It was a Sunday afternoon when we met at the long famous old Chinese fast-food restaurant in Quiapo. Our first stop was at Ma Mon Luk. We didn't actually eat but we just took pictures.
The restaurant kept most of the furnishing and interior from probably since it started, the marble-top table, wooden chair, old cash register, earlier models of ceiling fan, stainless hot and cold water dispensers, and the old China plates and bowls. Its service crew are mixed of older men at their 50's and some other younger men at their 20's. The restaurant still serve its original specialty, siopao, siomai and mami. One can openly see how Ma Mon Luk creates those delicacy in the traditional fashion.
Going to Ma Mon Luk was my third time. The first was five years ago when I came back from working abroad because I want to reconnect to my sense of being a Filipino-Chinese. That Chinese portion of my identity can't be seen in my complexion, but manifest in my eyes as my late grandmother was full-blooded Chinese. The second time was just a week ago, I was with my Mom, from whom I heard so many things beautiful and amazing about Downtown Manila.
Quaipo, Sta. Cruz and Binondo. I have known these places as an urbanscape, from whence I was a kid, from 30 years ago. I've passed through Binondo several times, when my Mom would take me with her to buy some fabrics and sewing materials in Divisoria. I am familiar with the streets connecting Binondo to Sta.Cruz, as we could stroll down to the Church from Ongpin onto Carriedo. The books that I used when I was in High School were mostly bought from Recto.
A small kid's eyes would find the buildings in Downtown to be skyscrapers, although they were just less than ten stories tall. Things were just gargantuan, and everything else displayed attracted my attention like how gravity pulls everything together to the earth's center. Downtown was Manila's center then - the best option for shopping since its a haven for numerous number of department stores and specialty shops."Everything one needs is there".
Thirty years, hence, I trail the stretch of Quezon Boulevard, Recto, Avenida, Raon, Echague and Hidalgo. Along with me are scholars from the University of the Philippines and we witness and experience Downtown in its present form.
From Ma Mon Luk, we traversed up Quezon Boulevard. A block away after the G.Puyat overpass, is a line shops selling videoke machines. I see this as a cultural artifact that tells how Filipinos love music. From DVD-Karaoke to a full set Videoke Machine, Music CDs, and 500,000 songs DVD Music players, everything that is up and about Music is there.
The next stores sell second hand TVs, second hand refrigerators, second hand components. Going around the area, and just right across are stalls selling many other things that are second hand. Second hand watch, second hand camera, second hand video, second hand tapes and name it, they have it. There are also many Ukay-ukay shops, selling second hand items, clothes, books, toys, electronics, curtains, bags, shoes, slippers, medical equipment... and the list goes on. These second hand shops have replaced the small department stores of Avenida and Quezon Boulevard.
But know "everything you need is at the mall", the mall just "got it all for you." My pilgrimage to Downtown is intentional, to experience the remaining standalone cinemas in the central business district of Manila, that should lead to writing a sociohistorical and ethnomethodological accounts of it. Hoping, of course that I could contribute to the existing knowledge of the cinema.
What we witnessed was cultural erosion, the neglect of cultural heritage, the loss of value for the historic past, and the lack of direction of a future. Empty spaces, vacant lots, closed shops, uneven walkways and potholes, dark verandas, unlit neon signs, unattended structures, uncontrolled vehicular traffic, and rushing flow of pedestrians. There, surely one will forget all his trouble, if not forget himself.
Downtown has become a historical artifact, a center dislocated, a sensually erotic place, a treasure lost to the pirates, a cinematic location in silhouette. Downtown, is not anymore in its upscale status, instead a distant memory of a glorious era that have faded in its luster.