As part of our “While You Were Away” series, which was exclusive to New York City for some time, we have added Manila. Our “Man in Manila” is Simonn Ang, a native to Manila, and someone I trust to give you, our reader, a report on the goings-on in the city, hidden gems of Manila and with food being the main vehicle, of course.
I hope this series, which we will bring to you monthly intrigues you to visit or return to the best town in Southeast Asia, Manila.
Without further ado, here is Simonn Ang.
Simonn Ang is a Filipino-Chinese entrepreneur and writer based in Manila. And by the looks of it, you can add “full-time food lover” to that list, too!
Ah, the Philippines; it is, without bias, a magical place known for its beautiful island beaches, hospitable locals, and of course, quirky yet cultural jeepneys. It is, however, also famous for – or should I say infamous for – rampant corruption, the appalling poverty rate, and horrendous traffic jams.
See, the Philippines is more a paradox than it is a nation united and sovereign. We are recognized as the only Christian nation in Asia, yet ranked 4th most corrupt country in the world. It is renowned as the next developing country to watch out for, but at least, one in every four Filipinos still live on a mere dollar a day. “What would it be like to live in such a place?”, you might ask.
Well, that’s what I’m here to answer. I reside in the capital city called Manila. Now, to avoid any future confusion, the name “Manila” is also ambiguously used by locals like me to refer to what is technically the National Capital Region or NCR which consists of the 16 most urbanized cities in the Philippines with Manila City being the most prominent of them all.
The NCR is so vast that the only real way to know that you’re leaving the Manila area is if you find yourself on a plane, a boat, or passing a toll booth. Besides the 16 cities included in the National Capital Region, there are only two other major cities across the Philippines. With this being said, Manila is packed full of people. More than eleven million of us.
To give you a frame of reference, a lot of people say that Singapore is quite densely packed. The total land area of the island city-state is roughly the same as Manila, with the former being some 100 square kilometers bigger, yet it only houses a little more than 5 million people. No wonder traffic here is ridiculous!
The reason for this is that Manila (NCR) is perceived by most as the land of opportunity. It’s where multinational corporations hold their offices. It’s where you can find the best schools in the country. It’s where luxury brands from across the world set-up shop.
So if you want the best job, go to Manila. If you want the best education, better go to Manila! If you dream of living the modern, posh city life, then Manila is the place to be.
This, in turn, has resulted in two things: one, unbearable traffic jams, and two, an immensely diverse population. Social divides, the influx of foreign residents, and the strong expat community in central business districts have transformed Manila into a melting pot of vastly different cultures. Add to all this, the years of colonial rule under the Spaniards, the Americans, and the Japanese.
Heck, almost half of the Philippine GDP is from Filipino-Chinese businessmen! I myself am a prime example of Manila’s diversity. I have a Chinese surname, an unmistakably Filipino face, and an American English accent. The great socio-economic divide between the rich and the poor has also created sub-cultures that have to share the city.
High-end real estate developments rise left and right, luxury brands find their way into the country hordes at a time, yet right behind these developments are slums where the less fortunate life. We are a people varied and at times conflicting. But somehow despite all this, manage to unite in one cheer during a Pacquiao fight or a Gilas game.
So what then is Manila and how do we determine our culture? Do we trace our historic roots? Do we look at the contemporary trends of today? Or do we look into each train station and its relevance? Do we go into each mall and their effect on society? Do we sit in local professional basketball games on mostly empty arenas? Do we try to make sense of an esoteric public transport like the jeepney? Do we view Manila from the perspective of the poor and of the middle class?
For now, I guess the easiest way to put it is, Manila is a smorgasbord of clashing cultures trying to get to the next destination in under two hours. So let me take you on every two-hour commute of mine and show you the good, the bad, and the beautiful of my beloved home, the Philippines. I’ll tell it like it is from a local’s perspective. We’ll get right down to brass tacks and skip the pleasantries and clichés that you’re already aware of.
Did you like this story? Do share it with your friends then, we’d all appreciate it. Do you have any questions for Simonn? Stay tuned next month for his food story in Manila. If you would like a quick travel guide to Manila, here’s Brenda’s short travel guide.