What happened to Manila, Pearl of the Orient?

It’s late afternoon in Manila’s Plaza de Roma. The green lawns, protected from stray dogs and litter by multiple watchful caretakers, welcome visitors to the city. Wedding guests spill out of the imposing Manila Cathedral at the square’s south-eastern end. Hawkers offer mechanical plastic toys for sale – “I stayed up all night, making them myself” – and horse-drawn buggies line the streets around the Plaza, waiting for groups of tourists who want to see the historic walled city of Intramuros.

On one patch of grass, a group of tourists huddle around a man with a bowler hat and a loudspeaker, waiting for their tour to start. A small hand tugs at my elbow and a boy of perhaps 10 years quietly asks me for money before being shooed away by one of the tour staff.

This small intrusion into the beauty and peacefulness of the area is a reminder of what lies beyond Intramuros’ walls.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1521, the Filipino archipelago was a collection of kingdoms, sultanates and other nation structures. Predominantly animist, the people of the newly formed Las Islas Filipinas had a strong connection to the land and belief in the spirits that inhabited it. Their buildings, constructed of bamboo, had limited environmental footprint, and could be easily rebuilt in the event of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, or severe weather – all of which are common in this collection of islands, located firmly in the Ring of Fire. With the King of Spain, however, came a new, European form of faith: the Catholic Church.

Over the 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, the capital city, Intramuros (now encapsulated by modern-day Manila) contained no less than seven Catholic churches. Heavy, ornate, carved stone edifices, inspired by Europe and constructed from porous volcanic rock, the only stone product locally available. The Manila Cathedral, considered Kilometre Zero during the Spanish period, has been rebuilt six times after fires and earthquakes have caused it to collapse. Most of the Spanish churches in Intramuros have now been destroyed but the adoption of the Catholic faith remains.

During Mass, held daily, church doors are thrown open to accommodate the overflowing faithful. Statues of the Virgin Mary bear witness on the dashboards of taxi drivers, and rosary beads hang devoutly from rear view mirrors.

It’s difficult to find a trace of the beliefs that came before, in this sprawling metropolitan city.

Earlier, during our walk from Chinatown in Binondo to the Plaza de Roma, we came across a church, surrounded by homeless people, sleeping on cardboard in the mid-afternoon sun. Those that are awake follow us with their eyes, children prance in front demanding money, and fiercely strong old women grasp at our arms, pleading for help buying something to eat.

By the 1890s, times were changing in Manila. A growing resentment of Spanish rule saw the beginnings of rebellion in the city. Among others, Andrés Bonifacio, a self-educated craftsman, and Dr Jose Rizal, a foreign-trained ophthalmologist and writer, emerged as leaders of the revolution, arguing for self-determination and independence from Spain. Having published novels that were critical of the Catholic church, combined with the formation of a society dedicated to social reform, Jose Rizal was declared an enemy of the state and first exiled, then, in 1896, arrested, tried and executed for rebellion, sedition and conspiracy. At his death, he wore a black bowler hat, and ended life with the words “consummatum est” – “it is finished”.

Carlos Celdran, Fort Santiago, Manila

The revolution continued, however, and in 1897 a Republican government was formed. It was not recognised by Spain though, and the following year, when sovereignty over the Philippines was handed to the USA, the fight for independence continued. It was ultimately defeated in 1902, and for the next 40 years, the Americans set about bringing compulsory education, public transport, and even the first regional airline, to the Philippines.

Under American rule, Manila flourished. Gaining a reputation as the “Pearl of the Orient”, it was clean, progressive, and a rising star in the Pacific region. Peace and prosperity came hand in hand as the country attempted to walk a diplomatic path towards independence, while companies like Frigidaire and Coca Cola became household names and enduring symbols of prosperity.

Fort Santiago at night, Intramuros

But nothing lasts forever, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 sent shockwaves into the Philippines and beyond. As an American colony, it should have been foreseeable that Manila might have been next, but a misguided belief that the Japanese would not be so bold saw an attack on the Oriental Pearl a mere 10 hours later. Within months, the American command had pulled out of the country, leaving them to three years of Japanese occupation, which ended in 1945 with a suicide order from the Japanese high command, and a US bomb.

Nearly 100,000 civilians were killed, Intramuros was reduced to rubble, and Manila took its place in history among the most damaged Allied cities of World War II.

Rubbish in the Pasig River, Manila

Nearby, on the banks of the muddied, polluted Pasig River, a woman sits on the footpath, protected from the ground by a piece of dirty cardboard, rifling through black plastic bags of rubbish. It’s unclear whether she is looking for items she can salvage, sell, or eat. Her baby is asleep in a sling on her back.

On 4 July 1946, the USA granted the Philippines its independence. The same year, they passed legislation rescinding the rights of Filipino veterans to the same care and support to which US veterans were entitled.

An older man with scabied legs and a bare chest crosses the footpath in front of us to urinate against a tree.

Man paddling a canoe in the Pasig River, Manila

It is widely said that the city of Manila has never recovered from its destruction during World War II. Restoration in Intramuros has created the manicured lawns of the Plaza de Roma, the explanatory signposts detailing Jose Rizal’s imprisonment in Fort Santiago, and a collection of romantically ivy-covered ruins in the surrounding streets.

Intramuros ruins, Manila, Philippines

Shopping malls on every second corner recall the city’s heyday, while numbing the trauma still visible in every crumbling tenement block and unfinished, abandoned construction site. Eternally full Churches hold even earlier remnants of hope.

A group of teenagers sits on the steps of a bridge, paper bags in one hand, eyes wide and unseeing. One of the girls calls out “hello, where are you from?” then giggles uncontrollably without waiting for an answer.

Manila slum on the banks of the Pasig River, Manila

Two hours after the meeting in the Plaza de Roma, in a quiet courtyard across the street from Intramuros’ other surviving church, San Agustin, the man with the bowler hat takes it off again and finishes his performance. He is Carlos Celdran, an actor and activist whose Walk This Way tour is widely credited as being the #1 attraction in Manila. Though it covers only a short distance through the streets of Intramuros, it spans more than 400 years of history, covering language, food, history, politics, religion and social issues.

San Agustin Church, Intramuros

At times guilty of being overly dramatic, Carlos’ final speech is anything but. His tours, he concludes, will likely soon be coming to an end. There is a court date coming up, at which he will have one last opportunity to appeal his conviction for ‘offending religious feelings’ following an incident in 2010 where he entered the Manila Cathedral dressed as the national hero, Dr Jose Rizal (complete with the bowler hat), holding a sign saying “Damaso” – the name of a corrupt friar in Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tángere. He was protesting the Church’s opposition to legislation that would guarantee a universal right to contraception and reproductive health care, and despite the legislation passing in 2012, his conviction has been upheld by the nation’s Supreme Court. Should his final appeal fail, he’s facing up to 13 months in prison.

Throughout the tour, Carlos is unashamedly critical of the Spanish, the Americans, the Church, even his contemporary Filipinos, calling on them to see what he sees: to look at what has become of their country since 1946, to step out of the malls and to engage with re-building their city into a true Pearl of the Orient. He does not shy away from the poverty, pollution, substance abuse and disease that prevents many tourists from seeing any more of the city than Ninoy Aquino International Airport; a transit stop before their internal flights to the beaches of Boracay, Bohol and Palawan.

Without his tour, there is a danger that the outside world will remain unaware of how Manila came to be in its present state, and without voices of dissent, there is a danger that the Philippines (or indeed any country) will be destined to continue closing its eyes to issues that prevent it from healing.

If you’re going to Manila, take a walk through Intramuros, with Carlos, if you can. Stand in the Plaza de Roma, and take the time to appreciate the craftsmanship of the Cathedral. But appreciate also the rest of the city. The two stand side by side for a reason, and to understand why will deepen your experience of the country far more than a look at Imelda Marcos’ shoes.

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