Wednesday, August 01, 2007


I believe that Manila can be a reflection of your state of mind. Being a city of extreme contrasts it’s easy to see how it can become an intense personal experience. Manila can be chaotic and spiritual, dirty and divine, gritty and gorgeous all at once. If you don’t find beauty and poetry here, you will never find it anywhere.

Named after a white flowered mangrove plant and founded 327 years ago by the Basque conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, it’s hard to believe that the gargantuan Metro Manila of today was once a little Muslim village ruled by a man named Rajah Sulayman.

Soon enough and not without friction, Rajah Sulayman’s Malay Islamic system gave way to Spanish Conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legaspi's Christian rule in the year 1571. Then for the next 300 odd years, Manila, now known as “Intramuros” (within the walls in Latin) would stand as the seat of Spanish power in the archipelago.

Its grand government offices and soldiers controlled the state while its priests and majestic cathedrals controlled the soul of the islands now called Filipinas (after Rey Felipe II). Its original wooden walls would be replaced by carved volcanic tuff as its bamboo huts and mosques would accede to seven baroque Catholic Churches surrounded by mansions made out of limestone, hardwood, and seashells.

The city would grow in size and perception towards the end of Spanish rule. By the 19th century, the term Manila meant the surrounding districts outside the walled city as well, the extramuros (outside of the walls) to the original Intramuros. These areas included the Chinese immigrant district of Binondo, the retail quarter of Santa Cruz, the native intelligentsia and culturati borough of Quiapo, and the elite neighborhoods of San Miguel.

The advent of the American Colonial Period in the year 1898 would see extraordinary change in the city of Manila. In the year 1898, at a cost of 20 million dollars and the stroke of a pen upon a treaty from Paris, the Philippines would be suddenly passed on to the United States.

Within the first decade of American occupation, Manila would reflect the influences of the new conqueror. Fresh from his success in designing Washington DC and Chicago, premier American city planner Daniel Burnham would revamp Manila’s central core.

Telephones, Toothpaste, Ice Cream, and Coca-Cola would be introduced to society and Intramuros’ southern districts of Ermita, Malate, and Pasay would be converted from a row of seaside huts into a civilized collection of art deco and neoclassic structures, connected by wide roads and accentuated by parks and rotundas.

Then just as quickly as the new structures and beliefs replaced the old ones, Manila would once again find itself in transition in the year 1945. But sadly, it would be a turn from which it would never recover. A victim of the battle between the United States Forces and the Japanese Imperial Army, the city of Manila would be brought to its knees through sword, and artillery. More than 120,000 would be lost, and only the San Agustin Church would remain standing in the original walled city of Intramuros.

After the madness of war, the madness of reconstruction ensued. From the 1950’s onwards, Manila grew at a radical rate. Greater Manila now includes the former provinces of Makati, Quezon City, Pasig, Paranaque and Muntinlupa. Their inclusion heralding the transition of the business and residential districts away from its original riverside core.

In the late 1960's, Manila would not only expand inland towards the Sierra Madre mountains but outwards and over the South China Sea as well. Snuggled right up to the city upon reclaimed land stands the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex, a development commissioned in 1969 by Former First Lady Imelda Marcos dedicated to the promotion of arts and international understanding. She would also commission the restoration of the walled city Intramuros in 1979.

I heard someone once say the Jeepney is the perfect metaphor for the paradox that is Manila. Is it beautiful or is it grotesque? Is it inefficient or is it entrepreneurial? Is it just a common utility or is it a progressive work of art?

Perhaps. But personally, I think that Manila is more like the Halo-Halo, that afternoon snack made out of a mind boggling myriad of sweet beans, flan, shaved ice, and ice cream.

Manila is a reflection of how different flavors can make up a greater whole, and how too much can sometimes be a very good thing.

Thank you urbanblog for the halo halo photo. Article to be printed in the Sofitel Manila Magazine