The characters of the big city

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THE commute from EDSA to Manila took an hour on the day before the Traslacion — Manila’s giant celebration of the Feast of the Black Nazarene. It was past the lunch hour when I arrived at the 1919 Grand Café (in what was formerly the HSCB Building) in Manila’s Binondo district.

I got a table and rummaged through a set of 13 stickers which were the reason I had made the trip — to meet the artist behind them, freelance artist, designer, and animator Kenny Tai. One read: “There’s no business like the family business for the Binondo Girl. She works hard and drives a hard bargain all in the pursuit of prosperity, honor, and steamed pork buns.” The stickers feature cartoon girls who represent the cities or areas that they come from.

Ms. Tai showed me a sketchbook filled with the ideas behind her “Manila Girls” — among the sketches was “Tita Malate” with scenes of nightlife in Manila; “Mistress Parañaque” as a staffer in the entertainment city; “Little Miss EDSA” as the epitome of stress, hanging on to an MRT strap; and “La Muchacha España,” a college student in a seasonally flooded university belt.

“I am not talking about a ‘Manila Girl’ as ‘someone who lives in that city,’ it’s about the city becoming a character,” she clarified.

The idea behind the stickers came about when she was travelling with friends and family in Europe and Asia between 2012 to 2013. During these trips, she observed that the souvenir items represent the culture and landmarks of the cities and countries — the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the Japanese kokeshi doll, for example. Ms. Tai decided that she wanted to create a unique souvenir that showcases a different side of Manila beyond postcards of the Manila Central Post Office, a kalesa, jeepney, or “I Love (insert name of city)” shirts.

“When you see a souvenir, you remember a story from that product that you want to take home,” Ms. Tai told BusinessWorld.

Ms. Tai went on to develop several sticker collections under the brand name A.K.I.M. or Ang Kuwentong Inuwi Mo (The story you bring home) and started to sell them in art markets in 2016.

Her various sticker collections include Que Horror, Trapik Propaganda, and The Year of the Rat (for the 2020 Lunar New Year).

Many of the designs, Ms. Tai explained, are inspired by good and bad news, historical documentaries, conversations with friends, online memes, and articles she read on the internet.

A long-time resident of Binondo, Ms. Tai flipped through the pages of her sketchbook looking for the first “Manila Girl” — appropriately a Binondo girl — who sits on a Chinese lantern while eating siopao.

But these are not your regular sexy pin-up girls. While there are some that could fit the stereotype like the club-going “Makati Girl” in her miniskirt, cellphone, and cocktail, there is also the hefty “Divisoria Girl” whose muscular arms hold up multiple shopping bags; the pregnant “Malate Girl” mournfully singing karaoke in a bar; and the astig “Tondo Girl,” short-haired, riding a motorcycle, and wielding a gun. This is social commentary on an art form that can be dismissed by older generations but which has become very popular among the young.

To come up with her illustrations, Ms. Tai does research on the specific places she is focusing on, including the place’s urban structure and architecture.

Ms. Tai said that trips around the city while running errands also serve as an important reference for the designs. “I walk around the city and I also watch people,” she said.

In June 2017, Ms. Tai attended the late Carlos Celdran’s “Walk This Way” Intramuros tour — she gave the cultural activist and artist her first batch of postcard-sized stickers which, Ms. Tai noted, was very much appreciated.

Ms. Tai’s participation in Mr. Celdran’s tours gave her a deeper understanding of the city and eventually led to their first “Manila Girl” sticker collaboration — “Nuestra Chica de Intramuros,” a girl dressed in a long skirt with background images of nilad flowers, a canon, a kalesa, and the facade of Fort Santiago, in 2018.

The stickers evolved to include Ms. Tai’s original poems at the back while Mr. Celdran contributed small drawings and also served as her text editor.

“[Then] it was not really work. It was more… for fun,” Ms. Tai said of their collaboration which continued even after Mr. Celdran moved to Madrid last year. “I think it was good for him, since he missed Manila a lot.”

Unfortunately, their collaboration concluded with Mr. Celdran’s demise in October 2019. Their final collaborative design was “Lady Escolta,” a girl in a white suit holding a bottle of liquor, with the heritage architecture of Manila’s former commercial center in the background.

Ms. Tai admitted to having received many requests and suggestions for the next “Manila Girl.” However, it takes “one research at a time.”

Through time, the metropolis changes with new developments and the administrations that run the various cities that make up Metro Manila. “‘Manila Girls’ will also change, because Manila is changing,” Ms. Tai said.

“[If] there is news about a drastic change of a certain city, eventually, I would have to change it up,” she said of her sticker. “But I will not forget the past version of it,” she said before we left the café and walked to the HUB Make Lab on nearby Escolta St. where the stickers are sold.

As for the 14th Manila Girl, I messaged the artist with a question I forgot to ask, on the train going home: “Which city are you working on next?”

Just like one’s travels around Metro Manila, she replied: “Let’s keep it in suspense.”

The Akim stickers will be available at the Sticker Con MNL 2020 on Feb. 29 at the Bayanihan Center in Pasig City. They are also available at the HUB Make Lab at the First United Bldg., 413 Escolta St., Binondo, Manila. For more information on Akim, visit or Instagram @akim.63. — Michelle Anne P.Soliman