The Manila House in Washington, D.C.

Juliana (center) and Rudolfo Panganiban (far right) with friends in front of the Manila House, 1944. (Source: The Rita M. Cacas Filipino American Community Archives Collection, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park, Maryland)

Juliana (center) and Rudolfo Panganiban (far right) with friends in front of the Manila House, 1944. (Source: The Rita M. Cacas Filipino American Community Archives Collection, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park, Maryland)

In 1937, the Visayan Club acquired a property on 2422 K street from the St. Stephen’s Club, which became known as the Manila House. An unassuming row house in Foggy Bottom’s K street, with only its bay window distinguishing it from its neighbors, its quiet façade belies the colorful stories of the District’s immigrant Filipino community from the 1930s to 1950s. Before becoming Manila House, 2422 K St. was the home of professors, congressional employees, and an orphanage. Foggy Bottom was then a working-class neighborhood that slowly became gentrified in the 1930s.

Managed by Asuncion Gaudiel Esposo (fondly called “Manang” [big sister] by her customers) and her husband Gil, the Manila House soon became the cultural and social hub of Filipinos – “It was the gathering place for all notable Filipinos” – according to Bataan Magazine. Among the frequent customers of the Manila House were Filipino cab drivers, students, writers, musicians, soldiers and Philippine government employees. Filipino publications called it home. It was the official address of the Filipino Reporter, for example. Cayetano Nagac who was the signatory on the Visayan Club deed of purchase, was also its publisher. Diosdado Yap, editor and publisher of Bataan Magazine and president of the Visayan Circle hosted meals and events at the Manila House.

In an interview with Rita Cacas for her documentary project, “A Visit with My Elders: Remembering Washington DC Filipino Pioneers,” cab driver Fernando Aguilar remembered how the Manila House was a boarding house set up by Visayans. In the 1940 census, 2422 K St. was labeled the Manila House (Visayan Circle, Inc.) and listed seven male residents with Joaquin Mates as the head of the household. The Washington Post published the names of enlisted men who gave the same address as the Manila House.

Rita Cacas showing a photo of one of her interviewees who mentioned the Manila House. (Photo by Christopher Shove Cook)

Rita Cacas showing a photo of one of her interviewees who mentioned the Manila House. (Photo by Christopher Shove Cook)

There were several game and card tables. Nila Toribio-Straka, the granddaughter of Asuncion, has vivid memories of card games played at Manila House in “a large drawing room that had a big sliding door.” As the door opened, it revealed, “a smoke-filled room was filled with Filipinos gathered around a big round table, about 2-3 persons deep. A single white light hovered over the card table as the Filipinos intensely watched the group that sat around the table playing cards.” Mateo Perez, an employee of the Philippine Commonwealth Office, told Rita Cacas in a 1994 interview, that the games would sometimes lead to fights. In the 1950s, some of the games may have gotten out of hand. One day the “police arrested 54 people on disorderly conduct charges” among those “playing a card game with chips,” the Washington Post reported.

Nila Toribio-Straka shares her personal recollections of Manila House at the Atrium of St. Paul's Church. (Photo by Christopher Shove Cook)

Nila Toribio-Straka shares her personal recollections of Manila House at the Atrium of St. Paul's Church. (Photo by Christopher Shove Cook)

The acclaimed Filipino American author and professor Bienvenido N. Santos wrote about the Manila House. Santos worked as a public information officer of the Philippine government in the 1940s, along with other Philippine Commonwealth officials who were in exile in DC during the war. Peter Jamero in his memoirs, Growing Up Brown (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), recalls attending an event at the Manila House hosted by the Boholano Club, where he was introduced to Santos. Santos in turn, wrote about his first meeting with Silverio Madelo, Jamero’s uncle in his memoir. Memory’s Fictions (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1993). It was at the Manila House where they enjoyed a meal of chicken and pork adobo.

In The Writer and His Milieu: An Oral History of First Generation Writers in English (Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1984), Santos told Edilberto Alegre, one of the book’s authors, how he often went to the Manila House to dine with his co-workers from the Philippine Commonwealth office. Government employees were treated like royalty by the wait staff, Santos said. “When the women from the Philippine Commissioner’s office ate at the Manila House, they were unquestionably slumming, and made big theater out of it. They ate with their hands, dipping their manicured fingers into the sauces, looking for their favorite cuts; the guys did the same, while the so called Pinoys watched from separate tables smiling and making comments in their dialects.” In Ben on Ben (Mandaluyong: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 2011), Leonor Briscoe’s interview with Santos, he elaborates on the class divide between the staff of the Resident Commissioner and the regular folk. Filipino workers in DC welcomed Santos, inviting him to their homes, because he was “the only person who looked like a Filipino,” and how the workers felt “they were slighted and snubbed by the embassy people of which I was one, but I did not snob them,” Santos explained.

Manila House Literary Landmark. Location: 2422 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. (Photo by Rita M. Cacas)

Manila House Literary Landmark. Location: 2422 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. (Photo by Rita M. Cacas)

The Manila House appears in many of Santos’s writing. In Santos’s anthology, You Lovely People (Makati: Bookmark, Inc., 1991), a collection of stories written while living in Washington, one story is called “Manila House.” The story is reprinted in his anthology, Scent of Apples, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980), winner of the 1981 American Book Award. The Manila House again appears in his novel, The Man Who Thought He Looked Like Robert Taylor (Quezon City: New Day, 1983). The novel’s protagonist, Sol, describes waiting at the Manila House every night for one of his companions. In the short story “Brother, My Brother,” Fred, the narrator, falls in love with the wife of his best friend who works at the Manila House as a waitress. Later she mysteriously disappears. Fred looks for her everywhere but fails to find her. Exhausted, he returns to his favorite corner of the Manila House, and “watched my brothers walk across the street to the house painted white,”—where an African American man sang for the rest of that evening “wailing a dirge for all the lost, little men who had no place to go and had no claims on anything, who kept on walking, head erect and talk till they found another door that would open to them.”

Santos admitted that he was at the Manila House “most of the time.” Madelo who became his landlord, would take Santos to the Manila House often as “it was at the Manila House, not Madelo’s where the home cooking was.” Madelo’s American wife did not know how to cook Filipino food. Santos was at the Manila House often enough that it merited a mention in Manuel Viray’s poem, “Driving through the Zoo: for Bienvenido Santos” found in the book: The Epistolary Criticism of Manuel A.Viray: In Memoriam (Giraffe Books: Quezon City, 1998). Viray wrote, “With friends gambling at Manila House the ripe, And dry sweetness of lust in people you’ve met.”

Manila House Living Room (2013) (Source: POPDC Archives)

Manila House Living Room (2013) (Source: POPDC Archives)

The Manila House must have been a pleasant place to stay. Homesick Filipinos surely found comfort in the “aroma of adobo and sinigang that permeated the house.” Santos recalled listening to an excellent Filipino orchestra. In the mid-1930s, people had to pay 50 cents to join the small dances, remembered Aguilar. Photographs of famous Filipinos such as Jose Rizal, Sergio Osmena, and Manuel Quezon adorned the walls. In one corner, US and Philippine flags were on display, “with the red and white blue quite faded, and the luster of the sun and the stars dimmed by the years and dust,” Santos wrote in “Manila House.”

Behind the Manila House, the owners grew a vegetable garden. The fresh ingredients must have been excellent, as Santos once declared that the Manila House “served the finest Filipino dishes” and “the tables and dishes were always clean.” “Curtained windows looked out into a garden, weedy and wild except for the ripe tomatoes in summer and gigantic squash, and eggplants, and bitter melons, hanging on the vine.” Toribio-Straka remembers picking “upo” (bottle gourd) and bitter melon from the small vines that grew in their yard, helping chop up vegetables, and preparing the meals. A photograph of a little girl standing beside a giant “upo” was published in The Washington Post in the 1940s. The seeds were shipped from the Philippines and planted in the “victory garden” behind the house, the article explained.

During the war in the 1940s, the Manila House provided a place for Filipinos to commiserate and share their hopes and fears, as they remembered their families left behind in the Philippines. In 1941, The Washington Post featured the “men of the Manila Club, 2422 K St., Northwest” who shared “a stoic concern over the fate of relatives living where the Japanese now strike” and a “confident belief that with sufficient equipment the Philippines will stand.” When the war ended and Washington celebrated, Santos overwhelmed, wrote to his wife, “I was thinking how unfair life can be. Those who most deserve to celebrate are quiet in their graves on some far-off land.”

Santos himself was in exile and often thought about home and his wife and daughters, whom he referred to as his “princesses.” While Santos missed his family and the Philippines, he wrote how winter was his favorite season, and how it was in the winter, sharing a sentiment among Filipinos who made DC their home, when he “felt farthest from my true home and quite often forgot where I’d come from, as if this has been the only life I had ever known. The present can so overwhelm the past, erasing it completely.”

Manila House Entrance (2013) (Source: POPDC Archives)

Manila House Entrance (2013) (Source: POPDC Archives)

As for Santos, though yearning to return to the Philippines right after the war, he proceeded to Harvard where he studied English. He received fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation and Guggenheim Foundation. Best known as a writer, he was also an academic administrator as the dean and vice president of the University of Nueva Caceres in the Philippines. It was when he was the writer in residence at Wichita State University when he received the American Book Award. He became an American citizen in the 1970s and visited the Philippines frequently after Martial Law was lifted in 1981. He returned to Washington in 1987 as the honored guest of the Philippine Arts, Letters and Media Council (PALM) at the Philippine Embassy.

The Manila House is mentioned in The Washington Post one last time in 1955 when Maximiano Marmito Villarreal–who was a part-time cab driver, Washington correspondent of the Manila Chronicle, and an author who wrote in Esperanto, a composite language created in 1887—was beaten up by young men who meant to rob him but failed to find anything valuable. Villareal gave the Manila House as his address, when interviewed by the police. The District of Columbia’s Recorder of Deeds show that a deed of release of the Manila House property was signed by the Visayan Circle’s trustees Anne Myers Nagac and Eugenio Fonbuena in 1976.

The Manila House and its stories would have been forgotten long ago if not for the stories of Bienvenido Santos and the memories and photographs of Nila Toribio Straka and her family that were published in Images of America: Filipinos in Washington DC (Mt. Pleasant: Arcadia Publishing, 2009). We recently traced the original location of the Manila House. In 2013, using as reference Washington Post articles and vintage DC directories, my husband Erwin Tiongson and I, co-directors of the Philippines on the Potomac (POPDC) Project, traced the address of the Manila House—2422 K St.–and the building’s current owner, St. Paul’s Episcopalian Parish. Fr. Humphrey, who was parish priest of St. Paul’s in 2013, introduced us to a parishioner who remembered the Visayan Circle and the rows of (Filipino-owned or Filipino-driven) taxi cabs that were often parked outside the building. Then in 2015, through the Rita M. Cacas Foundation, Inc., Lena Panganiban Chapman donated three small photos to the Filipino American Community Archives (FACA) at the University of Maryland Libraries. In each photo, the donor's parents are shown with friends in front of the building identified above the entrance as “Manila House” with the address numbers “2422” lettered on the transom. Together with POPDC’s research, this provided further corroborating evidence on the existence of Manila House and its location.

In 2016, the United for Libraries organization (a division of the American Library Association) formally recognized 2422 K Street as a Literary Landmark. The plaque sponsors are: the Philippine Arts, Letters and Media Council (PALM); the Philippines on the Potomac (POPDC) Project; the Rita M. Cacas Foundation, Inc. (RMCF), and the Toribio Family.

Today, the Manila House no longer exists. But its building remains intact, now called the Carwithen House where one can find the administrative offices of the St. Paul’s Episcopalian Parish. The area where the garden once stood is occupied by an extension of the main building. Not too long ago, through the kindness of Fr. Richard Wall and Mauricio Franco, we visited the building. We walked through its rooms, imagining the Filipinos who once ate, laughed, danced and played card games within the same walls. Though Manila House is no more, it is immortalized in the work of Bienvenido Santos, in the memories of the many District Filipinos, and, now with this plaque, maybe it will be remembered, too, by a new generation of Filipino Americans in the DC area.

The Manila House Literary Landmark plaque was unveiled in October at the Embassy of the Philippines in honor of Philippine American History month. A dedication ceremony was held on Saturday, May 6, 2017 at the original site of the former Manila House (2440 K Street, NW, Washington, D.C.)

There are only three other structures designated a Literary Landmark in the District. These are the Founders Library, Howard University (1997); The Jefferson Building, Library of Congress (1998); and the Frederic Douglas National Historic Site (2007). This is also the first time a Literary Landmark was designated in honor of a Filipino-American writer.

The Philippine Arts, Letters and Media Council (PALM); the Philippines on the Potomac (POPDC) Project; the Rita M. Cacas Foundation, Inc. (RMCF), and the Toribio Family are the sponsors of the Manila House Literary Landmark plaque, administered by the United for Libraries.


Bibliography

Aguilar, Fernando Velasco. Interview. Rita M. Cacas. 6 November 1993. Hyattsville, MD.
“Anxious About Homeland.” The Washington Post 6 December 1941: 3.
Bataan. July 1945. Vol 3. Magazine.
Briscoe, Leonor Aureus. Ben on Ben: Conversations with Bienvenido N. Santos. Mandaluyong: Anvil Pubishing, Inc., 2011.
Cacas, Rita M. and Juanita Tamayo Lott. Images of America:Filipinos in Washington, DC. Charleston, Chicago, Portsmouth, San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.
Cruz, Isagani R. and David Jonathan Bayot. Reading Bienvenido N. Santos. Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1994.
Fernandez, Doreen G. and Edilberto N. Allegre. The Writer and His Milieu: An Oral History of First Generation Writers in English. Manila: De La Salle University Press, 1984.
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“403 Servicemen Released from Duty,” The Washington Post 9 Nov 1945: 4
Jamero, Peter. Growing Up Brown: Memoirs of a Filipino American. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2006.
"https://countyfusion4.propertyinfo.com/countyweb/disclaimer.do." 4 May 1937. District of Columbia Office of Tax Revenue Recorder of Deeds. 23 March 2017.
“Little Girl Big Squash.” The Washington Post 2 August 1943.
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“Manila was foremost in the minds of Washington Filipinos.” The Washington Post 1 January 1942.
Perez, Mateo Salvador. Interview. Rita M. Cacas. 9 April 1994. Washington, D.C.
Santos, Bienvenido. “Manila House” in B. Santos, You Lovely People. Makati: Bookmark, Inc., 1991. 55-82.

_____. Brother, My Brother. Metro Manila: Bookmark, 1960.
_____. Letters: Book One. Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, 1995.
_____. Memory's Fictions: A Personal History. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1993.
_____. The Man Who (Thought He) Looked Like Robert Taylor. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1983.
Straka, Nila Toribio. Interview. Titchie Carandang-Tiongson. 16 Feb 2017. Email.
“Three Women Held on Raid in Apartment.” The Washington Post 22 February 1951: B1.
“Thugs Severely Beat Esperanto Authority.” The Washington Post 3 April 1955: A3.


Titchie Carandan Tiongson is a freelance writer. Her articles have been published in Northern Virginia Magazine, Working Mom, Asian Journal, Metro Home and Vault. She and her husband Erwin are the co-founders and co-creators of the Philippines on the Potomac (POPDC) Project where they document landmarks of Philippine history and culture in Washington, DC. She lives in Fairfax with Erwin and their children, Nicolas and Rafael.


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