Cover American officials in Malacañan Palace

It was probably the best of times, as discovered from unpublished memoirs about a glorious period in Philippine society before World War II

This feature story was originally titled as Glory Days, and was published in the November 2007 issue of Tatler Philippines

There was a time when Filipinos drove on the left side of the road as other Asians still do today, in Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia. This was in the years before World War II, when Singapore was a British naval base and not much else, Kuala Lumpur was all about rubber plantations, and where what was then the Dutch East Indies with its capital in Batavia (today’s Jakarta) was firmly ruled from the Netherlands. In Saigon the French were firmly in control of French Indochina, and only the recently renamed Thailand could claim any kind of sovereignty. In a region of colonies, only the Philippines had an assurance of independence—and the corresponding self-assurance that made Manila the closest rival of Shanghai in cosmopolitan culture. Besides Shanghai, only Manila could claim a semblance of high society; and that society itself was old, well developed and unique. Manila was closer in atmosphere and culture to Havana than it was to either Honolulu or Shanghai; society, too, was less defined by the colonial masters than, say that of Singapore. It was formal, having an older generation still heavily Hispanic and a young generation highly influenced by American culture.

Club, church and school defined society. There were clubs for expatriates: the German Club, the British Club, the Casino Español and the bulwarks of the American establishment: Elks, Army-Navy and Polo clubs. Filipinos who studied in the United States set up the Philippine Columbian (where independence missions were planned and politics avidly discussed). The Trio al Blanco and Club Filipino were the haunts of the gambling set while those bored with cards flocked to the Jai Alai set up by the Madrigals. The ball, featuring the rigodon (type of formal dance), was the centrepiece of the social season; and the cabaret, the hotel and the nightclub defined social places for the young and the old.

The schools, then as now, were the Big Four: La Salle was heavily mestizo (Filipinos with, usually, Spanish or American blood) and Chinese; the Ateneo was not; International School was still known as the American School and Brent strictly didn’t allow Filipinos to enrol. Spanish was the language of the courts and English, that of politics, commerce and the papers.

It was a time when the siesta (afternoon nap) was an integral part of the working day, reaching its highest point of refinement (and necessity) in the summer. The season, in fact, would begin with a government order changing office hours, and government and society would decamp to the cool mountain city of Baguio for the duration.

A Father's Reminiscences

Tatler Asia
Above Commonwealth President Manuel Luis Quezon and his vice-president, Sergio Osmeña Sr, in Malacañan Palace after the inauguration ceremonies in November 15, 1935

But it takes someone who lived through the prewar days to properly set the scene. Going through the unpublished memoirs of my father, Manuel L Quezon Jr (1926–98), I found this vivid description of prewar Manila.

“Imagine Manila with no high-rises, only one- or, more often, two-storey homes and some four-storey buildings, with the seven-storey Far Eastern Hotel an exception. The total population was six hundred thousand, a tenth or less of today’s. There never was a water shortage and the water was completely safe, without the taste or smell of chlorine. The only power failures were in certain limited areas during a bad electrical storm ... The city was clean, one of the world’s cleanest, and I do not recall even seeing garbage. Crime was practically non-existent, except for an occasional theft, here and there ... Even automobile accidents were rare because people drove carefully and there was courtesy of the road.

Manila was very much of a family town. Families’ children were looked after by Chinese amahs (nannies); Indian guards were very common, as well as Japanese gardeners. The upper classes were from all parts of the country since the centre of government, business, etc was concentrated in Manila. The servants were mainly from the Visayas and the Ilocos, some from Bicol (Tagalogs for some reason have never been good servants); but the bulk of the population was definitely Tagalog.

During my childhood there were no traffic lights. I do not know exactly when traffic lights arrived in Manila; but I clearly recall that when we drove around Honolulu on our way to the States in l937 and the driver boasted to us of traffic lights, we said nothing but felt terribly superior because in Manila they were old hat.

Apart from private automobiles and the few rare taxis, transportation was by bus and streetcars owned by Meralco, and the ubiquitous humble calesa (horse-drawn carriage). Jeepneys were in the remote future.

Streetcars ran on electricity, provided from overhead wires connected to the streetcar by thin metal rods. The only way to picture such vehicles is to see them on TV because they still function in Europe. They also existed in the United States during WWII but have all vanished. The streetcars were popular because they were safe. Buses were gasoline-driven and you knew you were in Santa Mesa because there you had buses, which also ran on electricity. Private cars were most often chauffeur-driven and the drivers were intensely loyal and stayed with their employers almost permanently. When there was a social occasion, the drivers were fed by the homeowner and whiled their time away playing dice, which was, I believe, technically illegal; but the police hardly bothered the drivers.”

A Tycoon's Memoirs

Another unpublished account of life in those days comes from the late industrialist, Enrique Zobel. His reminiscences add more details to what life was like in both town and country.

“We lived on M H Del Pilar in old Ermita, which was originally called Calle Real but had been renamed in honour of the great Filipino revolutionaries in the struggle against Spain. Our house was a stately four-bedroom, three-storey villa facing Manila Bay. We lived on the same row as the McMickings, the Ynchausis and other prominent families.

Our home was designed in the Spanish style by Andres Luna De San Pedro, the only son of the painter and patriot, Juan Luna. It had wide, highly-polished mahogany floors and heavy-carved mahogany furniture, windows and balconies with intricate Spanish grilles; it had paintings, mirrors and screens, and ceiling fans. Our sheets were made of linen. One room was my parents’, one was for my aunts Consuelo and Pili and one was for me; the last was reserved for guests.

Like all big households, we had lots of servants. We had 15 maids and houseboys; we had women to do the laundry and women to do the ironing. All the houseboys wore white uniforms. Servants had their own kitchen. I remember Paterno, the assistant cook for the servants!"

My parents threw parties at home at least every 10 days. The parties never had less than 200 people. There was a band, an orchestra, the works. As children, we often watched these parties from the balcony. I could peer through the balcony grille all night. President Manuel L Quezon and his wife, Aurora, visited almost every week. He often asked my mother to put together parties for him and invite all the dignitaries. He introduced General Douglas MacArthur and his wife, Jean, to my parents, and they became very close friends.

Most of the time we lived in Manila, but we often visited the Calatagan hacienda. At home, we spoke Spanish and in school, English; but in Batangas, we spoke Tagalog.

At the hacienda, my father gave hunts during the Holy Week. Only top American officials were invited to the one-week hunt. For one week every year, from the town all the way down to the Farola, approximately 10,000 deer and 100 wild cattle (known locally as bakang simaron) were fair game. We only had deer during the Holy Week.”

Racial Remembrances

But to understand the dynamics of society in the prewar days requires the reality every Filipino had to live with: which was, the reality of an alien sovereignty and the inevitable tensions it would bring.

In a documentary that was shown over a decade ago, the late Emmanuel Pelaez, former vice-president, recounted how, as a young student before World War II, he had been bodily thrown out of the Army-Navy Club, which was for whites only and off-limits to Filipinos. This, at a time when the country was already a Commonwealth. An ironic story when you consider how Pelaez was mocked in 1963 for making speeches denying he was a mestizo; to think he felt uncomfortable about being too white and yet suffered indignities at the hands of people who certainly felt he wasn’t white at all!

But the point is, treatments like this at the hands of white men helped foster nationalism. And high society found that nationalism had an impact on their social lives.

That impact was felt in terms of sensitivity over racism, the bane of all colonies. Members of the Filipino upper class were particularly touchy about racial matters. One of them, Dr Victor Buencamino (the first Filipino veterinarian), who was sent by the United States government to study in America, noted that “the little incidents of discrimination against Orientals, particularly on the West Coast, rankled long in my mind.” In fact, a few years after his stint in the US, race riots would occur in California and legislation banning marriage between Filipinos and Americans would be passed.

Other things fostered Filipino nationalism. “In US classrooms [we] had to join other students in pledging loyalty [to the United States of America, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all]. This exercise evoked a strong wish among Filipino students to pledge loyalty to their own nation. Besides, distance and nostalgia had made [us] miss home badly,” wrote Buencamino in his memoirs.

When he returned home in 1911, Buencamino “found it totally revolting that there were too many places where we Filipinos were off limits. I recalled that even the government-operated Manila Hotel was, by practice if not by decree, an exclusive white abode for a good many years,” he added.

The Polo Club itself would figure in a “nationalist” struggle when Colonel Manolo Nieto, aide-de-camp of President Quezon, applied for membership and was blackballed. The decision was condemned as “racist,” and in solidarity the Elizalde brothers who were famous polo players besides being industrialists, resigned from the Club and established another one called Los Tamaraos (the name lives on to this day in the Los Tamaraos field where wealthy children still take horseback-riding lessons in Parañaque). The irony for some was that Nieto and the Elizaldes were all mestizos.

Tatler Asia
Above Manila Polo Club

Buencamino also wrote about William “Bill” Shaw (of Shaw Boulevard fame) helping form the Wack Wack Golf Club because of the racism of his fellow Americans. “The story went that he did not feel at home in the exclusive Manila Golf Club in Caloocan every time he brought along his Filipina wife and his mestizo child. So he aligned himself with Filipino aficionados and founded Wack Wack.”

Another “racial battleground” was the Rotary Club of Manila. It was founded in 1919 with only two of the 38 founders being Filipinos (Gabriel LaO and Gregorio Nieva). It was only in 1933 that a Filipino, Arsenio Luz, came to head it, followed by Carlos P Romulo and Buencamino himself.

What Buencamino felt to be the biggest blow to racism was the segregation in the cabarets (nightclubs where people went to dance, dine and drink).

“The Sta Ana Cabaret and the Lerma nightclub had areas reserved exclusively for whites while Filipinos were secluded in a taxi dance area down the hall, fenced off from where the whites amused themselves,” he wrote. Then one day the President of the Senate, Quezon, asked Governor-General FB Harrison to “spearhead a move to knock down the race barrier.” Buencamino recounted that Governor Harrison made a reservation for a small party at the Lerma cabaret. A large table was reserved for him in the middle of the dance floor in a section exclusively reserved for white VIPs. That evening the Governor-General’s limousine rolled into the front door of the Lerma cabaret, followed by a smaller car. The Governor gathered his guests and their ladies and led the group to the centre of the cabaret section where only Occidentals had been permitted to tread before. There were startled looks from the all-white patrons as the mixed group walked in.

Harrison’s special guests: Quezon and his cronies, Buenaventura Varona and Buencamino, and their partners. “We had a juicy steak dinner chased by a steady flow of wine, and we danced all night, somewhat pleased inside us that we were making a little bit of history,” wrote Buencamino. Soon after, all the cabarets dropped the colour barrier.

The onset of World War II brought to an end the old, colonial Manila. As it died, the old tensions, anxieties, even resentments, continued to surface. But if there had been a colour line in prewar Manila, the war helped replace it with a more racially-tolerant society.

Bataan and Corregidor found, perhaps for the last time, Filipinos from all walks of life fighting and suffering together. The nameless conscript, the university student like Buencamino, inducted into the army because he’d belonged to the ROTC, actors like Fernando Poe Sr and people of wealth and influence like Jacobo Zobel or congressmen like Benito Soliven (father of the journalist Max): all fought, all ended up in the Death March. The Japanese celebrated their victory by parading captured Americans down Dewey Boulevard, and Filipinos, instead of glorying in the Americans’ shame, felt sympathy.

As Carmen Guerrero Nakpil wrote in her recently published memoirs, Myself, Elsewhere, “Strangely enough, after the war and the destruction of Ermita, bigotry faded and we all became warm and loyal friends. It had only been the diehard Ermita protocol that had kept us revising the Spanish Conquista and the Protestant Reformation and the Filipino-American War, imposing anachronistic strictures on ourselves. I recall, with embarrassment, the frissons of antipathy to Spanish and Protestants that we harbored. Their disappearance was one of the welcome consequences of the war. After facing terror and destruction together, we came to our senses and became confirmed liberals. There were no bigots in the ensuing rubble.”

READ MORE: "Quezon's Game", the film that tells the story of how Pres. Manuel Quezon rescued Jews

Snippets of Daily Life

It was an era either long forgotten or totally alien; but vivid writings by Manuel Luis Quezon Jr immortalise a clear picture of Philippine society:


“[There was] a socially accepted or at least tolerated social institution of the time called flirtation. Men, sometimes married, directed flattering remarks and allusions (out loud or whispered) to beautiful or attractive ladies which the latter accepted gracefully and appreciatively as a natural tribute to their charms. This refined flirtation was part of a man’s and a woman’s social graces and was a kind of game. Sometimes the flattering allusions were made in the presence of the spouse who took it as a compliment or were directed at the husband regarding the beauty and charms of the lady. It was a sort of courtly game, no more, and people knew when it went beyond that. Husbands knew when horns were being put on them. If they took them, there was a very strong Spanish term applied to them.”


“The bedlam of tooting horns was also unknown. There were no traffic jams, as such, cars moved slowly delivering students to schools or picking them up. About the closest thing to a traffic jam was the slow-moving traffic along Ayala Bridge, a single span. Then a second span was built and the problem was solved. The old Ayala mansion beside the Pasig was demolished, the mansion where my godmother, Doña Carmen, lived and where I said goodbye when she left for Spain.”

Tatler Asia
Above (TOP) Streets of Manila that once were clean and not congested (BOTTOM) A typical streetcar that ran on electricity


“There were of course plenty of wealthy Chinese families and Binondo was a largely Chinese district. Very few Chinese seem to have been in the professions such as engineering, architecture and medicine, not because of any social or racial barriers but because of their personal preference for commerce.”


“Along the shore of Manila Bay was Dewey Boulevard [Roxas Boulevard today], with electric street lamps. The northern end was the Luneta [today’s Rizal Park], the southern end was Cortabitarte [Quirino Boulevard today] where you made a left turn to get onto FB Harrison if you wanted to go further south to Pasay.

“ ... The important offices and stores were in the Escolta area; today’s Makati did not exist. Nielsen Field, the airport, was in San Pedro de Macati, but the big news prior to the war was the Philippine Clipper flying boats of Pan American, which landed in Cavite.

“The aristocratic residential area was Ermita where the residence of the Guerreros and Cuyugans stood, both illustrious Filipino families. However, there were residences of prominent families in other areas—along Dewey Boulevard, the shore of Manila Bay and Taft Avenue.”

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.