Manila, The Gates of Hell (or something to that effect)

Until now, I find it hard to tune in to the brouhaha that is Manila getting called the “Gates of Hell” in Dan Brown’s latest book “Inferno”. The responses have been varied, from utter shock and disappointment to total amusement. But for me, no matter how much I care, I’m playing the straight face card for this topic.

For those who have been living under a rock (or a pile of sweets from Candy Crush), the “Gates of Hell” remark came from a scene from “Inferno,” where the character Sienna Brooks joins a humanitarian mission in Manila.

Here, Sienna took note of Manila’s widespread poverty, the traffic jams, the garbage, and the rampant crime and sex trade. To put it simply, the whole ordeal traumatized her. (Follow the link above to read the excerpt of the novel.)

While it makes for a gripping yet nauseating example of human drama, many Filipinos found it offensive.

The Metro Manila, Development Authority, for example, took exception to Brown’s statement. “We are greatly disappointed by your inaccurate portrayal of our beloved metropolis,” MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino said in an open letter. (Note, however, that Tolentino once made an article lambasting Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and lobbied to have its movie version banned.)

Malacanang insisted that foreign tourists who have seen Manila know better, and that the Philippines remains to be a prime tourist destination. Meanwhile, cultural activist Carlos Celdran urged Filipinos to remain calm and do something about the bad parts of Manila instead of protesting.

The comments from netizens were more polarizing: Brown’s Facebook page was swamped with comments and wall posts from Filipinos. Some defended Brown’s work and criticized the narrow-mindedness of his critics. Others took to lambasting Brown himself, wishing him and his family misfortune.

While comments against Brown’s depiction of Manila fly around, Adobo Connection had something else in mind. Not only did they offer the author a round-trip to Manila, but they are also developing an adobo recipe just for him. Incidentally, they called it “Adobo Diablo.”

Even popular author Paulo Coelho has joined in the discussion, though he sided with the Filipinos.

To his credit, Brown had something redeeming to say about Manila, as depicted in “Inferno.”

So why am I keeping a straight face with this issue?

Crazy as it may sound, I say Manila does qualify as the “Gates of Hell.” The fiery Bicol Express recipe was invented in Malate, for crying out loud. Some of the hottest night spots and party venues are there (YMMV). It was once the place to be for the artists, politicians, and the other members of society’s elite. The view of the sunset from Manila Bay and Roxas Boulevard is marvelous. Malacanang is located in Manila. (Wait.) Not to mention we have our own Hell’s Kitchen, but not the likes of the stuff from the pages of “Daredevil.”

On the other hand, we cannot deny that there’s a darker, more blatantly obvious meaning to Manila’s “Gates of Hell” tag. Mention Manila and the first to pop in a person’s mind would either be the trash-ridden slums of Tondo, the red light districts of Ermita, or the sleazy nightspots of Malate.

Also, take into account Quiapo, a melting pot of religion and superstition; Roxas Boulevard and its trash (ironic, isn’t it?), and Avenida, Manila’s old central business district, now a piece of a Batman-less Gotham City. Not to mention the traffic, the clogged esteros, the air pollution, the prostitutes, beggars, conmen, and corrupt cops. What other faults of Manila should I find and count?

The local elections just ended in Manila, so I’m pretty sure mayor-elect Joseph Estrada know what just got himself into. He did promise to improve and clean up Manila, even the poor parts of it, and damn well he should. As Celdran would say, “The world will always judge us by the old Manila, not the newer parts of Manila.”

But let’s go back to Dan Brown. “Inferno” is a work of fiction and all, but his description of Manila hit a really raw nerve on every one of us. Still, I’ve yet to read the book so I’d like to experience for myself how bad it is, if it is that bad in the first place.

Which reminds me, how often have we violently reacted against Manila’s critics? We can defend the city – and the Philippines, by extension – all we want, but we have to be reminded that we’re supposed to show the world how beautiful Manila is, and keep it that way. A balance of interests is in order. Instead of extolling Manila’s beauty and virtues, or engaging in fault-finding and vilifying, we should make use of what the city has and make it a great city, “Gates of Hell” or not.

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