I received a most welcome e-mail recently. It had nothing to do with current events or the state of the nation. Or did it?
“Manila Nostalgia” is a sentimental and thoughtful exposition in three parts by Mr. Lou Gopal, who lived in a duplex in Malate in the ’50s and ’60s and is now a resident of Seattle, Washington. He has generously shared close to a hundred or more pictures of Manila back in the day.
I don’t know if it was the photographs that stirred so many different emotions in me, or maybe it was the comments of former Manila folk now living all over the world as they remembered and reminisced. It was silly, but I found myself wiping away a few tears.
I have visited this e-mail again and again, just to get another taste of what it was like. It is amazing how many have taken the time to write, ask questions, adding information and more color to the kaleidoscope of memories that unfolds before you. These people, like me, long to celebrate the Manila of once upon a time, and to lament that it is no more. Could this be our last toast to the “Manila of our affections?”
I have been asked why I write so much and so often about my memories. Maybe it is because I have more to look back on than to look ahead to. Young people can’t relate to that thought. I don’t expect them to.
Please be kind and allow this nostalgic senior citizen to ramble.
In Manila, the streets were clean. Sidewalks were for walking and playing piko (hopscotch). In front of our house, we marked the lines with chalk. On cool nights people took long walks, not worried about being accosted by vagrants or worse. Rubbish was collected regularly. It was safe to drink tap water.
Before the war, our special treat was eating warm buttery popcorn and drinking in the sea breeze while riding atop the double-deck Matorco up and down Dewey Boulevard, awed by the beauty of the homes that faced the bay.
A bigger thrill was a meal with Papa and Mama at Legaspi Garden on tables set right on the rompeolas (breakwater), a stone’s throw away from Manila Hotel and with a stunning view of our beautiful sunsets. There was no better chicken sandwich, served with dill pickles and black olives, washed down with a sarsaparilla or strawberry ice cream soda. Delicious!
It breaks my heart to see Roxas Boulevard today. That stretch of prime land across Manila Bay still reeks with the stench of decadence of years past. The old ruins of nightclubs that went bust are hovels now for the homeless. To make matters worse, some mindless businessman or politician (or both) has put up rows of tawdry street lamps better seen in a cheap circus. It looks like a bad joke. Someone, please do something!
I was about seven when the first Orange Julius (with American-style hot dogs) opened next to the Academy of Music of Manila on A. Mabini, where we took piano lessons. I wanted to study ballet with Trudl Dubsky Zipper, but Papa said the costumes were too skimpy.
Mr. Gopal shows the old Gaiety Theater on M.H. del Pilar. Across the street was El Bodegon, one of my favorite hangouts because my best friend’s mother owned it. It was a bar, and so Chichita and I were not allowed inside. Instead we ate in the kitchen where her mom, Doña Maria, cooked for us the best salpicao and gambas, while her pelotari husband tended bar.
Remember the Jai Alai? Why in heaven’s name did they get rid of that beautiful Art Deco building? The Sky Room was an elegant and romantic venue for debuts, dates and dancing. It was much later as an adult that I went to the fronton for the “game of a thousand thrills” and placed bets on the players, imports from Spain. Some were really good-looking, but not my type.
I was born and raised in Sampaloc, on Calle Legarda. I grew up listening to the rumble of the tranvia and the early morning calls from vendors of puto, kutsinta and taho, and playing piko and patintero.
A couple of months ago, we went looking for landmarks, searching in vain for anything reminiscent of the old days. I cannot begin to describe the squalor, filth and decay that have overrun our once lovely street. Of course, nothing stays the same. I understand that. But one can hope that when something changes, it does so for the better.
Can someone help? Who’s in charge?
I remember going to school in a car packed with children. We all went to Holy Ghost or San Beda, all clean and neat in regulation uniforms. At the last bell, we ran out sweaty and disheveled straight to our favorite ice cream cart for a five-centavo cone. It was safe to stand or play on the front lawn outside the school walls. There was no one to watch out for or be afraid of.
It all changed after the war. Fear and abject lack brought out the worst in us. Greed reared its ugly head. Opportunists lurked in every corner, and the idea of fast money overtook the calm and trusting business ethic of old. We became suspicious of one another. We locked our doors and shut our windows. Some of us closed our hearts.
It has been 68 years. Have we fallen farther down instead of standing back up? It is so sad.
What will happen to our beloved city? I wonder if the new Manila head honchos are listening to the growing clamor to restore this once beautiful city to its former splendor. Do they have it in them to perform? Do they even care? Can Manila become once again the Pearl of the Orient?