Sugar Sun series location #8: Malecón

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.

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.

Under the Sugar Sun

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.)

Manila-map-1902

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, whose 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

Luneta driveway Malecón Manila photograph
“Luneta driveway” taken by a US soldier. Available from University of Michigan Philippine Photographs Digital Archive.

Sugar Sun series glossary term #29: daigon (or daygon)

Christmas in New Hampshire feels surprisingly quiet this year. The holiday season traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving on “Black Friday”—marking the start of the shopping season, which will bring stores out of the red and into the black with holiday sales. Recently Black Friday has become Black-Thursday-the-hour-after-you-load-the-dirty-plates-in-the-dishwasher. And then this year I noticed advertisements for Christmas-themed books, movies, and products on or before Halloween.

Amateurs.

The Philippines celebrates the longest Christmas season in the world, starting on September 1st—when you’ve officially entered the “Ber” months—and lasting through the beginning of January. (Or Easter, according to how long some of my neighbors had their decorations up.) Once September arrives, stores break out the holiday albums, parols are offered for sale alongside highways, and malls get so crowded that you literally cannot drive by them. Seriously, don’t plan on it. And if you do, don’t fight the standstill. Just put on some good tunes, sit back, and relax. You’re going nowhere quick.

This may not be a picture of me driving by SM Southmall in Christmas season, but it is close enough. Photo by Matzky.
This may not be a picture of me driving by SM Southmall in Christmas season, but it is close enough. Photo by Matzky.

But here’s the secret: if you want to drive anywhere in Manila during Christmas season, do so on Christmas Eve. The roads are deserted. The toll booths are unmanned. Skyway is free for everybody!

This “good night,” Noche Buena, is the real holiday. The day begins with a midnight (or pre-dawn) mass called the Misa de Gallo, or mass of the rooster. (Because by the time you leave church, the roosters are crowing.) The evening is for family dinners, and by midnight on Christmas Day the faithful head back to mass.

There is one tradition that may have gotten lost in big city life in Manila and elsewhere: pastores, or shepherds. This pageant-carol of the Nativity drama came from Mexico, thanks to sailors on the Spanish galleons. Its details, though, soon varied by region. The villains could be anyone from the devil (in half-man, half-monkey form) to King Herod to snooty homeowners.

A cultural dance performance at the 2015 Daygon performance in Dumaguete. Photo from Dumaguete.com.
A cultural dance performance at the 2015 Daygon performance in Dumaguete. Photo from Dumaguete.com.

Today, in many places, the daigon has become a set piece dancing and singing performance. But in the early 1900s Visayas, the daigon (or daygon, from “starting a fire” or “lighting up”) was more like what I described in Under the Sugar Sun:

Javier guided Georgina to a house with a pronounced balcony, the perfect place to start the daigon. Mary, Joseph, and a chorus of shepherds and angels were already assembled. Mary was dressed in a blue and white gown, her “pregnant” belly stuffed full of pillows. The band fell silent as the holy couple sang a plea for shelter to the owners of the house. One did not have to know Visayan to understand the girl’s predicament.

The owners of the house responded in turn, and Javier translated in a whisper. “They are saying that the house is already bursting with people.”

Then Mary sang again. “She is promising them heavenly rewards,” he explained. “I think a literal translation is that ‘their names will be written in the book of the chosen few.’”

“It is beautiful,” the maestra whispered. “What did the people in the house just say?”

“They have turned her down. They said their house is not for the poor.”

“How awful.”

He found Georgina’s innocence endearing. No doubt she knew the story of the Nativity as well as he did—probably better since she actually went to all the novenas—but her rapt expression made it seem like she was hearing the story for the first time.

They trailed the crowd to the next house, where Joseph begged for a place for his wife, “even in the kitchen,” but was told that the mansion was “only for nobles.” When Mary insisted, the doña threatened to let loose her dogs on them.

Georgina looked around, noticing that they were almost at the school building. “They will not sing to us, will they? More importantly, I do not have to sing back?” She looked truly alarmed.

“Do not worry. They will finish before that, at the ‘stable’—by which I mean the town church, San Nicolás. The crowd and the band will amble on, though, begging for refreshments, so we should prepare.”

Georgina’s eyes lit up. “Your aguinaldos!”

He laughed and squeezed her hand on his arm. “Exactly—including your favorite: chocolate.”

There is a fair amount of seduction over food in that book, even at fiesta. Maybe especially at fiesta!

For a young woman, landing the role of Mary was like being crowned the homecoming queen, though she had better be able to sing, too. Fortunately, my character Rosa Ramos was both pretty and talented:

Singing had pulled Rosa through her childhood. Instead of being just the daughter of a disciplined maid and an undisciplined field hand, her voice had made her the best known fifteen-year-old in Bais. Out of all the girls on all the haciendas, she had been cast as the Virgin Mary in the local Christmas pageant. It said something about her life back then that she could not have imagined anything so grand anywhere in the world. She could have been crowned queen of Spain and still not been as happy as she had been that night.

That was a little holiday gift for you—a taste of Tempting Hymn. Here is another gift: the lighting of the huge Christmas tree at Bais.

I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas (Maligayang Pasko!), Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy New Year.

Featured image of the 2010 nativity from the Dusit Thani hotel in Makati, Metro Manila. Creative commons photo courtesy of Daniel Go.