Home » Articles » The Other Manila, December 13, 1952

The Other Manila, December 13, 1952

The Other Manila

by Quijano de Manila 

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December 13, 1952—AROUND 1860, three Europeans visited Manila and recorded their impressions of the city in mid-19th century. One of them was en Englishman; the other two were Germans, one of whom was the unknown author of the waters reproduced on this and the following pages.

These watercolors have been in the possession of the Zobel family for the last hundred years; they believe the author to have been a visiting relative from Germany, who later married into the Manila Zobels. The original Zobels were Germans, who came to the Philippines to deal in drugs—and liberal ideas, too, incidentally. (The unknown watercolorist did a sketch of the old Zobel drugstore on Calle Real—a magnificent but rather puzzling establishment, with a sort of communion rail instead of a counter, and with a sort of altar in the center, arrayed with medicine bottles instead of candlesticks.)

By the end of the 19th century, the Zobels had intermarried with Spanish and Filipino families and were already regarded as naturales del pais. The first Jacobo Zobel considered himself Filipino and was so fully identified with the cause of reform that his name was implicated in the so-called Cavite Revolt that cost the lives of Fathers Burgos, Zamora and Gomez. As mayor of Manila, this Zobel beautified the city by planting Japanese flame tress all over town. His chief claim to fame, however, is that he gave Manila its first horse-drawn streetcars.

Among his modern descendants is the young painter Fernando Zobel, whose obsession with Philippine art and culture led to the rediscovery of these 1860 watercolors. Fernando remembers that when he was a child, his father used to show him these sketches, which had been gathered into an album. A family treasure, the album was always kept in a safe. After his father died, the family forgot about the album. They supposed it had perished during the Liberation, when the Zobels’ Manila house was destroyed.

A few months ago, Fernando was ransacking a Zobel bodega for relics of the past when he came upon the lost album. The binding had decayed, but the sketches were unharmed, dazzling his eyes with their clear beauty as he turned the yellowed pages; the album was intact. He now guards it with his life; to every historical-minded Filipino,  it is certainly priceless—a glimpse of a city that vanished a hundred years ago.

Whoever the author was (he left no signature), he had wit and a keen eye, an ironic intelligence, and consummate skill. His colors sparkle as brilliantly today as when he first laid them on; a dead city lives again in jeweled sketch after sketch. But we of this generation turn the pages with increasing bewilderment; with shocked surprise; even, perhaps, with faint terror. For this is a Manila of which we have no memory, no knowledge at all. It is terra incognita, newfoundland, a strange unrecognizable place.

All of us have the same general idea of what is meant by “the old Manila, the Spanish Manila.” We instantly see the sagging balconies of Calle Real, the Gothic spires of Sto. Domingo, the silver Romanesque dome of the Cathedral. Against that unchanging background, we naively pose the conquistadores of the 16th century, the missionaries of the 17th, the grandees of the 18th, and the rebel patriots of the 19th century. But now, confronted with these watercolors, we feel like the archaeologists who, searching for the “real” Troy, found seven different Troys, one beneath the other. And we realize how many, many Manilas have come and gone, unknown to us.

The Manila that perished during the Liberation was not the old Manila, the Spanish Manila: it was only the most recent in a series of cities, each completely different from the others. Repeatedly destroyed, this tough city was never recreated in its own image—and those who now propose to rebuild Intramuros “as it was in Spanish times” still have to learn that they are dealing with a most chameleon city.

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In the Manila of these watercolors, nothing is familiar, everything seems “wrong”—Sto. Domingo is not Gothic nor the Cathedral Romanesque; the Governor’s palace stands in the cathedral square, which has an iron fence running around it; San Agustin has two towers; and the Escolta, with its whitewashed one-story buildings, looks like the main street of a minor Andalusian village. We gasp with astonishment—and we wonder: what did the other, the even earlier Manilas look like?

We will never know now; the descriptions in historical chronicles cannot give us the concrete image. But the Manila of 1860 was fortunate: a sensitive artist saw it and seems to have fallen in love with it. And he has arrested its face forever in the mirror of his art.

While he was doing that, another German was observing the city, though with a far more captious eye. Mr. F. Jagor visited Manila in 1859-1860, and found cause for complaint even before he had stepped off the boat. Apparently, getting a customs clearance in Manila was as vexatious for tourists then as it is now. Mr. Jagor had to leave his luggage behind on the boat.

He thought the Walled City dreary and hot, “built more for security than for beauty.” Life there was “vanity, envy, empleomania and racial strife.” The arrabales were picturesque; but the water was bad, the streets were dusty, and the clogged riverse and canals repulsive. Moreover, everything was too expensive, more expensive than in Singapore or Batavia. And the natives showed no awe of Europeans, which Jagor blamed on the low type of mot Spanish immigrants to the Philippines and on the absence here of “that high wall reared by disdainful British arrogance” to separate the Europeans from the natives.

The city was poor in entertainment. “During my stay, there were no performances in any of the Spanish theaters; in the Tagalog theaters, there were representations of dramas and comedies, most of them translations.” There were no nightclubs; one could find no books to read; and the newspapers were atrocious. A typical issue of El Comercio, a four-page daily, carried on its front page, as news from Europe, two articles reprinted from old books.

The botanical gardens were in a sad state, the few plants withering. Fashion decreed as a diversion, in spite of the dust, an evening ride along the bay. A few minutes from town, the countryside was green and fresh, but it was not quite the thing to go there. “One went riding to show off one’s clothes, not to enjoy the contemplation of nature.” He went to a cockfight and was nauseated. “Indios sweating in every pore of their bodies; their faces expressing the evil passions that enslaved them.”

Nothing, in fact, impressed Mr. Jagor about Manila except “the beauty of the women who animate its streets.” In this, “Manila surpasses all the cities of trans-Ganges India.”

If Mr. Jagor did not enjoy his visit to Manila, another visitor of the time certainly did. Sir John Bowring, a former governor of Hong Kong, vacationed in Manila toward the end of 1860, as a guest of Governor-General Fernando de Norzagaray.

“I have heard it said,” wrote Sir John afterward, “that life in Manila is extremely monotonous; but, during my stay, it seemed to me full of interest and animation.”

He was charmed the moment he landed: a “brilliant native band,” assembled under the Magallanes monument, was playing “God Save the Queen.” He was taken to the Governor-General’s palace in the Walled City, beside the cathedral park, then called La Plaza de Manila, which reminded Sir John of the parks in London—“with the difference that this park in Manila is adorned with the lovely vegetation of the tropics, whose leaves offer a great variety in color, from the most intense yellow to the darkest green, and whose flowers are notable for their splendor and beauty.”

Every day, in the afternoon, he explored the fascinating city. And: “Every day, a new surprise.” Each arrabal of Manila seemed to have its own “characteristic distinction.” Malate was full of clerks and seamstresses; Sampaloc, of printers and laundresses. Ermita was famed for its embroidery; Pasay, for its betel nuts. In Sta. Ana were the summer villas of the rich. Tondo supplied the city with milk, cheese and lard—or so thought Sir John; more probably, the milk came from Mariquina and the chief industry of Tondo as well as of Sampaloc was to “multiply” the milk. Binondo was “the most important and opulent town of the Philippines and its true commercial capital.” On Arroceros, he watched the fleets of rice-loaded bancas and he saw a great procession of cigar girls from the nearby factory. Entering the factory, he noticed that the workrooms of the women resounded with gay chatter while complete silence reigned in the workrooms of the men.

He visited, too, the Governor-General’s “summer house by the Pasig, Malacañang,” which had “a pretty garden, a convenient bath that could be lowered into the river, a birdhouse and a small zoo, in which I saw a chimpanzee that later died of pneumonia.”

He wondered why so few people cared to enjoy “the beautiful panorama of rivers, roads, and villages” in the suburbs. Even for the Pasig, which so revolted Jagor, he has a nice word: “The aspect of the river is delicious; and no little would be the merit of the artist who could transfer to canvas, with its proper hues, so lovely a picture.” In the evenings, he joined the paseo on the Calzada; at night, there was usually a tertulia or a reception at the Palace. He had been a soldier in Spain during the Napoleonic wars and he rather regretted that the Spanish ladies in Manila had abandoned their native costume; the city’s fashionable world had adopted Parisian styles and manners.

During the fiesta of Sampaloc, which he attended with some British ensigns, he was enchanted by the vivacity of the native girls. “The styles of Paris had not yet invaded those places; but the native decorations had taste and variety, and there was as much fun and flirtatiousness as in the most sophisticated gatherings. Our young ensigns were among the gayest in the crowd and, although unable to speak the language, managed to make themselves understood by the charming girls. The feast lasted until the small hours of the morning.”

the other manila-2Like Jagor, he noticed the absence of racial barriers. “I have seen, at the same table, Spaniards, mestizos and Indios, priests and soldiers. To the eyes of   one who has observed the repugnance and misunderstandings caused by race in various parts of the Orient and who knows that race is the great divider of society, the contrast and exception presented by so mixed a population as that of the Philippines is admirable.” At that year’s ceremony in honor of the Immaculate Conception, which was attended by the entire city, from the Governor-General down, a native priest was selected to deliver the principal speech.

Other details mentioned by Sir John are tantalizing. He speaks of a Chinese cemetery in downtown Sta. Cruz and of a bridge with seven arches, the Puente Grande, on the present site of Jones. The city seems different in more important respects, too. It then had a population of 150,000, and had had only one conviction for murder in five years. (The provinces had the same crime rate—“with the exception of the Island of Negros, where, of 44 criminal convictions, 28 were for assassination.”) But people—especially the Chinese—were already complaining of too many lawyers: there were almost 80 of them practising in Manila at that time. Besides a university and numerous convent-schools, the city had a nautical college and an academy of fine arts—“which has not, so far, produced a Murillo or a Velasquez.”

At some time in their peregrinations around so small a city, our three travelers of 1860 must have brushed against each other; one imagines them being caught up in a nasty traffic tangle on, say, Santo Cristo,  among the screaming pigtailed Chinese, the carabao carts, the black-shrouded beatas, and the laughing bare-shouldered ladies in crinolines, driving past in swank victorias. The angry Mr. Jagor would be stomping past, fuming at the stinks and the dust; Sir John would be leaning eagerly from his carriage, cooing over the quaintness of it all; while on the pavement, leaning against a wall, would be the mysterious Zobel artist, smiling pensively as he studied the effect of light upon the scene and the relations of the colors. None of them knew it, of course, but our three travelers were looking upon a doomed city—a city that was very soon and very suddenly to perish, leaving only a few wracks behind.

At seven o’clock on the night of June 3, 1863, after a day of intense heat, the ground shook suddenly and violently. The quake lasted only half a minute; but, in that split minute, the entire city crumbled into ruins, burying hundreds alive in the wreckage. It was the eve of Corpus Christi. The lone survivor was, as usual, the church of the Augustinians, which had merely lost a belltower. Their palace reduced to rubble, the Spanish governors-general transferred to Malacañan, which became their permanent residence. The foundations of the old palace survive to this day.

From the ruins of that other Manila—that odd city smiling at us from the Zobel watercolors—arose the Manila we remember,  the Manila of Rizal and the Revolution, the last great creation of Spain in the Philippines.—QUIJANO DE MANILA


  1. […] The Other Manila, by Quijano de Manila, December 13, 1952 […]

  2. Gabriel Cristobal says:

    Truly bewildering literary feature on the Manila as seen from three perspectives. This is CLASSIC!!!

  3. Mary Ann Evangelista says:

    Good afternoon.
    Is it possible to have your photos reprinted? We would like to have them framed part of our decor.
    Hope you could get back at us as soon as possible.

    Thank you.

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