I have to confess I suffer from millennial envy. There is a long list of reasons but none of them have anything to do with being young again. In fact, I can honestly say without any hesitation or equivocation that I am not interested in revisiting, much less reliving that part of my youth.
No, that’s not what my envy is about. I envy millennials for the way they make youth look cool and effortless, not awkward and gangly like a newborn giraffe getting used to its legs.
I envy millennials for their toy devices and how they don’t have to struggle with remote controls, buttons and URLs.
Most of all, I envy them their name, millennial, granted that it is a reference to the timeframe of their birth. Still. Just saying it reeks of power. It carries gravitas along with the import and promise of their generation.
When I was in my 20s, we were called either young adults or young professionals, which sounded like seltzer gone flat. Then someone smart (or so he/she thought) came up with yuppies, which was worse. Whenever I hear the word yuppies I am reminded of freshwater fish out of some lake in Schenectady, New York. We were everything but cool. Or rather, to be fair: I know I wasn’t cool.
On a visit to Manila, I wanted to address the envy and face it full on, if only to explore the present-day version of my younger self through the lens of a new generation raised on iPhones, social media and selfies.
I knew they would be radically different from me but how and by how much, I wondered?
I didn’t have to go that far in my search. Poblacion, it turns out, is where I wanted to be. It is Makati’s original downtown area located in the middle of a modest residential and commercial valley under the shadows of tall and fancy condominiums in present-day Makati’s central business district.
This came as a surprise as this Poblacion was very different from the Poblacion of my youth.
During my time, the only commercial center serving the neighborhood was Burgos Street, a sleepy stretch of asphalt by day but at night transformed itself into a collection of adult-only establishments and dimly lit dives attracting mostly foreign tourists. Unless one lived there, it wasn’t exactly the kind of place one wandered into for a glass of Chardonnay.
My friends and I mostly hung out around Remedios Circle in Malate and, if we were feeling flush, the five-star hotels along the glittering ribbon of Roxas Boulevard between Rizal Park and Cuneta Avenue.
We danced at discos or bobbed our heads at music lounges where live bands performed excellent cover versions of original American bands.
Poblacion was where we closed out the night when we weren’t ready to go home. We would eat in one of the many tiny makeshift sheds on one side of Kalayaan Avenue, helping ourselves to sinangag, tapsilog, and longganisa, cooked on enormous woks over Bunsen burners. We sat on wooden benches in front of long tables made of plywood scrap nailed together, sitting elbow to elbow next to taxi and jeepney drivers who were either ending their shifts or just about to begin the next one.
It was so humid that sweat oozed out of our skin. Occasionally we were cooled by the passing breeze of fast-moving cars. We drank only soda and beers. We didn’t dare drink the water served before us even if it came with ice.
That Poblacion now exists only in memory. It has been replaced instead by a diverse selection of pubs, bars and restaurants serving food ranging from your typical tapas menu, or for the well-traveled palate, a fusion of culinary cultures that seemed to come out of someone throwing darts at a map and cooking from wherever they landed. In these places, you can actually order a Chardonnay, perhaps a cocktail or beer on tap if you prefer. You can even drink the water with ice.
The music in some of the places I wandered into was a refreshing sound straight out of, it seemed to me, Hôtel Costes, a compilation of eclectic and contemporary music from France. I had to frequently remind myself that I was no longer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or another neighborhood in the same borough but closer to the water, Red Hook, places that are edgy and gritty but shine with the sheen of carefully curated sophistication.
“It’s different now, Sophia,” beamed my friend and de facto tour guide Noel, one of a cohort of friends who hung out together when we were in our 20s and ate in those lean-tos in the early morning hours.
“Lots of cool bars,” Noel added as we strolled around. To be sure, some of those cool bars and restaurants were built from some of the houses in the neighborhood while others stayed as they were, untouched and unfazed, willing to stand side by side with their trendier neighbors.
The houses with the high gates and lush bougainvilleas were still there as were the corner sari-sari store, the unleashed dog walking around with a chip on its shoulder, the stray cat or two who couldn’t be bothered, and laundry drying on a clothesline out of a sliding window panel made of capiz shells. I could still spot a few of those lean-tos but even progress has caught up with them: they now had flat-screen TVs.
Gentrification had made inroads into this part of Makati, but it was interesting to note that the process was measured, respectful and most of all shared. Imagine my surprise as I walked into what I thought was a private residence only to find myself standing next to a bar lit by votive candles and enough large throw pillows strewn on the floor as if getting ready for a sleepover. I bet they would have obliged had I asked.
It certainly didn’t feel like anyone was driven out of houses they grew up in to make way for fancier housing or businesses that none of them could afford. To me, when the benefits of capitalism are shared, no one is left out and everyone is happy.
“There are rules in place for the neighborhood,” describes Marco Viray, a young entrepreneur who grew up in Poblacion and with his business partners, operates a number of bars and restaurants in the area. “The barangay is very active in implementing peace and order. As businesses grow and foot traffic increases, we all need to strike the right balance between those who live here full-time, the clientele and the businesses themselves. As business owners, we have a responsibility for maintaining peace and order. We’re one big community and it is important for all of us to get along.”
For Viray, the path to running a business in Poblacion began with a bachelor’s degree in Entrepreneurship from the University of Asia and the Pacific and followed by an MBA in Entrepreneurship from the Asian Institute of Management.
He moved to the US, landing first in Los Angeles, then later in New Haven in Connecticut where he encountered his first blast of winter ever. He was not a happy camper.
With the Manhattan skyline looming in the distance and a cousin who conveniently lived in Queens, he began to figure out ways to find a job in New York city instead.
“I can still remember the sparkle in my eyes the first time I set foot in the big city,” he recalls in an email. “The high rises, the subway, the different boroughs, the endless food options, awesome bars and the beautiful people just walking everywhere.”
Catching a glimpse of the actress Natalie Portman gave him the resolve to go job-hunting in Manhattan w here, within a month, he landed a job on 18th and Park Avenue, working as an account executive for Euromoney Institutional Investor. There he stayed for eight years. He thought he would stay longer, if not forever, he admitted, but the company offered him a role in Manila. He returned in 2015 but did not stay in the role for long.
“I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. I come from a family of entrepreneurs,“ he explained.
In 2016, he opened Joe’s Brew, a pub serving craft beer on Matilde Street in Poblacion.
Despite his departure from New York, his life in the city continued to resonate with Viray. Rather than leave that life behind altogether, he brought it with him and introduced the parts that he loved to the city of his birth and see if they would have traction.
“There were new concepts that hadn’t really reached Manila and I wanted to introduce them,” he said.
Older brother Joey had taken courses in beer-making at the University of California, and with Marco and sister Mica, they decided to turn what was initially a hobby, though a very passionate one, into a business.
Joe’s Brew was followed in quick succession by Kampai, Ebi 10 (which he runs with his mother and siblings) and his current one, NoKal, a three-story building with a restaurant on the ground floor, a music lounge on the second floor, and a terrace on the third floor with an open balcony and views of the Makati skyline. NoKal is short for north of Kalayaan.
Since the ’50s
Viray is modest in admitting whether he considers himself a pioneer of Poblacion or not.
“Poblacion is very close to the heart for my entire family,” he says. “My grandparents are from Poblacion, as are my cousins on my father’s side. They’ve lived here since the ’50s and have been a significant part of the community. We know almost all the old families in the area. My grand aunt was a barangay captain for the longest time. A cousin serves as a kagawad in the barangay.”
Given his family history and ties to the neighborhood, choosing Poblacion to operate his businesses was a no-brainer. Apparently, so did a few others and soon enough he was no longer alone.
Since Viray and his partners opened, others have quickly followed in their footsteps. On Don Pedro Street are Polilia, Estee, Yalla Yalla (Shawarma), Jumong (Korean) and Lampara. There is Yoi (a Japanese-Scandinavian bar) and Agimat Foraging Bar and Kitchen, both on Alfonso Street.
La Casita Mercedes, a private family residence built in 1939 on the corner of Enriquez and Fermina Streets, was renovated in 2015 and is now an upscale bed and breakfast.
On the night of my walkabout, my friends and I started at Joe’s Brew where we were served a tasting tray of beers against the backdrop of interesting and witty sculptures by Noel Santos made from recycled and found metal objects in the style of steampunk art.
We moved on to just around the corner to the ground floor of NoKal where the mac and cheese with longganisa was to die for. The second floor was filled to the rafters with folks waiting to see the indie band, Up Dharma Down, perform. Getting UDD, as they are now called, to perform at NoKal was a coup of sorts for the establishment, according to managing partner Cera Santos.
Viray describes his business philosophy: “We like to keep it new and unique, inspired by our combined travels and of course, my time in New York. I’ve been blessed with partners who have the same vision when it comes to entertainment. I love to entertain people and I look for a place that will give people a good time and is open and available to anyone really. The vibe has to be a place that’s welcoming and warm to any customer.”
Viray and his group are opening two new establishments, including a reimagined Kampai and Lee Watson’s Spirits Library.
The crowd at NoKal was fevered in their wait for UDD to begin, rocking on the balls of their feet while holding on to their beers. A few weeks before, I was doing the same, standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the Bowery Ballroom in Lower Manhattan, waiting for the indie band, Yo La Tengo, to appear. It occurred to me as I waited for UDD that not all memories have to be created equal. Those heart-shaped, rose-tinted glasses you once wore now come with prescription lenses so you can better see but frankly, some images, while sharper in focus, can be rather jarring up close. I suggest removing them and just riding the wave.
While I no longer begrudge the millennials their coolness, to my delight I found that, once UDD appeared, I could still bob my head like the 20-something I used to be, standing next to the current version of myself. I didn’t even mind that my clothing got splashed a couple of times with beer by a zealous audience.
At the end of the night, I was having a good time and that’s all that mattered. Viray had promised and delivered. —CONTRIBUTED