‘Walk this Way’ through Intramuros

As the title suggests, this is a walking tour. But for those of you who fear a long hot trudge through the streets of Intramuros, rest assured, your guide and entertainer Carlos Celdran is not so masochistic. This three hour tour is a gentle stroll around the park at Fort Santiago, a buggy ride and a short walk to Barbara’s Café. At suitably shady spots, Celdran invites you to sit comfortably on the grass in front of him while he takes you on ‘a journey through Filipino history for people with no attention span’.

Celdran’s performance is off-beat, irreverent, and unorthodox: a constant patter of fact and personal opinion. Dressed in an eighteenth century Spanish top hat and tailcoat, he begins the tour under the frangipani trees by encouraging all the locals to sing the National Anthem. A rousing chorus from at least 50% of the tour group follows. I do love the ability of the Filipinos to burst into song in public places without any qualms. It makes me feel totally at at home, as my mother always carols around the supermarket in exactly the same unselfconscious fashion.

The curtain rises with the arrival of the Spanish in Manila.  In Act 1, Carlos describes the building of Intramuros (literally ‘within the walls’) by the Spanish conquistadors in 1571, after ousting some 10,000 indigenous Muslim inhabitants from the banks of the Pasig River. Intramuros would become the centre of power for the Spanish government, the military and the Church for the next three hundred years..

Act 2 focuses on the national hero, Jose Rizal. As we wander past Rizal’s statue and through the Rizal museum, Celdran gleefully bursts mythical bubbles. This national hero is no gun wielding general but an elitist scholar with leanings towards Spain. Rizal wrote two books against theocracy in the Philippines: Ils Filibusterismo and Noli Me Tangere. He was later used as a scapegoat for the revolutionaries, and summarily shot for treason. ‘Suitably benign and even more suitably dead’, Rizal was apparently selected as a national hero, not by the Filipinos, but by the Americans.

Act 3 involves a change of location and costume, as Celdran replaces the top hat with a stars-and-stripes Cat-in-the-Hat number. Standing by the bandstand and encircled by a riveted crowd, this next monologue describes how the Americans attempted to convert the Philippines into a secular democracy and educated the masses in American English. The Philippines, he tells us, was seen as a decompression chamber between East and West, where the fusion of race, food and culture made Manila the first truly globalized city in Asia.

At this point Celdran invites us to avail ourselves of alternative transport at the gates of the park, and ride in a horse drawn cart to our next location. Beneath the shadowy mango trees we settle on plastic stools beside the hollow ruins of St Ignatius Church and an empty lot (once the University of Manila), bombed to smithereens at the end of World War II. The penultimate act is a somewhat vitriolic speech about the destruction of Intramuros through the combined efforts of the Americans and the Japanese, during which I was quite glad to be Australian, and thus outside the ‘circle of dis-trust!

Celdran uses a lot of thought-provoking imagery during his performance. In the final act standing before St Augustine’s pink splendor, he describes the illusion that is Philippine culture: a walled city made of volcanic ash; St Augustine’s architectural trimmings copied from every age and corner of the world, and the gift-wrapped jeepneys. Filipinos decorate everything, he says, but while more imitative than innovative, he proclaims “this lack of originality makes us totally original!” To be Filipino is to be a mish mash, a fusion, a blend, a halo halo of world cultures… and the final curtain comes down in the courtyard at Barbara’s Café, with the grand finale of halo halo for everyone.

I have tried not to give away the whole talk – otherwise you won’t bother to go yourselves, and you should!  Keep an open mind and a sense of humour – and know that Celdran’s snappy patter even appealed to my fifteen year old son, something Celdran himself saw as a great achievement!

So who is Carlos Celdran?

His biography is well documented in Wikipedia, and he related the same information to me in the café almost verbatim, but in his own inimitable style and at breath-taking speed. Carlos Celdran is a renowned Filipino tour guide, cited in the Insight Guide to the Philippines and well-known to the expat community in Manila. Perhaps less well known is the fact that he was also a painter, a cartoonist, an actor, stage designer, director and a comic – and is currently described in the media as a cultural activist. Last year he became notorious after staging a very public protest against the Church for its opposition to the reproductive health bill… and for subsequently spending a night in prison, charged with “offending religious feelings.” I asked if he had anticipated such a response and he remarked that he had been very surprised by the experience.

Celdran says he is not a total atheist, but not a very good Catholic either.  But he says he likes religion, because everyone needs a little magic in life and knowing all the answers takes away the colour. He talks a lot about Intramuros as the soul of Manila with its multiple churches, and is clearly grateful to Imelda Marcos who took a hand in funding its rebirth after it had been decimated at the end of World War II.

Carlos Celdran grew up in Das Marinas, where he apparently led a very sheltered middle class childhood and developed a passion for plane spotting. When he was only fourteen, he became the youngest ever cartoonist for the newspaper Business Day. Here he attracted the attention of ‘Nonoy’ Marcello, a famous political satirist.

Once at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Celdran’s world expanded and he discovered Intramuros. Here he had a broad education in both visual and performing arts that led him to the Rhode Island School of Design where an allergy to paint forced him to change his major to performing arts. This change would later lead him to New York based theatre company, the Blue Man Group.

In 1998 he returned to the Philippines where he began leading tours for the Heritage Conservation Society, a non-profit organization for preserving historical architecture. The experience drew him back to Intramuros and exhibited his natural flair for performance. In 2002 he launched his own tour company.

Now in his tenth year of guiding, Celdran leads an average of 30 people through the streets of Intramuros three times a week. He also offers a walking tour of the National Theatre, Convention Centre and CCP grounds called ‘Living La Vida Imelda!’ which, his website states, is ‘a little bit disco, a little bit New Society, and completely Imeldific’. Both tours claim to have adult content.

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