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Pinoy Kasi
Queen City

By Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:39:00 06/25/2008

Filed Under: history, Places, Human Interest, Cinema

People are talking about two old American travel documentaries from the 1930s that feature Manila, and which have been posted on, where else but, YouTube. The documentaries have been well preserved, providing amazingly crisp black-and-white footage of the city. I?m going to describe the contents, and provide my own 21st century commentary.

?Castillian Memoirs? is dated as ?the 1930s,? eight minutes long and part of the Port O?Call series of William M. Pizor. It starts out with Manila Bay, then pans across Pier 7, which, I have read in other accounts, was one of the most advanced ports in Asia at that time. From the pier, the film takes us to Intramuros, which was the headquarters of the US Army in the Philippines.

We see two women coming out of an Intramuros shop, dressed in ?camisas? [shirts] made from piña (pineapple fiber, the voice intones with a bit of amazement), and with ?puffed sleeves resembling bird cages.? Both of the 1930s films show women walking through the streets looking very formal in their camisas, and my mother confirms that Filipinas did dress that way even in the streets, although the piña was obviously confined to the wealthier.

Next we see a baby being bottle-fed by a man. I don?t know if it?s just my imagination, but the bottle, which is huge, seems to be shaped somewhat like the natural milk source. That footage is a bit strange, meant to show that in P.I. (Philippine Islands), we did what we enjoyed doing, which was why we were the only part of America where the ?Prohibition is prohibited,? a reference to an absolute ban on alcoholic beverages which was in force in the United States, but which apparently did not apply to the Philippines.

From the bottle-fed baby we are brought to the Hospicio de San Jose orphanage, where a man is shown depositing a baby using their famous revolving door. We get to see orphans mending their own clothes and the commentator again focuses on one of the fairer children, ?half Filipino, half something else, probably Italian? almost as if to absolve Americans.

From Hospicio, we move on to Escolta Street, considered the premiere shopping area at that time, then to a cigar factory where, yes, some of the workers are in their camisas with puffed sleeves. Then we get to Bilibid Prison, with 3,500 inmates and said to be the largest penitentiary in the world. The inmates are shown doing calisthenics and military drills, rather neatly and nothing like the now more globally known ?Thrilla? dancing done in Cebu province?s penitentiary, and which you can also find on YouTube. The commentator claims that conditions were so good in Bilibid that the guards had to be posted outside to prevent ?immigration? rather than ?emigration.?

As the film closes, we get about 10 seconds of Tondo?s ?nipa? frond shacks built on stilts and then the film trails off into Manila?s sunset.

The other film, ?Queen City of the Pacific,? is almost 11 minutes long and was produced in 1938. Again it starts out with Manila Bay, and a reference to Adm. George Dewey?s defeat of the Spaniards and the Americans? occupation of the Philippines.

This documentary notes that there were actually three cities within Manila: old Tondo, ?modern? Manila, and the old walled city of Intramuros. In this documentary, we get to see the golf course in Intramuros, more street scenes from Escolta and Rizal Avenue, with cars and the tranvia. Horses were important, drawing three different vehicles: ?buses? (needing two horses), the carromata and the caretela. It was only through this film that I learned the difference between the two horse-drawn carriages: the carromata takes two passengers and the caretela, six. There are also carabao-drawn carts, with a little factoid thrown in: there were an estimated 2.5 million of them at that time.

We get to see Intramuros? churches, Yangco Market and Manila Hotel, its façade looking much like it does today. The tree-lined streets of Ermita, at that time home to the rich, are featured and we get a centennial treat with footage of the original University of the Philippines campus. Then there?s Dewey (now Roxas) Boulevard, and a look into the mansion owned by the American high commissioner. The film ends with Malacañang, and an optimistic reference to the islands now being governed by a Filipino (Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon), and how the archipelago is rapidly being transformed from a ?dreamy Spanish colony into a modern agriculture, industrial and independent nation.?

Old habits

The films are entertaining but they can be educational as well. History and geography classes could come alive as students get to see moving pictures of life in Manila before World War II.

I?ve also alerted my anthropology faculty members about the films so they can use it in their classes. Just that brief clip showing two Spanish ?mestizas? [women of mixed blood] is packed with information on culture. Read the lips of one of the women as she says, ?Nandoon? and then points, with her lips. You can tell they?re upper-class women, with one of the shop?s staff handing the stuff the women had just bought only after they have gone up the ?carromata? [a horse-drawn carriage].

The street scenes are also instructive. They show that we already had bad traffic habits 70 years ago: you?ll find cars trying to dodge people, horses and carabaos. There is one scene where one woman chases after one of the ?caretelas? [public utility horse-drawn carriages], apparently to board in the middle of the street. Culture, we have to remember, is a cluster of very old, sometimes bad, habits.

I?ve used the films in one of my graduate anthropology classes to emphasize the importance of perspectives, of how people look at other people, in different historical contexts. The films were produced during the American period, by Americans, and although they were not meant as propaganda films, you get a hint of American sentiments about their overseas territory. On one hand, there?s a bit of patronizing here, both films comparing the Filipino to the carabao: patient in one film, and, in the other, indolent (the carabao?s speed described as being ?commensurate to the industry of the average peasant?).

Spain looms in the background, credited for Christianity and cigars. Now comes dynamic Mother America creating a new, modern Manila, represented by Pier 7, and the huge buildings like the old Congress, even the golf course in Intramuros.

It?s tempting to ruminate on the Queen City?s good old times, but I couldn?t help noting how the films seem almost sanitized, careful to avoid Tondo and the ?homes of the masses.? The films were meant to document Philippine progress, and to remind the world of America?s benevolent colonialism. Even Bilibid looks good, but I couldn?t help thinking of it as a metaphor for the Americans? self-proclaimed mission to civilize and to discipline, and to keep the entire Philippine Islands comfortable but caged.

You can find the two films on www.youtube.com or from the original source, www.travelfilmarchive.com. Do a search using the titles of the films.

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