Originally from Smile Magazine the Cebu Pacific’s in-flight magazine.
Mike C. Aquino tracks down three high-profile city guides responsible for leading tourists and locals alike to experience Manila and Cebu with fresh eyes, open hearts and critical minds
Frequent visitors may think they know a place like the back of their hand. Intramuros brings up images of walls, stone churches and squatters; Binondo with its esteros, banks and Chinese food; and Cebu City rings in mangoes, guitars and the busy markets of downtown Colon. Even long-time locals can be lulled into a false sense of familiarity. These are the ones who tend to express shock after going through a single well-conceived walking tour, as that’s when they realize how out of their depth they are. Manila’s Carlos Celdran and Ivan Man Dy, and Cebu’s Ka Bino Guerrero are not as much tour guides as they are agents of perceptual change, walking you through your own preconceptions of a place and smashing them apart.
Foreign or Filipino?
Old Manila Walks leader Ivan Man Dy is happy to take a mallet to people’s perceptions of Binondo, a place close to his Pinoy heart, but also one that he claims to be persistently foreign to Filipino visitors. “People think Binondo is so Chinese, in the sense that you think it’s exactly the same as in Hong Kong or Shanghai or whatever,” Ivan laughs incredulously. “Binondo is more Filipinized than Chinese! It’s a Chinese immigrant thing that became part of our culture. And yet people see it as very foreign.”
Ivan begins to tick off the “foreign” elements in our culture that seem to have a hard time dissolving into the Pinoy psyche: “Why do we have this comparison mentality? It’s always ‘Spanish’, it’s always ‘Chinese’, it’s never Filipino. It’s always a distant, foreign thing, without realizing that these elements have been here for so long.”
Ivan’s Old Manila Walks takes visitors on tours of some of Manila’s most storied districts: Intramuros, Binondo (a food-oriented cultural tour), Malacañang Palace, the Chinese Cemetery, and soon, Corregidor Island. All of these tours come with Ivan’s signature nuanced take: “We don’t just do ordinary city tours that take you around and give you basic facts,” explains Ivan. “Our tours are not really tours, they’re more historical, cultural narratives, with a lot of local perspective… At the end of the day, we want to show that these things that we think of as foreign, they’re not really foreign anymore.”
Gonzo view of Manila
Carlos Celdran’s provocative tours of Intramuros and the CCP cover some of the same ground as Ivan’s. Unsurprisingly, Carlos also has issues with how history and culture are presented to tourists who visit Manila.
“Everything’s too black and white,” Carlos complains. “The guys were good, these others were bad. We have so little culture of analysis when it comes to our own history; it’s only a culture of memorization.” Rather than just memorize a laundry list of dates and events, Carlos encourages everyone to dig deeper into the roots of history — why certain things happened, what they led to, and how they might happen again. But Carlos’ approach could not be more different from Ivan’s. Where Ivan sees his work as creating a fresh narrative for some of Manila’s most storied places, Carlos’ approach takes old assumptions and turns them upside down. “I’d like to get people to analyze their own history and analyze their own city,” Carlos says. Throwing out all the old assumptions — even the most piously held beliefs — is part of his plan.
“I’m taking liberties with my city, and my impressions of it,” he says. “I’m kind of like Hunter S. Thompson, presenting a gonzo view of Manila’s history!” His approach to history is far less academically rigorous: in the hands of a “professional amateur,” as Carlos has coined himself, Manila becomes less a subject of study and more of a theatrical backdrop.
“I’d never claim to be an authority on Philippine history,” Carlos stresses, “I’m a performance artist, and I’m interacting with the city. I consider Manila as an art project, and everything that I do with the city is part of the artistic process of performance art.” Carlos’ take-no-prisoners approach can cut deeply — angering some, and sending others into paroxysms of grief. The Japanese wife of a foreign dignitary, for one, was found sobbing in San Agustin Church’s crypt after hearing Carlos’ affecting account of the Japanese Army- led massacre of civilians conducted in that very spot.
Taking locals by surprise
Carlos sees his work as part of a process of “taking ownership of your city,” as he puts it: “I’m taking ownership of Manila, ownership of Intramuros. If you [my guests] come up with their own perspective on Philippine history, then my job already has been done.”
Guides like Ka Bino Guerrero eagerly follow in Carlos’ footsteps. A self-confessed admirer of Carlos’ work, Ka Bino uses Cebu’s historical district as his backdrop. The Pasiyo sa Kabilin walking tour is Ka Bino’s latest project: “It’s a walking tour with a tartanilla (horse-drawn cart). We have a route from Basilica de Santo Niño to the Cebu cathedral and its museum, then to the Jesuit house, Cebu heritage monument… they’re all very close to each other.”
Ka Bino has found that it’s Cebuanos who are often the most surprised by what they see on his tours: “They’ve been to Disneyland, they’ve been to the Louvre, but Cebu? Why go around Cebu, it’s just there?” Ka Bino says. Colon Street, a historic but run-down area in downtown Cebu, challenges local preconceptions in particular: “A lot of Cebuanos would not dare to take that walk, because Colon is supposedly full of snatchers,” explains Ka Bino. “But by God’s grace, of all the people I’ve brought there, nobody’s been robbed.”
For his Cebuano guests, Ka Bino has one plea: “Please love Colon because nobody will love Colon for us.” He continues with, “Same for people from Manila: they should love Quiapo because nobody would love Quiapo for the Manila people!”
Like Ivan Man Dy and Carlos Celdran, Ka Bino Guerrero sees himself helping visitors take ownership of what they see and to find something to love in a city they’ve long taken for granted. The goal is to take back history from those who wrote it long ago and make it their own.
Next time you’re in the area…
Sign up for an enriching experience and go on a walking tour with these guys