Remembering the brutal battle that changed Manila forever

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If you’ve ever taken a class on Philippine history, you'd know about the Battle of Manila — but perhaps not well enough.

While you might picture a day of fighting that led to the liberation of Manila in World War II, in truth, the battle lasted the duration of February 3, 1945 to March 3, 1945. The battle resulted in the death of at least 100,000 Filipino civilians (other historians estimate it at 500,000) at the hands of both American and Japanese forces. The former bombed the historic city, destroying much of its heritage. As the outcome of the battle became evident, the latter began the Manila Massacre, brutally killing every Filipino they could lay their hands on before the Americans took control of the city.

Today there is no holiday to mark this grisly month in our history. Many of the ruined structures have been built over, and the only marker to commemorate the dead is the little-known Shrine of Freedom with its haunting statue of a woman cradling the city’s dead.

Artist Mitch Garcia in a performance as "Our Lady of Merchants," a piece on Quiapo and the commodification of religion. Photo by JL JAVIER

Japan-based danced group The Physical Poets. Photo by JL JAVIER

Carlos Celdran and VivaManila, in coordination with the Intramuros administration, began Manila Transitio 1945 eight years ago as an event to commemorate not only the loss of life, but the moment the city changed beyond recognition.

“It was this moment when Manila transitioned from the beautiful Manila we see in the pictures into the Manila that we know of today. That’s the moment when Manila lost its soul, its urbanity, and its direction,” Celdran explains. “For some reason, we’ve chosen to forget this very important, pivotal moment in our own understanding. So that’s why we did Transitio as a way to fill in that gap … This is really one part I think we really should learn in order to understand ourselves and understand the city that we’re living in.”

The event, held this year on February 26 at the Baluarte de San Diego, takes the form of an open-air picnic, an art exhibition, a concert and a big community ritual all participants are invited to join. As performance artists roam the grounds, Quiapo candle vendors offer their color-coded candles for your intentions.

Rosa Mirasol Esguerra Melencio starts the festival with a healing movement ritual. Photo by JL JAVIER

The festival's main ritual, commemorating Manila's transition during World War II, is a slow, moonlit walk up the stairs of the Baluarte San Diego’s ruins, with a burnt offering of wishing paper and flower petals, and Carlos Celdran and actor Goldie Soon, in skull makeup, sitting by as oracles. Photo by JL JAVIER

he space lends itself to the confluence of activity. The garden amid the ruins is a quaint spot to spend an afternoon, but there’s the inescapable weight of history — the knowledge that these walls have seen so much before this moment.

The event served as a showcase for all kinds of local talent, from musical performers such as Bayang Barrios, Cooky Chua and Lolita Carbon to artists such as Derek Tumala and Tad Ermitaño, even to local food and beverage outlets like Blocleaf Café and Edgy Veggie.

There’s really a sense of community among the local groups coming together for Manila Transitio. “There’s no way that any of our VivaManila events can happen unless everyone participates in some way. We don’t have corporate sponsorships … There’s no commercialization in that sense, so it only happens if everyone brings something to the table,” explains Julia Nebrija, who spearheads VivaManila, an initiative to revitalize urban spaces within the city through culture and art.

The destruction at Intramuros left by the Battle of Manila in February 1945. Photo from WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/PUBLIC DOMAIN

The performance art remained the highlight of the afternoon and evening, ranging from the downright silly Russ Ligtas romp set to Mariah Carey’s “Hero” to the ethereal performance by Japan-based dance troupe The Physical Poets.

Before the end of the evening, everyone was called to participate in the main ritual — a slow, moonlit walk up the stairs of the Baluarte San Diego’s ruins, a burnt offering of wishing paper and flower petals, with Celdran and actor Goldie Soon in skull makeup, sitting by as oracles.

Celdran explains that ritual and performance art have always been at the core of Manila Transitio. “When we started doing it, we wanted to make a kind of memorial that was not physical,” he says.

“They all kind of work together as one narrative, “ adds Nebrija. “It’s usually a series of things that combine into a ritual that’s a little bit different every year.”

Julia Nebrija of VivaManila, a co-presentor of the 8th Manila Transitio festival, along with the Intramuros Administration. Photo by JL JAVIER

Carlos Celdran of VivaManila. During the Transitio festival, Celdran gave a lecture on the Battle of Manila and how it changed Manila forever. Photo by JL JAVIER

“We offer people something to do on a Sunday where they can go outside, be engaged in the city in a way that’s meaningful,” Nebrija says. “You have an excuse to come to Intramuros. I think creating a relationship between people in Metro Manila and places like Intramuros is really important, because you need to have them remember something about the city in order for them to appreciate it and also want to preserve it, improve it.”

All these activities, apart from a brief lecture from Celdran on the Battle of Manila, can feel tangential to Manila Transitio’s inciting event. To the skeptic, rituals can appear utterly meaningless, but as sociologist Renato Rosaldo said when he studied Philippine intangible heritage and oral tradition, Filipino memory isn’t linear, but found and experienced in rituals.

Rosaldo called this “the cultural force of emotions.” It’s in the process of repeating stories passed down through oral tradition and falling into the trance of a ritual that we “feel” memory on an emotional level, rather than an intellectual one. So there is value to take people to these historical sites and walk them through a spiritual exercise of remembering.

A view of the crowd during the 8th Manila Transitio festival at the Baluarte San Diego in Intramuros. Photo by JL JAVIER

A kundiman singer serenades the crowd during the main ritual rites. Photo by JL JAVIER

Celdran justifies the event’s focus on performance in the same vein. “Everything about the Filipino is performance art. We don’t have problems; we have drama. Because if you’re trying to look for a solution to your problem, then it’s a problem. When you’re not finding a solution and you’re enjoying the drama, then it’s drama,” he says with a laugh. “So all Filipinos are performance artists.”