Can creative work thrive in Manila?

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CNN Philippines Life and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf brought together five creatives from the fields of design, fashion, film, and photography for a roundtable about working in Metro Manila. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The conventional path for a young person working in Manila was to either become a doctor, lawyer, or businessman. Well-meaning parents would discourage their children to take up an art-oriented course, saying there is no money in art. 

With the advent of better technology and a renewed interest in local culture, it now seems as though everyone is getting into photography, film, and design. Metro Manila has slowly become a hub for these creative folk.

CBTL Creatives Roundtable CNN Philippines Life and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf brought together five young creatives from different industries — Jan Pineda, Meryll Soriano, Patrick Jamora, Gabby Cantero, and Carl Jan Cruz — for a roundtable discussion about working in Metro Manila. Photo by JL JAVIER

CNN Philippines Life gathered five creatives at The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf's branch in Rada, Makati to discuss their experiences working in Manila: Meryll Soriano and Patrick Jamora, founders of Do Good Studio and Community; Carl Jan Cruz, fashion designer; Jan Pineda, filmmaker and producer at Globe Studios; and Gabby Cantero, commercial photographer and director.

The spacious and well-lit interiors of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf's Rada branch provided the perfect atmosphere for this little get-together, where our guests exchanged ideas over ready-to-drink mocha and caramel lattes. In between snacking on slices of guiltless chocolate cake and Oreo cheesecake, they also talked about finding inspiration in the grittiness of Manila over cities like London and Singapore, approaching design as a way to solve problems, and doing their own thing to contribute to the larger scheme of things.

Below are edited excerpts from the discussion.

CBTL Creatives Roundtable Over cups of ready-to-drink mocha and caramel lattes, some of the city’s most exciting creatives attempt to answer the question, "Can creative work thrive in Manila?" Photo by JL JAVIER

What makes Manila an ideal place for work?

Meryll Soriano: I studied Product Design in London's Central Saint Martins. The reason why I left is because hindi ko na kaya dito sa Manila. I wanted first world principle. When I [went] there and I was already in uni, I just realized that mas maraming kailangang ditong design opportunities, mas maraming problems na kailangang i-address. And I was so idealistic in having a Muji and Ikea sort of brand here in the Philippines, but then when I was doing a lot of research work, na-realize ko lang na parang hindi lang dapat parang ganoon mag-isip. ‘Yun lang. I think na mas mamahalin mo ang lugar na kung saan ka galing pagka-umalis ka.

Gabby Cantero: I actually decided to stay in Manila two years ago. I didn't think of looking for work elsewhere anymore because one, my career was doing great. I finally found my niche, which is food, and it's such a small market. There are probably only, like, ten food photographers in Manila, and nagpapasahan lang kami with the projects, and we all know each other also. It's healthy competition. The Filipino food movement is so big right now, and I want to be at the center of it. Not just visually, but also in a way that at the very core of it, like from farm to table. My main purpose now is to push for local goods.

CBTL Creatives Roundtable Meryll Soriano and Patrick Jamora are co-founders of the graphic design firm Do Good Studio and the design-driven brand Community. Designer Carl Jan Cruz (right), who’s garnered his share of international acclaim, says about Manila: "It’s conflicting, and that’s what makes us love it." Photo by JL JAVIER

Carl Jan Cruz: I find the Filipino market very critical, and I would always say that even Southeast Asian-wise, economically speaking, it's where the money's at. And in the Philippines, it doesn't hurt to be at the center of it. At the same time artistically speaking, if you look back into history, it's not the same as Singapore or Hong Kong, we've never been deprived of arts even though we didn't really support it. We have Arturo Luz, we have Amorsolo. Like if you ask — I was at Art Basel [and I asked], "Oh, so may mga masters ba kayo?" They don't really have that. I guess it's in proportion that whatever they have in buying power-wise, I would say with much confidence that we have that balanced out in terms of creativity. Because we see things here differently.

Jan Pineda: I studied film in UP. Film is very collaborative, I guess. If filmmaker ka, if you have a vision, you need people you can trust with your vision. I think here in the Philippines, I’ve met a lot of really talented people, and if you have a vision and you want to do it [you’d be able to]. That makes it ideal to work here.

Patrick Jamora: I grew up in IloIlo and transferred to Manila for college. In comparison to Iloilo, in Manila, it's faster here. Like what Jan said na mas madaming tao na you can collaborate with. Iloilo kasi, medyo backwards kasi siya kahit papano. Although it's growing and nag-aayos pa rin sila ngayon, medyo slow pa rin doon. I guess that's why I decided to stay in Manila. More room for collaboration. There's a lot more things to see in Manila.

CBTL Creatives Roundtable The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf’s ready-to-drink mocha and caramel lattes provided just the right fuel (and at just the right temperature) for this group of creatives. Photo by JL JAVIER

What’s the most unlikely or unconventional place in Manila that inspires you?

Meryll Soriano: Ako, Manila pa rin. Kasi I grew up taping episodes of MMK [“Maalaala Mo Kaya”], or making a movie there, and I feel super emotional every time I see Old Manila being so beautiful. I guess ‘yun din ‘yung isa sa mga reasons why sobrang passionate ako about design. Ang ganda niya, eh. At ang pangit niya. Like, nandun ako kasi may ginawa akong pelikula na magnanakaw ako sa Recto. Dun ako sa ilalim ng tulay, tapos ang ganda ng tiles, pero ang dumi. Sayang. Lagi nating sinasabi na mahal natin ang bansa na ‘to, but at the same time, hindi natin nararamdaman. Hindi ko nararamdaman na mahal natin ang isang lugar when nagtatapon ka rin ng basura sa daan. It goes from a larger perspective, but it’s true na hindi ko nararamdaman. Kung kaya nating maturo sa Pilipino na magpulot ng basura o ‘wag magtapon, hindi kaagad kaya kasi hindi tayo open to quick change. So doon din nag-stem ‘yung pagkagusto ko sa maging designer. How to actually penetrate our mentality. Kasi it’s really the mentality.

Patrick Jamora: It’s not just about teaching people to throw trash, parang it’s not available din kasi. Pupulot ka din ng trash, pero wala namang trash can. So I think we have to make that available. It has to be just there, to do it.

Carl Jan Cruz: I think you’ve encapsulated what Manila is, actually. It’s conflicting, and that’s what makes us love it. We may have the Miss Universe in the world. I mean, we can be in that state where we have Miss Universe, but we can also be submerged six feet deep into reality because of this. As someone who’s a designer, for me [I'm inspired] as long as I’m walking anywhere. I used to intern in Makati — I would walk from Serendra to the fire station in Makati. But I like the whole idea that there’s a weird cut-off. It’s conflicting. I can be in McKinley Forbes and next thing you know, you’re in the shit show of EDSA. ‘Diba? You’ll never be in a country like that. The city itself is inspiring in that way.

gabby cantero.jpg Photographer Gabby Cantero on challenging the creative community in Manila: "It means that whatever your style is now, you need to slowly adapt to it. You know, it’s either you ride the wave or you try to make the new one the next one." Photo by JL JAVIER

Do you think creatives have a role in helping solve the problems in the country?

Gabby Cantero: I always feel like the creatives industry is, palaging sinasabi ng lahat na ito ‘yung pinakaluho na industry. In all of it, production, etc. — we’re beautification kasi. It’s hard to answer that question without sounding slightly dumb. It’s a little hard to say now, especially in the state our country’s in. Everybody’s so busy with everything else, and we’re just concentrating on our craft and trying not to mind everyone else. Even in the family aspect, we didn’t fit the aspect of banker, lawyer, doctor. We’re not in any of those, I guess. Hirap sagutin.

Meryll Soriano: Ako, I think creatives should shut up. I think we’re super concentrated on creating conversation — welga tayo dito, art tayo dito — but if we can just do and make and create. I think that’s the problem of Filipinos. We forget that it’s not really about talk. It’s really about what we can do. So if we can just shut up and do. I just feel like ang daming nagsasalita and kulang ng follow-through sa creativity, sa design. It takes up too much space, ideas. But really, there’s nothing to show for.

Patrick Jamora: We went to Japan last October, and we talked about it after, saying that our takeaway sa culture nila is that the Japanese only do their own things, not thinking about the buo. Their thinking is that by doing these little things, they contribute to a bigger, greater thing. So we just do our own little things and contribute.

Jan Pineda: Sa ’kin naman, working with media na kailangan na maikalat, I guess there’s a responsibility. Working with media, now kasi sensitive ‘yung mga people, mahilig mag-tweet. So siyempre, hindi ko alam kung naririnig niyo na, “Ah, madali naman ma-offend mga tao these days.” I guess working with media, the role is to be careful kung ano ‘yung pinapalabas niyo, meron ba kayong ibang hindi nare-represent.

CBTL Creatives Roundtable Jan Pineda (right), a producer at Globe Studios and an experimental filmmaker in his own right, believes that “if you have a vision and you want to do it,” Manila is the kind of city where you can really make it happen. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf’s Rada branch, with its spacious interiors and well-lit atmosphere, proved the perfect venue for meaningful discussion. Photo by JL JAVIER

What’s your wishlist for the creative community in Manila?

Jan Pineda: Siguro take care of each other. Wala masyadong regulation or whatever doing creative stuff. Naglalabanan sa kung sinong mas mababa ang cost, sinong mas mabilis mag-release ng output. Maraming hungry creatives na gustong gumawa. Pero support each other. Like, kung kukunin mo ‘yung job na ‘to, pero sobrang baba [ng bayad] and would jeopardize the industry [in the long run]. You know, mga ganun? If you do things, isipin mo siya in [terms of] a whole community and how it will affect everything.

Gabby Cantero: I think it’s also nice to challenge the creatives coming in. Because they think so differently compared to us. Even in [photography], the way they light. But it’s nice to be challenged with that because it means that whatever your style is now, you need to slowly adapt to it. You know, it’s either you ride the wave or you try to make the new one the next one. It’s just nice to challenge the next wave of creatives kasi sobrang competitive kaya. Anyone can be an artist.