Driving around the Philippine capital one December evening in the time of COVID-19 yields pleasant surprises.
Some of its famous landmarks are lit with artistry that highlights their fine architecture. The main facade of the 81-year-old City Hall on Padre Burgos Street resembles a well-preserved European edifice. The stately elegance of its neoclassical design by architect Antonio Toledo is enhanced by mood lighting.
On the other hand, the Philippine General Hospital on nearby Taft Avenue has its 1910 Spanish colonial architecture by William Parsons bathed in festive holiday hues, with matching piped-in Christmas tunes.
Proceeding to the Malate district, one catches a glimpse of Our Lady of Remedies Parish, commonly known as Malate Church, along M.H. Del Pilar Street. There’s a Mass in progress. A lone woman is seen standing right by the church entrance, unable to get in due to health and safety protocols, but nonetheless praying in silence.
Across the church is Rajah Sulayman Park, whose center fountain draws couples and friends to lounge around and take pictures.
A few meters to the right of the church is another enduring landmark, a restaurant, for that matter, The Aristocrat at the corner of San Andres Street and Roxas Boulevard. There are many diners on this night, and the “Open 24 Hours” sign on Aristocrat’s corner wall indicates a gradual return to normalcy of businesses badly affected by the pandemic.
Near the back of the church is M. Adriatico Street, where stands another restaurant landmark, Cafe Adriatico. Opened in 1980 by former government media officer-turned-restaurateur Larry J. Cruz, Cafe Adriatico ushered in the popularity of fine-dining restaurants in Malate. It continues to operate, notwithstanding the almost total invasion of the area by Korean and Chinese KTV clubs.
Right in front of Cafe Adriatico is Remedios Circle, a rotunda-park where kids play. This evening, there are a couple of youth groups engaged in Zumba sessions.
One’s search for a drink or two leads to Oarhouse, a cozy bar on J. Bocobo Street operated by Ben Razon, a photojournalist who likes sipping ice-cold San Miguel Pale Pilsen while chatting with customers.
The piped-in music is engrossing: The Cars, ABBA, Beastie Boys, Billy Idol, Bob Marley, George Benson, Steely Dan, Amy Winehouse, Dire Straits, David Bowie, Deodato, Janet Jackson, Talking Heads, Johnny Nash.
The bar chow makes it all worthwhile: Pork sisig and tuna kinilaw, washed down initially by bourbon, followed by two Pale Pilsens.
“Music is memory. Food is memory,” says Ben, as talk turns to Manila, which he thinks has gotten too congested, it needs a transformation.
The virus seems to have caused an exodus of Manila-based workers back to the provinces, a good thing, says Ben, if only the country’s leaders will think and act like real public servants.
In the meantime, back on the road along Taft Avenue, another classic landmark catches one’s attention: De La Salle University.
Its main facade, the St. La Salle Hall, designed by architect Tomas Mapua and built in 1924, is decked in the school colors of green and white, with a traditional Nativity scene at its center, and, below it, an inspiring message: Hope.