Sugar Sun series location #7: Balangiga

My upcoming book, Sugar Moon, will be firmly rooted in history that I believe every American should know: the ambush of a company of American soldiers on September 28, 1901, in Balangiga, Philippines. Most people have never heard of it. What happened that day in Balangiga—and in the months of American counterattacks afterward—has been overshadowed by other towns that Americans do know, ones with names like My Lai and Fallujah. Had we learned the lesson of Balangiga, though, these two towns in Vietnam and Iraq might never have hit the headlines. In fact, they might not be noteworthy at all.

Fishermen in Balangiga Samar where Army Ninth Infantry was attacked during war between Philippines and America in Gilded Age
My photo of fishermen in Balangiga, at the junction of the Balangiga River and the Leyte Gulf. From there, it is not far until you are in the Pacific Ocean.

How did I stumble upon Balangiga? When I started plotting my story about an American schoolteacher and a Filipino sugar baron—the story that became Under the Sugar Sun—I did a lot of research at Ateneo de Manila University, where I read through old issues of the Manila Times on microfiche. (By the way, if you want to entertain me, give me two rolls of that microfiche and leave me there all day. It’s like giving a child an iPad. History is my babysitter.) One of the articles I stumbled across was entitled: “Sister Hunting for Brother: His Name is E.L. Evans and He is Supposed to Be in the Philippines.” From there, I conjured up the idea of a missing brother to bring Georgina Potter to the Philippines. Yes, she was hired by the American colonial government to start a school in the Visayas, but her real motive in coming—and for letting herself get entangled with a jerk named Archie—was finding her brother, Ben Potter.

Character board for Sugar Moon upcoming book in steamy Sugar Sun historical romance series set in Philippines
A character board for Sugar Moon. From left: a Filipina in 1900 who inspired Allegra Alazas; actor Chris Geere, one of my possible “castings” for Ben; a local house; and Mount Suiro on Biliran Island, location of some adventures. Sorry, no more spoilers!

Why was Ben missing? Maybe because he was in a significant battle? Or, at least, a very confusing one? In Under the Sugar Sun, Georgina goes to Army Headquarters in Fort Santiago in Manila to find out, and she lays out all the news articles from a battle in Balangiga. A clerk tries to help her, to no avail:

“Your brother should be in here one way or another.” The clerk put his finger on the article with the list. “Name and rank?”

If it were that easy, she thought, she would not have bothered crossing the Pacific. “Sergeant Benjamin Potter.”

“I see a Ben Cutter,” the clerk said. “That’s probably him.” He sounded sure, as if the Army made such mistakes all the time. Maybe they did. He would know.

Georgie pulled another article to compare side by side. “Half the names are spelled differently from one day to another,” she explained. “Cutter one day, then Carter, then Palmer. And here all of the Boston soldiers are described as dead. All of them! My mother and I bought every paper, every edition, for a month, trying to find a new official list that made any sense. And you know what the Army told us? Nothing! No telegram, no letter, nothing.” She was not normally one to create a scene, but she had come a long way for the truth, and she was going to get it.

The confusion of names and numbers really did happen, which is one of the reasons why I chose this setting for my character. It makes sense that if he survived, he still might not want to be found. Several survivors stayed in the Philippines afterward, much to the chagrin of their families.

So, it was decided: Ben served in Company C, Ninth Infantry, which saw action in China during the Boxer War, and then returned to the Philippines to be stationed in Balangiga. Poor Ben. Poor Balangiga.

Company C occupied this town, and occupation is ugly. It doesn’t matter how you justify it—in this case, blockading the southern coast of Samar so that the guerrillas in the mountains could not be resupplied, a legitimate military purpose. It also doesn’t matter if the occupation starts off peacefully, which it did in Balangiga. It is not going to stay that way. The lesson of occupation throughout world history—no matter whether we are talking about ancient Greek occupation of Jerusalem, Israeli occupation of Lebanon, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or the American occupation of the Philippines—things will go downhill.

The Americans called the Filipino guerrillas insurrectionists, and they labeled what happened in Balangiga a massacre, implying that the perpetrators had no just cause. On the other side, Filipinos call their soldiers revolutionaries, and they see the event itself as a just uprising. If you want to avoid all judgment, it was an incident, or more specifically an ambush. I am greatly indebted to Philippine historian Rolando O. Borrinaga and British writer Bob Couttie for their first-hand research and outstanding work on Balangiga. In my version of the story, I have taken some liberties—merging characters to simplify things for the reader, renaming a few people—but I hope that my unwitting mentors will find that I got the big brush strokes right. All errors are my own, of course.

Recommended reading is Borrinaga and Couttie on Balangiga Samar Ninth Infantry attack during war between Philippines and America in Gilded Age
Two outstanding scholars on the Balangiga Incident, Rolando O. Borrinaga and Bob Couttie. Bottom right is my photo of the monument to the attackers in Balangiga town.

As we will see in Sugar Moon, at first things went okay. Uneasily, but okay. An American officer played chess with the parish priest. The man Sergeant Benjamin Potter is based on studied martial arts with the police chief. Individuals got along. But here’s the rub: if the townspeople became too friendly with the Americans, they would face retribution from the revolutionaries up in the mountains. So the town tried to play it cool, stay neutral.

Southern Samar coast in the Philippines is jungle and good cover for guerrillas during war between Philippines and America in Gilded Age
The southern coast of Samar is not the easiest place to patrol. This is the Cadacan River near Basey. Image courtesy of Iloilo Wanderer on Wikimedia Commons.

But the Americans noticed some strange things happening—like sweet potatoes planted in the jungle for the guerrilla soldiers, or townspeople not cutting down banana trees that could provide the guerrillas cover—and the Yanks thought they had been betrayed. They ordered the town to cut down essential food sources, to “clean up” the town. If the town complied, not only would they need to destroy their own property, they would also endanger the understanding they had with guerrillas. I think you probably see where this is going. The reality of a town like this during occupation is that it will be caught in between two armies, and if neither army can truly protect the civilians against the other, the people must try to play one off the other. That is a dangerous game.

Company C doubled down. They imprisoned the town’s men in conical tents that looked like Native American teepees. These Sibley tents were supposed to sleep 16, but were each jammed full with over 70 men and boys, who had to sit on their haunches all night. They were not fed dinner, and in the morning they were forced to cut down the food their families depended on. This went on for several days.

Sibley tents pictured by Winslow Homer used by Ninth Infantry American army in war against Philippines in Gilded Age
Several African-American Union Army Teamsters rest on a Sibley tent in 1865, giving some sense of their size (and age). It is a crowded sleep for 16 inside, let alone 70 or more. Winslow Homer’s The Bright Side, is in the public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Americans did not see the town turning against them. They only saw their own frustration: they felt alone, vulnerable, on the edge of a hostile island, a day’s travel away from the nearest garrison. Yet they did not expect the ambush. My character Ben will narrate the whole debacle through his flashbacks, which starts with him trying to court a local woman. He’s a proper gentleman, don’t worry, but he’s smitten. This, by the way, is based on a real possible romance between an American sergeant and the local prayer leader of the town.

On Sunday, September 28, 1901, the morning after the town fiesta, a church bell rang. Nothing unusual about that—until men dressed as women streamed out of the church with machetes. The American soldiers were eating breakfast. Dozens would die immediately and gruesomely. A little more than half would manage to escape, but several of them would die along the way of their wounds or from other attacks. In total, 48 of 77 Americans would die.

Google Cultural Institute shows Ayala Museum Balangiga attack in war between Philippines and America in Gilded Age
One of many wonderful dioramas designed by the Ayala Museum and now viewable through the Google Cultural Institute.

Americans blamed the Filipino revolutionaries for streaming out of the jungle to attack the town, but the truth Borrinaga and Couttie uncovered is that the town actually planned the attack themselves. They may have borrowed some men from villages outside Balangiga proper, and they may have coordinated with the revolutionaries, but this was a town fighting back against the soldiers who had imprisoned them.

After that, all hell broke loose. If there is something more violent than the rising up of an occupied people, it is the revenge exacted by a conventional military force armed to the teeth. General Jacob “Hell Roaring Jake” Smith ordered his men to turn the entire island into “a howling wilderness” by striking down all men and boys capable of carrying arms, which he defined as all those over ten years old. According to the men under his command, they ignored that part of the order. But they did make a special trip back to Balangiga to burn down the town and exact revenge. They embargoed the entire island, burned more villages, and torched rice stores. (Remember that rice was currency for all sides in this conflict.) Months of revenge resulted in the deaths of thousands on Samar, maybe as many as 15,000, according to Borrinaga.

Google Cultural Institute shows Ayala Museum Howling Wilderness American attack on Samar during Philippine-American War in Gilded Age
Another of the many wonderful dioramas designed by the Ayala Museum and now viewable through the Google Cultural Institute. Also included are a photo of General “Hell-Roaring Jake” Smith and the New York Journal editorial cartoon of his order. Both are in the public domain and are found on Wikipedia.

This was the My Lai moment of the Philippine-American War, and it was just as explosive to the American public as that incident in Vietnam was. For the first time, with the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, the American public could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. The excesses of the Army now blanketed newspapers and magazines Stateside. Though military authorities tried to censor the press by controlling the telegraph lines out of Manila, reporters got around this by traveling to Hong Kong to wire their stories. The courts-martial of several American officers made daily headlines, and Senate hearings began on the issue of American atrocities in the Philippines.

Picture of Ninth Infantry Army soldiers survived Balangiga attack war between Philippines and America in Gilded Age
The survivors of Balangiga in April 1902. Photo in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

General Smith received a slap on the wrist from the court-martial that followed, but popular outcry in the US forced President Roosevelt to demand Smith’s retirement. Smith retired with a full pension. The American lieutenant in command at My Lai, convicted of murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians, served only seven months of house arrest and then was pardoned. In both cases, if you look up the chain of command, you’ll notice complicity. Smith’s commander, Brigadier General Hughes, was the one who first ordered the men to make a “desert of that corner of Samar.”

PTSD Post Traumatic Stress Disorder suffered by American soldiers during war in Philippines in Gilded Age
A military hospital in Manila. Photo in the public domain.

My character Ben tried hard to be better than the rest, but what happened in Balangiga tortures him. You are not supposed to have liked him in Under the Sugar Sun, and he does not like himself much, either. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something that two of my very best friends share with him. Soldiers with PTSD struggle with guilt, depression, substance abuse, anger management, insomnia, and other health problems. I am greatly indebted to these friends for letting me put some of their worst fears on the page. I hope they will also appreciate the redemptive journey Ben goes through and the healing power of love that he finds. They would tell me this is far too simplistic a cure, but I think they want Ben to have a happily-ever-after, so it’s okay.

George Santayana wrote in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is fitting that he said so at the outset of the American Century. The vigorous debate about the use of military force abroad is familiar to people today, but it wasn’t a regular part of American discourse until the Philippine-American War. America’s professional army was born out of this war. Before 1898, the entire US Army was smaller than today’s New York City Police Department. Most of the Spanish-American War had to be fought with state volunteers whose enlistments lasted only a year. When hostilities broke out in Philippines, Congress promptly doubled the size of the regular army once, and then doubled it again. For the first time in its history, America had a significant standing army stationed far from its borders.

Maybe it is not good enough to just remember the past. You should experience it yourself. That’s the garden where empathy grows. That’s where you get all the feels. I hope Sugar Moon helps.

Photograph of an American concentration camp in war in Philippines during Gilded Age
Photograph of an American reconcentrado camp, the exact tactic we blamed Spain for in Cuba.

Sugar Sun series location #6: Luneta

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

The Luneta at sunset.

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.

Creative commons image of a Manila sunset by Randy Galang.

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.

A close up of an 1899 photo of the Luneta. These girls look like they're having fun!
The featured 1899 photo of the Luneta. These girls look like they’re having fun! (Umm, that was sarcasm. Look at the companion on the left with her arms folded across her chest.)

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).

G. W. Peter’s illustration, “An Evening Concert on the Luneta,” which was published in Harper’s Weekly as the centerfold on 25 November 1899. I color-corrected a high resolution image I found to bring out the American soldiers on the right side.

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.

Part of the March 8, 1909, feature on the band’s concert for Taft’s inauguration. In an earlier Boston Globe article, it quoted Maj. Gen. Franklin J. Bell, of American reconcentrado fame, as calling for an end to “freak features” of the parade. Even the above article, which was very favorable to the band, claims that the men had “never seen an instrument” before the American arrival, which is so preposterous a claim that only other Americans would believe it.
The band in the March 1909 blizzard inauguration of President William Howard Taft.
A photo of the band in the March 1909 blizzard inauguration of President William Howard Taft.

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 Peoplea 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.

A postcard from the Commonwealth period, 1934-1946.
A postcard from the Commonwealth period, 1934-1946.

One thing that hasn’t changed in Manila since 1900 is the traffic. The anonymous visitor who called the Filipinos “deceitful wretches” also said about the end of the evening: “there is a crack of the whip and a grand hurrah and one mad dash for the different homes. I wonder there are not dozen smash ups each afternoon, but there are not. I used to melt and close my eyes, expecting to be dashed into eternity any moment, but I have learned to like it, and I don’t want any one to pass me on the road.” We’ve all been there.

A vintage postcard of the Malecón.
A vintage postcard of the Malecón.

Some park goers did not wait for the end of the evening to race, though. With the old shoreline, the water went right up to the walls of Fort Santiago—or almost. There was a single open road there, called the Malecón, where carriages practically flew:

The two vehicles ate up the open road. Georgie did not consider herself a coward, but she was torn between fearing for the horses’ safety and for her own. Maybe sensing that, Javier put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer to his side. It was too cozy by half, but it steadied her enough to make the frenetic motion bearable.

The two nags kept changing the lead. One would break out in a small burst of speed, and then slow in recovery while the other made his move. They had at least a mile to go until the “finish” at Fort Santiago, and it seemed that Georgie’s original prediction was on the mark: the sole surviving animal would win. It was less a race than a gladiatorial bout. Unfortunately, their own horse showed signs of exhaustion first, probably because he pulled an extra passenger. His movements became choppy. His head drifted to the side, and he kept jerking it forward, again and again, as if the motion could create the winning momentum.

With every spasm of the horse’s head, the carriage jolted. Soon, the frame on Georgie’s side started shaking. The roof above them was supported by three thin pieces of bamboo, and she watched one pull out of its fastener. The front corner of fabric flapped wildly in the wind, pulling hard at the other two rods. Even more worrisome was the squeak of the wooden wheel to her left. If that splintered, the whole apparatus would collapse, probably pulling the two men and the horse right on top of her. The sound of hooves, wind, and screaming jockeys drowned out Georgie’s increasingly frantic warnings.

Or so she thought.

Javier tapped the driver’s shoulder. Hard. When the man didn’t respond, he grabbed the fellow’s arm and shouted. The driver argued back, probably insisting his animal could still win. Javier glanced over at Georgie briefly and added something in Spanish about “the lady.” He signaled again, this time his face quite stern. Javier’s scowl was, no doubt, the most effective weapon he had.

Georgie was grateful. They were finally slowing down. “The carriage is falling apart,” she tried to explain when she could finally be heard over the din.

“I know,” Javier said in quick English, peering over her lap to the wheel beneath. “We’ll make it, don’t worry. But I blamed quitting on you, so act like you might swoon.”

Georgie fanned herself wildly with her hand and threw back her head. Was that right? She had never before tried to feign fragility—it was not a safe thing to do in South Boston.

Javier watched her for a second, an unreadable expression on his face. Then he laughed—at her this time, not with her. “Wow, you do that badly.”

She gave him a little swat on the arm. “What a terrible thing to say.”

One eyebrow rose. “I don’t think so. I dislike weak women.”

“Then why put on a charade for the driver?”

Javier glanced up at the disappointed Filipino. “So he and his horse wouldn’t lose face. Honor matters even for a Manila cabbie, so I thought a little play-acting from you would be an easy solution. Now I’m not so sure.”

Georgie did not like her competency questioned, even in such a ridiculous arena. “I had no idea that theater was required. How convincing does this have to be?”

He looked at her intently. “Very.”

She slumped back in the seat, trying again to look helpless.

“Ridiculous,” Javier murmured under his breath as he reached out to her. Before she could react, he pulled her close, tucking her right shoulder under his arm and pressing her solidly against his chest. He gently brushed her cheek with his fingertips, the way one might soothe a skittish child. Up until that moment, Georgie had only pretended to faint; now she actually felt light-headed.

“Are you okay, mi cariño?” His words played to the driver, but they felt genuine enough to her.

She looked up. This close, she could see honey-colored circles in his brown irises. They looked like rings on a tree. Did she see in them the same fire she felt, or was this a part of the show?

Gently Javier tilted her chin up, his lips now inches away. No one had ever tried to kiss her, not even Archie–his amorous attentions had all been by pen. She thought about resisting, but that was all it was, a thought. Javier’s breath was clean. Only the smallest bite of scotch lingered from lunch. Given her past, Georgie had never believed alcohol could be an aphrodisiac, but on this man the crisp scent was provocative. He smelled of confidence and power, yet his lips looked surprisingly soft—

—Under the Sugar Sun

Ha ha, I think I’m going to leave it there. You’re welcome.

Sugar Sun series location #5: Hotel Oriente

In Hotel Oriente the establishment itself is a character—but decidedly not a romantic one. The American guests cannot figure out how to sleep in the beds, the manager runs out of eggs at breakfast, and water pours down the walls when an upstairs couple gets too frisky in the bathtub. I embellished, but I was not that far off the mark: the first two happened at the real Hotel Oriente, and the last one took place at the Army hotel my father-in-law managed during the Vietnam War.

US Library of Congress photo of the Insular Cigar Factory (foreground) and the Hotel Oriente (background) on the Plaza Calderon de la Barca. Public domain image scanned and uploaded by Scott Slaten.

When the real Oriente opened its doors in 1889, it was the place to be. José Rizal himself stayed in Room 22, facing Binondo Church. Even the food was good. According to a contemporary journalist, a 21-year old woman from Maine: “Its chicken, chile peppers, and rice are a revelation…[and] it dispenses a curry equal to the finest productions of Bombay or Calcutta.” (Are you thinking, “What does a 19th century Mainer know about curry?” Me, too.)

The 83 rooms were always the hotel’s best feature. Another American account said: “I expected to find a regular hole, but really I have a nice large room, hard wood floor, electric lights, etc, etc. The bathrooms are all tiled, sanitary plumbing, fine large court, [and] tropical plants.” By the way, those plants entangle both Georgina and Della in their turn.

The Hotel Oriente rooms as photographed for a contemporary travelogue. Read more about the Oriente’s history at Lou Gopal’s fantastic website.

Of course, if you are getting the picture that Americans were difficult to please, you are right. Moreover, they never recognized their own provinciality. They especially had trouble with the mattress-less bed. The perforated cane bottom allowed the contraption to breathe, logically trading coolness for softness, but one guest had so much trouble figuring the thing out that he slept in the wicker chair by the window instead.

Still, the Americans thought that they improved every place they went, and the Oriente was no different:

What an establishment! How shiftless and dirty, and how it smells! The building itself is well enough, being large and airy, but it is conducted on the Spanish plan of dirt and sloth, by a manager whose watchword has evidently been mañana for all the years of his life. Now, he is forced to deal with a people who insist that all things be done, completed, finished, the day before yesterday. The result to his dead brain is almost insanity. He looks at us in a dazed manner and moans out that he has no rooms, muttering constantly the one all-expressive word: Americanos, Americanos.

I might have been muttering the same thing, too, and I am an Americano. While the Yankees had only been in the imperialism biz a few years, they had already adopted all the ennui and petulance of experienced Great Gamers.

An advertisement from the 1901 Commercial Directory of Manila and a close up of an 1898 map of Manila and suburbs.

One Minnesotan did try to whip the hotel into shape: West Smith, a volunteer who had fought the Spanish in the Battle of Manila in August 1898. He took over the Oriente in late 1902 and continued to manage it until it was transformed into the Philippine Constabulary headquarters in 1904. After that he worked for The Great Eastern Life Assurance Company. He met his wife, Stella Margaret Case, in Manila while she was visiting her sister, a stenographer for the Insular Ice Plant. If you see similarities in names here—Moss North from West Smith, and Della from Stella—you would not be wrong. It’s how I do.

And, speaking of names, the hotel itself had many. Hotel de Oriente was the name plastered across the exterior moulding, but all of the following were used: Hotel d’Oriente, Hotel el Oriente, Hotel Oriente, Hotel Orient, and then every single one of these in reverse order. I keep with the American tradition by using two names interchangeably as if I don’t know the difference. Ignorance is bliss, right?

Menu excerpts from the Hotel Oriente, 1900-1902. The top three are each relevant to a different scene from either Hotel Oriente or Under the Sugar Sun.

Sugar Sun series location #4: Clarke’s

Early on in Hotel Oriente, our heroine Della ventures to the most “swell” confectionery in Manila, Clarke’s Ice Cream Parlor:

Located at the entrance to Escolta, Manila’s Fifth Avenue, the establishment proudly proclaimed its name on both the roof and on a half dozen oversized awnings facing every direction. Even without the signage, the place was clearly marked by a large crowd. The spacious wood-paneled room was full of businessmen and civil servants from all over the islands, officers of the army and navy, and tourists from half the world.

Vintage postcard showing Escolta Street from Plaza Moraga, with Clarke’s on the right.

Clearly, M. A. “Met” Clarke, a native of Chicago, knew an opportunity when he saw it. In August 1898, only four days after the landing of American soldiers in Manila, he arranged a long-term lease in this fashionable shopping district. As one visitor wrote:

To the American bred boys in khaki, the place quickly became known as an oasis in a desert. Weary, thirsty, hungry, and wet with perspiration, the commands coming from or going to the firing lines halted there long enough to quench their thirst or to fill the aching voids. Incidentally, the soldiers helped Clarke along by spending their money freely.

Later Clarke would sublet a slate of rooms on the second floor, and his monthly income from these rents would pay his entire annual premium. But Clarke could not have been so successful if his food had not been exceptional. Fortunately, it was.

This photo and the featured image from Lou Gopal’s outstanding Manila Nostalgia website. Read more on Escolta there.

Clarke’s was the place to find the best gingerbread, the best candy, and the best pink (condensed milk) ice cream in Manila—and maybe in all of Asia, according to the foreigners who lived there. Despite being an ice cream and soda fountain, though, Clarke’s real claims to fame seemed to be bread and coffee. Clarke had three 16 x 18 foot ovens that turned out 36,000 pounds of bread a day. For our character Della, the value of fresh bread cannot be underestimated: “After three days of the atrocious food at the Hotel Oriente, her stomach almost jumped out of her throat to lay claim to a loaf.” (See more on the hotel’s disappointing food in the American era in the next post.)

Contemporary advertisements for Clarke’s taken from Philippine Magazine and page 326 of The Filipino Teacher.

Moreover, the coffee was locally grown in Luzon and roasted by Clarke himself. (I used to have a farm in Indang, Cavite, and they still grow beans in town and dry them out on every road and driveway available.) But don’t take my word for it. Read a contemporary account:

Clarke’s Coffee!—its delicious and aromatic flavor is suggestive of Arabian poetry and romance of deserts and camels of swift steeds and beautiful women. The beverage itself exhilarates you, gives you a feeling of buoyancy. Perhaps you are a connoisseur of coffee, and during your travels in Oceania or China you have been nauseated with the horrible concoctions served to you in hotels and on steamers—the vile black liquid that they call coffee. If you are, Clarke’s is the place for you. The coffee served to you there, nicely, daintily, temptingly, will make you smile with satisfaction, and you will begin to understand how the Americans do some things in Manila.

Another image of Clarke’s, as published on page 77 of the Magazine of Business in 1914.

Clarke would have been the next Midas of Manila had he “not been a plunger,” according to the Magazine of Business account. He made and lost a fortune in gold mining and hemp-stripping machines. But this is the way of the early American period in the Philippines. Respectable businessmen (and women) had no reason to cross the Pacific. Those who did make the trip were often hucksters, carpetbaggers, and scoundrels. Clarke seemed one of the better of the lot, since he was not implicated in the quartermaster embezzlement scheme that rattled Manila in 1901 (and was the inspiration behind the scandal in Hotel Oriente):

Contemporary accounts of the quartermaster scandal in Manila, along with the destination of the guilty: Bilibid Prison.

Of course, Moss, our hero of Hotel Oriente, is not so certain that Clarke is innocent, just that he is crafty: “As if the police would know where to look,” he says. “That man has more warehouses than the Army itself.”

Sadly, Clarke’s empire was only to last until about 1911, when his losses in the mining industry sent him swimming back to California. Or did he really leave? Maybe he just changed his name to Starbuck…

Sugar Sun series location #3: Escolta

Described as the Fifth Avenue of Manila, the Escolta was the central business district of the city. Named after the escort (escolta) that accompanied the Spanish governor-general in his excursions here, the street developed a reputation as the ritziest row in Manila. Felice Sta. Maria explained its appeal, as one could always find here “the snobbish precursors of the large department stores and the best of the limited-line stores.” A contemporary account said:

What cannot be bought on the Escolta…is hardly to be found in the city. Harness and hardware, dry goods and diamonds, beer, whisky and cigars, stationery, clothing, drugs, books, notions and wares from India, China, and Japan…

Advertisement from the Witten’s Directory (1902) of Manila, as found on the website of the Pinoy Kollektor.

This busy entrepôt was located outside the Spanish walled-in core of Intramuros—not so surprising when you learn that the whole area, Binondo, was also Manila’s Chinatown. For several hundred years, Hokkien merchants came from the reclusive mainland, loaded with silks, porcelain, and tea to sell to Spanish galleon crews, who were flush with Mexican silver. But though the Spanish needed the trade, they also distrusted their partners. For a long time, all Chinese—even those who had converted to Christianity or had been born in Manila, some to Filipino mothers—had to live within a cannon shot from the Crown. And that was not a passive-aggressive threat; it was aggressive-aggressive, as they did use their cannons on occasion. Hence it is especially ironic that while the Chinese built the prosperity of Binondo, the Spanish would later claim the most prosperous street, Escolta, as theirs.

Crop of 1901 photo of Escolta from the photo collection of John Tewell.

When the Americans first arrived, they installed their own cultural touchstones—bars. Helen Taft, the wife of Philippine commissioner and eventual governor, William Howard Taft, wrote about the “beery” odor and dangers to women there. By 1899, the saloons were forced to close at 10 pm, and in February 1900 they were banned from Binondo altogether. (Of course, bars did not disappear from the city entirely. By August 1900 there were over 1100 liquor-selling establishments in Manila. In the first ten months of the American occupation, alcohol imports quadrupled.) Once this street was again safe for women and their pocketbooks, new stores opened to cater to their needs, including Clarke’s Ice Cream and Heacock’s Department Store. Anyone who was anyone shopped and ate on the Escolta, and then headed out to the Luneta to be seen in the latest Paris or New York fashions. Not bad for a bunch of carpetbaggers.

An Escolta street scene from 1901. Note the liquor billboards in the upper right corner.

Featured public domain image (1899) at the top of this post by J. D. Cress, found the Library of Congress.