An 'Informal Settler' in Manila

‘Lowdown’ Goes to the Philippines for Christmas
By Jonathan Chandler
for The Wild East

Squatter community in Manila

Squatter community in Manila

I made a last-minute decision to get out of sub-zero, Siberian wind-tunnel Qingdao for the Christmas holiday. The prospect of a week’s solitary sopping at Old Jack’s Bar, waiting for the unlikely phone call from my daughters was simply too grim to bear. I needed distracting and I knew where to get it.

So I paid over-the-top holiday price-jacks for cramped seats on planes to Beijing, Hsiamen and thence to Manila. The three-hour crow flight took about 14 hours door-to-door.

But Manila is worth it.

The shabby old, varicosed hellcat in her holey, faded fishnets and flaking mascara is still standing, or rather listing, with her elbow on a counter flush with ice-cold stubby glass-bottled San Miguel Pilsens and song, laughter and merry-making galore.

Manila may be old and crumbling, overloaded and mostly without infrastucture of any workable kind for the “informal settlers” — the new Phil euphemism for squatter — but within the madness and crush of humanity, it is a young and irrepressibly cheerful city.

The heat and hustle, the smiling faces, the cleanliness and smartness of apparel amid the dehumanizing poverty lapping up against the bastions of luxury and indefensible wealth: Manila can teach the world a lot of things, but what hits you is the dignified resilience and the charming demeanor of the vast majority whose wretched lives are confined to the sidewalk or the rotting banks of the fetid Pasig River. Never mind the nearly constant natural disasters (two ferry boats were sunk in the six days I was there, or the thirty-odd typhoons which struck last year); nor the massacres: 72 beheadings of women, children and journalists in Manguindanao discovered on the morning of November 23rd.

The citizens of this cruelly unequal country maintain their self-respect and behave with a very special blend of gravitas and unbounded joy.

What’s more, the Pinoys never complain, unlike the citizens of far wealthier countries like UK. For an overwhelmingly religious society, you don’t come across that bitter fist-shaking at the heavens or bemoaning gloom of the average Brit dole artist.

I was talking to a young woman who casually mentioned that Typhoon Ondoy had washed away her and her family’s shanty and with it the sum total possessions of their lives. She’d managed to save just one thing apart from her son — her precious mobile phone. It was the cheapest Nokia you can buy and a random act of human kindness was my guilt-laden response. No matter if I was conned, it was Christmas Day.

At midnight the Christians flock to midnight masses and then begins the gunfire and fireworks — legacy of the Chinese traders from centuries of intermingling. You don’t venture out on these nights (New Year’s Eve also), or you might well be found among the numerous corpses the following morning — utterly innocent victims of ricocheting bullets.

The night is deafening with gunfire, the smoky sky lit by thunderflashes as you peer out of the window as though in the middle of the siege of Stalingrad.

The next day I was in a shopping mall — wonderful social tools these — they provide an air-conditioned and massive space for the aimless throngs to spend the day. A calm and musical interlude from the infernal city — that is, until you hear a strange and growing cacophony. You peer ahead with that sinking feeling of doomed clairvoyance and despair for the planet’s future — yep — an unruly rabble of Mainland Chinese tourists have just entered the Mall with a roar of jabbering. smoking, phlegm-hawking, gesticulating and grab-handling of produce.

See the future, folks. It’s a world overrun by billions of rich Chinese tourists. Not a pretty sight but definitely one to warm the economists’ chill-blains.

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