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Filipino hospitality in the White House

Taft is a name made familiar to us by a once-beautiful avenue that connects the southern Metro Manila cities of Manila, Pasay and Parañaque. It is a disservice to honor Taft with a street killed and made dingy as the underbelly of the Light Rail Transit, because William Howard Taft was: the first civil governor-general of the Philippines (1901-1903), 27th president of the United States (1909-1913), and 10th chief justice of the US Supreme Court (1921-1930).

It is not well known that Taft and his wife drew a lot of social experience from their brief stay in Manila, such that Mrs. Taft, as first lady, made of Potomac Park in Washington  a mirror of the afternoon musicales in the Luneta where people watched the postcard-pretty sunset. “That Manila could lend anything to Washington,” wrote Helen Taft in her 1914 memoirs, “would be an idea that would surprise some persons, but the Luneta is an institution whose usefulness to society in the Philippine capital is not to be overestimated.”

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The Tafts, like the Spanish governors-general before them, would take a carriage from Malacañang to Luneta for a paseo, and with band music to end the day. Spanish Gov. Primo de Rivera, for example, would arrive in Luneta on a magnificent carriage drawn by four horses; that was a signal for the band to play the “Marcha Real,” until the governor took his seat and ordered them to stop the protocol and get on with the show. Shortly before 8 p.m., Primo de Rivera would take his leave by declaring in Spanish: “Now let us go home and eat our tinola.”

Entertaining at the White House during the Taft presidency owed a lot to their stay in Malacañang and the socials arranged by Manuel de Yriarte, who died on the Malacañang dance floor in 1930 while directing the Rigodon de Honor. The Philippine Constabulary Band was imported and played at Taft’s inauguration as president. Taft brought back his Filipino valet, Monico Lopez Lara, who formed part of the White House staff though his salary was paid from Taft’s pocket, because he had no US civil service eligibility.

How I wish Lopez Lara left a record of his stay in the White House, so he could tell us about all the open-air garden parties reminiscent of Malacañang on the White House lawn that the American staff found disagreeable, because they preferred indoor receptions.

From a lengthy interview Yriarte gave to the Graphic, Yriarte narrated that he organized for Taft dances in Malacañang, arranged the rooms and even had a “Venetian Night,” which transformed the Pasig into a wonderland with floating “pagodas from Manila, Pasig, Pateros, Malabon, Navotas and the Chinese community.” Yriarte’s biggest problem in Malacañang were the social climbers and gatecrashers, because everyone seemed to think they were entitled to attend the parties there.

One of Yriarte’s most complicated parties came following the signing of the Peace treaty of Biak-na-Bato in December 1897, when the governor “took me by the ear one day and said: ‘Boy, I am going to tear your ears off if at the great Peace Ball that we are going to give you do not do something startling, something that has never been seen here before.’

“After much hard thinking it finally occurred to me to stage what I had seen in Paris when I was with the Spanish embassy, at a big festival in Versailles. It was a large cascade with blocks of ice and colored lights behind each block, and ferns on the pedestals, instead of potted plants, there were pyramids of ice with red hibiscus. It goes without saying that on that day, Manila remained without ice, because there was only one small plant managed by my friend Peña, who cooperated with me, though very reluctantly. I obtained the effect desired and was gratified to see the satisfaction of old Fernando [Primo de Rivera] who embraced me in his gratitude.”

So famous were the scenes created for Malacañang parties by Yriarte that during the time of Gov. Francis B. Harrison, another person remembered only by a traffic-choked Manila street, the governor requested a grand festival like the “Venetian Night” Yriarte  had created for the Tafts. By then, times had changed and Yriarte had to pay production costs, so he tricked pueblos into joining a contest by submitting pagodas, fireworks, music and illumination, which all made for one great party, now history.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Philippine Constabulary Band, White House, William Howard Taft
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