Manila Hotel enters the 21st century

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Text and photos by
Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

There are two kinds of history: one is written and preserved on books and the other is more tangible; right before our eyes. The Manila Hotel is the latter.

At 104 years old, the hotel is also a museum. It is a repository of mementos, from the American occupation until today. If its walls could talk, it would share the stories and secrets of the people who have stayed in it, including General Douglas MacArthur, singer Michael Jackson, the Rockefeller brothers, disgraced UP President Richard Nixon, and writer Ernest Hemingway, among many familiar names. It is also a gallery that exhibits Manila’s former grandeur and opulence.

“It is one of the great hotels of the Far East. It ranks together with Raffles Hotel in Singapore, a similar hotel in Yangon. They were all built in the early 1900s and have witnessed great events in history. It was the center of social life in Manila. General MacArthur has lived here. Official visitors of the Philippines, the presidents, kings and queens, have stayed here,” Dr. Jaime C. Laya, former Central Bank Governor and Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management during the Marcos administration, told BusinessWorld at the sidelines of the ribbon-cutting marking the hotel’s 104th anniversary on July 4.

His memories of the hotel revolve around its imposing affluence. “It was so exclusive when I was growing up. I remember Coca Cola was only 10 centavos. I was astounded that it was being sold at one peso at the hotel,” he said, adding that he used to marvel at its hotel rooms, including the Winter Garden, “which I think was the only large air conditioned room in Manila at that time.”

THE MANILA HOTEL opened a pop-up museum focusing the hotel’s history — including photographs of Presidents Manuel L. Quezon, Ferdinand Marcos, and Cory Aquino.

In 1898, the American architect and urban designer Daniel Hudson Burnham created the first urban plan for the city of Manila. His vision was of a city with a tree-line boulevard along the Rizal Park from which one could view Manila Bay and its iconic sunset. At the end of the avenue would be a hotel that would welcome and house society’s who’s who and their guests. That time, there was a demand for first-class accommodations. Architecct William Parsons was appointed to continue Burnham’s ideas. Then, in 1912, the hotel was built.

One of the hotel’s mementos, preserved and displayed at its museum, is a letter from a visitor named William Menton, who stayed at Room 820 from June 12 to 15, 1983. He vividly described what Burnham and Parsons had imagined. He said: “Manila, for me, begins at 5 a.m. When the old Spanish Walls of Intramuros, brown with centuries, faintly reflect once more the blue-rose glimmer of dawn.” He said he witnessed the unfolding and awakening of Manila and its landmarks before the day officially started. He continued, “And everything forgotten in the darkness is remembered again. Then, the delicate sky opens itself suddenly to the sun. A curious robin visits my window. Good morning, Nobel and Ever Loyal City.”

In celebration of its anniversary on July 4, the hotel opened a pop-up museum focusing the hotel’s history. It includes photographs of Presidents Manuel L. Quezon, Ferdinand Marcos, and Cory Aquino; a chair and books used by Gen. MacArthur; and black and white photos of old Manila streets like Escolta, Binondo, and Dasmariñas.

The items on display were chosen “because we thought they were of utmost relevance to the public. The ones we thought they could relate to,” said Nian Liwanag-Rigor, Manila Hotel’s corporate communication assistant vice-president.

A chair and books used by Gen. MacArthur

Some items in the hotel’s collection were not shown though — like a mirror with a Michael Jackson signature which “was not nice enough to be displayed because it was in a bad condition,” she added, but she quickly said that no heritage souvenirs were insignificant because every item tells a story.

The hotel has also set up QR (quick response) codes for some of the museum displays and around the hotel itself, through which smartphone users can access videos and articles online. The codes feature photos and videos from the hotel’s archives. Users can comment and “like” them.

As part of its anniversary celebration, anyone who has tapped four of the QR codes is eligible to a stay at the hotel’s superior deluxe rooms for a special price of $104++ per room per night. This includes a complimentary buffet breakfast at the Café Ilang-Ilang for two. Meanwhile, there’s a free buffet banquet for two for anyone who taps 20 QR codes.

The Manila Hotel phone app for accessing the QR codes is available for free on iOS or Android.

The goal is to be more relevant, most especially to millennials who often brush off history and regard it as boring.

“We want history to come alive,” said Ms. Rigor.

The pop-up museum runs until August, but Ms. Rigor said the management is open to the idea of making it a permanent feature.

“In this museum, we see photographs and architecture, the important people. These give us the idea of how life was in the Philippines in the old days. The beauty of the place gives us inspiration, to the extent that it gives the millennials the opportunity to be more proud of our heritage and history,” said Mr. Laya.

“Anyone who knows only hamburger, blue jeans, and television don’t have any roots, and roots, you develop by knowing what your ancestors did, your history. What can you be proud of if you do not know the past?,” he said.