Wealthy doñas, notoriously late risers, would bathe and dress just in time to catch the evening breeze that cooled the bay and blew away the mosquitos. Once there, they would catch up on the latest tsismis, gossip passed from calesa to calesa like a tattler’s telegraph. Then they would be off to eat and dance at a friend’s house, returning home shortly before dawn to sleep through another morning. Meanwhile, their servants ran their households, farms, and shops.
Javier’s carriage got in line with the others circling in comfort, leaving the poor to walk the shoreline. Calling the Luneta a park was a bit generous, considering the utter lack of trees or foliage. The only decorations were incandescent gas lanterns circling the perimeter, sort of like candles on a vast birthday cake.
— Under the Sugar Sun
Called the “Champs-Elysées of the Philippines” by a French physician in the early nineteenth century, Luneta Park was also dubbed “the favorite drive of the wealthy [and] the favorite walk of the poor people.”
There were three good reasons for this. First, as one American wrote: “The sunsets from the Luneta have been more than pyrotechnic, and I now believe that nowhere do you see such displays of color as in the Orient, Land of the Sunrise.” Troubling Orientalist fetish aside, I think he’s right. And the sunsets may have actually gotten better with pollution, as long as you like the color red. Hey, don’t blame me—Scientific American actually agrees.
The second and third reasons for the popularity of the Luneta come from Edith Moses, wife of one of the first Philippine commissioners: “There is always a breeze and there are no mosquitoes; besides that, one meets everyone he knows, and ladies visit in each other’s carriages in an informal way….There is the comfort of dispensing with hat and gloves, and many ladies and almost all young girls drive in low-necked dinner or evening dresses.” It boils down to (2) no mosquitos and (3) a serious party.
If the Luneta was the place to be, naturally it was where Javier took Georgina on their first “date,” though she did not realize that’s what it was. He’s a sly dog, that Javier. He’s also part Spanish, and the Spanish were the first to ritualize visits at the Luneta, including the rules of the road, prompting Georgina to ask:
“What would happen if we turned the carriage around and circled in the other direction?”
Javier laughed. “You are a rebel, Maestra.”
“No, really,” she urged on. “This whole orderly migration—I just can’t reconcile it with the chaos of the rest of the city.”
“That’s why the Spanish liked it,” he answered. “Only the archbishop and governor-generals’ carriages were allowed to pass against the line. That way you had no excuse but to recognize and salute them as they passed.”
“You could get in trouble for forgetting?”
“Absolutely. The Peninsulares believed it important to punish people for small sins lest they attempt any larger ones. It’s not an uncommon assumption among occupiers.”
— Under the Sugar Sun
Ouch. Javier was not a huge fan of the newly-arrived Americans, as most readers know, which is why of course he was destined to fall in love with one. But he had a point: the Yankees ultimately ruined a good thing.
Maybe it was because the Luneta was not grand enough for them. The wife of Governor William Howard Taft was underwhelmed at first:
“And now we come to the far-famed Luneta,’ said Mr. Taft, quite proudly.
“Where?” I asked. I had heard much of the Luneta and expected it to be a beautiful spot.
“Why, here. You’re on it now,” he replied. An oval drive, with a bandstand inside at either end—not unlike a half-mile race track—in an open space on the bay shore; glaringly open. Not a tree; not a sprig of anything except a few patches of unhappy looking grass. There were a few dusty benches around the bandstands, nothing else—and all burning in the white glare of the noonday sun.
While Helen Taft did eventually warm to this “unique and very delightful institution,” it was not love at first sight. She was not the only one, either. One American wrote a letter back to her friend in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which the friend sought fit to publish in the local Republican newspaper: “The Luneta is crowded every afternoon with officers dressed in spotless white from their heads to their heels driving fast horses and flirting with other men’s wives. The husbands, as a rule, are at the front and only get in occasionally, tired out and dirty, and it makes me sick.”
There had always been a social side to what went on at the park—innocent courtship right under the friars’ and nuns’ noses—which is why the place was an early favorite of my character Allegra. But it took American naval officers to add infidelity to the list of pastimes. Officers courting a querida was common enough that it was captured in this awesome 1899 Harper’s Weekly centerfold, of which an original hangs in my dining room (because eBay makes such delights possible).
There seems to have always been music at the Luneta—small bands were ubiquitous in the islands, and every village had at least one—but the Americans congratulated themselves for adding the Philippine Constabulary Band to the regular roster. These musicians, led by African-American conductor Lt. Walter H. Loving, were widely noted for their excellence. They not only traveled to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair, but they were also invited to play at President Taft’s 1909 inauguration.
One of the Constabulary Band’s favorite numbers was one Americans would still recognize, as it is played by modern university marching bands at football games:
“Hey, that’s ‘Hot Time in the Old Town,’” Georgina exclaimed. “How’d they learn American music?”
“The ‘Hototay’ we call it,” Allegra said. She sat between Javier and Georgina, but she was too tiny to be much of a barrier. “The song is everywhere, even funerals. Filipinos think it is your national anthem.”
Georgina laughed. “Maybe it should become yours.”
“You suggest we adopt the drinking song of an occupying army?” Even before Javier finished the question, he regretted asking it. Hay sus, why couldn’t he keep his mouth shut?
—Under the Sugar Sun
Maybe Javier was a bit sensitive, but Georgina certainly did arrive in the Philippines with the “benevolent assimilation” bias of the other Insulares and Thomasites, though she will take her mission to an interesting and sexy extreme. Though it is important to point out that even at the beginning, she was not hateful. Many were. Take the author of those 1900 letters published in the Scranton Republican, who said: “As soon as the concert is over, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is played…Every soldier and sailor and all the Filipinos (deceitful wretches) stand with uncovered heads until the last strains die away…” (italics mine).
Maybe you can forgive the woman her racism because Manila was still a field of battle in the Philippine-American War, but maybe not. The Americans were, after all, the intruders. My husband gave me a huge coffee table book from 1899 entitled Our Islands and Their People—a threatening premise, as if “their people” are infesting “our islands,” and how dare they! The text of the book is pretty neutral, and the photographs themselves beautiful, but the captions are outrageous. You can read more on the racism of the day here.
The Americans believed that they were improving the islands, but they did not improve the Luneta. In fact, they may have ruined it. If you have been the Luneta, you are probably confused by everything written above because the main body of the park is most definitely not along the shoreline—not anymore. In the construction of the port of Manila in 1909, the Americans reclaimed 60 hectares of land, the first of many expansions.
By 1913, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “Today the Luneta remains as it was in the old Spanish days, but its chief charm, the seaward view, is gone. This is due to the filling in of the harbor front, which has left the Luneta a quarter of a mile from the waterfront.” On their new land, the Americans built a “Gringo Luneta,” in the words of Nick Joaquin, and it was here that they eventually put their own exclusive social clubs, like the Elks Club, the Army and Navy Club, and the Manila Hotel—all gated or indoor establishments. They managed to keep the seaside space for themselves and relegate the poor to their own homes. Shame.
Another thing lost in the American expansion was the beautiful shoreline drive, called the Malecón, a whole new post!