Travel to Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita
North of Intramuros--which is to say, across the Pasig River--and south of it as well, business districts flourished for many years. These areas are so run-down now that it's hard to believe Fred Wernstedt and Joe Spencer had their eyes open when, in a book they published in 1967, they described the Escolta as a street with "many fashionable shops and department stores that display every item of imported and Philippine origin." Don't hold your breath. The Metro Manila they knew had 1,400,000 people in 1960; today's has 10,000,000, not to mention another 5,000,000 or so in adjoining areas. Even in the 1920s, people began moving out of the core; in recent decades, the only people left have been those too poor to get out.
From a distance, Binondo--Chinatown--still looks impressive. The view here is from the roof of the Manila Hotel and looks over Intramuros (the cathedral is in the middle left) towards Binondo. The Escolta--that famous shopping street once commonly called the Fifth Avenue of Manila--is there, too.
We can get closer by heading north from the post office and crossing the Jones Bridge over the Pasig River. The bridge is named for William Atkinson Jones--not a household name but an important one in Philippine history. A long-serving U.S. congressman, Jones as chairman of the House insular affairs committee in 1916 sponsored the Philippine Autonomy Act, hastening the transfer of political power.
Chinatown, or Binondo, was for a long time the city's--and the country's--financial center. It's a relationship that goes back to the Chinese community that the Spanish authorities encouraged here. Right away, however, the signs aren't good.
This is a country's banking center? Philtrust is an old Filipino Bank, known, according to its website, for its conservatism. You might put it that way.
Citibank is here, but it seems out of place in the atmosphere of decay.
Popular resentment of the Chinese has a long history here, but the Chinese make no effort to be invisible.
The building in best repair is the Binondo Church, the minor basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz. The church was built for baptized Chinese, a community of which Lorenzo Ruiz, with a Chinese father, was part. Before fleeing the Philippines to avoid arrest, he had been an altar boy here. Captured in Japan and refusing to recant, he was tortured to death by the Japanese. Two and a half centuries later, in 1987, he was canonized to become the first Filipino saint.
Local market lane.
The nearby Escolta, no longer Manila's Fifth Avenue. Old photographs show horse-drawn carriages on a cobble-paved street. Buildings were generally of two stories under peaked roofs running parallel to the street. It's still a very busy place, but the carriage trade is long gone.
The Capital theater opened in 1934, when the Escolta was still stylish. Juan Nakpil, the architect, knew his Art Deco: he started out with an engineering degree from the University of Kansas but topped it up with architectural training at both the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts and Harvard.
Farther along the Escolta. The two prominent (and still very active) office buildings are the Regina Building on the left and the Perez-Samanilla Building on the right.
The Regina Building was once the headquarters of insurance companies--for example, Provident Insurance, now the Spanish-owned Mapfre Asia. Now the building appears on a set of Filipino heritage stamps.
The opposing Perez-Samanilla facade.
Still another Deco adventure: the Metropolitan Theater of 1935, designed by Juan Arellano.
Stage door facade.
A mile to the south, on the south side of Intramuros, is another core neighborhood in decline, Ermita--shown here at the fine-sounding United Nations Avenue. Spencer and Wernstedt wrote in the 1960s that it was "strongly westernized with many fine hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, and apartment buildings, and with several modern specialty shops and retail stores catering to the well-to-do and the tourist." No longer. A good indicator is the building on the right: originally a Hilton hotel, it was downgraded to a Holiday Inn and then downgraded again to an independent operation, the Manila Pavilion. If you want to disagree, you might point to the Starbucks sign in the upper center, but the prices inside the shop are probably the lowest you've ever seen in a Starbucks.
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