When the war ended, daddy decided we weren’t going back to Quiapo. We had property in Malate where used to stand a screen-covered chalet being rented from us by an old American lady named Mrs. Grove (she kept a canary like ours on her porch), but now it was a war casualty, a rubble.
In Malabon (where we lived during and after the Occupation) we learned that the last stand of the Japanese was Malate. It was there they had retreated when the Americans began to liberate the northern districts (especially their civilian comrades interned at University of Santo Tomas). They had blown up Quezon Bridge, Sta. Cruz Bridge and Jones Bridge in their wake. There was ceaseless shelling on both sides.
Trapped in Malate, the Japanese units were committing unspeakable atrocities, including herding people into buildings and massacring them. The civilians who survived were caught in the crossfire.
Before entering the area, the America GIs wanted to clear Malate of the enemy first. They shot incendiary bombs at the corner houses, setting whole blocks afire. The flames crawled on the electric wires and crossed the streets to burn more residences.
When we first surveyed the area, everything was scorched and in ruins. Gone were the chalets with screened porches that were the trademark of Malate. You could see almost clear down to Dewey (Roxas) Boulevard. We had come from Malabon by horse rig because daddy wanted to see where we could build our new house.
Everybody was glad that the Americans had returned as MacArthur had promised, but did they have to destroy everything?
We had to stay two more years in Malabon while our US war reparations claim was in process and later when our Malate house was being constructed. In earlier times, Malate had been the summer resort of wealthy and cultured Binondo folk who built villas beside the sea in which you could then still swim.
A Mr. E. Jones, in 1901 (shortly after the Philippine-American War) saw the possibility of buying up idle land, even if it was practically swamp, and filling and subdividing it into small lots costing P1 or P2 per square meter.
Jones named the streets in his subdivision after American states which had sent volunteer contingents to the Philippines for the pacification phase of the Phil-Am War. They were California St. (later Escoda), Colorado St. (later Agoncillo), Dakota St. (later Adriatico), Florida St. (later Orosa), Vermont St. (later Nakpil), Tennessee St. (later Malvar). Our street was Georgia (later Luis Ma. Guerrero).
Prewar Malate had been the favored residential area for families of the American soldiery (Phil-Am War variety), quartered at Calle Militar, as well as those of civilian Americans in government and business. (Our “Mrs. Grove” must have been wife or mother of one of those.) Apparently, the new colonizers fancied the concept of tropical living in verandah-ed bungalows that took in the sea breezes and the sunset.
Early residents of Malate were the Sunicos, the Bayots, the Roxas Gargollos, the Madrigals, the Castillos, the Paezes, the Velardes, the Lammoglias, the Millars, the Marabuts, the Marasigans, and others too many to recall.
The Bayots’ garden had huge traveler’s palms as well as shrubs neatly trimmed into topiaries. The installment payment for the lots had also become attractive to thrifty doctors whose workplace was the UP College of Medicine and the Philippine General Hospital. Thus, us.
Early Forbes Park
Originally slow-selling to the Filipinos, the lots eventually improved in value. Malate became the early Forbes Park. By the end of World War II, the lots had risen 2000 percent their original value.
The house my father built in 1947 was designed by Juan F. Nakpil (later proclaimed national artist). It was a duplex. Its address—812 A and B Georgia St. We stayed in A and rented out B. When they grew old, my folks knocked off the concrete partition and lived in all of it.
With my father’s house, as with everything he conceptualized, the main thing was practicability. A house was to be lived in, to be safe in, to be comfortable in. Architecturally, it was a box. No wasted spaces, no dust catchers, no place for mice to hide, a strong roof, unshakable foundations, efficient sewerage but a despair for an architect or an interior designer.
Of course, the house was safer than a strongbox. Our front door had not one, not two, but three locks. And not door locks, but garage locks—massive hasps of steel that only the muscular maid could jerk open.
For underneath my father’s unruffled exterior lurked a persecution complex. When he walked down the street with one peso in his pocket, he imagined hold-up men shadowing him so that he was ever ready with a steel-tipped length of rubber hose, or his father’s cane that secretly encased a sharp stiletto.
Under papa’s bed was a master switch that lighted up the premises at any suspicious noise or movement, flashing on and off all night like a ship’s signal. A hand mirror had been attached to the grills of his bedroom window at such an angle that afforded father a view of the front door even as he lay in bed reading, pillowed on a revolver. What intruder would dare run off with his wife’s jewelry or his two daughters?
The dilapidated Quiapo house we had lived in now had to be disposed of—but what honorable family would want to inhabit such a big, artless shelter in a district that was fast going to the dogs?
The area had become grossly commercial and yet the house had no store spaces under it. Everyone knew what happened to old business in Quiapo—they became fashion academies, or cramped ladies’ dormitories, or tumble-down government offices.
Ours was rented by an affable Chinaman who owned a string of all night clubs. His name was Juan Ching. Without improving its looks, Juan Ching converted the Quiapo house into a second-class “hotel” (actually, a motel).
For months my religious mother would get seizures of guilt and ask her father confessor if it was all right with God to have leased out our house for such a purpose. For she imagined not only provincial commuters but also ardent teenagers making it a stopover.
Gung Ho Hotel
We cringed whenever we passed by the old house, for it had even been given the tasteless name of “Gung Ho Hotel.” But its rent was necessary to pay for the installments on our new house in the snobby district.
Its tenant was careless, and the Quiapo house grew older and more dilapidated as time went by. Twenty years later, papa decided that it was about time the structure was torn down. He would replace it with a new building.
When Juan Ching and the bell boys were finally gone, we went there for a farewell visit. The house/hotel was to be demolished that week. It was the first time we had gone inside the Quiapo house since we had evacuated Malabon.
I entered the old house with nostalgia and dread. My parents’ bedroom had been partitioned into two small rooms (P5 per room, short time?), the sala was intact (a suite for well-to-do truck drivers?), the dining room and my bedroom and the piano cubicle partitioned into Rooms 5, 6 and 7. (I cried).
Where papa’s escritoire used to be beside the window facing two acacia trees was now the reception desk. Above it were rows of ugly hooks for room keys.
Not a single renovation had been made. Our regulator clock that had been left behind steadfastly ticked away in its now broken case. The bathroom had the same ceramic soap holder (chipped eternally) of 20 years ago. Nobody had bothered to remove the copper gas heater above the bathtub although it had not worked in decades.
Passing along the corridor that looked down on the patio of our entresuelos, I tried the knob of the built-in toy cabinet along the wall. It opened quickly, and there, cramped in a corner of it, as if afraid to be discovered, was the doll costumed as a nun, its wimple thick with dust. It was not a favorite, and I must have left it behind with my childhood.
There the doll had slept unnoticed for 20 whole years (I was by that time already a married woman). How come no one in that place had ever bothered to return the toy or to own it, or at least consign it to the peace of the garbage bin?
At the vestibule, one of the young janitors, who had been hired to sleep temporarily in the empty hotel, was sweeping mountains of dirt out of the rooms. In a corner was a pile of glittery objects, like gold coins. It took me some time to recognize them as tinfoil containers of condoms. How fully they had desecrated my childhood dwelling!