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Yes, the Manila Hotel Has Historical Significance – In An Elitist Kind of Way

We live in the suburb. So, when we drive to Manila, we consider it an out-of-town-trip. Not that the distance is great but the traffic is so bad that driving down from the hills to the city takes over two hours. On a good day.

Manila Hotel

We were at the Manila Hotel there to pick up our daughter, Alex, after a show where she was assistant lighting and technical director. With modern-day communication, one would think that we’d be able to follow an on-the-dot schedule but, as things went, I misinterpreted a message from Alex and, as a result, we left The Oarhouse (a bar in Manila owned by a friend) too early and we were at the Manila Hotel parking lot while egress was still ongoing.

It was well past midnight but the humidity was a killer. I told Speedy I’d go inside the hotel for a rest room break and it was a good excuse to cool my skin with the hotel’s airconditioning. I took my sweet time splashing water on my face several times. After that, with no more reason to stay inside the building, I rejoined Speedy in the parking lot.

Alex was in and out of the venue, saying hello to us and introducing us to some of the people in the crew. She said they were almost done but Speedy and I both knew that “almost” was a subjective word. I smoked, I tried to cool myself with the anahaw fan that Speedy keeps in the pick-up, we listened to the radio, I smoked and I finally got bored.

Speedy said we should go inside the hotel and order a drink. Hmmmm… hadn’t we been doing just that at The Oarhouse and wasn’t that why the heat from the alcohol was making me perspire like crazy? I had another idea. I stood up, took my camera from my bag and started taking photos of the hotel.

Manila Hotel, former residence of Gen. Douglas MacArthur

It started as a joke. The Manila Hotel is over a century old, and it has witnessed war, destruction and death. I told Speedy I would look for ghosts that might be lurking behind the curtains that covered the windows. I moved closer to the building, took some shots…

And then, I zoomed in on the windows. I saw no figures, shadowy or otherwise, when I viewed the photos on the camera’s LCD screen. Neither did I see any after downloading the photos to my iMac and I wondered if I’d have any use for the photos.

Unlike some Filipinos who find Manila Hotel awe-inspiring, I have ambivalent feelings toward it. I feel about the Manila Hotel the same way I feel about golf courses and cemeteries — they are beautiful, they elicit profound emotions for some but, in terms of maximizing the use for the greater number of people, they are worthless.

Worthless? Surely, Manila Hotel has historical and cultural significance? Historical, yes. Every rock and comic book has historical significance too. A thousand years from now, if all written historical records were obliterated, a rock spewed out by Mayon Volcano today may help geologists understand the events from a thousand years ago. A thousand years from today, that Phantom Manok comics from the 70s will give a glimpse of that filth called Pasig River.

So, yes, Manila Hotel has historical significance. Its history tells us that when the Americans built it, it was for their exclusive use. Members of the social and political elite were occasionally invited, of course, but the man on the street only pointed it out from a distance but did not set foot inside its walls.

During the Commonwealth period, Manuel L. Quezon hired a Filipino architect who trained in France to build a penthouse for Gen. Douglas MacArthur who would only say yes to serving as Military Advisor if he had living quarters that were as grand as Malacañang, the residence of the Governor General.

“Among the terms of their agreement, they discussed fitting living quarter for the American General; something that would be comparable to those now occupied by the American Governor-General in Manila, at Malacanang Palace. MacArthur’s personal palace in Manila was to be the penthouse built especially for him atop the Manila Hotel.” [Source: The Manila Hotel: The Heart and Memory of a City by Beth Day Romulo]

Gen. Douglas MacArthur once lived in the penthouse of the Manila Hotel

“Quick fact: To handle the cost of MacArthur’s suite, he was given the honorary title of “General Manager”. He attended the monthly meetings. He, however, ignored the figurehead status and instead took control of hotel management.” [Source: Manila Hotel website]

MacArthur’s job in the Philippines was to build a Philippine Army. That was what Quezon hired him to do. A year after Quezon was elected Commonwealth president, the Philippine Military Academy was established. MarArthur oversaw all that including the procurement of arms for the PMA cadets to train with. And he was also running Manila Hotel like a regular hotel manager? Huh, really?

“For a time, the general even served as chairman of the hotel’s board of directors, prompting some cynics to note that his famous vow, ‘I shall return,’ proclaimed during the Japanese occupation, meant primarily that he fully intended one day to return to his suite in the Manila Hotel. Indeed, in his memoirs, he told of joining the patrol to recapture the hotel from the Japanese High Command, writing, ‘I was anxious to rescue as much as I could of my home atop the Manila Hotel.'” [Source: Pamela G. Hollie, “Colonial Comfort in the Philippines”, The New York Times]

And Manila Hotel’s cultural significance? That, at one time or another, “Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Henry R. Luce, Sammy Davis Jr., James Michener, four United States Presidents and a host of world leaders” slept in its rooms? That’s cultural significance?

So, imagine my shock when I learned that the Supreme Court has ruled that Manila Hotel forms part of the patrimony of the nation.

“In its plain and ordinary meaning, the term patrimony pertains to heritage. When the Constitution speaks of national patrimony, it refers not only to the natural resources of the Philippines, as the Constitution could have very well used the term natural resources, but also to the cultural heritage of the Filipinos.” [Source: Manila Prince Hotel vs. GSIS, G.R. No. 122156. February 3, 1997]

I can understand why the Banaue Rice Terraces and the entire town of Vigan are heritage sites that warrant protection and preservation. But Manila Hotel…?

“Manila Hotel has become a landmark – a living testimonial of Philippine heritage. While it was restrictively an American hotel when it first opened in 1912, it immediately evolved to be truly Filipino. Formerly a concourse for the elite, it has since then become the venue of various significant events which have shaped Philippine history. It was called the Cultural Center of the 1930s. It was the site of the festivities during the inauguration of the Philippine Commonwealth. Dubbed as the Official Guest House of the Philippine Government it plays host to dignitaries and official visitors who are accorded the traditional Philippine hospitality.” [Source: Id.]

Well there you go. An elitist Supreme Court explaining why the elitist Manila Hotel is part of our national patrimony. What the Supreme Court totally missed out on is that Manila Hotel remains a concourse for the elite. The only difference between the American colonial period’s Manila Hotel and today’s Manila Hotel is that some of the names on that exclusive club that constitutes the Philippine’s elite have changed. That is all.

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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