(First of a series)
MANILA, Philippines?There are no fresh roses in the lobby of the Manila Hotel.
Instead, there are plumes of birds of paradise and red anthuriums used normally in funeral wreaths.
They are an apt metaphor for a recurrent lament on the passing of an era in the saga of ?the grand old dame of hotels in Asia.?
?They last longer. We change them every week,? a receptionist says of the floral arrangements.
They are also part of what commentators call an attempt to coat with tinsel a hotel once synonymous with luxury and elegance that has fallen on bad times, although some spots concededly are nothing less than nirvana.
Over the past year, the hotel?once compared to the likes of the Raffles in Singapore and the Peninsula in Hong Kong?has been undergoing renovation, says its president, former Sen. Jose Lina.
There?s a new, state-of-the-art swimming pool and spa, an opulent Chinese restaurant with elaborate jade artwork designed by the hotel owner, Emilio Yap.
Some rooms are being torn down and modernized.
How long the renovation will take place and how much is being spent by Yap, a billionaire businessman and owner of the Manila Bulletin, is unknown.
Lina says he doesn?t have that information.
Staff say that Yap in fact has been renovating since he took over the hotel 12 years ago when the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) called a bidding to sell the property.
The 82-year-old tycoon had lost the tender to a Malaysian firm, the Renong Berhad and ITT-Sheraton combine, but went to the Supreme Court and won, citing the Constitution?s ?Filipino First? policy in the ownership of a ?national patrimony.?
One of the first things Yap did was to pull down the three brass chandeliers in the lobby, upon recommendation of a feng shui expert, and replace them with five.
The good vibes did not come, alas. One reason is he had a fight with another tycoon, Lucio Tan.
Tan owns Philippine Airlines. He deprived Yap of potential business, say the hotel employees.
It?s been downhill since.
Built by the Americans at the turn of the 20th century, the Manila Hotel first opened its doors in 1912 to become what has been described as a ?living testimonial of Philippine heritage.?
It was the site of festivities during the inauguration of the Philippine Commonwealth government.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the original ?American Caesar,? made the hotel at the edge of Manila Bay his home before the outbreak of World War II when he was appointed by President Manuel L. Quezon as field marshal of the Philippine Army.
The penthouse MacArthur occupied remains in its original condition and was named after him. It is one of the swankiest in the 570-room establishment that also has a suite with a private swimming pool.
During the Japanese occupation, the Imperial Army turned the hotel into its military headquarters.
The hotel survived the bombing of Manila and was later rebuilt to become a center of the nation?s cultural and political life. Momentous conventions of the Liberal and Nacionalista parties were held there.
Presidents and prime ministers stayed in the hotel, as well as Prince Charles, entertainers Sammy Davis Jr. and The Beatles, authors Ernest Hemingway and James Michener, Time publisher Henry Luce, and actors John Wayne and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
?Address of Prestige?
During the Marcos dictatorship, the hotel underwent a major facelift and a new taller edifice was built alongside it. The hotel reopened in 1977 with great fanfare under the direction of Imelda Marcos, who gave it the moniker ?Address of Prestige.?
With the Imeldific?s patronage, the hotel reaped international recognition and awards. It was the place to go and be seen during the martial law years.
Foreign correspondents hung out in the bar, and conducted interviews with the movers and shakers of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, particularly during its dying days as rumors swept that he was stricken with kidney problems.
In 1986, the Philippine ambassador to the Court of St. James?s, JV Cruz, was having drinks at the bar when he heard the scoop that the EDSA People Power Revolution had broken out, and quickly headed for the airport.
Months after Marcos? ouster, his vice president, Arturo Tolentino, led a rabble of loyalists that took over the hotel, its bar and booze in a short-lived coup attempt.
The glitter of the hotel has long been gone as the metropolis boomed and new hotels mushroomed, taking away business. The current economic doldrums exacted a toll on tourism.
Asked how it?s doing now, Lina says the Manila Hotel still gets a fair share, but cites a report from the auditing firm SGV that, he says, showed only a 55-percent occupancy in all the country?s hotels.
On a recent Tuesday, the Manila Hotel lobby was crammed with people who attended an oath-taking of engineers who recently passed the government board exams. The hotel gets a lot of this kind of business and its clients get a lot of space in the Manila Bulletin as part of the deal.
The people were tramping all over the carpets, posing for pictures and lounging on chairs and sofas that have seen better days.
The men?s toilet near the Ilang Ilang coffee shop with its broken plumbing had a steady clientele and reeked of foul odors. The bars and restaurants were deserted.
Need for renovation
A Filipino-Australian who did her internship with the Philippine Daily Inquirer last year stayed at the hotel, saying she had heard it was ?the best in town.? She was disappointed. She shared her room with cockroaches and rats skittered on the corridors.
Asked about the interlopers, Lina said: ?This is why we are renovating the hotel.?
A guest who wandered in the main kitchen while attending a dinner concert didn?t like what she saw. Before lunchtime on a lazy Sunday, it had slimy footprints on the chipped, white-tiled floor. It certainly wouldn?t light up the eyes of French chef Auguste Gusteau in the Pixar-Disney computer-animated film ?Ratatouille.?
Service has gone a notch down since the last professional manager left over a decade ago, according to staff, and it has nothing to do with doing without such amenities as caviar and champagne offered to weary travelers in hotels like the Ritz in Paris.
?If it was like this before,? says one employee of nearly 30 years, raising the palm of his hand over his head, ?it is now like this,? lowering it to waist level.
When the Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 3, 1997 in favor of Yap over the Malaysian winner, the tribunal slammed the state pension fund.
?The conveyance of this epic exponent of the Filipino psyche to alien hands cannot be less than Mephistophelian for it is, in whatever manner viewed, a veritable alienation of a nation?s soul for some pieces of foreign silver,? the court said.
?On the other hand, how much dignity will be preserved and realized if the national patrimony is safekept in the hands of a qualified, zealous and well-meaning Filipino??
It is a good question to ask Yap, under whose watch the ?nation?s soul? has been diminished and caught in a legal tangle over unpaid debts. (Second part tomorrow)