The Times, They Are a-Changin’

Published December 27, 2020, 11:29 PM

by Jaime Laya


‘MAIN STREET, MANILA Escolta, 1898.

The Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War was signed on Dec. 10, 1898 seven months after Admiral George Dewey won the Battle of Manila Bay the preceding first of May. That was when journalist Margherita Arlina Hamm came our way.

It took 30 days to reach Manila from New York by train to San Francisco and by boat to Manila and 35 days to return. Visas were issued by the Spanish Consul in Hong Kong, where travelers were cautioned against smuggling and told what they could bring in by way of clothes, equipment, literature, and money. Written material that was heretical, revolutionary, anarchistic, or critical of government would be confiscated and the bearer fined, imprisoned, and deported.

Travelers were advised to bring medicines because “there were two seasons in Manila, the smallpox season and the cholera season.” Smallpox was apparently prevalent during the cooler months, December to February.

Ships anchored a half mile or more offshore for customs and health inspection. Hamm was complimentary about the “half-breed” Spanish-Malay, Chinese-Malay, and Chino-Spanish who were “satisfactory physically and mentally, if not morally.” Passengers and baggage were then brought by bancas to a Pasig River landing.

The Intramuros moat was in “revolting condition, being half-filled with a hideous mixture of vegetable matter, stagnant water covered with slime, mud, and the refuse of a large city… [T]he Spaniards are afraid to clean it, lest by disturbing the foul matter the evils are suddenly increased.”

Business was controlled by Europeans and the Chinese, foreign trade being mainly by Brits and retail trade by Chinese. The largest drugstore was a branch of a Hong Kong firm (probably A. Watson that left the Philippines in the 1930s or so and that has recently returned).

Hamm says that there were 24 taipans of great wealth while the rest of the large Chinese community did menial work. The Malay working classes lived in Tondo, in “hovels, packed close together, and alive with human beings and animals, not to speak of vermin.” Conflagrations and epidemics were evidently normal.

Transportation was mainly by horse-drawn calesas, carretelas, and private carriages. There was a horse car line around the suburbs that went as far as Malabon.

Hotel del Oriente near Binondo Church was the best.  Hamm reports that it was “clean, neat, well-ventilated, and attractive,” although it was relatively small with only 83 guestrooms and stabling for just 25 horses. It served excellent French and Spanish cuisine, as well as Indian curries. Other places served good Spanish food, but had “bad rooms and very inferior service.” She concluded, La Esperanza in Intramuros had the best cooking of all the Spanish establishments and the worst lodging, worse than huts in Mongolia where humans and animals slept in the same room.

On culture, Hamm observed that the population was very musical. The general preference, however, was for brass bands and not for string or wood instruments. There was a concert at the Luneta every evening but the program consisted of “marches, overtures to famous operas, familiar arias written for a full band, dances, popular songs, and war music.”

There were three theaters: Teatro Filipino, Teatro del Principe, and Teatro de Tondo but Hamm was not impressed with their “low comedy, farces, and popular melodramas.” There were occasional visiting drama and Italian opera companies, but the most popular were touring American circuses that performed twice daily for at least three weeks, to full audiences.

There was a bull ring in Paco where corridas were little more than bloody executions of unfortunate bulls. On the other hand, cockfighting was the best. They were held on Sundays and religious feast days, with Thursdays also allowed in Manila. Hamm noticed something that Noli Me Tangere missed, that the clergy were among the best patrons, being breeders, handlers, and bettors.

There was an annual horse racing week, popular among the upper class and expats. Some 50-150 horses entered events, with the owners or their sons themselves being the jockeys. It was a major social occasion.  One grandstand was erected for racing club officers and members each had their own stand where they lavishly entertained friends and associates.

Bob Dylan was partly right. Times have changed but some things have not.

Travel is faster, but these days immigration and health regulations are tighter than ever. Cholera or smallpox has been replaced by Covid-19, leptospirosis, and who knows what else. Multinationals and taipans are still with us, now in Makati and BGC, not Escolta. Tondo still exists joined by many more everywhere else. Instead of French and Spanish cuisine, we become obese on American food—McDonald’s.  Musical talent is undimmed, now on YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat. We still like low comedy, farces, and melodrama. Opera companies and circuses no longer drop by and at least before the lockdown, we trooped to Cubao Coliseum for pop singers past their prime. Cocks still fight and instead of bullfights and horse races, hopefuls can go to places like the City of Dreams.

Note:  This article is based on Margherita Arlina Hamm, Manilla and the Philippines (New York: F. Tennyson Neely, 1898).

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