Dear Manila…

My love for the country’s capital has been a slow-burn affair

Dear Manila,

Let me get this out of the way for the sake of honesty: You’re not pretty, which, for many  Filipinos like me, make you so hard to love, or at the very least, like. You best exemplify and illustrate what chaos is: dirty, noisy, smelly. I walk from one street corner to another, and I’m bound to step on dog poop or inhale the scent of urine freshly sprayed on a vandalized wall. I know this isn’t a great way to start this letter. I’m sorry. But I want you to know that after years of experiencing your chaos, I’ve learned to look past that and see you for who you really are.

The ever-busy Roxas Boulevard, a major thoroughfare cutting through Manila and the adjacent cities

We may not have started our affair had it not been for professional duty. See, my husband and I have set up our own business, and our major client’s office calls you home. So, whenever I felt like meeting with my husband for some after-work date, I’d rush to leave the house and commute to you. To my surprise, I didn’t find the hour-long ride tedious. In fact, I found it therapeutic, a break from working from home; a weekly opportunity for me to get out of the house and eat dinner I didn’t cook. I’d get off on Padre Faura and, with a spring in my step, make my way to Robinsons Manila, that pandemonium of a mall which became a default meeting place for me and my husband before we set off to a restaurant nestled in one of your veins.

In hindsight, this is how you won me over. You have proven the age-old adage to be true: that the best way to a person’s heart is through their stomach.

If I were to identify what first caught my attention, it would be Café Chosun and Nihonbashitei, the former a Korean restaurant that the late Anthony Bourdain once visited (now just a memory since it shut its doors even before the pandemic); the latter a Japanese diner frequented by Japanese expats that have temporarily called you home. I could stuff myself silly with samgyupsal or two servings of takoyaki (six pieces each)—all for me—with no regrets. And as if those weren’t satiating enough, my husband and I would run along in search of dessert.

(L-R) Cheap ramen at Erra’s; empty tables in Malate, waiting for the dinner crowd; the al fresco area of The Library Cafe in Ramon Magsaysay Building, one of the new cafes that sprung up amid the pandemic

We’d find it either at your iconic Café Adriatico, where we’d order a slice of mango canonigo cake and a glass of caipirinha, if we’re up for it. More than once, with bellies bursting, we’d troop to Diamond Hotel for a second serving of sweets: either cheesy ube ensaimada or a scoop of baked cheesecake ice cream, plus iced sumiyaki coffee to chase away the alcohol. You taught me some form of hedonism that I don’t regret, never mind if, on the drive home, I’d have to loosen my belt just so I could breathe.

Cafe Adriatico, a restaurant that specializes in Filipino-Spanish dishes, is a cultural landmark that has been serving locals and tourists alike since 1979

But to define you based only on what you can offer to my taste buds is to trap you in a one-dimensional cage. And to describe you as “that place with magnificent sunset views” is a disservice. What am I, a tourist? I’d like to believe I’m more than that to you, after all these years. Because to me, you’re more than a fleeting experience, a temporary destination. You have become my third place.

Of course, I can’t deny the sunsets. After all, they’re a clickbait to foreigners. A tourist trap, maybe, but not when witnessed from a perfect vantage point, like the rooftop bar of Bayleaf Hotel, or on the wooden planks of Harbour View Restaurant, or in one of Diamond Hotel’s bay-facing rooms. But again, Manila, you’re more than the sum of that cliché.

Manila sunset never gets old

You are where the past is playing catch-up with progress while still clinging to heritage. It’s a  precarious balancing act that hinges on the arbitrary whims and agenda of whoever is steering you. Will the scale favor high-rise condos in the name of economic development, or will it tip in favor of preserving historic sites and structures?

Escolta, once touted as the “Queen of Streets”—your streets—has enamored me, not just because it boasts a few, majestic heritage buildings that still stand; but more so because of the community that has been trying so hard to keep this part of you from crumbling into oblivion, from only being remembered in the annals of history, nothing more than a name whispered in nostalgia. But this vibrant community’s efforts to inject renewed vigor and interest in this small part of you weren’t enough to stop those machines from tearing down Capitol Theater, that Art Deco wonder that was once the destination du jour of your high society. Sure, the property developer erecting another high-rise in its place promised to preserve its bas relief façade, but are you happy with that?

(L-R) Artist Leeroy New’s installation at The Hub, an incubation space for grassroots businesses in the historic First United Building on Escolta; The Den Coffee Shop, which serves not only good coffee made from locally sourced beans but also art and culture through occasional exhibits

Were you thrilled when Admiral Apartments, another one of your pre-war buildings dressed in Revivalist architecture, was also demolished to give way to a fancy new hotel in similar trappings? There were protests because these sentinels were supposedly protected under the National Cultural Heritage Law, whose teeth turned out to be blunt. Is this the price you have to pay for conflating progress and patrimony?

Yet through all your decades of never-ending struggle—against colonization, against cultural assimilation and appropriation, against the exploitation of leaders you’ve always hoped to be your next savior—you still manage to survive. You still attempt to be heard and remain relevant.

Remember that one and only Manila Biennale you hosted in Intramuros five years ago? It saw the confluence of so many Pinoy visual artists whose works festooned almost every corner of the Walled City. It was, to some extent, an act of taking back what is ours in a place that witnessed your battle against Japanese invaders, only to win a Pyrrhic victory that you never truly recovered from.

Just a few of the many art installations scattered in the Walled City of Intramuros during the 2018 Manila Biennale

You manage to survive, never mind if that isn’t the same as thriving. You manage to hold in your heart both the past and the present (the future will always be a dream, won’t it?), the ugly and the beautiful. Your Malate and Ermita cradle your daughters painted in garish makeup, crying “Welcome!” at the top of their lungs, hoping to entice foreign customers, while a few blocks away are your other children plying handcrafted souvenirs that proudly showcase our artistry and ancestry. Your Binondo continues to be your source of pride for being the oldest Chinatown in the world; a day may not be enough to sample the various Chinese cuisines it offers. (Trips to Wai Ying at 1 a.m. just to satisfy my dimsum cravings will always be a core memory.) Tondo, on the other hand, paints a different picture—one of urban legends rife with violence and crime. And then there’s Quiapo, where devout Catholics flock to daily, weekly, to bring their prayers to the altar.

Remedios Circle, where locals congregate to either socialize or simply pass the time

You manage. You survive.

This is why you have my heart. This is why I smile when friends ask me for recommendations when they pass by you: where to eat, where to get a good cup of coffee. (It’s funny how I know more about you than my childhood hometown or the city I now call home.) This is why I proudly wrote about you and took photos of you despite being minimally compensated for my efforts. This is why I was thrilled to accept a custom publication project featuring everything you can offer, never mind the almost impossible deadline. This is why I get offended when people mistakenly label you as “Metro Manila,” when what they’re actually referring to is the dense metropolis that you are a part of, among your other sister cities (I apologize on their behalf).

We barely see each other these days. No thanks to the pandemic, we no longer have our weekly trysts. But rest assured that my affection for you hasn’t changed. I’m still eager to visit you whenever I get the chance, to discover more of your hidden alleys and your secrets. For now, I leave you this missive along with the hope that one day, even if I’m no longer here, you’ll do more than just survive.

With love,