Manila, Entangled!

This post is an excerpt from my book Buhol-Buhol/Entanglement: Contemporary Theatre in Metropolitan Manila (Bern et al: Peter Lang, 2017).

ENTANGLEMENT is persistent in Manila’s historical narrative.

Travel writer Pico Iyer has observed many contradictions in the city of Manila. For instance, he describes the gallery going to his hotel room as an extraordinary space since: “on the wall was a painting of the bleeding Jesus, and in the narrow corridor, a black- light portrait of a Bambi- eyed and huge breasted topless Filipina” (153). In the next pages, he describes how, amidst the glittering pavilions of arts centers, metropolitan museums, and huge hotels could be found the “seediness of beggars and whores. In the tourist district of Ermita, dead mice lay on the sidewalks like overturned trucks and men in clothes urinated in the face of passing cars” (159). Iyer goes on to exclaim that it is unbelievable because the Filipino people he encounters “smile amidst squalor, and songs” (163).

The courtyard at the Casa Manila (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

There is something in these experiences about the city that may bring out some conceptualizations on culture. In Uneven Development (1984), Neil Smith argues “the production of space also implies the production of meaning, concepts, and consciousness of space which are inseparably linked to its physical production” (77). If we follow the logic of Manila as the city described by these cultural commentators, the logic should be understood via entanglement. I wonder why there is discomfort with this city’s emblem when it seems the residents themselves find these disorderly arrangements significantly unproblematic in their everyday life.

Guests from all over the world posing in front of the ruins of Fort San Diego in Intramuros (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

In the Man Asian Literary Prize-winning novel Ilustrado (2010), Miguel Syjuco describes Manila as a city of contradiction, hence, a city rooted in entanglement. In his description, Syjuco provides a commentary and explanation on this disposition of the city:

She, the trusting daughter of the East and West, lay down and was destroyed, her beauty carpet- bombed by her liberators, cautious of their own casualties, her ravishment making her kindred to Hiroshima, Stalingrad, Warsaw. And yet, from the air you think her peaceful and unflustered. On the ground is a place tangled with good intentions and a tyrannical will to live. Life works with the Lord’s benevolence and a generous application of duct tape and Filipino ingenuity. Five hundred years ago Spanish conquistadors sailed their wooden ships into the world’s most perfect harbour to begin their mission of, as historians say, God, gold and guns; their walled fortress is still there, as is their religion and blood, but the gold they, and others, took with them, or apportioned among their few native deputies. Manila has changed much since. It’s changed so little. If you know where to look, this is the most exciting city in the world (44).

Syjuco reminds his readers about how colonizers debased Manila and how up until now the city is struggling. In this short description, Syjuco narrates the different experiences of Manila under colonial authorities and comments about the continued decolonization including the recovery from the neo-imperial and neo-colonial ideologies inherited by the elites who now rule the city (and the nation). In this sense, Syjuco reminds his readers to step back a bit further in order to appreciate and understand the disposition of the city. Thus, here is a short narration of cultural debasement that the city of Manila experienced from her colonizers and how in the present continuously recovers from this blow of imperialism. But despite this, Manila is still an “exciting city” for standing up from this chaotic emblem, which her colonizers provided and her “native” elites continued.

Inside the convent of San Agustin Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Metro Manila (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Since the debasement of indigenous culture was experienced by the city (and the archipelago), it should be noted that aspects of culture that the people use in reaffirming their sense of selves and in recovering a sense of spirit after experiencing all these difficulties are those which are readily available to them – those which were introduced by her colonizers and “liberators.”

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The courtyard at the San Agustin Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site found in Metro Manila, Philippines (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

In The Americanization of Manila (2010), Cristina Evangelista Torres argues that when the United States began its benevolent assimilation project in Manila, it sought to turn “Manila into the Washington DC of the Orient […] to remind American officers of their home” (56). Some Hispanic landscapes were demolished. Torres explains, of all the Hispanic landmarks, the Americans left the Intramuros (or the Walled City of Manila) unharmed. These huge walls were used as American bases, particularly the Fort Santiago where many insurgents against Spain were imprisoned and tortured. Americans began introducing architectural styles that were popular in the United States during the time. Old Hispanic buildings such as the house of the governor in Intramuros were renovated to suit the art deco taste of the Americans.

Japanese students / visitors posing in front of the gate of Fort Santiago in Intramuros (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

This was the image of space that the people in Manila were left with after independence from the United States in 1947: an image of mixing some native aspects, some Hispanic aspects, many American motifs and other motifs used by various ethnic communities such as the Chinese  who decided to construct a small Chinese town in the city. In short, what probably is missed in the discomfort of Riggs and Iyer is this historical context that made up Manila as a city comprised of entanglement. And it is this entanglement that I see as a starting point for situating the disposition of theatre in the city of Manila. In this regard, the entangled character of Manila could be seen as a venue to articulate a cosmopolitan sense of the city.


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