"In the palace of the people," by Yay Marking, circa 1961
In the palace of the people
by Yay Marking
There are about 100 social functions a year in Malacañan. They range from state dinners to informal breakfasts with luncheons, teas and meriendas from noon to night. An occasional reception keeps the Palace aglow past midnight.
The Palace’s protocol officer, Manuel Guevara Zamora, 56, completed in 1961 his 25th year in the service and in the same job. Mr. Zamora was born and grew up in a house about 300 meters from Malacanan. As a matter of accountable hours, he has spent most of his life in or near Malacanan Palace.
His has not been a life without anxieties.
“One of my problems,” he says, “is this not answering ‘R.S.V.P.’ It’s French for ‘Answer If You Please.’ On the invitation, it is stated very clearly: R.S.V.P. Now, for some functions, it is a discourtesy not to answer—-a Head of State’s invitation is supposed to be a command—-but it is not of critical importance, not like for a State Dinner, where every guest is seated according to his rank.
“Imagine it for yourself. Right up to the day of the dinner sometimes, sometimes only hours before, if one hasn’t answered, we don’t know if he’s coming or not coming. Now, not answering is common among Filipino officials. So we cannot make the seating arrangements, and this must be made in advance because it is submitted for final approval of the President or First Lady before the place cards can be arranged.
“So we exert every effort to get the answer. We write again. We telephone. We send personal messengers. In 25 years, many of our public officials have not yet learned the importance and the courtesy of answering promptly.
“May I tell you a little story? It’s about a British Lord. He was invited by his King. On his deathbed, the nobleman replied, ‘I regret that I cannot attend due to a previous engagement with God,’ something like that, but he answered!
“The formalities are not really too complicated. You’re supposed to arrive 15 minutes before the time, present your card at the entrance, be escorted to the reception hall where the guests wait together until all the guests are present, then I notify the President and the First Lady.
“Nothing is served until the President arrives, the guests either follow a reception line, or the President and the First Lady follow around the circle of guests, greeting and shaking hands. Then cocktails are served.
“Going in to dinner, it’s always the President who leads with the wife of the guest of honor, followed by the guest of honor and the First Lady, and the rest follow as much as possible in a procession by twos according to rank, this to the music of an orchestra playing a stately march.
“But even here, even in this—- You know?, there are a few who do it every time! It’s like this. As a gentleman comes in, he is given a small envelope with a card inside. On the card is the name of the lady he is to take in to dinner. Some gentlemen, they just keep the envelope in their pocket, then the ladies they’re supposed to take in, they’re left behind.
“The five or six of us on duty, the aides and I, we quietly rescue the ladies, escort each to a seat next to the man who didn’t know what he was supposed to do, or didn’t know how to find the lady whose name was on the card—- in spite of our introducing guests to each other.
“we’re never at ease until everybody is seated. I’m always afraid that—- It has never happened in 25 years, but—- Anyway, we keep checking on the guest list, the guests present, the table diagram, checking and checking. We have to do this so it won’t be noticeable, but we must check to make sure nobody will be left out. Imagine the embarrassment if one is left standing, no place at the table. We always worry, and check, check, check.”
It would seem that keeping the wrong people out is easier than getting the right people in. Mr. Zamora has served all administrations from the time of Quezon through the war to the present day. “In all administrations,” he says, “there are many, many social climbers, all the time, for any occasion but especially during receptions.
“They go to a Congressman or a Senator or to relatives of the President or First Lady to try to get invited to functions where there is not even a remote reason for them to be. But we are firm in this. We give all kinds of excuses, such as lack of space, or that the guest list was furnished by the guest of honor. If they’re very insistent, we promise that we’ll see or we’ll send if we can, anything to keep them at bay.
“I know all the old ones, but every year there are new ones. Many even go to the extent of picking up invitations, mislaid maybe—- I don’t know how they get them, but they erase names, write in their own, sometimes get past the plainclothesmen at the doors, but usually we detect them the minute we see them. The cards change color, did you know?, show yellow underneath when erased. That’s one way we can tell, besides knowing most of the people to whom the invitations were issued.
“Anyway, when we detect gate crashers, they are nicely escorted out, as much as possible without disturbance. One time, at an inaugural ball, we turned out about 30. if there is disturbance, the Malacañan Guards take care of it.
“The real decorum, the dignity of the Palace, is maintained by the waiters and personal attendants. They’re very experienced people. They’re like fixtures in the Palace. They owe their allegiance and loyalty to the position of the President. They serve him and his family in every way to keep them comfortable and happy.
“They’re probably the only professional servants in the country. Some of them have been there since the American Governors General. We have never had to fire a single one for indiscretion, divulging a secret or gossiping. That’s true. I never thought of it before, but now that you ask, yes, I realize it. They have no eyes, no ears. If they see or hear, they say nothing. They are like members of the Presidential family. The President and the First Lady call them by first names or nicknames, and a member of the President’s family can cry on a shoulder, nobody will know.
“There are about 20 of them, inherited. They inherit the jobs and the Presidents inherit them. The son of Magsaysay’s valet, he’s a recent one. He was appointed by President Garcia when his father died with Magsaysay in that plane crash. There’s a sort of ‘succession.’ Certain families, from father to son, serve the Philippine Presidents. They go with the chandeliers… You know, I’ve always known this, but I never thought about it. They are faithful, able… They serve the Presidential families impartially.
“You remember the sequence: Quezon, Laurel, Osmena, Roxas, Quirino, Magsaysay, Garcia…
“While the service continues at the same peak of excellence—- What I mean to say is, while the service is the same, the Presidents are not. Quezon and Quirino were the most elegant Presidents. It was during their terms that Palace functions had a stateliness, that entertainment had both, well, both decorum and sparkle.
“It can’t be said that Osmena and Roxas were less discriminating, but their terms came right after the war, and the condition of the country was such that they could not entertain with the splendor of the others.
“But they were better off than Laurel. During the Occupation, they only functions were those that could not be avoided. They were ordered by the Commander of the enemy forces. And the service was good, but there was nothing to serve.
“After Quirino, then came Magsaysay… Magsaysay was by nature not a man for the glittering, impressive function, but he liked company.
“Garcia was a man of protocol with a sense of the proprieties, and Mrs. Garcia, too. Coming right after Magsaysay, they did not abruptly change the informality introduced at the Palace, but little by little Malacañan began to regain its former stature.
“What governs the Guest List? Commonsense, really. The President sends word who is coming and whether it will be a lunch or dinner, or what. I start preparing the list.
“The guest list depends upon the position and professional circumstances of the person. If it’s a General, like MacArthur, we invite the military men he knew and would like to meet again. Surely those will be included, as well as anybody he asks for, and those officials and officers representing our Government in the defense effort.
“If it’s a Statesman, we invite our Cabinetmen, our Senators, our Congressmen and, of course, their ladies. If it’s an outstanding professional, we invite our people prominent in that line, so that doctors meet doctors, educators meet educators, and so forth.
“Always included, as I said, are people that the guest of honor wants present, regardless of the person’s position or profession. Rarely, however, is such a person without prominence. He or she is always distinguished. You might be the No. 1 Society Butterfly, but it’s seldom that the Butterfly who is nothing else is included in the list.
“Thinking about the different periods, I think I can say that President and Mrs. Garcia were, yes, the easiest to serve. President Quezon was the most elegant and fiery. Mrs. Quezon was one of the most reasonable First Ladies, Mrs. Garcia the humblest, Mrs. Magsaysay the most amiable, Vicki the most fun. President Osmena was very sedate and President Roxas very understanding, and so were their First Ladies.
“Who was that? How to see the Palace? Why, just come. For official functions, guests must be chosen most carefully, limited in number, but everybody is welcome at Malacanan. It’s the people’s Palace, after all, so it’s open from nine to five every day for our people, especially form the provinces, and for foreign tourists. People from the provinces come by the busloads.
“They just come, you know. Some delegations send telegrams, or write ahead, but most just come, and these, well, most are in bakya and oldtime 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—-the Ceremonial Hall, where the biggest chandelier is and where foreign Ambassadors and Ministers are received at a formal ceremony, and the Reception Hall, State Dining Room, then downstairs to the Social Hall. That’s the pavilion overlooking the Pasig River.
“Did I mention the First Lady’s receiving room? That’s the Music Room upstairs, next to the Ceremonial Hall. Sometimes student groups ask to see the Cabinet Room, which is in the Executive Building, and they are shown that, too. In the private gardens is the Nipa Guest House, the most beautiful nipa house in the Philippines.
“Unless it is necessary to prevent disturbance of a particularly solemn function, people are shown around. Even Sundays, if there is no function, the President has given instructions that people coming to see the Palace are allowed to.
“The most used room is the Social Hall, the Pavilion. Most of the civic and charitable fund drives launched by the President and First Lady take place in this Social Hall. We also use it for the very big state dinner, such as the ones given for visiting Heads of State, as the State Dining Hall holds only about 60, while the Social Hall can seat up to 150.
“On special request, the Palace Housekeeper has the table set as if for a State Dinner, flowers and all. Requests like this usually come from home science classes in universities and colleges or special civic groups like the “All Nations” ladies.
“You know, there has been a wrong impression that the three chandeliers in the ceremonial hall were buried during the war, which is not true.
“One was not in place. It was at the cleaners. You know, there are about a thousand parts and about 350 bulbs, all crystal prisms, and only one firm has the specification of how it was assembled. They’re the only ones who can clean it.
“All these chandeliers were especially ordered by President Quezon from Czechoslovakia around 1937. at that time, all of them—- four huge ones, one weighs more than a ton, and about 30 others in assorted social smaller sizes—- were bought for P120,000, and there was a big howl, of course, but do you know how much they’re worth now?
“Experts place the value around P2,000,000—- except that their value has gone now beyond estimation. Czechoslovakia can no longer make them and so their value increases all the time. They’re priceless now. They can’t be duplicated. Foreigners tell us they’ve never seen anything like them in any palace or castle in the world. Well, we still have them, still enjoy them. They are part of the national investment, part of our national treasure.
“This one I’m telling you about, it was at the cleaners, dismantled. The war broke out. When the man in charge heard that the enemy was taking valuables away with them, he buried this one chandelier and didn’t return it until the term of President Roxas.
“But not one chandelier was taken away. That’s one thing you can say: not one thing, not even a curtain or a chair, was taken by the enemy. That’s one thing they did: they respected Malacañan, Palace of the People.”
A public servant outstanding for modest deportment, Mr. Zamora, before his long assignment in the Palace, already had distinguished himself. He served 12 years as Secretary to Resident Commissioner Pedro Guevara in Washington, D.C., where he passed the bar examination. He is a member of the bar of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, the District Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of the United States, and is also admitted to practice law in the Philippines. In 1958, the President of the Philippines conferred on Mr. Zamora, as Presidential Protocol Officer, the rank of Minister.