Sat, Apr 09, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Blast from the past

Manila’s Spanish-era and World War II historical sites offer insight into the melting pot that is the Philippines

By Tony Phillips  /  Staff Reporter

The ruins of Topside Barracks are seen on Corregidor.


A city that was largely destroyed during World War II might not seem like the most promising of destinations for anyone with an interest in history, but the fusion of indigenous, Spanish, Chinese and US cultures in Manila has created a capital unlike any other in Asia.

The old heart of Manila, Intramuros, preserves some of the Spanish colonial influence that dominated the Philippines for nearly 350 years until the Americans arrived on the scene at the end of the 19th century. Visit it while you can because in October a Global Heritage Fund report titled Saving Our Vanishing Heritage identified Intramuros as one of 12 sites worldwide “on the verge” of irreparable loss and destruction.

Perhaps its most interesting feature is Fort Santiago, where Philippine national hero Jose Rizal was imprisoned before his execution by the Spaniards in 1896. Despite the horrors of its dungeons and the sad tale behind the brass footsteps that retrace Rizal’s final walk to face a firing squad, today the fort and its environs provide an island of tranquility in a city that has more than its share of noise, pollution and crumbling infrastructure.

Nearby, Rizal Park is one of the few green open spaces in the city and is home to the Rizal Monument.

A great way to get a handle on how Manila has evolved over the years is to go on the “If These Walls Could Talk!” walking tour of Intramuros with renowned guide Carlos Celdran. However, the term “walking tour” doesn’t really do justice to an experience that is part performance and part historical lecture, with costume, music, a horse-drawn calesa ride and a surprise Philippine snack all thrown in.

The tour begins outside Fort Santiago with Celdran explaining that, to the Spaniards, the Philippines was a backwater. It had no gold, unlike Spain’s Latin American colonies, and was initially nothing more than a province of the colony of Mexico, thousands of kilometers away.

However, Celdran points out that it would be a mistake to think that Manila’s history began with the arrival of the Spaniards in 1571. There was already a considerable settlement on the site but its buildings were made of wood, leaving no trace today.

Its population was Muslim and the Spaniards nailed their colors to the mast when they named the fort built to protect their settlement Santiago, after St James the Moor-slayer (Santiago Matamoros), a carving of whom is on the large gateway outside the fort.

Celdran points out the irony of the fact that the last Moorish kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula was only conquered in 1492, so when the Spaniards pitched up in the Philippines they must have been somewhat perturbed to have sailed half way around the world only to find themselves confronted by yet more Muslims.

After going inside the fort and then visiting a particularly impressive section of imposing city walls built by the Spaniards — where Celdran explains how the Hispanophile atheist Rizal is an unlikely national hero in the deeply Catholic Philippines — the next stop is a statue of US General Douglas MacArthur and World War II-era Philippine president Manuel Quezon.

Celdran, complete with general’s hat, sunglasses and pipe in imitation of MacArthur, then proceeds to dissect the American’s reputation, contending that Manila’s destruction in 1945, which left few traces of the splendor of what was christened the “Pearl of the Orient” in pre-war days, was largely a result of MacArthur’s egotism.

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