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Castilian Memoirs, Manila

4 May 2011

This travelogue by Deane H. Dickason was filmed in the 1930s in pre-war Manila — the world to which my parents were born.  The film boasts of the developments made by the Americans, against the backdrop of Spanish legacies. The commentary, riddled with superlatives and run-on sentences, discusses Intramuros, Hospicio de San Jose (the rotating drum was disturbing!), Escolta, the tobacco industry, Bilibid Prison, and Tondo.

The audio transcript follows.  I did not understand phrases at the 05:18 mark — if you could fill in the blanks for me, I would be much obliged!

Manila has the finest bay in the Far East, large enough to accommodate all the fleets of the world. We shall dock at Pier 7, a new double-deck concrete structure, one thousand feet long and built and maintained by the Philippine government. Awaiting us is the 80-piece Philippine Constabulary band, winner of the Grand Prize at the St. Louis Exposition and still, one of the world’s best.

Facing the pier is old Spanish Manila or Intramuros. Though begun 350 years ago, it has endured well, being regarded as the best example of a medieval walled town in existence. Within this gateway is Old Fort Santiago, long the citadel of the Spanish city; but since 1901, headquarters of the United States Army in the Philippines. This is 31st Infantry, returning from morning parade, on an expanse just outside the wall, where was once a moat; but which is now an 18-hole municipal golf course.

Intramuros, with its narrow streets, is reminiscent of Madrid; except for the little two-wheeled carriages or “caromata” and the Filipinas, wearing kamisa‘s resembling bird cages are quite exotic to Spain. The “kamisas” are made of “piña” or finely split pineapple fiber, not unlike mosquito bar, and are worn over elaborately embroidered chemises. The rising generation seems to want what it wants, when it wants it. Perhaps that is why Manila is the only considerable city under the stars and stripes, where prohibition is prohibited.

Manila’s most beautiful women, are generally those with Spanish blood in their veins. This pair has been in Aurilles in the walled city, shopping for “buntal” hats, which are erroneously called bangkoks in the United States and Europe. The best “buntals”, manufactured in small towns for which they are named, compare favorably with the finest of Panama’s.

Now, they are in their caromata, note the elegant, self-conscious charioteer, and with their purchases are returning to their homes on the opposite bank of the Pasig River, which divides modern Manila in twain. From the roof of the Masonic building, we look down on Jones’ Bridge, with the walled city of the far shore in the distance.

Upstream, on an island in the river, is El Hospicio de San Jose, an asylum for foundlings, administered by the Sisters of Charity. In the north wall of the convent is a turning wheel for the receipt of abandoned children. This infant, barely a month old, is being deposited in here by a chauffeur, who vowed to me, the sisters did not question him, and he is quite unaware of the parents’ identity. Another turn of that wheel will admit the nameless mite safely within the convent, where it will be reared, educated and taught an occupation to enable it to be self-supporting. These little girls, all of whom were similarly forsaken in babyhood, are but a few of the 800 who now find asylum within San Jose. They devote every Thursday to the mending of their own clothes, a task of which they are especially fond, since they are taught to take pride in tidiness and cleanliness. This pretty little lady is a mestizo, that is half-Filipina and half-something else, probably Italian. While this toothless youngster swears that she’s an American, like Will Rogers; and just as proud of it.

On the north bank of the Pasig, is the Escolta, the principal retail street of American Manila, lined with banks, theaters and drug store. Not chemist shops, but drug stores with ice cream sodas, post cards and pay telephones.

The local carabao or water buffalo has a wider spread of horns, an uglier anatomy and a more invidious disposition than any of its tropical brothers. Still this is the main beast of burden, its feet being wholely commensurate with the industry of the average peasant.

One of the foremost sources of wealth of the Philippine islands today is tobacco — great loads of which are carted through the city streets. Yet the plant was unknown here until imported from Mexico by the Spaniards in the 16th century. Now, extensive cigar factories flourish, into which the leaves are brought in bales, then graded as to quality, as to length and strength, before being delivered to the expert cigar makers, of whom one factory has more than 4,000. While in this room alone are 700, all engaged in … that will make man’s mouth water. No cigar anywhere today is produced under more rigidly enforced sanitary regulations than it this one. The Philippine government supervises the industry, under invariable standards of excellence and under its own official label, which is affixed to every box that leaves the factory. The cigars must be made from good, clean, selected tobacco, properly cured and seasoned, and from which all stems, dust and scraps had been eliminated. No cigars made between sunset and sunrise may be graded as standard. This is Lady Nicotine at her best, a mild plump, seductive creature.

Just North of Manila’s business district is Bilibid Prison, embracing 17 acres and harboring 3,500 transgressors of the law, the largest penal institution in the world. Retreat every afternoon at 4:30 o’clock is an impressive half-hour ceremony. When visitors are admitted to its central tower, from which the ward buildings radiate like the spokes of a wheel, thereby enabling spectators to view the entire scene with ease. Selections by the prison band opens the review, following which the entire company engages in short calisthenic exercises, a feature that distinguishes Bilibid from other penitentiaries. Here the men are treated not unlike soldiers in barracks, being subjected to a system that grants privileges and meets out punishment according to conduct and industrial skill. Uniforms of different colors indicate whether they are trustees, prisoners of the first, second or third class, or apprentices. A drill by the crack Bilibid Scouts, bearing wooden arms, comprising chiefly light and good behavior prisoners, conclude the afternoon display. This is a part of the model program of regular work, recreation and rest, which the authorities believe prepare the inmates for eventual good citizenship. In fact, so beneficent is the regime that most guards are stationed outside to restrain immigration, rather than inside, as is customary, to thwart emigration.

Tondo is the nipa shack quarter of Manila, where native huts are set on stilts, to provide plenty of ventilation, and stables for the livestock beneath. To the westward towers Corregidor Island, above which hover perpetual banks of clouds. Almost every evening, the last rays of the dying sun stream through, so gorgeous that Manila’s reputation for matchless sunsets pursues us to whatever port of call.

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