How old Manila neighbourhoods are becoming creative hotspots
Think of Philippines and you think of palm-fringed beaches coconut in hand. Few people include Manila in their sun-seeking travel itinerary. But that’s a mistake, Manila may long have been associated with Dunkin Donut invaded shopping malls and endless traffic jams, but there’s a new wind blowing. There are some pockets in the old city, where its tired heart is pulsating with a new energy. A creative crowd has rediscovered the old gems and decaying buildings in the city’s forgotten corners. Cool café’s, co-working spaces, art galleries, artisan markets and speakeasy bars pop up as part of an artistic revival. A testimony of a new generation of Filipinos reconnecting with their past and proud of their heritage. We went for a little wander in Poblacion – to see what was new in the old town.
By Ester van Steekelenburg
Poblacion, Manila’s new hipster hood
Lovingly restored wooden villa turned into a bed & breakfast La Casita Mercerdes
The sun sets, the street is still warm and I’m strolling in a quiet street surrounded by old world charm wooden villas. I can feel how this was one was a sprawling Spanish style hacienda. Little do we know that just a few years back this was the middle of Manila ‘s infamous red-light district.
We meet Jodi Aguillon, Executive Director of Pineapple Lab, the go-to gallery for contemporary Filipino art in Manila that has opened the doors of their industrial chic gallery right here in where the seedy bars used to be. The lab’s airy space with high ceilings makes for a blank canvas where creative juices flow freely; this is heart of Población’s creative community. ‘‘At the rate things are moving, not only are we connecting the dots between our cultural sites, we’re charting a path of Población’s history and artistic growth,” he says of the creative revival of the area. “This is now a place where people choose to live work and play”.
Pineapple Lab, the go-to gallery for contemporary Filipino art in Manila
Poblacion is the oldest part of Makati City and now the newest hotspot for culture, history and local charm. In 2012 the city officials declared the old red-light district a heritage zone, but it was El Chupacabra, a taqueria, that was the first one brave enough to go against the odds and open a cheap and cheerful taco place Filipino style on Felipe Street. Soon they developed a cult following among the Makati office crowds and pioneered Poblacion’s creative food movement. Street style craft beer café’s and yakitori eateries following in their wake, prompting a wave of young entrepreneurs to open more novel concept cafes, boutique hotels and lifestyle stores.
“The Poblacion spirit has revived in its street food, community markets and formed charming creative enclave in between the shopping malls and high-rise buildings. This hub is key to Manila’s renewed identity and sense of place” says Malaya del Rosario, Head of Arts and Creative Industries of the British Council, one of the engines behind some of the cultural programming in the area and the Urban Change Initiative that saw nine ordinary utility buildings along the Pasig River into canvasses for artists.
“We’re charting a path of Población’s history and artistic growth” – Jodi Aguillon, Pineapple Lab
The new face of the San Francisco Pumping Station by the Pasig River (Image: Cristina)
But if you want to know here the hipsters hang out, you do need to know where to look. The best things in Poblacion are a bit hidden. We find Kapwa Studio – an artist-run barber salon that doubles as a culture shop along P. Burgos Street and Commune a neighbourhood corner café on Polaris Street that also is a venue for improv theatre, coffee culture workshops and entrepreneurial talks. “I come from a family of creative and culinary entrepreneurs. My brother runs a popular chain with Filipino favourites wrapped up in a banana leaf and my grandfather was into restoring vintage jeepneys” says owner Rosario.
The workshop on Alfonso Street is a charming little shop with ethnic cool accessories, home to two homegrown Manila brands Liana Rosa and Colony. But what keeps locals coming back is not just the cool upcycled glass flasks with leather binding and handsome Don Pedro tote bags, but the Friday night neighbourhood parties! Workshop by day, party place by night!
We discover there is so much history and character in this area. Here is the oldest church in Makati, Saints Peter and Paul Parish, host of the Kalbaryos, the largest street carnival procession in Metro Manila. In the Holy Week normal life in Manila comes to complete standstill as the locals begin a week of prayers, processions and celebrations to prepare for the grand finale at Easter Sunday. Thousands gather here in Poblacion. Everywhere, in churches, chapels, houses, barangay halls and even in offices people gather to pray, sing and celebrate. “We are known for the end-of-lent celebrations. This is how we preserve our traditions.” says the 80-year old Tita Eden Samarista, one of the proud guardians of this folk-art tradition.
Poblacion is the home of the Kalbaryos, the largest street carnival procession in Metro Manila (Image: Bong)
Want to find these places?
Want to find hidden gems in old Manila? We teamed up with some of the amazing people we met on this journey to curate authentic travel guides for three old Manila neighbourhoods: Binondo, Poblacion, and Quiapo.
Each guide comes with an illustrated map and a handcrafted walking itinerary accessible through the iDiscover Manila app, available as a free download here.
Poblacion neighbourhood guide is a creative collaboration with Pineapple Lab, supported by the British Council and Makati City. Map design by Anissa Aguila.
3 simple steps: Grab a map, Dowload the app, Start exploring. Video credits: Jerwin Buenaventura, Zach Cruz, Denise Cipriano.
Ester moved from Amsterdam to Hong Kong Just before the handover in 1997… with little more than a backpack. She fell in love with the city’s energy and almost 20 years later, she still calls Hong Kong home; a base from where she works on cultural heritage projects throughout Asia. Her favourite cities include Hanoi, Istanbul and Yangon. In Hong Kong she’s happiest exploring the city’s busy backstreets or hiking in the country parks.