The Glory Days

The Glory Days

Philippine Tatler | November 2007

When nationalism obsessed high society

By Manuel L. Quezon III


THERE was a time when Filipinos drove on the left side of the road as other Asians still do, today, in Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia. This was in the years prior to World War II, when Singapore was a British naval base and not much else, Kuala Lumpur was all about rubber plantations, and where what was then the Dutch East Indies with its capital in Batavia (today’s Jakarta) was firmly ruled from the Netherlands. In Saigon, the French were firmly in control of French Indochina, and only the recently renamed Thailand, could claim any kind of sovereignty. In a region of colonies, only the Philippines had an assurance of independence — and the corresponding self-assurance that made Manila the closest rival of Shanghai in terms of cosmopolitan culture.


And aside from Shanghai, only Manila could claim a semblance of high society, and that society itself was old, well-developed, and unique. Manila was closer in atmosphere and culture to Havana than it was to either Honolulu or Shanghai; society too, was less defined by the colonial masters than, say that of Singapore. It was formal, with an older generation still heavily Hispanic, and a young generation highly influenced by American culture.


Society, in Manila, was demarcated by the landscape: Dasmariñas Village’s equivalent then was Pasay, where Roxas Boulevard was still Dewey Boulevard, and the original Polo Club was located where today’s Seafront compound can be found; the Forbes Park of those days was Vito Cruz and Taft Avenue; the San Lorenzo of those days was Ermita and the Bel-Air was Malate; there was no such thing as gated communities, and until the 1920s there hadn’t even been walls around the mansions in Pasay. The new developments were in Quiapo, which was the new downtown, along the brand-new Quezon Avenue: people flocked over the equally brand-new Quezon Bridge, to watch films in the new air-conditioned movie theaters; and Quezon Avenue itself led towards the prewar Alabang, which was New Manila, in a Quezon City that remained mainly a blueprint.


Club, church, and school defined society. There were clubs for expatriates, whether the German Club, the British Club, or the Casino Español, or the bulwarks of the American establishment: Elks, or Army-Navy or Polo clubs; Filipinos who’d studied in the United States set up the Philippine Columbian (where independence missions were planned and politics avidly discussed), the Tiro al Blanco and Club Filipino were the haunts of the gambling set while those bored with cards flocked to the Jai Alai set up by the Madrigals. The ball, featuring the Rigodon, was the centerpiece of the social season; and and the cabaret, the hotel and the night club, defined society places for the young and old.


The schools, then as now, were the Big Four: LaSalle was heavily mestizo and Chinese; the Ateneo was not; I.S. was still known as the American School and Brent strictly didn’t allow Filipinos to enroll. Spanish was the language of the courts, and English, that of politics, commerce, and the papers.


It was a time when the siesta was an integral part of the working day, reaching its highest point of refinement (and necessity) in the Summer season would begin with a government order changing office hours, and government and society would decamp to Baguio for the duration.


But it takes someone who lived through the prewar days, to properly set the scene. Going through the unpublished memoirs of my father, Manuel L. Quezon Jr. (1926-1998), I found this vivid description of prewar Manila:


Imagine Manila with no high rises only one or more often two storey homes, some four storey buildings – the seven storey Far Eastern Hotel being an exception — The total population was six hundred thousand, a tenth or less of today’s. There never was a water shortage and the water was completely safe and without the taste or smell of chlorine. The only power failures were in certain limited areas during a bad electrical storm… The city was clean, one of the world’s cleanest and I do not recall even seeing garbage. Crime was practically non-existent, except for an occasional theft here and there. Violent crime you saw in movies — gangster movies and murder mysteries with practically non-existent. Even automobile accidents were rare because people drove carefully and there was courtesy of the road. The bedlam of tooting horns was also unknown. There were no traffic jams as such -cars moved slowly delivering students to schools or picking them up. About the closest thing to a traffic jam was the slow-moving traffic along Ayala bridge, a single span. Then a second span was built and the problem was solved. The old Ayala mansion beside the Pasig was demolished, the mansion where my Godmother Doña Carmen lived and where I said goodbye when she left for Spain.

Manila was very much of a family town. Families’ children were commonly looked after by Chinese amahs and Indian guards were very common and Japanese gardeners. The upper classes were from all parts of the country since the center of government, business, etc., was concentrated in Manila. The servants were mainly from the Visayas and the Ilocos, some from Bicol -Tagalogs for some reason have never been good servants- but the bulk of the population was definitely Tagalog.

There were of course plenty of wealthy Chinese families and Binondo was a largely Chinese district. Very few Chinese seem to have been in the professions such as engineering, architecture and medicine, not because of any social or racial barriers but because of their personal preference for commerce.

Along the shore of Manila Bay was Dewey Blvd. with electric street lamps (Roxas Blvd today). The northern end was the Luneta (today’s Rizal Park), the southern end was Cortabitarte (Quirino Blvd. today) where you made a left turn to get onto F.B. Harrison if you wanted to go further south to Pasay.
Parallel to Dewey Blvd, but inland, was Taft Avenue, which you followed past the Legislative Bldg to the Post Office area where you crossed the Pasig River over Jones Bridge to go to the Escolta parallel to the Pasig River. The ugly Manila City Hall did not exist until close to the start of the war, the important offices and stores were in the Escolta Area — today’s Makati did not exist. Nielsen Field, the airport, was in San Pedro de Macati but the big news prior to the war were the Philippine Clipper flying boats of Pan American, that landed in Cavite.

The aristocratic residential area was Ermita where the residence of the Guerreros and Cuyugans stood, both illustrious Filipino families. However, there were residences of prominent families in other areas – along Dewey Blvd., along the shore of Manila Bay, and even along Taft Avenue.

During my childhood there were no traffic lights — traffic was directed by policemen in khaki uniforms, sometimes under large khaki umbrellas… When traffic lights arrived in Manila I do not know, but I recall clearly that when we drove around Honolulu on our way to the States in 1937 and the driver boasted to us of traffic lights we said nothing but felt terribly superior because in Manila they were old hat.

Apart from private automobiles and the few rare taxis, transportation was by bus owned by Meralco, streetcars also owned by Meralco, and the humble calesa, ubiquitous at that time. Jeepneys were in the remote future.

Streetcars ran on electricity, provided from overhead wires connected to the streetcar by thin metal rods. The only way to picture such vehicles is to see them on TV because they still function in Europe. They also existed in the United States during WWII but have all vanished. The streetcar was popular because they were safe. Buses were gasoline driven and you knew you were in Santa Mesa because there you had buses which also ran on electricity not on wheels like any other buses, but on tracks. Private cars were most often chauffeur driven and the drivers were intensely loyal and stayed with their employers almost permanently. When there was a social occasion, the drivers were fed by the home owner and whiled their time away, while waiting, playing dice, which was, I believe, technically illegal but the police hardly bother the drivers.


Another unpublished account of life in those days comes from the late Enrique Zobel, whose reminisces add additional details to what life was like in both town and country:


We lived on M. H. Del Pilar, in old Ermita, which was originally called Calle Real but had been renamed in honor of the great Filipino revolutionaries in the struggle against Spain. Our house was a stately 4-bedroom, 3-story villa facing Manila Bay. We lived on the same row as the McMickings, the Ynchaustis, and other prominent families.

Our home was designed in the Spanish style by Andres Luna De San Pedro, the only son of the painter and patriot, Juan Luna. It had wide, highly polished mahogany floors and heavy carved mahogany furniture, windows and balconies with intricate Spanish grilles; it had paintings, mirrors and screens, and ceiling fans. Our sheets were made of linen. One room was my parents’, one was for my aunts, Consuelo and Pili, and one was for me; the last was reserved for guests.

Like all big households, we had lots of servants. We had fifteen maids and houseboys; we had women to do the laundry, and women to do the ironing. All the houseboys wore white uniforms. Servants had their own kitchen. I remember Paterno, the assistant cook for the servants!

My allowance was P1 a week. At recess time, I’d buy a Magnolia Twin Popsicle and a fish or hamburger sandwich from the school canteen. Fish sandwiches were popular then – made of chopped lapu-lapu and mayonnaise. The guy who ran the canteen, a certain Lagman, saved up enough and later opened the Aristocrat chain of restaurants. After school, I hung around my many cousins and aunts.

On Thursdays, friends would go to Gaiety Theater; they played serials on Thursdays. Buck Rogers is the one I remember most. After the movies, it was merienda time at Ito’s. Ito was my grandfather’s Japanese gardener. He used to own the mongo and maiz con hielo stand in front of the Gaiety. I remember he also sold toys and halo-halo. Poor Ito, he had to pick up after us at night. Fernando and I owned toy soldier sets made of lead – what every boy wanted, and only a few got. Fernando and I would play war in the garden. We found out years later that he was a naval intelligence officer.

On Sundays, we’d go to mass at Malate Church round the corner, then we would gather together for lunch. As children, we ate at a separate table behind a decorative screen, or biombo. Our upbringing was very strict. We were not supposed to be heard or even seen, especially those of us with faulty table manners.

My parents threw parties at home at least every ten days. The parties never had less than two hundred people. There was a band, an orchestra, the works. As children, Pili, Consuelo, and I often watched these parties from the balcony. I could peer through the balcony grill all night.


President Manuel L. Quezon and his wife, Aurora, visited almost every week. President Quezon often asked my mother to put together parties for him and invite all the dignitaries. Quezon introduced General Douglas MacArthur and his wife, Jean, to my parents, and they became very close friends.

Most of the time, we lived in Manila, but we often visited the Calatagan hacienda. At home, we spoke Spanish, and in school, English, but in Batangas, we spoke Tagalog.


The hacienda used to be a sugarcane field and a sugar cane mill, which my family later sold. Later, it was converted into a ranch. A road was built from the railroad station to the Central, where the sugar was milled. The Central was located in Silverio’s place.

My father gave hunts during the Holy Week. Only top American officials were invited to the one-week hunt. For one week every year, from the town all the way down to the Farola, approximately ten thousand deer and one hundred wild cattle (known locally as bakang simaron) were fair game. We only had deer during the Holy Week.


We had guardas take care of the hunting ground to make sure others were not hunting on our property. I remember Intoy, the head, Hernandez, Catalino, and Torres; the father of Giron, Vivas; and Catalino Urcia. They trekked to the water holes to check the number of deer and wild pigs. Later, in the war, we hunted for ourselves. The war made us learn to do a lot of things on our own.


As a boy, I did not listen to the family talk about the business. At the time, I only cared about horses and Calatagan. That all changed when I was fourteen, when the war broke out.


My father wrote two funny stories about his mother’s closest friends, Doña Consuelo Cuyugan and Doña Jesusa Arroyo (grandmother of the President’s husband, Atty. Miguel Arroyo), Auntie Choling and Lola Jesusa, respectively to my father and his sisters. He remembered his Auntie Choling as a great practical joker who was immune to reprisals because she had a weak heart:


Auntie Choling, Lola Jesusa Arroyo, and other friends had spent the day with my mother. Lola Jesusa was told she had a phone call in mother’s bedroom. Mother had a large matrimonial bed, it was dusk, and the phone was on the other side of the bed, away from the door. As Lola Jesusa picked up the phone, a shape dressed in black sat up on the bed. Lola was so terrified she started to scream but it seems no sound come out. She crawled under the bed towards the door, so terrified she left a trickle of liquid on the floor. I suppose she ultimately made it to the living room.

It turned out the ghost on the bed was Auntie Choling in a black “Domino,” the long robes worn for the Manila Carnival, which was a yearly event. I suppose my mother was in on the joke, as she was another one with a perhaps bloated sense of humor. Every one thought the whole joke terribly funny, except perhaps Lola Jesusa. And she never dared to try to get even, because of Auntie Choling’s heat condition.


There was a one aspect of high society that, today, has vanished so completely, as to seem part of another world. My father described it in this manner:

 [There was] a socially accepted or at least tolerated social institution of the time called flirtation. Men, sometimes married, directed flattering remarks and allusions (out loud or whispered) to beautiful or attractive ladies which the latter accepted gracefully and appreciatively as a natural tribute to their charms. This refined flirtation was part of a man’s and woman’s social graces and was a kind of game. Sometimes the flattering allusions were made in the presence of the spouse and was taken as a compliment by the spouse or was directed at the husband regarding the beauty and charms of the lady. It was a sort of courtly game, no more, and people knew when it went beyond that. Husbands knew when horns were being put on them. If they took them, there was a very strong Spanish term applied to them.


Bearing this description of the culture of flirtation in mind, this second story from my father connects that culture with the Manila Carnival:

On another occasion, during the Manila Carnival, my parents were occupying the Senate President’s box in the auditorium, a large hall with a dancing space in the middle, where programs including those for costumed children were held. For those who never even heard of the Manila Carnival, the auditorium used to be put up every year and then knocked down again — it was of simple wood, with a roofless portion in the middle…

Anyway, my parents were watching the events in the auditorium when a large figure in a domino and a mask entered the box. I think Auntie Choling (for it was she) affected a limp. She somehow signaled my mother and my mother would know who it was. Then Auntie Choling (who pretended to be a man) proceeded to flirt with my mother. She ignored my father, whose eyebrows proceeded to twitch up and down, a very well known sign of his annoyance, or anger as the case might