Bathing in Spanish Colonial Manila

The summer months are here and everyone craves for the luxury of going to the beach or bathing in local resorts.  In Spanish colonial Philippines, bathing was a common practice, indulged in by the everyone.  With Manila’s main Pasig River and its many tributaries, bathing was easily engaged in by the natives.  The following is an excerpt from Jean Mallat’s Les Philippines published in 1846, as translated by Pura Santillan-Castrence in collaboration with Lina S. Castrence, reprinted by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.

The Indios, men as well as women, take the greatest care in everything that has to do with the cleanliness of the body, and perhaps the former still more than the latter; they take a bath and wash themselves everyday in the river, and at least twice a week at home; for them it is a pleasure as well as a need.  The bath taken at home consists in pouring a jug of water on the head by means of half a coconut shell, containing the equal of a bottleful, and this is refilled and emptied several times until there is nothing more in the jug, which is very big; this done, they wash the head with gogo water, that is to say water in which is placed a piece of bark from a large tree the mimosa family called gogo. This bark contains a very active alkaline principle which makes water froth as soap would and gives it a dark nankeen color.  It cleanses the head perfectly; but when using it, one must take are to close the eyes because it irritates them and would cause an unpleasant sensation.

Indeed, bathing was an enjoyment and so were picnics that accompanied such relaxing activities.

Bathing, an indispensable activity, is done every day, not only by Indios, but also by whoever enjoys the advantage of living near a river, that is to say, almost everyday.  On holidays, men, women and children jump into the water pell-mell, but half-dressed.  The women with their thick hair, display ravishing grace.  The tapis covers their bodies, and the men decently keep their pants on.  Well-to-do whites have huts along rivers where they have no difficulty bathing with persons close to them, however numerous.  The rivers of Marikina and San Mateo whose limpid waters are supposed to be very healthful, are much frequented in summer; and baths taken in their water mixed with the water from the Chorillo de Marikina, are a great help for gastric ailments.  The bath is most beneficial in the morning;  it is then always accompanied with ablutions of gogo decoction, mixed with the juice of a small lemon with the odor or bergamote (limoncito) leaving the head perfectly clean and perfumed.  They eat in the bath, and the Europeans favored enough to have obtained permission to share it, although this practice will have disgusted him at the start, ends up by getting used to it and then eats with his hand the morisqueta, mangoes, cageles, guisados, ham, tapa and salted pajos.  After lunch, one invariably serves buyo and the whole company smokes together.


The Cemeteries of Old Manila

I write this  weeks before All Souls Day, which is November 2 in the Catholic Calendar.  In fact, All Saints Day is November 1, but it  is always the day Filipinos remember their departed loved ones.  This   can be attributed to the Filipino psyche of honoring the dead who are now considered to be  with the saints and angels in God’s heavenly kingdom, or as Christian belief would have it.  Now, why do I write about this?  Maybe it is the rainy and gloomy weather outside, with me cooped up in my room and thinking of what to do in the coming months before December.. Then, of course I thought of November’s highlight , which is All Saints Day.

Manila’s old cemeteries were sacred ground — resting places of the dead. In precolonial Manila, burial sites were hallowed places.  The old site of Lamayan in  Manila’s district of Santa Ana, was a precolonial grave site.  The exact site is where the Church of Santa Ana now stands, a hill that overlooks the Pasig River. In 1964, archaeologist Robert Fox and his team unearthed a grave site within the premises of the church.  These included human and dog skeletons and jars, the artifacts of which are now with the National Museum of the Philippines.  But all burial sites were before little hills or tumuli (singular tumulus), until Christian practice dictated that the dead be laid in a designated plot, usually near the church, which was the most sacred place in any town.  In Spanish colonial Philippines, privileged citizens were placed near the altar or in crypts and niches inside the church structure.  This was during the Spanish colonial period when Christianity dictated that all Christians bury the dead in designated Catholic grounds.  Raja Matanda, who was king of Tondo and who converted to the Catholic faith, was given a special niche at the altar of the Church of Manila, now the Manila Cathedral.  In fact, one of those who carried his coffin to the church was the conquistdor Miguel Lopez de Legaspi.

But, what about non-Christians?  The local Chinese in Spanish colonial Manila lived in a ghetto or enclave known as the Parian.  Before it was located inside Intramuros, within the confines of the walled city, but because the Chinese were considered a threat to the Spaniards in Intramuros, they were moved outside the city walls, across the moat, just far enough to be within the sight of Manila’s cannons, but near enough so that Manilans could easily  avail of the services and goods in the Parian.  The Parian was located on the site across where Letran College is now, on the site where the Metropolitan Theater now stands.  Inside this Parian were shops which sold a host of sundry goods, from fruits, textiles, furnishings, and beds, to singing birds and plants.  Inside the Parian was the Iglesia de los Santos Reyes, or Church of the Holy Kings, which was a center of evangelization and conversion of the Chinese.  Interestingly, it was here where Mother Ignacia del Espiritu Santo was baptized.   Beside the church was a cemetery.  It would not be strange if future excavations in this site and nearby Arroceros Street would yield remains and relics of dead people.  Later on,  the Parian was closed down and the Chinese were scattered all over Manila.  This was in the eighteenth century after the British Occupation of Manila when the Chinese were accused of siding with the British, and thus, were expelled from the colony.  During the middle of the nineteenth century, the French writer Jean Mallat wrote that the dead Chinese had their own special burial site in Barrio Bangkusay in Tondo. The late nineteenth century saw the powerful Gremio de Chinos of Binondo opening a cemetery especially for the Chinese. This was located in the sitio of Paang Bundok in La Loma, literally meaning “The Hill.” Archival documents indicate that the Chinese also practised cremation during this period, when the Catholics  frowned upon this practise of burning the dead.  The cemetery had a pretty chapel known as the Chong Hock Tong Temple.  In the 19th century it had the lineaments of a Catholic Christian chapel, but its recent restoration gave the chapel a more distinct Chinese character.  This is more popularly known now as the Chinese Cemetery.


The Chinese Cemetery Chapel in La Loma

Protestants also had a cemetery plot for themselves.   This was at the Protestant Cemetery in a portion of South Cemetery in Makati.  Jews on the other hand, had a similar plot for their dead located in a portion of North Cemetery in Manila.

Catholic cemeteries originally were located beside the parochial churches.  Binondo’s cemetery was located at the church yard or atrium.  In the early 19th century when a cholera epidemic decimated a large population of Binondo, there was no other recourse but to bury the dead all around the church, with many of them in the church atrium.  Until now, granite tombstones or lapidas can be seen in front of Binondo Church and Santa Cruz Church in Manila.  In the early 19th century, the city authorities in Manila thought of decongesting the church cemeteries, to keep the healthy population in the poblacion or town center safe from diseases.  Thus, the City of Manila thought of coming up with a circular cemetery in the village of Dilao or Paco, located outside the city of Manila and away from the healthy populace.  However, a cholera epidemic broke out in 1820, causing  a large mortality rate. The city authorities had to use the Cementerio General de Dilao before it could be fully completed.  The cemetery was circular in plan with a cemetery chapel.  Another circular cemetery was the one in Malate, at the back of the Malate church.  The cemetery was closed down and eventually demolished and cleared.  It is now the Remedios Circle.


The Cementerio General de Dilao or Paco Cemetery

Tondo’s cemetery was before near the church but was later located in different areas of the town — in barrio Tutuban, and in barrio Lecheros.  Santa Cruz’s old cemetery was located before in the barrio of Pasaderos, approximately where the welcome arch to Ongpin is located.  Later, with the Spanish colonial order to remove all internments fo the dead away from the church, Santa Cruz established a new cemetery in the area near Tayuman, which is now occupied by the Espiritu Santo Church.  In Pandacan, colonial maps show that there were two cemetery sites, one was located near the shore of the Pasig River, and the other one was located near Beata Street.  Sampaloc’s cemetery was located  just beside the church, but later on at a place far from the living populace of the town, on the hill at the end of Balic-Balic road, where the Church of the Most Holy  Trinity now stands.  One tradition regarding the etymology of the  name Balic-Balic has it that the funeral march performed  for the dead had mourners dancing and keeping up with a forward march followed by a few backward (balik balik) steps before proceeding again to a forward marching cadence, then having a few backward steps again, until the dead was brought  by the funeral entourage to the cemetery on the hill,


Photograph of 19th century Sampaloc

in the 1880s, when all the Catholic cemeteries were saturated with corpses because of the cholera epidemic during the period, the Superior Government of the colony issued a decree that all should stop from using the church cemeteries. The circular cemetery of Dilao was also filled with the dead, with its cemetery chapel lined up with bodies waiting  to be buried or interred.  The chaplain of Paco Cemetery had no recourse but to complain tot he authorities that the sepultureros or grave diggers were already working day and night just to bury the dead, and the supply of lime to cover up the dead was already dwindling.  The government noting the complaints of cemeteries, opened a new cemetery plot at the sitio of Paang Bundok.  It was the Cementerio General de La Loma.   Paang Bundok was then far away from the populace in what was then hinterland, until urbanization crept up and made it a part of the urban jungle today.  Even Jose Rizal, when he wrote about dying, said that he would rather have an anonymous grave in Paang Bundok.


Gate to the Cemetery Chapel of the Cementerio General de La Loma


Cementerio General de La Loma  (Source: Wikipedia)

The Superior Government of Spanish colonial Philippines issued circulars for the maintenance and upkeep of cemeteries.  One of the prescriptions was the cultivation of sweet-smelling or pungent plants in the cemetery to diffuse or cover up the stench of death.  It was the calachuchi tree which became the favorite to be cultivated in cemetery sites.  We once visited a church in the province, and we were talking to the parish priest who commented that there were these old calachuchi trees at the back of the convent, which during our visit  was being maintained as a big garden.  We told the parish priest that this garden must have been the old church cemetery.  He was surprised to hear that, acknowledging that this was something new to him.  He dd his research, and found out from old locals that, indeed, the convent garden was the old cemetery of the town!


Kalachuchi Flower and Leaf (














Frutas y Plantas: Place Names in Manila


Tamarind Leaves

It is peculiar how place names are derived. In the city of Manila, it is interesting how names take root from endemic plants, fruits or the nature of the land. Take for example Quiapo. The name comes from the water hyacinth kiyapo which abounded in Quiapo’s estuaries. Its nearby district of Sampaloc comes from the tamarind trees, which sadly are no longer around, or maybe just in a mere scattering along the district’s few private gardens and street islands. Binondo comes from binundok or the once hilly terrain of the land. Pandacan was from pandanan, or the pandanus plant, the tropical plant with aromatic leaves used for cooking. Its other variety has its leaves used for making the all-around Filipino banig or mat, and bayong or basket. Nearby Paco is a nickname for the Franciscans, who administered spiritually to its citizens. But, Paco has a long history that dates back to the 17th century when it was founded as a village called Dilao, after the turmeric plant which abounded in the area. In fact, the very old district of Santa Ana was the seat of the pre-colonial kingdom of Sapa, so named after a brook or stream, referring to the nearby Pasig River. Mandaluyong comes from “may daluyong” referring to the surging sound of the river current, and Makati is from “ma kati” or the place where the river current is strong. Malate comes from maalat for the salt beds that were cultivated there. Intramuros stands on the old Maynilad kingdom of Raja Soliman. Maynilad literally means may nilad or where there is nilad. Nilad is a type of mangrove plant or scyciphora with white flowers tinged with pink . Thus, may nilad or or manilad means there is nilad or a proliferation of nilad.   Somehow the “d” at the end was dropped.  It is enlightening how etymology can give us bits of the past and how the city must have been in all its raw and natural beauty ages ago, before it has become a jungle of concrete, traffic and busy lives.


Tamarind Leaves Photo By Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

My Sweet Vanilla Soap

I bought clear glycerin soap base and thought of coming up with some simple gifts for Valentine’s Day.  It is fast approaching and better to have some little handy tokens to give on hearts’ day. That’s it — maybe some little heart-shaped soaps with the glycerin base.

Now, here is my recipe for my Sweet Vanilla Soap:

500 g of clear glycerin melt and pour soap base

1/4 tsp brown muscovado sugar

1/4 tsp sweet almond oil

1’4 tsp shea butter, melted

2 tsp vanilla oil

1.  Chop into small portions the glycerin base.

2.  Place in a double boiler and allow to melt.

3.  Turn off the fire when the glycerin is alost done.

4.  Add the sweet almond oil and shea butter.  Mix thoroughly.

5.  Add the sugar for  a nice brown color.

6.  Add the vanilla scent.

7. Pour into molds.  Spray with rubbing alcohol to remove bubbles.

8.  Allow to cool for  a few hours.

9.  Unmold and enjoy!

Tombstones for a Science Laboratory

Tombstones for a Science Laboratory

Public health was one of the primary concerns of the American colonials when they took over the political reigns of the Philippines at the dawn of the twentieth century.  Act No. 156 of the Philippine Commission was passed in 1901 to establish a biological and chemical laboratory with library facilities to answer the scientific and research investigation needs of the different department and bureaus established.   Thus the Bureau of Science was organized in 1901.  A building to house this government office was designed along the California mission style by the Insular architect Edgar K. Bourne.  The building constructed in 1902 was located  along Calle Herran in Ermita, Manila, at  the old  Spanish Exposition Grounds of the nineteenth century.  The 11 hectare land would later become the site of this bureau as well as the Philippine General Hospital and the University of the Philippines’ College of Medicine and Surgery.  Neighbors to  it were the Jesuit Observatory and the Assumption Convent.

Science Bldg

Old Postcard of the Bureau of Science and Insular Laboratory

While the establishment of a new Bureau of Science building was laudable in the light of effecting stricter measures to promote public health, hygiene and medical research, its construction caused a furor among veterans and relatives of American soldiers who died in the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War here.  Dead American soldiers from both wars were laid to rest at the old Paco Cemetery.  A public subscription thus ensued to provide the required tombstones made of Italian granite and which later found their way erected in Paco cemetery over the graves of the dead soldiers. Time came when the  bodies were repatriated to the United States and the tombstones served no purpose anymore.

Then superintendent of the Paco Cemetery, John C. Mehan, argued that he had all the tombstones sold in a public bidding because these served no purpose anymore.  He added that the common local cemetery policy was to auction off tombstones when the cemetery lease was not renewed by the relatives of the deceased after three years.  He was denounced for his action because the tombstones were publicly argued as the symbol of and memorial to  the soldiers’ bravery and heroism and the result of public money generously donated for the purpose.  To step on the “tombstones” which later were re-finished to serve as a shiny pavement veneer to the science laboratory was a sacrilege to the soldiers’ memory.

Thus, the Bureau of Science building became the object of mixed admiration and vilification from the American public when it was constructed.  The issue faded as the building’s science laboratory gained fame as one of the best equipped in the world and a leader in scientific research.  On one hand, John C. Mehan was assigned as Park Superintendent in charge of Manila’s Jardin Botanico, which was the city’s first combined botanical and zoological garden.  It was later renamed after him — thus, the appellation of Mehan Garden.


 Entrance to the Jardin Botanico, late 19th century


Old Postcard of the Mehan Garden

The Mehan Garden is now the site of the city of Manila’s Park and Ride Terminal, the Universidad de Manila Campus and the Bonifacio Shrine. Few people know of the man behind the site’s old name and how he figured in a controversial clash regarding the soldier’s tombstones and memorials that paved the august halls of the old Bureau of Science building.

Hotel de Oriente: The hotel that became a library

With Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Americans took over the Philippines, a Spanish colony.  Soldiers who came with the American troops garrisoned themselves in government and private buildings — some were converted into schools while others became offices of the new colonials.  That was the fate of the Hotel de Oriente in Manila’s district of Binondo, which was considered in the 19th century as the best hotel in the colony.  It became headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary and the American Circulating Library, the antecedent of today’s National Library of the Philippines.  It further housed the offices of the Internal Revenue, Forestry, Agriculture, Ethnological Survey, Civil Service Board, Official Gazette, Philippine Museum and Court of Customs Appeals.

The old Hotel de Oriente stood on land where the old Fabrica de Puros or old Cigar Factory of the government stood, beside the Church of Binondo and in front of the district’s main plaza known as Plaza de Binondo and much later as Plaza Calderon de la Barca.   The factory was a result of the colonial government’s entrepreneurial scheme of creating a monopoly on tobacco production in the late 18th century under Governor General Jose Basco.  The scheme became so lucrative so that for the next hundred years it became a major source of revenue for the colonial government.

When the monopoly was abolished in 1880, the old factory ceased its operation.  It was eventually left to decay and later demolished.  The land on which it stood was sold in parcels.  The lot parcels near the estero was purchased by Manuel Perez Marqueti in 1888, while the lot parcels adjacent to the church was bought by the La Insular Cigar Factory of Joaquin Santamarina in 1894.  Manuel Perez was the father of the businessmen Rafael and Luis Perez Samanillo.

On the land owned by Manuel Perez, the businessman Miguel Amatriain Armendariz established the Hotel de Oriente in 1889.  The hotel building was designed by the municipal architect of Manila Juan Jose Hervas and the actual construction was executed by the contractors Tomas de Guzman and Victorino Reyes.  The wood works in the hotel came from Jose Arriola’s  wood sawing machine factory and workshop  that was located in the nearby barrio of Meisic.    The hotel  boasted of 83 rooms and stables for 25 horses and an attic.  The walls had floral designs.  In the absence then of air conditioning, large broad-cloths or punkahs hung from the hotel ceilings which attendants would pull every now and then to provide the needed ventilation.   The hotel was one of the first buildings to be installed with a telephone line and electricity.  Malcañang’s telephone number was 1, while Hotel de Oriente’s was number 2.  For historical trivia, it was in this hotel at room number 22 that Jose Rizal stayed in 1892 after his arrival from Hong Kong.  Interestingly, his sister Narcisa  lived in a house at Calle Estraude, a street perpendicular to Plaza Calderon de la Barca.

Hotel de Oriente in front of Plaza Calderon de la Barca

Hotel de Oriente in front of Plaza Calderon de la Barca

After  Manuel Perez died on June 19, 1899  in Saigon, his wife Agustina Samanillo Fragoso inherited the property.   It was after his death that the hotel would see change of ownership many times.   Ricardo H. Andrews purchased the hotel and the land on which it stood from Perez’s widow and Amatriain.  The land was sold by the widow at 160,000 pesos and the hotel  sold by Amatriain at 25,000 pesos.  Interestingly, Cayetano S. Arellano y Lonzon was the widow’s legal representative during the negotiations.  He later became the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court under American civil administration of the Philippines.

With the turnover of colonial administration to the United States, many Americans began staying in the capital’s foremost hotel.  Anna Margherita Hamm in 1899 wrote about  the hotel’s interiors and its cooking which was considered superior: …The service is first class, and the cooking admirable.  Beside the leading dishes of the French cuisine it serves the national dishes of Spain so as to captivate the most fastidious eater.  Its chicken, chile peppers and rice are a revelation to those who have never eaten that ancient Barcelona dish.  On occasions it serves tamales larger than the Mexican article with a filling made of game instead of chicken, as is the case with the latter.  Most notable of all, it dispenses a curry equal to thefinest production of Bombay or Calcutta.  Its most popular curry is one made of camerones or large prawns, and the side dishes served with it include the Bombay duck, the Macassar redfish, fired breadfruit, fried onions, granulated roast peanuts, Spanish anchovies, grated young coconut, green and red chile ribbon, mango chutney, green chutney, English pickled walnuts, English mustard pickels, and palm farina.  It is the most elaborate curry east of India, and is superior ro anything in either the United Sates or even in Europe itself.

Hotel de Oriente at the far end with La Insular building at Plaza Calderon de la Barca

Hotel de Oriente at the far end with La Insular building at Plaza Calderon de la Barca

In 1900, Walter A. Fitton bought the property from Andrews for the sum of 350,000 Mexican dollars or pesos.  On August 19, 1901, the Oriente Hotel Company Limited was created by Walter A. Fitton, John Williamson, Venancio Balbas y Ageo and Robert Wemyss Brown.  It would advertise itself to be under new American management and, during July 4 festivities, would pride itself with an elaborate and sumptuous menu.  On August 25, 1903, Fitton conveyed all  rights, title and interest at the hotel in favor of Ah Gong, a businessman who owned a store in Echague Street, Quiapo.

On August 21, 1903, the Insular Government bought the hotel and the land on which it stood for 675,000 pesos after relaying through a verbal offer  to purchase both building and lot.  It then became the house of several government offices — the American Circulating Library, Commercial Museum, the Philippine Constabulary and the Official Gazette.

During its heyday as the colony’s best hotel, the Hotel de Oriente graced Binondo’s main plaza becoming one of the district’s foremost landmarks.  Unfortunately, it was destroyed by fire caused by bombs in 1944 during the Second World War.  It was razed together with its neighbors, La Insular and the Church of Binondo.


Hamm, Margherita Arlina.  America’s New Possessions and Spheres of Influence. 1899.

Hotel de Oriente. Philippine National Archives.

Hotel de Oriente in


Opium Dens in Colonial Manila

U.S. soldiers raid an opium den, 1898

U.S. soldiers raid an opium den, 1898

The recent legalization of medical marijuana in Colorado recalls that, in the 19th century, opium use was legalized in the Spanish colony of the Philippines, on the condition that such use was limited only among the Chinese in the colony.  The government embarked on an opium monopoly venture which provided a lucrative venture for the colonials as well as other businessmen who bidded for opium supply and operation of opium dens.

Binondo’s old silk market, the Alcaiceria de San Fernando and which is now the Pedro Guevara Elementary School, used to have a legalized opium laboratory in its midst.  When the silk market closed down, other public opium smoking houses flourished and many of them actually thrived in the vicinity of Binondo where there was a significant Chinese population.  Even Jose Rizal in his novel, Noli me tangere, wrote about the last dissolute days of the character Capitan Tiago, who would be seen frequenting the Fumadero Publico de Anfion, or Public Opium Smoking House, in Binondo.  Rizal’s allusion to this character’s tragic fate  infers on how the law could be circumvented and that Chinese exclusivity to smoking opium was not really observed.  It seemed that the opium venture was very lucrative because public bidding for the operation of opium dens in the Marianas were even advertised in the Manila dailies.  It is worth noting that the Marianas was under  Spain’s Philippine colony.

While some opium houses legally operated on a franchise from the  Spanish colonial government, others operated in the underground which was the case for some  dens in the vicinity of Santa Cruz in Manila.  Raids were reported in the 19th century of illegal dens including the patrons of such houses — Chinese along with some  native prostitutes.  It is not a very far idea that such dens also functioned as opium-brothel houses, a case which was similarly  true in some Southeast Asian cities, especially Singapore.  The issue on opium became a continuing concern for the American authorities who took charge of the Philippine colony after Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War.