Exciting times

29 Jun 2006 by business traveller

The curfew, remembers Tommy Henderson, was great fun. "When I first went to the Philippines in the early 70s, it began at 11pm. We used to dash it occasionally, talk our way through." More often than not, though, restrictions on nocturnal movement were turned to short-term advantage. Curfew, explains Henderson, was a perfect opportunity for any red-blooded character in his 20s (as he then was) to make his excuses and stay: "It made life absolute paradise."

The front line for action was invariably the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel because "it was about the only first-class hotel in the country". The Intercontinental also had unusual cachet: its lobby was pock-marked with bullet holes. "The local mayor had sent in his boys and they opened fire," explains Henderson (not his real name; like many with associations with Manila, past or present, he cherishes his anonymity). "I'm not sure if anyone was killed but I have a feeling they were."

This was the Manila of the kleptocratic Ferdinand Marcos, who, with a little help from his friends, jammed his fingers and thumbs into every pie in sight. Conservative estimates suggest that by the time he and Imelda fled to Hawaii in 1986, they had reportedly plundered US$10 billion from their country. But it took a while for the truth to dawn. Even in the last years of martial law – instituted in 1972 and ended in 1981 – there was "great enthusiasm for the Philippines," recalls Nigel Rich, another 70s veteran.

This was despite the fact that there were signs in bars saying "Leave your guns here". "People believed that Marcos was going to be the first post-colonial leader to give the country purpose and direction," says Rich, now chairman of the Philippine British Business Council. "In the early 70s, the Philippines had the second highest GDP per capita in the Asia [only Japan was ahead]. Companies like Jardines put a lot of money in."

There were similarly ripe opportunities for entrepreneurs of a less conventional stamp. Girlie bars, massage parlours and brothels flourished in the district of Ermita. Exuberant expatriates based in Hong Kong flew in for weekends to let off steam, as James Stephens – one of Henderson's friends who still lives in Manila – vividly remembers. "At the weekends, I'd come home and find the place swamped with people. I'd never met half of them. They came over to pick up bar girls. [We] had to fish them out of the swimming pool."

Here was a place where Antony Patrick Andrew Cairnes Berkeley Moynihan, third Lord Moynihan of Leeds, could do business. A cheat, liar, thief and scoundrel (by his own estimation), he was described in 1971 (at a High Court trial which he declined to attend) as "the evil genius" behind a series of frauds. In 1980 he was accused by the Australian Royal Commission of vigorous involvement in Manila's heroin trade, a charge that he indignantly rejected.

But there were handsome compensations for suffering occasional impertinent allegations. During a 20-year sojourn in the Philippines, Moynihan developed a useful association with Mr Nice, aka Howard Marks, the world's leading marijuana dealer – whom he eventually helped to consign to the corrective discipline of the US federal justice system. He took two more Filipina brides (an Australian, a Pakistani and another Filipina had preceded them) and became proprietor of a series of massage parlours, the last of which was the New Dawn of Life ("Need to unwind? Try us.... we're something else").

But even the New Dawn's powers of rejuvenation could not help Moynihan: in November 1991, after lunching on Irish stew at his favourite restaurant, Le Souffle, he suffered a stroke, lapsed into a coma and died three weeks later.

Today, the New Dawn of Life has gone; so have the girlie bars of Ermita, expunged by mayoral writ. The original Le Souffle was long ago reduced to rubble – one of scores of buildings demolished to make way for Green Belt, a development of neat, formulaic shopping malls, cafés, bars and restaurants (and a rare lung of greenery, its trees strung with lanterns).

Perhaps even more distressing for the self-exiled peer – who was a stickler for punctuality – would be the state of Manila's traffic. Forget Mumbai or Cairo: neither equips you for the lurching, grinding asphyxiation of Manila. While the coconut, sugar, car and hotel industries have slumped since the 70s and per capita GDP is far behind Thailand and Malaysia, the country's population has raced upwards. Between 1990 and 2005 alone it has grown from almost 61 million to 85 million (projected figure from 2000) and is unevenly distributed across the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago (63 per cent of which are uninhabited).

Ten million people live in Manila's limitless megalopolis; most of them seem to be on its roads. The authorities tried stemming the flow using colour codes – prohibiting, for example, the driving of red cars on a Friday. Nowadays, a number-plate system operates (cars with a registration ending in 1 or 2 must be off the road between 7am and 7pm on Mondays; 3 and 4 are banned on Tuesdays, 5 and 6 on Wednesdays, 7 and 8 on Thursdays, 9 and 0 on Fridays). But the problem is, says James Stephens, "people very often have two cars – some have more".

On the roads, size matters. Buses bully their way forward, but perhaps less brazenly than jeepneys, the iconic vehicles of the Philippines, chrome dragons (fairy lights within), which evolved post-war, snarl and shark their way across lanes as they please, stopping without warning. There are no designated pick-up or put-down points, so passengers stand yards apart from each another, aware that the jeepneys will shudder to a halt to scoop them up, resolutely indifferent to the consequent chaos behind. This is challenging in Makati, where most business visitors are likely to stay – perhaps at the Intercontinental, the Peninsula ("the Pen"), the Mandarin Oriental or the Shangri-La. Here, in the broadest routes, like Ayala Avenue, palms are planted in the central reservation, injecting a cherished note of vitality to the soulless, concrete streetscape – capitalism's version of Stalinist architecture.

It may take 45 minutes, even an hour, to reach Pasig City, home of the Stock Exchange, a journey which on Sundays takes 15 minutes at most. Whenever possible, you head for the Skyway, a raised dual carriageway whose frequent tolls (85 pesos here, 100 there) are beyond the pockets of most Filipinos. With showers leaking from a slate grey, wet season sky, the setting will seem familiar to anyone who has seen the film Blade Runner. Down below, the roads are narrow. On either side stand shacks which speak of enterprise, spirit and struggle: a dental clinic, a garage, a money-changer, a mini-mart and "copy services", a pawn shop. Most are roofed with corrugated iron. The traffic – rickshaws, mopeds, motorbikes with side cars – does not move. A rickshaw driver sleeps, sitting upright, beneath a canopy rattled by rain.

All over the world Filipinos thrive, remitting an annual US$10 billion in foreign exchange; yet, at home, they are imprisoned by their past, defined by the successive colonial powers (Spain and the US) and the Japanese occupation during the Second World War when old Manila was obliterated and its people scarred. No one more so than Ferdinand Marcos, whose father was sentenced to death for collaboration (his limbs were attached to four different water buffalo, then he was torn apart).

Pete Ingram, another expat who has been in Manila for more than 20 years, says that this difficult history manifests itself in almost relentless subservience. "There is complete terror of making a decision," he says. "In the same vein, so often people say, 'yes sir', you assume that your request will be carried out." When it isn't, he adds, it is invariably because your employee has misunderstood – his grasp of English being less assured than it seems. Despite this, his desperation to please has dissuaded him from asking for clarification. But this fearfulness can be eclipsed by a greater force, called Utang na loob. This is a phrase which inadequately translates as a system of indebtedness, binding together the entire population in a series of alliances which endure through generations, embracing everyone from the street beggars outside the Mandarin or the Pen to the 60 or so families who possess most of the country's wealth. Utang na loob, says a hotelier who is now back in London, explains why someone may be attacked, even killed, for no apparent reason.

Nevertheless, unsettling though this sounds, it is difficult to disagree with James Stephens when he says that Manila's sole charm is its people. As a visitor, you're treated with almost relentless courtesy. You may, however, be distracted by names which range from the unexpected – Ross Atilares, concierge supervisor at the Mandarin, turns out not to be a bloke but a typically beguiling Filipina – to the rococo (Bing-Bong, Ding-Dong, Ting-Ting, or Mosquito, Pepper, Magic). This, remember, was the country with a churchman called Cardinal Sin.

Wait long enough in the lobby of the Pen – a masterpiece of excess with mirrored panels, balustraded curves and epic staircases – and you will, presumably, eventually see fully grown men rejoicing in the names Angel, Gigi and Mandy.

You'll see everybody, in fact, especially on Friday nights when Manila society spills from Land Cruisers, subjecting themselves to boot, bag and body search (hotel security is taken seriously: the Mandarin Oriental, for example, has closed its entrance onto Makati Avenue). Many of the older women have the Imelda look, with coal black eyes and expressionless faces.

It was in the lobby of the Pen that Pete Ingram remembers witnessing an emblematic (but unexceptional) moment in recent Philippine politics: no gunfire, just a certain supporter of the then president Erap Estrada, "pulling wads of cash in small notes – 20 and 50 pesos – from a sports bag, then handing them over to a rag-bag of individuals who went outside and gave it to people taking part in a pro-Erap demonstration". It is to be hoped that the Pen's jazz ensemble was playing What a Wonderful World at the time.

Where to eat

Le Souffle
Ground Level, Amorsolo Square, Amorsolo Drive, Rockwell Center, Makati City, tel +632 890 6543/7630
The resurrected version of Tony Moynihan's old favourite. The signature dish is pan-fried goose liver in raspberry and honey sauce, with a mixed leaf salad. To accompany, chef Jessie C Sincioco recommends a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1995.

Greenbelt 2, Ayala Center, Makati City, tel +632 757 3699
"New" Manila metropolitan chic: white-cushioned, black framed chairs, pillars contoured with illuminated translucent discs, windows of operatic scale. Signature dish is grilled sea bass with lemon with butter sauce, caramelised asparagus and herbed pan-fried olive potatoes. For a signature drink, try lychee martini.

Via Mare
Greenbelt 1, Paseo de Roxas, Ayala Center, Makati City, tel +632 899 3240 or +632 897 0805
It might seem surprising to recommend a restaurant chain — there are 12 other Via Mare restaurants in Metro Manila — but these are run by Glenda R Barretto; she attended to the Marcoses' culinary needs. The signature dish here is suckling pig (requires 24 hours' notice).

Chef Rolando Laudico
6B. Recoletos Circle, Urdaneta Village, Makati City, tel +632 750 1599 or +632 893 1740
Dine in the tropical garden of a private house. The signature drink is Sapak (a combination of ginger tea, watermelon and coconut firewater).

The Tivoli at The Mandarin
Tableside service and flambé. Signature dish is goose liver in sour cherry glaze.
Signature drink: Singapore Sling.

Paseo Uno at The Mandarin
Signature dish here is chicken and pork adobo, which is the national dish of the Philippines (chunks of chicken or pork cooked in soy sauce, garlic, vinegar, bay leaves and whole peppercorns). For a signature drink, try Frozen Fruit Daiquiri (the name's misleading: it's made from fresh fruit).

Old Manila at The Peninsula
See below for details.
Signature dish is terrine of duck foie gras and duck confit with pineapple chutney and coriander salad.

The Lobby at The Peninsula
Signature dish is chicken and pork adobo.
To drink, try Halo-Halo Harana, a Philippines obsession: layers of cooked fruit (notably purple yam), sweets, pulses and shaved ice, served in a splendidly oversized balloon glass. A glass of San Miguel beer (a Philippine rather than Spanish beer) may be more easily digestible.

Where to stay

Mandarin Oriental, Makati Avenue, Makati City 1226, Metro Manila, tel +632 750 8888; mandarinoriental.com. Superior rooms from US$141.
The Peninsula, Cnr Ayala/Makati Avenues, 1226, Makati City, Metro Manila, tel +632 815 3402, peninsula.com. Superior rooms from US$129 including breakfast.

Getting there

There are no direct flights from London to Manila. Suggested routings are with Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong or with Lufthansa via Frankfurt. Return fares from Heathrow with Lufthansa are £9,153 for first, £1,643 for business and £603 for economy class. Return fares with Cathay Pacific from Heathrow are £9,097 in first, £4,697 in business and £686 in economy class.

More information

Visit the Philippines tourist board at wowphilippines.co.uk, tel +44 (0)20 7835 1100.

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