Sunday Lifestyle

In Search of Old Manila during Holy Week

- Wilson Lee Flores -

MANILA, Philippines -I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.       Ñ Edward Gibbon

What experience and history teach is this — that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles.      — George Wilhelm Hegel

I accepted an invitation for two meetings in Hong Kong the weekend before Holy Week, and quickly flew back to our overcrowded, polluted, gritty, chaotic but also fun, colorful, charming, energetic and exciting Metro Manila.

This Holy Week, I looked forward to the peace and quiet of our traffic jam-free (I teach my students at La Consolacion College Manila not to complain of “traffic” but of “traffic jams,” for grammatical accuracy) national capital region, so I can rediscover this oft taken-for-granted megapolis when most of its 12 million residents are in Boracay, Tagaytay, abroad, in the beaches, vacationing in their native provinces or perhaps sleeping.

When will binondo have museums or preserved historic shophouses?

I’m a history buff and a romantic. Though I’m ethnic Chinese with both my paternal and maternal forebears tracing their roots to Fujian province in the rugged, rural southeast China and I grew up in suburban Quezon City, I feel strongly rooted to old Manila.

By the way, wine importers Ralph L. Joseph and Bobby L. Joseph suggested I write that some of us ethnic Chinese who use Spanish surnames should reclaim and use our original Chinese surnames, in the same way they likewise suggested that old Manila’s original street names be restored for the sake of history and remembrance. I agree!

Here are a few of the interesting places in (almost deserted) downtown Manila, which I rediscovered during Holy Week, making me feel like Will Smith’s Dr. Robert Neville character in the 2007 science fiction thriller I Am Legend exploring a deserted New York City:

• Binondo/Sta. Cruz/Quiapo areas. When will the government or private sector groups move to preserve some of Binondo financial hub’s old and colonial-era buildings, shophouses and structures? What about the old house of painter Juan Luna and General Antonio Luna, which is now a bihon warehouse? Why can’t government or a tycoon buy it at market price in order to convert it into a museum?

Why are there no cultural, arts or historical museums in Binondo, Santa Cruz or Divisoria areas? Perhaps the grand (yet now abandoned) HSBC building near the Pasig River can be made into Manila’s version of Makati’s Tower Club?

Many of the top Philippine business leaders have their roots here, too — from the pre-war headquarters of the Bank of the Philippine Islands, HSBC, Citibank to John Gokongwei, Jr., Henry Sy, and many others.

Maybe we can learn from ultra-modern Singapore and their efforts to preserve some of their old shophouses, maybe with tax and other incentives? Think tourism, culture, history.

In Hong Kong last week, I watched the enthralling, wonderfully made Berlin Film Festival award-winning movie Echoes of the Rainbow, which was set in 1960s Hong Kong on Wing Lee St. in the Sheung Wan district. The original poetic Chinese title of this film directed by Alex Law means “In the end, the greatest thief of all is time.” I heard that the government of ultra-modern Hong Kong is reconsidering plans to destroy this old section of the mega-city because of this cinematic masterpiece.

Why my attachment to old Manila? This is the city of my paternal forebears for two centuries. This is the city the Philippines is world famous for, so much so that even President Ferdinand Marcos had to revert back to it as capital city after the attempt to try Quezon City as capital. Internationally, Manila has become a brand name for the best ropes called “manila hemp” and the best brown envelopes called “manila envelope.”

Old kin said my great-great-grandfather Dy Han Kia started his first lumber businesses in 19 th century Muelle de la Industria near the Pasig River, then he later moved to Calle Arranque (renamed in the early 20th century as Teodora Alonzo St. but the nearby market retains the old name “Arranque”).

His uncle and other kin had also been sojourning to Manila but didn’t become a big success like Dy Han Kia. Why go to Southeast Asian places like Manila to work? The Manchu political leaders of the late Qing Dynasty were shamelessly corrupt and the masses of China became impoverished, similar to our modern situation in resource-rich Philippines with many years of shameless corruption causing the masses and the middle-class to become poor and to seek jobs overseas.

Why Calle Azcarraga And Calle Rosario Shouldn’t Have Been Changed

It is tragic that many of our politicians not only have no sense of the future and no sense of morality, they are also hopeless in amnesia because they have no sense of history. I have nothing against the famous persons whose names have replaced old street names, but I lament the erasing of the old city’s tradition, history and culture by these mindless change of names. Why not choose other new streets to give names to in our ever-expanding metropolis?

Some of the old Manila areas I traversed during Holy Week included — Calle Rosario (named after Binondo’s patroness the “Nuestra Señora del Rosario”) had since become Quintin Paredes st. after an Abra statesman, Calle Anloague of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere novel became Juan Luna st. in 1913, Calle San Jacinto (a Catholic saint) was also renamed T. Pinpin st. in 1913 to honor the first Filipino printer who learned his craft from a Chinese press in Binondo, Calle Gandara (named in 1868 after Spanish Governor General Jose de la Gandara who pioneered the telegraph system and Department of Mines in the Philippines plus built lighthouses) was renamed Padilla Street in honor of a respected jurist in 1995, Calle Nueva a few years ago became Enrique Yuchengco st., Calle Azcarraga (named after Manuel de Azcarraga, the only Spanish Prime Minister in history with part-Filipino blood because his mother was Spanish mestiza with Bicol roots in Albay. He was born in Manila and served as Spain’s war minister and two-term prime minister) became Claro M. Recto Avenue, Calle Echague in Quiapo district became Carlos Palanca Sr. etc. etc.

Calle Dasmariñas is named after a Spanish governor general with less contributions to Philippine progress than Gandara, why not change the former instead of the latter?

My cousin, top cardiologist Dr. Dy Bun Yok’s late dad logging tycoon Dy Hian Tat, told me that he and another uncle, the late Fortunato Chan, used to work for my late father right after World War II as co-managers of his “U Like Café” coffeeshop and pub at Calle Ronquillo corner Rizal Avenue. He said lots of American soldiers used to eat and drink there, but I forgot to ask which part of the corner was the establishment located.

• Exploring Intramuros. It’s nice even for a non-Catholic to visit the Philippines’ oldest Catholic church — the beautiful San Agustin Church — during Holy Week. Sadly, even the historic streets inside and outside Intramuros were not spared our barbaric politicos’ name-changing grotesque habit!

Calle Aduana became Andres Soriano, Jr. st. Outside, the place where national hero Dr. Jose Rizal walked to his execution in 1896 used to be called Paseo de Maria Cristina. It has since been renamed Bonifacio Drive.

• Exploring Roxas Boulevard, Ermita, Malate, Paco. Even Dewey Boulevard sounded nice and romantic, but the Japanese invaders renamed it Banzai Boulevard, and our politicos in the postwar era renamed it Roxas Boulevard. Calle Isaac Peral, named after the inventor of the submerssible, is now United Nations Avenue. The nice-sounding Calle Real of the colonial era has since become M.H. del Pilar st.

Luckily, my great-grand-uncle Calixto Dyyco’s pre-war street name in Paco area is still there, but misspelled as “Calixto Dyco” (paging Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim and his election rival former Mayor Lito Atienza!). Dyyco was the first-cousin of my paternal great-grandfather Dy Chau Yong, and it was Dyyco’s second son, lumber tycoon Dee Hong Lue, who named the street after his father as part of his land donation to the city government. Dee’s son is former Philippine ambassador to the Vatican and now Catholic philanthropist Howard Q. Dee.

• Exploring colorful Tondo. This district of old Manila is so full of history, poetry and chivalry, the area where revolutionaries like Andres Bonifacio started their dreams of freedom, and also home to the city’s largest and perhaps oldest Buddhist temple called Seng Guan Temple. The first seven years of my life were spent in our late dad’s sawmill at Juan Luna st. corner Pavia Street, which my cousin Harry Lee said “is just two blocks away from Manny Villar’s old childhood home in Moriones, Tondo.” That former sawmill complex is now a garments factory owned by an ethnic Chinese tycoon.

My late dad in the 1930s was also young boss of the family businesses and had the guts to buy many hectares of land in nearby Gagalangin, Tondo near Juan Luna st. and Raxabago st. for expanded sawmills.

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Thanks all your letters. Feedback is welcome at willsoonflourish@gmail.com or at my Facebook account.

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