Last Call at the Hobbit House of Manila
We bid farewell to the Tolkien-inspired spot in Manila run by little people, that takes pride in being politically incorrect and has poked the curiosity of travelers and locals alike.
MANILA, Philippines — “Take a table,” the diminutive waiter insists as I lean against the bar. I am greeted by a dwarf wearing a light blue shirt with a logo reading “The Hobbit House of Manila.”
The empty hall is made up of dark wood that smells of old mothballs. A section of the wall leading to the bar is filled with photographs of famous celebrities posing with staff. There are legendary tales of Marlon Brando mumbling for drinks at the Hobbit House in between shooting days for Copolla’s 1979 classic, Apocalypse Now.
Whimsical paintings of Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings and drawings of green Irish leprechauns adorn the stage. I come to see a friend who is a regular musician at the Hobbit House. The venue serves as a rite of passage for any live cover band in the city. The Tolkien-inspired spot claims to be the only bar in the world run by little people. It takes pride in being politically incorrect — and for the past four decades it has poked the curiosity of travelers and locals alike.
Founded by Jim Turner in 1973, a former Peace Corps Volunteer from Iowa, it has served as a refuge for homeless dwarves escaping the chaotic streets of Manila and the carnivals that exploit them. They are offered decent work as managers, waiters, cashiers and bartenders. The original property along Mabini, Malate was sold by the landlord a decade ago. It moved up a few blocks to a sprawling venue on M.H. del Pilar Street, but could never recapture the charm of its initial space.
When Jim’s health started to deteriorate, after years of smoking and alcohol abuse, the business became a cooperative and was handed down to his staff. Jim passed away in 2016, at the age of 77, leaving behind generations of grieving little people in the Philippines.
There are legendary tales of Marlon Brando mumbling for drinks at the Hobbit House in between shooting days for Copolla’s 1979 classic, Apocalypse Now.
The bartender props a stool to reach the countertop. I order the strongest cocktail in Manila, called the “Weng-Weng.” No one can definitively explain how the name came about. “Weng-Weng” is local street slang for someone highly intoxicated; others claim the drink is named after the campy Filipino James Bond, Ernesto de la Cruz, better known by his nickname, Weng Weng. The pint-sized dwarf action star measures only 2’9”.
The lethal drink uses six types of alcohol — rum, gin, vodka, tequila, brandy and scotch. It is then mixed with orange and pineapple juice and finished off with grenadine. The wholesome red-pink hue it produces is deceiving; its potency is a silent traitor. Another round may be a bad idea. However, I accept the risk and hope to live to tell the bizarre tale of the next day’s hangover.
The Weng Weng would be my last drink at the Hobbit House of Manila. It closed a month later, in October of this year.
After 45 years of being part of the Manila bar scene, Jim Turner’s heartbroken “hobbits” have struggled to stay afloat and remain relevant since his death. Locals are wary of the bar’s touristy prices and choose newer establishments across the city.
“They were presented with a court order to shut their doors, because of back rent,” my friend Nonoy Alcalde tells me. He has been a working folk singer at the Hobbit House since the 1980s. Last Oct. 20, a vague post on the pub’s social media platform read thus: “Closed due to internal repair.” It is unknown if they will ever be able to raise the finances to open again.
Instead, their infamous cocktail the Weng-Weng, which is now a staple shooter in bars across the city, serves as a fond reminder of the place little people in Manila once called home.