Hints of a Bygone Era Linger at Manila Hotel : Despite Political Upheaval Beyond Its Doors, Elegance Reigned Within

Times Staff Writer

Watching Imelda Marcos at dinner a few months ago in one of her favorite restaurants, the Champagne Room of the Manila Hotel, there was no reason to think that before long she would be gone. Clad in soft peach, joined by a few friends, she was seated far to one side in a position to survey the room. The menu was French-continental, the music was pleasant, and the trappings of her now-vanished glory were just outside.

Mrs. Marcos had walked to the Champagne Room on a red carpet set out for the occasion, as is done in Bangkok when members of the royal family visit a hotel. To one side of this passageway were television cameras brought by her entourage to record her activities.

A Select Clientele

The Champagne Room caters to well-heeled foreign visitors and to wealthy Filipinos, who want French food, European wines and American beef when they dine out. That night, there were such first courses as caviar with blini; lobster salad with chanterelles, asparagus and raspberry dressing; snails poached in white wine, and fresh duck liver sauteed in butter with red wine and brandy.

If Mrs. Marcos had wanted soup, she could have chosen double beef consomme with tarragon, essence of truffles with veal sweetbreads and mushrooms or cream of tomato flamed with gin. Entrees ranged from simple roast chicken with vegetables to veal scallops stuffed with goose liver, pork tenderloins stuffed with Brie and beef medallions sauteed at the table with pink, green, black and white peppercorns and served in a red wine sauce.

The menu offered no Philippine dishes, but local ingredients crept into the desserts. La Coupe Champagne Room combined vanilla ice cream and Melba sauce with the sweet mangoes that are abundant and cheap in the Philippines. Mango sauce was served over the lemon souffle, and to light up the evening there were mangoes with vanilla ice cream flamed with Grand Marnier and Cognac.

The Manila Hotel in a way symbolizes the ties between the United States and the Philippines. In 1910, an American architect, William Parsons, was chosen to design the projected hotel. Parsons combined native materials with the California mission style. Sturdy as the structure was, it had become inadequate by the 1970s. In 1974, the government took charge of renovating and restoring the hotel as a national landmark. Assigned to the job was Leandro Locsin, a leading Filipino architect who more recently designed the $300 million palace of the sultan of Brunei.

Locsin retained the original facade, gutted the interior and added an 18-story tower. The hotel reopened in 1976. One of its attractions is the redecorated penthouse suite that once housed Gen. Douglas MacArthur, available now for about $800 in American currency a night. The suite was built to house the general when he served as military adviser to President Manuel Quezon.

MacArthur and his wife held their wedding reception there and remained in residence until the Japanese invasion after Pearl Harbor. On Christmas Eve, 1941, the MacArthurs departed for Corregidor. When Manila was recaptured in 1945, the general himself joined the troops that fought floor by floor to regain the hotel. They found the penthouse suite in ruins and entered over the body of a Japanese officer who died fighting at the threshold. Fire set by the Japanese forces had destroyed the general's military library and other belongings.

Hotel records indicate that during his years of peacetime residence, MacCarthur was a plain eater. One of his favorite dishes was chicken a la king. In that era, the hotel's Fiesta Pavilion was the scene of many parties. When Manila was retaken, it served as a dormitory for American officers. On Nov. 22, 1964, it was the site of the nomination of Ferdinand E. Marcos for his first term as president.

Ominous Options

From my room high in the new tower recently, I looked down on Manila harbor and the enormous presidential yacht, now without occupants. The hotel room included some ominous equipment, a reflection of the hotel fires and bombings that scared tourists away from Manila before the recent political turmoil. A folder suggested that in the event of fire, occupants of the second or third floors could jump to safety. Those on a higher level could resort to a plastic air scoop. According to the instructions, if you tied the scoop over your head, you would have six to 10 minutes of air, enough to give the option of staying put and waiting for help or trying to escape.

Each time I entered the hotel, I was searched. This was standard practice at all hotels. The typical setup was a table at the entrance where one deposited purses and packages for examination by male and female security workers. Men were physically frisked. I also saw people being physically searched in a supermarket in the Makati Commercial Center.

A sign in the Manila Peninsula hotel in Makati warned that visitors were not allowed in rooms after 10 p.m. In all hotels, guards were posted on each floor and often escorted guests to their doors. Back entrances were also guarded.

Transportation had to be arranged with caution. I was warned not to take taxis unless they were called by the hotel doorman, who would record the license number. Using the colorful jeepneys that clog the streets of Manila was out of the question. Buses were also off limits. And it was recommended that I not walk alone at night even in a seemingly quiet, safe and prosperous area such as Makati. A drastically high unemployment rate had made robbery a serious problem, and unguarded tourists would be prime targets.

I had gone to Manila to study Philippine food, an area which the now-defunct government had planned to promote. The first Food and Plants Market Week, designed to introduce Philippine products to international buyers, was scheduled to take place March 15-20 at the International Trade Center in Manila. According to the Philippine Trade Office in Los Angeles, the event was canceled due to the political upheaval but now has been rescheduled for March 17-22.

In 1984, food exports from the Philippines had risen to $908 million, with 47% of the products going to the United States, the largest single market. These figures indicate not only the historically close ties between the two countries but an expanding market that can play a role in revitalizing the sagging Philippine economy.

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