09 June 2010


Option 3: The Manila We Knew, Erlinda Enriquez Panlilio, editor
(See the details of this contest/giveaway.)
(Visit the new Giveaways page to learn how you could win this book!)

We obviously all miss the Manila of yore: the tree-shaded streets, the open spaces, the genteel society, the ordered compass of living in a friendly, habitable city. We carry the memories still of that last Manila like "a talisman, a small pocket of grace in us," to quote our co-writer Gizela Madrigal Gonzales.

With this retelling we are passing on to our children and to generations to come our memories--of the horrific bombs that destroyed our city and killed loved ones, the streets we trod and biked on, the flowers we picked, the fireflies that mesmerised us, "the sweet high voices and dappled light" of a convent school. This is not merely nostalgia, after all. It is preserving the past and conserving it for future readers and researchers [of] what Manila was like, once upon a time.

-- from the Editor's Note

This is an odd choice for a prize in an international contest/giveaway, because I'm not too sure whether someone who isn't from the Philippines--or even a Filipino who isn't from Manila--will really want it. (Heck, I grew up and still live an hour's drive from Manila, and I struggled with some of the essays!)

Yet I include it as "Option 3" because it would give me no end of pleasure to send a copy of this odd time capsule--a "collection . . . by people who have their roots firmly planted on this bit of earth"--to an international reader. (Assuming, of course, that my one compatriot who has entered this contest/giveaway doesn't win it! =P) Not that you should let my whims influence your choice, of course. Pick a book you think you'd like!

As one becomes older there are more and more places to which one cannot return. The site itself may have changed beyond recognition, physically or in spirit. Memory, too, will have played its tricks--heightening, fading, colouring, like an old and obliging filmmaker with a sympathetic but fuzzy-headed smile.

-- from "Growing Up Convent" by Gizela M. Gonzales

So how does one describe a book of essays to a serious browser? I guess I'll have to reveal my own browsing style, then. This is how I appraise any new book I come across . . .

First Sentence: "Lola Mom, tell me something about the Manila you lived in," said Rochelle, my eldest granddaughter. ("The Malate I Knew" by Henrie R. Santos)

(If this book is about "Once Upon a Time in Manila," then it's only right that the first essay begins as a kind of story. But this opening note is in a sobering minor key, for Mrs. Santos adds a heart-rending account of the bombing of Manila, the massacre of her neighbours by Japanese troops, and the agony of those who had been "lucky" enough to survive. And it is awful to remember that Manila, once praised as the Pearl of the Orient, was the second most devastated city at the end of World War II . . . and then to realise that she has never actually recovered from the shelling and the shrapnel. I know I like to moan that Manila is the ugliest city in the world--and here are a collection of essays testifying that there was a time she was beautiful, gracious, and full of charm.)

Settings: Pre-war Manila, especially Malate, with views of Manila Bay and nods to Intramuros. A residential area in Kamuning. San Juan when the street named "Sea View" lived up to its literal promise. The University of the Philippines back when "one could have a good meal of bistek smothered in onions, rice, and a dessert of fruit salad, all for P1.20"(!!!). Makati when "Ayala was offering lots adjacent to the polo field at six pesos per square meter, to be paid over ten years"(!!!!!)--and when the American residents introduced Halloween to culture-shocked natives. The Manila Polo Club whose mostly foreign clientele didn't like seeing Filipinos who weren't waiters. Fort Bonifacio when an expat from West Virginia could ride a horse, gaze at the distant mountains and feel less homesick. The Assumption Convent, Herran, since sold to a developer. Someone's home on Broadway, since turned into a seminary.

(You may notice that some settings are vaguer than others. Indeed, some of the essays seem to be all about dropping the names of streets, rivers, districts, and even prominent neighbours, in a passion of telling rather than showing. And even to someone like myself who has seen most of the places and even met some of the people, it's hardly inspiring. But these poor examples are outnumbered by the essays that tell unforgettable stories and the prose that paints real pictures. I can still recommend this collection.)

Characters: Mostly a bunch of extras and walk-ons: family, neighbours, ubiquitous yayas, et al. A notable cast of college students and teachers. An American suitor. A very young granddaughter who grew up in "new" Manila. (Have I mentioned all the name dropping of famous figures?)

(It is the real-life settings which take center stage in this production and whose arcs the reader is expected to trace. A few characters are unique enough--or just special enough to the writers who remember them--to get quite a bit of "screen time;" but they are the exception.)

Extras: Original illustrations by Manuel D. Baldemor. Sixteen pages of black and white photographs. A glossary explaining all local terms and even translating the lyrics of some Spanish songs. Short bios of all the contributors.

(Extras! Just like a DVD! =P)

Last Sentence: After that night, the dreams of helplessness and dark water that had begun with my father's death disappeared. ("A Sense of Manila" by Wynn Wynn N. Ong)

(My first mark against this book, before I had finished reading it, was that not it was not "universal" enough: written by Manilenos for Manilenos, it didn't seem like something one who didn't grow up in Manila could appreciate. The closer I got to the end, the more I realised how wrong that impression was; and the last essay helped nudge me into a complete 180 degree turn. Written by a Burmese-born lady who spent part of her childhood in Austria and moved to the Philippines just before her teen years, it stitches those scattered passages only a local could love into a story anyone in the world could understand.)

As you can tell, I really liked reading this. I especially liked reading aloud descriptions of familiar places to my mother and grandmother so that we could exclaim over how much has changed over time. I'm already planning my first non-fiction Locus Focus post for this Saturday!

(NOTE: This extroverted review is mingling with new friends at the Book Review Party at Cym Lowell's blog.)

Image Source: The Manila We Knew


Paul Stilwell said...

So far, I would take this book, if I won. What is Bistek? I'm too lazy to google right now and prefer to hear it from you. It sounds delicious.

Enbrethiliel said...


According to the glossary, bistek is "Filipino beef steak cooked with onions and soy sauce." (But I could have told you that without help, of course!)

What is interesting about the word is that it a "corruption" of the English "beef steak." I wonder whether people raised on "real" beef steak would consider the Filipino version a culinary corruption as well! =P

Fun and Fearless said...

It reminds me of my parents' "When we were young..." speech. But it also reminds me of how poor my knowledge in Philippine history is.

Salome Ellen said...

I might actually choose this -- my daughter's godmother (ninyang ??, do I remember correctly?) is originally from Manila but has been in the US since the mid-1980's.

Enbrethiliel said...


F&F: I think most Filipinos have a poor sense of history. It's one of the sadder facets of our self-effacing nature.

Salome Ellen: Ninang! =D

This would be a good book to read together with her, I think, particularly if she remembers Makati. =)

Fun and Fearless said...

I agree. That's sad, yes. But... I'm not good at World History either! Maybe I'm just not a good student. ^_^

Anyway, it sounds like a good book! ^_^

Sullivan McPig said...

Reminds me of my grandmother talking about the town she grew up in and that got bombed in WWII (Rotterdam). She always kept her love for the city and I often wonder how it had been before WWII as now it's an ugly city I think

Enbrethiliel said...


Sully, it always makes me sad to read about a place which was once beautiful but was completely disfigured and scarred, as it were, by a war. =( Some cities manage to emerge like butterflies from a chrysalis; others just limp along as if they no longer care . . .