Manila: “Gates of Hell,” — No, It’s Hell Itself!

InfernoThe first salvo against the novel “Inferno” by Dan Brown (released May 14, 2013 by Doubleday) was fired by Metro Manila Development Authority, (MMDA) Chairman Francis Tolentino, for depicting erroneously Manila as “Gates of Hell.” After all government officials were fast tracking Manila as a fun center of commerce and trade, not as a center of grinding poverty, of pollution and of flesh trade.

Chairman Tolentino wrote that the description of Manila being the portals of hell was inaccurate and Brown’s use of a character, Sienna Brooks, to depict the trauma of a failed rape victim was highly “displeasing.”

Though, Tolentino admits that “Inferno” was just a fiction, he claims that “our beloved metropolis was inaccurately portrayed.”

Objected to the city being defined by poverty, pollution, horrifying sex trade, Tolentino wrote that the city is the “center of Filipino spirit, faith and hope.”

Though the book was indeed a fiction, the description of Manila bears unmistakable markers of reality. Brown’s narrative actually fell short of what Manila actually is, a hell in itself, not just portals. You have a dirty city, a thriving flesh trade, shantytowns,  and new leadership from old politics ejected from power for corruption but paradoxically promising the city’s rebirth.

Why can’t Tolentino and other officials  take comfort in that?manila shanty

Was it our ‘over-sensitive’ bias against foreigners looking through our flaws that induced us to move up in arms against this newest Brown’s thriller? Or was it his reputation as a serious fictionist — his two earlier works, Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, turned into blockbusters — that makes this latest commentary against our shortcomings worded in religious nuance more objectionable?

How is Brown’s depiction of Manila’s poverty,  sex trade and polluted city different from F. Sionil Jose’s calling Ermita, Manila the world’s cheapest “fuck” and “dirty?”. We flare up at Brown’s “insult” but accept Jose’s truthful description of the decadent city in his novel, Ermita, (1988).

Double standard?

Here is Jose’s Ermita:

“Through Ermi was closely attuned to the daily rhythm of Manila, she was also able to withdraw from it, look at it as a continuous flow, and observe the changes that has come to the city, to the peole she knew, and most of all, to herself. Cubao was quickly evolving, too; the street where she built her house had many vacant lots when she first moved in – now there was not a single lot that was not built on. More people passed through, usually middle-class office workers – their faces newly washed in the morning clothes pressed – all headed for Aurora, which was being widened, for their rides in smoke-belching jeepeneys and buses. Toward the main road, more stores uniformly selling automotive parts, hardware, an occasional noodle shop, and toward EDSA, the raucous thrum of the metropolis, the fumes and the racket of knotted traffic, sidewalks vendors selling the daily fare of Manilas – now more than four million, spilling everywhere, in squatter warrens and in tawdry apartments, in cardboard hovels along the railroad tracks, alleys. Poverty’s conquest was now encroaching everything….. “ (p. 211).

“The obscenities in this country are not girls like you. It is the poverty which is obscene and the criminal irresponsibility of the leaders which make this poverty a deadening reality. (ibid p. 272).

“One early dawn, we woke up to fire engines wailing in the rain-drenched street below and looking out of the window, we saw our district turning red; the Filipinas hotel was burning, the flames leaping up in the starless sky. Many who were trapped in the building died of asphyxia.  Some jumped out of their windows, some into a pool below. Those who fell into the pool were saved, but many did not make it and their battered bodies lined the pool edge. Many of those who died were companions of tourists for the night and about them little was known. Who would miss five dozen of prostitutes? They would be nothing but statistics and their relatives might not even go to the authorities to claim their bodies.” (ibid, p. 278-79).

Ermi, the chief character in the novel, coming home as a “balikbayan,” was confonted with this scenario:

“Outside the heedless mob milled. It was so warm and humid she began to perspire, sweat pouring from her pores as if from suddenly opened faucets and for once, she missed the spring weather in New York. So nothing had really changed, not the drenching heat, not the palpable disorder, nor the unruly, disheveled crowds. And that strong odor of rot, of public cuspidors and ancient decay that saturated everything.” (ibid. P. 296).

Here is Jose again in his other novel, Mass, (1983), describing Recto, Manila:

“The jeepney drivers shout it, this name that circumscribes, describes youth, the urban malady and pollution, bakya supermarket at one end is Divisoria, and vision and corruption—whichever you want to append – at the other . . . Malacanang. It is this other end, the vision-corruption part which would be familiar grounds to me for four years. Recto! Rectum of Manila! Here are the odors of the posterior, particularly when the sun is warm and there would be a busted sewer gushing yellowish froth, and flies as big as bottle caps on the garbage piles, x x x.”

“When the revolution comes, this will be a boulevard of great erudition; it will be the avenue of hope.” (ibid, p. 19).

Jose’s musing about the coming revolution was in the future, unlike Chairman Tolentino’s present-day perception that Manila is already a center of “faith and hope.”

In my own book, Censuring Back The Supreme Court, (2007)  I wrote:

“Metro Manila is a City of squatters. Plush to middle class subdivisions in the major cities of Manila, Quezon, Caloocan, Valenzuela, Pasay, Paranaque, Pasig and Marikina have in their peripheries or borders turned into colonies of shanties of discarded cardboard boxes and tin metal sheets which are homes to thousands of poor families attracted by the glitters of city lights and left the barrios which offered no visible opportunity for survival because the national government has failed to decentralize the opportunities that are available in urban centers. But some of these squatters are not entirely new arrivals from the provinces but from old and overfilled nearby squatter enclaves.”

“Government centers of the cities are not immune from squatting problem. The Batasan complex and the Sandiganbayan Complex in Quezon City are littered with squatters few meters from their perimeter fences. The once rural ambiance at Father Aguilar’s zoo along Quezon Avenue was gone and replaced by thousands of small houses of and coconut trunks sawed longitudinally to brace corrugated metal sheets and sometimes flattened tins of empty gas cans or drums as roofs. The late Father Aguilar has encouraged squatting in the area not in furtherance of his ministry to help the poor but purely for money. Early poor setttlers at the zoo has to make contribution to support few pets at the zoo and after Fr. Aguilar’s death, enterprising settlers who come to be known latter as “professional squatters” would exact a fee from future settlers and at times collect monthly membership dues from their fellow squatters.” (ibid, p. 111).

I also write about pollution in Metro Manila in the same book.

“If you were an enterprising lawyer and had predicted that there was a ninety per cent chance that your case would be rescheduled for another date, you can accept another assignment on the same date and time in a next door judge then shuffle yourself from one court room to another and be paid on both cases. But more often, a trial lawyer despite his zeal to attend to a client’s case had to agree on postponement either suggested by the court or the adverse counsel for “lack of material time.” Thus in most occasions, you have to go back to your office feeling nauseated because you earned your day’s keep by postponing your case and while on your way back to your office you feel even more nauseated by the black smoke ad carbon monoxide bellowing from raggedy and rickety buses, trucks and jeepneys that ply the streets of Metro Manila. You find sediment of this pollution even in the exhaust of your private air-conditioed car and you can only empathize with the plight of the people who ride those public transport and the pedestrians on the streets that are assaulted daily by this black soot and poisonous gas.” (ibid, p. 4).

I have no problem not being noticed in my description of Manila, but F. Sionil Jose is a National Artist Awardee for Literature!

Anyway, here is Brown’s narrative through character, Sienna  which earns Manila the unpalatable sobriquet, “Gates of Hell”:

What a terrible thing to say.

Through her acts of public service, Sienna came in contact with several members of a local humannitarian group. When they invited her to join them on a month long trip to the Philippines, she jumped at the chance.

Sienna imagined they were going to feed poor fishermen or farmers in the countryside, which she had read was a wonderland of geological beauty, with vibrant seabeds and dazzling plains. And so when the group settled in among the throngs in the city of Manila — the most densely populated city on earth — Sienna could only gape in horror.  She had never seen poverty on this scale.

How can one person possibly make a difference?

For every one person Sienna fed, there were hundreds more who gazed at her with desolate eyes. Manila had six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, and a horrifying sex trade, whose workers consisted primarily of young children, many of whom had been sold to pimps by parents who took solace in knowing that at least their children would be fed.

Amid this chaos of child prostitution, panhandlers, pickpockets, and worse, Sienna found herself suddenly paralyzed.  All around her, she could see humanity overrun by its primal instinct for survival. When they face desperation… human beings become animals.

For Sienna, all the dark depression came flooding back. She had suddenly understood making for what it was — a species on the brink.

I was wrong,  she thought. I can’t save the world.

Overwhelmed by a rush of frantic mania, Sienna broke into a spring through the city streets, thrusting her way through the masses of the people, knocking them over, pressing on, searching for open space.

I’m being suffocated by human flesh!

As she ran, she could feel the eyes upon her again. She no longer blended in. She was tall and fair-skinned with a blond ponytail waving behind her. Men stared at her as if she were naked.

When her legs finally gave out, she had no idea how far she had run or where she had gone. She cleared the tears and grime from her eyes and saw that she was standing in a kind of shantytown — a city made of pieces of corrugated metal and cardboard propped up and held together. All around her the wails of crying babies and the stench of human excrement hung in the air.

I’ve run through the gates of hell.

“Turista,” a deep voice sneered behind her. “Magkano?” How much? Sienna spun to see three young men appoaching, salivating like wolves. She instantly knew she was in danger and she tried to back away, but they corralled her, like predators hunting in a pack.

Sienna shouted for help, but nobody paid attetion to her cries. Only fifteen feet away, she saw an old woman sitting on a tire, carving the rot off an old onion with a rusty knife. The woman did not even glance up when Sienna shouted.

When the men seized her and dragged her inside a little shack, Sienna had no illusions about what was going to happen, and the terror was all consuming. She fought with everything she had, but they were strong, quickly pinning her down on an old, soiled mattress.

They tore open her shirt, clawing at her soft skin. When she screamed, they stuffed her torn shirt so deep into her mouth that she thought she would choke. Then they flipped her onto her stomach,  forcing her face into the putrid bed.

Sienna Brooks had always felt pity for the ignorant souls who could believe in God amid a world of such suffering, and yet now she herself was praying… praying with all her heart.

Please, God, deliver me from evil.

Even as she prayed, she could hear the men laughing, taunting her as their filthy hands hauled her jeans down over her flailing legs. One of them climbed onto her back, sweaty and heavy, his perspiration dripping onto her skin.

I’m a virgin, Sienna thought. This is how it is going to happen to me.

Suddenly the man on her back leaped off her, and the taunting jeers turned to shouts of anger and fear. The warm sweat rolling into Sienna’s back from above suddenly began gushing.. . spilling onto the mattress in splatters of red.

When Sienna rolled over to see what was happening, she saw the old woman with the half-peeled onion and rusty knife standing over her attacker, who was now bleeding profusely from his back.

The old woman glared threateningly at the others, whipping her bloody knife through the air until the three men scampered off.

Without a word, the old woman helped Sienna gather her clothes and get dressed.

“Salamat,” Sienna whispered tearfully. “Thank you.’

The old woman tapped her ear, indicating she was deaf.

Sienna laced her palms together, closed her eyes, and bowed her head in gesture of respect. When she opened her eyes, the woman was gone.”


23 thoughts on “Manila: “Gates of Hell,” — No, It’s Hell Itself!

  1. What a day ! a whole lot of shaking going on ! and am I hearing this from VP Jejomar Binay ? people must consciously practice social activism, compassion and ethics in governance, it is our duty not only by new elected officials to spread this thinking to the youth who are the hope and future of our country and to mold them as a generation of heroes? I can’t believe hearing these from them.

  2. “Here are the odors of the posterior . . ” Criticism issued by a Filipino is always better received than criticism from an outsider. That is natural, I suppose, especially when people are not confident of their own nation. (Kindly reroute to my current blog). I’m from Los Angeles, and it is generally considered a pit by most outsiders who have not learned to avoid the pitfalls and find the gems of beach and mountain and ethnic panache and restaurants galore. Angelenos know that most critics are either jealous, out to make a buck, or drunk. Who cares?

  3. We can appreciate the criticism of our flaws from our “brothers” but not from a total strangers though both could be telling the truth.

  4. Look who is talking Joe America…most blog of him has a hint of criticism. But we tend to ignore because that’s what it sells….or else no more fun in the Philippines he even has a lot of followers same intellectual wannabe…but we ignore because it is the trend…but Joe has a way of hitting below the belt like hampas sa kalabaw sa kabayo ang latay….ahihihi peace brother !

    • @chonoon, Well, there are three issues, I suppose. (1) the matter of confidence and, you’d have to read my recent blog on the matter to grasp where I’m coming from,on that, including the discussion section, which is where some “real” Filipinos contribute, (2) whether or not JoeAm is a negative fellow, or a positive fellow regarding the Philippines and he is both, and (3) exactly how I phrased my remark here on confidence which, upon re-reading my comment, could indeed have been done better.

      I was born and schooled in Colorado and spent my working career in Los Angeles. I live in the Philippines now and am an odds on favorite to have my bones buried here when I die. Stop by for a visit sometime.

  5. Colorado is about 2-hour flight from LA. Joeam could have lived as a banker in LA but his hometown could be Colorado. What I know of him is that he had relatives that fought in the bloody U.S. Civil War. 🙂

    • Your mind is like a trap I see, for information both useful, entertaining and totally worthless. heh My gravatar is of my great grandfather, jailed for failing to show up when drafted by the Union army, released, then served with distinction. He, too, was both a negative and positive fellow, I guess. Depends on where you are viewing from.

      Same as Manila.

  6. Cho, BTW, Joeam now is a resident of RP. Married to a Filipina, and he speaks more like a Filipino than most. His “criticisms” of the country should be viewed as coming from a “Filipino” and not from a ‘foreigner.’ It is nice to have a second home.

  7. okay, after all of you have said your piece, let me tell you mine. I have been to many of the great capitals of the world, and realized Manila has some problems, but sorry to tell you I find it the most interesting city in the world, and the best of them all, squatters and all. It has everything that one looks for in a great city, at a bargain, and even its dirtiest nooks are better habitat of humanity than many other cities I have visited. Its people are the warmest, and its problems are not as exaggerated as you had depicted. The nice thing about is, yes, you don’t have to live here. It is free, people know they own it, and it doesn’t care at all whatever your opinion of the place is. You are free to enjoy the best of what it offers, shout to the heavens you hate it, and all you will get are smiling faces at your eccentricities. So there.

  8. i think manila got all of the problems — shantytowns, uncollected garbage, petty as well as serious crimes, pimps, prostitutes, brothels, china town fire brigade because the chinese mistrusts the local fire department which exacts money first before it trains it waterhose to the conflagration in chinatown, rundown student dorms and a local government headed by a movie star deposed from power for corruption but resurrected by manilans who mistook him as a statesman rather than see him what he really is, a crook according to the sandiganbayan and amado doronilla.

    you are free to wallow in your ignorance about the conditions in manila while brown, f. sionil jose and my humble self are free to look at manila for what it really is. manila has its beautiful sunset, gorgeous and warm people but they do not offset the social dilemma and poverty it is in. if you feel comfort in its present condition, lived in its shantytowns, smelled the decay every morning and travelled in public transport and exhaled the pollution in a six-hour traffic, then live it until your natural life and maybe you get a reward from heaven. others simply find the conditions atrocious and had to freely speak about them hoping that those in power address the malaise, instead of calling them full of ‘hatred and contempt and of erroneously portraying your very beautiful and great city.” 🙂

    • I hear about the sunsets over Manila Bay, and one conjures up sitting on the Baywalk with one’s sweetie taking in the romance. The opposite of romance is going to Baywalk at 5 in the morning and seeing all the homeless sleeping on the ground and benches. And it may take 3 hours to drive to and from the Baywalk from Quezon city.

      All big cities have an underbelly. Manila’s is large and the city is constipated, trafficwise.

      Come to think of it, I’m no longer trim and athletic myself, but my wife still loves me . . . go figure. So I also agree with Bayani.

  9. hehehehe… i agree with bayani too about manila’s beauty, warm and gorgeous people joeam… but that beauty fades in the presence of constipated underbelly.. 🙂

  10. Someone said that to keep silent in the midst of a moral crisis is a crime. Manila is in great moral crisis. It has a new leadership who considers Malacanang before as a convenient watering hole of his high roller friends. What likelihood is it that Manila officialdom would treat City Hall the same – a watering hole of influence peddlers, gambling operators and pimps? Whereof, I speak of these abnormalities, not out of contempt of Manila and the Manilans but of a genuine concern that Manila deserves better.

    Every great city as Joeam intimated has its own problems and figuratively as “hellish” as Manila, however, I must add, these other cities are doing something to address their problem. Manila needs a problem solver, not a movie star who was forced out of Malacanang for gambling-racketering. Obviously Manilans did not know the magnitude of their problems and still reel from a make-believe world of cinema — their poor mesmerized by Erap para sa mahirap jingle, went to the poll recently like herds of cattle on high doze of cocaine to empower their “champion.”

    Other cities put at the helm of power their technocrats, Manilans, their savior-clown. Never mind if some people are blaming him for the murder of Dacer and Curbito and the disappearance of Edgar Bentain, a casino employee suspected of videoing Erap in his casino gambling. It is enough that there was a jingle, “Erap Para Sa Mahirap.”

    A graft and crime-infested Chicago has a crusading City Mayor Rahm Emanuel who said: “I came to see Chicago as a place of of contrasts, imposing buildings and accomodating neighborhoods, a place of vast wealth and crushing poverty.” The way of resolving grievances is not to forget them but to fight them out. Noted Chicago Tribune: that’s what Rahm Emanuel will be doing for the next couple of years. And to borrow a classic Chicago line from the 1987 film The Untouchables, “you wait until the fight is over. One guy is left standing. And that’s how you know who won.”

    Can Erap win his battle in the streets of Manila against crime, drugs, prostitution, traffic jams, gambling, pollution and grinding poverty of his shantytowns? Or he can only win these fights in the big screen?

  11. Awesome post. I now am compelled to get the book. I stumbled across your site because of the brouhaha involving jean napoles. I enjoyed reading ur blog. Intelligently written articles.

  12. Hi JCC. I would like to ask if you own the photo used in this blog (the houses). I was hoping to get permission if I may use it as a background photo for my class finals requirement. Hope to hear from you soon. you can email me if you I can use it to:


    • No, I do not, but I get it from a news item, a public domain, you may use the way I do. From my perspective, it is public property. Anyway, if the owner wants accreditation, you can always give him/her credit. So far he/she does not call my attention about it.

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