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Elsie Daoust - Blog Post 1: Metro Manila: Still one of Asia's Pearls

Elsie Daoust - Blog Post 1: Metro Manila: Still one of Asia's Pearls

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It is hard to believe that I’ve been in Manila for just about three months now. My internship at Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA) has thus far proven to be an experience far beyond what I expected, with everyday being full of learning opportunities and new experiences. While my placement has been an integral part of my time here, being based in Manila, one of the world’s largest cities, has in itself been a cultural and educational experience like no other.   

My expectations and ideas of what I envisioned living in Manila would be like were vastly different from my current reality. The hustle and bustle of the city is more wild and chaotic, the buildings and billboards much taller, and the diversity of neighbourhoods and city centers much more impressive and far-reaching than I could have imagined. Overall, the city provides a truly unique and invigorating living experience.

Manila is often disregarded as a destination worth visiting, with numerous other sites in the Philippines and South East Asia far exceeding it in terms of popularity. However Manila, a city of over 12 million people, has captivated me with its culture and history. It is easy to look at Manila superficially, as a massive and chaotic metropolis that is growing with development projects in every direction to make way for the rapidly expanding population. But living within the chaos, noise, and life here, you come to find its charm and character surprisingly refreshing. 


 Manila BayManila Bay   

 The billboard lined Edsa highwayThe billboard lined Edsa highway    

  An informal settlement along the Pasig RiverInformal Settlement along the Pasig River

  The Makati skylineMakati skypline at night


The numerous cities that make up Metro Manila allow for diverse areas with no definable city center. Whether it is the historical area of downtown Manila, the booming commercial district of Makati, or the more laid back university area of Quezon City, there is a scene and area for everything, making the city a renewable source of new experiences and learning. In turn, by exploring the individualities and novelties of each area and neighbourhood, such as the tricycle filled streets of Quezon City with late night coffee shops filled with students, or the endless rows of thrift shops in Chinatown, the daunting size of the city becomes far less overwhelming. As with culture in the Philippines, you start to gain a greater feel for the diversity that makes up its entirety. 


  Row of Tricycles along V. Luna Ave in Quezon CityRow of Tricycles along V. Luna Ave. in Quezon City


One aspect of Manila that is particularly captivating is its rich history. This past weekend I had the opportunity to go on a walking tour led by Carlos Celdran, which gave a sort of critical and satirical telling of the history of the original Spanish fort and walled-in city of Manila known as Intramuros. The Philippines has been somewhat of a historical melting pot of cultures, religions, and peoples, with Manila often being at the center of it all. The city has had one of the longest histories of colonialism in the world, leaving a legacy and culture that has been shaped by various outside influences.

Once a flourishing Chinese trading post and small Muslim village, with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1571, the city of Manila was founded and for roughly 300 years remained under Spanish rule. However, as a colony, the Philippines was distant and difficult to control from Spain. While the Spaniards were successful in sending missionaries and priests to convert many to Catholicism, they invested less into infrastructure and development in comparison to their other colonies, and had little success spreading the Spanish language. Today, the Tagalog language incorporates many Spanish words, but these are mostly words which pick out objects that did not exist prior to Spanish arrival. 


  Group of nuns in the restored Manila Cathedral, IntramurosGroup of nuns in the restored Manila Cathedral, Intramuros

 Restored gate of Fort Santiago, Intramuros Restored Gate of Fort Santiago, Intramuros 


With the Spanish American war of 1898, the Philippines was sold to the United States. This marked the beginning of secular government and English as the official language, due to the widespread establishment of US schools. It is also during this period that Manila went through tremendous transformations and became one of the most prestigious cities in the world.

Once nicknamed as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’, Manila grew to reflect the wealth and power of its new American conquerors. Daniel Burnham, the American city planner who designed Washington DC and Chicago, was hired to rebuild Manila. As the city moved into the twentieth century, Manila emulated American culture and architectural grandiosity, with modern city infrastructure such as wide roads, sewage systems, parks, and modern Art Deco and Neoclassical buildings transforming the core areas of the city. Manila became a modern hub of cultural mixing and prestige in South East Asia.

Today, this is not what one would associate with Manila. In 1945, Manila sat at the crossfire of the Americans and Japanese in World War II. As the Japanese invaded the Philippines, the Americans began the bombing of the Battle of Manila, setting the city upon a path from which it has never fully recovered. By the end of World War II, Manila stood as the second most devastated city in the world after Warsaw. What was once considered one of the finest cities in Asia was left largely in rubble with hundreds of thousands of Filipinos dead. Of the buildings in the original Intramuros area, only the San Agustin Church survived.


  Remains of the US military base off of Manila Bay on Corregidor Island 

 Remains of US Army Barracks on Corregidor IslandRemains of the US military base off of Manila Bay on Corregidor Island. 


In the post-war and post-colonial decades, the city has undergone significant reconstruction, including the restoration of Intramuros and many downtown historical buildings that partially survived the war. The city’s population also boomed in this period, and the city’s growth surpassed any planned development, sprawling outward to include surrounding towns and villages, as it continues to do today. The rough recovery from centuries of colonialist rule was also followed with years of dictatorial and corrupt governments, and resistance led to Martial Law and political repression.

However, Manila’s long history full of trials and tribulations has left a lasting effect on the cultural make-up of the city today. While the chaos and lack of efficient infrastructure does not reflect the Manila that stood at the turn of the century, the city is underappreciated and illegitimately overlooked by travellers to Asia. Beneath the disarray and grit of Metro Manila, is a city with such variety and character, with such an incomparable history evident in many of the city’s quirky charms, that make it one of the most unique places I have ever lived. The mixture of influences from its colonial past, as well as its cultural traditions and identity, make Manila unlike any place in Asia. For example, Manila’s most common public transportation, known as the Jeepney, was originally made from the US military jeeps left over from WWII. Today you can find them flying through the streets of Metro Manila eccentrically decorated with bright colours and vibrant designs that reflect the laid-back lifestyles and sense of humour of Filipinos.


  Manila's JeepneysManila's Jeepneys


During my time here I have grown to love Manila more each day. The disarray and noise have become the stimulating background of my daily life, while the spirit and personality of the city have been a constant source of inspiration and intrigue. The charming melange of cultures, identities, and neighbourhoods are alone undoubtedly worth a visit.