Georgina looked up at Fort Santiago, the stone embodiment of Spanish paranoia that capped the fortress city of old Manila. A bas-relief of Saint James the Moor-Slayer stood guard over the gate. Not the most observant Catholic, Georgie liked the thought of Iberian explorers braving the long, lonely journey across the Pacific only to find themselves back where they started—fighting Muslims. Judging by the number of churches they left behind, conversion had been a spiritual test they had met with gusto.
The defensive embankment of Fort Santiago (“Saint James”) has been around since shortly after the Spanish took Manila from its indigenous Muslim rajahs in 1571—hence, the tone-deaf dedication to Saint James the Moorslayer. (The Spanish converted or chased out most Muslims in the archipelago, but not all. Still today, 5% of Filipinos are Muslim, mostly in southern Mindanao and the surrounding islands.)
When a Dutch traveler painted Manila in 1665, you can already see the walled city of Intramuros, capped by Fort Santiago at the mouth of the Pasig river. That was where the Spanish Army was headquartered. Almost 240 years later, my heroine Georgina Potter had no choice but to search for her missing soldier brother at Fort Santiago because that was where the US Army was headquartered, too. (The relatively brief US stewardship may be the only time this citadel was not a fortress of Catholicism.)
Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Manila grew into a thriving commercial and cosmopolitan center. Every vessel that entered the city—from local casco to Manila galleon—had to sail past the intimidating cannons of Fort Santiago to reach the docks on the north side of the river.
Importantly for Filipino history, Fort Santiago is also where national hero José Rizal spent his last days. In his spare time, this polyglot ophthalmologist authored the seminal work of Philippine fiction, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not). The Noli blasts the corruption of the Spanish friars who ruled the countryside and reveals how young, intelligent Filipinos (like Rizal) were denied human and political rights. Since Rizal was executed for writing a work of fiction, the Spanish ironically proved his claims true.
Rizal may have had revolutionary sentiments—how revolutionary is hotly debated—but his fate was ultimately sealed by priests, not politicians. Of course, these friars thought they were the government of the Philippines, so a challenge to them was a challenge to Spanish rule. Where did the friars put him? In their fortress of Saint James, of course. Rizal wrote these last words in his jailhouse poem, later named Mi Ultimo Adios:
My idolized Country, for whom I most gravely pine,
Dear Philippines, to my last goodbye, oh, harken
There I leave all: my parents, loves of mine,
I’ll go where there are no slaves, tyrants or hangmen
Where faith does not kill and where God alone does reign.
Scratch a stone in Manila and you’ll dig up all kinds of interesting history, right? By the way, the Creative Commons image at the top of this post is by Fechi Fajardo. If you’re wondering what that net is, it’s a practice driving range for the Intramuros golf course! Oh, what would Rizal think?
In the opening chapter of Hotel Oriente, heroine Della Berget describes Manila’s Intramuros as “an old Spanish walled enclave in the style of Gibraltar, plunked down in the middle of the tropics.”
And, in fact, that is exactly what the city’s name means: inside the walls that the Spanish built (and rebuilt and rebuilt) to protect them from those who lived outside, the Filipinos and the Chinese. Capping off the walled city was the armed citadel of Fort Santiago:
The Spanish did leave their walls on occasion. They had to if they wanted to do anything commercial. They shopped extramuros in Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown, which was within a cannon’s shot of Fort Santiago in Intramuros. The range was very intentional, by the way. The Spanish had a love-hate relationship with their Chinese immigrant neighbors, who, in many cases, had been in Manila longer than they had. Sometimes the “hate” end of things meant firing volleys. The love-hate relationship also played out in shopping, especially on a street called the Escolta. The Spanish claimed the Escolta exclusively for European merchants, but some of those merchants were supplied by Chinese in the neighboring streets. After a full day of shopping in Escolta and a lovely evening on the Luneta, the Spanish would retreat within their walls to sleep.
What was inside the walls? Della calls it a “Catholic wonderland”: “If she glanced up, the city was all domes, crosses, and oyster shell windows.” And no wonder: there were seven churches in Intramuros before World War II. Seven churches—grand ones, too—in a space of a mere 1/4 square mile (166 acres). It should be no surprise to you, then, if I point out that it was really the Catholic Church, via the regular orders of friars, who controlled the Philippines. This was a Crown colony in name only. The real administrators? The Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Recollects, the Augustinians, the Vincentians, the Jesuits, and more. And Intramuros was the seat of their power, where the Manila Cathedral towered over the secular offices of the governor and loomed over the general’s desk in Fort Santiago.
When the Americans came, they used the necessary parts of Intramuros, especially Fort Santiago and the city hall (which they confusingly mislabeled the Palace, even though the governor’s—and now president’s—residence is not inside the walls).
Actually, the Americans preferred a fresh sea breeze to the cloistered staleness of Intramuros, and they began to build up the areas south of the Luneta, including Malate and Ermita (where the US embassy compound still sits). And, in their port expansion, they would create a whole “New Luneta” in what had previously been the Bay, and this is where they would build new social establishments, including the Manila Hotel and the Army and Navy Club. After this, many Americans had few reasons to enter Intramuros at all. Too bad.
Nor did the Americans like the medieval air (really, stench) of the moat surrounding Intramuros. In classic American form, they turned it into a golf course.
Yes, this hardly sounds very populist, but the colonial administration was not inclusive—and, to be fair, the short but challenging par-66, 18-hole course is now owned by the government and can be played by anyone for around $20 (residents) or $30 (tourists).
Intramuros suffered most at the end of World War II, when it was the site of the last stand between the occupying Japanese and liberating American forces. The Japanese unleashed a reign of terror on the occupants of Intramuros and Manila at large, known as the Rape of Manila. The Americans, seeking to force a surrender, bombed the city into oblivion, destroying 6 of the 7 churches in Intramuros. In fact, Intramuros was such a disaster that it was ignored during the post-war rebuilding phase and has only recently started to see a renaissance of cultural, social, and commercial activities. If you are in Manila, take a tour with performance artist Carlos Celdran, and he will make you see Intramuros in a whole new light.
One thing that hasn’t changed in Manila since 1900 is the traffic. One anonymous visitor said about the end of the evening on the Luneta:
…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.
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.
You can find Malecón at location 5 on the map below. (These maps of Manila and the Visayas, which you can find in Under the Sugar Sun, were a suggestion of a faithful reader, Priscilla Lockney. Awesome, right?! But when I tried to find maps from before the port expansion that changed the shoreline, it was a challenge. I ended up making my own from a rare Spanish map reprinted in the Harper’s Pictorial History of the War with Spain, Volume II. I was almost as proud of these as I was of finishing the book.)
The Malecón ran from the Luneta along the bay, “under the yawning mouths of the old muzzle loaders” to Fort Santiago (see 3). It seems like a strange place for romance, but it was that, too. Maybe it was the electric lamp posts installed in 1893, part of a half a million peso city improvement project. Maybe it was the company:
[Georgina] looked up. This close, she could see honey-colored circles in [Javier’s] 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.
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.
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.”
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: “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 to 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 1903-1908, the Americans reclaimed 200 acres of land along the bay.
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. What a shame.
Another thing lost in the American expansion was the beautiful shoreline drive, called the Malecón, a whole new post!
In French, the word histoire can mean either a chronicle of the past or a fresh fictional tale—and, as a historical romance author, I love that flexibility. No matter whether I am writing my Sugar Sun series or the actual history of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, I embrace the story behind the events.
There is good reason for this. My day job for the last twenty years has been teaching history to intelligent, discriminating teenagers. (Yes, such a beast exists, I am happy to report!) Like any good teacher, I strive to keep my presentation lively, informative, and seasoned with humor. Sometimes that humor comes in the shape of snark, but so it goes.
And thanks to the indulgence of my employer, I am lucky enough to teach one of the few courses in the United States—at any level—devoted to just this era: American colonial rule in the Philippines. (It may be the only one. I don’t actually know.) And if I can teach this history to seventeen year olds, people, I can teach it to you.
Therefore, my next venture is to take this show on the road. I have put together a 30 minute presentation, complete with illustrations, on the history of American rule in the Philippines:
I will tell you why Americans came to the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century, and how this endeavor fundamentally changed our role in the world—and launched some of our best known political and military figures, to boot.
I will tell you the good, bad, and ugly how of the Americans ruled—and why, despite it all, the Filipino-American friendship is still so strong today.
I will tell you why this matters to you in the twenty-first century, particularly as the two countries renew their strategic (read: military) partnership in Asia.
Finally, I’ll give you a few stories of my own in the fabulous Philippines, and how these experiences have shaped what and how I write.
Did I mention I have pictures? A whole slide show, in fact.
If you live in the New England area, I hope to bring this talk to a library or historical society near you! The best part is that I will do it for FREE. Please feel free to get your librarian in touch with me. I have PowerPoint and will travel (within reason), and I am available starting August 2016.
What do I get out of it? The author in me hopes to expand my readership by getting my books in the public eye. Duh. But the teacher in me wants you to know about this pivotal period in American history, one that for too long has gotten only a terse mention in your textbooks. The American in me wants you to see how this period shaped the American Century to come, while the long-time-resident-of-the-Philippines in me wants you to know how intertwined our fates still are.
As to my credentials: I am an award-winning teacher with two decades of experience here and abroad, including the Philippines (obviously), Lebanon, and Thailand. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in international affairs from Georgetown University, with a focus in Asian Studies. I have authored articles in several peer-reviewed journals, as well as fact-checked and edited others. I speak barely intelligible snippets of all sorts of languages, which means I mostly get by on my smile and other people’s indulgence.
Most importantly, I write the Sugar Sun series, inclusive historical romance “for those who love their romance with a little more plot” (Carla de Guzman for Spot.ph). Laura Fahey of the Historical Novel Society said of my debut novel, Under the Sugar Sun: “Intensely absorbing…the charged political climate of the day is drawn with refreshing nuance.” She added that the series promised to be a “groundbreaking fictional treatment.”
So, you know, call me. (Ahem, not really.) In the interests of limiting spam, please comment below if you are interested in bringing me to your library or historical society. I will get in touch with you via email.
Thank you for letting me spread the histoire!
Featured image at the top of this post is 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.
*My timing is not really guaranteed. But, on the plus side, neither do I charge for this presentation, so there’s that.