Manila, Magnet for the Hopeful

G.M.B. Akash/Panos

There’s a multitude of Manilas: the past, present, and imagined future. Layers unpeel to reveal a city that is pungent, astringent, lachrymose, sweet, delicious.

At its core, the Manila of memory: On the Pasig River, where the nila plant was plentiful, the sultanate of Maynila grew rich trading with China. In 1571, the Spanish conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi built a walled city there, declaring it the capital of the archipelago named for King Philip II. A Spanish colony for more than three centuries, the Philippines was both backwater and gateway to the East, linked to the West by the galleon trade. Revolution came in the 1890s, as ilustrados (privileged young men with foreign educations) returned from Europe to wrest a populist rebellion from its leader, the self-taught Andres Bonifacio. The United States helped Filipinos found the first free republic in Asia, until President McKinley and company saw value in colonies. In 1901, the USS Thomas brought 540 teachers, imposing a new language, history, identity.

Manila: “Pearl of the Orient,” the architect Daniel Burnham’s unfinished project, Douglas MacArthur’s beloved home, a city where periodicals in English or Spanish or Tagalog fought for readers, nationalists politicked for independence, and Chinese coolies toiled for future wealth. Along the canals andcalles, art deco masterpieces rose among traditional stone-and-wood houses with windowpanes made of Capiz shell. Then the Japanese conquered and occupied, and Manila’s liberation left her one of World War II’s most devastated cities. In the decades after independence, Manileños fled violent memories to new suburbs that sprawled and filled.

Today, Metro Manila is the country’s heart—a cluster of 16 cities and one municipality, 246 square miles, billions of lights, and almost 12 million souls. To visitors flying in, Manila intrigues, like a colorful complication of circuitry boards, the streets seemingly tangled like a box of ribbon upended onto the floor. To some, she’ll always be a congested concrete maze, a polluted cancer in a paradise of white-sand islands and mountains of crumpled green velveteen.

But to locals, Manila is deeply personal. Our experiences are contradictory. The disparity of what Manila offers is separated by the width of a cinder-block wall, a tinted car window, or what the ink says on a diploma. Shanties spread on the horizon with cubist notions of totality and simplicity, luxury skyscrapers rise beyond, and the middle class stretches thinly in between. Some drink blinding island gin, others, Islay single malt. The city is still a magnet for the hopeful, though many now come to be exported abroad as maids, nurses, prostitutes, construction workers.

Yet Manila is universal. We grow with her—through dictatorship and People Power; through the coziness of brownouts and the scarcity of foreign goods; through homegrown fads and imported trends; through typhoons, floods, and the habit of stifled coups. Through it all, Manila unites. We sing together. Pray in unison. Flock to malls. We share complicity in celebrity gossip, suffer unending floor shows of corrupt politicos and pilfering presidents. We swap modern folk tales—like Imelda Marcos’s haunted film center, or the ghostly White Lady of Balete Drive. We cheer our champions: Manny Pacquiao’s boxing brings Manila’s traffic and crime to nearly nil. And we take pride in Manila’s insouciant offerings: the quirkily named street food; the workhorse jeepneys; bars with midget wrestling; Chinese operas staged in Binondo backstreets; the handful of architectural gems that have survived overzealous mayors; the stalls in front of Quiapo Church, where one can find offertory candles, potions, stingray barbs used for exorcisms, and fortunetellers offering their services.

The future: it seems bright. We used to grumble, with secret happiness, “How Manila never changes!” This no longer seems true. I’ve lived away for 11 years (though I return annually), and the city has changed more in the last two than the previous nine. Cranes predict the cityscape, skyscrapers rise ever higher, call centers ring with new livelihood, and the middle class burgeons. Manila remains the port for tidal departures through which we pass seeking fortune on distant shores, but she increasingly hosts homecomings as the world becomes ever smaller.

Social media now connects the millions-strong diaspora with those who’ve stayed, and even our politics seem to be changing. Netizens pilloried comedian turned senator Tito Sotto for allegedly plagiarizing in his Senate speeches. Activists cheered the passage of a landmark reproductive-health bill that powerful Catholic bishops blocked for 14 years. And though the widow and children of Ferdinand Marcos still hold public office, and former president Joseph Estrada’s plunder conviction won’t hurt him in the polls (to which we shake our heads and say: “That’s so Manila!”), there is a sense of optimism. The past is behind us, the present booms, and we dare hope.