“Bourne Legacy” director Tony Gilroy once said of Manila, “It’s just so colorful and ugly and gritty, raw and stinky and crowded.”
It’s the kind of statement that you’d expect would land Gilroy before a mob of angry Filipinos, but the quote, which was uttered on PBS’ “Charlie Rose Show” early this year, barely made a blip. There was no outrage — none of the jeers Lucy Liu got when she said she didn’t want to get dark because it would make her look “a little Filipino;” no calls by Malacañang for a public apology, as the Palace did when Teri Hatcher’s character on “Desperate Housewives” asked to check her doctor’s diplomas “to make sure that they’re not from some med school in the Philippines;” and no threats of a persona non grata declaration, as Hong Kong columnist Chip Tsao received when he called the country a “nation of servants.”
Perhaps it’s because what Gilroy said is true. Even in the city’s brightest corners, I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’d argue that Metro Manila, this chaotic urban sprawl of 13 million inhabitants, isn’t gritty and raw, and stinky, and crowded. Visitors are stunned by the traffic, the poverty, and the collocation of shanties and skyscrapers. A Singaporean tourist I met this week, speaking on the shambles of the city’s heritage sites, exclaimed, “There’s nothing here!” At least Filipinos are a heck-load fun, he said. This was his consolation.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had two years ago. I was walking in Ho Chi Minh with a group of folks I met at a film conference when I was introduced to a Swedish math lecturer who had spent a few months teaching in the Philippines. He started telling me about his time in the country, and he uttered the most poetic description of our 7,107 islands that I’ve ever heard.
He said, “The Philippines is such a crazy place, and yet you meet the sanest people in the world there.”
There is a dichotomy, it seems, between the Philippines and Filipinos. We are sane people in a crazy place, simple souls ruled by complex systems, and sweet human beings living with harsh realities.
But where we live should be reflections of who we are. A look at Paris and its side-streets, at the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysées, and you feel the romanticism of the French, their taste for refinement, and their grip on the majesty of their past. In Berlin, on the taxi ride to Potsdamer Platz, the short, gray, buildings I saw spoke of the cold pragmatism of the Germans, a people, who perhaps out of guilt for World War II, avoid displays of the grandiose. And the futuristic skyline on the banks of Pudong, Shanghai — the city’s bridges, which turn neon blue at night, and its heavily commercialized Old Town — they speak of a Chinese culture that has been thrust into prosperity and torn between tradition and modernity.
Manila, on the other hand, says little about Filipinos, which is why I guess it’s acceptable to bash it like Tony Gilroy did. But if a little girl can design her room to display an obsession with One Direction, or if a taxi driver can change the interiors of his car to show his love of 1980s rock, then why are Manileños unable to make Manila look more like us — happy, welcoming, and clean?
In 2009, I was shooting my first film, “Engkwentro,” at a shoreline near Manila Bay that was completely covered in trash — non-biodegradable refuse that the sea had choked up. There was a house in the middle of all of this waste, and at its doorstep, on top of the garbage, were a series of clean white sacks. At six in the morning, a woman would come out and sweep over these sacks, making sure her little parcel of earth was as she pleased.
This is the key: Ownership. That woman cared for her surroundings because she felt like it was hers. For most of our written history, though, we Filipinos have been tenants of our own land. We’ve had little control over the state of the country, because The Philippines was either the ownership of the Spanish, or the Americans or the Japanese, or of Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies.
But the Philippines is ours now. It’s been a short 26 years since we’ve won it back. In May of this year, I wrote in this column about a “clean slate” generation; that more than half of our population was born after EDSA — an age group bred and brought up in self-rule. This is why we blame ourselves for our problems — as in, “Pinoy kasi” and “Only in the Philippines”, and why we now look to ourselves for the solutions — as in, “Ako ang simula,” and “Ako mismo.”
Kids today possess an unprecedented opportunity to tread the Philippines a new path. This country will only be as good, and as progressive, and as exciting as we make it. We are where we live, and it’s about time we dreamt of making our surroundings as beautiful as our culture.
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