Take in the charm of Old Manila on a walking tour

The Minor Basilica of St Lorenzo Ruiz, Binondo.

Manila was once a rich and beautiful city, dubbed the “pearl of the orient” as it was considered the jewel in Spain’s Pacific empire.

Spain’s 330 years as colonial rulers came to an end and America took over for the 40 years running up to WWII. Under US rule Manila was expanded and modernised while still retaining much of the city’s character and charm.

During its heyday in the 1930s, sprawling mansions along the coconut-palm-lined Dewey Boulevard (now Roxas Boulevard) enjoyed a splendid view of Manila Bay.

Meanwhile, the cobbled streets of the historic quarters of Intramuros and Quiapo, and picturesque horse-drawn calesas were starting to give way to auto-calesas and traffic jams were making their first appearance.

Sadly, by the end of WWII the heart the city was reduced to heaps of smouldering rubble. US General Douglas MacArthur has to take much of the blame.

A man of monumental ego, he was humiliated by Japan’s swift and successful invasion of the Philippines in the months following Pearl Harbour.

On his forced evacuation from the Philippines in March 1942 he made his famous “I shall return” vow and, unfortunately for the city of Manila, he did.

Manila, liberated but destroyed.

The battle to liberate Manila lasted a month in early 1945. In an understandable effort to minimise US casualties, MacArthur blasted the city from close quarters with artillery and anything else he could throw at it.

The Japanese were finally crushed but a staggering 100,000 innocent Filipinos were also killed during the battle. A bit harsh on MacArthur? Of course the real baddies were the wartime Japanese whose barbarous occupation had to end.

However, one can’t help thinking that if Manila had been an American city, full of American civilians, that a smarter way of liberating the city would have been devised.

After all Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta and Rangoon were all surrendered to the allies by the Japanese more or less intact. Why not Manila?

Anyway that is water long since under the bridge. The Philippines has had 65 years since the war to restore and rebuild its capital. But the results have been somewhat patchy.

Ten out of ten for increasing Manila’s size – its population is now well over 20 million making it one of the world’s largest metropolises, but when it comes to urban design … well, Manila is not the prettiest in Asia.

However, many heritage buildings survived or were restored to their original grandeur.

First stop is the Santa Cruz Church near Carriedo LRT station. This building was built in 1957 in Hispano-Baroque style and the church tower is a reasonable copy of the earlier version destroyed in the war.

It is virtually impossible to take any photos in this part of Manila without getting a bunch of ugly electricity cables in the way.

A more famous church is the nearby Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene. The current building replaced an earlier one which burnt down in 1928. It survived the war. The Black Nazarene is a dark coloured statue of Jesus first brought to the Philippines in 1606 and said to have miraculous powers.

Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene.

Every Jan 9 the statue is taken on a procession around Manila’s streets and literally millions of people crush around it in an attempt to have a handkerchief or towel brushed against the idol in the hope that its miraculous powers will bring a lottery win or a sudden cure or some other improvement to their hardship-filled lives.

The number of attendees at these processions increases year by year. In April 2011, the procession attracted over seven million devotees.

As an alternative to an annual procession, perhaps the powers-that-be should consider opening the statue to the public 365 days a year and charge a nominal entrance fee of 10 pesos per person. The money raised could then be used for good causes.

Next is the streets of Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown.

Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown. Calesa’s are still used for general transport purposes but of course the drivers still prefer the rich pickings of foreign tourists.

The Philippines’ substantial Chinese community has long been well assimilated and, as elsewhere in south east Asia, their population includes a disproportionate number of the country’s rich and influential.

Binondo has its own grand church, the Minor Basilica of St Lorenzo Ruiz. The original structure, dating back to 1596, has suffered a lot over the years from earthquakes, a British bombardment in 1762 during Britain’s brief occupation of Manila (oops!) and from WWII.

Only the octagonal bell tower is said to date back to the 16th century and its pagoda-like shape would have appealed to the mainly Chinese congregation.

Continuing down Quintin Paredes Street are a few more buildings of note. The art deco Uy Su Bin Building is home to HSBC’s Binondo branch and, more importantly for food-loving Manileños, a famous lumpia restaurant.

Just before Quintin Paredes street reaches the Pasig River, you will pass underneath the Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch marking the end of the Binondo district.

Next to the arch is the Uy Chaco Building built in the 1920s in art-nouveau style and which has been the Binondo branch of Philtrust Bank since 1950. Apparently it is slated for demolition which is a shame as it is one of the older and more distinctive buildings in the area.

Filipino Chinese Friendship Arch and Philtrust Building.

This article first appeared on thriftytraveller.wordpress.com