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Notes on the Geography of The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita

Business districts flourished for many years both north and south of Intramuros, but they have been in decline for many years. The Escolta, for example, is no longer a street with "many fashionable shops and department stores that display every item of imported and Philippine origin."  That description comes from Frederick Wernstedt and Joseph Spencer in the 1960s. The Metro Manila they knew had 1,400,000 people; today's has 10,000,000, not to mention another 5,000,000 or so in adjoining areas.  As far back as the 1920s people began moving out of the core; in recent decades, the only people left have been those too poor to get out.

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The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 1

From a distance, Binondo--Chinatown--still looks impressive.  The Escolta--once commonly called the Fifth Avenue of Manila--is over there in the distance. The view here is from the roof of the Manila Hotel and over Intramuros.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 2

We're heading north from the post office and crossing the Jones Bridge over the Pasig River. The bridge is named for William Atkinson Jones--not a household name but an important one in Philippine history.  A long-serving U.S. congressman, Jones as chairman of the House insular affairs committee in 1916 sponsored the Philippine Autonomy Act, hastening the transfer of political power.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 3

Chinatown, or Binondo, was for a long time the nation's financial center.  It's no coincidence: the Spanish encouraged Chinese settlement, and the newcomers prospered.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 4

This is a country's banking center? 

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 5

Citibank is here but seems out of place.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 6

Popular resentment of the Chinese here has a long history, but the Chinese make no effort to be invisible.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 7

The building in best repair is the Binondo Church, the minor basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz.  The church was built for baptized Chinese, a community of which Lorenzo Ruiz, with a Chinese father, was part.  Before fleeing the Philippines to avoid arrest, he had been an altar boy in this church.  Captured in Japan and refusing to recant, he was tortured to death by the Japanese.  Two and a half centuries later, in 1987, he was canonized to become the first Filipino saint.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 8

Local market lane.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 9

The narrow Escolta is no longer Manila's Fifth Avenue.  Old photographs show horse-drawn carriages on a cobble-paved street. Buildings were generally of two stories under peaked roofs running parallel to the street.  It's still a very busy place, but the carriage trade is long gone.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 10

The Capital theater opened in 1934, when the Escolta was still stylish.  Juan Nakpil, the architect, knew his Art Deco: he started out with an engineering degree from the University of Kansas and topped it up with architectural training at both the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts and Harvard.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 11

Farther along the Escolta.  The two prominent (and still very active) office buildings are the Regina Building on the left and the Perez-Samanilla Building on the right.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 12

The Regina Building was once the headquarters of insurance companies--for example, Provident Insurance, now the Spanish-owned Mapfre Asia.  The building appears on a set of Filipino heritage stamps.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 13

The opposing Perez-Samanilla facade.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 14

Still another Deco adventure: the Metropolitan Theater of 1935, designed by Juan Arellano.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 15

Stage door facade.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 16

Close-up.

The Philippines: Manila: Binondo, Escolta, and Ermita picture 17

A mile to the south, on the south side of Intramuros, is Ermita, another core neighborhood in decline. Spencer and Wernstedt wrote in the 1960s that it was "strongly westernized with many fine hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, and apartment buildings, and with several modern specialty shops and retail stores catering to the well-to-do and the tourist."  No longer.  A good indicator is the building on the right: originally a Hilton hotel, it was downgraded to a Holiday Inn and then downgraded again as the the Manila Pavilion.  If you want to disagree, you might point to the Starbucks sign in the upper center, but the prices inside the shop are probably the lowest you've ever seen in a Starbucks.


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