The smiling driver of a horse-drawn tourist carriage is dressed in cowboy attire. Many Filipinos identity with images of America thanks to the US annexation of the country in the late 1800s. Independence was finally gained in 1946 after the end of World War II.
Manila – Been There

How Manila lost its heart

Photo by David Noble

Manila – Been There How Manila lost its heart

As I stand on the battlements of the ruined Fort Santiago and gaze across the Pasig River at the built-up areas of Manila on the northern side, a question pops into my head.

Ian Gill
Ian Gill Writer

On this strategic spot, where the river disgorges its brown waters and green clusters of water hyacinth into Manila Bay, a previous ruler, Rajah Sulayman, first built a wooden fort. The Spanish later rebuilt it in stone, developing their capital around it some 450 years ago. Intramuros, the 16th century Spanish walled city, remains the oldest district of the sprawling Philippines capital but, as a long time Manila resident, it has puzzled me why this core area was left in ruins for many decades after the war while other parts of the city developed.

Cultural activist Carlos Celdran, well known for his theatrical walking tours, tells me that the old colonial city disappeared because of the ego of US General Douglas MacArthur, a man many Filipinos still revere for liberating them in World War II. MacArthur insisted on fulfilling his “I shall return” pledge and re-taking the Philippines instead of leapfrogging the islands to Taiwan, as other military minds had proposed. As a result, the Japanese holed up in Intramuros during the bloody battle of Manila in the closing months of the war. Intense fighting saw the massacre of 100,000 Filipinos as well as the near-total destruction of the old colonial district.

Only one major building, San Agustin Church, was left standing. Manila Cathedral was later reconstructed and its dignified, grey stone again looks over Plaza de Roma in a reincarnation that kept much of its old façade, including three arched portals below a massive window in the shape of 12 rose petals. Both churches are now popular venues for weddings, with their vicinity transformed into a tourist haven of cobblestone streets, museums, restaurants and souvenir shops.

Spiritually, the obliteration of Asia’s Vatican left a deep wound in the Filipino psyche that has never healed, says Celdran. “This was our heart and soul, and it was extinguished by someone else’s war,” he says. “When you destroy the heart, the body will die. To cope with the pain, Filipinos closed their eyes and ran away.” He is referring to postwar reconstruction that focused on secular, not religious, buildings and the development of other parts of Manila while Intramuros was left to decay for years.

I ask Celdran why Intramuros was not rehabilitated for so long. “There was bad juju after all the massacres, and sanitary conditions were terrible as the plumbing had been destroyed,” he says. In 1938, President Manuel Quezon had pushed for a new capital city to replace an overcrowded Manila, and religious orders, institutions of a newly independent Philippine government and businesses started afresh in Quezon City and Makati after the war.

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The Intramuros Golf Course lies right beneath the walls of Manila's 16th-century center. The course opened in 1907 and, thanks to its par 66 rounds, can be played in just two hours, making it an ideal escape for the capital's businessmen. Photo by Bertrand Gardel / Alamy

Bertrand Gardel

Bertrand Gardel

Agency
Alamy

The Intramuros Golf Course lies right beneath the walls of Manila's 16th-century center. The course opened in 1907 and, thanks to its par 66 rounds, can be played in just two hours, making it an ideal escape for the capital's businessmen.

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