Manila becoming

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - April 19, 2021 - 12:00am

I chanced upon Vice Mayor Maria Sheilah Lacuna-Pangan last week, and she recounted what they are doing in City Hall to restore Manila’s ancient grandeur and, more than anything, to survive this pandemic.

The Vice Mayor is a medical doctor who has served at the Hospital ng Maynila after finishing medicine at La Salle. The doctor fits into the job, a perfect partner to Mayor Isko. Both are young and gung-ho. I hope she will succeed him when the Mayor runs for senator or president.

Manila is one of the densest populated cities in the world today and is also one of the ugliest visually. It lacks sanitation facilities and, in some districts, the stench is pervasive – and Manila Bay, I’m sorry to say, for all its sunset glory, it smells. To say that Manila’s main problem is its people is not tautology. If Manileños had their way, there would be no sidewalks, and there would be feces and garbage will litter the streets like Europe’s medieval cities. Manila as a modern metropolis is quite new. Filipinas is so far from European concerns, unlike Japan. It was not a colonial prize like the South American colonies. Even the Chinese regarded the islands as hostile – in the fifties, more than half of the country was jungle. Philippine (and Malay) development started with the entry of American capital in mining and agriculture.

Honey Lacuna, as the Vice Mayor is fondly called, is not thwarted by the chaotic disarray of Manila nor the undisciplined impulse of Manileños. We talked about Japanese cities and how well-ordered they are, because the Japanese are trained from childhood to obey the rules because they are going to be punished if they don’t. In a sense, they are like the bonsai plants – they are wired when they are still small so that they will grow into the ordered shapes that is planned for them. As the capital city, Manila is of course favored than other population centers, for which reason it is called “Imperial Manila.”

Manila rightly deserves that distinction. It is the country’s premiere city which is populated today by a mixture of races and ethnic groups reflective of the cultural and ethnic diversity of the Philippines. Visually, it does not look Asian. Like Bangkok, it is a Western city, and because it is Christian, it has many churches, among them, the distinctly and uniformly designed Iglesia ni Cristo churches.

Before the Spaniards came, Manila was already a trading center for Southeast Asia for countries as far as Japan and Korea. But that trade was not as abundant as what went through Malacca. The records of the early city illustrate that it had a literate population already organized with a bureaucracy and army and record as well of cultural advancement, primarily influenced by the Chinese who were already in Manila before the Spaniards came. The three districts of the city – Tondo, Binondo and Quiapo – are all by the Pasig River as a tributary that goes inland, to Laguna Lake, conjoined by the rivers of the Sierra Madre and emptying into the Manila Bay which makes Manila not only a port but a gateway into the country. With the exception of Intramuros which was planned as a Spanish citadel, Manila grew organically, and it was peopled first by the original Tagalogs and eventually augmented by other Luzon tribes, with the Chinese occupying certain specified sections. They were the craftsmen and traders patronized by the colonizers.

Much of Manila and what comprises Metro Manila today was grass, isolated farmlands and kangkong patches in 1941, with dirt roads linking the suburban towns.

The first districts that really grew under the Spanish regime were Quiapo, Binondo and Tondo as satellites to the walled city. It is in these three districts where the Principalia developed, a society almost separate from the Spaniards in Intramuros, and a culture that was eventually Christianized and made willing students and followers not only of Catholicism but also of Spain as a cultural fountainhead.

These three districts are redolent of history, particularly Tondo, which was the first settlement in the mouth of the Pasig River. Here in this once swampy land developed the radical movements, the Katipunan most of all, the labor unions, the Philippine Independent Church and the Hukbalahap in more recent times. Each of these districts has stories to tell – Tondo and its gangster heroes from way back, Binondo and the Chinese cozy partnerships with the colonizers and Quiapo’s corrupt Principalia.

Manila is now a huge sprawl with no center, the way most cities have centers. That center used to be Plaza Goiti in the Sta. Cruz area, where Kilometer 1 started.

The Cavite lawyer and historian, Saul Hofilena, is coming out with a book that details the development of elite Manila, the Escolta and Ermita-Malate in the late 1920s to the 1940s. All these grand buildings were the creations of Andres Luna, the only son of Juan Luna. Buildings like the Zobel mansion at the corner of Padre Faura and Dewey Boulevard which I made into the Rojo mansion in my novel Ermita, and the fabulous Crystal Arcade at the Escolta, a wide shopping alley walled and roofed with glittering crystals and a dome awesome in spectacle in its time, connecting Escolta to Dasmariñas street. It was destroyed in the 1945 Liberation.

This enclave of swank moved to Makati, but the real city life today – the evening haunt of Manilenos, is in Pasig, the Ermita-Malate area and the malls. Like in American cities, the upper-class districts that are mostly occupied by business establishments are dead at night. The poorer districts of Manila are alive 24 hours a day because there are just too many people in them. In parts of Tondo for instance where space is very limited, social life is in the streets.

Unlike Quezon City, Manila lacks space. Plans to reclaim land from the bay are on hold in deference to aesthetics. This is what other cities have already done, like Cebu City and Singapore. The alternative is to build upwards, and several such projects are underway.

As a historic city, Manila is not as appreciated by Filipinos the way ancient cities in the region are regarded with much affection and reverence. Filipinos have very little sense of history.

Some of the oldest artifacts of our history are in the University of Santo Tomas Museum. Ditto with some of the world’s oldest books which are found in the University of Santo Tomas Library. If we dig deep enough, each of the districts of Manila has a good story to tell, how they were built and who were their builders. In this instance, Makati was a vast expanse of grass, a portion of which was made into an airfield where its Nielson Tower still stands, transformed into chi-chi restaurants. How that public land became Forbes Park is a story Makati has yet to tell.

The Manila that is becoming will soon have a subway, a reinvigorated Pasig River and a Manila Bay where Manileños can once again swim. It also needs a new government which brings the city and all its satellite towns under one governor.

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