Manila Hotel (A Review, 2nd of 2 Parts)

Here’s Part 1.

Manila Hotel is full of history and old world glamour. The tour of the Archives as well as the old ballroom and other prominent features of the hotel is just some of the things we love to do when we’re staying at the hotel. We’ve done it a few times before, during our previous visits, but we decided to do it again when we were in Manila last month. Every time we do the tour we always learn something new, some very fascinating stories about its famous residents.

Many Filipinos like myself have learned in their grade school history class that the Spanish-American War (1895-1898), precipitated a transition from Spanish colonisation to American imperialism. It wasn’t phrased in that fashion because the Philippine history books, at least during my time — and by the way, I am not that old, thank you very much! 😉 — were written by the Americans. The word “American Occupation” was the more appropriate or should I say, ‘politically correct’ term to use from the perspective of the American historians who decided to re-write the Philippine history. Therefore when referring to that period, 1898 to 1945, “American Occupation” and “Japanese Occupation” is what you’ll find in Philippine history books. (I’m not sure if the term is still used in modern Phil. history books. I’ve got to ask my nephews and nieces about this.) Anyhow, the intervention of the United States during the Philippine revolt against the Spaniards was the culminating event that led to the signing of a peace treaty between the U.S. and Spain. As a result, the Philippines was ceded to the U.S. by Spain upon payment of US$29 million. Practically, it ended the 333-year Spanish colonisation and the beginning of the 48-year American rule. Today majority of the Filipino people believe that they gained their independence on the 12th of June 1898 when the Spaniards left — that’s what they were made to believe by most historians. In reality, it wasn’t until the 4th of July 1946 that the United States finally granted the Philippines its independence. “Why bring up bits and pieces of Philippine history?”, you may ask. Well, I reckon this snippets of information is vital to understanding the story of Manila Hotel.

As soon as the Americans took over the country, William Howard Taft, who later became a U.S. President, served as a governor general of the US colonial regime in the Philippines. He issued the first decrees of the Second Philippine Commission to create an urban plan for the City of Manila. He commissioned a famous American architect named Daniel Hudson Turnham to draft a plan appropriate for a prospective capital city of an American state. The architect’s design was to develop Manila bay area by constructing a wide road lined with trees to create a boulevard that would be overshadowed by a grand hotel at one end. Thus the construction of Manila Hotel commenced in 1908 and was completed in 1912. The hotel was a stunning white California mansion-style building with 149 rooms, designed to highlight the success and grandeur of the United States in the Asia-Pacific. Over the years new rooms were added and today it has a staggering 570-rooms exquisitely furnished and decorated in a classic ‘Filipiniana’ theme. The hotel is strategically located in the bay area where an unobstructed view of Manila sunset is available, at least at the time of its construction. It’s also overlooking Intramuros (the walled-city of Manila built by the Spaniards), and is just a stone-throw away to the infamous Luneta Park (later renamed Rizal Park) where the Phil. national hero Jose Rizal was executed on December 30, 1896 which sparked the flames of the Philippine revolution against Spain that eventually led to the Spanish-American War.

Although it is one of the oldest hotels in the country, it isn’t the earliest. Hotel del Oriente in Binondo, built in 1850, was the very first but no longer in existence today. As it stands, Manila Hotel is now considered the oldest five-star hotel in the Philippines, and remains one of the iconic landmark in the capital city.

Aerial view of The Manila Hotel in the 1930s. (Photo: NASM Archive)

The hotel tour usually starts at The Archive Room with chronological narrative of the hotel’s inception with old photographs showing the architect’s blueprint, the building construction in 1908 leading up to the opening of the hotel on the 4th of July 1912, which coincided with the commemoration of American Independence.

MHArchive1In 1935, President Manuel Quezon asked the distinguished American General Douglas MacArthur to become his military adviser with a special task of establishing the Philippine Army. McArthur demanded an accommodation to equal Malacañang Palace: seven bedrooms, a state dining room, a special study, etc. However, Pres. Quezon who at the time was already living at Malacañang, The Official Residence of the President, with his family was obviously not willing to give up his posh pad nor willing to live under the same roof with the flamboyant American general, had commissioned the construction of the penthouse that spans the entire fifth floor of Manila Hotel. It then became the personal palace of MacArthur and his family during his tenure as Military Advisor to President Quezon from 1935 to 1941.

The hotel ravaged by war.

When the Second World War broke out, Gen. MacArthur and his family sought refuge on Corregidor Island where they lived in a bunker during the siege, and in March 1942 MacArthur relocated to Australia to lead the US military command in Asia-Pacific leaving his wife and son behind but joined him a few months later. Meanwhile, the Japanese Military occupied Manila Hotel until the end of the war. In 1944 MacArthur made a triumphant return to the Philippines, and the so-called “Leyte Landing” and his famous speech “I Shall Return” will be forever immortalized in Philippine history books.

The miniature replica of Pan-Am Clipper that landed on November 29, 1932 just 20 yards from Manila Hotel’s bay entrance on its inaugural flight across the Pacific.

Now for the scandalous bit. 😉 And let me just say that there is no known material evidence to confirm this. Apparently, Gen. MacArthur had a Filipino-Scottish mistress named Isabel ‘Dimples’ Cooper. That this affair even took place is probably a hotly disputed rumour during the ‘American Occupation’ in the Philippines. 🙂

Photos from right to left show: Gen. MacArthur, his wife Jean and son Arthur on the step of a Pan American aircraft; the General with his equally famous father, Gen. Arthur MacArthur, who was in Manila towards the end of the Spanish-American War to lead the combined US-Filipino ground forces to quickly drive the Spaniards out of the country, and he later became the Philippine Islands’ First American Military Governor; The General sitting on his desk; and lastly, Gen. MacArthur and his wife Jean at the lobby of Manila Hotel on their final sentimental journey to the Philippines in 1951.

The hotel has hosted numerous world-renowned historical figures such as Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, Neil Armstrong, Michael Jackson, US Presidents John F. Kennedy, and other luminaries. One wall of the Archive Room is filled with photographs of all the foreign diplomats, head of states and royalties who were billeted in the hotel.

MHArchive5The King and Queen of Spain were just some of the royals who stayed at the hotel.

MHArchive10U.S. President and Mrs Johnson were one of the presidential couples who stayed at Manila hotel in the 60s.

MHArchive9President Dwight Eisenhower with boxing champion Rocky Marciano.

MHArchive3Another wall is lined with framed photographs of Philippine Presidents when they were attending official functions at the hotel.

MHArchive6The photo of President and Mrs Marcos dominates one side of the wall. During the Marcos regime the President and First Lady often come to the hotel for public as well as private  events, and in every visit a ‘red carpet’ is always laid out for them.

MHArchive7You’d also find photos of famous figures in the entertainment industry such as the legendary Michael Jackson, rock star Bon Jovi, Hollywood actor David Hasselhoff, to name but a few.

MHArchive8The only famous people who stayed at the hotel but didn’t have any photo of themselves on the archives is The Beatles. The story goes that the Marcoses invited the British boys to have breakfast at Malacañang Palace the morning after their concert but for some reasons they declined the invitation. The Marcoses were unaccustomed to accepting ‘NO’ for an answer so it apparently infuriated the First Lady. Consequently, not a single photograph of The Beatles was kept in the archives. (At the time Manila Hotel was owned and run by a government agency.) Presumably, the Palace also pulled out the police protection given to the British group and the incident turned nasty with people screaming and trying to spit and/or punch The Beatles which in the end made the British boys vow never to set foot in Philippine soil ever again. Clearly they made good on their promise because to this day none of the surviving Beatles has been to the Philippines after that fateful 1966 visit.

Featured image is the living room of MacArthur Suite and this is the master bedroom. Royalties, statesmen, and other famous personalities usually make this their home when they are in town. Of course anyone who has some spare cash to spend can stay at this suite for a whooping  US$3,000 a night. (Photo: Manila Hotel)

In all of my years visiting Manila Hotel, I’ve never seen the MacArthur Suite. Every time I’m there I always ask the Guest Relations Manager if I can have a look but sadly, it’s always occupied. Although the original apartment was ravaged by war, they have created a replica of the general’s posh pad, and it would be fascinating to see it. I heard from the grapevine that a local politician is a regular guest of the MacArthur Suite, sometimes bringing in different women (but never his old wife) for a night or two. I tried to get Lovely, the Guest Relations Officer, who took us around to confirm this. However, she’s unable to comment or confirm anything, she’s been sworn to secrecy.

MHOldBRWe also got to see the oldest ballroom “Maynila” designed by Philippine National Artist for Architecture, Leandro Locsin. It’s a magical room with Tiffany bay windows, hand-carved narra arches, hand-painted ceiling and water fountains. I do hope the management of Manila Hotel will keep this room as it is, according to the vision of the architect.

(Photo: Manila Hotel)

If you’re visiting the Philippines I highly recommend you consider doing the tour of Manila Hotel. Simply ask to see the Antiquities Room: archives, old ballroom, the original high-ceiling/huge guest rooms, and if possible, the MacArthur and Aguinaldo Suite if it’s available.

You don’t have to stay at the hotel or have a meal at any of the restaurants, or even spend a single penny just to avail the tour. It’s open to the public for free. Simply call the hotel or walk-in to the Front Desk if you’re interested, and one of the Guest Relations Officers will take you around. The tour is worth doing even for non-history buffs. As mentioned in my previous post Manila Hotel (A Review, Part 1) it is one of my favourite hotels in the Philippines.

A couple of days after we arrived in Manila I phoned the Front Desk to inquire if a hotel staff is available to give Jared and me a tour, and they sent one of their Guest Relations Officers named ‘Lovely’ to be our guide. As her name implies, she’s indeed a lovely young lady, and she took us around the hotel giving us every bit of information she knows about the establishment and its famous residents. 
On Valentine’s weekend Jared and I got to stay at Manila Hotel with my family once again — thanks to my sister. I gently prodded everyone to do the Archives tour again. Some of my nephews and nieces were very young to remember anything when we did it together in July of 2007. 😉 Those who have memories of the tour simply rolled their eyes when I suggested we should do it again. 🙂 They’d rather go swimming than do the hotel tour but to please their ‘Tita Elna’ the ‘tweens’ joined us and we all ended up doing it once again – thank you guys! 🙂 Karina was our tour guide that day.
Three days before we left Manila we had dinner at the hotel with our friends Jojo and Rory de Ocampo — ‘the matchmakers’ 😉 and ‘patud baysay’ (beautiful cousin) Lynn Syliangco. Lovely was on duty and had given us a tour one last time.

Every Filipino should do a tour of Manila Hotel to appreciate its heritage and historical significance not just in relation to the City of Manila but to the country as a whole.

Many thanks to Lovely and Karina for being such wonderful tour guides.

Note: I am not anti-American. The mere mention of ‘American Imperialism’ or ‘American Occupation’ in the Philippines doesn’t mean I am against the USA. Even if I went to UP, I am a pro-capitalist to the core, and was never swayed or indoctrinated by what most professors at UP preach all the time — communist/socialist ideologies. 🙂