Long perceived as too unwieldy and crowded, Metro Manila is suddenly back on must-visit lists, even as it struggles to find a sustainable shape as a regional hub
A 7-Eleven in the middle of Bonifacio Global City seems a poor choice for an evening date, but that’s where I find myself with my wife. The security guard silently ushers us into the storeroom, where an inner door opens to reveal a massive neo-Gothic space. A long bar and a shelf stacked ceiling-high with liquor bottles line one wall; a series of arches with a projection of a Banksy artwork graces the other.
Bank Bar (G/F, RCBC Savings Bank Corporate Center, 25th St, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City; +63 2 544 5776) is one of Manila’s most popular speakeasies, though it would be invisible to passersby who haven’t heard of it through the grapevine. “There’s a sense of exclusivity and mystery,” explains my inside man Gene Tiongco, a plastic surgeon and inveterate barfly. “You wait to get seated, or if it’s full, they won’t let you in.”
The barkeep, sporting a bulletproof vest, mixes the wife a Mariang Bastos: Philippine Don Papa Rum blended with orgeat syrup, Cointreau, citrus mix and island bitters. With a theatrical flourish, he splashes on half a jigger of overproof Demerara rum, lights it up and garnishes the lot with powdered cinnamon, the grains producing momentary sparks as they hit the flame.
Manila, Tiongco explains, has gone crazy for speakeasies. “Eventually, it won’t be a secret anymore,” Gene says, relishing the irony of such a clandestine concept appealing to the local hunger for the hip, hot and new. “You know us… Pinoys are suckers for validation.”
With rosy investment-grade credit ratings and a projected average growth rate of 6.2% for the next three years, the Philippines and its capital are getting long-overdue attention from overseas observers. Anthony Bourdain flew in to gorge on Jollibee’s Chickenjoy; Madonna dedicated two nights of her 2016 tour to Manila; and world leaders like Barack Obama, Xi Jinping and Justin Trudeau held up the traffic for APEC. We “suckers for validation” have found it here lately in spades.
“Manila has changed a lot since my last visit — great changes, of course,” marvels John Rice, general manager of the new Shangri-La at the Fort (30th St corner 5th Ave, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City; +63 2 820 0888; shangri-la.com) in the heart of Bonifacio Global City, where the world’s top luxury brands now hawk their wares from upmarket storefronts on Bonifacio High Street. “It’s become a hub for international business, and more global companies want to come in and invest. The food and art communities are especially spectacular, with the exploration and integration of different cuisines and the painting of murals everywhere.”
Manila’s moment in the sun is good news to Rice, an old hand in the Philippines who first arrived as general manager of EDSA Shangri-La in 2006. “Manila always had the potential to become a world city,” Rice says, “because I think it has its own distinctive personality.”
My wife and I catch an evening one-man show at Poblacion, Makati’s Pineapple Lab (6071 Palma St, Makati City, +63 998 957 1051; pineapplelab.ph) gallery. It’s packed to the rafters — and judging by the blonde ’dos and varied accents, a good many visitors aren’t from around here. Poblacion’s bohemian reputation is catching; the tourists in the exhibit hall have simply followed the locals’ cue.
“Tourism hotspots in the Metro become ‘hot’ when locals make them hip and hot,” Ivan Man Dy, proprietor of tour company Old Manila Walks (+63 2 711 3823; oldmanilawalks.com), tells me. “Look at Poblacion — wasn’t it locals who patronized [popular restaurant] El Chupacabra first? Now we have all the beautiful and good-smelling people of the Metro suddenly eating outdoors in Poblacion! It’s now hip enough for tourists to come, diba?”
Poblacion seems to have displaced Malate as Manila’s new backpacker district, its hostels and bars working in tandem with its proximity to the Makati central business district to create a buzzing tourist hotspot. And yet Man Dy finds Poblacion somewhat problematic, compared to his home district of Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown.
“From [Binondo’s] Ramada Manila Central (Quintin Paredes St, Binondo; +63 2 588 6688; ramada.com) to Intramuros (General Luna St, Intramuros; +63 2 527 3155; intramuros.gov.ph) is 15 minutes, to National Museum (P. Burgos Dr, Rizal Park; +63 2 527 1215; nationalmuseum.gov.ph) is 25,” he says. “Groceries, restaurants, a mall, a bank, ATMs, hospital — they’re all nearby!” Poblacion, on the other hand, is “far from popular tourist sites like Intramuros, Luneta and the National Museum,” Man Dy explains. “When we travel, don’t we look for areas accessible to major sites? Think of Khao San Road near the Grand Palace in Bangkok, for example.”
This explains why tour companies find Manila such a chore to explore. “Everything’s so spaced out, but city tours last only half a day!” Man Dy exclaims.
Manila’s sprawl is a postwar problem. Its name used to refer only to the 38km2 city that held the capital’s most historic districts (“Old” Manila). “In the old days, everything was measured from Plaza Goiti [in Old Manila], which was the old downtown and business center,” explains historian and urban planner Paulo Alcazaren, founder of PGAA Creative Design. “Your trips were gauged by the distance and time it took to get to Plaza Goiti from whatever suburb you lived in.”
Post-World War II, the city joined those suburbs to form a vast agglomeration of 16 cities and one municipality covering more than 630km2 — what we now call “Metro” Manila, the world’s fourth most populous urban center behind Tokyo-Yokohama, Jakarta and New Delhi. The old central structure of the metropolis has since given way to what Alcazaren calls a “free-for-all”, with new town centers supplanting the old. The center of gravity has shifted from Plaza Goiti to business districts like Makati, Ortigas and Bonifacio Global City.
“It’s the emergence of what’s called a multi-centered city,” Alcazaren explains. “That’s a direction a lot of megalopolises are going through in Asia, where urban areas are expanding much faster than in the West.”
Some say the Metro is expanding so quickly that its residents cannot keep up. Twenty-four million people live in Metro Manila today: people from all walks of life live in cheek-by-jowl proximity, the slums of Makati’s Cembo a marked contrast to Bonifacio Global City’s gleaming new condominiums next door.
An afternoon in Manila’s ancient walled city of Intramuros reminds me what our ancestors got right about urban design. In the days before cars, Old Manila was laid out in easily walkable grids. Minus automobiles, even Intramuros’ cobbled lanes become a delight to visit as they reclaim their original purpose.
Viva Manila’s Intramuros Pasyal event proves this by transforming General Luna Street into a car-free, all-pedestrian street carnival. The wife and I are watching a street performer blow human-sized bubbles as we wait in line for a scoop of Sebastian’s Ice Cream. We got here on foot from our staycation base, the venerable Manila Hotel (Bonifacio Dr, Ermita; +63 2 527 0011; manila-hotel.com.ph) — once deemed “uncool” for representing Filipino culture in its design, the hotel’s native design cues, such as capiz-shell chandeliers, are now widely imitated by newer hotels in Makati and elsewhere.
By visiting Intramuros, we’re taking urban planner and Viva Manila executive director Julia Nebrija at her word. “I wish that people knew that Manila is a place where you can really spend a whole day,” she tells me. “You could go to The Manila Hotel for a coffee and breakfast, then walk to Rizal Park. You go into Intramuros, and then walk over to Escolta [to] have lunch… then go shopping in Quiapo in the afternoon, before you catch a show back at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.”
Viva Manila (+63 920 909 2021; vivamanila.org) events are designed to “create an alternative viewpoint of what the city can be”, as Nebrija puts it, and she says the impact they’re making has been felt all across the Metro and beyond. “From the first Pasyal to the last one, we saw people coming in from farther away — not just people who live in Manila or care about Manila, but people who are looking for cultural things to do in the city.”
There’s a solution to the near-intractable riddle that is Metro Manila, and Nebrija and Man Dy might just have stumbled on it. Old Manila isn’t the problem with the increasingly atomized modern-day Metro; it’s the antidote. “The problem with fragmentation is that the [city] experience becomes singular,” Nebrija explains. “A metropolitan area should offer lots of different things for people to experience, no matter what they’re looking for. Something you go to many different times, stay at for a whole day and have different experiences.
“Manila is not a one-off thing — it can be a whole, dynamic experience,” Nebrija concludes. “That’s what a city should really be.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Smile magazine.