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Seeing Manila through its many battles

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By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter

ASIDE from being the month of love and the arts, many Filipinos are not aware that February was also a very bloody month in our history. Seventy-nine years ago, it was a month that saw the destruction of Manila by bombs and gunfire in the midst of World War II.

For Sylvia Roces Montilla, it was a dark time in her life when, at the age of six, her family had to evacuate Manila after her father, Rafael “Liling” Roces, Jr., was taken and brutally killed by the Japanese. Her cousin, Regina Paterno, had similar trauma — her maternal grandparents burned alive by the militia.

“It’s just ashes and pain and agony left for our imaginations to contemplate,” Ms. Paterno recalled of how it all felt.

Now 86 and 85 respectively, the two women told their stories to a crowd of mainly students at a Feb. 17 event, conducted by the Memorare Manila 1945 foundation, commemorating the Battle of Manila.

The terrifying, month-long chapter in Philippine history took place from Feb. 3 to March 3, 1945. Fought by forces from the United States against Japanese troops, the battle’s casualties included over 100,000 civilians. Numerous churches, government buildings, schools, monuments, and their accompanying treasures dating back centuries were lost in the fierce battle, drastically changing Manila’s cityscape forever.

Unfortunately, despite that extensive damage, public awareness of the historic event has dwindled over the past decades.

“It was more or less something that nobody was talking about in the immediate postwar years,” said Ricardo T. Jose, a war historian and professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines, in an interview with BusinessWorld after the panel discussion with the war survivors.

While the ruins were a painful reminder of what had taken place, not a single book was written about it until the 1990s. “And that’s because they realized that it’s almost 50 years since and there’s no book on it, so a Filipino interviewed some people, wrote it, and published it before the 50th anniversary,” Mr. Jose said.

He pointed out that it was important to listen to the stories of the survivors, especially as more time passes. “There is almost no one left who can talk about it. The ones who spoke today were children, just five or six years old at the time. The older people are all gone.”

HOW TO REMEMBEROne monument that seeks to keep the memory of the harrowing battle alive for future generations to learn from is the Memorare Manila 1945 marker in Plaza de Sta. Isabel, at the corner of General Luna and Anda Streets in Intramuros.

The walled district of Intramuros itself is a reminder of what prewar Manila must have looked, with the government, through the Intramuros Administration, striving to maintain it for its historical value. (One must note that most of the structures inside the walls — aside from the San Agustin Church and parts of Fort Santiago — are all that remain from before WWII. The rest are all reconstructions as the district was almost completely leveled in the battle.)

However, contrary to popular belief, Intramuros is not the only district in Manila where the city’s heritage can be seen.

Stephen John Pamorada, a consultant with The Heritage Collective and the lead convenor of Manileños for Heritage, told BusinessWorld that there is much to see and learn in Sampaloc, Binondo, Escolta, and even his home district of San Nicolas as well.

“The goal is to empower locals with knowledge about the rich heritage of their city, and the skills to preserve it, which include writing letters and petitions to the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) or National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) to save heritage sites in danger of being demolished,” he said in an interview.

He also emphasized the importance of cultural mapping as a way to identify existing resources that may not be given much attention.

“Basically, we go to each district to identify and document the heritage structures and traditions existing in that particular place. It’s more academic and advocacy-driven, not yet tourism in itself, but whatever resources we get or document out of mapping can be processed for tourism purposes later,” said Mr. Pamorada.

While that specific organization is a private effort, Republic Act (RA) 11961, or the Cultural Mapping Act, requires all local government units (LGUs) to survey and map out all the culturally important areas in their jurisdictions, too.

This covers both tangible and intangible, and natural and built heritage, as an extension of RA 10066, or the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009.

At the 79th anniversary ceremony on Feb. 3, Maria Sheilah “Honey” Lacuna, the mayor of Manila, vowed to continue playing an active role in commemorative events and the preservation of heritage structures in her city.

“We will harmonize heritage and progress. We will ensure that these structures of historical value will remain, restored and protected, so that the valuable lessons that they represent will always be treasured and given importance,” she said in her speech.

BEYOND NOSTALGIAIn addition to Intramuros’ regular tour offerings, various private heritage efforts like Renacimiento Manila, Manila By Night, and the Nilad Community held multiple Battle of Manila tours over the course of February.

“It’s a series of tours that we organized per district to show a part of that battle that happened in that very place,” Mr. Pamorada explained.

For him, these tours bring Filipinos back to Manila’s history in a way that’s “experiential,” making it more effective than the standard lecture.

Diego Gabriel B. Torres, a co-founder of Renacimiento Manila and a tourism official with the Intramuros Administration, told BusinessWorld that it was in the late 2010s that Filipinos started showing an interest in learning about history, by sharing old photos of Manila on Facebook.

“Those pining for that lost city are those that haven’t experienced it. We’re longing for a past city — an imagined past city — and comparing it to the chaotic reality now. When we started during the pandemic, people were holed up inside. Our rationale is to go beyond nostalgia, which is just a longing for the past. That’s just the entry point to heritage,” he said.

Mr. Torres added that, before the current wave of heritage advocacy among the youth, it was first popular among the old and affluent. “We want the heritage struggle to be carried by ordinary people, by the middle class, by professionals, who exert their influence through social media and through their peers to shed light on issues.”

Recent campaigns include the halting of the demolition of the Capitol Theater in Escolta and the petitions against the Pasig River Expressway (PAREX) which opponents say will destroy several heritage sites and cover the Pasig River.

PUBLIC SPACESMr. Pamorada, who himself wrote letters to preserve heritage and teaches others to do so as well, pondered how the silent witnesses that survived the war are in danger of not surviving “so-called development.”

“That in itself is very philosophizing. Is it really development if you’re erasing a part of your history?” he said.

Paulo G. Alcazaren, urban planner and architect involved with the ongoing Pasig River Esplanade project (dubbed PARES as opposed to the PAREX), expressed hope that public access to spaces true to Manila can be prioritized.

“There’s bad development and there’s good development. Most other progressive cities around the world have realized that conservation of heritage sites and spaces are essential,” he told BusinessWorld via Zoom.

“If you develop by bulldozing sites or replacing spaces with 50-storey buildings or elevated expressways, then you lose your cultural specificity and the sense of place … Sadly, most public infrastructure in the last half century has been focused on roads and infrastructure for cars,” Mr. Alcazaren said.

Executive Order 35, signed by President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. last July, created the Inter-Agency Council for the Pasig River Urban Development, composed of 15 government agencies and five LGUs, with the goal to complete a master plan for rehabilitating the Pasig River.

By connecting the 26-kilometer length of riverbanks on both sides, the project will provide alternate mobility or transport and linear parks on the banks. The first of nine initial sections was completed in January, in front of the historic Manila Post Office in Ermita. It was rebuilt after having been destroyed in WWII.

Mr. Alcazaren said that it will be very difficult to execute the entire plan, as it involves a team of people from various disciplines to make the entire 26-km stretch beautiful and accessible, from urban planners to landscape architects to transport experts.

“We’ve seen many people come to that section we just finished. The moral of the story is, people will not congregate in spaces that are not human in scale or that have no stories to tell,” he said.

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