Old Manila photos show what the war destroyed
Manila’s most famous tour guide Carlos Celdran walks along Adriatico Street in modern-day Malate, a historic area he knows well. But in his hands this time are rarely seen images of post-World War II devastation of the same places. Recently discovered prints by 1940’s photographer Teodulo Protomartir are eerie reminders of what war wrought in what had been widely admired as one of the world’s great cities.
LISTEN: Celdran talks about what Manila lost in World War 2.
Today, Malate is filled with the bustle of passing jeepneys and the carefree laughter of children. It seems hardly the scene of mass murder. And yet, the photos lead Celdran to little reminders of the horrors.
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'Bones of the city'
One of the most interesting things about these photos was that they were almost never seen.
It was in 2007 when the withering negatives, already more than 60 years old, were serendipitously discovered in an antique shop by film aficionado and TV director Uro de la Cruz.
Nowadays, anyone with a digital camera can become an amateur photographer. But film-loyalists haven't forgotten that once upon a time, only a pioneering few were patient, resourceful, and dedicated enough to pursue the craft of turning celluloid into pictures. One of those few was Teodulo Protomartir, one of the first Filipinos to popularize the use of 35-mm film in the Philippines. Continue reading
Celdran keeps walking. He takes one of Protomartir's photographs in his hand and holds it up against the skyline. Though much has changed, his keen eye spots structures that are still there today. A row of buildings in the distance. A roof here, a pillar there. "The bones of the city are still around, and they're still so very beautiful," he says.
Pearl of the Orient
What would Manila be like today had it not been destroyed? "Nothing less than the most beautiful cosmopolitan city in Asia," Celdran emphasizes. He notes that the city had been planned under the auspices of the renowned architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, who drew inspiration from Paris and Washington, DC. Its streets, according to Celdran, formed neat lines that radiated outward from the city's center, "like the rays of the sun." Also, at the time, Manila boasted centuries-old churches existing side by side with modern architecture and was an important travel destination.
We take the same Protomartir images to urban historian Paulo Alcazaren, himself a learned collector of old Manila photographs.
Alcazaren takes a close look at the post-war photos. "Manila is a much richer city than what you see in these photographs," he says. According to him, there's so much more about Manila that can't be gleaned from pictures alone.
"It was a major port capital, even more so than Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur at the time," he says. "It was one of the earliest airline hubs and had one of the best tram (rail) systems in Asia," he adds.
In 1946, a photographer named Teodulo Protomartir took a series of striking images of what was then the rubble of post-war Manila. GMANews.TV teamed up with famed Manila tour guide Carlos Celdran to photograph the same places as they appear today. Watch the excursion in this behind-the-scenes video.
Lost sense of urbanity
"We've lost our sense of urbanity, our urbanidad," Alcazaren says. In the wake of the war, he explains, the people who came to settle in Manila had a different sense of place and community. It became common to think of one's province as home, with Manila as just a place to stay, study or earn a living.
Beyond the ravages of war, Manila was also a victim of grand plans that were never quite finished. To this day, Alcazaren notes, Manila still lacks an administrative center. "We have existed so long without a capital complex that we forgot that we need one," he says.
Inspiration for the future
However, as he traces his fingers across Protomartir's photographs, Alcazaren says that their real value may be less in nostalgia for an irretrievable past and more in the hope for a better future: "These are glimpses of what and could have been, and an inspiration for what we could be."
LISTEN: Urban historian Paulo Alcazaren believes that antique photographs of Manila's past can inspire better plans for the city's future.
Fortuitous then that among Protomartir’s photos of destruction were found his negatives of the ceremony in Luneta on July 4, 1946, when the Philippine flag was raised, permanently replacing the American flag.
Amid the rubble sprung this promise of recovered glory. A walk around the city today will tell us that residents are still waiting. - HS, GMANews.TV
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