Saturday, May 14, 2011

Manila: Intramuros Tour with Carlos Celdran

Before our trip, I didn't know much at all about the Philippines. I still don't--it's an incredibly complex country, from its geography and its history right up through its linguistics--but thanks to Carlos Celdran, I know more than I used to.

Carlos Celdran is something of a local celebrity in Manila, and thanks to Lonely Planet, he's gained some recognition among visitors from overseas, too. He's a performer by training, but in the Philippines, the line between performer and politician is always a bit blurred: Celdran is also an activist for reproductive health and the prevention of HIV/AIDS, and as such an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.

Each of Celdran's tours is essentially a play: Wikipedia describes Celdran aptly, not as a tour guide, but as "the producer, director, and actor in a one-man, multi-venue costumed performance, leading patrons through the city as he alternately acts and narrates along the way." The result is a unforgettable, entertaining, and (yes) opinionated take on the long history of Manila and its role in the world. Throughout it all, Celdran demonstrates both his skill as a performer and his deep affections for the city, warts and all.

The tour we took, called "If these Walls Could Talk," was a walking tour of Intramuros (literally "inside the walls"), the historic heart of Manila before World War II.

Now, I'm a born pedant, so it's hard for me to resist the temptation to re-tell Celdran's story. But seeing as I can't hope to do justice to his version, I'll stick to some of the big, new ideas I encountered on the tour. Some of these ideas, I know, are inflected with Celdran's own political opinions, which frankly I kind of appreciate--something obviously opinionated makes you want to learn more, while something subtly opinionated can trick you into thinking it's even-handed.

Anyway, the big lessons I learned:

1. The Philippines weren't really a Spanish colony.

Yeah, yeah--the Spanish "discovered" it, and Ferdinand Magellan was killed there. (Seriously, just outside of Manila.)

But the Spaniards didn't really want the Philippines. Too far, not rich in the right resources (gold, silver). In the end, the Spanish just lumped it in as a far-flung province of Mexico and forgot about it. So when the Church came asking about all those unconverted souls over there at the other end of the ocean, the king basically handed the place over to the missionaries, who ruled the country as a quasi-theocracy.
The Pope's churches dominate the King's forts.
This arrangement an interesting demographic effect on the Philippines: because the Spanish sent no women, and the priests they sent were (in theory) celibate, there are actually very few people in the Philippines of Spanish descent.

Incidentally, Celdran is one of them: he can trace one part of his family back to a naughty 19th-century priest.

2. The American Period was . . . complicated.

I knew that the Philippines had been an American colony from the Spanish-American War (aka, "Remember the Maine," aka "the one where we got Puerto Rico," aka "the one Teddy Roosevelt fought in") until World War II (aka "Casablanca," "Band of Brothers," and the History Channel). I also knew that the US fought its first Vietnam in the Philippines against an uprising of locals fighting for independence.

What I didn't know was how mixed the American legacy in the Philippines was. The Americans brought a lot of good things to the Philippines: public education and mass literacy, modern infrastructure (including Philippine Airlines, Asia's first airline), secularism in government, and a semblance of democracy. The Americans also built a clear timetable for independence, and worked towards preparing the Philippines for self-government and democracy. There doesn't seem to be any question that the Philippines were better off under the Americans than they had been under the Spanish.

At the same time, the Americans also brought war. The American military presence made Manila a target for the Japanese, and American efforts to retake the city in the face of fierce Japanese occupation left Manila almost completely destroyed after the war. More completely destroyed, in fact, than any allied city but Warsaw.

Most signs like this in Intramuros have a line reading "Destroyed during the Battle of Manila in 1945."
This segment was by far the most powerful part of Celdran's tour. Under an old narra tree next to the ruins of a bombed-out US barracks, Celdran recounted the story of Manila's destruction. MacArthur, determined to return to the site of his defeat at the start of the war, bombed the ever-living heck out of Manila in an effort to reduce the Japanese defenses. At the same time, as the outlook for Japan was growing grim, the Japanese army began to systematically exterminate the Filipino citizens of Manila. He punctuated the story with an overhead shot of an American bomb falling on an already-destroyed Intramuros. Celdran's telling is a tragedy: a city and a people caught between two greater powers.

Overall, about a million Filipinos died in the war, with about 100,000 killed by the Japanese in the Manila Massacre. And while Manila has boomed since the war, sprouting a dozen bustling satellite cities, old Intramuros has never recovered, and the scars of the war are still visible around the town.
A memorial marking a mass grave for victims of the Manila Massacre.
Anyway, if you go to Manila, Celdran's Intramuros tour is an absolute must. I'd even say that, if you only do one thing in Manila, take Celdran's Intramuros tour. It's the best introduction there is to the city's rich and tragic history: it will leave you fascinated and wanting to learn more.

The tour also has something for the kids: a horse-drawn carriage ride . . .
. . . and two snacks!
That's halo-halo, or "mix-mix," the Philippine national dessert.

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