A Neighborhood of Yesterday: Malate/Ermita District Part 1

Dewey Boulevard in the Forties

Dewey Boulevard in the Forties

Living in Manila in the Fifties and early Sixties was an adventure as well as a treat for me. (I must apologize for using the old street names. I have tried to give the “new” names in parenthesis, but I may have missed one or two.) Manila was still rebuilding itself from the war. I still can recall seeing sunken ships out on Manila Bay when they were slowly being removed or perhaps made part of the reclamation of more land around Dewey Boulevard (Roxas Blvd.) The wide boulevard was not choked with traffic as it is today, or decorated with garishly colored bright lights.

Backlit by the fabulous Manila sunsets, food vendors sold kropek, warm chestnuts and grilled corn from their small kiosks, lit at night only by the warm glow of kerosene lanterns.

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The sorbetes or ice cream sellers pushed their brightly colored carts some of which had little bells attached to the metal lids. Not to be confused with sorbets, this particular style of homemade concoction was referred to “dirty ice cream” — I never wanted to find out why. 

Dewey Boulevard in the late Fifties

Dewey Boulevard in the late Fifties

My family and I lived in the Malate district on Remedios Street just a few yards down from the Malate Church. Of course, as a kid I had no knowledge of how old that church was or its infamous history during the Battle of Manila, when the Japanese murdered the Catholic priests. All of that escaped me as I often took a jeepney that followed its route down Dewey, past the American Embassy, the Bayview Hotel, the Elks Club and the Rizal monument towards downtown.

So, as I sit here in Seattle looking out my window on a gray, cloudy and a bit rainy day, I think back to my childhood when I would take a jeepney, the warm wind blowing through the open-air cab, look out over the bay, perhaps going by the Manila Yacht Club and daydreaming of better things.

In 1905 the U.S. Philippine Commission formulated a comprehensive urban plan to beautify Manila and hired Daniel H. Burnham, who had already successfully implanted his designs on Chicago and the 1893 World Columbian Exposition. Dewey Boulevard was a part of his vision to widen and extend Cavite Boulevard all the way up to Cavite.

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"The suburb was envisioned by Daniel Burnham in his vision for the design of Manila as an exclusive residential area.  Burnham was a leading exponent of the then trendy City Beautiful Movement, which began in the U.S. They believed that civic loyalty would come through the power of beauty to shape human thought and behavior. Many prominent American and Spanish families resided in Malate, among them the commanders of the American Army, then called the Philippine Department, and the Zobel de Ayala family." (Source: Larry Ng)

Ermita district – 1935

In the Fifties, Dewey stretched from the Luneta and ended about where the Baclaran Church stands. But a 1934 map of Manila shows that Dewey ended quite a bit shorter at Cortabitarte at thetime. South of that were residential homes, Harrison Park and the old Manila Polo Club that stood right at water’s edge.

The photo below shows my mom and her cousins and boyfriends having a swim on the beach probably around Parañaque right after war ended. You can see the Army trucks and jeeps in the background.

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It was then a quaint and picturesque neighborhood. Before the war, there were large homes on estates that immediately faced Manila Bay.  Many prominent families turned to the Malate/Ermita district to build their homes, such as the Ynchausti residence on Calle Cortabitarte, the Zobel residence in the Spanish style detailed with bricks and white plaster located along Dewey Boulevard, and El Nido, the Perkins residence that won the 1925 Beautiful House contest, also on Dewey.

This overview shows Cavite Boulevard before it was widened and renamed Dewey Boulevard with the El Nido and other landmarks marked.

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El Nido – the Perkins’ Moorish Castle

El Nido – the Perkins’ Moorish Castle

Forgive me if I digress, but I found this story of Perkins quite interesting and reminiscent of The Great Gatsby.

E.A. Perkins (right) checking a shipment of 5,400 ounces of Lepanto gold received from San Francisco (valued today at over $8M)

E.A. Perkins (right) checking a shipment of 5,400 ounces of Lepanto gold received from San Francisco (valued today at over $8M)

E.A. Perkins was the first American representative at the court of the King of Siam and a partner at the Manila law firm DeWitt, Perkins and Brady.

Perkins and his wife, Idona, had a huge scandal emanating from their divorce and subsequent legal struggles over jointly held Benguet mining shares. Perkins was a quiet and unassuming gentleman while his wife “Polly” seemed to lavish her charms on other men. It was the talk of the elite social circles of Manila.

Unfortunately, their daughter was made a pawn in this battle.  Dora was spirited, stylish and drove around town in a streamlined black Packard coupe. She lived with her father in their Moorish castle, a highly visible landmark on Dewey Boulevard, where two turbaned Sikhs in full regalia stood sentry at the main gate. Dora Perkins, born in 1914, was herself a highly prized broadcaster over Manila’s Radio KZRH, introducing classical music in her exquisitely modulated voice.

Both E.A. and daughter Dora were interned at Santo Tomas during the Japanese Occupation. Dora was pictured in LIFE magazine with her child when they were liberated in 1945.

Dora Perkins and her daughter Sheila (left) and unidentified girl (right) taken after they were liberated from Santo Tomas.

Dora Perkins and her daughter Sheila (left) and unidentified girl (right) taken after they were liberated from Santo Tomas.

I interviewed another internee, Jim Rockwell, a few years back about his internment experience. His dad, James Rockwell, Sr., was the first president of Meralco, retiring from that post in 1949. He was also an active member of the Rotary, Manila Golf, Manila Polo Club and was as well Manila Yacht’s first commodore. Their family had a beautiful home on Dewey Boulevard, and he sent me a picture of it. It was, of course, a lovely home, but what was interesting was the bomb shelter they had built to protect them during the Japanese air raids of December 1941.

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Jim Rockwell checking out the family air raid shelter.

Jim Rockwell checking out the family air raid shelter.

Ermita and Malate were slower paced residential areas. There seemed to be more space between homes and apartment houses; more breathing room, compared with the teeming crowds and commercial shops found in the Binondo, Tondo and Santa Cruz districts.  The main streets ran north and south, Dewey Boulevard, Mabini, M.H. del Pilar and Taft Avenue. Shady trees lined streets such as Padre Faura where the Ateneo campus and Manila’s Observatory were once located.

Ateneo campus on Padre Faura in 1932

Ateneo campus on Padre Faura in 1932

Around 1949, we lived in an apartment on the corner of Mabini and Tennessee (Gen. Malvar) streets. Mom would walk me to my kindergarten class at St. Paul’s College on Herran St. (Pedro Gil) where I’d have to face those very stern nuns with the heavily starched cornette (headpiece) every day. I always risked a slap on the hand with a ruler as I was quite a headstrong young lad when I was five.

St. Paul’s College    

St. Paul’s College

   

That’s me in the 3rd row, 3rd from left.

That’s me in the 3rd row, 3rd from left.

I found the film below at the U.S. National Archives. It was taken early during the Japanese Occupation, probably around 1942. As you will see, Manila still operated “business as usual,” but things were to change drastically within the next year as basic staples such as food and gasoline were confiscated by the Japanese Army.

A nostalgic look at Manila's Dewey Boulevard filmed in 1942.

Ermita seemed to have a gentle, more people-friendly appeal. The Acme on Padre Faura was one of the first modern grocery stores I can remember, specializing in imported foodstuffs from America, Europe and Australia. For many families like us, that did not have Commissary privileges, the Acme Super Market might have been the first alternative to going to the palengke. It had a branch in the new residential area of Forbes, as this advertisement from 1954 shows.

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Acme Super Market – 1953

Acme Super Market – 1953

Dress shop on Mabini

Dress shop on Mabini

There were small, quaint dress and gift shops on M.H. del Pilar. Women of the day like my mother, preferred not to shop at the large department stores of the Escolta; rather they cut out a picture of a dress style out of LIFE and Look and bring it down to their local modista (dressmaker) to fashion out the garment, tailored to fit, within a few days.

One of the more popular of streets in this district was A. Mabini, named for Apolinario Mabini, famed Filipino political philosopher and revolutionary. It seems an appropriate name because Mabini Street felt like an artsy, Bohemian district with its assortment of stores, coffee shops as well as quaint art shops (you could smell the paint as you walked by).

Many women patronized the Realistic Beauty Salon and Supply on Mabini, between Tennessee and Herran, owned by Mercedes Meliton Teague.  Mercedes was an enterprising lady who opened up her store after reading an article about how much money women spent on their hair and hair products. Not only was her store successful, but she went on to start the Realistic Institute, a vocational school in Quiapo that taught beauty culture and dressmaking, contributing to the careers of thousands of women. She was the recipient of the Magsaysay Presidential Award and lived to the ripe old age of 104. (Source: France Viana)

There were also some pretty respectable restaurants such as New Europe, Swiss Inn and a lovely coffee and merienda (snack) shop called “Taza de Oro” owned by Mrs. Hazel Hedrick.

Hazel Hedrick, owner, Taza de Oro

Hazel Hedrick, owner, Taza de Oro

Hazel came to Manila in 1936 enticed by an offer to manage the dining room at the Bay View Hotel. When war broke out, the Japanese interned her at Santo Tomas. After the internees were liberated in 1945, Hazel bought the Taza de Oro and started operations in the El Nido mansion mentioned above. It was moved several times before relocating to the Isaac Peral (United Nations Ave.) location I remember. In 1965 it was moved again to the VIP Building on Dewey Blvd. across from the U.S. Embassy. Hazel sold the restaurant in 1975 and moved to San Jose where she died in 1990 at age 97.

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Interior of the Swiss Inn

Interior of the Swiss Inn

Baby Boomers will remember the Swiss Inn, owned by a Swiss national by the name of Emil Landert. It was one of the more elite restaurants in the Manila of the Fifties, known for having the longest bar in town.

Interior of the Swiss Inn

Interior of the Swiss Inn

"Back then, they were known for their fresh corned beef and pig’s knuckles. The fresh corned beef was (and still is) just thick slabs of boiled beef, served with fat wedges of boiled cabbage and whole boiled potatoes served alongside the beef. The broth where they boiled the beef, flavorful and clear, was served separately in a bowl. The whole dish could be enjoyed with strong mustard and horseradish on the side. This dish, simple as can be imagined, was the stuff most of our dreams were built around. It was a huge treat to have a fresh corned beef dinner at the Swiss Inn, and dinners here were always reserved for a special date, or a momentous family occasion." (Source: Ray Butch Gamboa)

Countless food lovers will remember Nina’s Papagayo, a restaurant and bar on 1038 A. Mabini, that in the ‘50s up to the ‘70s was the place to go for Mexican food, music and dancing. It was a favorite hangout of officers and servicemen from the Navy and Air Force and members of Manila’s 400. Visiting dignitaries and world celebrities were taken there as a matter of course; like Hollywood actors Van Heflin and Raymond Burr, bandleader Xavier Cougat and actress-dancer Shirley MacLaine.

The food was the owner’s version of Mexican fare, and everyone savored it; chili con carne, tacos, frijoles and refritos, tamales, enchiladas, guacamole, nachos and steak. The ambience was magical. The late Nina Villanueva was awarded a citation from the tourism industry as “ambassador of goodwill.”

Nina’s Papagayo, Mexican Cuisine

Nina’s Papagayo, Mexican Cuisine

Di’ Mark’s on Menlo Street

Di’ Mark’s on Menlo Street


Nina was a vivacious lady who was born in Shanghai to a Peruvian couple and was brought to Manila at the age of nine and studied at Holy Ghost College. Her daughter, Connie Lacson, reflected on her mother’s presence: “She had a very good personality, she liked to entertain – admirals and young sailors, movie stars, celebrities, company executives; everyone who stepped into her restaurant.” (Source: Domini Torrevillas)

Readers have also reminded me of the Country Bakeshop, Cucina Italiana, and not to forget the Dairy Queen on Taft Avenue that served the best soft ice cream chocolate sundaes with chopped nuts. 

Di’Marks on Menlo Street was just a minute walk up from the American School where we would go for lunch and have those wonderful pizzas and San Miguels.

Guernica’s on Remedios Circle

Guernica’s on Remedios Circle

One of the fancier restaurants I remember going to was Guernica’s on Mabini founded by Jose Hormacchea, a retired pelotero, in 1955. They had a marvelous trio that sounded like Trio Los Panchos, excellent paella, and a huge selection of wine. Then there were La Cibeles on Mabini, the A&W drive-in on Isaac Peral, the Garden Terrace at the Bay View Hotel and the Aristocrat, one of the most popular spots on the boulevard, which was billed as a “restaurant and soda fountain.”

Flying Saucer sandwich (courtesy Larry Ng)

Flying Saucer sandwich (courtesy Larry Ng)

Doña Engracia “Aling Asiang” Cruz-Reyes, wife of Justice Alex A. Reyes, started it all as a mere snack mobile operation and has since grown to a food network with branches all over Metro Manila. This restaurant has the distinction of making what was then considered everyday fare so attractive that people would dress up and go out for some home-style cooking.

The Aristocrat around 1960

The Aristocrat around 1960

Walking along the seawall, one saw the double-decker Matorco buses, winding their way from the Luneta up to Parañaque, chockfull of kids and families always vying for the top deck. Was it a more carefree time, or it was perhaps just because I was a kid enjoying the simpler pleasures?

Matorco

Matorco

I usually caught the latest movies at theaters down at the Escolta or on Rizal Avenue, but you could also catch a second-run show, complete with newsreels and cartoons, at the Gaiety Theater, located on M.H. del Pilar. Then owned by an American, H. Brown, it was designed by Juan Nakpil in 1935.

"The Gaiety movie theater’s main attraction had always been its ticket prices – much less expensive than the more modern, air-conditioned movie houses in downtown Manila. Karl Nathan, after many months, finally obtained permission from Japanese authorities to reopen the Gaiety, which at the time was owned by a prominent Filipino family with whom Nathan had struck an agreement, provided he could get the Japanese permit.

“The projection equipment was, however, stored in Baguio. More negotiations with the Japanese official were necessary, but finally the movie projectors and films came together with the permits – and a lease agreement with the Filipino owners – and the Gaiety could open. People streamed in to sit on the woven-straw, lice-infested seats and watch American westerns. Each performance began with serials of Dick Tracy or Flash Gordon, to the delight of the younger viewers, who eagerly followed the adventures of these comic strip characters from week to week as the serials progressed. When the available inventory of westerns was exhausted, they were simply shown over again — and again.”] -Frank Ephraim, Escape to Manila: From Nazi Tyranny to Japanese Terror

“The Gaiety was our neighborhood cinema. Tickets for small people were only 15 centavos but as we grew older they increased to 25 centavos. Still, it was a bargain price to pay for second run movies, at least better than the enormous price of 40 centavos for the downtown air-conditioned theaters.” (Source: Larry Ng)

Gaiety Theater today

Gaiety Theater today

Gaiety Theater today

Gaiety Theater today

It was still operating when I was in Manila in the Sixties. I don’t remember when it shut down, although it still stands today albeit in sad disrepair. 

   

Continue reading on to the second part of this series—"Yesterdays In Ermita (Part 2)"

Posted with permission from manilanostalgia.com.

Lou Gopal

Lou Gopal's father was an East Indian, his mother a Spanish mestiza from a long line of Zaragozas. He was born in Manila, and raised at the American School, so he feels quite multi-cultural. He's 68 now and a retired Boeing software engineer living in Seattle with his wife, 4 sons and 3 grandchildren.