Altar boys queue to enter the Manila Metropolitan Cathedral, officially known as the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. The current incarnation, the eighth cathedral on the spot, was restored in 1958 following World War II damage.
Manila – Long Read

Journey into the Filipino psyche

Photo by Steve Vidler

Manila – Long Read Journey into the Filipino psyche

Hello Manila, capital of the Philippines and the most densely populated city in the world. To walk around it is a journey not only through history but also into the Filipino psyche. Join us as we explore Intramuros, its former colonial heart, and the old downtown of Quiapo with two of the country's most controversial artists.

Ian Gill
Ian Gill Writer

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. 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.

In the centuries since the first colonization, the Filipino psyche has been transformed by Spanish and American colonialism, Japanese wartime occupation, and Chinese economic influence, says cultural activist Carlos Celdran, well known for his theatrical, and sometimes controversial, walking tours. “In the past century alone, the predominant language of instruction in schools, for example, has switched from Spanish to English to Tagalog,” he says. He likens the Filipino’s sense of identity to the halo-halo, a local dessert that includes sweetened beans, nata de coco, leche flan, purple yam and jelly, stirred in with shaved ice and ice cream.

When the Spanish arrived in 1571, they found a settlement of 10,000 Muslims who had already been trading with Chinese, Japanese and Malays for centuries. King Philip II of Spain, after whom the Philippines was named, vowed to convert the islands to Christianity. Intramuros became both the seat of government and a lovely “tropical Vatican,” with a cathedral and seven churches, many built out of compressed volcanic ash. “Such architectural splendor represented the soul of Philippines, the spiritual equivalent of Indonesia’s Borobodur or Cambodia Angkor Wat,” says Celdran.

Sadly, that splendid Intramuros was leveled during World War II, with only one building, San Agustin Church, 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.

Of far greater genetic influence were the Chinese

Celdran debunks the myth that the Ilustrados, the “Enlightened” or educated class under Spanish rule who populated this city then, were mostly Spanish mestizos. In fact, with so few Spanish people, especially women, the Hispanic contribution to the Filipino genetic mix was small. Of far greater genetic influence were the Chinese, who traded in porcelain, silk, pottery long before the Spanish – and soon greatly outnumbered the Europeans. Distrustful of their culture, but recognizing their economic importance, the Spanish kept the Chinese in a special quarter called the Parian across the river. Pointing to the district that became Binondo, Celdran notes wryly it was one cannon shot away from Fort Santiago in case of trouble.

“There was trouble – quite a bit of it – but most of the early Chinese did assimilate, learning the language, adopting Christianity and Hispanic names and marrying indigenous Filipinos,” he says. In time, Chinese Filipinos (Chinoys) spread beyond Binondo, an important financial district and the world’s oldest Chinatown, to dominate the business sector. “This mestizo culture – a blend of Chinese, Spanish and Indio bloodlines – has been a key factor in shaping Filipino identity,” he adds.

A key moment in local as well as world history was the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, which opened up European markets for the Philippines’ sugar, tobacco, coffee and abaca and led to new affluence for the plantation owning “hacienderos”. Casa Manila, a replica of a colonial home in the center of Intramuros, is an interesting showcase for the bygone lifestyle of the well-to-do. Standing in the living room, with its ornate cane furniture, I can easily imagine tertulias (soirées) and bailes (balls) with seductive smiles exchanged over fluttering fans. In the stone courtyard below, I can see students from a local college, garbed in long dresses of the era, enacting scenes from the novels of patriot José Rizal, who was executed in 1896 for his opposition to Spanish rule.

Celdran points out that the Americans, who bought the Philippines from Spain and defeated the Filipino independence movement in 1898, turned Rizal into a national hero. “The idea of a national anything was an American concept,” he says. The Americans also separated the functions of church and state, that were one ruling bloc under Spanish rule, and, by transferring the Kilometer Zero marker to the Rizal statue from Manila Cathedral they symbolically replaced the values of the church with the secular values of Rizal.

Grand buildings in the style of Washington DC

Over the next half century, along with Hollywood movies, ice cream parlors, hamburgers and French fries, elevators, toilet paper and toothpaste, the Americans brought huge infrastructural improvements, including a public education system, electricity, telephones and transport systems. They also ushered in an era of grand neo-classical buildings in the style of Washington DC. These restored civic buildings, as well as Roxas Boulevard and the Manila Hotel, are all within a short distance of Intramuros and, with the elegant Spanish era buildings in Binondo, Quiapo, Ermita and Malate, gave Manila a reputation as Asia’s loveliest city, the “Pearl of the Orient.” No one could foresee that much of it would soon be gone.

I take a ride in a horse-drawn cart, known as a “calesa” through streets where history gives way to the present. A back alley in Intramuros could be any street in the provinces. A woman peers out from her “sari-sari” small goods store, while a man dozes in a chair on the pavement, oblivious to children playing around him, a chicken searching for crumbs and two men fixing a bicycle. Nearby, “JR” Mendoza is selling buko juice – or coconut water – from a cart. I step back instinctively as he wields a wicked-looking bolo knife, quickly chopping a drinking hole in the coconut.

Cedran 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. He 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.

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.

Blackened as a result of a fire

From the sedate walled city, it is only 3km to the bustling Quiapo district of Manila but it’s a big leap from colonial to current times. Plaza Miranda, the district’s heart, is abuzz with activity seven days a week. Religious devotion is everywhere on display. Dominating the plaza’s north side is the baroque St John the Baptist Church, home to the Black Nazarene, a wooden sculpture of a cross-carrying Christ believed to have miraculous powers. The statue, the story goes, was blackened as a result of a fire as it was being brought here from Mexico.

It is Friday and, as on virtually every Friday for the last two centuries, Filipinos form long lines outside the church even as the service is broadcast outside through a large TV screen and loudspeakers. With patient resignation, worshippers wait their turn to enter an already packed church to offer gifts and pray for a miracle to transform their lives. Vendors sit behind rows of stalls selling necklaces of white jasmines, which are the national flower and are known locally as sampaguita, candles of various colors, each with a different significance (red for love, green for money or blue for peace of mind) or amulets to ward off danger. Despite frowns from church authorities, the square is packed with faith healers, herbalists and fortune tellers, reflecting the strength of native pagan beliefs that have endured through centuries of Spain and American rule.

Beneath the bright colors and vibrant energy of the markets lies economic hardship, however. Much has changed since the Philippines gained political independence from the United States in 1946 and ejected American troops from their military bases at Clark and Subic Bay in 1991. More than six decades of self-rule have included an often shaky democracy, along with a period of dictatorship. Just as importantly, the postwar era saw the reinforcement of a Filipino ruling class, an oligopoly that originated with the Ilustrados and is manifest in the more than two dozen clans that control every major sector of the economy.

The Philippines’ population has soared from 18 million in 1946 to over 95 million today. With Asia’s highest population growth rate swallowing up economic gains, the gulf between rich and poor has widened hugely. With growth – and jobs – constrained by the dominance of ruling families and the lack of competition, 10 per cent of the population has been forced to go abroad in search of work. For me, the most poignant image of the country’s conflicted soul is that of the Filipina domestic, often educated, who can be seen at the airport every day of the week, tearfully forced to leave her family behind in order to earn money abroad to support them.

Described as “ultra realist” by European critics

One man who uses his cameras to document the impact of soul-destroying poverty is the multi-award winning movie director, Brillante (Dante) Mendoza. He shot part of his shocking 2007 docudrama Tirador (Slingshot) in Quiapo, using hand-held cameras to follow a police raid and several thieves on the run. The audience were taken through the squalid, congested alleys populated by shanties, open drains and characters living on the margins of society.

Described as “ultra realist” by European critics, Mendoza dispenses with story lines and in-depth characterization to focus on dramatic vignettes showing how hopelessness breeds desperation. In one sequence, for example, a woman caught shoplifting wails histrionically to persuade the store manager not to press charges, and promptly steals from a street stall. Back in her shanty, tragic-comic retribution arrives when she drops her false teeth down a sinkhole and sobs as she rummages for her dentures in a sewer.

Mendoza often includes religious scenes in his work and Tirador juxtaposes petty crimes with images from the Black Nazarene procession. The message is clear: despite the characters’ religious beliefs, when their values collide with financial pressures, morality is often the casualty. “You cannot ignore the fact that we are a very religious nation,” says Mendoza. “As a filmmaker, I show that it’s part of our lives, whether one is religious or not so religious.”

Mendoza, the youngest of eight children in a family of humble background, knows how the poor live. He is from Pampanga, a province north of Manila, where his father was a rice farmer and his mother ran a carinderia (a local buffet-style restaurant). Mendoza holds up a mirror to Filipinos – but they don’t want to look, he says. Like the characters in his movies, Filipinos are too busy struggling to survive. “When they go to the cinema, they want only entertainment and prefer melodramas,” he says. “But I don’t get affected by either recognition or criticism. I am more interested in the issues and real stories.”

Two policemen grin as they warn me

Quiapo is much less harsh than his dramatized interpretation but two policemen who patrol its streets, Ray Agapito and Arnold Solatorio, grin as they warn me that, as in many parts of the world, it’s an areas with a fair share of purse-snatchers and pickpockets. The district offers an unusual and quixotic range of goods and services and, thanks to lower rents than in more up-market areas, cheap prices. I see goods ranging from fruit and native artefacts to bicycles and electronics, including high-end cameras. Mary Ann Suzon, a camera shop manager complains of a fall in business but all work in the shop stops as one of her staff arrives with bowls of macaroni soup. Wiith typical Filipina hospitality, Ms Suzon offers me some.

In one corner of Plaza Miranda, fortune-teller Meanne Domingo tells me that tough times means she gets more business from people depressed by financial, family and personal matters and hoping for a break in the clouds. Among her customers are broken-hearted girls. “I usually advise them to forget the guy and tell them that other people are coming into their lives,” she says.

In another part of the square, Raquel Sarmiento, a small and unpretentious woman who has been treating sprains and knotted muscles for 15 years, is giving a vigorous shoulder massage to one of her regulars. With a sigh, the client, Vilma Manasala, says she experiences a lot of stress from her job as a washerwoman and from carrying an infant grandson. Many Filipinos still prefer healers and herbalists over mainstream doctors, not only because they are cheaper but because they swear by the efficacy of their treatments.

Only a few hundred meters from Plaza Miranda is a squatter area where most subsist on a few dollars a day and sometimes have to depend on the Black Nazarene for more than spiritual nourishment. Jennifer, dressed in T-shirt, shorts and plastic flip-flop shoes – regulation attire in these parts – is a cheerful, homely woman of 30 who has been living in a tiny wooden shack, covered by tarpaulin, with her husband, mother and four children for as long as she can remember. Incongruously, an old washing machine is frothing in front of their dwelling, powered by a cable illegally connected to a spaghetti-like tangle of wires. One big expense is water, which costs three pesos per gallon from the nearby water station. Although the family pays no rent or electric bills, it has to subsist on her husband’s daily earnings of about 200-300 pesos ($5 to $7) as a pedicab driver, a near-impossible feat.

An entire community exists beneath a bridge

At the water station, her neighbors are buying water in cans and taking showers. Nearby, under a stretch of canvas, is a karaoke machine and two teenage girls who are singing and dancing. They giggle at my approach and greet me with a V-sign pointed at their eyes. On the concrete walkway by the Pasig River, an entire community exists beneath a bridge.

A good-looking, personable man shows me around. Abdul has been here a year and subsists by pushing water carts in return for food, not money. He can do some plumbing when he finds the work. It is mid-afternoon and many of the adults are out on the streets eking a living. Dozens of children are playing a skipping game, using a long wire as rope, or jumping into the river to swim. Some of the older men are trying to sleep; some women are picking lice out of each other’s hair.

Among the worst calamities that strike the shanty-dwellers are the typhoons that hit the Philippines several times a year. Jennifer says they have lost all these possessions several times and are forced to seek sanctuary in Quiapo Church.

Facing such stark realities, it is hard to be optimistic but both Celdran and Mendoza remain so. Government action to narrow the disparity between rich and poor is key but also a growing awareness of a shared history. “Almost all the history of the Philippines has been written with an agenda, through the eyes of a Spaniard, an American, or a Ferdinand Marcos,’ says Celdran. He highlighted the agenda of the Catholic Church himself when he interrupted a service at Manila Cathedral to tell leading churchmen “to stop getting involved in politics” during the church’s attempts to block family-planning legislation in the Philippine Congress.

Celdran sees the country’s character and strength in its past that has built a national character combining the Indio’s sense of kapwa (pulling together), barrio-evolved social sensibilities and obligations, earthy humor and resilience; Spanish religiosity and artistic elegance; Chinese industry and commercial instincts; and American tolerance and consumerism. “By the 1950s, Manila was a gateway between East and West and Asia’s first truly multicultural city. The typical Filipino had Malay skin, Chinese eyes, spoke Spanish and, deep in his heart, wanted to be American,” he says.

That aspiration is changing and the future mix may be even more convoluted – but it is no bad thing. “Our originality lies in the mixture,” he says. “So much of our culture is borrowed from others. Even the national anthem uses the same notes as France’s La Marseillaise, only backwards. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the potpourri of our culture.”


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