Looking Back

Goncharov, a Russian in 19th-century Manila

/ 05:18 AM October 12, 2018

Why is it that when we talk about Manila, we do so in the past tense? Has it deteriorated so much in our jaded 21st-century eyes that we find it hard to believe descriptions of the city in the many travel accounts from the 17th to the 19th centuries?

Maybe the city never recovered from the mayhem and destruction inflicted on it during the Battle of Manila in 1945. Or maybe Manila changed as it grew from Greater to Metro Manila. Remember, Manila existed long before it became the 16th-century capital of Filipinas. Intramuros, or the walls that surrounded what should rightfully be referred to as Spanish Manila, was built over the palisades of Soliman’s city.


Philip II honored this “distinguished and ever loyal city” with a coat of arms in 1596 that was drawn from that of Spain, whose main design elements reflected the now autonomous Spanish regions of Castile and Leon, with a castle and a lion rampant. The seal of Manila echoed that of Spain, with a castle and a lion modified to represent the archipelago—half-lion and half-dolphin. Yes, a Merlion, long a symbol of Manila that, by our neglect and the aggressive nation-branding of the Singapore Tourist Bureau, was appropriated as the symbol of Singapore.

A Russian traveler, Ivan Goncharov, left us with an engaging account of a 10-day visit to Manila in 1854. His main complaint was the oppressive heat, which he described as like walking into an oven. Grateful for the shade, he avoided the wind and drafts that kept Pinoys cool. He inquired about capiz windows and was told that earthquakes made glass panes scarce, while the shells were local and plentiful; these kept out heat and allowed light into houses.


There were a lot of things he had to adjust to, like breakfast at 10 a.m., lunch at 4 p.m. and the afternoon siesta that explained why the streets were deserted when they explored the city. He marveled at the way everyone stopped in their tracks when the church bells tolled for the Angelus.

Goncharov was on the hunt for cigars, and was told that the best quality was only available direct from the factory. What little he got from the streets and the small tiendas he declared as garbage. He noted that, while the Philippines produced sugarcane, its processed pressed juice was all for export, because there was no refinery in the islands to make white sugar, which was as difficult to find in town as good cigars.

He found a hotel in Binondo and worried not only about the spaces on the floorboards that allowed him to see and hear everything below him, but also about his privacy in the upper floor. He complained to the hotel manager about a lizard in his room, but was informed that these were not as harmful as scorpions. Lizards ate mosquitoes, he was told, to which Goncharov retorted that he would gladly welcome two mosquitoes into his kulambo at night rather than one lizard.

What makes Goncharov’s account different from the rest is his description of the strong smell of Manila: “‘Is this really Manila?’ asked one of my rather younger companions, who was accustomed to associate the name somehow with blossoming. ‘But where, then, are the magnificence and the poetry? Ah, how bad it smells,’ he added all at once, and indeed it did smell badly. We went into the street, which consisted of a continuous row of shops, and suddenly we guessed the cause of the smell. From the shops emerged cunning Chinese faces and bluish, shaven heads. And everywhere were the pervasive smells of garlic, sandalwood and vegetable butter. Here the Chinese were rather cleaner than in Singapore and Hong Kong and their shops were a bit neater and like our arcades—but with living accommodations above them.

“Blacksmiths and joiners were fewer in number and no cooking or baking were to be seen in the street. But there were plenty of naked people. It was unpleasant to see these white and flabby bodies; they looked exactly like some sort of victuals put out for show between sides of mutton and gammons of ham… along the rows of Chinese shops, from which in turn the smells of soap, shoes, spices, tea and so on were wafted out to us….”

Manila had a distinct smell perceived by 19th-century visitors on their first day in town. What are the smells of Manila that assault visitors in the 21st century?

Comments are welcome at [email protected]


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TAGS: 19th-century Manila, History, Ivan Goncharov, opinion, Philippines
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