Fabulous Philippines > Yesterdays in the Philippines > Chapter 1(b)

First View of Manila. Earthquake Precautions. Balconies, Windows. River Pasig. Malecon. Old Manila. Puente de España. Population.

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Before arrival, while yet the Esmeralda was steaming down the coast, I was resolved to refrain from judging Manila from first impressions. I felt primed for anything, and was bound to be neither surprised nor disappointed. At first,.I may admit, my chin and collar dropped, but on meeting with my new associate, I gave them a mental starching and stepped with courage into their ricketty barouche that, drowned by too small and bony ponies, took us to the office of Henry W. Peabody and Co., the only American house in the Philippines.

And having entered the two upstairs rooms that looked out over the little Plaza de Cervantes, I was introduced to bamboo chairs, a quartette of desks and half a dozen office boys, who were rudely awakened from their morning's slumber by the scuffle of my heavy boots on the broad, black planks of the shining floors. Across the larger room, suspended from the ceiling, hung the big "punka," which seems to form a most important article of furniture in every tropical establishment. On my arrival the boy who pulled the string got down to work, and amid the sea breezes that blew the morning's mail about, the business of the day began.

The first thing I noticed was that cloth instead of plaster formed the walls and ceilings, and seemed far less likely than the mixture of lime and water to fall into baby's crib or onto the dinner table during those terrestrial or celestial exhibitions for which Manila is famous. For the Philippines are said to be the cradle of earthquake and typhoon, and in buildings, everywhere, construction seems to conform to the requirements of these much respected "movers." Tiles on roofs, they say, are now forbidden, since the passers-by below are not willing to wear brass helmets or carry steel umbrellas to ward off a shower of those mssiles started by a heavy shake. Galvanized iron is used instead, and, while detracting from the picturesque, has added to the security of households who once used to be rudely awakened from their slumbers by the extra weight of tile bedspreads.

And Manila houses. Down in the town, outside the city walls, the regular, or rather irregular, Spanish type prevails, and nature, in her nervousness, seems to have done much in dispensing with lines horizontal and perpendicular. The buildings all have an appearance of feebleness and senility, and look as if a good blow or a heavy shake would lay them flat. But in the old city, behind the fortifications, are heavy buttressed buildings of bygone days, built when it was thought that earthquakes respected thick walls rather than thin, and the study buttresses so occupy the narrow sidewalks that pedestrians must travel single file. The Spanish -- so it seems -- rejoice to huddle together in these gloomy houses of Manila proper, but the rich natives, half castes, and foreigners all prefer the newer villas outside the narrow streets and musty walls; and just as much as the Anglo-Saxon likes to place -- plot or a garden between him and the thoroughfare in front of his residence, so does the Spaniard seek to hug close to the street, and even builds his house to overhang the sidewalk. Save for carriages and dogs, the lower floors of city houses are generally deserted, and, on account of fevers that hang about in the mists of the low ground, everyone takes to living on the upper story. Balconies, which are so elaborate that they carry the whole upper part of the house out over the sidewalk, are a conspicuous feature in all the buildings of older construction, and with their engaging overhang afford opportunities for learning out to talk with passersby below, or a convenient vantage ground from which to throw the waste water from wash basins. Huge window gratings thrust themselves forward from the walls of the lower story, and are often big enough to permit dogs and servants to sit in them and watch the pedestrians, who almost have to leave the sidewalk to get around these great cages.

It may be just as well, before going further, to say something about this town that is sarcastically labelled 'Pearl of the Orient' and 'Venice of the Far East' by poets who have only seen the oyster-shell windows or back doors on the Pasig on the cover labels of cigar boxes. It seems big enough to supply me with the pianos and provisions which kind friends suggested I bring out with me in case of need, and the main street, Escolta, is as busy with life and as well fringed with shops as a Washington street or a Broadway.

Spanish, of course, is the court and commercial language and, except among the uneducated natives who have a linggo of their own or among the few members of the Anglo-Saxon colony -- it has a monopoly everywhere. No one can really get on without it, and even the Chinese come in with their peculiar pidgin variety.

The city squats around its old friend the river Pasig, and shakes hands with itself in the several bridges that bind one side to the other. On the right bank of the river, coming in from the bay and passing up by the breakwater, lies the old walled town of Manila proper, whose weedy moats, ponderous drawbridges, and heavy gates suggest a troubled past. Old Manila may be figured as a triangle, a mile on a side, and the dingy walls seem, as it were, to herd in a drove of church steeples, schools, houses, and streets. The river is the boundary of the north, and the wall at that side but takes up the quay which runs in from the breakwater and carries it up to the Puente de España, the first bridge that has courage enough to span the yellow stream.

The front wall runs a mile to the south along the bay front, starting at the river in the old font and battery that look down on the berth where the Esmeralda lies, and is separated from the beach only by an old moat and the promenade of the Malecon, which, also beginning at the river, runs to an open plaza called the Luneta, a mile up the beach. The east wall takes up the business at the point,and wobbles off at an angle again till it brings up the river fortifications, just near where the Puente de España, already spoken of, carries all the traffic across the Pasig. Thus the old city is cooped up like pool balls, in a triangle three miles around, and the walls do as much in keeping out the wind as they do in keeping in the various unsavory odors that come from people who like garlic and don't take baths. Here in the cathedral -- a fine old church that cost a million of money and was widowed of its steeple in the earthquakes of the 1880s -- and besides a lot of smaller churches are convent schools, the city hall, army barracks, and a raft of private residences.

Opposite old Manila, on the other bank, lies the business section, with the big quays lined with steamers and with movement. The custom house and foreign business community are close by the river-side, while in back are hundreds of narrow streets, storehouses, and shops that go to make up the stamping ground of the Chinese who control so large a part of the provincial trade.

Everything centres at the foot of the Puente de España, which pours its perspiring flood into the narrow lane of the Escolta, and people, carriages, tramcars, and dust all sail in here from north, east, south, and west. As on the other side, the busy part of the section runs a mile up and down the river and a mile back from it,while out or up beyond come the earlier residential suburbs. In Old Manila, the church seems to rule, but on this side the Pasig the State makes itself felt, from the custom house to the governor's palace -- a couple of miles upstream.

As to population, Manila, in the larger sense, may hold 350,000 souls, besides a few dogs. Of the lot, call 50,000 Chinese, 5,000 Spaniards, 150 Germans, 90 English, and 4 Americans. The rest are natives or half castes of the Malay type, whose blood runs in all mixtures of Chinese eyes, flat noses, and high cheek bones are queer accompaniments to their Spanish accents. Thus the majority of the souls in Manila -- like the dogs -- are mongrels, or mestizos, as the word is, and the saying goes that happy is the man who knows his own father.

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