M is for Manila


In all my years working in Asia, I have only once been on the receiving end of a request for a bribe. I had been visiting a local company to talk about future projects, and a representative of a very senior political figure turned up unexpectedly. The local company had invited them. I asked what involvement they had in these projects, puzzled, a bit naive. They could ensure my company won the projects, I was told. And for only 20% of the project cost. I backed away from them quickly.

I was of course in Manila, a place where corruption sadly is rife, where government officials are paid so poorly that they supplement their incomes with bribes, a place where there is a huge capacity for development, where the disparities between the rich and poor are astounding, a country which slipped from being the economic jewel of Southeast Asia in the 60s to one of the poorest, with the least hope. I was once told that 26% of infrastructure project funds disappeared in bribes. At the time I was visiting, the World Bank was giving the Philippines a US$1 billion loan to improve the country’s roads, their maintenance, and management. To think that US$250 million of that could disappear in bribes was mind-boggling. But it did explain why some of the officials I met could afford to wear the Gucci loafers I saw them in, or buy new shirts when they were travelling rather than wash and iron them, or take overseas holidays on an annual income of about US$20,000.

I have experienced many exotic locations as a tourist, a diplomat, or as a resident. Manila is a city I know best as a business traveller. I have travelled there many times – 20 or more visits over a number of years, approximately a year of my life, some visits taking weeks, others just two days. One of the problems of visiting somewhere multiple times is that you begin taking it for granted, or thinking “never mind, I’ll take a photograph next time.” Then suddenly there is no next time. And so I find I am almost completely without photographs of Manila, and so this time my words will have to paint the picture for you.

As a business traveller, I haven’t participated in local everyday life, explored tourist sites, or even shopped in the markets. I had little time or opportunity to wander the streets or interact with the people other than in a business context. I have however observed Manila over many hours in the back of a taxi crossing Manila, winding my way through narrow streets, watching the locals go about their daily lives in the small stores, restaurants and workshops on the street. I would spend hours stuck on the motorways in traffic jams. The traffic in Manila is horrendous, and unpredictable. I always had to leave for the airport many hours before my flight because of this. I remember once being stuck in traffic with a colleague, when our taxi didn’t move for about 45 minutes. He later said that he thought we would never escape from the taxi, and that years later only our skeletons and suitcases would be found as evidence we had ever existed. I knew what he meant. Being stranded in a taxi, in a part of the city you don’t recognise, could be quite claustrophobic. But it was also an opportunity to watch the locals, or simply to relax, think, and even to snooze before arriving at your destination several hours later.

The port area of Manila, where I conducted a lot of business, was much more interesting than the CBD. It was the first area settled by westerners, with an old Spanish fort within a walled city (Intramuros) and many old buildings and cathedrals. This part of the city, old Manila, had its heyday in the 70s and 80s, before the US closed its military bases. Hotels and seafood restaurants were dotted along the promenade, with pleasant views out into the bay, and walking and running tracks along the coast for those who could brave the pollution, the heat and humidity, and didn’t look too closely at the water. The National Theatre, infamously built by the Marcos regime, took pride of place by the coast, as did many government departments. The American Embassy was also there, always with long lines of visa-seekers waiting, waiting, interminably waiting.

But by the 1990s/early 2000s the Port area was rather dilapidated. The government departments and offices there were run down, the hotels had had their glory days, and most business travellers stayed in Makati, the new CBD surrounded by high-rise offices, apartments and shopping centres. Or alternatively, business travellers stayed out at the growing Ortigas area, with its restaurants, shopping centres, apartments, the huge Mega Mall where separatists bombed the cinema shortly after one of my visits, green residential estates, amusingly named golf courses (Wack-Wack Greenhills), and the Asian Development Bank. This was generally where I stayed, where I almost certainly contracted dengue fever, where I spent weekends at the Mega Mall and watched the ice-skaters escaping from the 30 degree plus heat and humidity outside, where I visited the ADB, and where the staff at the hotel’s reception recognised me and knew my name. This was where protests against President Estrada occurred between one of my visits, with hundreds of thousands of protestors shouting for a change of regime. I remember returning to Manila after an election, when Estrada was replaced by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. From the moment I got off the plane, it felt different. This was confirmed by the greeting from the smiling (shock!) immigration officer: “Welcome to the new Philippines.” If only.

Manila is a seething mass of humanity, clouds of petrol fumes, a concrete jungle, and home to some shameful slums, including the infamous Smoky Mountain. It is also a very Catholic city. Neon signs proclaim that Jesus Loves You. Large churches or cathedrals are everywhere. As I crisscrossed the city over the years, I realised that the churches all seemed to be variations on the same design. I came to the conclusion that there must be a kitset church factory (but have never been able to confirm this). Taxis were filled with religious iconography, but could never match the flourish and fervour of the jeepnees. These open-air trucks which act as shuttle buses and taxis are a colourful part of local life, decorated with religious and pop culture imagery side by side. You’ll find paintings of Jesus beside bikini-clad women and cartoon characters – all on the same vehicle. They epitomise the people and culture, and their history. A devout Catholicism with a love of pop culture and a sense of humour, wrapped around a practicality that makes the most of whatever they have.

The joys of visiting Manila did not include the food. I found it disappointing, and hope this was due to the fact that I was working and didn’t have access to good, local restaurants. A memorable meal was when local colleagues took me and another colleague to a traditional Philippines buffet restaurant. We agonised over the selection of delicacies – stir-fried beetles, tripe curry, pork brains, and a range of other selections of offal and insects. They laughed over our squeamishness. The baby calamari cooked in squid ink I had with another business contact was however delicious, but in general I frequently referred to Manila as a vegetable free zone, finding I needed to resort to Subway sandwiches as the only way to ward off scurvy. Though their mangoes at breakfast were divine, and available all year round.

And then there’s Jollibee. Jollibee is the Philippines’ fast food hamburger chain. There’s a Jollibee on every corner, and the Filipinos love it. Once I had proven my commitment to my clients, and began actively working with them, rather than marketing to them, I found I was included in the Jollibee ritual. Any meeting with a senior official tended to involve the Delivery of Jollibee. It didn’t matter if it was 9 am, just before or after lunch, or at 5 pm. Jollibee burgers were delivered and consumed. Washed down with a fizzy drink (I believe my American friends call them “sodas”) or sweet coffee. Whether business had just begun, or already concluded, it took a break when Jollibee arrived, and didn’t restart until we had all paid homage to our Jollibee burger.

The joy of visiting Manila was however meeting the people. Aside from the aforementioned crooks, I met some wonderful people in Manila. Extraordinarily talented and committed to working for their country for next to nothing, we could learn a lot from them. And in a relatively conservative country, women in government and business perform extremely well. Where engineering is a male-dominated industry in New Zealand, the numbers of women in the Philippines Ministry of Public Works were astounding. I had to remind a colleague making a presentation that it was inappropriate to refer to engineers as “he” all the time, given that our main client and more than half the audience were women. But it wasn’t all business. Filipinos have a wonderful joie de vivre about them, an ebullient nature, and a wicked sense of humour. I laughed a lot with the people I met there.

And they sing. How can you not love a people who love music? A project I worked on was with a government department. At the beginning of a government workshop, they sang the national anthem. No accompaniment, this was sung a capella, led by our project contractor Alice, sung by all the workshop participants with emotion, enthusiasm, and perfectly on key.

Singing and laughing. The Filipinos could teach us a lot.

4 thoughts on “M is for Manila

  1. I love this, especially the idea of a church kit factory. I don’t know how people live in places with such energy-(not to say money-) sapping corruption though.

    I was only in Manila on a one-night stopover, and somehow ended up at a Chinese wedding (I think it was a distant relative of a friend of mine who was the bride or groom). I remember wearing a very loud orange, blue and yellow dress with large shoulder pads that only a Vogue model would have looked good in, and sitting through a nine-course meal interspersed with endless slide shows of the bride and groom’s life.


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