I'm a Midwestern girl in constant search of sunshine + sea. I travel solo, work full-time, and sometimes, I write.

Part II: World War II Manila with Carlos Celdran

Part II: World War II Manila with Carlos Celdran

On Sunday morning, my Dad and I traveled to Intramuros, meaning "within the walls," to join Manila's most popular walking tour led by Carlos Celdran. Carlos is a well-known figure to Filipinos as a cultural activist. After attending university in the US and discovering his passion for performance art, Carlos returned to Manila to establish his own tour company, Walk This Way. The tours are unique in that they incorporate narration, story telling, music, and theatrics; Carlos acts out Filipino history in a way that brings his guests back to specific moments in time. He's a pretty cool guy, to say the least.

I loved Carlos' tour because for the longest time I just did not get Manila. It bothered me that I found Manila, the beloved city that my dad grew up in, to be so damn frustrating to understand. In Asia, the cities of Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore awe with their looming skyscrapers, orderly streets, stunning temples, and distinct cultures. Nobody tells you to skip those cities.

But you constantly hear, "Skip Manila."

"Go the islands," they say.

Clearly there was some disconnect as to why Manila never seemed to be on the same level as its Asian neighbors, but I didn't know why. After Carlos' tour, Manila made sense. In fact, the tour made me appreciate Manila even more.

The tour began in Intramuros, a historic part of Manila that was considered Manila itself when the Philippines was under Spanish rule in the 1600s. Standing outside of Fort Santiago, Carlos launched into his tour by sharing how the Philippines is a "mix-mix" of Filipino, Spanish, and American culture. One of the best ways to see this "mix-mix" is to listen to the Filipino language!

Tagalog is the official language of the Philippines, along with English. Many "organic" words, like air, water, soul, happy, are all described in Tagalog. But objects, like pen, book, table, house, utensils, are all Spanish words, which makes sense because it was the Spaniards who introduced those objects to the Filipinos. And the American influence on the Filipinos is particularly strong in its language, in a somewhat humorous way. Kodak is literally a verb in the Philippines: "Kodak my photo!" Colgate is the word for toothpaste, Xerox is the word for copy, Kleenex is the word for tissue paper, Frigidaire is the word for refrigerators! The proliferation and influence of American brands is clearly seen in the way Filipinos speak to each other. Already, thanks to Carlos, I was beginning to understand how unique the Philippines is.

But where did that Spanish influence originally come from? In 1543, a Spanish explorer named the islands Las Filipinas in honor of Kind Philip II of Spain. And for the next 300 years, the Philippines came under Spanish rule. Spain's establishment of the Catholic Church in the Philippines had a huge impact on Filipino society. Today, more than 82% of Filipinos are Catholic and the religion is a huge cornerstone of society. (To put that in context, the Philippines is the only Catholic country in Asia and the third largest Catholic country in the world, behind only Brazil and Mexico.) For hundreds of years, Manila Cathedral served as the central point of Manila and all roads were measured from the cathedral. The city was literally centered around the Catholic Church.

In 1898, however, Spain had spent too much money on and subsequently lost the Spanish-American war to the United States. As a result, Spain sold the Philippines to the United States for $20 million (I think it's so weird how you can just sell a country!). Ironically, Spain sold the Philippines at the same time that Filipinos were just beginning to champion for their independence from Spain.

Jose Rizal, whom today is now known as the Philippines' national hero, led the national revolution for independence from Spain. How did he do it? With the pen, not the sword. His writings, especially his novels, were influential to the revolution. In 1896, he was arrested by the Spanish (aka the Catholic Church) for igniting the revolution. He was imprisoned in Fort Santiago, the same fort we were now standing next to on the tour (well, the little that was remaining of it).

Gold footsteps are imprinted on the ground to show Rizal's last steps as he walked towards his own execution. He was executed by firing squad. Later, his family found his final poem, Mi ultimo adios, which was written days before his execution. The poem is an ode to the Philippines and its struggle for independence. This is a poem that my Filipino relatives have ensured that I know - my aunt Betty gave me a copy of it when I visited six years ago. The first stanza, which I think is hauntingly beautiful, is translated into English here:

Farewell, my adored Land, region of the sun caressed,
Pearl of the Orient Sea, our Eden lost,
With gladness I give you my life, sad and repressed;
And were it more brilliant, more fresh and at its best,
I would still give it to you for your welfare at most.

The US did not recognize the Philippine's attempt to become independent, and the Philippine-American war broke out in a fight for Filipino independence. The Philippines lost the war in 1902, which effectively began the US colonization of the islands. Nearly 250,000 Filipinos died during the war.

At this point in the tour, Carlos had donned a large, American hat and was standing in front of two American flags. His boombox, which hilariously was playing a cassette tape, was blaring an American marching tune. It was as American as you could get.


American colonization changed the Philippines, specifically Manila, at rapid-pace. English became an official language, effectively phasing out Spanish. The US sent missionaries to the Philippines to build schools and teach English, which continues to have an impact today: 95% of Filipinos are literate and can speak English. The US also established a strong public school system.

But the US also introduced secularism, a distinct separation of church and state. Manila Cathedral no longer stood as the center of the city; the US established Luneta Park, where Rizal was buried and memorialized, as kilometer zero. Now all roads lead from Luneta Park instead of Manila Cathedral.

With American influence, Manila quickly became the center of East-West influence in Asia. Manila had the first ice cream parlor in Asia; it had a German cable cars as transportation (like San Fransisco!), European communication lines, Hollywood movies. Manila had theatres, jazz clubs, and ritzy boulevards. It had a thriving business sector and was a primary spot for businessmen bent on expanding trade throughout Asia. Manila was a glamorous, stunning city and it was considered the most modern city in Asia in the 19th century.

But things changed with the onset of World War II. Because the Philippines was an American colony, it became an American ally and a Japanese enemy. In 1941, the Japanese Empire invaded the Philippines. On the same day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japan also bombed Manila and American bases in the Philippines.

On the tour, we were in a small enclosure near some of the shops at Intramuros. We sat down as if we were at a theater performance. The lights were dimmed and Carlos had lit a few candles around him. He held up a photo of General MacArthur. The next photo he held up was a black and white photo of Manila, with an American bomb barreling towards the city's center: Intramuros. He asked that we bow our heads and say a prayer for the 100,000 Filipinos killed exactly to that day, 72 years ago.


After three years of German occupation, American General MacArthur felt compelled to drive the Japanese out of the Philippines. As WWII came to a violent close, a brutal battle began between the Americans and the Japanese on Philippines soil. The battle became known as the Battle of Manila and it raged on for nearly a month. It was the most fierce urban battle that took place during WWII, and it is also one of the most painfully overlooked battles in WWII history.

As American troops began closing in on the city, the Japanese took out their frustration by brutally massacring Filipinos. Among the atrocities attributed to the Japanese include bayoneting babies at Manila General Hospital, raping hundreds of Filipino women, and burning down buildings trapped with Filipinos.

The Japanese had literally entrenched themselves in Manila through a network of tunnels. Unable to drive the Japanese out, General MacArthur had to resort to using artillery.

In the final days of the Battle of Manila, the United States dropped American bombs on the city of Manila, its own ally.

The city was absolutely decimated.

100 percent of the business district was razed, 70 percent of the residential district, and 80 percent of all factories. Intramuros, the walled-in city that the Japanese had cornered themselves in, was virtually nonexistent. The bombing of Manila is considered one of the greatest tragedies of WWII, completely destroying a city that had once been the pillar of American and Asian influence and ingenuity. The magnificent city that had come to be known as "The Pearl of the Orient" ceased to exist.

Click on the photo below to view photos of Manila before and after the bombing.

The bombing of Manila made it the most devastated allied city in WWII. The first was Warsaw, which was devastated by the enemy. Manila was considered "collateral damage" and was destroyed by its own ally.

There were no more Hollywood movies, German cable cars, American ice cream parlors, or European communication lines. Over 100,000 Filipinos died during the Battle of Manila, either deliberately by the Japanese or by American artillery and bombing.

Today, a bronze plaque stands in Intramuros to honor the fallen. It reads:

This memorial is dedicated to all those innocent victims of war, many of whom went nameless and unknown to a common grave, or even never knew a grave at all, their bodies having been consumed by fire or crushed to dust beneath the rubble of ruins.
Let this monument be the gravestone for each and every one of the over 100,000 men, women, children and infants killed in Manila during its battle of liberation, February 3 - March 3, 1945. We have not forgotten them, nor shall we ever forget.
May they rest in peace as part now of the sacred ground of this city: the Manila of our affections.

On Carlos' tour, we had left the small theater and followed Carlos to one of the main streets of Intramuros. Carlos had arranged for local horse carriages and pedicabs to shuttle his tour guests to San Agustin Church, which I thought was a great way to include locals in the tour and help supplement the local economy. We wandered around San Agustin Church after mass as Carlos explained that the church was actually used a concentration camp by the Japanese; many Filipinos and clergy were held hostage in the church during the Battle of Manila. Amazingly, San Agustin Church was the only church out of seven churches in Intramuros to survive the bombing. Manila Cathedral, which has been rebuilt eight times since its original construction in 1571, was destroyed during the bombing.


The year after the bombing, America granted the Philippines its independence. America pledged to help rebuild Manila, and over the years funneled money into roads, infrastructure, and schools.

Manila had also lost its transportation infrastructure, so the Americans came up with what they thought was an innovative way to provide temporary transportation: old WWII American buses. But what was supposed to be a temporary solution became a permanent mode of transportation, with the Jeepney serving as Manila's main form of public transportation even today. As Carlos put it, the Jeepney can either be seen as a symbol of Filipino ingenunity and resilence, or a relic of a war that still leaves its mark on a city 70 years later.

As Carlos wrapped his tour up, we were all treated to mini halo-halos in a plaza near San Agustin Church. Halo-halos are Filipinos desserts that literally mean "mix-mix." And that is beause they really are a mix-mix of everything!


I left Carlos' tour somber and thoughtful. Manila was slowly restructuring itself in my mind, from a city that was dirty and chaotic to a city that was resilient and beautiful in its own way. I was quiet as I pondered everything I had learned on the tour -- way more than I had expected to learn -- when my dad spoke up.

"I remember when my family escaped from the war," he said.

"What?" I asked. It hadn't even occurred to me that my dad would have experienced the war. I did the quick math in my head: that would have been over 70 years ago.

But he did. He was 9 years old and the year was 1943.

This is a three-part series on my personal experience in Manila which includes Part I: My Manila, and Part III: My Father's Manila.

Interested in Carlos' tour? Find prices and dates on his website here. With my dad's senior discount and my student discount (gotta take advantage of those discounts!), we paid 1,600PHP / $31USD for the 2.5 hour tour.

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