HINDSIGHT - HINDSIGHT By F. Sionil Jose () - May 9, 2004 - 12:00am
Itook Lulu, my daughter-in-law – a balikbayan – to dinner at one of the Roxas Boulevard restaurants the other night and she saw how the boulevard was spruced up with fancy lights, and food stalls. She had not seen Manila in years and was quite delighted at the change. The darkness is very kind to Manileños for it hides from view those dreary sights that have made our capital one of the world’s ugliest cities.

It was not like this before, so here then is my memoir of the Manila that was.

In April, 1937, shortly after I finished grade school in Rosales, Pangasinan, a kindly uncle lifted me from my rural origins and sent me to Manila to attend high school. I took the train from my hometown to Paniqui in Tarlac and transferred there to the bigger Ilocos Express. I brought along a pasalubong, a bundle of firewood and a bag of vegetables. On this, my first train ride, I had visions of the city, its frenetic life. The small immemorial towns, the Central Plain brown and fallow and splotched with vast green canefields, then in the late afternoon, the larger towns, more spacious and finally, on the right, the Ang Tibay Shoe Factory, then the cavernous and gloomy Tutuban Station.

I passed a hand over my hair and found it sandy, and so were my ears, with the accumulated coal ash from the train. My uncle was at the platform and he helped me with my tampipi and pasalubong. It was dusk when we got out of the station into a plaza where many calesas jostled with one another. We boarded one and clattered down Azcarraga redolent with the odor of horse manure. I took in everything, the buses, the clanging streetcars, the calesas, and soon, as darkness descended upon the city the neon lights bloomed.

My uncle’s accesoria was near the corner of Requesens and Misericordia, a block away from Rizal Avenue. It had two bedrooms upstairs, a living-dining room and a kitchen in the ground floor, and miracle of miracles, my first flush toilet.

School still being days away, I took long walks along the entire length of Rizal Avenue, onwards to Intramuros, to the Luneta. At the time, many of the streets were not paved and in our neighborhood, boys scooped the water from the gutter to splash onto the gravel and prevent dust from lifting when cars passed.

At any time of the day, Chinese vendors went around shouting their wares – taho, puto cochinta, bote diaryo. And in almost every street corner were Chinese sari-sari stores where it was possible to ask for free, a pinch of salt, a spoonful of vinegar, a kernel of garlic. The big shops were up Rizal Avenue, in Carriedo and Rosario in Binondo. The most elegant stores were at the Escolta and the premier department store was Heacocks, which had an automatic electric door. Along the Escolta, too, was the Crystal Arcade lined with specialty shops. Fresh from the province, I was awed by such luxurious displays and intimidated into not entering their premises. The music stores were in Carriedo – musical scores, instruments of all kinds. Classy footwear like Walkover and Florsheim were also at the Escolta. For the less fashionable, locally made shoes were in Gandara in Binondo.

Traffic in Manila as with all over the country was on the left. I was reading a novel the other day about Manila before World War II and there was a section describing a traffic jam – there were no traffic jams in Manila then. The streets were lorded by the cochero and his calesa for which reason the cochero was called the king of the road just like the jeepney driver is today. The equivalent of the jeepney was the auto calesa which plied the Pasay-Sta. Cruz Plaza route; it was actually called jitney and could carry comfortably five passengers. The main Manila transport was the streetcar – the trambiya, which ran from La Loma to Plaza Goiti, Legarda, all the way to San Marcelino and Maypajo. There was also the caretela bus which ran from La Loma to Divisoria via Azcarraga, and of course, the Meralco bus. Upperclass Filipinos had Packards, Dodges, Chevrolets, Studebakers, Fords and the major taxi companies were Dollar, Golden and Yellow.

The major movie theaters were the Lyric and Capitol at the Escolta, and the Avenue, Ideal and State at Rizal Avenue. They showed only Hollywood movies. The Grand at Rizal Avenue showed Tagalog pictures. Our movie stars were Rosa del Rosario, Elsa Oria, Carmen Rosales, Arsenia Francisco, Rogelio de la Rosa, Angel Esmeralda, Leopoldo Salcedo and Fernando Poe.

was the word we used to describe the tough guys and one tough guy actor who sticks to mind was Exequiel Segovia.

I favored the non-airconditioned second-run movie houses where I paid just half the fare and I followed such serials like the Lone Ranger and the Drums of Fu Manchiu. Most of the pictures before World War II were in black and white although there were already quite a few that were in color. In fact, much earlier in the old hometown, I saw some of the last silent cowboy pictures starring Tom Mix and Bob Steele.

I enrolled at the Far Eastern University High School in what is now Isetann in Azcarraga (Recto). I remember our principal most, a tall handsome mestizo by the name of Angel Roman. After school at one in the afternoon, my classmates and I would walk to the Quiapo market; behind it we would disrobe and swim in the Pasig River. It was then greenish or brownish, depending on the season. There were fishermen on its banks. Farther towards the bay, at the foot of the Jones Bridge, the inter-island ships docked.

If we did not swim in the Pasig, we went to the bay – there was no seawall then. The basement of the Congress Building, now the National Museum was the National Library. I had this crazy ambition of finishing the Encyclopedia Britannica and after my bout with it, I read other books, often before Manuel Arguilla – you couldn’t miss him because he had this black patch on his cheek, a birth mark or an overgrown mole. He was writing then those famous short stories and essays which I admired.

By the Thirties, the elegant life was no longer in Intramuros. Although the religious orders still maintained their houses in the Walled City, the rich and influential who used to live there had moved to Manila’s suburbs.. To Santa Mesa and New Manila in Quezon City and to Pasay, Ermita and Malate. Kangkong plots thrived along portions of España and Dimasalang and rice fields were still in Grace Park, San Andres and Quezon City. San Francisco del Monte, Diliman, Makati – all these were at the world’s end.

The Ermita-Malate area before World War II was the Forbes Park of Manila and some of the stately mansions that were spared the holocaust of the Liberation may still be seen in this district. Look carefully at the big trees which are in Ermita and you will find the remnants of shell and bullet holes in them.

The most elegant social gatherings of the time were held at the Winter Garden and the Fiesta Pavilion of the Manila Hotel. As a kid in short pants, on New Year’s Eve, I used to watch outside the iron fence on Avenida Rizal the men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns attend the ball at Club Filipino.

Close by was the Manila Grand Opera House at the corner of Doroteo Jose and her Canuplin imitated Charlie Chaplin and Katy de la Cruz belted out her songs.

As a teenager, I knew very little of Manila’s nightlife but I do recall that Serafin Payawal and his orchestra played at the skyroom of the Jai Alai, that the elegant balls like the Kahirup of the Negros hacenderos was held annually at the Manila Hotel, and that two halls of the hotel, the Fiesta Pavilion and the Winter Garden were the chic venues of the country’s plushiest social events.

For Juan de la Cruz, nightlife often meant the cabarets – La Loma, Maypajo, and Santa Ana – the last being the largest in the world. The men bought tickets – ten centavos per at a counter – then when the music started, they raced to the line of taxi-dancers (they were called bailarinas) and for each piece of dance music, they gave their partners a ticket.

Formal balls featured the rigodon – usually performed by the older people. The youth preferred the popular dances, the rhumba, the conga, the Lambeth Walk, the jitter bug and the boogie which soon became popular. Those who did not know how to dance could go to Smile Bengco’s Dance Academy at Rizal Avenue where the students could be seen from the sidewalk across the street.

Male government workers and students always wore white suits – usually cotton. The wealthy wore the more expensive sharkskin, the alpaca drill de hielo. The women dressed formally with the terno and panuelo. To express nationalism, the barong tagalog often bore designs of the nipa hut and the Philippine flag in color.

The seat of power then was Malacañang, just as it is now, and Manuel Quezon, the mestizo from Tayabas was lord. He was also known in the tienda for his love affairs. One afternoon, I eagerly watched a filming at the Manila Hotel of a movie which starred Amparo Karagdag, a petite mestiza rumored to be a Quezon girl friend.

Quezon lorded it over also at the Luneta during the November 15 parades commemorating the Commonwealth. How I loved those parades – the vanguard led by a mestizo traffic cop in his roaring Harley Davidson motorcycle, then the Constabulary band, the contingent of Philippine Military Academy cadets marching in neat precision, and the floats with their pretty girls. And at the grandstand, Quezon again delivering his usual rousing speech.

The American presence in pre-war Manila was not noticeable; the Americans lived in special enclaves and the American military was nowhere in sight except in Intramuros where Fort Santiago was then an American compound. On occasion, when the Navy ships were in town, there would be sailors coming out of Tom Dixie’s kitchen in Plaza Goiti, and Military MPs going about the streets. Some form of racial discrimination existed – I read that before World War II, some Americans discriminated against us and those who intermarried with Indios were snubbed. A story went around that at one of those exclusive balls for Caucasians, President Quezon gate- crashed into it with a strapping Army sergeant and Doberman and made it known that there should never be any club in Manila that should discriminate against the natives. In any case, at the time, the Philippine elite was the Spanish mestizo.

The major newspaper before World War II were the TVT papers, the Tribune, the La Vanguardia in Spanish, and the Taliba which belonged to the Roceses, and the DMHM papers which belonged to the Sorianos – the El Debate, the Herald, and the Herald Midweek Magazine. The weeklies were the Free Press and the Graphic. Liwayway, Banawag and Hiligaynon, also owned by the Roces family, dominated the vernaculars.

Towards the end of the Thirties and in 1941, the specter of war started to hover over the country. The papers were filled with stories on the intransigence of Hitler and the Japanese invasion of China. MacArthur had come to the Philippines at the behest of President Quezon to help build a Filipino army. Efforts at preparedness – air raid drills, practice evacuations, these did not frighten Filipinos cocooned in the belief that America the invincible would protect us.

That comforting feeling was shattered on December 8, when the Japanese attacked. Nichols field was bombed, many of the stores were looted. Manila was declared an Open City to spare it from depredation and the Japanese entered it without a fight.

During the Occupation, when no Hollywood pictures could come, the main theaters in Manila had stage shows, dramas, featuring the movie stars. In spite of the absence of airconditioning, the theaters were full. At the time, too, comedians Pogo and Togo satirized the Japanese at great risk, impersonating them very well because like the Japanese soldiers, they also had shaved heads.

When college classes opened in 1944, I enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas in Intramuros. The streetcars still ran but they were always crowded so I got up very early and walked all the way from Blumentritt to the Walled City. We were having classes in Nippongo that September morning; our teacher was a young naval officer – you can always tell the officers from the enlisted men because they always carried swords. Incidentally all that I remember of the class was Koriwa hon desu – This is a book. Our class was held on the second floor of the old university building, the shell windows flung wide open. Then, the anti-aircraft guns atop the San Juan de Letran College close by started popping, and soon, grey stubby planes screamed over the rooftops and explosions erupted from the direction of the bay. Some of the planes flew so low, their canopies open, and we could see the pilots waving. The planes had white stars and stripes on their wings and fuselage – they were American! And when this realization dawned on us, we started jumping and screaming. No one noticed our instructor steal out of the classroom. That air raid marked the end of school, and that afternoon, at about two, the drone of planes from the South cascaded down on the waiting city. Soon, the sky was dark with airplanes, and around them, the dark puffs of anti-aircraft fire.

Again Manileños flocked to the streets shouting with joy. Many were wounded from falling anti-aircraft shrapnel.

In November 1944, a cousin, my mother and I decided to join relatives who had already gone back to Rosales in Pangasinan where, at least, they were assured of food. By this time, people in Manila who had not sought refuge in the provinces were on the verge of starvation. There were no more stray cats and dogs in the streets for they were caught and eaten, so were gutter rats. By this time, every available piece of land, including islands in the streets, were planted to camote and talinum. Roasted coconut was sold as Castañog.

We brought some rice, dried fish, and a cooking pot. All the houses along the highway were already deserted and we slept under them, traveling only in the daytime for at night, the highways were taken over by the retreating Japanese. American planes ranged the skies and machine-gunned any traffic that moved. After a week, we finally reached the old hometown.

I joined the American army when it reached my hometown in early January and in March, 1945, on a brief furlough, I visited Manila. We saw a stage show in Caloocan and from there I walked to the city which was secured only two days earlier. All along Rizal Avenue were bars filled with soldiers and civilians. Intramuros was closed, off limits – all the gates to the Walled City were blockaded as there were still many unexploded shells in it as well as booby traps.

I knew that Manila – particularly south of the Pasig – was destroyed and this knowledge was etched deeper in the mind as I approached Plaza Goiti and saw portions of the Escolta in ruins, and all the bridges across the Pasig blasted. I crossed on a pontoon bridge, together with hordes of survivors and army people. On Plaza Lawton, the carcasses of streetcars and trucks, the Post Office now in shambles. Across the plaza, the blackened remains of the Metropolitan Theater where I heard my first Beethoven symphony conducted by Herbert Zipper.

To my right, wide gaps were torn on the walls of Intramuros, the lofty spires of the many churches that were so familiar to me were all gone. And up ahead, the Legislative building was nothing but a pile of rubble and to its left, the blackened shell of City Hall.

I walked around the ravaged city, compelled to see the length and breadth of the destruction, what happened to the landmarks, the vaunted edifices that I knew. I had passed some of the gutted towns where battles were fought but not this, not this. I met people looking for their loved ones, their ruined homes, disbelief on their faces. All over the plundered landscape, the stench of carrion hung heavy as the cleaning up, the picking up of pieces had yet to be completed. Towards dusk, I walked to the vicinity of the Luneta – that was all open space then, an expanse of grass from Taft to the bay, with only two structures over that expanse, the Rizal monument and the stand where the Constabulary band played every Sunday afternoon.

The Manila sunset was as effulgent and glorious as ever. I sat on the rocks before the lagoon where the huge flying boats used to moor, beside it the blackened ruins of the country’s most famous hotel. Tanks had stood before it and fired point blank and each floor was wrenched from the Japanese in ferocious combat. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had a suite at the Manila Hotel. Returning to the devastated city, he had commented on the courage and stoicism of survivors, that he did not see a single teary face. I sat there on the rocks and I remember that I wept.

It would seem as if it was only yesterday that I beheld those blackened ruins, those shattered walls and ravaged trees. I knew then that the Manila of my youth was banished forever and, I fear, so did many of our cherished dreams. The war did these, but there was something more precious, more profound that war also destroyed – our political innocence, our virtue as a nation. We have not recovered from that loss – but we are valiantly trying.

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