Manila, Magnet for the Hopeful

Article excerpt

Byline: Miguel Syjuco

There's a multitude of Manilas: the past, present, and imagined future. Layers unpeel to reveal a city that is pungent, astringent, lachrymose, sweet, delicious.

At its core, the Manila of memory: On the Pasig River, where thenilaplant was plentiful, the sultanate of Maynila grew rich trading with China. In 1571, the Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi built a walled city there, declaring it the capital of the archipelago named for King Philip II. A Spanish colony for more than three centuries, the Philippines was both backwater and gateway to the East, linked to the West by the galleon trade. Revolution came in the 1890s, asilustrados(privileged young men with foreign educations) returned from Europe to wrest a populist rebellion from its leader, the self-taught Andres Bonifacio. The United States helped Filipinos found the first free republic in Asia, until President McKinley and company saw value in colonies. In 1901, the USSThomasbrought 540 teachers, imposing a new language, history, identity.

Manila: "Pearl of the Orient," the architect Daniel Burnham's unfinished project, Douglas MacArthur's beloved home, a city where periodicals in English or Spanish or Tagalog fought for readers, nationalists politicked for independence, and Chinese coolies toiled for future wealth. Along the canals andcalles, art deco masterpieces rose among traditional stone-and-wood houses with windowpanes made of Capiz shell. Then the Japanese conquered and occupied, and Manila's liberation left her one of World War II's most devastated cities. In the decades after independence, Manilenos fled violent memories to new suburbs that sprawled and filled.

Today, Metro Manila is the country's heart--a cluster of 16 cities and one municipality, 246 square miles, billions of lights, and almost 12 million souls. To visitors flying in, Manila intrigues, like a colorful complication of circuitry boards, the streets seemingly tangled like a box of ribbon upended onto the floor. To some, she'll always be a congested concrete maze, a polluted cancer in a paradise of white-sand islands and mountains of crumpled green velveteen.

But to locals, Manila is deeply personal. Our experiences are contradictory. The disparity of what Manila offers is separated by the width of a cinder-block wall, a tinted car window, or what the ink says on a diploma. Shanties spread on the horizon with cubist notions of totality and simplicity, luxury skyscrapers rise beyond, and the middle class stretches thinly in between. …