Quiapo district used to be the centre of commercial and cultural life in the Philippine capital until it somehow lost its footing as the metropolis that is Metro Manila expanded, developed and gave birth to new and more modern cultural and commercial enclaves. It has terribly lost its “glitter” and has become synonymous with proverbial third world urban plight: abject poverty, dirt, violence and decadence. Nevertheless, Quiapo’s cultural significance has remained if not increased as it continues to simply be itself or what her inhabitants and patrons wish her to be without apology and pretension. She might not have the body and form of business and lifestyle quarters that the State now prefers to show off and glorify like a trophy girlfriend. But her heart beats more similarly and sympathetically with that of a greater number of Filipino people who, like her, continues to struggle to come to terms with and be side-lined by modernity.
Look for any list of recommended tourist destinations in the Philippines and it is unlikely that you would find Quiapo in there. Among Filipinos, a trip to Quiapo is usually made with a high degree of caution as the prospect of being robbed of money, cellular phone, among others, comes to mind. The heavy and taxing traffic and pollution that comes with a Quiapo sojourn can also be discouraging. Yet the district manages to keep an arsenal of charms intact and pilgrims of different devotions and persuasions are continuously lured by it.
In a largely Catholic society, it is expected that Quiapo’s main draw is the Basilica of the Black Nazarene or Quiapo Church. Thousands of devotees go to the Church for its regular Friday Novena.
Come Jan. 9, millions attend the feast of the patron in what can easily pass as one of the most stunning manifestations of religious devotion in the Philippines. In 2014 alone it was estimated that 2 million people went to Quiapo to celebrate the feast of their beloved Black Nazarene for whom they attribute and seek succor and comfort. The annual Translacion, or the procession of the Black Nazarene around the district and back into the church, is nothing short of epic. Hundreds of thousands of barefoot men and women squeeze their way and sometimes get hurt to be able to just wipe hankies or touch what they believe to be the miraculous icon of the saint.
Quiapo is also a good place for street photography because it is always teeming with pedestrians at any given time in the day and early evening. Pedestrians and vehicles of different forms and sizes inch their way in its streets crowded by an eclectic mix of street and ambulant vendors, parishioners, students, tramps, petty thieves, and children at play. Moreover, the entire place is replete with contradictions that easily make it one of most abundant sources of street photographic narratives and epiphanies. The iconic Church, for instance, stands as a striking counter-discourse to the marginal and subaltern identities and activities happening in its immediate environs. Fortune tellers also dot the plaza fronting the church and so do vendors of various items and concoctions, including those alleged by some to be agents used for self- administered abortion. Right outside the doorsteps of this highly venerated and imposing house of god, there also lives a community of people burdened by homelessness, hunger and other forms of depravity from the most basic of human needs who interact with church goers from various walks of life and economic backgrounds. And as if by design of a photography god, Quiapo is incidentally also home to the famous camera and electronics hub centred on Hidalgo Street.
The streets and alleys leading to and away from the church, furthermore, are sites of some form of pilgrimages in their own right. The Shopping arcade in Raon is famous for cheap electronics and homewares. Before the intensive campaign of the Optical Media Board against piracy, Quiapo was also the go-to place for cheap and up-to-date and extensive collection
of movies and music in CDs and DVDs. On some occasions, dildos and sex toys are also sold in covert or open manner on Quiapo’s many bangketas.
Although mostly covered now by dirt and excesses of various human activities, history and heritage managed to survive, albeit wantingly, at the heart and fringes of Quiapo. Old structures like century-old houses and buildings dot the body of this district that was once the epicentre of urban pomp and pageantry. Among those which survived is the Bautista-Nakpil House on Ariston Bautista Street. This mansion, which is now a museum, used to be the home of Gregoria de Jesus, the widow of Philippine revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio, and musician Juan Nakpil who is himself a member of the Katipunan. In nearby F. R.- Hidalgo Street, there still stands the Ocampo mansion, which was the original site of the University of the Philippines Conservatory of Music.
A short walk from Quiapo can also lead you to the famous Chinatown in Binondo and the Golden Mosque. The adjacent neighborhoods of Escolta, Sta. Cruz and Avenida are also filled with reminders of the district’s glorious past as evidenced by the presence of grand structures like the Roman Santos Building in Carriedo, the art-deco Manila Metropolitan Theater, and the Far Eastern University Building, among others. Quiapo is also where Filipinos first experienced cinema through the Life Theater and Time Theater along Quezon Boulevard. Both buildings still stand today but are mostly snubbed since commercial cinema migrated to shopping malls. Also along Quezon Boulevard is the Ma Mon Luk restaurant. This place famous for its mami and siopao has been in operation for 50 continuous years and has never bothered to update and upgrade its interiors. So depending on one’s sensibilities, it can either look vintage and charming or old and desolate.
A trip to Quiapo is never easy if one takes into account the risks involved and the assault on the senses that could come with it. But as in the case of many adventures that entail a certain degree of peril, the rewards can be all worth it. Aside from the great bargains and a glimpse of past, you also get the chance to get hold of a certain kind of (street) wisdom that could only come from this place of contradictions and no-pretensions.
About the author
Vincent Silarde works as a researcher in the University of the Philippines Diliman. He lives in Quezon City with wife Aubrey and daughter Wayawaya. Whenever possible, he commutes by bicycle.