Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Quezon's City: Corruption and Contradiction in Manila's Prewar Suburbia, 1935-1941

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Quezon's City: Corruption and Contradiction in Manila's Prewar Suburbia, 1935-1941

Article excerpt

Urban historiography has established that political projects have spatial dimensions, often cast in the form of cities. For example, nation-states need cities as embodiments of their power, and those of Southeast Asia are no exception. Viewed from the vista of official nationalism, the capital city thus occupies an exalted space within the geo-body of the nation as the best spatial representation of the imagined community. (1) Southeast Asian studies has benefited from scholars who have analysed and interrogated the interplay between nationalism and the construction of cities. Much of this discussion has focused on how capital cities are invested with symbolic capital in the form of architecture and city planning, however. (2)

This article gives a new angle to the study of nationalism vis-a-vis urbanism by analysing the emergence of a would-be capital city of a would-be independent nation-state. Looking at the establishment of Quezon City in 1939 as the future capital city of the Philippines, one can easily see how it seems to conform to the established literature. To begin with, Quezon City was an imagined city, in more ways than one, for a Philippine nation that was about to change from being a colony of the United States to a sovereign nation-state. Also, the local elite, the main articulators of Filipino nationalism, led in planning and constructing the city to turn it into a spatial emblem: from the symbolic monuments to the wide avenues and open spaces to evoke grandeur and modernity. From a postcolonial vista, Quezon City appeared to be the city that would replace colonial Manila, a metropolis characterised by disorder and decay. The early history of Quezon City tells a different story: on the one hand, the elite used nationalism as a smokescreen for devious personal and political objectives in pushing for the new capital; on the other hand, resistance from marginalised stakeholders and Quezon City's contradictions reveal the city's precarious ideological foundations.

The visionaries behind Quezon City were the Filipino elite, led by Commonwealth president Manuel Quezon (1935-44). The president occupies a special position in the conventional narrative of Filipino nationalism because he played an active role in both the revolutionary and the 'parliamentary' phases of the formation of modern Philippines. (3) As such, Quezon has been the subject of numerous studies and biographies, perhaps more than any other historical figure in the Philippines aside from Jose Rizal. The early biographies ranged from pre-Second World War authorised biographies to early postwar hagiographies. Since the 1980s, however, biographies of Quezon have become more critical, as they point out not just his 'misdemeanours' but his regime's systemic corruption. (4) More importantly, scholars like Alfred McCoy and Donovan Storey have established the links between Quezon City and its founder's authoritarianism. (5) In emphasising his dictatorial stamp on the city, however, they neglected evidence that Quezon City was part of Quezon's larger framework of using a system of chartered cities to consolidate his power. They also failed to consider how contradictions between intent and reality undermined Quezon City's putative ideological place in the coming nation-state. By elaborating on these gaps, this article seeks to contribute new insights to the growing literature on Philippine and Southeast Asian urban history.

This article is based on the same primary sources cited in these biographies and earlier studies. Important government documents include the annual reports of the High Commissioner and of the President, Quezon's speeches and messages, and the 1939 census. The annual reports of the Board of Regents are a crucial source about the University of the Philippines (UP), one of the most important state institutions in the early history of Quezon City. Contemporary periodicals complement official documents because they present non-state perspectives, but vary in their political biases. …

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