My “Little Quiapo”
By Arlene Donaire
My first encounter with Quiapo was over three decades ago after graduating from a public elementary school in Cebu — when my parents sent me off to Manila for a reward summer vacation. It was a rarity in those days of limited travel opportunities for our family. Back then, apart from the occasional trips in Cebu City’s downtown Colon Street, which were already a huge deal, it was just unbelievably exciting to be able to wander beyond our hometown’s environs, much more to Manila, the capital, the “happening” place!
I grew up in a third class city north of Cebu, which, though rated as an engineering district at that time in the mid-70s, did not manifest the trappings of the modern “New Society.” Mass media depicted Manila as the Philippines’ flagship metropolis, looked up to by the international community as the model of progress. So, from my standpoint, where pedicabs were the modes of moving around, the highest structure was the church’s belfry, the only restaurants we knew were the “eateries” in the public market, and our social events of the year were the fiesta and holy week, vacationing in Manila was just unbelievably exciting. The prospect of being able to see first-hand the progressive parts of the metropolis – the wide cemented roads and traffic lights; the tall, massive, and modern buildings; the department stores teeming with fancy merchandise; the expansive landscaped parks; and the colorful amusement centers, which I had only seen from television, really piqued my curiosity.
It was somewhat shocking therefore for me when my dad took me to Quiapo one day; my expectations fell through. The jeepney ride through the stretch of Roxas Boulevard, that was then basking in the glory of all the “New Society” edifices, was scenic and pleasant, hence did not prepare me for what I was about to see in Quiapo. When we stepped off the jeepney to begin navigating the dirty, smelly and crowded alleys towards Plaza Miranda, where Quiapo Church was right across, I remember holding my dad’s hand firmly, for fear of being swept away by the crowd that seemed to mill about in every vacant space, either vending their wares or just minding their own businesses. Later that day, a first taste of “bibingka” (rice cake) topped with salted egg and cheese became the redeeming factor of an otherwise disappointing trip.
The Quiapo that I’d seen was a stark contrast to the modernity in other parts of the metropolis – a retrogression, I thought, from the impressive changes that had taken place outside this old downtown of Manila, whose name was derived from a water cabbage “kiyapo”. To my provincial young mind back then, that first Quiapo encounter left an indelible impression, one of disbelief and questioning, perhaps my first lesson on the irony of development. Rightly so, for how can a metropolis be so advanced, yet have an enclave trapped in poverty and disarray?
In a Wikipedia entry, “since the American insular government and commonwealth periods through to the late 1970s, Quiapo shared its status as the center of the activities of Manila’s social elites as well as trade, fashion, art and higher learning with its surrounding vicinities, i.e. Avenida Rizal, Binondo, Santa Cruz, Escolta and the Manila University Belt). But notwithstanding the cultural and historical significance of Quiapo, which didn’t register much to me then, the place that was etched in my memory was not worth another trip. Quiapo in a “jeep-jiff” as I like to call it now, was a memorable life-experience but not too life-changing.
But like all things in life, change happens. I was bound to be wrong and, Quiapo, at least in my eyes, redeemed! Nowadays whenever I visit the district, whether its for “photo-walks” or “eat-walks” around the Plaza Miranda or Binondo (Chinatown) areas that always leave me somewhat “intoxicated” from ingesting a strange concoction of pleasant and appalling colors, scents, flavors and sights, pleasant; bargain hunting for photography stuff and what-nots in and around Hidalgo (i.e, the photographers’ haven); roughing it out with the jubilant crowd on Chinese New Year; and the occasional “faith-seeking” visit to the must-destination Quiapo Church who’s Black Nazarene has elevated the Filipino Catholic Faith to multitude proportions, sometimes even mass hysteria during January’s feast procession, that “first impression” I’d had of Quiapo, as an inquisitive child, has taken on a new meaning.
As a photographer and one who’s learning to appreciate street photography, I see Quiapo differently now, in a more positive light. For beyond the hustle and bustle, the dirt and grime, and even the grim and depressing snippets of reality that happen in each and every cranny of this unique microcosm of a changing world, I see the colorful, sublime, dramatic, and dynamism of life unfolding. Interesting would be an underestimation, enigmatic is more appropriate. For like a salad bowl of mixed greens, colorful fruits, and a dash of spices, Quiapo must be taken all in. No picking, just relish.
The images I see through my lens are slices of life; all unique, all worthwhile. Like that first taste of the Quiapo bibingka as a child, sweet yet salty and cheesy, I have now come to see “my little Quiapo” as a wonderful and delectable specimen of contrasts and irony.
My goal is to share my perspectives on life, through my images. I am Lensanity.
(Editor’s Note: Arlene Donaire is a Manila-based development advocacy professional with a passion for photography. Her works are extensively displayed on Foto Zubuano on Facebook.)