Remembering the Beauty of Old Manila

By Loraine Balita

old manila before war

The decade was young, the Manileños were just starting to get used to the ways of their new guests – the Americans. And there I was trailing a few steps behind a man seemingly dressed to the nines in his carefully pressed white suit with a matching white natty hat sitting atop his balding head. I followed him as he traversed the length of the former Puente de Espana or what is now known as the new Jones Bridge – a neo-classical structure built on the site of the old bridge of Spain.

manila cathedral 1915

I could hear the hurried clacking thuds of the horse-drawn calesas passing by and the whistling sound of a small tranvia, the country’s modern means of transportation with networks that navigate Escolta.

And then I looked up to see a majestic structure by the river banks – overlooking the crystal clear water. This is the neoclassical Post Office Building, its stunning architecture marked by towering columns.

And while I was admiring the intricate details of this grandiose structure, I heard the noise grew louder and louder as the horse slowly dissolved into a small metal ornament poised atop the hood of a jeepney. Confused I turned to look for the post office as everything else slowly dissolved into a busy hurried street, right above it: a speeding LRT. And alas! I was instantly brought back to year 2010 along Taft Avenue.

Paris is to France as Manila was to Asia

Taft 

Staring at old photos of Manila must have had this effect on me. I have been day dreaming, imagining myself walking down the streets of Manila during its glory days, trying to feel how it was like to walk down a charmingly glorious city that was the envy of other cities in South East Asia.

Perhaps it’s because of an article I read about pre-war Manila titled Manila: The Riviera of the Orient by Paulo Alcazaren, who wrote a piece about a pre-war tourist guide he found. The material “graphically paints a picture of the city still steeped in heritage, colored by cosmopolitan tastes, and relatively unsullied by politics.”

He wrote the vivid descriptions in the guide printed in the 1930s right out of a tourist brochure; it was as if they were describing Paris ala Venice with the neoclassical structures and architectures lining intricate canals. The guide’s text, explains how a trip to the Orient without seeing Manila is “like going to France without touching Paris.”

Queen City of the Orient

Manila, Philippines

Or maybe the video I have been watching online by the Travel Film Archive in Pinoy blogs. The 11-minute video documentary titled Manila: Queen City of the Orient shows footages of pre-war Manila in black and white. Filmed in the 1930s, by Andre De La Varre features Manila Bay, Escolta, Old Tondo, Pasig River, the Old Dewey Boulevard (now Roxas Boulevard) and Intramuros still untouched by the ravages of war.

Manila Hotel

Manila touted as the most beautiful city in Asia then, boasted of a historic walled city inherited from Spain, a number of canals teeming with boat activity, a busy thoroughfare that was the famed Escolta, the crystal clear Pasig river and was spanned by four majestic bridges, and a section called Ermita — a residential area where beautiful mansions and the countries best hotels were located.

PGH Manila

The narrator tells of the “wide and well-paved avenues and boulevards of the American city” that were lined with overarching large trees. One of the largest boulevards then was the Dewey Boulevard, was built on reclaimed land by the Bay. It was the site of the country’s most regal mansions that served as homes of the city’s elite.

Dewey Boulevard: Malate Resort

San Agustin Church 

This sudden urge to daydream must have also been because of those old books which had descriptions of areas in Manila which might seem unbelievable at first, as retold by more authors. One such description was written by Luning Ira in the book Streets of Manila published in 1977. Ira tells of the beauty of the Boulevard Strip as well as the areas surrounding it — Ermita and Malate where huge mansions built for the country’s elite were named after American cities and States. It was “chalet town” where the home of the country’s well-to-do were built. These huge manors were also kept so owners “could be near the bay for summer swimming — for that was Malate’s principal attraction — as a resort.”

Among the many mansions situated in the area was that of the American High Commissioner with its large garden and patios that served as venue for many important social gatherings attended by the elite.

Escolta: Philippine Wall Street

Intramuros, Manila 

Another famous book that tells of the beauty of Old Manila is that of author-historian the late Nick Joaquin. In one of the sections of his book Manila, My Manila the author describes Manila’s famed business center — Escolta dominated by two luxury stores: La Estrella del Norte and La Puerta del Sol, formed part of Manila’s downtown district along with Avenida Rizal, Plaza Goiti, and Plaza Sta.Cruz.

Luneta in Manila

During the 1930s when the country experienced a short-lived gold rush Escolta became the home of the city’s “newest and flashiest” building — the Crystal Arcade. This according to Joaquin “became Manila’s stock exchange” with Escolta teeming with “stockholders feverishly trading stocks among themselves.”

The busy financial district according to another author Jose Escoda in his book Warsaw of Asia became Wall Street. It was also the country’s fashion cum commercial capital because of the fine shops, boutiques, and department stores lining the narrow five block-long thoroughfares.

Remnants of old Escolta can still be seen today still standing albeit shadows of its once glorious past.

Memories of Manila

Sta. Cruz Manila

If it weren’t the books, the articles, or the videos then it must have been the conversations I had with people over the past few weeks. Journalist Philip Lustre Jr. a true-blooded Manileño shared how he was able to stretch a few pesos and centavos for his needs as prices then were very cheap.

Sta. Cruz Church

He remembers Sta. Cruz and Quiapo with major business establishments located around the area. “I remember the Ma Mon Luk, Wa pac, Wa Nam, Moderna, and Ramon Lee restaurants, “he said.

Binondo Manila

Back then the city “had a great skyline because the LRT did not obscure the sky.” Although the structures are now gone, “I remember the numerous people that congregated in front of the old Jai Alai Fronton along Taft avenue,” he said. “Malate was chic during those days and M. Adriatico was not yet a commercial area,” he added. Like Lustre, Arnold Buenviaje recalls how his father would take him out as a kid to watch Chinese movies in Binondo,” he said.

Busy Escolta according to him had Syvel’s where people would go to buy shoes and clothes. Its streets were lined with high-end shops and modern establishments, and people then were “not allowed to walk in flip-flops or slippers in Escolta,” he said.

Like him Timi Banzon, who was born and raised in Manila remembers Escolta as the coutry’s prime business cum leisure destination, leading up to some of the country’s most expensive shops. “It was the commercial hub of Manila back then when Makati was still a land of marshes and cogon grass,” she shared. Timi recalled how as a little girl she would ride the “Motorco,” a double-decker big bus that runs from the Rizal monument to the arch in Baclaran.

Timi’s Grandfather would take her to Echague and then Arranque market “because that was where the PX [imported] goods were.” The place was “so wide, broad and well-lighted,”she said. Back then, theaters like the Manila Grand Opera House and Odeon were still operational and these “had the orchestra, lodge and balcony sections.” Timi shared how she stood witness as Avenida Rizal reached its peak and as it went from “its glory to bust with the onset of the LRT.” “The LRT killed Avenida,” she added.

While Timi thinks that some parts of Manila like Avenida are long dead, she feels that Manila as a whole will never die. “Though its magic has faded and newer and better cities have risen, the history of this city is [still] unparalleled,”she said. “For true Manilenans like me, I will always be proud of being born and raised in the heart of this country,” she quipped.

I guess it was really Timi’s story that got me wanting to see Manila back then. Perhaps it was because of Nick Joaquin’s book that I read. Or maybe it’s a mixture of everything. The videos, article clippings, and books plus interviews with people who allowed me to piece together the beautiful and vibrant picture of old Manila which people like me will never got the chance to see.

1 comment

  1. Hoping that the government would have a program to revive such structures as they are our country’s identity. Such a lost that we let these gone by the wind..

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