Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Manila Impressions

Hitching a ride on the back of an already full Jeepney in Manila
I recently got back from a five-day trip to Manila for work and it being my first trip to the Philippines it was an eye opener.

Before I went, I was told horror stories about the notorious traffic jams -- an acquaintance recalled being stuck in a car for two hours and it hardly moved. He gave up going to his destination and instead asked the driver to take him back to his hotel.

Another friend warned me to bring reading material and download a bunch of podcasts to listen to to while away the time stuck in traffic.

But on the whole we were lucky because the distance between our hotel and the conference venue was not too far -- it wasn't close enough to walk, but it took say 20 minutes by car when it probably took 10 minutes without traffic.

On our first day, a pair begging for money from cars idling
We were ferried everywhere by car, and the main reason is safety. A woman who escorted us has Chinese relatives living in Manila. She told us their house is surrounded by a two-storey tall fence and her uncle packs a gun with him every time they go out.

She says that many years ago things were worse -- her two young cousins were almost kidnapped while their chauffeur was driving them, but luckily knew he was being followed and managed to shake off the shady characters.

I asked if Rodrigo Duterte had anything to do with the country being safer, but our Filipina fixer said it was more because the economy was improving and people were earning more money.

Nevertheless, I saw many cars and Jeepneys -- pimped up long vehicles where people sat in the back -- a kind of cramped minibus -- had Duterte stickers on them.

They would like to believe that he represents them, and not the super rich.

When I was in high school in the 1980s, I had a few Filipina friends. At first they didn't explain why they were in Vancouver, but later I found out one of the families was anti-Marcos and was waiting for him to go. The others probably had the same political leanings.

In the business district, Manila is sleek and modern
I later found out on this trip that when Marcos came to power, he immediately started going after the powerful families that lived in the south who made their money through sugar cane plantations.

I heard that these families run the plantation like fiefdoms, paying their workers low wages so their children couldn't be well educated, but always making sure they give each family a turkey for Christmas.

This uneven development and the wealth gap is very similar to China's, though the Philippines have democracy, and China does not. In both cases, however, corruption still hasn't been eradicated.

Philippine culture is a mixed-up one, thanks to the colonization of the Spanish for over 300 years. As one Fliipina put it, the Spanish only pushed religion on the colony, and so the Philippines is the largest population of Roman Catholics in the world, thanks to birth control being illegal...

After the Spanish, the Americans came for about 50 years, and gave them American English, rule of law, Spam and democracy. It is only in the last few years that the Philippines is starting to figure out its own identity and move away from its colonial mentality and become proud of its heritage.

This is reflected in the food, that has a combination of Spanish, American, Japanese and Chinese influences. And now some progressive chefs are looking to indigenous ingredients to find new flavours.

A craft beer bar in Poblacion with friendly staff
It's interesting to see young Filipino chefs keen on coming back home after having learned abroad, and wanting to start a restaurant, cafe or a bar. Perhaps it's because rents are cheap and so is labour. But perhaps those are the best conditions to be able to experiment and take some risks.

In Hong Kong the start-up costs are so prohibitive that it's way too risky to even try.

The ironic thing is that rich Filipinos like to go to Hong Kong to see what the trends are, when we ourselves look elsewhere!

So I am well aware that my trip was the sanitized version of Manila, and that we haven't even seen how the other side lives. But we managed to try a few trendy places in Poblacion, a red light district that is becoming more gentrified, and the food was not only delicious but very cheap compared to Hong Kong.

Therefore if someone has a decent-paying job, they can afford to eat relatively well.

The people are nice on the whole, but not very bright at times. And things do go on Philippine time -- ie. at least 30 minutes later. It requires a lot of patience and gentle pushing to get things done -- berating them does nothing.

Another thing is that during this conference, I saw a lot of women making high-level decisions. They seem to be the ones getting things done. A Filipina explained to me that it's because the Philippines is a matriarchal society, and so things are done from a practical standpoint because the men are too lazy, and also women make decisions behind the scenes, which is totally acceptable.

It's fascinating to watch these movers and shakers, and I wonder if I'll be back again to discover more of this city and its people.

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