Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Simply Ain't No Place Like Manila

REVISED and updated version of an article I wrote for Sense and Style magazine back in 2006:


“YOU are so not in Makati!,” quips Carlos Celdran as he regales a group of advertising agency folks with a trivia on a statue that stands just outside the Quiapo Church where about 40, yes, 40 rats actually “reside.” These rats, Celdran says are actually “protected” by a chicken wire that surrounds the foot of the statue. And just like the pigeons of Milan, the general public is also allowed to feed these rodents.

Our group never actually saw any rat so I thought this guy must be pulling our legs. Be that as it may, Manila is so not Milan either. But as anyone who already took Carlos Celdran’s unforgettable tours will tell you, the nation’s capital remains one of the most intriguing places in the planet.

You can either spend a leisurely morning or afternoon walk in historic Intramuros in a tour dubbed as “If These Walls Could Talk.” Or you can find out how much Escolta and Quiapo and the North Side of the Pasig River has changed in “The North Bank” tour. Ever wonder what the mystique of Chinatown is all about? Then rediscover Binondo and San Nicolas one Saturday afternoon in “All The Way Down To Chinatown.” Can’t get enough of the Imeldific herself? Then check out the former First Lady’s greatest legacy with a stroll down the historic CCP Complex in the very popular “Living La Vida Imelda” tour.

Outside of Manila itself, Celdran also organizes similar walking tours of Cubao in what he dubs as the “MRT Adventure to Cubao” and even the flea markets of Bangkal, Makati in “Evangelista Que Linda!”

The tongue-in-cheek titles of the tours alone are already an indication of how much fun they’re supposed to be. And they are. Carlos Celdran himself is a big reason why. This amazing gentleman dubbed by one leading daily as “the new Pied Piper of Manila” is no ordinary tour guide. Wearing one of his trademark “tour demon” costumes—a polo barong over faded jeans, flip-flops or tsinelas that is certainly not a pair of Havaianas and a beret covering his receding hairline, the former Fine Arts major and a performing artist in his own right mesmerizes his guests by deftly combining historical trivia with tall tales and urban legends (hard to tell which is which) in a largely hilarious approach that can give stand-up comedians a good run for their money.

With “props” that include handheld Philippine and American flags, a microphone strapped to his head, a cheap portable cassette player that plays jazz music from the 1930’s and a generic plastic organizer that contains reproduced photos of Manila before and after World War II, he instantly wins his guests over. It also doesn’t hurt that his Spanish mestizo features also lend an air of authenticity to his stories that are both informative and entertaining at the same time.

Along with the said group of ad agency personnel, I decided to join Celdran’s “The North Bank!” walking tour of Escolta and Quiapo amidst the scorching Tuesday afternoon sun. He says, “Rizal Avenue and Escolta was Manila’s premier shopping district until the 1970’s when the rise of Makati Commercial Center and the construction of the LRT somewhat diminished their distinction.”


Our tour started at the Calvo Building in Escolta, one of the oldest in the area and now home to a museum of Old Manila memorabilia including framed photos, article clippings, print ads and even department store receipts from the Spanish and American era. Along with Celdran’s old photos, we were able to see how much of Escolta was indeed “the Greenbelt of its time” and how much of it is now a shadow of its former self.

Highlights of our Escolta tour include Celdran’s many revealing stories about its glory days during the American colonial period. There was “the first Cadillac car dealership in Asia” which was later reduced to the “OK Used Car Company after the stock market crash in the US two years later.” There was the very prestigious Heacock’s Department Store that sold fine European goods but was rumored back in 1929 to be “a front for smuggled diamonds from South Africa that caters to the noveau riche of Bacolod.”

And then there are the several old buildings of Escolta that are still standing like the Calvo, Regina and Perez Samanillo buildings that were already around since its glory days and have miraculously survived World War II virtually unscathed. There was also this nice trivia about Imelda Marcos’ first job as a singer for the Lyric Piano Studio in Perez Samanillo Building and how it eventually led to her joining the Miss Manila beauty pageant.

Sta. Cruz and Rizal Avenue

As we made our way to the Sta. Cruz church, Celdran continues to give us more interesting history lessons. “The Sta. Cruz church became the seat of colonial power during the two year British invasion that preceded the Spanish rule. The British were disgusted with the way the Spanish friars in Intramuros tossed their feces out the windows onto the streets that they decided not to have anything to do with the walled city thereafter.”

The cherubs-surrounded Carriedo Fountain, dubbed by Celdran as “Manila’s most moving monument” and located just outside the church has an equally colorful history. Physically moved three times from Nagtahan to the old Nawasa office in Quezon City and then to its present location, it took exactly 120 years for it to finally become operational.

Next stop is Rizal Avenue, whose very name itself is largely an American legacy. “It was the Americans who introduced to us the idea of a national flower, national animal, national this and national that,” Celdran enthuses. “Well, when they introduced the idea of Jose Rizal being a national hero, we now have a Rizal Park, a Rizal college, a Rizal theater, Rizal everything and naturally, we also have a Rizal Avenue.”

Until the 70’s, Rizal Avenue was the premier “gimikan” place for shopping and recreation. Theaters with giant screens like the Avenue, Ever and Ideal theaters were the IMAX of their day, as were the classic department stores like Good Earth Emporium (a new version of which now stands on its former location) and Fair Mart.

“Under former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza’s Urban Renewal Program, the area has been cleaned up and rehabilitated as a pedestrian promenade, ” Celdran says. “Inspired by the Rambles walkway that the mayor saw in Barcelona, he decided to have his own here.” (NOTE: When current mayor Alfredo Lim succeeded Atienza, he said he will open the promenade again to vehicles. I’m not sure if Lim made good on his word since I haven’t been to the area since.)

Be it in Rizal Avenue or in Quiapo a few blocks later, shopping remains an adventure in Manila as everything from shoes, hardware, appliances, clothes, sex gadgets, jewelry, beauty queen tiaras, voodoo potions, flowers, handicrafts, videos, electronics and of course, “dibidi, dibidi” are all dirt cheap here.


“Follow the flag. It’s no fun being lost in Quiapo!” our host smilingly yells as our group negotiates the cramped walkway of Carriedo leading to Plaza Miranda. It’s hard not to be distracted by all the bargain items in this hawker’s nirvana, though.

Ah, Plaza Miranda. Best remembered for the August 21 bombing that led to the imposition of Martial Law, it is also a haven for fortune tellers and other “sellers of salvation.” This is the place for anyone and everyone who wishes to drive away evil spirits, get somebody to fall in love, abort an unwanted baby or just wants to have good luck at something, anything.

You get color-coded candles, fresh tea leaves, amulets (“anting-antings”), essential oils and all other items catering to both our Christian and pagan superstitious beliefs. And all the good luck that they offer comes at the price of a song, from only P10 onwards to be exact. Celdran explains that many popular items sold here like the tawas or alum (“the country’s cheapest deodorant”) as well as frankincense and myrrh are somehow connected with Filipinos’ obsession with personal hygiene.

“All the bad smells here are all coming from the environment and not the people. Many tourists actually smell worse than the beggars here because now and even before Christianity, Filipinos have always been obsessed with personal hygiene. ”

Then, there’s the famous Quiapo Church. It is here where you can actually hire old women to pray for your personal intentions while you’re off doing something else. It is also home to the equally popular Black Nazarene, who is said to be capable of granting three wishes when you touch its feet.

Craig Reedie, a member of the British Olympic Committee who was in town and went to this very tour found himself buying the biggest amulet or anting-anting in Quiapo. He later left 10 pounds inside the donation box and rubbed the Black Nazarene for good luck. A few months later, London won the bidding for the right to host the 2012 Olympics. In a newspaper article that followed soon thereafter, Reedie attributed his good fortune to an amulet he bought in Asia.

All told

As fun-filled as it was, “The North Bank!” is just one of the many tours of Carlos Celdran designed to appreciate the rich heritage of a very colorful and soulful city. I spent a lot of my waking hours in Manila myself, having studied in Manila-based schools from elementary to college. But even I didn’t realize how much I still don’t know about the nation’s capital until I decided to join Celdran’s illuminating walk. The man’s famous parting shot says it all: “You cannot change the way Manila looks but you can certainly change the way you look at Manila.”

Watch Carlos Celdran in action:

For details of Carlos Celdran’s North Bank and other tours, visit


Maryanne Moll said...

My favorite Carlos Celdran is the cemetery tour. Sadly it was not available this year.

Vince Golangco said...

I've heard so many good things about Carlos Celdran's tours. Hoping to try it out myself sometime soon! Thanks for sharing.