Dispatches From Manila
Robin Hemley is the director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He’s spending the year on a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Philippines with his family. Why the Philippines? Read on and find out—he’ll be checking in regularly.
Welcome to Mall-nila.
BY ROBIN HEMLEY
I’ve never been much of a mall rat, but in Manila resistance is futile. At any rate, my instincts tend toward neither fight nor flight. I capitulate. I roll over on my back and show my rat’s belly. The mall is my neighborhood. Robinson’s Galleria, the mall next door, opens at 10 in the morning and closes at 9 or 10 in the evening (depending on the day), and I’ve come to mourn its shuttered hours. Like a typical Manileño, I’ve learned to appreciate the malls of Manila, which, unlike their counterparts in the U.S., have their own particular character, each one different from the rest. If you want pearls and cell phones, you head to Green Hills, with its stalls operated mostly by Muslim women and men from Mindanao. If you want posh, go to Greenbelt or Serendra, with their designer boutiques and world-class restaurants. If you want to be overwhelmed, go to the Mall of Asia, one of the largest malls in the world, built on reclaimed land from Manila Bay. In my neighborhood alone, there are three malls within walking distance.
The malls of Manila have been bombed and have had coup attempts staged from their corridors. If you’re going to strike at the heart of a society, this is as good a place to start as any. My mall (I like to think of it as mine) is located in the call-center hub in Manila, a fact reflected in its abundance of coffee shops, which fuel the young workers.
On a recent day, I decided to survey the coffee shops in Robinson’s, so I combed its five floors for every coffee shop I could find. The results: Starbucks, Coffee Overdose, the Coffee Experience, Old Manila Coffee House, Our Father’s Coffee, Gloria Jean’s, Bo’ Coffee Club, the Coffee Bean, Chai Kofi, and Mocha Blends. What—no Seattle’s Best Coffee? I only had to walk seven minutes or so, to the next mall, the Podium, to find an SBC as well as a UCC (a Japanese chain, and by far my favorite).
Our Father’s Coffee and Old Manila Coffee House seem slightly suspect to me, only because these two shops should offer up only Nescafé instant if they really want to be true to their names. Ten years ago, none of these coffee shops existed. There was one Starbucks in Manila in 1999. (Now two face each other on opposite sides of the street at the Podium.) When I asked for coffee then, a cup of instant coffee and powdered creamer was invariably set before me. When I was traveling the country and Nescafé wasn’t available, people often apologized: “I’m sorry, sir, but all we have is the native coffee,” which, brewed fresh from local beans, was always delicious.
I’m not even counting the pastry shops that serve coffee. If I did, I’d add to the list Mister Donut, Hot Loops, Cinnabon, Red Ribbon, Goldilocks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and the hippest and most crowded joint in the mall: Krispy Kreme. Go figure. Manileños seem to be wild for Krispy Kreme, as though ordering a Krispy Kreme doughnut were akin to, say, putting on a Rolex. And not a fake one, which they could buy on any street corner in the tourist district of Malate.
Personally, I need to stay away from all doughnut shops, trendy or otherwise. My mall missions are all about furnishing our half-furnished apartment. One day, Margie and I took a taxi to the aptly named Mega Mall to look for a TV. I wanted the cheapest TV I could find, but somehow I wound up purchasing a flat-screen TV for about $500 (still, one of the cheapest flat screens, though not as cheap as a Chinese brand with the somewhat off-putting slogan “Slim but Terrible”). On another day, I fell sway to a karaoke machine with 33,000 songs in Tagalog, English, Korean, and Chinese. Well, of course. I’m in the Philippines, land of karaoke. We’re a family of karaokaholics, from my daughters to my wife to my extended relatives. This is the land of sappy love songs, blasted full tilt in taxis, in coffee shops, and, above all, in karaoke bars. Someone’s got to keep Karen Carpenter’s legacy alive, after all.
The karaoke machine has a Korean plug and I needed an adapter, so I headed to the Handyman in search of one. The Handyman is the store that most impresses me. Its employees all wear brown overalls and red shirts, and there are 56 of them, by my count, in a store that would probably staff 8 to 10 employees at most in the States. I’m not sure what the point is of employing 56 people in a small hardware store—there’s something slightly intimidating about a phalanx of employees all dressed like scarecrows accompanying you to the aisle with the plugs.
One thing that doesn’t make sense to me is why the movie theaters don’t take all the pointless hordes of Handyman helpers and hire them to fill the cineplexes to combat the scourge of pirated DVDs. The movie theaters seem practically devoid of employees. Recently, I went with Margie to see the latest James Bond flick, Quantum of Solace, at Robinson’s and we were both surprised to see a long warning against piracy. “The person beside you might try to record the film you are about to watch on his cell phone or on another recording device,” the warning read. “If you see such activity, report it to the theater at once. And if you attempt to record this film be aware that we have employed undercover agents to apprehend you.” Immediately after the announcement, I counted two pirates (no joke, but it was too dark to see their eye patches—joke) holding up their phones to the screen. I could see that the U.S. war on poor, bargain-hunting Asians was not going well! I vowed to turn in those pirates when I saw an employee, but I never did see one and I forgot about it during the movie, which centered on a conspiracy to control all the oil and water in the world, but thankfully not the world’s DVDs or coffee. As James Bond would surely agree, it’s hard to always know in what shadow economy you’re participating, and who’s benefiting. In 1999, while in Mindanao, I was told that farmers’ crops were being sprayed with poison to force the farmers to grow coffee.
In any case, Robinson’s Galleria is not the place to buy your pirated DVDs. On the second floor of Metrowalk, there are pirated DVDs as far as the eye can see, at least 50 stalls’ worth, and the vendors are so unconcerned about getting busted that they print out business cards, such as the one I’m looking at now:
“We accept Collectors Orders.”
Cell # 0906-6358283
2nd Floor / Stall # 7-C
Metrowalk, Meralco Ave., Ortigas Center, Pasig
I was there to return a DVD that wasn’t very good quality—W., Oliver Stone’s film about our beloved 43rd president. (It wasn’t mine, of course! It belonged to a friend.) It seemed somehow fitting that, of all the DVDs my friend had purchased, the film about George Bush would be the one that was unwatchable. The vendor happily took it back and told me to apologize to my friend for the poor quality. I walked a few meters on and started perusing another vendor’s wares. I was about to go, when I happened upon a few rather obscure DVDs. “Do you have any more of these?” I asked the vendor. He nodded and brought forth a stack of great films, among them Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, the Czech classic Closely Watched Trains, Carlos Saura’s flamenco rendition of Lorca’s Blood Wedding, Pabst’s Threepenny Opera, and Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, among others, all for 60 pesos (or $1.20) a pop.
After looking at the DVDs at Metrowalk, I went home to my cozy mall and decided to get a bite to eat. I skipped all the typical American outlets—McDonald’s, KFC, Shakey’s, Pizza Hut—and a few of the Filipino outlets as well: Jollibee (a burger joint) and a place called Pizza in a Cone, which, for my money, joins “Slim but Terrible” as one of the worst advertising ploys ever. It was a choice between Red Ribbon, with its delectable empanaditas (little Spanish pastries filled with something or other that tastes good), or Hen Lin, with its fabulous siomai (little Chinese dumplings filled with something or other that tastes good). I settled on Hen Lin for takeout to bring back to Margie, who was waiting patiently for me to return with her DVDs (which, trust me, I never bought, just as I would never buy a Cuban cigar from the cigar stall at Robinson’s). I figured she deserved a treat before I turned her over to the proper authorities.
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