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Day of Terror: Fire and Death in Manila, in 1945, February 7, 1970

Day of Terror: Fire and Death in Manila, in 1945

by Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero

Diliman, Quezon City

February 7, 1970–FOR SHEER horror and cruelty hardly anything in history surpasses the cold-blooded massacre of thousands of civilians and the systematic burning of the entire districts of Ermita, Malate, Paco, Singalong, and Pasay during the Liberation of Manila in 1945.

One morning we heard from some youngsters that the Americans were already in Paco. Though there was no way of confirming these reports, we felt a bit relieved. Suddenly shots rang out somewhere in the district. The Japanese were shooting every human being on sight. At 4 p.m., the Japanese started burning the Union Church (now Regis House) on Isaac Peral Street. People fleeing from the fire were mowed down by rifles and machine guns.

My mother was cooking rice for supper when we heard the screams of “Fire! Fire!” We looked out the windows and saw the houses in front burning fiercely.

We decided to stay indoors as long as we could, but a group of Japanese soldiers, shooting their guns in the air, stopped in front of the Bueno house where we were staying. They ordered us, men, women, and children, to follow them. They stripped us of all our valuable belongings. My mother had in her bayong about eight pieces of gold coins intended for the chalice of my brother, Fr. Lorenzo the Jesuit, who had left for the United States in June 1941 to finish his theology in Kansas. This bayong the Japanese grabbed from my mother’s hands at bayonet point. My mother tried to grab it back. I screamed, “Don’t, Mother!” The men and boys were then taken to a house on the right side of Plaza Ferguson corner Alhambra, the very house where all of us brothers and sisters had been born, and herded into the large room where our father had died 20 years before. (We had sold the house before the war.) We were about 200 yards from Ermita Church, which was aflame. Speechless and horrified, we watched Japanese soldiers close all the windows and finally nail the main door shut. Later we were to learn that the women had been taken to the Bay View Hotel.

Rumors spread that the Japanese would blow us all up with dynamite. Resigning ourselves to whatever horrible fate was in store for us, we began saying our last prayers. Through the closed shutters we could watch how the fire was devouring the beautiful church, which my grandfather Lorenzo had designed about 80 years before, and the surrounding area. Hundreds of people who had sought shelter inside the church and the convent were machine-gunned.

The heat coming from the crackling flames was almost unbearable. Throughout the night we could hear shots in different sections of the district—hundreds of Ermita residents were dying or were to die that evening.

At 4 p.m. the next day a platoon of soldiers came and ordered us to move on to the University Club two blocks away. A Chinese, seriously wounded, couldn’t walk, so the Japanese simply shot him in the head and left his body on the street. We were placed in one room, and the door was bolted and nailed.

Two days later the Japanese ordered us to proceed to the Manila Hotel. There we hid in dugouts as American shells passed over our heads. From the dugouts we watched the Legislative Building crumbling with every blast. An hour later we were taken to the balcony of the hotel’s Winter Garden. Each day our captors fed us some tiny biscuits which tasted like adobe and were as hard. They gave us half a cup of water twice a  day.

One morning, when we were not being watched, about a dozen of us ran to the swimming pool of the Army & Navy Club and, dirty as the water was, drank gallons of it. Sometimes I would sit in a corner and imagine what I would do when the holocaust was over: I would drink gallons and gallons of cold water. Some men sold their watches to the Japanese for extra water. But my brothers and I had nothing: the Japanese had taken away everything we had.

We were worried about our mothers, wives, and sisters. We had no idea where they had been taken when the Bay View Hotel caught fire. In the face of impending death, we wondered if our loved ones had already preceded us to the Great Unknown, and how soon we would follow them.

Several wounded Japanese soldiers were taken to the Winter Garden on Saturday, February 17. They were placed on the ground floor. Late in the evening we heard them moaning. An officer slapped one of the wounded soldiers who was making a racket. Strangely enough, we felt relieved to discover that even the Japanese soldier, for all his brutality and stoic nature, knew how it was to die in pain.

Sunday afternoon, February 18, the Americans started shelling the Manila Hotel. The stucco ceiling fell, the walls disintegrated. The smoke made breathing hard, and the heat was so intense we felt as though we were inside a stove. Instinctively we dashed for the outer balcony, but the Japanese guards threatened us with their bayonets.

The far end of the Winter Garden caught fire. The bodies of several Chinese women and children lay about on the floor. We stood at the top of the stairs, not knowing what to do. At every door were soldiers with fixed bayonets. It was unthinkable to try jumping from the windows. Then, like madmen, we turned to a door to the left. The flames were beginning to eat part of it, too. Then we saw a tiny window near the burning door, and we escaped through that opening.

Exhausted, gasping for breath, we threw ourselves on the grass. We left a number of dead behind us. Suddenly we heard firing from the walls of Intramuros. The Japanese there were shooting at us. By now the entire hotel was in flames. Intramuros and Ermita were a blazing inferno.

We tried to sleep. The moon was shining, and the fires made the night bright as day. The shelling and the crackling flames made sleep impossible. Soon a Japanese officer told us to go to the Rizal monument on the Luneta. When we got there, we choked with joy. The women were there—our mothers, wives, and sisters were there! My brothers and I embraced our mother, but without any tears. There was no time for tears. When the Miramar Arms building caught fire a week before, they had been taken to the Rizal monument and left to fend for themselves. My mother related how the Japanese visited the group every night, picked out the young girls, raped, and then killed them. A drunken soldier stuck his bayonet into the throats of two very young girls.

The shelling continued unabated until Tuesday, February 20.  At nine o’clock on that day, a young girl in the crowd shouted: “Look! The Americans!” She pointed in the direction of the Army & Navy Club. We saw three or four tanks advancing slowly. Helmeted figures moved cautiously among the tanks, as if on the lookout for snipers. We could not be sure, dazed as we were, whether they were American tanks and American soldiers. “But they are Americans!” the girl insisted. All the time shells rustled and whined over our heads.

In the afternoon, two women ran towards the tanks which had paused on the street near the Army & Navy Club. The women came back frantically crying: “The Americans say we must leave this place—fast!” One of the women was holding three cakes of Palmolive soap.

We all flew rather than ran towards the Army & Navy Club. The Americans and their monstrous tanks were parked at the corner. But as I looked around and saw the utter devastation of Ermita, our house in ruins, I couldn’t bring myself to smile at the Americans, I could only whisper bitterly: “You’re too late. You shouldn’t have come back, dammit!”


The Nation: 1965, June 12, 1965

The Nation: 1965

By Quijano de Manila

The profile of the controversial present becomes incontrovertible, set against the past.

June 12, 1965—MID-DECADE of the Seething ’60s finds Philippine society knocking itself hard. We glance at the state and say that, politically, we are a failed society. We study the prices and say that, economically, we are a bankrupt society. We peruse the crime figures and say that, spiritually, we are a violent society. We devour the latest scandals and say that, morally, we are a sick society.

Some may wonder how anybody so sick could knock himself so vigorously. Others may argue that the seeming vigor is the delirium of fever.

Are we in excelsis or in extremis? Neither. We are in transitu.

The 1960s will go down in our history as the decade during which we finally got off the ground and saw everything with fresh eyes. The transition has been from earthbound to airborne, and is a transcending of the peasant. This has nothing to do with politics or economics. In fact, the reason we have no clear picture of today is that we’re always being offered either a political picture—good or bad, according to which faction is the painter—or an economic picture, again either happy or gloomy, according to whose statistics we are citing. But a nation is not its politics or economics. A nation is its people. And a nation changes only when the people change.

We are all agreed that we have to change our basic viewpoints and attitudes if we are to become progressive and dynamic; at the same time we fear the dynamics of change, we dislike the risks and uncertainties that the modern industrial nations have accepted as a way of life. We cling to the static society, where today is just like yesterday and tomorrow will be just like today. And we are so fearful and so furious today because that society has exploded from under our feet; we are up in the air; and nothing will ever be fixed again: not prices, not morals, nor ideas, nor creeds.

That’s the revolution we’re undergoing at the moment.

Ours has hitherto been an earthbound peasant-oriented society. Our values were peasant values; our attitudes, peasant attitudes. It’s not merely sentimentality that impels us (the politicians especially) to glorify the peasant and profess an obsession over his lot; we think thus to preserve the peasant society which is a static society, because we long for security. But the revolution we are now engaged in is against peasantness: against routine meekness, resignation, fatalism and provincialism. To change, we have to kill the peasant in us, because it is the peasant mentality that has kept us earthbound, mean and poor through the ages. Of a great American writer, Willa Cather, who grew up among the now-vanished peasantry of the American Middle West, it’s said that her novels represent “the triumph of mind over Nebraska.” The 1960s may signify our triumph over peasantness, our liberation from the peasant mentality.

The liberation is evident in our changed attitudes to everything from money to morals. Our money notions today are especially illuminating.

The older generation still winces when buying what yesterday were regarded as “luxuries”—say a car or a TV set or stove and oven: it’s the peasant in us that winces. At the grocer’s, when told that a kilo of grapes costs four pesos, the peasant in us shudders and we repeat the peasant’s classic expression of horror: “Naku, kuwarta na ang kakanin mo diyan!” This is the money notion we inherited from the peasant society: the idea of money as something solid, fixed, sacrosanct, a thing in itself. But as modern physics began only when matter was viewed not as “inert” but as energy, so capitalism begins only when money ceases to be a feudal token for barterable goods and becomes an expression of energy. A peso in the hands of a peasant is only a hundred centavos; in the hands of a potential Rockefeller it’s a wealth-producing wand, the wand of a wizard. So the figures in a chessboard vary in value according to who is handling them, expressing, in the hands of a chess master, that master’s skill and quick wit and genius.

Philippine society has not yet reached the Rockefeller stage but has already shed its peasant-society inertness—which is why we are so outraged by the insensibility of our young to the “value” of money: “When I was your age, my baon to school was only two centavos; and how I clutched those two centavos, how carefully I spent them!” Now we give them a peso or two and they handle the money with none of the reverence we had for our two centavos. The difference goes beyond the difference in value between two pesos today and two centavos in the old days, because it’s a difference in cultural attitude. The emphasis has shifted from money as a value in itself to the values of comfort, of the good life.

This is amusingly illustrated by the problem of prices.

One mother groaning over high prices fell to reminiscing nostalgically on the days before the war, when eggs cost only so much, fresh milk could be had for a song, butter and canned goods were ridiculously cheap, the prices of meats were a joke, and apples, grapes and oranges didn’t cost a king’s ransom. Whereupon her children exclaimed that their mother must have enjoyed quite a table when she was young; with everything so cheap, she must have had eggs, fresh milk, butter and canned goods, lots of meat, and apples, grapes and oranges every day! That brought up the lady short. Thinking back again, and comparing her children’s table with her childhood table, she realized, with a shock, that what was ordinary fare for them had been “luxuries” for her, though she had been young in supposedly cheaper times. She had tasted apples only during Christmas; the poorest urchin on the streets of Manila today hardly regards an apple as an event. Yet she had not come from a poor family; they were reasonably well off but had lived as meanly—from today’s viewpoint—as though they were impoverished: a movie once a week; new clothes only on one’s birthday; new shoes only on Christmas. And though she now looked back on those days as a heaven of low prices, what she actually remembered were her parents groaning over the prices and the hard times. What she found herself having to admit was that her children ate better, dressed better and lived better than she had done as a child.

That lady’s second thoughts overtake all of us. We understood the value of money all right in the old days, but not the value of living as well as we could. The good life is not a matter of prices; it’s a state of mind. We lived meanly in the days when prices, as we realize now, were low; but the nation in general, in this year of grace and high prices, 1965, lives much, much better than it did then. Examples can be piled up.

If we dare to vaunt that first-run movie houses before the war cost only 45 centavos, if you went to the matinee, only 55 centavos if you went later, the inevitable question is: who went to first-run movie houses in those days? One went there, all dressed up, maybe two or three times a year, on special occasions like a birthday or an anniversary or a first date—and the going was really an “occasion” in itself, for only the foreign community and the rich went to the first-run movie houses. Today everybody goes to first-run movie houses, on any day of the year, and thinks nothing of it. There has been a breakdown here not only in money values but in class barriers.

The same can be said of Baguio, which used to be practically just an American resort before the war. Today the people you meet there in summer include the janitor in your office, the boy who delivers your morning paper, the fishwife you buy from in Quiapo, the waitresses in your downtown restaurant, and your former housegirls. How come the masses have taken over Baguio only now, when it costs so much more, and not back in the days when it was presumably cheaper to go there?

Thinking back to restaurant prices in Manila in prewar days, one can only wonder why we didn’t “eat out” oftener in those days. A couple of times a year—again on special occasions—we did go to the famed old Chinese restaurants with the kundol and the hot towels; but “eating out” became a Filipino custom only in these more expensive times. A restaurant like Max’s can cater to the hoi polloi and flourish, though the price of the chicken there has gone up to three pesos, the price of the steak to four pesos (served with a bowl of tossed salad). Would Max’s have been possible in prewar times? People then would have fainted if asked to pay three pesos—or whatever the equivalent price would have been—for a fried chicken; and the reason would not have been that they had chicken, for cheap, every day at home, or even every Sunday.

Comparing ourselves then with ourselves now, we see the change, we appreciate the difference, and all talk about having been better then, of having lived better in those days, becomes so much eyewash. We were clenched into ourselves then, cramped and timorous; we have opened out now—and the change shows in the houses we live in: bright open houses designed for living, through which the air blows.

The houses we developed during the Spanish period had nobility and grace, besides being efficient dwelling places, with their tall spacious rooms and generous windows; but from the 1900s through the 1930s there was a very obvious debasement of taste: our domestic architecture produced mostly monstrosities, of which the flimsy, dingy, stuffy accesorias that became prevalent in the 1920s were the most squalid. But even people with money didn’t know how to build for comfort. The lower middle class was then putting up those horrors called houses which seemed to be all sala—one vast sala edged with hot little cubicles of bedroom and a space of outer darkness: a drab kitchen, a dim bath, a dank toilet. As for the rich, they were confecting those wedding-cake mansions that may still be studied mirthfully in provincial capitals and along Manila’s Taft Avenue. The change in our character shows in the shift of emphasis from the showplace sala (which, in today’s houses, has all but melted into the dining room) to the more vital areas of bedroom, bath and kitchen. When we build now we build for our own convenience; we don’t stint on the space we really use (like bedroom and bath) just to have as much space as possible for a sala that will stagger visitors, which was the basic principle of prewar architecture.

Today’s Filipino house is more functional, more sensible, and bespeaks a more casual society. Even the rich have learned the elegance of understatement; even the poor have learned to discount façade. The need for face comes from a lack of self-confidence. We have become more willing to be taken for what we are. And this is the second big change wrought by the revolution of the 1960s: the Filipino had lost his timidity.

The Verve of Independence

That timidity is best illustrated by the way we used to dress. From the 1900s through the war, a sartorial cowardice possessed the Filipino as it was impressed on him that, because of his dark skin and hot climate, he shouldn’t dare to wear colors. We know that the Spanish-era Filipinos—the men as well as the women—dressed with more spirit, dared the flamboyant in hue, and to hell with the hot climate; but throughout the American era the Filipino meekly submitted to the white-drill uniform. There were a couple of revolts, very late in the era: the Hawaiian shirt, for instance, and the McCrory style; but by and large we hewed to the Puritan line and stuck to prim white.

Our timidity affected even our women (though the terno continued to be gorgeous) and inhibited them from colors supposed to be not proper for brown folk. As late as the 1930s, society girls in Manila were debating whether a Filipina could wear such colors as red, yellow and orange, and the hesitant opinion was that maybe she could, if she “moved” in the dress. Today’s Filipino girls would find the mere argument hilariously incredible: they dress with verve, in any color they please. And the Filipino male likewise now runs the gamut of the spectrum with the aplomb of a peacock. Our clothes are a declaration of independence—and the hell with the hot climate.

The importance of such social manifestations cannot be underrated because they express radical changes within the society. The fashions of an era may tell us more about that era than its politics. In this instance, the testimony of prewar male fashions controverts the usual political interpretation of the American era: that it liberated us in spirit from musty medievalism. What we actually read in the fashions is a long spell of inhibitedness—that notorious “inferiority complex” of the Filipino—expressed during the Empire Days in the puritanical americana cerrada, a white coat chastely buttoned up to the jaw (note that the Filipino associates this garb with America) and later on in the white-drill uniform, which bespoke national docility, submission, conformism and conservatism. The timidity expressed by these fashions was broken only in the present time. Black suits, multi-hued knitwear and the Beatle shirt testify to a spiritedness in the contemporary Filipino that makes his prewar paisanos look, in retrospect, like white mice.

This spiritedness spills over into manners—and here we are on more controversial ground. The complaint is that today’s Filipinos, especially the young ones, are toughs, rowdies, boors, drones and donkeys; and the front pages daily seem to offer proof of this. Yet harking back to the days when the young were “seen and not heard,” one feels, while admiring the manners, that the old policy of gagging and reining in the young was partly responsible for the Filipino’s timidity. What it produced was generation after generation of Filipinos who knew their place, who were prim, gentle, sheepish and rather sissified. Any mother of today will say that the difference between her young and herself young is that her children are not afraid of company, are not afraid to speak up, unlike in the days when the young were, yes, unworldly but only because they were kept from the world. It was not a wise policy, as we all learned when the war came. The disillusions we suffered might not have been so excruciating if we had been less naïve. But our children today are, as we ourselves say, tough: they know it’s a violent world.

Well, okay, the parents will argue, we don’t mind if our children are wild if only they were as good in school as we were. And the parents will fetch out that old chestnut about a college student today being only the equivalent of a seventh-grader in prewar times. How true is this? The prewar scholar was very bright indeed; at the drop of a report card he could spout the Gettysburg Address, tell you about Washington and the cherry tree, or quote from Longfellow and Tennyson. But it was all a rather bookish brightness, smelling of the schoolma’ams of New England and that little red schoolhouse. Even in those days, the older generation was uneasily aware that something was wrong: that the young, though seemingly so educated, had become ignorant and provincial in a fashion that they of the older generation had not been in their more barbarous day. They had been conscious of Europe, of Rome and Greece, on the one hand, and of the Revolution, of Rizal and Bonifacio and Aguinaldo, on the other hand; but the little parrot products of the public school system seemed to know only America, had no history but American history, had no literature but literature in English, had no knowledge but book knowledge. The bright minds were one-track minds.

Today, alas, the average student can’t spout the Gettysburg Address, has never heard of Washington and that cherry tree, and couldn’t quote any poet at all; but he can drive a car, ride a scooter, repair a radio, tinker with the TV, master a machine, tell you about satellites, learn any dance, pack a gun, and mix a birgincoke cocktail. If he’s not as bookish as his forebears it’s because education has moved from lessons in a classroom to practical experience of the world. Far from the prewar seventh grader being the equal of today’s collegian, it may be that, in actual range of knowledge, in sophistication, yesterday’s college student is not even the equal of a ten-year-old boy today, unless we equate knowledge with book knowledge. If the young seem such dullards to us, it’s because we expect them to spout the Gettysburg Address like we did; if they seem so wild, it’s because we still cling to the standards of a timid past. Yet we, too, are trying to disengage from that past—and the best proof of this is the rise of drinking in the Philippines.

This, again, is controversial ground; anybody who tries to justify today’s heavy drinking as part of a cultural process is bound to be pulverized; but the fact remains that the drinking Filipino is advancing into territory he timidly skirted before. Who of us drank in prewar days? The old men, with memories of a noble tradition distilled in their bottles of Domecq; and a few garrulous old crones, nursing asthma and a cup of ginebra. We had two beer factories, but the product was mostly consumed by the American soldiery, in saloons with swinging doors, foot railings at the bar, and brass spittoons. We natives never ventured in there; we played it genteel, with our limonada and sarsaparilla. Our not drinking was part of a timid culture—which is why a revolt against that timidity was bound to involve machismo drinking, to prove to the world and to ourselves that the Filipino is as capable of drink, too, as of anything else on earth. From the inhibited society in which so many doors were closed to us, we have moved into a society in which we demand our right to enter every door—and that includes the bar’s swinging doors. Today the Filipino knows his beer, his martini, his stateside, his cuatro cantos, his long-neck, his marka demonyo, and his birgincoke. The bar is still not an item in his society, but the beer hall is. And he has jumped onto the cocktail circuit, once sacred only to whites. For our drinking marks our emergence into the great world. We are no longer afraid of “company.”

Recall Philippine society in prewar days. The Filipinos kept to themselves. The Americans kept to themselves. The British and Europeans kept to themselves and to the Americans. The Chinese and Japanese kept away from themselves. And each social world was a closed world. When war loomed, some Manila ladies tried to bring Filipinos and Americans together socially but found the social gulf impassable. This now sounds absurd but it was fact then. And the irony is that today, when Americans and Filipinos are no longer “related,” they have come closer together, at the cocktail party. For the Filipino, cocktail glass in hand, has invaded the worlds formerly closed to him. This is a very minor example of the third big change that has come over the contemporary Filipino, a change that has become most evident during the 1960s: the Filipino has gained in mobility.

The Nerve of Freedom

This mobility is aside from the economic migrations—like the influx of Visayans into Manila or the trek to Cagayan and Mindanao—that have marked the postwar period, though these migrations too, or, rather, their stepped-up rate, reveal increased adventurousness in what used to be a very stationary folk. But need rather than nerve may explain the migrations, whereas what could be called a cultural mobility denotes a change in the nature of our society.

The average Manileño of prewar days, for instance, got no farther away from his city than Antipolo in May or a parent’s hometown for the fiesta. Foreigners raved over Baguio and Mayon and Zamboanga and Sulu; but Filipinos felt no itch to see their land for themselves. The lack of transportation, roads or money does not explain this lack of curiosity. One could grow up in Makati and never have attended the river festival in nearby Pateros; and Manila seemed, even for provincial Tagalogs, so faraway that a trip to the city was in the nature of an expedition.

Today, though it’s supposed to be hard times, the provincianos have made Manila a commuting point; the masses join the gentry in Baguio for the summer; and more and more of us are traveling to Mayon and Zamboanga and Sulu to see the marvels there with our own eyes. We now think nothing of motoring to Batangas just for a dip, or to the Hundred Islands just for a picnic, or up to the Ilocos coast just for an overnight rest. On weekends last summer, on the highways, as the crowded palm-bedecked buses and family cars sped out past in endless file on their way to excursion spots, one had the feeling of watching a nation on the move. It’s quite an exhilarating feeling for one who remembers this as a most stay-at-home nation.

The mobility comes from greater curiosity, which in turn springs from an aroused interest in our country and people and history. One reason we didn’t bother, in the old days, to go see a nearby festival like, say, the Pateros river ritual was that to do so would have been “backward” of us, indicating a most unhealthy interest in the past at a time when we were all so anxious to be very American and modern. One was better occupied memorizing the Gettysburg Address or reading Washington and the cherry tree than watching superstitious processions and wasteful fiestas. Only when this imported Puritanism gave out did we get around to discovering Pateros, which, now, we show off to diplomats and tourists. And now it’s the intellectuals who head pilgrimages to Capiz, to experience the ati-atihan, and to Marinduque, to enjoy the moriones. It’s no longer backward but, rather, highly fashionable to attend an interesting procession, and to hunt for old churches, and to collect saints’ images. The “past” we despised is now very “in.”

This reversal of old attitudes has naturally made us skeptical of all the other ideas we once thought permanent. The skepticism underlies our current resistance to involvement in Vietnam, a resistance that may be contrasted with our reaction to a similar calamity in the 1930s: the Spanish civil war. Then we were all militant republicans eager to get involved. Bishop Aglipay offered to organize an expeditionary force to fight in Spain for the Loyalists, and aid-to-Spain centers sprang up in Manila. The bell that tolled in Spain tolled for us; and Mr. Hemingway’s bridge was no farther away than our doorstep. Today we couldn’t care less if all the bridges in Vietnam were bombed. As Mr. Johnson says, “There’s no blood in a bridge.” And nobody quotes Donne or Hemingway about Vietnam. It’s not that we have become less fervent about democracy, only more cynical about war in general, especially wars of liberation and wars to end war. We have become cynical about bells that, we are assured, toll for all mankind but turn out to have been tolling only for us. Once bitten, twice shy. The others get postwar booms; we get bombs. So, though no man is an island, we’d rather cultivate our own garden.

Faith is the flesh of freedom but skepticism is the nerve; and as we stand in midyear, and in mid-decade, to ponder, on our new freedom day, the state of the nation, we may realize that we are so critical of ourselves because we have come so confident of ourselves. We can take anything, even self-detraction, so we throw the book at ourselves. It’s a healthy attitude. As the saying goes, it’s when you begin to think you’re safe that you’re in danger.

The prophets that cry havoc do us a service by impelling us into self-examination. Have we really become degenerate? Is the country really going to the dogs? Is our condition really disconsolate compared with happier times? Or, the handicaps notwithstanding—like rising prices, rising taxes, rising crime rates, rising impatience—are we not living better today than at any other time in our history? An honest look at prewar times, for instance, can only force us to admit that we didn’t even know how to live well then, when we could afford to, because we prized money not as a means but as a thing in itself.

But the main point about the 1960s is that we have been responding to the challenges of the decade with changes in our character. The changes have been detailed above: the shift from a respect for money to a respect for our own well-being; the shedding of the peasant’s timidity and of the puritan ethos; and the consequent increase in self-confidence, mobility, curiosity and cynicism.

If these changes have resulted in civic unrest, a fractious young and general turmoil, they have also resulted in the events which will go down in history: the change in our Independence Day, the nationalist revival, the Borneo claim and Maphilindo, the land reform act, the agitation against the bases and parity rights, the various rallies against the American embassy, the fight for an independent stand on Vietnam and other Asian questions, the salary-equity strikes against foreign firms, and all the other insurgencies of the last four years that are explicable only if we assume radical changes in our character.

From the steam and smoke of the turmoil emerges a profile of the Nation in this year of grace 1965 that’s clear-cut enough and far from depressing. At no other moment in our history, not even in the 1890s, was the profile of the Nation so definite, so precise, as during these Seething ’60s.

The rest of the decade may show us the full face, the discovered identity.

The Other Manila, December 13, 1952

The Other Manila

by Quijano de Manila 

the other manila-1

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.

the other manila-2c

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

Malacañan memoirs, February 28,1949

Malacañan memoirs

by Ernesto T. Bitong

290 España, Manila

February 28, 1949–FEBRUARY 3, 1945 is a date to remember.

The day was depressing. The sun shone briefly at noon and later was lost among the low-hanging clouds. I felt that something was going to happen. The air seemed to be charged with something ominous.

Early in the morning, I learned that the Kempeitais  had paid another visit to the CO’s office in Malacañan Annex and got the roster of the Presidential Guards and a list of the arms in the PG Armory. The strength of the Guards then was greatly depleted. The exodus to Baguio of Dr. Laurel and his cabinet in the latter part of December 1944 had left Malacañan with only a skeleton force. It was this small band that neutralized the efforts of the Japanese marines to appropriate for themselves the use of the Palace.

Count Kano, the liaison officer of the Japanese Military Administration in Malacañan, came late in the morning and left hastily a little later for parts unknown. This was something irregular. Kano usually came to the office early and left late in the afternoon.

Guard mount was held at two o’clock instead of the usual five. This further enhanced my suspicion that something was in the air.

In the growing dusk, I kept to my post in the Executive Building. My senses were cocked to everything around me. Then it happened. I heard desultory firing in the northern part of the city. The phone near my position rang. It was from an agent from the Bureau of Investigation. He reported that there was street fighting in the vicinity of Blumentritt. I contacted the Sergeant of the Guard and apprised him of the situation. He ordered the closing of the gates and directed the men to take the best positions.

The crackle of gunfire and the rumble of tanks drew nearer and nearer. A single column of big tanks painted drab green lumbered into view. While the column rounded the corner of Mendiola and Aviles, a truckload of Jap heitai-sans followed by a sedan of Jap officers came upon the scene. They were greeted by 75’s and .50 caliber machine guns. The armored column came to a halt in front of Gate 4.

We were in a quandary. They could not be Americans, for according to the latest “dope” from the guerrilla grapevine, the Yanks were somewhere in Bulacan. Surely, they could not be here so soon. And supposing they were Americans, would they fire on us if we opened the gates, thinking that we were Nipponese marionettes? These thoughts raced through our minds as the armored column waited outside the gate.

Then I heard wisps of conversation from the tank column. The nasal twang was unmistakable. I felt immensely relieved. A big hunk of a GI detached himself from the column and walk boldly to the iron gate. He unscrewed the bar that held the two leaves of the gate in place. My heart was beating like a tomtom. I kept rooted to my position.

The lead tank pushed the gate open and clanked in, followed by the rest of the armored unit. The turret of the lead tank opened and out came a crash–helmeted figure. Apparently, he was the leader of the tank column. I learned later that he was Capt. “Bud” Hickman, of the Second Squadron under Lt. Col. H. L. Conner.

Sgt. Carlos San Pedro rose from his concealed position and approached Capt. Hickman. After they exchanged salutes, the tank man told him, “I’d like to see your Commanding Officer.”

Our commanding officer, Maj. “Jess” Vargas (now chief of staff of the Philippine Ground Forces, AFP) was in the Executive Building. While Vargas and Hickman introduced themselves, they were joined by Maj. Napoleon Valeriano, who led the armored unit to Malacañan. (Maj. Valeriano is now PC Provincial Commander of Pampanga.)

Associated Press Correspondent Richard Bergholz, expressing astonishment at the feebleness of the Jap opposition to the American drive toward Manila, said: “It’s definitely a race between forward elements of the First Cavalry and the 37th Division to see who enters Manila first.” In this race the mechanized First Cavalry won.

Meanwhile, the GIs rigged .50 caliber machine guns at Gate 4 and around the periphery. They dug in and awaited Banzai attacks. The medics cleared the southern section of the Executive Building of the desks and other office paraphernalia and set up a hospital… Two tank men were wounded in the encounter near Gate 4: one was hit near the pulmonary region and died before midnight, the other was grazed in the neck. Mrs. “Mommie” Pecson (now a senator) made herself useful by serving the GI “dogfaces” cookies and hot coffee and entertaining them with her stories about her experiences in the good old USA.

The next morning, February 4, the Japs must have found their bearings. They rained murderous artillery and mortar fire on the Malacañan compound. Several American casualties were brought in for treatment. The medics were kept busy.

For tactical purposes, Malacañan was divided into two sectors. The Palace and the immediate grounds were assigned to the Guards. The Americans were assigned to the Executive Building and the surrounding areas including the Annex Building. The Palace grounds were swept with Jap machine gun fire from the San Miguel Brewery. Sorties were sent out to destroy the Jap stronghold. The Americans in their sector had enough trouble on their hands to keep them busy. Strong Jap positions in the Malacañan Park across the Pasig river menaced the Yanks with their knee mortars. All through the day there were exchanges of gunfire. Before nightfall American firepower asserted itself. The Jap ammunition dump in Pandacan was hit. All night long shells in the ammo dump exploded. It was like a New Year’s Eve and July Fourth celebrations rolled into one. For several days thereafter fighting continued intermittently.

On February 7 we had a distinguished visitor, that almost legendary figure—General Douglas MacArthur. There was no mistaking the tall, handsome, stern military bearing, the distinctive cap. With him was Col. Andres Soriano. They visited the Palace and the Executive Building. The General paused at the slit trencher and “battled the breeze” with the GI dogfaces. Later he walked up to the San Miguel Church escorted by Maj. Valeriano.

Two hours after General MacArthur’s departure, the Palace was subjected to the heaviest shelling since the arrival of the Americans.  The families that took refuge in the Palace had to be evacuated to the Executive Building. The Palace shook from the effect of the terrific shelling. The southwestern side of the Palace was destroyed. All the windows in the Executive Building were broken. Many casualties were brought in.

Malacañan was left to the Guards when the tank column moved to Santo Tomas University Camp in accordance with orders from higher headquarters. The only Americans left in the compound were a platoon of signal corpsmen who lost no time in establishing themselves in the presidential air-raid shelter behind the Executive Building. The Japs stationed at the Hospicio de San Jose continued to threaten the Malacañan fortress. Camouflaged with water lilies and other plants, the Japs attempted crossings at night. But they were always checked by the Guards who peppered them with rifle fire.

The first crossings to the southside of Manila of amphibious tanks through the Uli-Uli Road wrote finis to the attacks on Malacañan. The Guards played a stellar role.


Manila’s New Mayor, August 4, 1923

August 4, 1923


Manila’s New Mayor

Some sidelights on his career and personality—reasons for his stand in accepting mayoralty—“not here to listen to barkings of political dogs”

Much discussion has arisen regarding the acceptance by Governor Eulogio Rodriguez, of Rizal province, of the mayorship of the city of Manila. While some say that Governor Rodriguez should not have accepted the position left vacant by the resignation of Mayor Fernandez, in view of the present “alleged crisis” in the government; yet many others contend that a man of the calibre of Mr. Rodriguez is urgently needed to guide the course of Manila’s government.

As the Free Press is always anxious to learn of a good man in public life and present him to its readers for edification and emulation, it takes pride in reproducing an excerpt from the life sketch of Mayor Rodriguez published in this paper seven years ago, when he was first elected provincial governor of Rizal:

 “Cochero” and “Zacatero”

“One of the first questions fired at him was whether it was true he had been a ‘cochero’ and ‘zacatero’ as was a matter of common report and as one of his political rivals had contemptuously intimated in the recent election campaign. Mr. Rodriguez said he had never been exactly a ‘zacatero’ though he wouldn’t be ashamed of it if he had; nor was it exactly true that he had been a cochero, at least not as had been implied. These insinuations were based, he said, on his having acted as contractor for the army in a small way, and having supplied it with, among other things, grass as fodder for the horses; and further, on his having been carried on the army payroll as a teamster although actually he served as an interpreter. It appears that under army regulations in the early days no provision had been made for interpreters and so, to be enabled to employ him, it had been necessary to list him as a teamster; and he drew pay and rations as such. He added however, that as a boy he had many a time driven one of his father’s rigs for public hire, and so, if his political rivals any time wanted to, they might call him a cochero, and it wouldn’t hurt him; for it was an honest occupation.

 Other Admissions

“As to his helping the poor and giving them a lift in his automobile when he met them on the road, Mr. Rodriguez admitted that occasionally he was guilty of such things, and never felt any worse for it. And as to his not talking bad of anyone he stated that during the recent political campaign he had got such a name, as he didn’t believe in mudslinging and saying all the mean and nasty things possible about your opponent.”

 Had People’s Consent

To illustrate further how Mayor Rodriguez regards the responsibility vested in him by the people of Rizal province, he told the Free Press reporter who interviewed him this week that before his acceptance of the mayorship of Manila he visited the towns of Malabon, Navotas, and Caloocan, where he obtained a majority of about 1,500 in the last elections for governor; and also the municipalities of San Juan del Monte, Taguig, Parañaque, Las Piñas, Montalban, Cainta, Taytay, Antipolo, Binangonan, Cardona, Morong, Baras, Tanay, and Pililla and consulted the people of those towns, through their municipal officials, as to whether or not he should accept the position of mayor of the city of Manila. In all those 17 towns he obtained the almost unanimous consent of the people.

 A Firm Stand

When questioned by the Free Press reporter what he thought about the opposition to his acceptance of the mayor’s office, Mayor Rodriguez replied:

“I know that on my humble personality is being riveted the gaze of our political enemies at present. I know that there is a lot of talk against my acceptance of the mayor’s job. But, I also know that I am not here to listen to the barkings of political dogs. I have been placed here to be responsible to the people, to the citizens of Manila, especially.

“Let me tell you this much. My political enemies can not accuse me of being financially interested in this job. I have been engaged in politics since 1909 and I have a very clean slate. I have never done as intentional wrong to anyone. I have never given a tainted centavo to my family. My conscience is clear. I am here to serve the best interests of the people. At the moment I become convinced that I can not protect the people’s rights and can not serve them longer, I will not in the least hesitate to leave or resign this position and return to my farm.”