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Bringing Back Manila’s Glory

Cultural revival in pocket areas recharges the vibe of an old city

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By Johannes L. Chua and Raymund Magno Garlítos

447th ARAW NG MAYNILA – The majestic view of the Manila City Hall, photographed from the roof deck of the Bayleaf Hotel in Intramuros, Manila, exudes with a vibrant hue as the sun rises Saturday morning. (Jun Ryan Aranas)

447th ARAW NG MAYNILA – The majestic view of the Manila City Hall, photographed from the roof deck of the Bayleaf Hotel in Intramuros, Manila, exudes with a vibrant hue as the sun rises Saturday morning. (Jun Ryan Aranas)

No other city in the country captivates the foremost writer and journalist, National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, but Manila. In fact, he wrote a monumental tribute to his beloved city through his landmark book, Manila, My Manila, documenting the city’s rich history and vibrant culture.

However, the once grand city has been weakened by waves of migration from other parts of the country, criminality and neglect as decades went by, its air of romance that once earned it the moniker “Paris of the East” in its glorious heydays now replaced by one of caution and indifference.

According to heritage architect and author Gerard Lico, “Manila is a story of grand plans unrealized, with masterplan after masterplan diluted into the conundrum we have today.”

Though Lico said Manila is a confusing, disorganized mess, it is a “beautiful mess, with formality and informality creating a new identity found nowhere else in the world. It is a city of contradictions and struggle, and of opportunity and rebirth. It is organic, a city in tension, a city aware of its value.”

Lico’s observation is also supported by Ivan Man Dy, one of the pioneers of walking tours in Manila, specifically in Binondo. For him, Manila in general has “a lot of improvements to do, specifically the proper collection of garbage” which turns off tourists and potential business investors.

Even amidst various challenges, it is not too late.  For Dy, he sees Manila’s cultural revival in “pocket areas such as the Escolta Street and in the presence of new hip food places in Malate.”

For Lico, cultural revival is seen in the people as “today’s populace is increasingly more aware and critical… as they want to reclaim the glory of Manila’s past, and they have a clamor to highlight our history, arts and culture.”

Cultural Revival

Manila, of recent years, is seeing a revival in terms of tourism and culture – putting it once more in the tourism map.

For one, Lico mentions the once majestic Metropolitan Theater that forms part of the city’s architectural gems. He is the lead architect for the theater’s restoration project.

Another reason to feel Manila’s cultural revival is the reopening of The National Museum of Natural History at the old Tourism Building last May, completing the National Museum of the Philippines complex that includes the National Museum of Anthropology and the National Museum of Fine Arts.

Entrance in these museums is now free, so the public should take advantage and relearn some valuable lessons about the Philippines.

Glorious Escolta, once the seat of commerce and shopping in the 1920s and ’30s, is fast becoming a hub for artists and out-of-the-box entrepreneurs. Thanks to the Sylianteng family and the artist group 98B Collaboratory,  First United Building is now a place for weekend art markets and all sorts of creative pursuits.

Binondo, considered one of the oldest Chinatowns in the world, is no longer just exclusive to the Filipino-Chinese community as it has become part of the tourism belt for its food, history and culture.

Dy’s ‘Binondo Food Wok’ is sought-after as one will relish unfolding Chinatown’s culinary secrets.

A museum on Filipino-Chinese history, called Bahay Tsinoy, located in Intramuros is a testament to the timeless friendly ties between Filipinos and the Chinese.

Intramuros continues to have its steady number of tourists, and thanks to walking tours given by the likes of Carlos Celdran, the walled city remains in the ‘walls’ of social media users.

On the same note, Luneta or Rizal Park is taking people away from the malls as it sheds its reputation as a place overrun by petty thieves.

For religious tourism, Manila offers the spectacle of faith and devotion it in its churches such as those in Quiapo, Binondo or Sta. Cruz.

Given these significant cultural assets, so many things still need to be addressed by city officials, like the high incidence of poverty, street criminality and vagrancy.

Add to that, Dy said the government must also “work with the community and create sustainable projects that will improve the quality of life in the old neighborhoods.”

For Lico, a full Manila Renaissance can only happen if “active steps will be taken to change the perception of a city long known for its problems. But the good news is, heritage is now becoming mainstream, culture and art is now hip and more people – the yuppies, millennials, think tanks, etc. – are proud to be part of a new Filipino collective.”

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