By F. Sionil Jose
For the first time in a year, I went around Manila last week, and I tried the new skyway which connects the North Luzon expressway to the South Luzon expressway. I have come to appreciate Manila’s tremendous growth from the small burg of less than a million people to which I migrated in 1938. I was 13 and eager to know the Capital. Manila grew organically. The patina was Spanish. The shop and street signs – I miss them – Relojeria, Vaciador, Zapateria, Panciteria, Agencia de Emperos. Se Alquila, Si Prohibe Fijar Carteles.
First – the buildings. Except for the big houses in Intramuros with tile roofs and brick walls, and the tall buildings of reinforced concrete, most of the houses were made of wood, some with adobe walls. Battered during the liberation, the Metropolitan Theater, the City Hall, Post Office and the National Museum have been restored. A few of the prewar buildings like the Philippine Normal University, the PGH and FEU still stand. Except for the main roads used by the streetcars (trambiya) that were asphalted, all the streets of Manila then were dirt. Rizal Avenue, the main street, was lined with banaba trees.
The traffic in those days consisted mostly of horse-drawn calesas so that the streets were redolent with horse dung. There was a special carretela bus from La Loma to Divisoria. The city buses were augmented by taxis, Golden and Dollar, and jitneys that ran from Plaza Goiti to Pasay. Almost all the cars were American Fords and Packards.
Intramuros was already well marked as the old city, the cobbled streets, massive walls with gardens and, above them, the spires of many churches. The rich and the mighty that once inhabited Intramuros have settled in the Ermita-Malate area, in Sta. Mesa, Pasay and New Manila, and the big houses were rented out by the room to clerks and students.
Fort Santiago was quarters for the American Army and was to be occupied by the Japanese during the Japanese regime. The whole of Luneta was an expanse of grass all the way from Taft to the Bay except for the grandstand behind the Rizal monument where every Sunday afternoon, the Philippine Constabulary band played.
The towns of Metro Manila like San Juan, Mandaluyong and Del Monte were like villages, separated from each other by farms or stretches of wild grass. Diliman and Makati were also stretches of wild grass and small farms. From Antipolo Street all the way to the Bonifacio monument was wild grass and rice fields, and along Dimasalang and España were kangkong patches.
Chinatown was much smaller and less crowded than it is today, but like I always said then, all of Manila was Chinatown anyway. In those days, it was the Chinese who bought old newspapers and empty bottles and also peddled rice cakes in the streets.
Manila had three cabarets – dance halls wherein a customer buys a ticket to give to his partner for every tune he danced with her. There was one in La Loma, another in Maypajo and the largest of them all in Sta. Ana. The dance hall girls were called Bailarinas, and almost all of them said they were from Bicol.
Upper class social life revolved around the Manila Hotel and the Club Filipino on Rizal Avenue. To these parties the well-hailed went in tuxedos and long gowns. Many of these ballroom dances were sometimes ended by the Rigodon, and for the younger people, the new dance craze called the Boogie-Woogie to the singing of The Andrews Sisters. The first-class movie houses on Rizal Avenue and Escolta showed only American films, and Filipino films were exhibited at the Dalisay Theater on Rizal Avenue and Life Theater in Quiapo. Non-airconditioned movie houses like Oro and Tivoli at Plaza Sta. Cruz showed serials like The Drums of Fu Manchu and the Lone Ranger accompanied by the William Tell overture.
Classical music and operas were calendared at the Metropolitan Theater and Manila Opera House, and Vaudeville, which included a movie followed by singing or magic, were in the theaters in Echague.
As a teenager, one of my pleasures was swimming in the Pasig River behind the Quiapo Market and in the Manila Bay. Traffic in the Pasig River, which was then green with life, consisted of flat-bottomed wooden boats that carried coconuts or whatever commercial goods from Laguna. The ships that sailed to the Visayas and Mindanao docked at the Pasig River close to Jones Bridge. Docked in the same area was the white Presidential yacht, the Casiana.
For upper class households, a refrigerator was a luxury, often displayed in the living room together with a piano. In very limited sections of Manila, there was gas for cooking. Actually, most houses used firewood, and charcoal for ironing clothes.
Almost all clerks wore white drill suits. The gentry used alpaca, a more expensive material, and what was then in fashion, a silk-like textile called shark skin.
I never saw the China Clipper, a four-engine plying boat arrive, but I saw it take off from the lagoon beside the Manila Hotel towards Cavite on its flight to Guam, Honolulu and San Francisco.
My afternoons were spent mostly at the National Library which was then at the basement of the National Museum. Now, I have all the books to read. At the entrance was the Encyclopedia Britannica; I told myself I’ll read all of it. In the reading room, I often recognized Manuel Arguilla and Salvador P. Lopez. I knew that they were Ilokanos like myself, and I wanted to be like them.
The coming of the Japanese was expected because in 1941, they had already taken so much of China and Southeast Asia. We had blackout drills and other exercises that would prepare us for war, but when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 8, all these exercises came to naught, and the day after, the Japanese bombed Nichols Field south of Manila and Fort Stotsenburg in Pampanga. Classes were immediately stopped, and on a very crowded train, I went back to my hometown. The Japanese came a few weeks after.
Manila is now studded with skyscrapers. Will it decay or grow livable like most Japanese cities?