MANILA could have been a dream city in the early 20th century, with its tree-lined boulevards devoid of traffic, its huge houses with gardens of dama de noche, rosal, gumamela, and makahiya, and its sunsets of “purple, orange, (and) vermilion” unmatched by any city in the world.

Sprawling images and nostalgic testimonials of the once beautiful Philippine capital can be gleaned from the pages of The Manila We Knew (Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2006), edited by multi-awarded writer Erlinda Enriquez Panlilio. The collection features 12 women writers whose reminiscences of prewar and postwar Manila are as vivid as the formerly clear waters of San Juan river.

Panlilio won the 2001 National Book Award for biography for her book, Teacher to Tycoon: The Life and Times of Trinidad Diaz Enriquez. Her new book is the third collection of essays written by the Women’s Writer’s Workshop, mentored by University of the Philippines (UP) professor and former Varsitarian editor Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo. The first two books of the Women Writer’s Workshop were Shaking the Family Tree and Why I Travel and Other Essays by Fourteen Women, both published by Anvil.

The essays take the reader to as far back as the late 1930’s, as in Laling Lim’s “At the Edge of Manila,” when ternos with pañuelos was still regarded as the Filipina’s everyday clothes, and stained-glass windows in huge houses were in style. Lim recalls going to Botica Boie, a popular drugstore-cum-restaurant in Escolta in the 1950s, with such affection that she ends her essay with, “Manila was so beautiful then. I must have had a happy childhood because I remember Old Manila with such fondness.”

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Adopting the title of the collection, “The Malate I Knew,” Henrie Santos starts innocently with her childhood years in the street called Colorado in Malate (now Felipe Agoncillo St.), which was lined with acacia trees, “its spreading branches (forming) canopies overhead so that the houses along the streets were protected from the heat of the tropical sun.” However, her memories of Old Manila were marred by the images of World War II, when she witnessed the merciless killings and devastation wrought by the Japanese forces. She writes: “The Malate of my childhood is gone forever. Instead I am left with memories of Malate filled with horror…of endless atrocities committed on harmless and innocent civilians.”

On the other hand, Josefina Pedrosa Manahan talks of her old neighbors in “When the Wind Cooled the Houses of San Juan.” Among her childhood neighbors were famous painter Juan Arellano and Cecilia Avanceña, granddaughter of Chief Justice Ramon Avanceña. But as the years went by, the neighbors became aloof, and “San Juan became a town of small isolated fortresses, its inhabitants all hidden from each other by barriers of stone.”

In Mert Loinaz’ “Stepping into a New World,” the writer recounts her first taste of racial prejudice in her own country, when an American boy questioned why a Filipino like her was swimming in a pool at the Manila Polo Club. It was only much later that she realized the racist implications of the encounter.

Anna Isabel Pamplona’s “Trick or Treat” tackles the same topic in a positive light, since she had gained new foreign friends and discovered new culture upon her transfer from Paco to Makati. Of everything that has happened in her life, she writes: “Every so often, these images flash vividly in my mind’s eye. They soothe and reassure me, gently, like the comfortable and familiar feel of one’s old slippers in the darkness of the quiet night.”

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Every essay carries with it a certain air of nostalgia that awakens long-forgotten memories of Manila among older readers and brings a sense of longing to the younger ones, whether it be the old Assumption College on Herran St. demolished 30 years ago, the “kissing lagoon” at the UP, or the sampaloc trees which had vanished on Sampaloc Avenue, now Tomas Morato. But things change, and so does Manila, leaving only remnants of the trees that once lined its streets, and the fireflies that used to be so abundant in its gardens.

The old Manila has long been buried in the pages of history, but as Hidalgo writes in her foreword, “ Manila might be sinking under the weight of problems proclaimed every day by newspaper columnists and TV commentators… It will survive nonetheless, because people like the writers of this book will not give up on it.”


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