Thursday, 11 December 2014

Hola, Manila! Un Recuerdo en Blanco y Negro - A Reflection in Black and White.

The Philippines is a country which I’ve read about in secondary school geography lessons. Example of words that leapt out from the textbooks then and left an indelible mark on my mind were ‘overcrowding’, ‘squatters’, ‘population growth’, etc. I had promptly decided then that it is probably not a place that would be high on my travel itinerary.

So, true enough, I’ve been to parts of Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei (a stopover, really), Indonesia, Vietnam and some other SE Asian countries, just never the Philippines. Recently, a dear friend decided to take up the challenge to show me a façade of the nation of islands markedly different from that of my textbook impressions.

Day 1 – Arrival and party.
Always a cuppa before I go...

Arrival to a party (left) and monument to national hero Jose Rizal (right)
True to any Pinoy culture, I was invited to a Christmas gathering at L’s, a friend of my host’s, to the theme of “Fall Colours in New England”. Despite arriving tired, the intimate but lively gathering lifted my spirits. I enjoyed the wonderful dinner that was delightfully peppered with conversations. It culminated with songs, of course. Guess the song as played by one of the guests and you get to pick a thematic present brought for the exchange. I brought a pair of novels: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Alcott’s Little Women. Yes, it’s predictably me: literary choices that reflect American history across two different eras. Among the other choices include red socks (apparently, all New Englanders wear them and ONLY them), and scented candles, which was what I got, since all New Englanders use candles… isn’t it?

Day 2 – Intramuros and Jose Rizal.

Guided by none other than local activist and artist Carlos Celdran, I went on a historical and theatrical learning journey of Intramuros (Latin, "within the walls"), which is the oldest district and historic core of the City of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Also called the Walled City, the original city of Manila was the seat of government when the Philippines were a component realm of the Spanish Empire. Districts beyond the walls were referred as the extramuros of Manila, meaning "outside the walls".

Construction of the defensive walls was started by the Spanish colonial government in the late 16th century to protect the city from foreign invasions. The 0.67-square-kilometre (0.26 sq mi) walled city was originally located along the shores of the Manila Bay, south of the entrance to Pasig River. Guarding the old city is Fort Santiago, its citadel located at the mouth of the river. Land reclamations during the early 20th-century subsequently obscured the walls and fort from the bay.

Horse-drawn carriage:
part of the learning journey
Intramuros was heavily damaged during the battle to recapture the city from the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War. Reconstruction of the walls was started in 1951 when Intramuros was declared a National Historical Monument, which is continued to this day by the Intramuros Administration (IA).

The Global Heritage Fund identified Intramuros as one of the 12 worldwide sites "on the verge" of irreparable loss and destruction on its 2010 report titled Saving Our Vanishing Heritage, citing its insufficient management and development pressures.

It was on this learning journey, which I highly recommend, that I learnt about the national hero, Jose Rizal.

José Rizal was born on June 19, 1861, in Calamba, Philippines. While living in Europe, Rizal wrote about the discrimination that accompanied Spain's colonial rule of his country. He returned to the Philippines in 1892, but was exiled due to his desire for reform. Although he supported peaceful change, Rizal was convicted of sedition and executed on December 30, 1896, at age 35.

Jose Rizal:
martyr and national hero
While in Europe, José Rizal became part of the Propaganda Movement, connecting with other Filipinos who wanted reform. He also wrote his first novel, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not/The Social Cancer), a work that detailed the dark aspects of Spain's colonial rule in the Philippines, with particular focus on the role of Catholic friars. The book was banned in the Philippines, though copies were smuggled in. Because of this novel, Rizal's return to the Philippines in 1887 was cut short when he was targeted by police.

Rizal returned to Europe and continued to write, releasing his follow-up novel, El Filibusterismo (The Reign of Greed) in 1891. He also published articles in La Solidaridad, a paper aligned with the Propaganda Movement. The reforms Rizal advocated for did not include independence—he called for equal treatment of Filipinos, limiting the power of Spanish friars and representation for the Philippines in the Spanish Cortes (Spain's parliament).

In 1895, Rizal asked for permission to travel to Cuba as an army doctor. His request was approved, but in August 1896, Katipunan, a nationalist Filipino society founded by Andres Bonifacio, revolted. Though he had no ties to the group, and disapproved of its violent methods, Rizal was arrested shortly thereafter.

After a show trial, Rizal was convicted of sedition and sentenced to death by firing squad. Rizal's public execution was carried out in Manila on December 30, 1896, when he was 35 years old. His execution created a martyr, a national symbol of sacrifice to the opposition to Spanish rule, which effectively ended in 1898.

I tried to look for English translations of the book Noli Me Tangere, but in vain…

Coffee and more coffee… ending the long day with an evening at Wildflour, a local artisanal bake shop and restaurant.

Day 3 – Readers’ Theatre and Ayala Museum
Readers' Theatre at the park (left) and gold exhibits at Ayala Museum (right)

Readers’ Theatre, a reading exercise to learn expressive reading in schools is also a public art form for children here. It’s even got live music accompaniment to match the atmosphere and tone of the story! How fun! How clever!

Since the event was held at the city centre, I took the chance to explore the place, which brought me to the Ayala Museum. Ayala Museum was envisioned by Fernando Zobel, one of the founders of Ayala Foundation and himself an abstract painter, way back in the 1950s. The museum started out as a venue for celebrating Philippine history and iconography but gradually evolved into a museum showcasing Philippine fine arts and history. The gradual transformation of the museum into a venue where “Re-collecting the past, Re-presenting the future” is evident in its display.

Among the museum’s highlights is its collection of archaeological artefacts, notably the Gold of Ancestors: Pre-Colonial Treasures in the Philippines, which serve as a testament to the Filipinos’ rich ancestry and inherent craftsmanship. An impressive selection of trade ceramics from Southeast Asia and China from the Roberto T. Villanueva collection are also on display in the exhibition A Millennium of Contact, signifying the history of the country’s flourishing economic relationship with its neighbours. The museum also has on exhibition The Philippine Diorama Experience, visually narrating the many milestones of Philippine history through 60 handcrafted dioramas, some of which are featured in the international Google Art Project.

Since 2013, Ayala Museum is now also the home of the Filipinas Heritage Library. A modern library that provides access to primary sources—rare books, photographs, recordings, and more—in both physical and digital formats, as well as access to over a thousand contemporary titles on Philippine arts, culture and history.

It was here that I learnt about the common historical ancestry that a huge part of South East Asia shares: the Hindustani/Malayalam culture and background, which extends from the Indian subcontinent all the way to the south, encompassing the Malay archipelagos, made up of the Philippines, Malaya peninsula and Indonesia.
Facade of the Ayala Museum (left) and Chilling out at the Museum Cafe (right)

Day 4 – Typhoon and the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.

Coffee! (left) and they still use the 'Sesame Street American Mailboxes (right)!
So, a typhoon is really just…
light drizzles?
When I was leaving for the Philippines, there were plenty of warnings for the impending strike of Hagupit on Friday… which was then re-forecasted for Saturday, then Monday.

The wetness did arrive on Monday. But if I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought ‘typhoon’ really is a synonym for ‘light drizzle’, because that was all I encountered in Makati. In any case, I was able to grab my morning joe from the (not-so-)nearby Starbucks before heading off to the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.

Located in a plateau in Taguig within Metro Manila, this is a resting place of 17,202 American soldiers who have died during the World War II.  This contains the largest number of military graves in the Pacific and outside of US soil.  A memorial in the centre of this circular cemetery was built in honour of the soldiers died in battles in New Guinea and the Philippines. 

“There are no Great Wars, only great losses, on both sides.”
Liberty, Justice, Country
and the Future
The cemetery is located within Fort Bonifacio, formerly known as Fort McKinley during the American era.  Today a commercial and business district called Bonifacio Global City is growing. The front gate of the cemetery is along a round-about and is welcomed by a long centre lawn runs straight up to the memorial in the centre of the cemetery.   A road way runs on both side of the centre lawn. The central memorial hall is a tall rectangular structure with a large stone sculpture on its facade. It represents St George, the American fighting warrior, fighting his enemy the dragon. Above them are the ideals for which he fought; Liberty, Justice, Country and Columbia with child symbolising the future.  Inside it is tiled in blue colour with a central mural of a lady holding a bouquet of white flowers.  In front of is a wide circular terrace with manicured lawn where flagpoles carry American and Philippine flags. On each side of the memorial hall are two hemicycles with limestone piers that bear the Tablet of the Missing of 36,825 names.  These list the names, ranks, and home state of each person.  Rosettes mark names of those identified and recovered.

It was a very emotional visit. The grey, wet weather made even more so, and more apt. And at the end of the day, I was reaffirmed of my belief:

“There are no Great Wars,
only great losses,
on both sides.”

Before I left, I wanted to express my gratitude, not just to those who lie here, but to all who have sacrificed themselves that we may have a future:

"You sleep that we may rest. Thank you."

Day 5 – Museum of the Filipino People, National Museum of the Philippines (aka National Art Museum, NAM), Chinatown and The Post Office Building

Facade of the National Art Gallery, part of the National Museum of the Philippines.
The National Art Gallery is housed in the old congress building and houses the Spoliarium, a famous painting of Juan Luna.. The building was originally intended as a Public Library as proposed in Daniel Burnham's 1905 Plan for Manila. Designed by Ralph Harrington Doane, the American consulting architect of the Bureau of Public Works, and his assistant Antonio Toledo. Construction of the building began in 1918 and completed in 1921.

Spoliarivm - Juan Luna: A multilevel allegory and social commentary of the politics and political climes in contemporary Philippines.
The facade of the building had classical features using stylized Corinthian columns, ornamentation and Renaissance inspired sculptural forms. Upon the establishment of the Commonwealth government, it was decided that the building would also house the Legislature and revisions were made by Juan Arellano, supervising architect of the Bureau of Public Works.

On July 16, 1926, the building was formally inaugurated. During the World War II, the building was heavily damaged, though built to be earthquake resistant. After the war, it was rebuilt albeit less ornate and less detailed. During the Martial Law era, the Legislative Building was closed down. Today, the building holds the country's National Art Gallery, natural sciences and other support divisions.
Fountain at Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz at Chinatown (left) and the Manila Post Office Building (right).

After spending 6 hours at the two museums and my late lunch, I took a cab to Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown in the world, established in 1594 during the Spanish colonial period. Historically, this was where the Spanish permitted residence by the sangleys who had converted to Catholicism, their indigenous Filipino wives, and their mixed-race descendants, the mestizos de sangley or Chinese mestizos. Similarly, Parían, an area near Intramuros, was where the Spanish first restricted unconverted Chinese immigrants. They allowed sangley settlement at Parían because it was within the range of Intramuros' cannons, and they thought they could control any uprising from the labourers.

Located across the Pasig River from Intramuros, Binondo has typified a small Chinese town, and is referred to as the local "China Town". The district is the centre of commerce and trade for all types of businesses run by Filipino-Chinese merchants. Given the historic reach of Chinese trading in the Pacific, Binondo was already a hub of Chinese commerce before the first Spanish colonisers arrived in 1570 with Martín de Goiti.

The place proved too overwhelming to the senses for me. I took a turn in the labyrinthian streets and left within ten minutes to go across the nearby Jones Bridge to catch a glimpse of the Manila Post Office Building. The Manila Central Post Office is the central post office of the city of Manila, Philippines. It is the head office of the Philippine Postal Corporation, and houses the country's main mail sorting-distribution operations.

Designed by Juan M. Arellano and Tomás Mapúa, the post office building was built in neoclassical architecture in 1926. It was severely damaged in World War II, and rebuilt in 1946 preserving most of its original design. The Manila Post Office was strategically located by Daniel Burnham at the foot of Jones Bridge because of two reasons. First reason was that the Pasig River can be conveniently used as an easy route for delivering mails and secondly, it can be accessible from all sides including Quiapo, Binondo, Malate and Ermita. Currently facing obsoletion, there are proposals to convert the building into a luxury hotel, not unlike the Fullerton in Singapore, which is also a converted colonial-style post office.

Day 6 – Mall of Asia and the Folk Art Theatre at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines

The Mall of Asia is really a complex of shopping malls built on a reclaimed land. It was in this complex that I began to appreciate the penchant of many working class Pinoys' hanging out at the malls. The expanse of space really facilitates and encourages that. Its just that space isn't a global luxury or worldwide commodity.

The ramp to access the theatre building set on a pedestal is an architectural signature of national architect Leandro Locsin
The façade of the National Theatre is dominated by a two-storey travertine block suspended 12 meters (39 ft) high by deep concave cantilevers on three sides. The rest of the structure is clad in concrete, textured by crushed seashells originally found on the reclamation site. The building is built on a massive podium, and entry is through a vehicular ramp in front of the raised lobby and a pedestrian side entry on its northwest side. In front of the façade and below the ramp, there is an octagonal reflecting pool with fountains and underwater lights. On the main lobby, three large Capiz-shell chandeliers hang from the third floor ceiling, each symbolizing the three main geographical divisions of the Philippines: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. At the orchestra entrance, a brass sculpture, The Seven Arts by Vicente Manansala welcomes the audience into the main theatre. From the pedestrian entrance, Arturo Luz's Black and White is displayed as spectators enter the little theatre or ascend to the main lobby through a massive carpeted spiral staircase. Most of the interior is lit artificially, as there are few windows, most of which are located along the sides of the main lobby. Large areas on the upper floors are open to the ground floor lobby, emphasizing the large chandeliers and fluid interior spaces on northeast side of the building. Galleries and other rooms surround these open areas, occupying the space created by the huge cantilevered block. Whenever possible, the walls surrounding these rooms are used as additional venues for displaying art works.

Much of the criticism of the building's architecture is directed towards its vehicular ramp. Since there are usually no valet services or parking areas directly accessible from the lobby entrance, the ramp's use is ideal only for audience members who are chauffeur-driven; at the expense of pedestrians, who may enter through the side entrance or a narrow (and potentially hazardous) pathway on the ramp. In defence of the design, Andy Locsin (a partner of his father's firm) explained that the decision of raising the whole structure on the podium (and consequently, the addition of the ramp) was in response to the high sea levels on the reclaimed land, and was not intended to promote an elitist view of art and culture.

The Tangahalan is a primary example of the architect's signature style known as the floating volume, a trait can be seen in structures indigenous to the Philippines such as the nipa hut. It houses three performing arts venues, one theatre for film screenings, galleries, a museum and the centre’s library and archives. Being a work of a National Artist, the brutalist structure is qualified to be an important cultural landmark.

Day 7 – Chilling out and going home

On the last day of my stay, the weather had completely dried up, with no signs that there was even a typhoon recently. Refreshed with my usual double latte, I went up the penthouse of the condo-building my host had graciously put me up in and got a panoramic view of the Makati city skyline.
Panoramic skyline of Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines.

Across the building, I got a glimpse of McKinley Road where the Forbes Residential Estate is:  a gated community housing bungalows and villas of the rich and famous, the Manila Golf and Country Club and the Manila Polo Club.

Over that and beyond the shrouded greens, you see the Makati skyline, with all its developments. Commanding at the zenith, is Kenzo Tange’s swansong, The Discovery Primea and to the right of it, the Zuellig Building with its high gloss ceramic façade cladding a enviro-intelligent building.

At the airport, I was given my final gift on this trip: a seat along the emergency exit row. Which meant extra comfort and legroom on my journey back. Wonderful!
The secondhand-smoke-filled terminal at NAIA (left), and leg room on the way back (right)!


I got back at 11.30, just before midnight and had some time to reflect on the journey before I slumbered. True, the country has its fair share of stereotypes (they are there for a reason), and is every bit as I expected, as my impression through textbooks made it out to be. But it also has many facets that are waiting to be discovered by any willing and intrepid traveller. It has a rich and diverse culture and history. It’s been through revolutions but its people are undaunted. They are a passionate, warm and friendly people. And no matter which social strata they are in or from, they remain a persevering people who expect more… of everything.

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