Monday, 28 October 2013

Manila: a perfect set for poverty porn

While my friend Andrea bargains with a seller of ribbons, buttons and other stuff that she needs for her twins’ Halloween costume, my eyes travel around this district of Manila where rich and poor congregate to sell, bargain and buy anything that has a value. This is Divisoria.

This mecca of value shopping has everything one needs or doesn’t-- from cute puppies bred in horrible puppy-mills, fruits (including hard-to-find in Manila such as durian), fancy and not so fancy clothes (I’ve seen the most horrendous bridal gowns here) to meat products.

Name it and they sell it for a fraction of its usual price. The only expensive thing in this part of the globe is real property. I’ve read somewhere that per square meter here is more expensive than Makati. Probably because this is one of the oldest parts of Manila, where the first Chinese merchants settled and still rule.  Nowadays, you see newly arrived Chinese traders who man and sell their goods themselves. Life must be tough. But it must be tougher for Filipinos who have been displaced, who used to own small businesses here or used to be sellers.

It was late afternoon and everyone was doing something except me. A fishmonger chops a head of a big black fish, a group of “beggars” buys fish for dinner, another seller takes out crates of pork meats that don’t look fresh anymore, a street photographer (obviously a foreigner, because what Manileño would wear a sarong with jeans at the same time?) with a huge backpack on his back and a high-end camera dangling around his neck, waits for the perfect subject.

The photographer points his camera to anything that looks “poor and exotic”. He snaps photos of a beggar who suddenly takes out a plastic ball from her bag and plays throw and catch with her half-naked toddler whose butt must have been exposed since he was born.  I imagine how his next photo exhibit would look like. Bleak and artsy. The people are poor but “happy”.

On our way out of Divisoria, we marched with thousands of shoppers along the narrow streets of this huge market where everyone competes for a space, including jeepneys, which must have a pace of two kilometers per hour.

Driving out of Manila, we passed by throngs of informal settlers just outside the walls of old Intramuros, trying to feel at home on sidewalks that are supposed to be for walking.  If one just ignores poverty around, Manila is actually an impressive city with its old and massive buildings from the Spanish time. For a photographer or a filmmaker, Manila is a perfect location to make poverty porn.

I remember the film “Metro Manila” which the critics are raving about. It was a film about a Filipino family from the beautiful north of the Philippines who was forced to migrate to Manila to find an alternative livelihood.  It’s a typical story of many migrants who are hoping to make a living out of a rotting city like Manila. The film is made by a British guy and that gives Britain the right to send it to Oscar for the Best Foreign Film category.

Still along Intramuros, I had a glimpse of a few brave tourists trying to discover Manila by foot. They pass beside makeshift houses, piles of garbage, rugby-sniffing kids and sidewalk vendors. With striking poverty that merits an Oscar nomination, it really takes a different level of sanity for anyone to say they love Manila. One must be a masochist or a photographer or a filmmaker. 

One of the small streets of Divisoria