I remember watching Manila, Open City, a Filipino movie by celebrated film maker Eddie Romero, that my father had rented on DVD not long after my previous visit to the Philippines. Living in England, it was one of the few times I’d seen the Philippines represented in film – not many Filipino films get distribution here – and I enjoyed it for its battle sequences and as a window into Filipino history. It was a vivid depiction, presented in ‘Luxurious FAMEcolor’, of the battle for, and liberation of, Manila, from an occupying Japanese army who were slaughtering civilians within the city during the final stages of World War II. Much of the documentary-like story takes place within Intramuros, and I found myself seeing locales I’d witnessed during my trip.
I don’t remember too much of the film, other than battle scenes, depictions of slaughter and rape, some dodgy dubbing, and a sub-plot where a Japanese officer falls in love with a Filipino nun. But for some reason I remembered the beginning; after a few scenes of ‘present day’ (1968, when it was filmed) Manila the title card flashed up over the image of San Agustin Church. It was here, fifty years later, that Jen and I alighted a taxi.
As soon as we’d stepped out we were descended upon by three pedicab tour guides. One, wearing a yellow shirt and his widest smile, pointed vigorously at a laminated piece of paper depicting the various spots around the walled city he could take us too. We politely declined, but he was persistent and walked with us a little before falling back as we declined again. We didn’t have much time, and wanted to explore our own route at our own pace.
We approached the church. It’s design is angular, all squares and triangles, and unintentionally asymmetrical as the left belfry was damaged in an earthquake and hence removed. The building that stood in front us is actually the third iteration of the church. The first two were built of bamboo and wood, respectively, and succumbed to fires in the 16th century. Construction on the third and current stone structure began in 1586 and was completed in 1607. In the intervening time between it’s completion and the present day, it has survived seven major earthquakes, the ravages of colonialism, and war, the only church left standing in Intramuros after the Japanese occupation. Like the Philippines itself, it has been occupied and ransacked and damaged, but yet it remains, faithful and persistent.
We turned around to find the pedicab driver had followed us and continued to offer his services. We walked past him, Jen politely declining again in Tagalog, yet still he walked with us. We left the church ground and wandered down the road, but looking to our left we found the man had mounted his bicycle and cycled slowly alongside us. Jen, her voice now betraying her annoyance, continued to rebuff him in Tagalog, and after twenty yards turned his pedicab around, shouting a parting shot at Jen that I didn’t understand. She was visibly shook by his harassment, and we sat at a nearby monument to cool down.
The bronze monument depicted a shrouded woman, weeping over the limp body of a baby, surrounded by deceased or desperate figures. It is dedicated to the “100,000 men, women, children, and infants killed in Manila during its battle of liberation. Nearby, two Australian tourist were being lead by a guide.
“It was in 1942 that General MacArthur uttered his famous words ‘I shall return'”, he was telling them, explaining MacArthur’s escape to Australia and eventual return to the Philippines where he commanded the United States Army Forces in the Far East in liberating the city.
We didn’t want to double back and run into that pedicab driver again, so we ventured down the busy back streets. They were not as well-maintained as the streets immediately surrounding San Agustin, but were loud with life: children playing basket ball, dogs barking, teens returning from school, and tambay chatting outside small eateries.
We made a right and found ourselves back at the church. The yellow-shirted pedicab driver was back in the car park, talking animatedly at a brown-haired tourist, hopefully being more polite to her than he had to us.
We climbed up steps to the citadel wall. It was around 4pm, the late afternoon sun still bright and oppressive, beating us down with harsh rays while we had nowhere to hide. The brow of my baseball cap became soaked in sweat, and removing it left my eyes naked against light. Finding nothing of note, we doubled back. A few foreign tourists seemed to do the same. Beneath us, members of the municipal golf course cracked balls down the fairway. The golf course is actually the remnants of the moat of the citadel, filled in after the American colonisation. Patches of sun-browned grass stood out on the verdant surface.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but we were walking in the opposite direction to what I wanted to see: Fort Santiago. The citadel was constructed by Miguel López de Legazpi, the conquistador who first established Spanish settlements in the Philippines, and was completed in 1593, becoming the new capital and the premier stronghold on the islands. It is a site symbolising colonial power, and also death. Many lost their lives within the walls during the Massacre of Manila, and national hero of the Philippines, Jose Rizal, was imprisoned there before his execution in 1896. A museum dedicated to Rizal now sits within the fort.
I had seen this part of Intramuros during my visit six years ago with my mother, sister, and tita G. I wanted to revisit this with Jen, since it’s the most famous part of the walled city. Alas, it looked like we were running out of time, and we decided it was time to walk over to the bay walk on Roxas Boulevard.
We walked past a derelict section of the wall, the afternoon sun penetrated the empty stone windows casting spotlights along the road. A ginger cat, young and thin, turned his head to stare at us before darting around a corner. As we passed a junction we heard a horn. We looked to our left, and who should we see but the yellow-shirted pedicab driver cycling towards us, his side car still empty. Was he haunting us? We tried to ignore him. As he came within earshot, he shouted “Akala mo naman ang ganda mo?!” (“You think you’re that pretty?!”) at Jen, an irrelevant epithet, before rounding a corner and finally vanishing. He reminded me of a child who throws a tantrum when he can’t get his way.
May his sidecar forever remain empty.
For some reason, all his harassment and insults throughout the day had been aimed at Jen, and I could see that, along with the heat, they had worn her down. “Some Filipinos can’t take no for an answer”, she sighed in frustration.