Carlos Celdran describes his frantic, but glorious, home of Manila; a chaotic, gritty and spiritual city
Manila is a chaotic and spiritual place, dirty and divine, gritty and gorgeous all at once. If you don’t find beauty and poetry here, you will never find it anywhere. It’s a city that reflects your state of mind, and living here often becomes an intense experience. Named after a riverside flower and founded by the conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi, Manila – one of the world’s largest cities – was once, hard though it may be to believe, just a tiny Muslim village. During three centuries of Spanish rule from 1571, Manila, then known as Intramuros (‘within the walls’) in Latin, became the seat of Spanish power in the archipelago.
Grand government offices controlled the state, while its majestic cathedrals controlled the soul of the islands christened Filipinas (after King Felipe II). The city’s wooden walls were replaced by volcanic tuff and its bamboo mosques acceded to seven baroque Catholic churches made out of limestone, hardwood and seashells. A $20 million treaty following the Spanish-American War transferred the islands to American rule in the late 19th century, causing more major changes in both the size and spirit of Manila. American city planner Daniel Burnham revamped Manila’s central core and filled it with government buildings, sprawling lawns, fountains and grand residences.
Eventually telephones, ice-cream, toothpaste and Coca-Cola would be introduced to society and Intramuros’ southern districts of Ermita, Malate and Pasay would be converted from a row of seaside huts into a civilised collection of art deco and neo-classical structures, connected by wide roads and accented by parks and rotundas. Then, just as quickly as new buildings and beliefs replaced the old ones, Manila was in transition again. This time it would never recover: in 1945 the city’s centre – and its soul – were destroyed.
More than 120,000 people were killed here during World War II, only the San Agustin Church left standing inside Intramuros. After the madness of the fighting between the Americans and the Japanese came the madness of reconstruction. From the 1950s onwards, Manila grew at a radical rate. Today, Metro Manila has nearly 15 million inhabitants and sprawls 636 square kilometres across 16 districts. Despite this tremendous growth, Manila has managed to maintain its identity and unique heritage. It is said that the Jeepney – gaily decorated leftover World War II army vehicles that are still the most popular form of transport here – is a good metaphor for Manila. Are they beautiful or bizarre? Are they inefficient or entrepreneurial? Are they an everyday utility or a progressive work of art? Maybe Manila is more like halo-halo, the local dessert made from sweet beans, custard, shaved ice and ice-cream. This city is a reflection of how different flavours can make up a greater whole, and how sometimes too much can be a very good thing.
Jeepneys New York cabs, London buses, the Tokyo bullet train… many cities have distinctive public transport, but nothing can compete with the jeepney. Initially an informal and pragmatic means of re-establishing the public transport infrastructure after it had been destroyed during World War II, the first jeepneys were converted US military jeeps, extravagantly decorated and always overcrowded, the backs of the vehicles having been stripped down to cram in more passengers. The name speaks for itself, once you know that a ‘jitney’ is an unlicensed taxi. Modern jeepneys are made locally – and subject to increasingly stringent fare regulation and pollution restrictions – but their freewheeling spirit remains, most evidently in the magnificent abundance of chrome and lamps. Today, there are 56,000 operating in Metro Manila.
Getting there Emirates fly to Manila daily, from Dhs2,425 return including taxes.
Where is it? On the western side of the largest island in the Philippine archipelago, Luzon, at the mouth of the Pasig River
Climate Tropical climate, with the wet season lasting from June to November and the dry season lasting from December to May
Ethnic mix Filipinos (subdivided into Tagalog, Visayan, Ilocano, Bicolano, Kapampangan, Pangasinan and Moro ethnic and ethnolinguistic groups), Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Spanish, American, Korean
Major sights National Museum of the Philippines, Bahay Tsinoy Museum, Cultural Centre of the Philippines, San Agustin Church, Quiapo Church, Flaming, George National Recreation Area, Cuneta Astrodome, Chinatown
Where’s the buzz? Malate for nightlife, Divisoria for market hubbub
Nicknames Perla del Oriente (Pearl of the Orient), Queen of the Orient, City of Our Affections, City by the Bay, Insigne y Siempre Leal Ciudad (Distinguished and Ever Loyal City)
The country’s oldest church San Agustin Church, built 1607
Languages spoken Tagalog, English, Chinese, Spanish
National hero José Rizal, a doctor, linguist and writer, executed by the Spanish colonial forces in Manila on 30 December 1896
Number of pairs of shoes owned by Imelda Marcos, widow of former president Ferdinand Marcos, who governed from 1965-1986 About 2,700
Number of municipalities that make up Metro Manila 17
Number of islands that make up the Philippines 7,107
Local cuisine Dinuguan, kare-kare (oxtail stew), kilawen, pinakbet (vegetable stew), pinapaitan, sinigang (tamarind soup with a variety of pork, fish or shrimp), balut (fertilised egg, boiled with embryonic duckling inside), halo-halo (shaved ice with sweet beans, custard and ice-cream), puto (little white rice cakes), bibingka (rice cake with butter or magarine and salted eggs), ensaymada (sweet roll with grated cheese on top)