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Gates of Hell and Gangster Hotels

'Imagining Manila' examines why Western foreigners think the city is an exotic, criminal wasteland

By Karl R. De Mesa Published Aug 14, 2022 3:07 pm

There have been quite a few times when celebrities from the First World declared less than savory things about Manila. 

Taylor Kitsch mistook NAIA for Indonesia in 2012, when he told David Letterman that an immigration officer tried to take his iPhone. The John Carter star never bothered to correct his faux pas.

Dig even further back and true Gen Xers may remember how Claire Danes was declared persona non-grata in 1999 after she said that Manila was a "ghastly and weird city," that the place smelled "of cockroaches…People with, like, no arms, no legs, no eyes, no teeth.” She later apologized—especially since Manila was simply a location stand-in for Bangkok on Brokedown Palace —but then-Mayor Lito Atienza was never appeased. 

They weren’t the first to heap scorn on the capital. Certainly won’t be the last. While we can shrug off the aforementioned as Hollywood diva complaints (in the case of Kitsch, total geolocational ignorance), the representational writings about Manila in literature are much harder to ignore. Especially if the city is made into a big enough milieu without the author even doing much research or, in quite a few cases, never setting a single foot on our urban asphalt.

Where does this trope of Manila come from and how did it become fixed in Western psyche? UK writer and lecturer Tom Sykes, PhD has wondered about exactly the same thing.

In his new book “Imagining Manila: Literature, Empire and Orientalism” Sykes investigates Western writings about the capital. As someone who’s lived in the city and formed deep relationships with the local literary and journalistic communities, the seeds of the project were planted from his initial encounters with other Americans and British in the country.

Sykes found it extremely strange that he could have a very nuanced and even joyful experience of our capital’s urban landscape while others would take away with them a two-dimensional picture. Something that was also often about an inexorably depraved, corrupt, and crime-pervasive metropolis.

“I lived in Manila in 2009 to 2010 and have been travelling back there frequently ever since,” he wrote in the opening of his new book. “Over this time, I have grown weary of reading and hearing the countless stereotypes, half-truths, myths and misperceptions that Westerners have about the city in particular and the Philippines in general.”

You’ve likely heard about how Manila is “the gates of hell” according to American novelist Dan Brown in his book Inferno (2013). His heroine, Dr. Sienna Brooks, goes to the Philippines to provide humanitarian care and her expectation was that the country would be a “wonderland of geological beauty, with vibrant seabeds and dazzling plains.” But her group instead "settled in among the throngs in the city of Manila," where the 32-year-old, blond-haired English doctor could only "gape in horror" as she "has never seen poverty on this scale” and “For every one person Sienna fed, there were hundreds more who gazed at her with desolate eyes.”

I lived in Manila in 2009 to 2010 and have been travelling back there frequently ever since. Over this time, I have grown weary of reading and hearing the countless stereotypes, half-truths, myths and misperceptions that Westerners have about the city in particular and the Philippines in general.

It’s not the first time that Manila has seen bad press in literature, but—on Brown’s novel those passages are less than two pages on a total of 460-plus pages—it still caused enough of a hoopla that Catholic priests expressed displeasure and a presidential spokesperson grumbled over how Pinoy Pride was hurt.

Born and raised in Portsmouth, Sykes’ previous book The Realm of the Punisher: Travels in Duterte’s Philippines contained mostly travelogues, interviews, and ruminations about being a Western stranger in a strange land and was a big part of the motivation for the new book.

“I’d always been interested in the Philippines and Southeast Asia,” Sykes said in one of our interviews. “That started with my grandfather who would tell me these stories about visiting Manila when he was in the Royal Navy. And he had this romantic colonialist idea of the place: sitting on the balcony of a colonial bar, drinking Tanduay, smoking cigars.”

Though Imagining Manila is written with a more scholarly tone than Realm, it has plenty interesting and entertaining data for those curious about the lens of why and how white foreigners (specifically in the memoirs, fictions, and reports of British, European, and American authors) have helped to form the West’s idea and image of Manila. And as a corollary the rest of the Philippines. Most carried with them a pre-formed mindset that unsurprisingly bloomed into a one-sided, ideologically partisan imaginative geography which proliferated into their cultural psyche.

Dr. Sykes goes back way back times for writings about Manila, like Daniel Defoe talking about his fear of Chinese merchants in a Manila port on a manuscript in 1720. The modern works include other Western writers, like the nonfiction of James Fenton, James Hamilton-Paterson, Jonathan Miller.

Of course it also includes British author Alex Garland’s The Tesseract (1998)—this time the whole novel is set in Manila and figures a British hero Sean who becomes trapped in a rundown, gangster-owned hotel, tangled in a web of organized crime.

In our exclusive interview, Dr. Sykes traces the history of these “Manilaisms” and how both Westerners and Pinoys can better understand their context. 

One of the most personal and, for me, best scenes from your new book is how you encountered other British expats in a hospital, who proceeded to tell you about their opinions of the whole country from encounters with a few locals.

The one British guy I ended up in the hospital with had a very narrow mindset about what coming to Manila would be like. He got stuck with all the things he projected while he was still back in the UK and brought them over. 

Since he couldn’t get them over there he wanted to live them out here. He wanted cheap beer, sex with brown-skinned women, and what he thought was a strict attitude towards crime—meaning he liked the idea of Duterte and the drug war. It was all a very narrow and very personal set of preferences. He came here but his mind had stayed in England.

Travel did not open his mind or, as the saying goes, make him any tolerant or kinder.

I find it’s what to people choose to bring with them and leave behind that opens their minds. When I was still living in the Philippines, we went to Subic one time and there was I remember this British woman at a restaurant harassing a Pinoy waiter. She was angry because she wanted tea. Which meant English tea. Not flavored stuff. And it has to have milk! Give me milk!

Well, why even come here? I guess they got cajoled by some brochure where it said: come to the Philippines, it’ll be all the things you like about England but it’ll be warm.

I think one of the fresher insights that might surprise readers is how the British and Americans reserved their anger towards our Spanish occupiers rather than the indios.

It goes back to the whole Spain vs Britain colonial supremacy issue. The sentiment of the earlier writings or even just the guys keeping diaries in the 1800s was that the Spanish are ruining the colony. They’re not managing their empire in the East very well. Britain or the US would do a much better job. Alex Garland and some of the other British and American authors who lived in SEA are also discussed in the book. They’re mostly WASPy types who are anti-Catholic.

People might imagine the imperial colonizers had at least more sympathetic views towards each other. I know I initially did.

I found this fascinating as well. There’s a patronizing sort of attitude to the indios, but the real fury is towards the Spanish. They all think for the most part that Manila was held back by a medieval Catholic regime. They castigate the Spanish for it. Manila turned out to be this very hellish place because the cacique governors are bad at managing it. 

You’d think these guys would have more sympathy for the Spanish colonial bosses and say…“Well, they’re one of us, Europeans.” But no there’s more anger directed to them than to the Malay Filipino.

Any works by foreign and First World writers impress you with their insight and effort to understand the Philippine condition and reality while at the same time avoiding the impulse to exoticize into what you call “Manilaism”? 

There is a small but important counter-discourse of Western writers who have kicked against these fetishizing, exoticizing, or insulting tendencies. Maslyn Williams and Tom Bamforth don't whitewash Manila or ignore its social problems but, crucially, provide some important context for these problems.

In other words, whereas a Manilaist like Dan Brown in Inferno rightly drew criticism for presenting an aestheticized scene of violence or vice or poverty, inviting readers to take an almost voyeuristic pleasure in it, Williams and Bamforth try to explain these predicaments in material terms i.e. there is crime because there is poverty, which political action could alleviate. They also express a certain amount of humility and fallibility lacking in the Manilaist canon.

More writers and others seeking to represent the Philippines fairly and accurately should go back to the basics of reporting i.e. do their homework about the wider social conditions affecting the country, seek out a full range of sources to interview or cite, aim for some degree of balance in their analyses.

What’s the best, fondest memory you have during the making of this book?  

Perhaps the most affecting experience has a transnational aspect, as it took place at the university where I work in Portsmouth, in the south of England. At a spoken word event that I organized with colleagues, I read out some of my observations about Manila, and afterwards an elderly, local working-class couple came up to me and said: "We've never been to anything like this before but we just wanted to say how much we enjoyed it, and the Philippines sounds really interesting from what you read." I feel proud to have been able to—just for a moment and in a very limited way—reach out to a couple of people who had never seen the inside of a university before or knew the first thing about a country 11,000 km away. That illustrates to me that people's minds can remain open. 

That’s certainly very inspiring!

But there are so many others. I never cease to be surprised and entertained by the wordplay of Manila graffiti, advertisements, and other examples of what Nick Joaquin calls "the language of the street.” The laundry at UP called 'Lord of the Rinse' must be the creme de la creme

Author Tom Sykes in Manila.

Any tips how writers and creatives from the Global North engage with the Philippine milieu in a better way. A method that respects the realities of the folks who live here?  

There are of course many great Filipino and Filipino diasporan journalists, memoirists and fictionists who do a fine job of interrogating Manilalist misrepresentations, from Jessica Hagedorn to Gina Apostol, Butch Dalisay to Carlos Bulosan. I devote a chapter, albeit probably all-too-brief, to them.

At the risk of sounding boring, more writers and others seeking to represent the Philippines fairly and accurately should go back to the basics of reporting i.e. do their homework about the wider social conditions affecting the country, seek out a full range of sources to interview or cite, aim for some degree of balance in their analyses. It's striking how often these elementary journalistic virtues are time and again stymied by a Western writer's sense of cultural superiority and an unwillingness to admit that the ideologies they subscribe to—neoliberalism more recently or, going further back in time, the 'benevolent assimilation' outlook of the US colonial period—must take some of the blame for the social and economic crises they see around them in cities like Manila.

“Imagining Manila” is available from Bloomsbury Publishing or Amazon.