Creative Non-fiction / July 2018 (Issue 40: Writing the Philippines)

The Malate Tourist

by John Patrick Allanegui

I spent the last five years looking at a bay, an extensive inlet of a restless and disputed sea. I gaze at its surface, reflecting the bluest shades of skylight, rippled by the movement of water crashing against a seawall, tainted by the green colour of moss, the filth of garbage of all sorts. The sight of the harbour, with moving water vessels both big and small, is always accompanied by a tang of brine, that smell of sulfur combined with salt, tickling my nose. Long have I wondered here, at the very edge of the seawall, how many times the bay has witnessed the iconic Manila sunset, the brief moment in time when the sun disappears over the horizon, turning the sky into a symphony of red and orange, just before the city switches on its lights. Behind this natural view is urban scenery different from what I see: the long stretch of Roxas Boulevard with its side of trees, cars speeding and stopping over it and the towering condominiums and hotels aligning the fringes of Ermita all the way to Parañaque.

I am in Malate, or at least at the periphery of it, taking my afternoon stroll along the waterfront promenade right next to the white low-rise structures of the Philippine Navy Headquarters. Along the boulevard, I stride against the flow of strangers rushing to catch the next jeepney or bus ride that will take them home or else to places only they know. Walking along the same strip of ruby concrete in the late afternoon is something I've been doing for five years now, the same amount of time I've been calling Malate a home, or at least some version of it.

Growing up in Davao City, I did not see Malate the way I saw the entirety of Manila on my personal map. And if it did, it probably was just along the boundaries, somewhere far from the centre that is home to my consciousness and body. Ermita, its neighbouring district, was more recognisable to my ears, more reminiscent of my childhood years when I first heard of it from the bridge of Eraserhead's hit, "Ang Huling El Bimbo." My first encounter with Malate was when I was a seven-year-old tourist inside Manila Zoo, a place near the heart of the district. Back then, I believed monkeys never belonged to the city; their primitive behaviour suggested they were of the jungle, of the wilderness. But I as entered the zoo and saw a dark and long-haired monkey nesting on banana leaves inside a rusty iron cage, I immediately became a believer in dislocations. Little did I know that, fourteen years later, I'd move to Manila to settle in my own private cage, one made of white concrete rather than iron, on the forty-first floor of a condominium along Vito Cruz Street in Malate, a ten-minute walk away from the jangling of monkeys and other wild animals of Manila Zoo.

Though now I don't feel like that monkey trapped in that cage, I do experience some kind of struggle in identifying myself with the place. Malate is where I live now, the name I utter when I ask people to write or send faraway postcards to me. But the place doesn't entirely feel like home, knowing that when I face in the direction of the south, the invisible pull of Davao City will always tug at my body and call me by name. Being in Malate feels like I'm always in transit, like that seven-year-old version of myself as a tourist ready to move on to the next showpiece and savour the sight of the landscapes waiting for me.

At the crisscross of Pedro Gil and Mabini streets, I've become habituated to what sociologist John Urry once argued—that all of us are tourists in our everyday lives, interacting with spaces that are themed or manufactured to provide a particular ambiance. It is in these spaces, he said, where we not only consume the material—the food and the built environments around them—but also experiences. This holds true, I'd like to believe, as I walk the unkempt streets of the district and experience the strange and the familiar in Malate. These are the spaces that are as authentic as they are manufactured in the everyday realities of the people of the district.

What remains familiar to me is often found in the snaking electric lines dangling above the streets, young women dressed in skimpy clothes who invite men to their dimly-lit pubs and informal settlers living in their dreary houses, underneath the shadows of Malate's high-rise condominiums. At night, as I alight from the train at Vito Cruz station, I walk along Pablo Ocampo Street, where honking vehicles are often at a standstill, where colourful tricycles run against the traffic's flow and street people make drab carton houses along the sidewalk. I used to believe this was a small illustration of a larger context: a country marked by wide gaps between the rich and the poor, its middle-class people taking in more than it could chew. Such are the things that remind me of this country's authenticity, the interactions I make with the district's environment through which I attempt to create a sense of "home" in a weathered world.

The strange, however, are the things I find rather themed in ways that represent the foreign in my eyes: the neatly fashioned Persian and Korean restaurants, older white men coddling younger women inside local pubs and young blond-haired tourists with their bulky backpacks running their fingers on maps outside the district's large and small hotels. These scenes make me feel as though I'm in a different land, like a tourist escaping from my point of origin and to this place I barely know.

"Oooh, what's in there?" a friend asked me one evening while we were walking under the pulsating neon lights emitting from the establishments that surround Remedios Circle. There were three of us then, and we were only looking for a Korean restaurant near the plaza for generous plates of kimchi and samgyeopsal at midnight. The district's bright lights make it difficult to believe that the plaza used to be a cemetery, its ghosts inhabiting the intersections of Jorge Bocobo and Adriatico Streets. Loud electronic music was blasting in the area, and with the way the people around us swayed their arms to the beat, it was easy to know that what we were hearing was no music for the dead. He was pointing his finger towards the entrance of a club where women sporting high-waisted jeans and cropped tops and lining up behind flashing neon-lit signs beckoned a small crowd of men to the commotion of music and alcohol inside.

I gave my friend a smirk, silently acknowledging the fact we knew what was in there.

"How about there?" he pointed towards a dark alley to our left.

"I don't know," I said truthfully, knowing we'd be safer somewhere away from it. Living in Malate has given me this compulsion to be knowledgeable of the place, that I must know the turns and points for the people new to it, that I must always guide them through the rutted pathways where everything about the district unfolds itself in a manner unknown to me: the people, the cuisine, the history and the irony—an irony that classifies me as type of native whose sense of place is still that of a tourist.

Malate is a site of contrasting images, and as a dweller who feels like a tourist in its embrace, I've become used to such images that reside in its streets, in its people. Such images produce a tension that happens between here and there, local and foreign, known and unknown, home and away from home. Walking along its narrow streets, I bring myself to resolve these opposing images that make me sensible to its local tastes and the foreign impressions that shape it. I imagine how Malate is presented to the eyes of the tourist as one singular whole. But as I look at it closely, where I find towering condominiums on one side and drab houses on the other, Malate becomes fragmented into hundreds of pieces, making it plural to the eyes of people of different backgrounds, of different dispositions. 

A few metres away from the waters of Manila Bay is Malate Church, a sanctuary for Catholics seeking solitude in the ways of the cross every Sunday. Originally built in 1591, what is formally known as Our Lady of Remedies Parish Church stood as a witness to the changing landscape of the lively area it was colloquially named after. Too many times the church fell victim to earthquakes, typhoons and the destructive torches of foreign invaders. The stones and bricks of Malate Church crumbled to the ground, but every destruction always produced an indispensable restoration. Now the Church stands almost isolated, facing the bustling lanes of Roxas Boulevard, where I'd walk every afternoon, always looking towards the sun. Around it, the historical place of worship graces the city's most vibrant commercial zones, a place frequented by tourists and locals of what used to be the liveliest red-light district of Manila.

Every Sunday, I hear mass in this church with my aunt. Aside from the roster of foreign priests, especially the Korean who preaches in English and the occasional broken Tagalog, what particularly strikes me is the way the stained-glass windows glimmer in the morning light, the face of Christ embedded in the high places of the church's stone walls. They glow in colours of yellow, red, and blue as they spark a deep contrast with the white light emanating from the cylinder-shaped lamps hanging from the ceiling. Churchgoers either lock their eyes to the golden altar in front or bring their heads down with the occasional jerking of the head, an attempt to stay awake throughout the rest of the ceremony. The priest goes on with his sermon on the need for altruism, the benefit of benevolence, the temporary spaces we inhabit as beings in a material world.

"Ours is a temporary place. We are simply passing through," he says. "Our home is not here; it is somewhere with Him." The sound of his voice bounces off the walls.

The priest's words drift. The speakers give off static noise, trailing behind his voice, shifting my attention to the stained-glass window above the altar, a colourful depiction of Mary glowing behind the sunlight. The structures of Malate Church are well-lit, but the Gospel being preached inside of it needs better acoustics.

I walk along the waterfront promenade along Roxas Boulevard, measuring myself against the ground I tread. "Where am I?" I ask myself as I stand near the edge of the seawall, turning to the open sea and snapping another photo of the fiery sun setting along the horizon of Manila Bay. I am in Malate, or at least at the periphery of it, a place that has offered me anonymity among a sea of strangers, natives and tourists alike, of people whose places of origin I know not.

Do they live around here?

Are they just in transit, too?

I've been here for five years now, and Malate has become home, or at least some version of it. I gaze again at the waters forming the inlet, revealing the wading rays of sunlight, rippled by the rise and fall of the tide, it's apparent how our place changes with what we do with it. Perhaps this district always has more things than any native or tourist can know. And such a place always makes the unknowable things spike one's imagination.

I am in Malate as a dweller, as a tourist. I am not a native, but I see the familiar movement of the place, comforting me in ways that are intrinsic to this country's joys and perils. But there are days when I am surprised by the strange I see in the familiar, those that make me feel like a tourist in the district, ready to discover an unknown setting as I make my next turn. I have even begun to relish the pleasure of becoming a sudden stranger to myself, trying out a new turn in the street or opening a different door into a new unknown.

Certainty of my place in Malate is what I've only been wishing for. But somewhere between my long walks from the crowded street of Vito Cruz to the open spaces of Harbor Square, I do not hope for permanence. I only marvel at how Malate has made me question my sense of place, reminding me of how rooted and mobile I can be in its themed spaces. Perhaps it is in those spaces I can find comfort in the uncertainty I live with now: no fixed labels of what I am; just shifting definitions of the self that make me say, "I am home, but not quite so."

Five years ago, I came to Malate as a tourist and as a dweller.

Or maybe I was neither. As I am now.  


Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.