Malacañan Palace: Prize, pulpit, and stage
From Malacañan Palace: The Official Illustrated History by Manuel L. Quezon III, Jeremy Barns, and Paolo Alcazaren, Studio 5 Publishing, Manila, 2005.
CHAPTER ONE: PRIZE, PULPIT, AND STAGE
FEW people get to see Malacañan Palace, and when they do, they only see parts of it. Hardly ever do they get to see the whole, to stroll the grounds, peer at the buildings, examine the furniture. And yet, ironically, people see Malacañan Palace all the time: its Pasig River façade has been on the twenty peso bill for over thirty years; the same façade has adorned postcards for generations; the Palace is even immortalized in countless bakeries that offer the Malacañan roll; most of all, they see their president meeting politicians and making speeches. They see their president and the politicians with dignitaries from other countries. They see the panoply of state and the minutiae of governance.
A great river, the Pasig, runs by it, separating its two parts: the Malacañan Palace complex, and Malacañan Park. The Malacañan Palace complex itself is dominated by five buildings: Mabini Hall (the Administration Building), long, tall, unadorned and imposing, on one end, and the New Executive Building, a new warren of offices in a converted prewar structure that once served as a brewery, on the other, demarcating the 6.49 hectares that comprises this complex. In between these two buildings are the graceful renaissance-like Kalayaan Hall (the old Executive Office Building), fortress-like Malacañan Palace itself, and the much smaller, severe, discrete Bonifacio Hall (formerly known as the Premiere Guest House). Various smaller, anxillary buildings line the bank of the Pasig River: a canteen for employees; a boathouse now turned into barracks; a generator room; guard houses and sheds. All of these house eighty-odd discrete offices, themselves parts of the larger office known as the Office of the President of the Philippines. These buildings, and the grounds, are maintained by a staff of 326 janitors, electricians, carpenters, engineers, and other utility persons: all of whom, together with the officials and bureaucrats that man the offices in the Malacañan Palace complex, and the household staff within Malacañan Palace itself, exist to serve the President of the Philippines, whose official residence and office Malacañan Palace is.
The dual aspect of this complex –the bureaucratic and the personal- is reflected in the various buildings in the complex, and their uses over the years. But taken as a whole, Malacañan Palace is the expression, in ornamental landscaping, in concrete, wood, and stone, of the office of the presidency, and the various presidents who have lived –or refused to live- there. It is the embodiment of the supreme authority in the country, indivisible, in many ways, but also imbued with a history of its own, as an almost organic institution on its own. While every administration brings in with it a flood of appointees and appointments, they in turn find themselves grappling with civil servants and employees who date back to previous administrations. And while presidents leave their mark on the fabric of the Palace, so too does the Palace, with its many historical and political associations and the very layout of its buildings and grounds, leave its mark on those who rule from it. It is a place ironically familiar to many, but unknown to most.
In times of crisis, it is from Malacañan Palace that the President of the Philippines invariable addresses the people; and it is to Malacañan Palace that the same people, whether in respectful delegations or outraged mobs, gravitate. For Malacañan Palace is about power: wielding it, defending it, seizing it.
Power is why Malacañan Palace is many things: an office, so that power may be exercised; a hotel, for the comfort of that to which it is given; a fortress, so that power may be protected; a park, for the relaxation of the powerful; and a stage, for the projection of the prestige and ritual on which the powerful thrive, and which feeds their authority.
Its very name –Malacañan Palace- and its designation in bureaucratic correspondence and the press –Malacañang- indicates its complicated history. The former is its designation as the residence of the President of the Philippines, successor to the Governors-General from Spain and the United States as chief executive. The latter is its designation in common, everyday discourse: imposed, indeed, in the 1950s in an attempt to strip the Palace of its regal pretensions. Both remain; both have stuck; both point to the constant tug between the regal yearnings of presidents and the more egalitarian instincts of their people.
As the epicenter of governance, Malacañan Palace has a respectable antiquity. The White House predates it, as does Buckingham Palace which became the chief royal residence under Queen Victoria in 1837. So too, does the Elysee Palace in Paris, official residence of French Presidents since 1848. But it has been in use longer than the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, which dates to the Meiji Restoration in 1867. The Spanish governors-general moved into Malacañan Palace in 1863 when it was then but a bucolic country retreat. In comparison, the governors-general of the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) ensconced themselves in the Istena Negara at the end of the 19th century, and put up the Istena Merdeka in 1873; the Viceroys of India did not have a suitable palace until today’s Rashtrapati Bhawan, the president’s house in New Delhi, was completed in 1933. Indeed, in Southeast Asia, only the Royal Palace in Bangkok, begun in 1782, is older as an official residence -yet Malacañan Palace, as an identifiable property, still antedates it.
And yet it is not the age of the grounds or of the various buildings that have stood on the Malacañan Palace property that is of interest to those interested in the country’s colonial and post-colonial history, it is how its history has reflected a hybrid royal and republican past and present—and how Philippine politics has always played to the gallery.
Some explain Malacañan Palace away as the symbol of the unhealthy colonial accretions of Philippine history, an obsession with an imperialist past wrapped in a delusional history that never was; a fairy-tale Palace sitting in a never-never land. Other portray it as the highest manifestation of a culture that is ever political, a mélange of east and west in American concrete and native hardwoods, of foreign political institutions grafted on native ways of governance and social mores. It is a place imbued with an urbane, romantic past, a Philippines in which the Spanish legacy is in manners and food, in fashion and ritual; or marred with the tawdry manifestations of the kitsch of dictatorship in its resin doors and proliferations of regal crimson.
In fits of Western-style democratic rhetoric, attempts have been made to purge the palatial aspects of the Palace. Ramon Magsaysay had barely warmed the presidential seat when he ordered Malacañan Palace’s designation changed to “Malacañang, residence of the President of the Philippines.”
But against the inexorable weight of Philippine culture and habits, Western conceptions end up either mongrelized or simply cast away. So it is with Malacañan Palace, still officially merely Malacañang, on stationery and the press, but once and always the Palace in the popular imagination and speech.
This is, indeed, the irony of Malacañan Palace as symbol and reality: it can never shed its roots as the symbol of a foreign hegemony; it cannot be stripped of the aspirations of the leaders who have tried to transform it into a modern-day Rajah’s court or enclave of Castilian pretensions; it cannot, most of all, be stripped of the concept of centralized power that imbues every square meter of its facade and interiors. The coat-of-arms granted by Philip II of Spain to his “noble and ever-loyal” city of Manila coupled with the bald eagle of American sovereignty adorns its oldest building; the hybrid arms of the Commonwealth of the Philippines surmounts its gates; the coat-of-arms of the Philippine Republic established in 1946 is on the official furniture and above the Palace’s main entrance; the seal of office of the presidency, again with the imperial Spanish sealion and the Masonic triangle, sun, and stars of the Malolos Republic are everywhere in it. Even in decoration, Malacañan Palace boasts of power and those who wield it.
For the Filipino public, Malacañan Palace has always been an alien place: the home of foreign rulers, and variously the home or office of native, yet remote, potentates that rule in truly regal style. Today it is the home of their president, successor not only of Governors-general but of the Rajahs that ruled before the foreigners came, and in whose style the most effective Filipino leaders still govern. In the irreverent eyes of the Filipino press, the President of the Philippines is always the ring leader in the three-ring-circus of Philippine national life: and his residence and seat of power, Malacañan Palace, is the Big Top.
Yet for those in government and the majority of the public, the presidency and its home, are spoken of in the hushed tones reserved for the respected, or at the very least, the feared.
But whether as Big Top or revered shrine of authority, Malacañan Palace is much more than the temporary home of tenant-rulers. Like other centers of power, Malacañan has taken on a life and reputation of its own. The ringleaders may come and go, but the Big Top remains ever the same.
The public is always reminded of the importance of the Palace. The Philippine media, whether on television, on radio, or in print, uses “Malacañan says,” or “Malacañan announced,” as if the building were more than the man or the woman ruling from it.
This air of Rajah, of Governor-General, of President, of supreme authority, so permeates Malacañan Palace in the popular imagination that it has become the center of both the Filipino’s reactions to official rule, and their view of what it entails.
Toward the Palace’s gates march those seeking political change and social transformation. Towards those same gates have, at times, charged the tanks of putschists and been lobbed the Molotov cocktails of revolutionaries. From those gates have fled rebels, reformists, and revolutionaries faced with the implacable violence of rifle and tear gas, watercannon and truncheon. For whether president or putschist, politician or protester, Malacañan Palace is the pearl beyond price, a prize to be taken by any means in a country where every action, bar none, is symbolic.
And yet, never has the Palace endured an actual assault leading to a President being slain, the way President Salvador Allende was slain in a military coup in the presidential palace in Chile. Malacañan Palace has been seized by armies, its gates smashed by tanks and firetrucks, its rooms looted by its occupants, by tourists, and by mobs, but it has never seen slaughter on a grand scale: it has never seen regicide successfully accomplished whatever the feelings harbored by those who have tried to storm it.
To its gates, too, daily come throngs of supplicants, asking for jobs, begging for pardons, filing complaints, or simply trying to secure charity. In the late 1950s, Chief of Protocol Manuel Zamora could tell an interviewer that,
They just come, you know. Some delegations send telegrams, or write ahead, but most just come, and these, well, most are in bakya and old-time dresses, and they bring their own baon and they have just enough money for a day’s tour of the City, so we have a trained group of Presidential guides, and the people are taken through all the public rooms…
Today those supplicants are screened of course, told to pass through inspections and metal detectors; inevitably they come armed with an appointment. But they come, nonetheless, out of an instinctive gravitation towards the center of power; for the Rajah by the Pasig lives (or works) there, and it is personally to the Rajah they must come, to plead or pander; Filipino leaders must be remote, if only so string can be pulled and favors called upon so that an exception can be made for particular concerns—and made to seem all the more munificent thereby. And though there was a rare exception during the administration of Corazon C. Aquino when, Malacañan Palace was turned into a series of instructive tableaux calculated to inspire horror and fascination over the dictatorial excess of Ferdinand Marcos—for most of its history the Palace has been remote, a place that tolerated the occasional presence of the ruled, but out of charity not democratic principle.
If Filipinos view the Palace as both font of favor and object of protest, for the official foreigner, the Palace is the place to which one is shepherded to pay obeisance to a democratic head of state that he or she ends up viewing as an Oriental potentate. It is a place, most of all, that to the Western eye is confusing: built with Western technology, boasting of Classical adornments, yet imbued with a veneer of Filipiniana; neither here-nor-there, neither purely Western not purely Filipino (as Westerners would insist on viewing the Filipino, as carabao-riding peasants frolicking under palm trees near their nipa huts). Yet the Palace’s ambivalance would strike a familiar chord with the non-Western visitor, as the incarnation in stone, wood, crystal, and concrete, of a love-hate relationship with the legacies of colonialism and the aspirations of independence.
Showmanship has always been an essential element of leadership, all the more so in Philippine democracy, which demands charismatic leadership even from those devoid of it. To see the Palace as a backdrop for political stagecraft, one must begin with the flamboyant President Manuel L. Quezon who did so much to set the tone for his successors, both in their aspirations and their delusions. A close American associate of Quezon, former governor-general Francis Burton Harrison, would remark in his diary in 1941, that,
Quezon and Osmeña were sent for during Wood’s time to come to Malacañan Palace and were occasionally kept waiting for three quarters of an hour before being received by the Governor General. Wood’s a.d.c. told Crone that on one such occasion Quezon appeared clad in a camisa de chino, chinelas (slippers) and a salacot (big country hat). When surprise was expressed at his costume, he replied: “well, if I am to be treated like a ‘tao’ when I come to Malacañan, I’m going to dress like one.”
This was the sort of bathetic humbug that the electorate lapped up; the kind echoed in the apocryphal exclamation of Ramon Magsaysay who, upon seeing the red carpets of Malacañan upon moving in, was said to have exclaimed, “but such a sleeping mat is too luxurious for me!” As if, having been a politician for over a decade and Secretary of National Defense, he wasn’t familiar with the palace carpets or still actually slept on a common man’s woven sleeping mat.
For the politician, the leader, the president, of today, Malacañan Palace is indeed a stage; for the presidency is far more complex and subject to much more rigid rules than the presidency of the Commonwealth or of the Third Republic. But the aim remains the same: the wielding of power and presentation of it for the purpose of enhancement.
The presentation and enhancement of power is most clearly expressed in the formality and ritual that are the bywords of every structure that is called a palace. In the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th, under foreign rulers, Malacañan was the place of the levees of the occupying power, where representatives of foreign majesty deigned to receive their native subjects. Under Filipino democratic leaders, it is the place where the work of the people, the affairs of state, are conducted; the concrete manifestation of sovereignty where ambassadors present their credentials, visiting heads of state are received with the full panoply of an independent government; where the head of the nation issues proclamations and orders, makes speeches to comfort or threaten; where rebel chiefs and criminals are presented to the nation in chains. It is where the symbolic ritual of the democratic handover of power from president to president is enacted when the ceremonial climbing of the Palace’s main stairs takes place.
Empty as the pomp and circumstance may turn out in the eyes of history, they are nonetheless the incense with which Philippine leaders offer the holocaust that is politics pleasing to the public. For them and the countrymen they rule over, the Palace is a capital for a nation with no real capital; a history in stone, however limited, for a nation where history is only glimpsed in behavior no one can quite explain, and as in all things in this nation of symbols, a symbol of the love, hate, and indifference Filipinos feel for their past, for their nation, for the government, and themselves.
But from the flip side of as the Palace as an object of conquer, pearl to grab, is the palace as a font from which power is given and the favors within its gift received. In and out of its gates come civil servants and the aides upon whom the daily duties of governance depends, trying to serve, or serving in order to further their scheming for position.
It is during the full panalopy of a state visit that the history form and function of Malacañan Palace as prize, pulpit, and stage can be best seen. The visiting dignitary comes to parley with the president of the Philippines, chieftain to chieftain, datu to datu. From the layout of the entire Palace complex to the architecture of the buildings, to the architecture and layout of the rooms, to the furnishings and other trappings, Malacañan is both a symbol of racial vindication and of the parvenu, aspirations, of an impoverished nation-state with pretensions to a larger role in the world. Malacañan is the home of homes, as the proxy and concrete and wood to the shanties and mansions of those who pay for its upkeep. It is the most proto-typical, in a sense, of Filipino homes; the manifestation of what both millionaires and squatters aspire to achieve in their dreams. A home in which privacy is not a paramount consideration; but rather, a place in which the public is a manifestation of how we actually live our private lives: never quite out of the public eye, and never quite quiet, always calculating to impress, always aspiring to awe, torn between the trappings of Western affluence and culture and that of the homegrown.
The spectacle of a state visit, Filipino style, is always about spectacle. This is not about the formality and rigor imposed by protocol, but rather about how pomp and some aspects of protocol can best be used to best put on a show. This is Malacañan, a stage.
It is in the lay of the land, the location of the buildings, and the buildings themselves that Malacañan emerges as a prize, a prize in which the possessor, otherwise known as the President of the Philippines, can be seen at his or her gloating best, exulting in the most prized of Filipino roles, that of gracious and extravagant host. A state visit, though ostensibly meant as an act of courtesy and reciprocity between sovereign states, is first and foremost, in the context of Malacañan, about the current possessor’s ability to trumpet the here and now and the pre-eminence of the current leadership. This is Malacañan as prize.
And it is once the leaders are endorsed and all the bowing and scraping outside ends that Malacañan as pulpit emerges. It is in the ritual bilateral discussions, the signing of accords, the exchange of notes and speeches, and of toasts, in press statements, joint communiqués that Malacañan as pulpit emerges. It is where government finds a voice and the country is personified in the person of the head of state and of government.
There are a few occasions that surpass that of a state visit of a president of the United States in its ability to provoke Filipinos to exceed themselves in lavishness and hospitality. This is the acme of state visits; and it is when Malacañan emerges in its full glory as end-all and be-all of our conception of the state.
In October 2003, an American president came to town, resulting in an 8-hour condensation of much of the same events that Malacañan has witnessed in the past. The months and weeks leading up to the visit became the focus of frantic preparations and what can only be called state visit fever. As with Manila, so with the Palace, a period of frenzy, cosmetic preparations ensued. Even as the streets down which George W. Bush would pass were patched up and painted, Malacañan Palace itself received a glistening new coat of paint. Neglected nooks and crannies were cleaned. Crumbling masonry was repaired. Ornamental plants were trucked in. Novenas were offered for good weather. And while soldiers drilled, flower arrangements were prepared, tattered curtains replaced, threadbare rugs thrown out, and the frantic fight to be on the guest list took place. On the day of the visit itself, as the plane of the president of the United States was preparing to land, laying a wreath at the foot of the Rizal Monument, the first harbinger of Malacañan as prize, pulpit, and stage could be seen. Security everywhere. Choppers overhead. Snipers in their positions.
As George W. Bush was laying a wreath at the foot of the Rizal Monument, security had already vetted the Filipinos allowed inside the Palace itself. Even as janitors were sweeping up any stray leaves that dared to fall down from the trees to mar the immaculate lawns, even as exhausted chefs were putting the finishing touches on mountains of food for the press and VIPs, the officials were taking their places. By the time the president of the United States had already paid a brief call on his staff in the US Embassy (itself a tangible reminder of the end of the American colonial era, having been built for American pro-consuls after they had to vacate Malacañan), the president of the Philippines had emerged for a final inspection of the preparations. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo could very well have been Ferdinand Marcos or Carlos P. Garcia. The person periodically changes but in many ways the behavior of the person holding the office does not change. In Malacañan, the momentum of governance is only maintained by the personal intervention of the president. The staff and officials do not move until the president moves; and in the end, it is only the president who can give the seal of approval to anything and everything. So it was that the Bush motorcade wound its way from Roxas Boulevard to Jose P. Laurel. Nothing was considered fully prepared until it had received an approving nod from the president. Security men gave last minute reports as the president paced the lawn. Officials preened to be noticed. The band of the Presidential Security Group did a dry run of the national anthems of the two nations. It was only after the president had circled the field that a palpable sigh of relieve can be discerned. The stage was set.
The path of George W. Bush’s motorcade as he approached the environs of Malacañan Palace gave him a brief and fleeting rundown of the Palace’s history itself. The first thing he drove by, heralding the beginning of the Palace complex itself, was the New Executive Building, remodeled by Corazon Aquino from what had been once the San Miguel Brewery. The road itself he was on was once called Calzada de Malacañan, then Aviles, and now Jose P. Laurel. Next he passed a tiny triangular plaza which itself dated from the Spanish era but is surmounted by a monument paying homage to the anti-imperialists that had opposed the Republican Party’s annexation of the Philippines in 1899. He then passed Bonifacio Hall, for generations the servants’ quarters of the Palace. Finally turning right, he passed through the main gate of the Palace, erected by Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison during the American era, his limousine traversing a small rotunda which gave him a good view of Kalayaan Hall which dated back to the American and Commonwealth eras, finally leading him to the path by whose side the president of the Philippines was waiting to greet him. Ahead of him was the massive bulk of Mabini Hall which represents the other end of the Palace compound. Alighting from his car and having been greeted by the president of the Philippines, he now stood to an open field first laid out by Diosdado Macapagal in the grounds between Mabini Hall and Kalayaan Hall. And as he trooped the colors, he saw a screen of trees and ornamental plants that screened from his sight the Pasig River. As the soldiers presented arms and he was saluted by the colors, roped off to his left and right were the bureaucrats and officials of Malacañan. The trooping of the colors having ended, he then proceeded on foot past Kalayaan Hall into the perimeter of the Palace itself, walking past the family entrance, turning left and then turning left again to come to the main entrance. He then climbed the stairs and signed the guest book placed on a desk in front of Juan Luna’s Pacto de Sangre. From there, he entered the Reception Hall of the Palace to be taken to the Presidential Study. While the president of the United States and the president of the Philippines engaged in bilateral discussions, the first lady of the United States was escorted to an elevator linking Malacañan Palace proper to Kalayaan Hall. The elevator opened to the old executive rooms of the oldest building of the Palace complex - the old executive office, now known as the Quezon Room; the old Council of State Room now ; known as the Quirino Room; and the old Cabinet Room now known as the Roxas Room - Commonwealth era additions to an American era building. From the Quezon Room she passed the Quirino Room and emerged in the vast expanse of what was once Maharlika Hall created from the space once occupied by eight rooms dating from the American era. Under the coffered narra ceiling carved with swastikas, she sat as Filipino schoolchildren sang and danced and bellowed their greetings. Her well-scripted period of interactions having been completed, she proceeded to rejoin her husband, who, by then, has made his way from the Presidential Study to the Aguinaldo Room which had once been the ballroom in the Malacañan of Spain and America and the State Dining Room of the Commonwealth and the Republic. From there, the American president and his wife proceeded to call on the Philippine Congress, repairing, upon their return, to Bonifacio Hall, the old Premiere Guest House of the Marcos era and the Presidential Residence during the Estrada administration. After a brief rest, they emerged and lingered for a brief period in the garden in front of the Palace entrance with its art deco fountain and barrio fiesta style kiosks erected specially for the cocktails preceding the state dinner. They proceeded once more to climb the main stairs of the Palace, once more through the Reception Hall with its Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers, and ending up in the Marcosian splendor of Rizal Hall, with its New Society-era Betis wood and chandeliers, the Ceremonial Hall of old where the state dinner itself took place, to be feted with song and dance as they dined and exchanged ritual toasts of mutual admiration and esteem. By the end of the state visit and dinner, Malacañan had demonstrated all its many roles as prize, pulpit, and stage.
This trinity of attributes defines Malacañan Palace as thus: the uneasy coexistence of the regal and the republican. In the 20th century alone, Malacañan Palace found itself, in a sense, re-imagined no less than four times: transformed from the temporary palace of Spain’s waning imperium to an idealized Southern-style plantation home for America’s new colonial administration; and from that to a centralized, yet rambling, complex for cacique control; then again, back into a royal palace with pre-Hispanic pretensions; and now, once more, a complex struggling to restore a veneer of republican idealism over the tribal imperatives of contemporary politics.
To trace the consistencies while documenting the changes is to delve into the life of a building; to show, ironically, by cataloguing the constant changes borne of individual inclinations, and personal conceptions of power, the constancies in function, if not form, of Malacañan. Governors-general and presidents may come and go, but in so many ways, Malacañan remains the same.
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