For most of my life I lived in one of the few free-standing houses along that part of Pedro Gil Street within the boundaries of Ermita. It was the ancestral home, and at least four generations of Ayalas and Ayala-Samsons had lived there. I grew up here, in a district widely know to be the red-light district of Manila. On my daily trip home from school, the school bus would pass through Mabini and M.H. del Pilar, the center of all things sinful, and my youthful eyes would take in the glorious, gaudy debauchery of it all. Establishments like the ANZAC Club would have gigantic glass windows, through which you could see the strippers and gandy dancers plying their wares.
Once, freshly turned thirteen, I was accosted outside a hotel by a towering Caucasian man sporting a beard and tattoos. “Come here, boy. I’ve been waiting for you all morning!” The doorman, thank the stars for his alertness, rescued me and convinced the guest that I wasn’t the one he was waiting for. It was that kind of a place.
By night, Ermita is squalid, almost threatening. Homeless people sleep on the sidewalk, their arms clutching what little they own. Garbage and other urban detritus litter the streets, made painfully obvious by the unflattering glare of street lamps. The “wildly colorful” night life so widely advertised online is no great shakes, just a ragged collection of seedy bars catering to sailors on shore leave or Japanese Karaoke hounds. I passed a Japanese bar called the Gin Tonic, along M.H. del Pilar, and a seductively-clad lady flirted me a flyer, advertising the various packages offered by the bar. It also included the lady’s name and cellphone number.
By day, Ermita sings a different tune. It’s a bustling, busy place. In sunlit Ermita, you’ll find students from the University of the Philippines and other institutions of fine learning crowding the sidewalks and invading the malls, toting books and knapsacks and looking generally hopeful. In Padre Faura, you can eavesdrop on judges and other members of the legal profession having their breakfast at the small cafes near the courts. Then, there is the Solidaridad Book Shop, author F. Sionil Jose’s gift to the thinking Filipino, with its impressive collection of Filipiniana and volume upon volume of books on humanities, art and literature.
Walk along Mabini on a pleasant afternoon and you’ll find places like Casa Tesoro, home to several antique shops and galleries. More interesting finds from the recent past may be discovered further down the road in shops with names like Via Antica and Golden Salakot. Remember at times to pause and look up at the buildings you pass. While old and weathered, some buildings such as the Astoria Apartments and the Marilo Building still retain some of their Art Deco splendor. Just imagine peeling away all those old election posters and strip away the bundles of electric cabling and see Ermita as it used to be.
Our house is gone, torn down soon after our great-grandmother passed away. Looking up at the space where it used to stand, I marvel at the sight of the night sky. I grew up here, but I can no longer call Ermita home. Just a nice place to visit while the sun is still out.
Demolition in Progress
About the Writer
Karlo N.B. Samson escaped Ermita four years ago and is now living in the peachy pink city of Marikina, where litter is non-existent and leatherware abounds. He writes for various magazines, blogs like a man possessed and likes cats.