As I headed to Manila for my very short visit, it dawned on me I actually knew little of the city’s history outside of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and the story ever since them (and even that, superficially only). I had a notion of World War II impacting it through names like Corregidor and Bataan, names that meant very bad things had happened thanks to the vicious Japanese invader. But that’s where my awareness ended.
In my visit, I did no have time to explore all of Manila. It would seem nearly impossible. Suffice it to say it has a wide range of neighborhoods, from those that remind you that you are in the developing world to those that show business dynamism and economic vitality (such as the important business district of Makati).
The old city
The highlight of my short visit to Manila was to explore the old part of town, the “original” Manila: Intramuros. Intramuros’ name means “within the walls” as city walls were built around the old town by the Spanish to protect it from attackers coming either from water (Manila Bay or the Pasig River) or from land. The Philippines had become a Spanish colony in the 1500s after the arrival of Magellan, of Magellan Straits fame, and became the western terminus of Spain‘s trans-Pacific shipping lanes to and from Mexico (which actually governed the Philippines on behalf of the Spanish crown until it became independent from Spain; what a complex web!).
In any case, the walls did not always deter invaders successfully: the British actually occupied Manila for 3 years in the 18th century. Manila did survive the British but that’s not quite the survival story of Manila I want to share…
Liberated from the empire
The Philippines was not as prized a possession for Spain as were, for example, Perú and Mexico. The Filipinos wanted to be done with Spain and their opportunity came thanks to the Spanish-American War of 1898 (which taught the world the lesson that if you are an ailing former superpower, you shouldn’t go picking up fights with the newbie superpower…). Out of that war, via the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded or sold various territories to the U.S. such as the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, etc. Treaties like this one always make me think that losers in wars get to go to cool places to sign documents. It almost tempts a dictator to start a little war to get a free trip to Paris… But I digress.
World War II (WWII) ruins a city
The Philippines stayed under U.S. control for about 50 years until after WWII. But independence came only after some very extreme suffering. The Japanese invaded the Philippines and took over Manila which at the time was U.S. territory. Think about that: they bomb Pearl Harbor (Hawaii was not a state yet) and then they go after the Philippines just days later. The Japanese knew what they were doing; I wonder who was asleep at the wheel on this on the U.S. military’s side, especially down in Manila…
So the battle for the Philippines was vicious. Over 100,000 civilians died when it was all said and done. The Japanese inflicted tons of damage but so did the liberators of Manila via American and Filipino forces. The bombing campaign to finally evict the Japanese out of Manila required throwing them out of the old city. Intramuros was bombed significantly. Most of it was completely destroyed. It is quite telling (and news to me) that the second most destroyed city in WWII after Warsaw was Manila. The Battle of Manila is considered the bloodiest battle in the Pacific in WWII which is also shocking since we always hear other names talked about a lot in the battles of the Pacific.
Most of what you will see in Intramuros today is a reconstruction. Well done, but a reconstruction. Save St. Agustin Church (which the Japanese used as a concentration camp during their occupation). Though it suffered some damage, the church survived the attacks fairly well.
The current church was built in 1607 though other churches had existed on the site before. St. Agustin now, along with 3 other churches in the country, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name Baroque Churches of the Philippines. The city walls you see today are mostly a reconstruction. A reconstruction that has been well done as it does not look like they are as young as they are.
Intramuros is managed by the Intramuros Administration (IA) set up by the government to manage this national treasure of the Philippines. It oversees repairs and renovations while also exercising controls to ensure the district retains its historical and architectural integrity. I got to meet its marketing lead and its brand new Administrator which gives me great hope for continued progress in the restoration of this gem in Manila.
A survival story
Seeing Manila through the eyes of its history lends it great dignity. Everything may not be perfectly ticked-and-tied in Manila, but the bigger point is seeing a survivor that has stepped out of sheer destruction and is just moving forward. The long-in-distance and short-in-duration trip certainly delivered a great understanding I didn’t even realize I was going to get. And that’s why I live to travel.
Stay tuned for more on Intramuros and Manila!