Hello history

Two friends of mine from Philippine provinces (one from Pampanga, the other from Davao) asked me once, “Why stay in a flat in Manila?”

The city girl in me would have answered: it’s near numerous food establishments, eventful bars, shopping malls, and all kinds of coffee shops. But after a while, the food establishments were only worth visiting during dates or group get togethers. The bars played the same DJ mixes and songs every week. The malls were always crowded and/or draining my bank account. The coffee shops were only homey when I had to wait–plus, the coffee was never as good as Vietnam’s butter roasted beans. And after having seen the beaches of Negros and Batangas, semi-climbing a mountain in Camarines Sur, and wading through a cool, clean river (then witnessing a waterfall) in Bukidnon, Manila’s man-made establishments just don’t quite compare to nature’s powerful and persistent formations. But immersing myself in such serenity can only last for so long–I will eventually crave for the bright lights and white noise excitement of the city.

I am a Southern (of Manila) girl; I am caught between the urban excitement of music, food, and fast cars and the serene, breathtaking majesty of mountains, beaches, and a clear blue/star-lit sky. I find solace in peace and fury. My motherland is home to both these distant worlds, but seems better at offering the natural than the man-made (at least, on the outset. Environmental protection and management is another story). It could, however, use some improvement on the urban experience side. Thus, I don’t blame my friends for questioning me spending weekdays in what is now a crazy, polluted, and unsafe location.  But last September 10, the said friends plus Neener, rediscovered our capital’s past secrets. We walked along the cobbled streets of Old Manila, aka Intramuros, tracing the ghosts of Spanish extravagance and American glamor.

Taking a page from Lonely Planet/Frommers/etc., Old Manila is “a city of contrasts.” One side retains the picturesque architecture of the Spanish era, along with part of the once fortified walls reconstructed and maintained. The other side, (or sometimes just right across a 300+ year old building) are makeshift shanties that earn a day’s expenses with a sari-sari store. Old buildings that remind one of Europe are now private or government buildings. The Manila Cathedral, once exclusive to the Spaniards, is now a popular wedding venue; the entrance is crowded with Korean tourists. One would expect that the modern elements “coexisting” with a preserved past indicates Manila has maintained its history. In some ways it has, but it is not at par with Europe’s Greek and Roman ruins. Having been part of the Roman Empire’s conquests, the Philippines has been damaged by several wars.  From the colonization of the Spanish, the short lived infiltration of the British, to the devastating destruction of World War II, what remains within the rebuilt walls almost seems like a ghost of such turbulent centuries. Our history is tainted with destruction and exploitation, yet these walls, buildings, and forts remain to remind us of sins that need not be repeated. And in some ways, they also tell us what/who/how we came to be what we are now: a country confused between modern development and historical preservation. For centuries, Manila was host to the attempts of the Spaniards and Americans in making the city their own, with their impressive architecture influencing buildings. Now, we are faced with concrete jungle developments that similar to old Spanish houses, may not exactly suit the current conditions.

It is important that the city retains history, for both aesthetic and historical reasons. I always hear adults missing Manila’s glory days, back when it’s grandeur was not troubled with make shift houses and pollution. We need to be reminded of how wonderful we can be, and at the same time, see these structures that attempted to remove an identity of Filipino culture. We need to decide who we want to be, with reminders of our roots (as colonized as they are), yet at the same time give the right room for jobs, trade, and modern movement. And once my city finds this balance, maybe those from live and let nature free parts will understand why my heart remains in the metro.

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