It's a tremendous fall from the city's distant glories. At its height in the 1600s, Intramuros-Manila (the two were inseparable) was a symbol of Spanish power in Asia. Behind its moated stone walls, ambitious governors and religious orders sent out expeditions of fleets and friars and plotted to extend Hispanic power to Borneo, Taiwan, Japan..even to China The city was also the western terminus of the fabled Manila galleon, a large treasure ship which carried silver from Mexico to trade for silk and porcelain from China.
photos by Alan C. Robles
Where the city's former Spanish occupants worried about Chinese pirates, Dutch fleets and British privateers, the current management faces a threat the Spaniards never planned for: general indifference. Not many Filipinos visit the walled city. Most of Intramuros' daytime population of 140,000 are students, residents or people who work there. And in the evening, the place is a desert.
It's not that Filipinos are ignorant of the place: every student learns about Intramuros as early as elementary school. And probably every schoolchild in Manila has taken the mandatory field trip to Fort Santiago, the innermost citadel of the walled city. It's just that while on the one hand Intramuros is an inescapable part of Philippine history, on the other hand it represents a bastion from which a few thousand Spaniards kept the islands in subjugation for more than three centuries. The walls were constructed with native labor, the great galleons built and crewed by press-ganged natives.
Ciudad Murada's massive walls were intended to keep out invaders, pirates – and the pesky native Filipinos (the Spaniards persisted in derisively calling them “Indians” to the very end) who might get ideas not in keeping with their proper inferior station. For about two centuries, indios were pointedly forbidden from staying overnight in the walled city.
When the chickens finally came home to roost and a revolutionary army of outraged Filipinos surrounded Intramuros, rather than suffer the humiliation of surrendering to brown skinned Asians the Spaniards cut a deal with the arriving Americans and turned the city over to the Yankees.
It's probably memories like these that add up to the lack of endearment Filipinos have for Ciudad Murada. The strange result is that the tiny minority who feel Intramuros should be preserved and restored often turn out to be apologists for and extollers of Spain's colonial rule. As for the rest of the public, Ferrer sums up their attitude in the two questions he's most often asked: “are their ghosts there?” and “can we dig for gold?” (referring to an unfortunate episode in the 1980s when an American adventurer bamboozled a cabinet secretary into letting him dig up Fort Santiago in a fruitless search for Japanese treasure).
Even the walled city's residents admit indifference about the place they're staying in. One restaurateur says she's never strolled beyond her cafe; a student reveals that his favorite spot in Intramuros is the computer shop. And the site's underclass, the squatters, are untouched and unmoved by the site's history. Anyway, paying monthly rents of between P500 to P1,500 for a tiny room in a crowded compound, they can't afford the admission to the museums.
Given how even locals care so little about Intramuros, it's hard imagining that foreigners could be convinced to visit the place. The tourism department, which supervises the IA, has had peculiar ideas of how to drive up visitor figures. A few years back, it set up a bazaar along General Luna to showcase products from all over the country. Perhaps, instead of bazaar, "bizarre" would be a better word: the exposition is housed in two giant white "clamshell" tents which now stick out like ghastly white thumbs. Before that project there was an aborted effort to set up a disco and beer garden right on the walls themselves.
Now, the tourism department is in the frenzied throes of constructing a sports complex (started without an IA permit) smack against the side of Fort Santiago. When it's completed, strollers along the ramparts can look out over the battlements and enjoy the edifying sight of huffing and puffing, sweating club members playing tennis.
Intramuros will only really come back to life when the public takes a real interest in its significance. That assumes the development of some pride and sense of community in the place. Perhaps Filipinos – descendants of those subjugated, mocked and abused indios -- are missing out on the opportunity to stand on the ramparts of Intramuros, survey Manila, and feel the satisfaction of feeling that ghosts and all, now it's ours.