

On the evening of my visit, though, a holier kind of ghost drifted through Intramuros. Once a year, churches from throughout the country transport their hallowed images of the Virgin Mary to Manila and parade them through the streets. This was to be a banner year, with more than seventy figures scheduled to participate. During the day, Intramuros had been abuzz with people dressing the figures in elaborate gold-embroidered robes and festooning their carrozas, or carriages, with lilies and orchids, with candles and electric lights. As night fell, thousands of devotees—beauty queens in gossamer dresses, little girls with angel wings, steely-eyed men in military uniform—followed the Marys to strains of “Ave Maria” and “Silent Night.” It was part procession, part celebration: The entire population of one town accompanied its Mary, singing and dancing behind her carroza. Darkness gathered, and all the long suffering recorded in the streets of Intramuros, all the stains and grit of today’s Manila faded into the blue. The Marys floated past, their angelic faces illuminated by lamps at once electric and divine. Their wooden eyes, cast earthward in compassion or raised heavenward in rapture, delivered a message in symbol. None of that matters, they seemed to say. Trust in God. Bahala na.

“Manileños come to Binondo for only two reasons,” says Ivan Man Dy. “To eat and to shop.” I have come to eat. Binondo is Manila’s Chinatown, possibly the world’s first and oldest. Unlike most other Chinatowns, or perhaps any other Chinatown, it’s centered on a massive Catholic church. I meet Ivan in front its stained, 411-year-old façade, the only part of the original church to survive the bombing. The unusual design of its bell tower exemplifies the East-meets-West fusion that characterizes not only Chinatown but Manila as a whole: It’s an eight-sided pagoda.

The Chinese arrived in Manila close on the heels of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, supplying the labor and the commercial muscle for Spain’s developing colony. Because there were few Chinese women, they intermarried with the indigenous Malay Tagalog people. Because they were considered heathens and thus prevented from integrating into Spanish Catholic society, the ever-pragmatic Chinese converted to Christianity and took Hispanic names. Binondo became the locus of this utterly unique Malay/Chinese/ Spanish/Christian (and later American) “chop suey” culture, as Ivan calls it. As a result, one finds curious syntheses, such as a sidewalk shrine with a crucifix flanked by sticks of burning incense, a brace of Chinese stone lions guarding the entry to a church, or street vendors hawking Buddhist good luck charms bearing images of the Virgin Mary rather than Kwan Yin.

Like the Chinatown of my native New York, Binondo is where you go for some of the best cheap eats in town. Ivan, a self-styled “streetwalker” (though he wasn’t aware of the double-entendre, he says, when he printed the word on his lapel button), leads an eating tour through the warren of Binondo’s narrow streets. At open-air stalls and in hole-in-the-wall eateries, we sample dim sum, siopao (the meat-filled bun known to Hawai‘i as manapua), a peasant rice soup from Fujian. At one stall, Ivan passes out eggs dyed a radioactively bright magenta. I fear that a long-dreaded moment has arrived: I’m to be peer-shamed into sampling balut, an infamous Filipino delicacy—pickled duck embryo, avec bones, feet, beak, feathers. A food so challenging (okay, I’ll say it: disgusting) that contestants on Fear Factor were forced to choke it down for money. Some couldn’t. Just as I feel a sudden bout of vegetarianism coming on, I discover that it’s a harmless tea egg—a hard-boiled chicken egg stewed in a broth of salty tea, a street food popular throughout China. Odd at first, but tasty.

We turn off the street at an unmarked doorway and walk down a long, dark hall. At the end, a surprise: an open-air courtyard done in art deco style, painted a hotter pink than the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Here, amid the garish influence of 1930s America, in the heart of a Catholic Chinatown with a Spanish cathedral, we eat lumpia—a traditional Filipino deep-fried meat and vegetable roll. “Everything is a mixture here,” Ivan says with what appears to be a little pride. “We look Malay, eat Chinese food, pray to Spanish saints and imitate Frank Sinatra so perfectly you’d think he’s still alive.”

Walking tours are an excellent introduction for a tourist and may get you safely through places like Binondo where tourists don’t usually venture alone. But one measure of a great city is, for me, what happens when you get lost in it. I pointed to an area that on my map was labeled simply “textile market.” The cabbie hesitated; he spoke little English, but his expression was easy to translate: You sure, Joe?

I got in the cab. I was sure. I was ready.

I wasn’t ready. As we neared the market area, the crowds swelled, traffic clogged the streets. An armada of dilapidated tricycles called “poor man’s taxis” and overstuffed Jeepneys (garishly decorated Jeep minivans that serve as public transportation) inched ever deeper toward some heart of shopping darkness. I stepped out of the cab and into the ongoing convulsion of hot and sticky commerce that is Baclaran market on Bonifacio Day, a national holiday many Filipinos spend shopping for Christmas.

Baclaran is one of three major street markets in metro Manila. The most unusual is the profusion of stalls congregated around Quiapo Church, where vendors sell a variety of religious icons and paraphernalia, some Christian—cherubic baby Jesus dolls and Virgin Mary statues—and some, well, not so Christian, like what the locals call “voodoo cures”: herbs and potions that claim to be everything from vegetable Viagra to abortion-inducers (and this on the doorstep of one of the city’s main Catholic churches). Then there’s the mother of all street markets, a place where even Manileños fear to tread, but for a bargain, they will: Divisoria, an utterly bewildering labyrinth where you can buy bulk items fresh off the boat from China, mostly. Christmas decorations, clothing, hectares of plastic gimcracks, mountains of pork rinds, which are to Filipinos what potato chips are to Americans. If you want something cheaper than what you’d pay at Divisoria, you’ll have to inherit it, steal it or make it yourself.

Baclaran is by comparison a little tamer but still respectably rambunctious, a good place for getting lost. As the only tourist I see—which I take as a promising sign—I draw steady attention, though all of it friendly. Almost everything here is packed in bale form: bales of rubber flip-flops, bales of ornamental fans, bales of women’s underwear stacked a storey high. “Hey Joe!” calls out a guy waving a white tank top he’s pulled from a bale, “You can be like Die Hard! Cheap!” Untempted, I move off the main drag and into the tight side streets, where everyone is pressed together in a sweaty human river. Passing what must be the food court, where feral cats stalk the underworld beneath stalls selling Asian vegetables, balut and chestnuts roasting in repurposed oil drums (it is Christmas, after all), I hear a cry of “Tahooooo!” I stop to buy a cup of taho, warm, soft tofu mixed with carmelized sugar, a delicious—and safe—treat so far as street food goes. So I tell myself.

For Ivan and Carlos, as for many Filipinos I’ve met, the ragged charm of old Manila and the combustible street markets like Baclaran are a counterweight to the antiseptic mall culture now sweeping Manila. While the malls offer air-conditioned respite from the hellacious Philippine heat and relief from the noise and grit, they’re homogenizing a city still in search of its own identity. There’s a concern that Manila may be Starbucked and Banana Republicked—First Worlded, if you will—to death before something authentically Filipino has a chance to develop after four centuries of colonialism. “The soul of Manila isn’t in the malls,” Ivan had said. “It’s in Intramuros, Quiapo, Binondo, the street markets.”

As frenzied as a market like Baclaran is—with the chaos, the noise, the brine of exhaust in the air—there’s a reassuring orderliness to it. As if by social contract, the shoppers jostle but never push, and everyone manages to keep out of everyone else’s way, even smiling with strangers. I shudder to picture what 5,000 New Yorkers jammed together in near-equatorial heat like this might do to each other. But these, you’ll remember, are the second-happiest people on Earth. A woman with a bundle on her head bumps me as we’re borne on the irresistible human current. She labors under her burden, and I’m hopelessly lost, but we exchange a laugh at our plight that reaches across our separate worlds.

She asks where I’m from; her perfect English surprises me.


“Oh, America!” she says with an unabashed admiration that’s becoming rare in the world these days. “I have family in Detroit!” She points to the bundle on her head. “This is for them.” We talk about our families, our jobs. She works in a call center doing customer service for an American company, a growing industry in the Philippines. This is the first year she’s been able to send gifts to her relatives abroad, and though she hates working nights, she says it’s worth it for the salary: $300 a month. “I’m rich!” she jokes.

The frenetic day closes with a blazing sunset that turns the city briefly to gold, and Manila gears up for another episode of its legendary nightlife. After dark, Manila is transformed from shabby leviathan to a massive carnival ride; as deep as their devotion to heavenly pursuits may be, the Manileños’ commitment to an earthly party runs just as deep.

Maybe it’s ironic that the rebels chose Makati City as ground zero for their abortive coup. They were hoping for a resurgence of the nonviolent “people power” movement of 1986, when masses of Manila’s frustrated and dispossessed swept Ferdinand Marcos from power. But Makati is the last place you’ll find Manila’s frustrated and dispossessed. Here among its gritless avenues, tony malls and trendy restaurants, upwardly mobile Filipinos, expats and tourists come to play. The elegant Greenbelt Mall (“the country’s first premier lifestyle center,” according to its PR) is home to high-end shops like Prada and Armani, and the Apple Store (I can’t resist an Apple Store) is not only better stocked than those in Honolulu; it’s more expensive. For many, Makati represents the model of what Manila might one day become: The Pearl of the Orient redux.

At the outdoor tables by Havana Café, young Filipinas in knee-high boots and miniskirts vie for the attentions of Kanos downing an alarming number of San Miguels, and Chinese businessmen take leisurely, reptilian pulls on Cuban cigars. The Starbucks and the Seattle’s Best (within twenty feet of one another) are full with decked-out tourists dosing up on fuel for their nocturnal missions. Most are headed to the clubs for drinking and dancing, others to the hostess bars along P. Burgos Street, but I want to scope out something a bit more under the radar, a little live music joint called Saguijo on the not-so-mean back streets of Makati.

In official terms, Saguijo qualifies as a dive. But it’s a popular venue for many of the city’s up-and-coming bands that are rarely if ever heard beyond the shores of the Philippines, but which nevertheless thoroughly rock. Even though most of the music derives from American alt-rock and grunge (much of it sung in Tagalog), it hasn’t yet become a victim of its own
success, prefabricated, overproduced and mass marketed. It was, to revive a tired cliché, really about the music. Impressed by the unpretentious musicianship, I close the place down. A first for me in years.

Back near my hotel in Malate at 3 a.m., the streets are still filled with revelers going in and out of the bars by Remedios Circle or trying their luck at the Casino Filipino. My plane leaves in a few hours, though, so I decide to pack it in. But the throb and noise of a city seeking temporary salvation keeps me up, and I head back out. Passing a hopping bar bright with neon at about 4 a.m., I hear strains of Sinatra. But it’s not a stereo system; it’s a videoke (i.e., video karaoke) parlor where an improbably short Filipino man in gingham pants and a fedora belts out a heartfelt and pitch-perfect finale to “My Way.”

On the way to the airport, my cabbie asks what I’m doing in Manila. “I’m writing a story about the city,” I say, “for a magazine.”

I see his eyes widen in the rearview mirror. “Oh,” he says. “Well, I hope you’re going to write about the good things.”

That reaction says a lot about this city and the people I’ve met here. In that simple statement is the knowledge that things aren’t quite what they could be. But they see past that; they see what may yet be. They know that their pearl is unique in the world. That their restless metropolis perched on the shores of a shivering island is a continuous act of becoming, an article of faith. HH