Latino Legacy

Exotic Land
Last Updated 15 October 2010, 12:41 IST

“Fling Hispanic characters into a Hollywood drama, throw in a bit of Arabic magic, splash a dash of Oriental savvy and voila — you’ve got Manila,” a Filipino friend of mine tells me when I announce my trip to the capital city of Philippines. His description was pretty right; entering the metropolis, I notice jumble of cultures, as its most striking feature. 

So not surprised, I walk along Padre Faura Street, meet Mariano, Emmanuel or Valencia, find Paella in the menu, trace the ‘yankee’ accent among locals, watch them play basketball — a sport passionately binged like the Americans do, locate an Indian temple, hear prayer calls from a mosque and get lost in one of the world’s largest Chinatown.

Colourful and lively

Comprising of 7107 islands, this archipelago nation was earlier a colony of Spain for 350 years and of America for another 50 years, which resulted in Manila’s appearance as more Latin American than typical Asian and made Filipino’s more western than their neighbours. Their mishmash culture and lifestyle displays a strong Spanish influence, some soft American characteristics, alongside light influences from Malay, Chinese, Indian and Arabic settlers.

One of the world’s most densely populated city, Manila doesn’t display ‘tourists welcome’ boards, but I quickly discover that there is no shortage of ingredients here to lure a modern visitor — hotels and resorts to rival any in the region, a colourful and lively ambience, some of Asia’s best shopping opportunities, friendly people, great cuisine, and above all, plenty of things to do and see.

Sprawled with multilane boulevards and bustling alleyways, filled with coloured minivans called jeepneys and flanked with high rise buildings and glistening shopping malls, the avant-garde Manila I meander, sprang forth from the walls of a medieval quarter built by the Spaniards when their conqueror Miguel Lopez de Legazpi laid claim to the land in 1571and proclaimed Manila as capital of Spanish Empire in Asia. Called Intramuros, it is showcased as the first stop for all tourists to Manila. 

Its pentagonal area of 64 hectares was littered with government buildings, palaces, residential houses, schools, churches army barracks and a fortress. Only Spaniards and Spanish mestizos were allowed to live inside. Each night the drawbridges across the surrounding moat were raised to ensure the colonists security. Most of it got harshly damaged; some were even totally wiped off during the World War II, when ruthlessly pounded by the American bombing to oust the Japanese occupiers for two years. After the nation’s independence in 1946, the political power moved outside and Intramuros sunk into gradual obliteration and remains today as a significant memoir of a rich and powerful colonial empire.

The moment I enter the precent, ultramodern Manila instantly vanishes and a European-styled medieval district, laid with cobblestone paved narrow streets lined with ruined colonial structures, unfolds  before me. The surrounding stone walls, shattered and pasted with lichen all day keeps anxiously looking at visitors, as if they have unheard stories to tell about Spanish pioneers, Japanese brutalities and American victory. A new golf course outside the wall, perhaps underline the integration of antiquity with modernity.

To know more of the Spanish history of Philippines, I visit the Light and Sound Museum which was established in 2003 on the grounds of a 16th century convent school and go through an hour-long walking tour that illustrates elapsed episodes using animatronics and robotics in conjunction with the latest light and sound technology. 

During the intense but a very rewarding show, said to be first of its kind in Asia, I am introduced to the nation’s legendary hero Jose Rizal, a doctor, novelist and a prolific poet, who at the age of 35 was executed by the Spanish for revolutionary activities. Prior to his death, he was imprisoned Intramuros inside the expansive Hispanic stone bastion, Fort Santiago, which today stands almost like a shrine. You might hurt Filipino sentiments if you do not visit the site, and most importantly the building where Rizal was held for months. It has been redone and showcases exhibits, amongst several of his memorabilia — the manuscript of his last poem Mi Ultimo Adios, which he wrote the night before facing the firing squad, bidding farewell to his family and countrymen.

Gory history

I loiter around Plaza Roma, the heart of Intramuros, dominated by the Palacio Real, the former residence of the Spanish Governor General overlooking the imposing Manila Cathedral, which like many other edifices in the domain were ground levelled by stern American bombing, but rebuild as per the original 16th century design. Not far from the plaza is another gothic 16th century church, San Augustine, from where, it’s said, Catholicism nurtured in Philippines and made it the only Christian nation in Asia. It survived the bombing, being a Red Cross hospital at the time.

Across the church is Plaza San Luis bordered by colonial houses, many of them restored by the Filipino government and the one open to the public is Casa Manila, a recreated 19th century wealthy merchant’s residence fitted with period furniture and decorations to picture a Spanish household of the time to visitors like me. 

Outside Intramuros, the newer physical backdrop has mostly surfaced in the last six decades and according to many locals, a large proportion of them were planned and added to the landscape during the (in) famous Marcos regime. Some of them I come across are the Cultural Centre, International Convention Centre, Coconut Palace, Rizal Park, Folks Art Theatre, the venue for 1974 Miss Universe contest and the ill-fated Manila Film Centre, a state of the art structure where during construction, 40 workers died in an accident.

Manila becomes typical Asian when you experience its high energy and invigorating spirit, almost as intoxicating as its famous beer San Miguel. Convinced I cannot leave without capturing some of them, I delve into the humming streets and watch stream of street hawkers, bludgers and beggars, bypass pushy touts trying to sell a Rado watch for less than ten dollars, eat noodles and fried chicken from wayside stalls, get lost in Chinatown, shop till dropped in mega shopping malls and after sun down cautiously explore the quarters of Ermita and Malate, ablaze with neon and bustling with exotic night life, for which Manila is famous for.

(Published 15 October 2010, 12:40 IST)

Follow us on