Want to learn more about the setting of the Sugar Sun series? Click on any of the graphics below. To find these places on maps of the Philippines & Manila, click here to go straight to the bottom of this post. Enjoy your visit!
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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):
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…
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…
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.
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.
Read more about these carpetbaggers falling in love in Hotel Oriente, the prequel novella of the Sugar Sun series, which takes place mostly in Manila.