Days and Nights in Manila by Luis Francia

BOMB 64 Summer 1998
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A blue-uniformed security guard on Gandara Street resists the afternoon heat’s seductive call by doing pushups, his legs propped on a chair, his upper torso alternately embracing and pushing away the concrete sidewalk. I can only wonder at this burst of activity as I walk by, my lunch of curried noodles and steamed fish, consumed in a crowded panciteria, filling my gut. The guards for the other stores—all of them shuttered on this somnolent, humid Sunday afternoon—slouch on chairs, unbuttoned, at ease, some dozing in their undershirts. Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown, has an almost demure air, wearing her secrets the way a grande dame wears her perfume: discreetly but distinctively, a bouquet of other fragrances hinted at. The world passing by no longer offers her any surprises, a world that has grown smaller, more compact, as though different periods of time had settled down into one dense layer, past and present so much a part of each other the future seems irrelevant.

On Dasmarinas, a calesa plies the street, the clip-clop of its blindered horse pleasant drumbeats on the brain. Binondo is deserted today, the colonial-era buildings aspiring to modest heights, their sooty wooden facades, iron-grille windows, stone columns, and solid doors evoking the days when the Chinese grew shy of the Spaniards’ disdainful gaze. Here is the Old Manila still, the Manila that existed before that monument to the mall and American efficiency, clean, aseptic Makari, reared its skyscraper heads south of the Pasig River. Binondo forms part of the city’s cholesterol-choked heart, cheek by jowl with Santa Cruz and Quiapo, bustling, brawling, blustery neighborhoods full of the commerce and vigorous life brought by the river and the sea.

The district’s large esteros, or canals, reinforce the feeling of separation from the rest of the city. Their murky waters, refuse laden, assail pedestrians on the short bridges with the sweetish smell of decay. The bridges’ approaches are crowded with shops that sell sweetmeats, ham, noodles and Chinese delicacies. In a ritual antedating conquest, shopper and shopkeeper bargain ’til they reach common ground.

Something happens that jolts me back into these unruly times. A small crowd has gathered on one side of a bridge. I go over and look at what everyone else is staring at: a body wrapped in black plastic, the rope around its sheated neck clearly visible. A man nearby remarks: “na-salvaged.” The term, a mixture of Filipino and English, is peculiar but familiar, our equivalent of desaparecido and coined during the Marcos dictatorship, to refer to assassinations by paramilitary death squads. No one knows why an English word that refers to the act of rescue, of retrieving something of value, especially from the sea, now has this grisly connotation.

Does the bag contain a man or a woman? Petty thief, human rights activist, or just a person who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Now just a body, thrown up against the embankment like a bad dream. In the city of bad dreams this is one of the worst, a recurring nightmare for more than two decades now, and the measure of how vastly different this Manila is from the Manila I grew up in.

The salvagings, that used to come to light only in the city’s more obscure corners, now brazenly turn up under the public’s noses. Take a good sniff, the killers seem to say, for you could wind up like that. Friends relate casual awakenings to the nightmare of such twisted redemptions. Two bodies by Roxas Boulevard, across from Aristocrat, a popular 24-hour eatery. Ami coming out of her residential compound and seeing a dead man outside the gates. Activists we know gunned down in the provinces and in the hills.

Manila: a word I utter deliberately, contemplating what it signifies, the store of feelings and associations it evokes in me. What terrible and beautiful histories a place contains that one grew up in! I mean not just the accretion of events and circumstances that give cold shape over the centuries to a city but those secret stories, those remembrances of people that make of it more than an accident of geography, a backdrop against which lives unfold in manifold ways; that render it the intimate possession of those whom it possesses as well. The fabled Noble and Ever Loyal City—as the original 16th century Spanish charter described it—had ceased to exist because the world had changed brutally. If in my beginning was Manila, if I had come out the natural way, in my Manila was a beginning, yanked out in rough Caesarean fashion and thrown into the dislocations of a confused modernity. The colonizers’ world had been almost obliterated, not so much by the retreating Japanese during World War II but by the heavy guns of an army led by that pipe-smoking cowboy General Douglas McArthur. The Manilenos who survived may not have heard the phrase “friendly fire” but they knew precisely the dimensions of its cruel irony.

The Walled City, built up 400 years earlier by my Malay forebears commandeered by the Spanish, bore the brunt of the bombardment. This was the second time around: the original settlement, the Muslim Malay kingdom under Datu Matanda and Rajah Suleyman, that too had been razed to the ground by the Spanish as they began to Hispanicize a far-flung archipelago and to enfold near-naked Pacific islanders in the guilty robes of European religion. What I emerged into, straight out of my mother’s womb, was a city devastated by war. Its destruction, its human loss, meant nothing to an infant still pondering its own loss, still seeking the warm maternal island-belly, and now moored, between shadow and light, to the larger world of mother, father, and other dimly perceived family members. And nothing that my infant’s clear eye saw when my mother carried me through shattered neighborhoods has been retained, but surely the city had its own memories then. Acts of human bestiality, the lengths we would go to plumb our darknesses, fashioned its own rude birth to a vastly different universe.

My earliest memories of the city are devoid of the traces of war: a huge house, dogs and a yard in a neighborhood noted only for a famous child actress living on the aptly named Hollywood Road; Sunday lunch at a panciteria in the Ermita district, made memorable by the steaming bowl of bird’s nest soup that occupied center stage.

Sometimes my parents would take us for a ride by Manila Bay, on the Matorco double-decker bus, and naturally everyone wanted to sit on the open-air top deck. The bus would amble the length of palm tree-fringed Roxas Boulevard skirting the bay, its passengers enjoying the cool sea breeze. We would gaze out to that matrix, the sea, to reassure ourselves by its presence that the world pretty much existed as it had the day before and that we had remained islanders.

The bus turned around once it reached Baclaran Church, near the boulevard’s southern end. Baclaran was famous for its icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, believed to be miraculous by thousands of devotees who came every Wednesday to plead their seemingly hopeless cases. To avoid the ensuing traffic nightmares many stayed home and listened to the novena over the radio. Sometimes we would pray along with the jumble of voices that came through the airwaves. Perhaps we didn’t pray hard enough, for those days of family harmony were short-lived, as relations between my mother and father grew strained, and unhappiness set in. A child’s memory is intuitive as much as it is a recollection of actual events, and I knew the unhappiness had to do partly with my father’s dissatisfaction over his role as family provider, the many disappointments in his career as a civil engineer, and his hurtful pride when my mother had to assume a larger burden than either he or she was prepared for. (Dear father, would that you had understood and forgiven the temper of the times!) The blurring of roles was never an option for them, particularly for my father, who as the oldest son was used to getting his way. There was a deep sense of discontent at how his life had turned out. His imperiousness, that would have stood him in good stead earlier in the century, had nothing to brighten it in an age that looked eagerly, steadfastly, at a new world.

Though he had been born in the first decade of this century, when American colonial rule was in place but barely, the essential flavor of the times, the way he and his siblings were brought up by his Filipino mother and wealthy Spanish mestizo father, was quintessentially Old World Hispanic. It meant precise forms through which interaction with the larger world was controlled. The Puritanical notion of hard work as redemptive, the Yankee stress on social and economic mobility, rooted in a frontier mentality, and the fixability of just about anything, floated vaguely about, alien to the emotional and psychological landscape my father was accustomed to. He was from the upper class, a station he felt inexorably his—in charge, answered to—and the indifference of fate to his background, the fact that impoverishment was much closer than he ever thought possible, shored up rather than breached his imperiousness, a fortress against an increasingly impersonal mercantile world.

He was truly Lolo Pepe’s son. My father’s father, who passed away before I was born, had been a wealthy landowner in Laguna, a province not far from the city. He showed no inclination for business, preferring the leisurely life of a gentleman of means. He liked to whittle, was fond of music, and could play the violin passably. And with friends he was generous, often paying off their gambling debts, using parcels of land as collateral for the money he’d borrow on their behalf. He never saw those monies again. By the time he passed away, little remained of a huge estate that took three days to cover on horseback.

According to accounts by my father’s siblings, the lands had been taken over by a family of usurers—two brothers and a sister—from the neighboring town of Santa Cruz. One brother went mad, while the other was so detested by the townspeople, he had to carry a gun wherever he went. And the sister wound up a reclusive, miserable spinster. These were the stories I was told, with righteous satisfaction, the unspoken moral being that this unholy trio had been found guilty by God.

My father’s disdain for the practical never sat well with my mother, whose own mother was a strong-willed woman and had a career as a school principal—the first woman to occupy the post in her province—before marrying my American grandfather. Lolo Henry had come over as a soldier in the US Army when America took over as the new plantation owners, and who died in late middle age before any of us was born. My mother’s sense of independence came reluctantly to the fore when she started to work outside the home as an insurance agent, taking up the slack whenever my father was between contractual assignments which, as he got older, grew fewer and fewer. Eventually she became the major provider, a fact that fueled my father’s resentments. And my mother’s insistence that he do something else, like teach Spanish, for instance—he spoke the language perfectly—would infuriate him. To have followed her advice would have been an open admission of failure, would have resulted in loss of face in front of his friends and professional peers. They would often have raging arguments, my father scorning my mother’s efforts to earn money, and my mother alternately bewildered and angered by his refusal to deal with the world as it was. As a kid, I remember finding it difficult to be with them in public, sensing the tension, dreading the possibility of a flare-up, an argument.

I sometimes wonder how we would have turned out had Lolo Pepe’s vast tracts of land been passed on. Difficult as it is to picture myself as anything other than what I am now, I can imagine growing up as the son of a wealthy landowner, with servants and bodyguards, accustomed to the privilege such a position carries in a society still shaped by the land, its values dictated by a feudalistic Catholic patriarchy. Those values would probably have corrupted me, transformed me into a defender of an inequitable system, the sort I have been critical of in my journalistic writings precisely because I recognize an alternative self: the submerged tyrant, benevolent paterfamilias, uncaring hedonist. We are never harsher than when we see the darker side of ourselves in others, our harshness a warning to ourselves as much as anything else.

 

Sea-breeze-blessed Roxas Boulevard winds its way through my memory as a major artery, mimicking its role in the city. Originally used as a carriage path by the Spanish, the boulevard was first named for the American admiral George Dewey who easily vanquished the Spanish fleet imprisoned in the bay in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Later on it was renamed to honor the Philippine Republic’s first president, Manuel Roxas. At the boulevard’s northern end were Intramuros, Manila Hotel, the Luneta, the US Embassy, the Army and Navy Club—fitting emblems of 400 years of colonial solitude. The southern reaches were dominated by nightclubs: tropical, brassy, very 20th-century, their names neon-bright: Bayside, Riviera, Eduardo’s.

Like the human body, Roxas’s northern part was the administering rational self, while southward, towards Baclaran, other human needs were met. Those glitzy nightclubs were expensive, and favorite haunts of politicians, businessmen, and the scions of wealthy families. The dubs had their own big bands and floor shows—if we were the Latins of the East, Manila was our pre-Castro Havana—as well as beautiful, well-groomed hostesses whom a customer could “table.” That meant having her sit with him as long as he paid for what were called “ladies’ drinks,” outrageously priced, watered-down cocktails the lady could drink all night without ever getting drunk. Invariably, the loveliest women wound up as mistresses of the clubs’ well-connected clients.

The clubs straddled the boundary between Manila and Pasay City. Manila was by no means a haven of prudes, but Pasay had a seediness that thrived on libidinal energies. Plying the boulevard were so-called taxi girls, courtesans of the night who would cruise around in a hired cab until a trick hailed it. A price would be agreed-upon before the cab took the couple to a nearby motel. The sidestreets flanking the dubs had smaller bars—often featuring strip shows—and casas, or brothels, for the ordinary pocket. Streets named after saints and places of pilgrimage—San Juan, San Antonio, Antipolo—offered tawdry experiments in love. The touts and pimps, in addition to their stable of whores, had couples of varying ages, partners paid to demonstrate their lovemaking skills in a brightly lit room furnished with a bed and chairs ranged around it, for clients to sit on as they indulged their voyeuristic whims. The exhibition these avatars of carnality engaged in was known as toro, which in Spanish means “bull.” The man was the toro (but really more like a reconfigured unicorn), the woman to be impaled by him, like carnival barkers, the touts described the extraordinary talents of these men and women. Did one wish for a young couple, sturdily built, still ruled by passion rather than craft? Here, Boss, this way, please, for wonders you’ve never seen. Or perhaps one were more interested in an older pair, a man and woman who could make the Kama Sutra come alive, dispassionately, and even invite you to participate. It was one way of learning about sex, since sex was never discussed in my family and certainly not at school.

Aside from the requisite girlie magazines and badly lit porno flicks, which for some reason were referred to as “fighting fish,” young men learned by going to these places, these institutions of lower learning. The first time I witnessed toro was with Pete, a good college friend of mine, also a poet. One evening, we were with Q, an older writer, and an acquaintance of Pete’s. Q, with a reputation for generosity towards struggling writers, had taken us out to drink and dine. Afterwards, inebriated, we piled into a cab and headed for Pasay. Q had suggested watching toro, to which Pete and I lustily agreed.

The couple the pimp brought out was young: Q’s instructions. The woman, petite, her taut brown skin shining under the fluorescent bulb, was friendly and chatted with us, much as a performer does with friends in the audience before going onstage. All the while she rubbed herself with sterilizing alcohol. The toro, engaged in similar ablutions, seemed taciturn. He was of regular build and, after foreplay had gotten him sufficiently aroused, a little too eager. At one point we heard her whisper, “Just a moment.” It was clear who was in charge of this show. Whenever she wanted a realignment, she would pat him gently on his ass. The practiced ease of their lovemaking was saved from mechanicity by his strained eagerness and her gentle cheerfulness. In the end, they reverted to the missionary position (how Catholic, I thought) and, as in fighting-fish flicks, he climaxed on her belly. I remember his mute but eloquent orgasm but I don’t remember hers, if she had one at all. More likely, she didn’t. In bed everyday macho etiquette was reversed: men came first, and women rarely followed.

It was only later that I—fresh from university and working in one of Makati’s office mills—sometimes visited a casa, along with my colleagues, after a night of drinking. “Casa” was the right word: a nondescript home, marked by cheap furniture, a religious shrine in one corner, and a middle-aged woman in a house dress greeting us with a smile and calling out for her girls to come out from their rooms. More than a sexual initiation, it was a rite of passage for male bonding, a camaraderie we naively believed would exorcise our doubts about ourselves and the society we lived in.

Such nocturnal forays were common enough among us. We were young, we were horny, we wanted a life that wasn’t just books, term papers, or innocent soirees and dance parties with the well-bred and sexually repressed colegialas enrolled in Manila’s Catholic schools, though some of them were more adventurous, and showed it on the dance floor. When slow numbers came up, the usual ploy for a colegiala to preserve her expensively perfumed honor was to use her left arm as a wedge, a limb angled on the man’s shoulder and her hand lightly balled into a fist that held the promise of a quick but gentle parry to the throat should there be an attempt at intimacy. We called these dances “slow drag”; it felt as though this were a contest between the living and the dead.

If however that left arm were placed around the partner’s shoulder in a tentative embrace, it was to encourage him to hold her tight and perhaps feel her a bit. The idea was to close that space where a train could roar through to one where not even an ant, as we joked, could pass. This was what theologians loved to call an occasion for sin, when two voices within us engaged in debate about the pros and the cons of an act or a thought. On that dance floor I don’t have to tell you which “voice” most of us listened to. Still, I kept in mind what Saint Augustine would say, when he was still very much a man of the world and sainthood seemed an impossible prospect: “God, forgive me … later.”

Colegialas seemed always to possess a special air of allure. As a schoolboy, I was intrigued by a high wall, marked by graceful acacia trees, that separated the Ateneo de Manila from Assumption, an exclusive all-girls’ school run by French nuns. During my last two years in high school, when the Ateneo had long moved to the spacious grounds and modern edifices of Loyola Heights in Quezon City, I served as an acolyte, along with some friends, during La Semana Santa or Holy Week masses at the Assumption Chapel. La Semana Santa was when Manila and the whole country stopped, to indulge themselves in an orgy of ritualistic sorrow over the body of a man salvaged by the Romans. It was a time when a great number of city dwellers hied themselves to the provinces and the beaches to escape the suffocating heat of summer. In churches, icons were hidden under lavender cloth while at roadside altars in Manila’s neighborhoods, old women gathered to chant and sine in keening voices the life and death of Christ in a traditional form known as the Pasyon.

We served Mass not so much out of intense religious feelings but for the opportunity of seeing the lovely colegialas who lived nearby, or whose families chose to attend services at the chapel. These young women came from wealthy, socially prominent families seemed unattainable, Rapunzels in high towers.

The best chance of seeing them up close was during communion, when we would flank the priest as he took the sacred wafer from the chalice and placed it on the reverential tongues of communicants kneeling at the altar rail. There they were, the innocent, unblemished faces of girl-women, eyes half-dosed, hands folded, head slightly tilted. The only incongruous aspect of this meekly chaste portrait was the tongue, that thick, fleshy red organ whose taste could run from speech to unencumbered passion, that could quickly turn from praising the Lord to licking the most intimate recesses of the body, that each communicant stuck out at the last moment as though mocking us, in reality to chew the sacred host to a pulp. The cloakings of piety and the reenactment of Christ’s death and resurrection served to inflame our adolescent passions even more, though we struggled to keep the corridors of thought free from the sensual language and portraiture of the flesh. Ah, those occasions of sin were everywhere, as we wavered between Augustine the man and Augustine the saint! And there too was Mother Church, patrolling the porous border between body and soul.

Afterwards we would compare notes on who we thought was the loveliest, who had seemed even slightly flirtatious, who possessed impious curves beneath prim apparel. One colegiala held us in thrall for two summers. Slim, with exquisite eyelashes and wide, doe-like eyes, she gave no sign of noticing us; to her we were merely extensions of the good father, with no existence of our own. What drew us was a mole or beauty mark just above a full upper lip. Set against porcelain skin that promised resilience and dearly needed no enhancement, and framed by long dark tresses, it was a black ruby to be touched, kissed along with the rest of her. Ours was an innocent longing, and the hoary rituals we were engaged in imbued our feelings with a kind of medieval, even chivalric, feeling, fed by the fact that on campus female presence was a strictly regulated phenomenon, the belief—tracing its roots to medieval Spanish Catholicism—being that the frequency of one sex’s appearance was directly and proportionately related to an increase in sin in the other. Inevitably, the state of libido was heightened, rather than diminished, by such pontifications.

The rites themselves were suffused with carnality, a reminder of the pagan ways of celebrating darkness and fertility. The most magical moments were those heralding the bodily resurrection of Christ. In Assumption’s darkened chapel Easter services began and at the point where Christ comes back to life the congregation lit candles, the chapel’s lights were switched on, and the ringing of bells commenced, both from the belfry and from those we acolytes held. The celebration was grand, theatrical, a reaffirmation of the supremacy of light.

 

On Binondo’s northwestern edge, right by the Pasig, is the Escolta, once the fashionable heart of downtown. The Escolta had all the chi-chi shops but best of all it had Botica Boie’s, a huge pharmacy-cum-department store, with a mezzanine cafe. Sometimes my mother would take us shopping there. Seated at a plush banquette, I could look down on the main floor and watch the shoppers swirl about. Or stay by the window and gaze at the crowds on the streets, imagining what their lives were like, if they bore the remotest resemblance to ours.

Along with the Escolta, nearby Avenida Rizal was where Manila’s burgis went to shop, take in a movie, and then dine at one of Binondo’s numerous panciterias. Lyric, Society, Palace, Ideal, Galaxy, Odeon: the names conjured up a celluloid world to escape into and be enlightened about other states of being. The older theaters, like the Clover, harked back to the turn of the century, and combined vaudeville, burlesque and cinema. The best-known was Opera Theater which had higher pretensions and was the favorite venue for zarzuela, or musical-comedy, stars.

The Ideal, however, with its Art Deco lobby, was my favorite. It was my mother who introduced me and my sisters to the Ideal. She knew the ticket taker, a morose-looking, balding gentleman who seemed quite important in his russet and brown uniform. We would purchase one ticket, and go up to him, my mother would make small talk while he looked around to see if the manager were around. Once the coast was dear, we would enter the cool interior, with our bags of lanzones, a round bittersweet fruit, and hopia, Chinese bean cakes purchased from a bakery on Echague Street. Ensconced in our seats, we munched merrily away.

The Ideal became a shrine where I discovered film noir, Antonioni, the French New Wave, Dr. Zhivago, and other Hollywood epics. There I first saw and heard a mop-topped John, Paul, George, and Ringo move in hip, pixilated fashion in A Hard Day’s Night. Their cheekiness, along with the snot-nosed attitude of the Rolling Stones and the unabashed sexuality of Hendrix and Morrison, encouraged Jesuit-school brats like me and my friends in our tentative rebellions, the most visible sign of which was allowing our school-regulation crew-cut hair to grow—much to the dismay of our prefect of discipline, a balding ex-marine. Once the Ideal held a festival of Greta Garbo films. It drew pitiably small crowds, a gathering of connoisseurs, but I went whenever I could. As a teenaged monster starting to write verses, I fell hard for this Swedish beauty. Hers was a face that contained a luminescent sadness, whose apparent sangfroid masked an exquisite vulnerability. To see her smile in delight, or succumb to the unruliness of love, seemed a miracle. like a troubadour I paid homage, waiting for that wondrous transformation onscreen. Garbo was a secular Virgin Mary, an oedipal dream whose hinted-at intimacy precluded guilt. Her film life exuded a delicious sadness and, yes, a broken heart at the end, but never any regrets: nectar for a budding poet.

Nearby Quiapo had other movie houses but these were either fleabags or showed Tagalog movies. We were hip, or so we, thoroughly colonial, thought, and preferred the company of English-speaking strangers on the silver screen. Local movies we disdainfully referred to as bakya, the wooden clogs rural folk and the poor wore. Bakya became a catch-all term of derision, for any cultural artifact or mode of decidedly proletarian origin. What was “native” was declasse; but even then the distinctions between “foreign” and “indigenous” had long been blurred so our rejection of whatever we felt was bakya was more fashionable, more a pose than deep-rooted. Still, we were completely enthralled by Hollywood, a garden of dazzling delights.

Sometimes I accompanied my mother on shopping trips to the Quinta Public Market, Quiapo’s large, sprawling area of tin-roofed one-story sheds by the Pasig River. Anything and everything could be bought here, from hand-woven baskets and brooms to coffee beans and fresh fish. My favorite section was the brightly lit row of turo-turos, or food stalls, where samples of culinary offerings would be displayed in glass cases, so a customer could point—hence the name—to the desired item. The tinderas, or female stall owners (and they seemed to be all women, with a bawdy sense of humor that reddened my Catholic ears), would pull at us and insist that the snacks they served were the tastiest. The women’s dark bodies glistened in the light, their sleeveless short dresses allowing unselfconscious displays of flesh in an easy interplay of sexuality and food I secretly delighted in. At such times I was thoroughly bakya, though the world represented by the market’s inhabitants—by the vendors and the crowds of haggling, deal-making patrons—was one I was ignorant of.

Across from the Quinta were Plaza Miranda and Quiapo Church, the hub of the city’s heart. In this configuration of church, plaza, and market lay the essential outlines of a Filipino’s public life. Accepted through baptism in the church, fed by the market, politicized by and entertained in the plaza, the Filipino lived a lifetime of days in a perpetual commute from home to these places.

Right outside Quiapo church was a smaller open-air market, a talipapa, offering products for the soul, for the future, for your health. Here notions of the sacred outdated and often contradicted Catholic ones. Plaster images of the saints, of the Virgin Mary, of the Santo Nino, were displayed in rows alongside anting-antings, amulets with their inscriptions of pig Latin that could make you bullet-proof, for instance, or irresistible to a beloved. One amulet depicted the Christ Child with an erect penis, his left hand holding the globe and his right extended in greeting. The charm was supposed to work by rubbing the penis while chanting the name of the beloved.

Fortune tellers with their cards allowed anxious clients a peek into the different corridors of time. The vendors were mostly women, among them self-taught herbolarias, their stalls and bilaos—round, shallow baskets—overflowing with medicinal bark and bottled potions. One popular potion was an abortifacient, inducing heavy menstruation. Inside those huge, heavy church doors, however, abortion was anathema, was regularly condemned. But the intensity of belief, the belief in the efficacy of spiritual agents, was the same. The faithful crawled on their knees to the altar in fulfillment of a panata, or vow, or lined up to say a prayer of entreaty before the Black Nazarene, a hardwood dark Christ kneeling under the weight of a cross. Carved by an Aztec craftsman during the 17th-century, this Christ sailed over on one of the galleons that plied the trade route between Acapulco and Manila. Every January, during Quiapo’s fiesta, in a reenactment of its initial voyage, the dark Christ sails on an outdoor float, in the center of a swaying, sweating, sea of men (for only men can carry the Christ), each one jostling and pushing to earn a place among the rope-pullers and move the carriage through Quiapo’s narrow streets. On the side-walks, the faithful ball their handkerchiefs and throw them at the men riding with the float, for these to be wiped briefly on the dark arms and doleful face of the Nazarene and, so blessed, flung back to their owners.

body in a bag, body mangled,
body shunted aside, body brown,
body bled dry, may heaven hold you,
may heaven remember
a body once crucified.

 

I can’t bear to look any longer. I deny this body, now beyond resurrection and walk away. I walk to the Pasig, removing my mind’s image of the salvaged and the savaged. Images of loss pervade the afternoon, slouching towards night. Time itself emits no sense of loss, moving on with sublime indifference. Now Escolta lingers on in faded dress, an aging star bereft of her crowds, grown dusty and forlorn. Botica Boie’s has vanished, along with most of the first-class cinemas. A few people are about who seem to like coming here, to savor the desolate half-life of another era, who like the idea of sitting, in the district’s remaining movie house, watching flickering images and for whom outside are a street and a river belonging to beloved territory.

Images of loss: my beloved Ideal is gone, in its place a department store filled with cheap items; outside, the elevated mass-transit train courses down Avenida Rizal, blocking out the light and adding to the sense of congestion. But Carriedo Street, linking the Avenida to Quiapo Church, remains a maelstrom. Shoppers maneuver the narrow spaces between the street stalls. I hear that familiar refrain, “Pasalubong para kay Boy!” “Gifts for Boy!” Once upon a time I was that boy. Now the hawkers assume I have children whose appetite for gifts I must satiate.

Images of loss: the river into which the city’s esteros empty has itself been salvaged, a black corpse moving towards the bay, bearing 1000 tons daily of industrial effluents, sewage, and the odd body. Sticky with sweat, a handkerchief to my nose in a futile attempt not to breathe in the vehicular fumes that turn blue sky a hazy gray-brown, I cross the river via Jones Bridge, and walk to Ermita and Malate.

Images of loss: the old schoolgrounds of the Assumption are now occupied by a huge luxury hotel and a shopping mall. The wonderful acacia trees that witnessed our childhood games have been cut down, and the chapel where we once served mass and secretly longed for our colegiala, has been gutted. On Roxas Boulevard, the elegant clubs have gone; along a whole stretch fronting the bay are boarded-up buildings—a Havana after the revolution. But here a revolution that has nothing to do with morals or ideology, only with mass-market capitalism. Alongside the sushi bars, the hamburger stands, the wiener und schnitzel dives on M. H. Del Pilar, are massage parlors and girlie bars: the skin trade as fast-food business. Neither elegance nor a cheeky up-yours nod to the establishment: this is straight no-time-for-romance, wham-bang-thankyou-ma’m cash business.

The Marcos regime promoted sex tours avidly, trumpeting the country’s female charms abroad as a natural resource, like so many stands of virgin forest to be felled. So lumbered in Tokyo’s innocuous salarymen; the farmers from the Japanese countryside with their cameras and garish tropical shirts; and middle-aged, slack-bellied Teutons and Aussies, searching for the perfect Asian doll. Or, worse, a child.

Images of loss: nothing startles and repulses more than the easy availability of street children whose faces, a mixture of world-weariness and innocence, make you want to weep. You see them often enough, walking hand in hand with much older tourist men. You want to cry out,putangina mo, you whoreson, motherfucking foreign devil, and pummel them senseless but you hold your tongue and jam your useless fists into your pockets. The city has always been tough, but was it ever this tough, this cold? Sex with prepubescents in the afternoons, and salvagings at night? The child in you shudders, retreats.

Now my recollections are as much elegy as anything else, not just for the city but for my childhood. Yet in the heart of every person there is that place forever sacred, that child that refuses to die even as we approach death, immune from the mutability of time and even place: a place beyond place. It is a place that colors my recollections of Manila. Out of love, out of affection, and even out of the need for self-preservation, I hold my Manila there in its prominent niche, in my own peculiar history, a city no less tangible than that encountered in the real world, a Manila also of the imagination.

Born and raised in Manila, Luis H. Francia is the editor of Brown River, White Ocean: An Anthobgy of 20th Century Philippine Literature in English, and the author of a book of poems,An Arctic Archipelago. He writes for The Village Voice and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.“Days and Nights in Manila” is excerpted from his yet to be published nonfiction book, Eye of the Fish: Uneasy Views of an Archipelago.

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Originally published in

BOMB 64, Summer 1998

Featuring interviews with Tracey Moffatt, Aharon Appelfeld, Eric Kraft, Maurice Berger, Patricia Williams, Richard Powers, Stellan Skarsgard, Jesus “Chucho” Valdes, and Lou Reed. 

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