South of the Pasig river is the Manila I love. Yes, Quiapo has its charms and Binondo has its quaint streets. And yes the hustle of Divisoria is the chaos I am always pleased to endure. But if pleasantness is all that matters, then Ermita is the part of town my affections are hardest to remove.
I’ve always seen the district south of Luneta Park as one of strangeness. Though I’ve been to this place countless of times, every return always feels like the first. It’s cleaner than most parts of Manila. Not as tourist-tidy as the more popular spots in central Makati, or even the suburbia-like communities of Quezon City. But the narrow streets of Ermita are generally well-kept, and thus, welcoming.
I imagine the place before World War Two. I read a compilation book once called The Manila We Knew and a few authors lived in the district before the Japanese occupation. The authors recalled trees of a variety – chico, atis, and guava – offering shade to two-story detached houses with backyards scented by sampaguita and fronts adorned by shrubs of rosal or gardenia. Passing through M.H. Del Pilar Street, I still see some of these old houses, sandwiched between residential suites and three-star hotels. They look forgotten now, irrefutably dusty, and almost impossible to clean. The shrubs are covered in vehicular smog, the gardens left to be irresponsible.
From the wider Kalaw Avenue, the side-streets would be mistaken as alleyways by American standards. But the establishments, and the jeepneys plying through, point to the unique Filipino commerce.
This is where Ermita becomes strange. Colonial Catholic churches and schools sit beside seedy-motels and karaoke bars. Chinese restaurants occupy corner plots next to outdated travel agencies and 80’s manpower agencies. And right across are old condominiums with gilded facades pointing out what Manila was designed to be – a European city in the tropics, a Parisian-styled metropolis near the equator.
As students and old ladies cross from one sidewalk to the next, they run into prostitutes and their mile-high platform heels and impossibly short shorts. Even in daylight, the whores and their melting make-up can be seen – passing by hole-in-the-wall thrift stores and art galleries, engaging in a never-ending hide and seek with hairy foreigners and their beer bellies.
Every now and then you see the Caucasian backpacking couple asking for directions, and you observe the long lines of soon-to-be overseas Filipino workers with their long-brown envelopes in employment agencies. There are the multitude of gay men and their partners too, spilling from the queer-friendly Malate, into upscale malls and homoerotic bars. Some days I can no longer distinguish between a male prostitute and a simple welder applying for a job in the Middle East. When you’re walking in Ermita, the men almost smell the same. I guess the brown envelopes are the giveaways.
To me, Ermita has always been the midtown of Manila, a place of uncertainty, neither the center of commerce nor the agreeable residential sprawl. With dilapidated houses sitting next to ignored post-war buildings of such huge architectural importance, the sense the past is forgotten and taken for granted is magnified. It’s a Filipino plight, sometimes both a blessing and curse. We tend to forget what happened in the past which allows most of us to move on easily, and take the worst of calamities with a stride. But it also finds us grappling with the incessant societal problems we can never resolve, because we never learned our lessons, and we’ve simply marched ahead without any plan.
When night encroaches, and the thin asphalt veins are choking in taxis and jeepneys, the narrow sidewalks dappled in the psychedelic neon-lights of whore houses posing as innocent sisig bars, that the sorrow of being a “pleasant” part of town revealed. The contradiction of Ermita is self-generated. The strangeness of the district is born from nostalgia. Where families gather in wholesome paella restaurants, the kids coming out may have noticed the five-six chinito in tight-jeans and tees, hand in hand with his Arabian prince, smelling of alcohol and lust, readying for an all-nighter in the motel nearby.
It’s as if this place is the microcosm of the country – one foot stuck in a past that it refuses to notice or has quickly forgotten, another inside the door of a future that it desperate yearns for yet only half-understands. All the while, the body is entangled in a vague present that is never understood, or is merely contemplated in a few whiffs of concern and ambition, gossip and smoking.
The prayers in the churches resound. The sonic madness of the bars echo. The noise of the streets permeate into even the most airconditioned of hotels. And I find my love for Emrita obscured, pulled from opposing ends. My affections are unguided and malleable but they are not shallow. I love this place, even if it hurts.
In the busyness of the district, I wonder if like me, this place ever gets lonely imprisoned in a broken time machine. Does it still dream of the upper middle class bayside community it once was? Does the valley of shadows cast upon by hotels ever frighten those who breathe the air of this part of town? It is limbo– not downtown bustle nor the sobered stability of the metro’s fringe suburbias.
The saltiness of Manila bay mixes with the freshwater paste of the river north of it. There is dust and there is sunset. Traffic lights flicker and the glow of lampposts douses the flame of the night. This is the Ermita I know, only half-understood. But can this place be home to love? Can it find love, and can it give love, amidst its strangeness and suspicions?
Hinahanap hanap kita Manila
Ang ingay mong kay sarap sa tenga
Mga jeepney mong nagliliparan
Mga babae mong naggagandahan
Take me back in your arms Manila
And promise me you’ll never let go
Promise me you’ll never let go