I had been warned about Manila. A friend who travelled there for business had told me the city had edge. He urged me to stay in a nice hotel, in the safe business area of Makati and leave my new camera at home. The last piece of advice I took – and it was a good one. I felt conspicuous enough whipping out my iPhone occassionally to snap a pic, I would not have been comfortable on the mean streets of Malate with a chunky, gleaming piece of high-tech machinery around my neck. Manila is a reality check. There is ‘developing ‘ like Thailand and ’developing’ like the Philippines. It is a whole other level.
On my last day in the city a street urchin threw a small bag of piss at me for not giving him my (empty) can of Sprite. Luckily it detonated with more of a sod than a splash, a limp metre of so from where he threw. But Manila is that kind of city. Its grimy and raw. Children play unsupervised on the footpath and naked toddlers splash in the gutters. People sleep everywhere. Pedestrians and cars amiably share the roads rather than being strictly separated as in more rigid, organised, countries. People keep chickens in the city parks. And strangers talk to you constantly – they smile and flirt and try to sell you things or rip you off or make an annoying snakelike hiss to get your attention. It is hard to walk down the street alone.
You forget what a populous country the Philippines is – until in you are in it. With a population of 100 million, it has more people than Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore (or Korea and Taiwan) combined. The streets of Manila are a reminder of this, there are always more people than you expected (and this coming from Hong Kong!) And with an unemployment rate of 27% many of them have nothing better to do than lie about on the pavement all day, calling to you as you pass.
If all this sounds hellish – its not. I enjoyed Manila. Its an exuberant city. There is energy on the streets – and boundless good humour. People sell fried chicken and pet rabbits and hairbands. There are brightly coloured churches everywhere. Frangipani trees flower over the broken pavements. Grimy art deco buildings are covered in soot and grafitti and bars on every corner pump out Rihanna and J. Lo and advertise in Tagalog, English, Korean and Japanese (in that order).
I was surprised by the city’s Latin vibe, even 120 years after the country ceased to be a Spanish colony. There were many times that Manila felt more like South America than anywhere else in Asia. The overhead train rumbled from Doroteo Jose and Corriedo to Libertad and Vito Cruz. There was the same flair for modern art I had seen in Latin America, the same church spires and gun-toting security men, the same rollings “r”s in the Spanish-flecked Tagalog tongue and the same easygoing - but simultaneously alert – feeling on the streets.
And then there there are those things unique to the Philippines; a love for baby-faced but hard bodied male screen stars, the colorful jeepneys trawling the streets like little tin dragons, a tolerance for levels of cheesiness and tack that would make any American blush. And fast food everywhere – I have never seen a people with such a love for burgers.
The city was hard to get my head around; an odd hybrid of cultures, consumerist, squalid and yet often cheerfully upbeat. This is what defines Manila – its tragic camp, wilfull excess, big hair and glitzy make-up. Creaking at the joints, but still determined to put on a show.