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Travel to Manila


Manila Rising

16 June 2015

Forget what you think you know about the capital of the Philippines. This is a city in the throes of a cultural revolution, and everyone is invited.

Manila is abuzz. A new creative culture is transforming this Asian megacity, driven by a young, forward-thinking generation. The burgeoning contemporary art scene has spawned a slew of galleries and there are intimate music gigs, street fairs and sleek museums to discover.

Design is also finding its voice. Boutiques championing new designers and locally crafted products are blossoming. Annual festivals such as Fringe Manila, a large-scale cross art-form affair, along with “smaller events like Art In The Park and Art Fair Philippines are part of its rebirth,” says performance artist and tour guide Carlos Celdran. “Manila is in the throes of an artistic renaissance.”

This shockwave of cultural energy is sweeping through the hippest neighbourhoods: bohemian Malate, glitzier Makati and out to the sprawling squares of Quezon City and the ancient walled city of Intramuros, Manila’s historic heart. “There’s a sense that people are ready to reinvent the places they inhabit and that drive is transforming parts of the city,” suggests Julia Nebrija, executive director of Viva Manila, a non-for-profit organisation running a confection of arts interventions from pop-up painting workshops to poetry jams.

There was a time that Manila held the moniker The Pearl Of The Orient. A thriving centre for trade, it gleamed with art nouveau and deco architecture, with cobbled boulevards and acacia-lined streets. Its reinvention draws influence from these glory days. Historic buildings are being reimagined as dynamic cultural venues, shops and hotels.

Nowhere is this more visible than in Malate. The district where the artistic community has long been centred is studded with concrete mid-rise blocks and early 20th century buildings. Architectural treasures like The Luneta are being renovated and rediscovered. Built in 1918 in exemplary Belle Époque style, this luxury hotel fell into decline. In 2014 it reopened, with the original curvaceous wrought iron balconies and intricate cornicing perfectly revived.

The newly launched and impeccably modern Amelie Hotel, designed by local interior stylist Anton Barretto, takes inspiration from the ‘deco’ apartment blocks still resided in close by. Barretto’s finish is slick with a stylish roof terrace and restaurant and there are plans for local creatives to fill the public spaces with artworks and music.

A reconfigured colonial townhouse is the base for 1335 Mabini, a contemporary art gallery with palatial whitewashed rooms and stark exhibition spaces. It supports a roster of established and emerging artists. “We attract people who want to see or experience something unexpected,” explains general manager Luigi Singson. “Our shows are often unconventional and non-mainstream.”

The gallery is also gaining traction internationally and represented Filipino artist Poklong Anading at Art Basel HK 2015. New galleries like the 1335 are symbols of the vibrancy of Manila’s art sector, with events like Art Fair Philippines also on the rise. Founded in 2013, this annual show, held each February, showcases work from the city’s top 33 galleries. Art In The Park is an annual affordable art fair, while artist-run initiatives like 98B bring practitioners together at their base in the First United Building, for a programme of talks, exhibits and one-off events.

Perhaps, a reason artists flock to Malate is the light. Located on the edge of the Manila Bay shoreline, silhouetted figures stand on the promenade at dusk and watch apricot sunsets turn scarlet and burnout beneath the South China Sea. And as night sets in, the city wakes up and lights blink like beacons across the skyline.

Makati is the fashionable drinking district where savvy entrepreneurs are reshaping the nightlife scene. “Manila’s bar culture had been stagnant for a long period. In the last few years we experienced a need for more options, away from the usual clubs,” suggests Anna Ong, who is part of the management team behind a host of new alternative venues.

Their venture Finders Keepers is part of a growing trend in Makati for prohibition-era inspired bars, flavoured with the decadence of 1920s America. Hidden behind a steel door at the back of Warehouse 5, also the venue for riotous club night Black Market, this low-fi den is filled with a beautiful crowd. DJs spin relaxed ambient sounds, which complement the plush décor of curved velvet sofas and dimmed spotlights. The Curator is another speakeasy-inspired hotspot, serving cocktails by night and killer coffee by day. Red Rabbit and Exit are also making their mark in Makati’s aesthetically beautiful drinking scene.

Ong also works with B-Side, a live band venue based at The Collective in Makati’s San Antonio Village. Here, artisans, designers and restaurateurs are promoting creativity, fair trade and collaboration all under one roof in a modern plaza. It teems with fashionable youngsters, eating and drinking in the evenings and by day, accessing the independent shops stocking everything from vinyl to fancy dress.

Makati is not just a nightlife district. It is also the business centre and 5-Star hotels like the Shangri-La and Fairmont Raffles line Makati Avenue. The Greenbelt is a contemporary series of buildings, clad in grey stone. This glamorous shopping mall is packed with designer brands like Prada and Louis Vuitton. Commercial art galleries such as Altro Mondo are springing up here too.

An escape from the midday heat can be found in the shade of the Greenbelt’s lush gardens and outdoor cafes. The Ayala Museum is also housed in the complex. While it may be a decade old, it is modishly stylish and utterly fascinating. It examines the historic story of The Philippines, exploring its maritime trade and the discovery of gold. Everyday, Intramuros is awoken by the clip-clop beat of horse-drawn carriages. They ferry visitors around this hub of ancient churches and crumbling buildings set within 16th century ramparts. Now, this historic centre of the city is redefining itself through culture, thanks to a wave of new projects.

Viva Manila’s activities in Intramuros include their monthly fair, the Sunday Pasyal. The streets come alive with performers, graffiti art, music and food in pop-up plazas. “It is about engaging people in spaces they don’t usually visit through performance and public installations,” explains Julia Nebrija. “For tourists and locals alike it’s special, bringing people together to experience something new.”

Bryan Benitez recently launched Bambike, the first company to run experiential cycling tours here. The bikes themselves are the highlight. Designed by Benitez and locally made from bamboo, they are as stylish as they are sustainable. Their cool retro designs have lightweight frames and are available to buy and export. “It is exciting to see Filipino designers utilising native, raw materials in creative and innovative ways,” he says.

The Manila Collectible Company, based close by, sells a cornucopia of ethical products promoting craftsmanship by the indigenous tribes of the Philippine islands. Hand-woven textiles, clothing and accessories, like funky beach towels and canvas shoes, sit alongside handicrafts in vibrant patterns and colours. The company’s aim is to showcase and promote Filipino artisans and design.

This creative sector is flourishing in Manila. “The design scene is developing and maturing and the city provides constant inspiration,” says designer Rossy Rojales. Alongside husband Robert, she runs Heima, a concept store with two branches in Pasig City and Makati. Heima sells lifestyle wares such as furniture, books and records; alongside their own range of home accessories, from cushion covers to cocktail shakers, all inspired by the Philippines’ tropical, verdant landscapes. They also host a line-up of in-store events, including gigs by international bands, like French electro three-piece We Were Evergreen.

Over in Quezon City, a complex district of pedestrianised squares and mega-malls, an alternative scene is buzzing in Cubao Expo. This vintage arcade of shops has been a subcultural hub for a decade. And it continues to evolve. Gold Digger is a store owned by Anna Ong’s collective that sells vinyl, apparel and collectibles – it is soon to launch an eponymous record label too.

Coast through Life is a recently opened surf-inspired boutique. Their own range of crisp and super-stylish clothing and accessories come in plain colours and simple cuts, designed for city dwellers who escape to the beach at weekends. “It’s a place where interest-based hobbies like art, music and fashion coexist. It’s an escape from commercial malls, an anti-mall so to speak,” explains Jelzon Rommel Reyes, Founder of The Four Strings. Musicians gather inside his shop to strum and chat over organic coffee and homemade food, surrounded by delicately hand-painted ukuleles and small guitars, all designed and made in Manila.

It is a common story in cities the world over. Where subculture and creativity blossoms, commercialism often follows and in the case of Manila the developments are startling.

Take the newly opened $1.3 billion City of Dreams complex in Manila Bay, which alongside a host of luxury facilities is home to Asia’s first Nobu Hotel and restaurant, owned by Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and Robert De Niro. It signifies the city’s dual reinvention as a destination for business and tourism.

If there’s one thing that we can take from all this creativity, is that this is a metropolis that’s firmly on the rise.

Local knowledge

1. Taxi drivers don’t carry much loose change, so prepare smaller bills (100, 50 or 20 Pesos) and don’t expect to be given exact change.

2. During rush hour you should avoid the taxis. Instead opt for the LRT or MRT metro lines, or even one fo the graffiti-covered jeeps.

3. Street food is central to life in Manila. Try the squid balls dipped in a mix of sweet and sour sauce.

4. Try the San Miguel Pale Pilsen. Brewed here, it’s our version of the world-renowned drink.

5. Filipinos are generally friendly and curious. Prepare to be asked personal questions and to make new friends straight away.



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