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Looking Back
Shared history

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:24:00 10/31/2008

Filed Under: history, Places, Monuments & Heritage Sites

The main shopping district in San Francisco, California, radiates from Union Square. All the main hotels and name shops?Macy?s, Louis Vuitton, Williams-Sonoma, Baccarat, Victoria?s Secret, Goyard, etc.?can be found around it on Powell, Post, Geary and Stockton streets.

Union Square boasts of a large, and historically, the world?s first, underground parking lot. If you stroll around the square today you will see many Filipino old-timers killing time and many tourists with shopping bags resting after a spending spree.

Union Square was dedicated in 1850, and got its name from the pro-union rallies held there during the US Civil War although no trace of this history remains, except in the name of the place. Aside from coffee shops, ice cream vendors and an outlet of See?s Chocolates, one of its landmarks is a gaudy heart, popular among tourists and lovers, indicating that Union Square is the heart of San Francisco. It could also refer to the song ?I Left My Heart in San Francisco.?

The late Bienvenido Santos wrote a novel, ?What the hell for, I left my heart in San Francisco,? with his picture on the cover. Santos was photographed, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, wearing the attire of a Filipino old-timer: jacket, cap, and ancient face. This is an iconographic image captured by National Artist Bencab in a series on drifters, the most famous being ?Pinoy Old-Timer in Chicago.?

What many Filipinos in San Francisco today tend to overlook is the main landmark on Union Square, a slender monument topped with a woman depicting ?Victory,? which makes reference to the Philippines and Philippine-American history. The monument commemorates George Dewey?s victory in the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898.

I sat around this monument on previous visits to San Francisco but only noticed the text on its base two years ago, while waiting for friends shopping in the area. One side reads: ?Erected by the Citizens of San Francisco to commemorate the victory of the American Navy under Commodore George Dewey at Manila Bay May first 1898. On May 3, 1901 the ground for this monument was broken by President William McKinley.?

The historic telegram is etched on granite on another side of the base: ?Secretary of the Navy John D. Long to Commodore George Dewey April 24, 1898. War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to the Philippines Islands and capture or destroy the Spanish fleet.?

A short and dramatic narrative is to be found on the third side of the base: ?On the night of April 30th 1898 Commodore Dewey?s Squadron entered Manila Bay and undaunted by the danger of submerged explosives reached Manila at dawn of May first 1898. Attacked and destroyed the Spanish fleet of ten warships. Reduced the forts and held the city in subjection until the arrival of troops from America.?

Finally, there is a list of the names of the US ships that saw action in the Philippines: ?American Squadron Manila Bay, Olympia (flagship), Baltimore, Raleigh, Boston, Concord, Petrel, McColloch. On May 14, 1903 this monument was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt.?

Textbook history teaches us that the Battle of Manila Bay was one of the greatest naval victories of the United States. The destruction of the Spanish fleet by Commodore (later Admiral) George Dewey was commemorated on the bayside drive in Manila made famous by postcard pretty sunsets, one of the city?s main streets where the Embassy of the United States of America is located.

?Dewey Boulevard? has since been renamed after the post-war Philippine President Manuel Roxas, further obscuring a part of Philippine-American history. There is little left to remind Filipinos of the Philippine-American War. For example, streets in the Malate district near Manila Bay used to carry names like Kansas, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas (pronounced as written by Filipinos as AR-KAN-SAS), memorials to the US Army regiments that fought in the Philippine-American War.

If Filipino tourists take time out from shopping and visiting relatives, they will encounter a lot of common history in San Francisco. Two years ago, an old Philippine flag was found in a museum in San Francisco and it was alleged that this was the first, the original flag sewn in Hong Kong by Marcela Agoncillo and others in 1898, shortly before Emilio Aguinaldo was transported to the Philippines on an American vessel to continue and finish the Philippine revolution against Spain that began in August 1896. That flag led me to open my files again and read up not just on the flag but on the Philippine-American War.

Many of these flags were taken in battle and brought back to the United States as souvenirs or war trophies. At the Historical Institute, we have two or three donated by people who found these in their attics among their grandpas? things. The flag found in San Francisco was an authentic flag of the period. It had flown in battle, but unfortunately it was but one of many contemporary flags, not the Mother of all Philippine flags.

San Francisco and Manila became sister cities in 1986, and it is hoped that both the American and Filipino historians from both cities can re-visit our shared history.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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