I’ve been visiting the streets of Ermita for years now, partly to entertain myself with drinks and/or company, and partly to live out my fantasies as a traveler, finding a quiet place to rest amidst the noise and lights of the night, stuff like that. Manila’s so-called “red light district” has an old school feel in it, as if I’m in another era or something.
It also helps that Ermita is closest to some of Manila’s major destinations, such as Intramuros, Binondo, Luneta, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila Bay and the major malls and hotels, making it something like the center of the city’s tourism and culture.
Sadly, the only probable image people have of Ermita is that of a red light district, and nothing more. Who could blame them? This is what is often seen in this district – girlie bars, thieves and robbers, street walkers, discos, watering holes filled with creatures of the night (not the supernatural ones), among others.
As I would learn some time later, there’s more to discover about this side of Manila.
Just a few weeks ago, Manila’s tourism consultant Carlos Celdran took some about two hundred or so tourists from around Metro Manila out on a walk around Ermita. This is part of his “Viva Manila” campaign to revitalize and drum up interest in the city, and to inspire others to bring it back to its glory. This tour also has the blessings of the Manila City Hall too. Way to go, Mayor Erap.
We first gathered at the MMDA Children’s Road Safety Park across the Manila Zoo. I took a quick tour around the zoo by myself, by the way. For those who think Manila Zoo is deteriorating, I say no, it’s doing fine despite the maintenance it’s undergoing. The zoo is still a great hang-out spot for families and tourists. The animals are doing fine and taken care of, despite what the animal rights activists say. But I digress.
The MMDA Children’s Road Safety Park was based on a similar park in Singapore. Here, visitors can walk around miniature intersections, overpasses, pedestrian tunnels, and structures commonly found in our streets. They’re also reminded of the various traffic signs and rules that motorists are expected to follow. It pays to teach children traffic safety.
We took a quick walk through the bicycle lane from the Manila Zoo leading to Mabini Street. This was a project by the administration of former Mayor Alfredo Lim to encourage bicycle riders to travel around the city. (Keeping them safe is another story.) From there, we rode a jeepney to the Padre Faura – Mabini Intersection for our first stop.
As a recap, Ermita (“hermitage” in Spanish) was a secluded area in the city, considered a peaceful place where the upper class built their vacation homes and retreat sites. During the American period, the colonizers set up exclusive establishments around its residential area.
The hermitage feel of Ermita was shattered during the 1945 Battle of Manila, when it became the scene of some of the most horrific local massacres of World War II. Then in the ’70s, girlie bars started to pop up around Mabini and MH Del Pilar Streets, thus giving rise to its notoriety as a red light district.
In the ’90s, the city government closed down these bars, but establishments in the area were affected by the closure. Despite this, some of the old homes survived and became historical and cultural icons. One such place is Casa Tesoro.
Casa Tesoro is a stately home built in 1901, and is said to be one of the oldest Art Deco buildings in the district. The house has been a part of much of Manila’s history, being a vacation house turned army headquarters, and eventually a witness to Ermita’s rise and fall as a red light district.
Today, Casa Tesoro is home to 1335 Mabini, a gallery that houses tribal art and antiquities such as sculptures, textiles and ritual objects. Contemporary artists gather here to exhibit works of various media, and even create some of their own on the spot. (It helps that there are empty rooms in the building that act as studios for these artists.)
The place kinda makes me think of one of those old period dramas, or perhaps a scene where the protagonist scouts a museum for artifacts to play with or steal. Sorry for the side comment; museums really are fertile ground for one’s imagination.
Our next stop was a building they called the “Marilou Apartment”, now known as the Lotus Garden Hotel. Despite the renovations, this three-star hotel commands an Old Manila-feel to it, and is nowadays one of the preferred hotels in Manila. We also got a tour of the hotel’s rooms and other amenities. Promotion, much? I don’t mind; it’s expected of a tourist destination.
After a while, we walked the whole stretch of M. H. Del Pilar. Along the way, I noticed how old many of the buildings in the area have become. Some have fallen to a state of disrepair, now used as homes for poor families. They remind me of those hideouts where movie thugs would hide their contraband, or keep their hostages tied up and threatened with rape or torture. What’s up with this? Can these be converted into socialized housing or something?
It’s a good thing, on the other hand, that business is still picking up in this part of Ermita. Tourist establishments are now open for local and foreign tourists.
One of these is The Hobbit House, one of the most unique restaurants in the world. Formerly standing at Mabini, this restaurant and bar remains a place of interest, not only because of the little people in the establishment, but because of its good food and entertainment. (Carlos recommends this place, by the way. I better check it out soon.)
Our next stop, the Ermita Church, is the prime religious center of Ermita. It enshrines an image of the Nuestra Señora de Guia (Our Lady of Guidance), widely venerated since the Spanish Period. Lonely Planet says “Legend has it that this richly robed image of the Virgin Mary was found by (Miguel Lopez de Legazpi) on 19 May 1571, the day the Spanish forces took over Manila.”
Carlos mentioned that churches are important in reshaping a city, since it shows how much importance we show to our culture. It’s a good thing then, that the area is very much well maintained, despite the usual dregs and street walkers hanging around its walls, a reminder of the realities beneath the church’s hallowed walls.
Despite the changes brought by time and circumstance, Ermita remained a place where all the art galleries, antique and curio shops could be found. I’ve always wondered why there are so many antique shops in Ermita. Perhaps this is a remnant of the district’s old culture, now merely a business venture but an important one nonetheless.
Our next stop is the United Nations Avenue. The Traveler on Foot website says UN Avenue was formerly known as Isaac Peral, “in memory of the Spaniard who successfully experimented on a submarine in the post of Cadiz in 1889. The street was renamed United Nations Avenue in 1962 to marked the 17th anniversary of the United Nations.” I also gathered that in the 1930s, the Ford Motor Company established its first assembly plant in the area.
Carlos took us to the Philam Life Building and the nearby Philam Life Center Theater. The theater is hailed as one of the most acoustically optimal performance venues for performances this side of the metropolis.
I actually have memories of the building as a kid. My mom would take me to Philamlife, where she paid insurance and such, so I was able to roam around the place until she was done. I’ve only glanced at the theater once or twice, but it was worth exploring. It would take a long time before the importance of this place sunk in.
The Philam Life Center Theater became the center of attention following the sale of the property to a real estate developer around last year. Due to fears that the theater would be demolished, a petition letter was passed around to save it. Thankfully, it turned out there was no plan to demolish it in the first place.
Next on the list was Luneta. It’s amazing that just a few months after we toured Luneta, a lot of great changes have happened in the park. The park is lively. The streets are clean. Security measures are tightly in place. A lot of cultural events are ongoing. One can clearly say Luneta has become a better tourist spot than before.
Unfortunately, the Rizal Monument is still going to be photobombed. To the right of the monument, a crane is silently standing, waiting for the erection of the condominium meant to be part of Manila’s skyline.
Soon enough, we were at the doorstep of the Miramar Hotel. Overlooking Manila Bay and Roxas Boulevard, the building was built in the 1930’s in the Art Deco style. The place was refurbished in 2009 and revived as a hotel while maintaining its pre-war design intact. If I remember correctly, the building has been declare a historical site, a reminder of a bygone era in Manila’s history.
The Miramar Hotel gives customers a feeling of nostalgia. The ’30s is definitely not my era, but it made me feel like I was in that time period, wearing a suit and walking down the corridor with swing music playing in the background. And then men in black suits start shooting me with tommy guns. Where was I? Old buildings like the Miramar Hotel are worth preserving and maintaining, especially if one has rich historical and cultural value.
Ermita is a cultural and business hub, nearly forgotten by time but standing out, like an old dame with her faded feathery gown and unpolished jewelry. Much could still be gleaned from its distant past, and brought over to the present for people to learn about and appreciate. We can’t remove the fact but Ermita is known as a red light district, but it would be nice if this place could be transformed into something Manila can be proud of.
At the doorstep of Miramar Hotel, right after the tour, I asked Carlos, “Where’s a good restaurant that you can recommend in this area?”
“The Harbor View Restaurant,” he said (non-verbatim). “It’s just near Roxas Boulevard.”
“How about a good coffee shop?” a guest interjected.
“The best place we have so far is Cafe Adriatico,” Carlos replied. Several minutes before, he had promoted The Other Office, an old piano bar at Mabini, and The Hobbit House further behind.
Which made me think: it would be nice to seek out and promote Ermita’s notable coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. After all, the Bicol Express was invented around the Malate area, and then comedy king Dolphy had a favorite bakeshop there; so there must be other food places, dishes and culinary gems that may be discovered and brought to the limelight.
If culture and churches can reshape a city, its menu can fill its belly and heart.