A Grand American Hotel
Manila features on my Grand Tour because of the Manila Hotel, which, in its heyday in the early 19th century, was considered one of the three best hotels in the East, together with the Raffles in Singapore and the Imperial in Tokyo. The hotel was designed and built by the Americans in 1912 to cater to American tourists when the Philippines became American sovereign territory. The Spanish, it seemed, did not quite do grand hotels, unlike the other colonizing powers – the British, the French and the Dutch. Guests were sequestered in traditional inns within the confines of Intramuros. Which worked for the few hundred or so Spanish visitors who deigned to visit their furthest-flung colony; but was inadequate for the thousands of curious Americans who thronged to this territory once it became American.
The hotel, in its original form, was a five-storey, all-suite affair, designed in the California Mission style – clean lines, simple (to the point of austere) aesthetics, and a kind of understated elegance. The hotel I stayed at, however, was not in the least understated. Instead, a sort of brash Hollywood opulence with Filipino touches prevailed. Once past the glass doors (and security screening), it is hard not to be arrested by the vastness and theatricality of the lobby space, apparently the largest hotel lobby in the world – a cavernous expanse of Philippine hardwood ceiling, Philippine marble and other indigenous materials. The original five-storey building is also now dwarved by an 18-storey tower with the name “Manila Hotel” emblazoned so boldly in gold over it, that no one driving along Roxas Boulevard, by the shores of Manila Bay, can possible miss it. The perpetrator of the hotel’s overhaul and expansion in the ‘70s was the Philippine Butterfly, Imelda Marcos herself, and as is well known, her motivating philosophy was ever and always the bigger and louder, the better.
To give Imelda some credit, the hotel accommodations were, indeed, splendidly opulent and luxurious, comparable to any other five-star hotel in the region. The rich mahogany tones of the lobby were extended into the room, where the overall effect achieved was an ambience of warmth, intimacy and self-conscious decadence. Everything was superlative – the biggest in-room hotel TV in the Philippines, the biggest floor-to-ceiling windows in Manila, the best view in the city. An interesting design feature in the rooms was a latticed window used to soften the sunlight streaming into the room. An innovation of the Spanish Colonials, these lattices would have been in-filled with capiz shell in the colonial era – a kind of mother-of-pearl that served no other function than to further soften sunlight entering private domiciles in the daytime, so the light-fearing Spaniards could live their lives in an eternal, God-fearing twilight. Thankfully, there was no such predilection on the part of the hotel to fill these lattices in, or the overcast sky would have resulted in an even more depressing pall within the room.
Instead of a suite in the original heritage wing, I opted for a Bay-view Superior Deluxe room on the 17th floor of the Tower Block (the highest floor, the 18th being its Presidential Suite). I admit it: I’m a sucker for a view and one of the few good things I had heard about Manila was the stunning sunsets to be had over Manila Bay. Unfortunately, the afternoon I arrived in Manila, it was raining heavily, and the forecast was stormy weather for the rest of the weekend. Checking in with the friendly Filipino receptionist, I was informed, rather dubiously, that I would love the view of the Manila sunsets from my room. I could only smile feebly at her infinite optimism, while bitterly ruing my having neglected to check on the weather before booking my flight.
Once in the room, I found the view, taken in from the floor-to-ceiling windows, breathtaking indeed; though the Bay itself was rather less than inspiring – a sullen grey expanse punctuated with gaudy flashes of colour from the Port of Manila, the sluggish International Cruise Terminal, and Manila Ocean Park (the city’s Aquarium). Standing by the window, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the same Manila Bay in the 16th or 17th century, when Manila was a great emporium for trade in the Far East, playing host to junks from China and Japan, fleets from Goa, Malacca, Borneo and Siam, and the magnificent Spanish Galleons that, for two hundred years, took precious silks, spices and tropical hardwoods from Asia to Acapulco in New Spain (present-day Mexico). That view of Manila Bay, bustling with peoples and wares from all over the world, would have been spectacular.
The General’s Private Domicile
The Manila Hotel has seen its own share of the Rich and Famous in its 100-year existence. Among some of these celebrity guests were Ernest Hemingway, Charleston Heston, Marlon Brando, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Richard Nixon and even The Beatles. But the most famous of all of them, the Big Kahuna himself, was General Douglas MacArthur – the man who famously accepted the surrender of the Japanese and thus ended World War II in the Pacific. Just who was this General MacArthur? Accounts portray him as a proud but taciturn man, totally devoted to the Philippines. The Filipinos certainly adored him: he was appointed Military Advisor to the Philippine Commonwealth (what the Americans called their colony) by the President of the Commonwealth at the time. But he was also brazenly colonial, demanding, in return for accepting the invitation from President Quezon, that he be housed in the Malacanang Palace (the Presidential Residence) or an equivalent. He got his wish. The President commissioned a special seven-bedroom “presidential” suite occupying an entire new floor in the Manila Hotel, especially for him.
The General only managed six years in his penthouse suite, however, before World War II broke out, and Pearl Harbour dragged America and the Philippines into battle. When the Japanese came, they turned the hotel into a military headquarters cum residence for their highest ranking officials – something that would happen to all of the grand colonial hotels in the region during the Japanese Occupation. Guests of the hotel were brusquely trucked off to internment camps, and their possessions confiscated; while comfort women were brought in to entertain the Japanese troops, turning the hotel into nothing more than a brothel. By that time, the General and his family had retreated to an underground facility in the nearby island of Corregidor, and from there, he would orchestrate the programme of resistance that would finally result in the Fall of the Japanese in 1944.
Unfortunately, when the General finally returned to the Hotel, he would find his private domicile completely razed, a casualty of crossfire between Japanese and American troops. The present-day hotel offers a tour of a refurbished “General MacArthur Suite,” which in terms of size, is a mere fraction of the original. The collection of MacArthur memorabilia within the suite provided a sense of just how important a presence he was to the Hotel, to the City and to the Philippine people. But, from the rather nonchalant attitude of my Hotel Concierge cum Tour Guide – she continuously texted while rattling off general facts that I already knew – it was clear that the General was quite probably no longer relevant to the present generation of young Filipinos.
Later that evening, emerging from researching more about the hotel’s history and the General’s life, I sat at the very cosy Tap Room Bar for a glass of wine, and a spot of nostalgia. The bar was part of the original building, and was exquisitely preserved and refurbished. Not surprisingly, the guests at the hotel that entire weekend consisted primarily of Americans and Koreans (staying guests) and Filipinos (visiting guests). At breakfast and dinners, I felt like I might as well have been visiting the Philippine Commonwealth, whatwith the surfeit of American families dining alongside their Filipino counterparts. The clientele at that very moment in the bar comprised an elderly Filipino couple dressed in their Sunday best, and a lone American tourist, whose booming (and rather irksome) voice continually distracted me as I attempted to make notes of my stay.
Beyond the bar, I could hear the swells of a string ensemble in the hotel lobby, playing a medley of classic showtunes and ‘80s pop standards. A large crowd of Filipinos were gathered for a wedding, dressed in the sheer silk barongs for the men, and tailored cheongsams for many of the women. They looked a glamorous, sophisticated and elegant bunch – a huge contrast from the average Filipinos who lingered just beyond the high security perimeter of the hotel, and who could scarce afford shelter and three meals a day, never mind a grand wedding in the city’s most opulent hotel. I had seen so many of these disenfranchised, sprawled out by the side of the street or in Rizal Park, as if waiting for a miracle to happen; or simply waiting, because there was nothing else they could do to pass the time.
And then it occurred to me just why Manilans continued to have an enduring love and reverence for this hotel that most average Filipinos could never dream of stepping into. The hotel – this grande dame of the city – provided the illusion of grandeur, cosmopolitanism and normalcy that the city previously had but may no longer lay claim to. Here people dreamed big of a Manila that once was – a prosperous and safe metropolis, where everyone may dream of one day stepping into wealth and privilege; a place of hope and opportunity where the young and ambitious may fulfill their aspirations. While the horrors of the last century unfurled beyond the hotel’s walls, inside there was always the same reassuring oasis of beauty, glamour and hope, however precarious, fleeting and ultimately fallacious. The key was to be able to make it inside these walls.
At this point, the string ensemble in the lobby struck up a spirited version of The Carpenters’ Top of the World, as if to suggest that I should not question too much, but simply accept and treasure the good fortune I had to be intra-, and not extramuros.
The morning of my departure, I partook of the Pinoy selection at the Hotel’s excellent international breakfast buffet. I chose a mix of typical breakfast dishes: tinapang bangus, or a smoked milk fish, topped with vinegar, pickled chillis and onions; pork longanisa, which is a kind of sausage, imbued with a spicy, winey flavor; sun-dried salted dangit, or rabbit fish, deep-fried so crispy that one eats it whole; and garlic fried rice, local short grain rice fried in the tiniest slivers of garlic such that it had the faintest, most delicate fragrance and flavour I had ever tasted. The entire ensemble was a delicious combination of sweet, salty, sour and spicy; a feast for the palate as well as for the eyes. I marvelled at the mix of influences – Spanish, Chinese, American, Malay – that make up modern Pinoy cuisine and recognised this as yet another instance of the Filipinos making do splendidly with all that had been left to them. Unfortunately, I had heard only terrible things about Philippine cuisine – chiefly how there was no such thing as Philippine cuisine, but all I had had at the Hotel only served to reinforce just how misunderstood yet another facet of Philippine culture was. I was glad to have made this trip.
After breakfast, I pottered around the hotel, reflecting on my experience that weekend. As expected, I never got to see the famed Manila sunsets. The best the weather would allow in my two evenings at the hotel was a momentary break in the cloud cover when a tower of sunlight illuminated the waters in the distance. It was a dramatic moment, but hardly the spectacular event that I had been hoping to witness. When I mentioned it to the reception staff who had checked me in that first morning, she matter-of-factly suggested that I consider coming back to Manila later that year, perhaps for the Hotel’s Centennial celebrations in October. I laughed and said, jokingly, that I would, as long as she could guarantee absolutely perfect weather and that I would be put in the same room again.
Back in my room, I decided to make use of the charmingly overwhelming array of stationery provided to write a letter to an old friend of mine in New York City. Pulling out a sheet of paper with the hotel’s letterhead boldly emblazoned, I penned a few lines about my experience in Manila, and of the fabled opulence of this most dramatic of grand hotels, making sure to note how in writing this letter, I was doing exactly the same thing Hemingway must have done some eight decades ago when he stayed here – in the original wing rather than the tower block, but with a similar, unspoilt view of the Bay.
As a quaint but completely out-dated touch of hospitality, the hotel still provided forwarding address slips for those long-staying guests who, finally departing, required their mail to be redirected to their onward destination. On a whim, I decided I would fill in one of these forwarding slips, just in case, during my brief stay, a friend or relative had seen it necessary to send me an urgent note. Behind the slip, I left words of encouragement for whoever cared to read them:
“Mabuhay Manila and mabuhay Manila Hotel. May you thrive and prosper. I’ll be back for sure, when the clouds have finally cleared; and this time, I’m determined to see those stunning sunsets.”
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Beth Day Romulo, 1976. The Manila Hotel. Diamond Jubilee Edition. Out-of-print.
Luis Francia, 2010. History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos. NY: Overlook Press.
Stanley Karnow, 1990. In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines. NY: Ballantine Books.
Jose P. Rizal, 1887. Noli Mi Tangere (Touch Me Not). NY: Penguin Classics.