Escolta habitue-turned-business-resident Regina Abuyuan muses on the different faces and phases of Escolta, and the danger of it becoming too hip for its own good
(Unedited version of Check out Escolta, the ‘Queen of Streets’–can she regain her crown?)
When retired photojournalist Jose Enrique “Derek” Soriano and I opened the second branch of our dive bar Fred’s Revolucion in Escolta—the “Queen of Manila Streets”; arguably Manila’s oldest street in the world’s oldest Chinatown, founded in the late 16th century—it was hard for me to accept that countless millennials (and some Gen Yers and Gen Xers as well), had not heard of it.
“Saan kayo pinalaki? Sa petri dish?” I would fume in my head, when I’d read their comments on social media. “Escolta? Saan ‘yon?” E ‘di Escolta. “Saan sa Manila ‘yon? Sa Malate ba?” OMG. Hindi ba kayo pinasyal ng mga magulang niyo habang lumalaki kayo?
I calmed down after a spell, when I began to accept that in the early ‘80s—when Makati was taking precedence as the premier commercial district in Metro Manila—perhaps people didn’t want to take their children to this faded grand dame of a thoroughfare, still dignified, still handsome, but perhaps reeking a tad too much of the old school, of a sensibility that didn’t fit in with the new world order. Not everyone had the initiative or inclination to make it to old downtown Manila.
Not everyone has a relative or friend or lover who worked in Escolta, or any reason to visit it at all. Not everyone has a father, like I do, who worked in the ‘70s in the headquarters of Philippine National Bank, located between Capitol and Lyric theaters, two of the eight (eight!) architecturally acclaimed buildings along the famed street, which is less than a kilometer long. Not everyone had the chance to eat at renowned restaurants like Smart Panciteria (to where I later returned as an adult, pregnant with my first child, to have their pig’s brain soup and black chicken broth, convinced that my baby would benefit from these exotic Chinese concoctions); or at Marquina, with its humungous crabs from Sorsogon; or M.Y. San restaurant (yes, same owners as the biscuit makers), right beside PNB, that offered “good breakfast food a la Pancake House now,” recalls Papa.
“A hidden resto behind PNB, same alley as Smart, was Kentucky, where dining cubicles were curtained. Draw-the-curtains-dessert with your date,” he says, with a small laugh. “Stock and customs brokers, movie producers, businessman etc. were Escolta-based so they’d have their afternoon delight there.”
There were after-work drinks at Wah Yuen and Savory, now burnt down, at the foot of Jones Bridge. Deals made with movie producer Jun Dominguez, whose CTD Productions was located in Burke Building. Ah, those were the days.
Not everyone has friends like Jimmy Yang, whose family owned Esquire Photo, and later put up his own shop in Malate called Mabini Photo. The place was celebrated among photojournalists who saw the transition from film to digital. Jimmy got the lion’s share of the market processing their colored film before they would troop back to their offices to have the negs scanned. They’d all make their way back to Mabini Photo after assignments, where they’d sit around exchanging stories and jesting about who got the best coverage and whose turn it was to buy a round of drinks that night.
In the mid-2000s, long after Mabini closed down, Jimmy acted as de facto tour guide and neighborhood historian as Derek and I brought the kids on their first Chinatown jaunts. “Pag Sunday, nandyan na yung Escolta walking club,” Jimmy would say in his slur-drawl, cigarette in hand, sauntering ahead of us, shoulders hunched not out of any deformity but because, well, that was how all the cool kids walked in the ‘70s. As they say, what you thought cool in your college years will be your barometer of cool all throughout your life.
“Naka puti silang lahat tapos may Leica sa leeg. Tapos pupunta sila sa shop, magbobolahan. Diyan sa kanto malapit sa First United Building (formerly Perez-Samanillo Building), nandoon si ‘hey Joe, wanna buy watch,’ mga benta mga nakaw na Rolex. Noong isang beses, may holdaper sa amin. Ninakaw Omega ng tatay ko. Ayun, naabutan ng pulis sa tapat ng Regina Building. Binaril sa ulo.”
By the time he’d finish with his spiel, we’d have reached New Toho Center, originally called Toho Antigua, the oldest restaurant in Manila, built in 1888, on Tomas Pinpin Street.
In its heyday, it might have taken you an hour or more to traverse the grand street. Depending on the era, you would’ve had several distractions as you meandered through the well-heeled Escolta crowd: movies at Lyric or Capitol Theatre, ice cream at Clarke’s or Escolta Ice Cream Parlor (or ice cream sodas at Botica Boies), or shopping at Heacock’s or Berg’s Department Store in Perez-Samanillo Building.
Berg’s was founded in the 1930s, at the height of Escolta Street’s glamor, changed hands from Ernest Berg to Sy Lian Teng in the ‘50s, and was closed in the early ‘80s. (The Sylianteng family bought the Perez-Samanillo building in 1979 and renamed it First United Building (FUB). The space experienced another rebirth in 2016, with that of HUB |Make:Lab, a community of artists and indie brands that sell stuff like handmade notebooks and exquisitely-scented, small batch soaps. It is in this space that Fred’s Revolucion makes its second home.
It’s hard not to get sentimental about Escolta, which is one of the reasons why Derek chose to bet on it in the first place. Derek has his roots in the area; he was born on Doroteo Jose Street, a mere 800 meters from Fred’s Revolucion-Escolta. His grandfather Fred, after whom the bar is named, grew up in nearby Quiapo. Despite negative feedback and misgivings from close friends about setting up shop there, Derek was drawn to the idea and up to the challenge of proving naysayers wrong.
Sentimentality and wanting to return something to a state wherein it was most enjoyed is a powerful motivation for some. Lorraine Sylianteng, whose husband Robert is the son of Sy Lian Teng from his second marriage, worked at Berg’s and was merchandiser for the children’s wear department. “We shopped at Oceanic Jewelry Store, Syvel’s, and Assandas. I remember watching ‘The Young Ones’ at the Lyric Theatre as a young girl.” She used to visit her dentist on the fourth floor of the building they now own. “I remember riding the same elevator we still have up to now and admired how the elevator boy could maneuver the controls to stop at the right floor. I remember going to Berg’s to buy Pretty Quiks (blotting paper). We never appreciated the significance of FUB until 2011 when we were introduced to the history and facts about the building.”
She states: “I strongly believe that our youth need to know of their past in order for them to be proud of what the country has achieved and how each of them can also be proud of this. That’s why it’s important for us to preserve FUB since it was built during a glorious time in the Philippines.”
Robert adds: “The Philippines’ modern history is centered in Manila. Who else other than today’s Filipinos (and Manileños) should take on the responsibility of realizing the preamble of the Philippine constitution, ‘conserve and develop our patrimony, and secure to ourselves and our posterity’? Escolta is just one of tens of thousands of heritage gems hidden beneath Manila’s disposable income.”
As it is, the lost shine and glory of Escolta today—save for very few areas such as HUB in FUB—is yet to discovered. You will get glimpses of it as you walk from El Hogar westward, towards Sta. Cruz Church, but you’ll have to look very closely. Crossing from Polland bakery over to Crown Seafood Palace, I peer into the darkened windows. The bar is still intact, a bottle of Galliano is still full and unopened. But the doors are padlocked and there are signs of homeless people’s sleeping gear on the pavement. I try to linger at Panpisco building to appreciate the tastefully arranged window displays (yet another 98B initiative), and take in some details at the Calvo Building, but the stench of a garbage truck picking up bins and their putrid contents drive me out of my meandering mood. It’s a shame, as the breeze from the Pasig River is cool, even in the height of summer; one can only imagine how beautiful this walk would’ve been a century before.
I cross over the other side and hurry towards FUB, and make it to Fred’s in less than 10 minutes.
And now, 2018
Don’t get me wrong. Escolta’s charm still shines through even through the decay—and the players that have replaced the Spanish grandee or the Chinese tycoon ambling down this street, make it all the more interesting and vibrant. Not at all dangerous—just: alive. As my son observed while walking to Ongpin Street one day, “it’s like a medieval tale at every turn.” Escolta is a not a street for non-stories. Even the restful pose of a street hawker carries weight and meaning.
But there is no room for poignant distraction in today’s Escolta. There is only a moving forward, a valiant effort from the different personalities from different generations—Baby Boomer to Millennial—who are involved and invested in the street, to keep its legacy, and at the same time, keep it relevant and interesting enough to attract and keep new blood and energy flowing.
“There’s no way to artificially recreate the heritage ambience. Modern developments and townships try to, but we have the real thing,” Art Dy, president of Escolta Commercial Association Inc. (ECAI, of which the Syliantengs are on the Board of Governors), says. “We have all the basic ingredients to make it a great place—the river, heritage structures still standing, an authentic heritage feel. Our vision is to see that all these elements are maximized, adaptive reuse is in place, and a pleasant mix of heritage and modern structures is achieved.”
I’ve read a couple of articles that say Escolta is fast becoming known for its Escolta Block Parties (EBPs). (This was written while the sixth one, held on May 19, was underway.)
I’m not quite decided on how to feel about this. The hype the EBPs has created for the community is immense. As a business owner, we welcome the spike in sales; as an aging party goer, it’s a cathartic release, a shot in the arm to remind me how much I used to enjoy the throb and ecstasy of a dancing crowd.
But as someone whose part of her childhood memories lies in this storied street, and who genuinely wants to see it restored to its former stateliness, I feel Escolta should be known for more than just a quarterly EBP. More than the latest hip hangout for emerging artists. It should be a place where—translating Art Dy’s formula of blending heritage and modernity into the human equivalent—its residents get a crack at improved, enhanced lives.
The danger of gentrification is the displacement of the character and characters of an area—we (I speak for Derek and I) are loath for that to happen. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for the Escolta streetkids—Fernando, Maymay, Antony, Mamart, Entot, Mumuy, Justine (yes, we know them by name)—to still hang around, but to be better versions of themselves? Wouldn’t it be something if Kagawad (a former stuntman and alalay of Dolphy, who used to hold office on the fifth floor of FUB, and whom we regularly treat to beers), would find new direction in his sunset years?
“There are many other things that can and must be done so we do hope that more people from the area would be more involved. As with most efforts of this kind, we are worried about displacement and utter commercialization,” Marika Constantino, executive director of 98B, remarks. “However, we have also realized that such a predicament is beyond our control. We can only do our fair share within the realm of the contemporary art practice. Wherever Escolta will go or how it will develop or progress would be up to its stakeholders.”
There is also the danger of the focus being placed on the shiny, showbiz part of Escolta’s revival—rather than the long-term issues of waste disposal and cleanliness, plus the engagement of the other building owners, and the organization of the vendors and parking maids.
“I wish more buildings will actively participate in this revitalization,” says Lorraine. “However, I see so much cooperation among the artists at the Hub and the creatives in FUB. I am very grateful for all their efforts to put life in Escolta.” Perhaps in as short a time as two years, in 2020, she says, “I would like simpler things to happen: vendors could be limited and have beautiful carts designed by our artists, plants can be planted in fences overlooking the estero, regular trips to Escolta by the ferry. Vendors learning how to tour people around Escolta. A cleaner-looking Escolta. In five years, more buildings involved or hosting more creatives or artists, more art work around Escolta, more buildings being recognized as historical landmarks. I also hope that each building will have a boutique museum to recognize the past and present owners of the buildings, to tell their story. In ten years, I’d like to see traffic improve so we can close the street. I wish that Escolta can be pedestrianized.”
Hope springs eternal in the dozens of souls truly invested—not just by lip service or PR—but in their actions, financial input, and active and consistent involvement in whatever Escolta needs to regain its crown.
Scratch that. Queens never die, and they never lose their crowns. They’re just thrust into legend.
Regina Abuyuan is a Manila-based writer and editor. She is owner of Blended Learning Center-Manila and is general manager of Fred’s Revolucion, a popular dive located in Cubao Expo and Escolta, Manila. She runs it with Jose Enrique Soriano, a retired photojournalist, search and rescue (SAR) dog trainer, and cook.