Manila: The Riviera of the Orient
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - August 20, 2005 - 12:00am
Cleaning my ever-jumbled files one Sunday afternoon, I happened to find a long-misplaced pre-war tourist guide to Manila printed by the Manila Hotel Company. It is one of my favorites, in a collection of Manila-related ephemera, because it graph-ically paints a picture of the city still steeped in heritage, colored by cosmopolitan tastes, and relatively unsullied by politics.

Unimpeachably fascinating, the metropolis was marketed as "The Riviera of the Orient." The guide’s text starts with a declaration that Manila is a "City of Romance and Adventure." The introductory blurb adds that (Manila) is "An ancient city, sleeping in the memories of the past …grim bastions, redoubts, sentry boxed, surrounding massive battlements, smothered in tropic foliage here, bleached by the suns of three centuries there… iron-grilled casements, plazas, patios, and over-hanging balconies are reminiscent of medieval Spain."

The text continues that Manila was a "Babel of bells pealing from church towers (over two dozen in and around the Intramuros), magnificent cathed-rals… convents, monasteries, chap-els, surrounding pleasant gardens …" The city grew from original structures built at the mouth of the great Pasig River, including "gray Fort Santiago, the first stronghold on the riverside, defense against Chinese and Moro pirates since 1590…"

A description of the rest of the city as it was in the late 1930s (the date of the guide’s printing) follows: "Sunken gardens of emerald, flowing greens and golden tees of the Municipal Golf Course… circling these towering walls, a 20th-century substitute for the evil-smelling moat of earlier days… wide, tree-bordered streets, imposing modern buildings designed for the tropics… the two-mile parked and flower-embowered esplanade rimming the glorious bay… fire trees flaming like torches amid the darker green of houses and shrubbery… the wide expanse of the grassy Luneta fronting the water …dominated by the imposing monuments of Rizal, Urdaneta and Legaspi… flanked by the Manila Hotel, the Army and Navy, and the Elks Clubs."

Tourist guides of the era always focused on the history and character of old Manila, mainly because there was much of the city still left from the Spanish-colonial era. The walls of Intramuros and the 17 churches, chapels, and monasteries were still magnificently standing and functioning. The golf course that replaced the moat was already a few decades old and a popular amenity that was only challenged by "newer" courses in Caloocan and Mandaluyong (Wack Wack). The Luneta was enhanced by the then newly-completed Dewey Boulevard with its esplanade – recently resurrected in this century by Mayor Lito Atienza. Finally, all tourist literature of that era cites the Manila Hotel as the premier hospitality establishment of the city and, indeed, of the region.

The guide’s second spread highlights the luxurious appointments of the storied hotel; by then already a quarter-century old. Since 1912, the hotel had undergone numerous improvements and expansions. The original design by American architect William E. Parsons was an H-shaped plan that focused on well-ventilated rooms on two wings, providing grand vistas of the harbor, the Luneta, and Intramuros. The top floor was, in fact, a large viewing deck that was used for various functions, including watching the "Great White Fleet" of the American navy steam into the harbor. Since the opening, the hotel’s Spartan interiors in simplified Mission style gave way to more lavish furnishings and, for some sections, major renovations by Paris-trained-Filipino architect Andres Luna de San Pedro (son of Juan Luna).

The text outlines the environmentally-sensitive, landscape-enhanced design of the hotel stating, "The first impression of the Manila Hotel is one of lavish floral beauty, towering palms, a heavy drapery of green vines over the entrance… a building impressive in its mass, its design and in its superb setting of tropic verdure… entering the lobby, the feeling of size and coolness is increased by the spaciousness of the room, the height of its ceiling, the airy green and white of its decoration… the size, simplicity, and arrangement of the guest rooms complete the picture of a hotel built for the tropics.

At the seaside, the hotel boasted a large covered dancing pavilion: "Imagine a dance floor of immense size and smoothness surrounded by a wide terrace filled with dining tables… it has neither doors nor windows… only the high-domed roof supported by giant columns. As you dine, you look out over the fascinating harbor."

The brochure’s center foldout is the gem of this piece of memorabilia. The brochure opens out two ways to reveal a colorful graphic rendition, albeit extremely politically incorrect, of the Philippine Islands and its location in Asia. Half-naked native women, looking strangely dark-skinned with chinky eyes, wear bones in their hair a la African aborigines. A tree house marks one side of the islands with a fisherman and a pair of fighting cocks on the other.

The last spread of this thin but jampacked brochure and guide is headlined "No visit to the Orient is complete unless it includes the Philippine Islands." The text explains that "To visit the Orient without seeing the Philippines is like going to France without touching Paris." The brochure entices American travelers to work Manila into their itinerary for the Far East since "the trans-Pacific steamer fares are the same to Manila as they are to Hong Kong (and) practically all liners serve the Philippines..."

Well, that was over half a century ago. Manila has far less historic fabric left due to the devastation of the war and the neglect of its architectural legacy since. Intramuros is a shell of its former self despite cyclical efforts to revive it. The Manila Hotel itself underwent a major renovation in the ’70s and the grand dame shone like new for a few years. It is a pale reflection of its former self as the design quality of extensions and its upkeep have left much to be desired. The hotel and the walled city, along with the Luneta, form a tourism district that is in bad need of clear direction and a serious master plan. Such a district plan would ideally include the redevelopment of the south harbor (into a cruise center), the port area (into mixed-use developments), the Intramuros and Luneta (as an integrated heritage and tourism destination), and both Roxas Boulevard and the Pasig River (as an integrated waterfront development like Sydney Harbor, San Francisco’s port district or Boston’s port area redevelopment).

If this fantasy really could come true, then it should also include a redeveloped Post Office (possibly as another hotel like the Fullerton in Singapore), the Metropolitan Theater Garden, the Arroceros area, and Mehan Gardens.

If we did all this then maybe, just maybe, Manila could recover its old glory back. But that’s wishful thinking. Yes, we do have to plan all this… but if we do not fix our politics, our economy, and discern a larger vision for the country, then all this will be for naught.

By the way, if the issues brought out in this column fire you up and levels of frustration and indignation reach intensity- five levels, then here’s a way to channel those pent-up energies. Enroll now in John Silva’s Advocacy Writing Workshop. The course has helped individuals and staff members of NGOs, foundations, universities, corporate communications, and government agencies write about their concerns with more focus, impact, and persuasion, reaping better results. John L. Silva has been a contributing writer to Philippine Starweek, curator for the National Museum, and one of the driving forces behind the Heritage Conservation Society. In addition, he will teach you how to get your article published and get your points across in the media. Seats are limited so reserve now.  The fee is P3,500 and a workbook, a delicious lunch, and a tour of the National Museum are included.  Call/text John now at 0926-729-9029, 527-5082 (work), 831-7065 (home), or reserve online at Workshop date and venue: Saturday, September 10, Museum of the Filipino People, National Museum Complex, Agrifina Circle, Rizal Park, Manila.
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