Manila is rife with misadventures. As much as we would like to only highlight what is beautiful, the reality of horrible traffic conditions, inefficient public transportation, rapid urbanization, threat to heritage sites, and more are embedded in the culture and character of the city. Manila is flawed and imperfect.
The madness of the metro is captured perfectly in a quirky set of illustrated cartoon characters known as the Manila Girls, humorous and sarcastic personifications of popular districts and locations in Manila and beyond.
The Manila Girls are a creation of Kenny Tai, an independent artist based in Manila City, who dabbles in illustration, graphic design, animation and designing her own merch. The Manila Girls are her designs under her Akim brand, which stands for “Ang Kuwentong Inuwi Mo.”
At first glance, these girls all appear cute and adorable, but their appearance and activities reflect the current state of the areas they represent.
“Manila Girls started as a series of postcards in 2015, from observing the districts and the cities while capturing their common characteristics based on the area's demographics, history and its current status,” Tai said in an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe.
Each character comes with a fictional bio and poem that gives readers more information on the history and distinct culture and backstory of a place, flaws and all.
"Sharing a pretty picture of Manila seems pretentious where everything in the city is the contrary. Let these ladies show you a different angle where each borough is unpleasing at first glance but then grows beautifully in you. These are the love child of Manila’s madness and the Filipino obsession of personalities and beauty pageants,” she added.
For instance, the Binondo Girl “works hard and drives a hard bargain, all in the name of prosperity, honour, and steamed pork buns.”
There’s Miss Escolta, who looks dapper yet disheveled, much like the current state of the historic district, home to several fine examples of early skyscraper design in the Philippines, which are in danger of being torn down.
San Nicolas wears a fireman’s hat, has a peg leg, and carries around a dilapidated heritage house in a cart, among other trade goods. "Crippled with time and covered with grime, she carries on steady with hard work and tenacity," the bio reads for Binondo's neglected twin sister.
No explanation is needed for Miss España, who gleefully jumps across flooded waters dressed in a school uniform.
The Manila Girls manage to make a statement in their look and design, which offers a stark contrast to their innocent appearance, making it easier to absorb the message the girls are trying to convey. If you're familiar with the places and their gritty reputations not usually seen in glossy travel magazines, the characters will instantly make you smile.
While the series is meant to be humorous, according to the artist, some people are not comfortable with the looks of certain Manila Girls such as Malate, Tondo, and Recto because of the “stereotyping narrative which is exactly the point of the series.”
“We're not describing the residents living in the area, but letting the people see the district, without white-washing the narrative, in a much bigger and profound picture such as history, politics, pop culture and society,” said Tai.
“Some sympathize with San Nicolas, Binondo, Quiapo and Escolta because of the heritage threat. Others simply relate to the urban disaster of the city such as EDSA or Makati,” she added.
Currently, there are 14 Manila Girls (Intramuros, Binondo, San Nicolas, Escolta, Quiapo, Recto, Divisoria, España, Pasay, Malate, Tondo, Parañaque, Makati and EDSA) and more coming up, according to Tai.
“I'm always open to exploring further around Metro Manila but I also believe in the 'slow cooking' process meaning it will certainly take time with very careful research and observation of the city before compiling them to create a new character,” she said.
While her initial postcards have already been phased out since 2017, at present the Manila Girls are now printed as stickers for stationery collectors, history-heritage aficionados, or simply for those who are curious to explore more of the locally-made products.
With journaling and sticker collecting a big hit once again due to the pandemic, those who haven't come across these collectible stickers before may want to check them out.
Sticker collectors can find two versions of the Manila Girls set. The first version are solo stickers with poetry at the back, which the artist is phasing out to make way for the second version of sticker sheets, as seen below.
The Manila Girls sticker packs, random of five designs, are available at Common Room PH (stores and website) and The Heritage Collective located at HUB Make Lab in Escolta. The full collection of 14 stickers can be purchased via the artist’s merch account via private messaging at @akim.63 on Facebook and Instagram.
The girls have also branched out from stickers into other merch. To celebrate Heritage Month last May 2021, AKIM collaborated with Rache Go's incubation brand Purple Banyan for a set of Manila Girl goodies, to bring “pieces of heritage and culture in the form of delectable snacks” since people couldn't travel and visit the actual heritage sites.
The delectable set included Binondo Ooloong Roselle Tea, Intramuros Tablea Liquor Brownies, Grape Jelly Candies from San Nicolas, and Escolta Champagne Jelly.
While the collaboration was done for a limited run to celebrate Manila Girls through food, the artist plans to have another run in August for History Month. The artist is also open to collaborations with other artists who share similar views in objective and awareness.
History buffs can also rediscover and Explore Manila wth the Manila Girls by reading up on the different heritage sites, and get ideas on where to eat, and what to do in Wander Manila's website.
(All illustrations courtesy of Kenny Tai/AKIM)