Nick Joaquin and the life and death of a Filipino city

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Part of the exhibit "The City Who Had Two Navels" is "HyGrids:Projecting the Future of Cities in the Philippines" by the University of the Philippines – Diliman, College of Architecture. Photo by ANDREA D'ALTOE AND PAOLO LUCA FOR THE PHILIPPINE ARTS IN VENICE BIENNALE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Manila is dying. This is how Edson Cabalfin, Ph.D. prefaces a tour of his exhibit, “The City Who Had Two Navels.” Here we are, watching footage of a wilting city projected against the bone-white walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila. Malls and call centers are erected as deceptive symbols of progress, only to displace the poor and support the interests of the ruling class. Elsewhere in the exhibit, multimedia art pieces chronicle the Philippines' colonial past: one standout is an architectural miniature imagining a Manila untouched by Spain or the U.S. Cabalfin raises a question that goes unanswered: is neoliberalism the new colonialism?

We're at the center of the installation, enclosed by two arcs that form a parenthesis. The niche that cradles us is eerie, dark, womb-like. You wouldn’t be surprised to step into a puddle of water. Each arc — or navel — tackles the twin forces of colonialism and neoliberalism, which Cabalfin, an architect and professor at the University of Cincinnati, believes should be looked at side-by-side. All the better to get a sense of how Philippine mega cities like Manila, Cebu, Iloilo, and Davao have learned to define progress in very myopic, elitist terms.

This blueprint unfurls from Nick Joaquin's 1961 novel “The Woman Who Had Two Navels.” It’s a rich, sprawling study on liminality: the Filipino characters who live in Hong Kong reckon with being uprooted from their homeland, exiles in a territory that is itself caught between British and Chinese control. Back in the Philippines, the mother-daughter tandem Concha and Connie lead a bourgeois lifestyle in a Manila still reeling from war and colonialism. Connie, who is convinced she has two navels, is seen by some readers as postcolonial anxiety personified. Her condition could stand for hybridity, or cultural confusion, or a psychosomatic identity crisis. Whichever it is, Joaquin’s characters are very much products of history, and colonial trauma is imprinted upon their every thought, deed, and decision.

Each arc — or navel — at the exhibit tackles the twin forces of colonialism and neoliberalism. Photo from the METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF MANILA/FACECBOOK

My visit to the exhibit coincides with the Met’s first-ever METReads book club session, where Professor Francezca Kwe of the University of the Philippines leads a discussion on Joaquin’s classic. She talks about exile then and now: in the book, Pepe and Tony Monson are cut off from their country because of their father’s failed revolt against Spain. Another kind of exile was affected by World War II: when Manila was razed to the ground, it created a class of informal settlers, now displaced in their own country. And though the U.S. was responsible for much of the destruction, Filipinos eventually allowed them to make reparations in return for parity rights and government control. It's a move Joaquin critiques through the character of Concha, whose life trajectory (and sequence of lovers) seems to mirror the Philippines’ dwindling resistance against foreign powers.

Today, the disproportionate social conditions created by colonialism persist, exacerbated all the more by neoliberal structures. New commercial developments are displacing the urban poor, exiling them in their own nation and reshaping urban topography beyond recognition. What results is a disparity between the city of the rich and the city of the poor, a phenomenon evident in places like Bonifacio Global City, which borders a slum area. In addition, the modern allure of opportunity abroad drains the country of its workforce, giving rise to a new generation of Filipinos who, like Pepe and Tony, only know of their country through the stories of their parents.

So how exactly does a city die, and how long does it take for it to suffocate? Didn’t Joaquin himself lament the death of a version of Manila in both “The Woman Who Had Two Navels” and his classic play “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino”? Can a city die twice, or is its demise simply, achingly protracted?

“I think cities live and die. It’s this cycle where they grow and decay and disappear,” says Cabalfin. “You see this in many cities throughout history. Joaquin talks about how Manila had a golden age that was destroyed by war, but eventually it blossomed again. So I don’t see it as an ultimate end. And I think one needs to ask the question, if a city is dying or blossoming, then for whom is it dying or blossoming? Maybe for the rich, Metro Manila, Metro Davao, Clark, and other Philippine cities are growing, but it’s not as good for informal settlers or laborers. So whether a city lives or dies is dependent on who you’re talking to.”

The exhibit at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Photo by ANDREA D'ALTOE AND PAOLO LUCA FOR THE PHILIPPINE ARTS IN VENICE BIENNALE

This question of representation is one that's tied to our national identity as well. One of the exhibit’s highlights are photos of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, where indigenous Filipinos were put on display by American colonizers and presented to a Western public as primitive curiosities. The bitter twist comes in the very next series of photos, which show that Filipinos themselves reused similar imagery the 1998 Expo Pilipino in Clark. “The City Who Had Two Navels'” debut last year at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale was, in many ways, an attempt to correct that narrative, to dispel some Westerners of the persisting notion that we still live in trees.

“We as Filipinos need to define how we consider ourselves successful in surmounting or surpassing the colonial experience,” Cabalfin tells me in the museum lobby, the blare of traffic along Roxas Boulevard acting as a soundtrack to his words. The fact that the U.S. Embassy is just down the street isn’t lost on me. “We need to ask how critical we’ve become of how we present ourselves,” he continues. “[As I’ve pointed out,] we’ve not really gone beyond the colonial narrative. We’ve become the ones reinforcing and reproducing that narrative, and I think that’s really dangerous. And there are efforts that attempt to correct that, but the challenge isn’t over. So how do we continue to reshape our identity? I think only then will we be able to say that we’ve progressed.”


"The City Who Had Two Navels: Homecoming Exhibition" will run until October 19, 2019.