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,

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.

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.