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City of Soul, Sin : Manila--A Challenge in Contrasts

February 17, 1988|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — A recent weather report in one of the dozens of newspapers hawked each day on the street corners of this delightfully bizarre city sounded more like the police blotter than the daily report from the national weather service--which, by the way, is officially called Pagasa, the Filipino word for hope.

"For those who have already received their pay and bonuses today," the report began, "try to hold onto your money a bit tightly, because Metro Manila will have mostly cloudy skies with brief rain showers.

"Why is this?" the report continued. "Well, public conveyances will be filled to the rafters with people running from the rain--pickpocket heaven, if you know what I mean.

"And beware of sleazy characters, especially after sunset at 5:29 p.m."

It was one of those not-so-rare moments that blend the darkest and lightest sides of this, one of the world's most unusual capital cities.

This is a city of hundreds of thousands of unlicensed firearms, from pistols to Uzi submachine-guns; of street crime and street gangs that rank among Asia's worst; of Chicago-style mafias that hark back to the 1920s; of more than 7 million people crammed so closely together that one Manila sociologist recently noted, "For the Filipino here, privacy means turning your back." Yet none of them has forgotten how to laugh.

And, since President Corazon Aquino ushered in a new era of democracy two years ago after nearly two decades of dictatorship under Ferdinand E. Marcos, there is perhaps no other city in the world as free, or as undisciplined, as this sprawling metropolis.

There is probably no other city in the world that has as many brothels as churches, as many beauty queens as bar girls, as many millionaires' subdivisions as squatters' colonies or as many hit men as politicians. As a city of contrasts, Manila stands alone.

Slums Neighbors of Mansions

A squatters' slum where tens of thousands of scavengers live in plywood shacks atop a smoldering garbage dump and make their living by scrambling barefoot through flies and human waste for shreds of scrap plastic and broken bottles is just 15 minutes by car from a suburban village of mansions where few families make less than $500,000 a year and everyone has at least three maids.

Just five minutes' drive from the dump is one of the most predictably spectacular sunsets in the world on the shores of Manila Bay, in a bay-front park that seems light years away from the squalor.

In the last year alone, Communist urban hit squads have killed more than 200 policemen, soldiers and politicians in broad daylight here; yet the city's crime rate is lower than New York City's. No Manilans are seriously afraid to move about the city, day or night, and the capital remains a safe haven for tourists, most of whom discover, to their surprise, one of the world's most fascinating and hedonistic cities.

More than 2 million Manilans live in largely unseen squatters' shanties and many go hungry. But the wealthy dine on fine French cuisine at luncheon fashion shows in Manila's 11 five-star hotels. The Manila Polo Club remains a plush bastion of the elite in the city's business district of Makati, while 43% of the city's population have no steady jobs and live below a poverty line of $50 a month per family of six.

As a city crumbling, and strangling in its own excess, Manila may also be unrivaled.

The national economic crisis and a general survival mentality have left the city so badly deteriorated that its air and its inner-city canals now rank among the world's dirtiest. Electricity and phones often fail. And until a recent pothole-filling campaign repaired more than 20,000 holes in just a few weeks, the streets looked much as they did 43 years ago this month after the Americans bombed out the Japanese occupation army during World War II.

Each day, the city produces 3,400 tons of garbage, nearly one pound per resident, and, until President Corazon Aquino personally ordered a recent cleanup campaign, much of it festered on street corners for days on end.

'Only Brave Dare to Drive'

Then, there's the traffic, an incessant game of urban "chicken" on narrow, choked streets, with high-powered cars battling smoke-belching buses and 35,000 passenger jeepneys, most of them World War II-vintage jeeps stripped down to basics, then rebuilt, rebuilt and rebuilt again. The jeepneys are distinguished by their garish paint jobs, religious icons on the dashboard, loud horns and blaring disco speakers.

"In Manila," the city's largest-circulation newspaper, the Manila Bulletin, concluded recently, "only the brave dare to drive. . . . Are we Manilenos possessed by some demon of self-destruction?"

At the same time, though, Manila also boasts unparalleled variety.

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