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Manila Central Post Office gets stamp of cultural importance

/ 07:09 AM December 16, 2018

MANILA LANDMARK Manila Central Post Office, which traces its roots to the 18th century,
is facing competition from courier services and new technology. —Photos by Mariejo Mariss S. Ramos

Inside the 92-year-old Manila Central Post Office building beside the Pasig River, one of the busiest rooms can be found behind door No. 3, where around a hundred “kartero” (letter carriers) struggle to keep the traditional form of correspondence alive in the city where more people are using electronic mail and courier services.

One of the oldest letter carriers, 60-year-old Edgar Valle, says their day starts as early as 7 a.m. when they tally different kinds of letters and parcels set for delivery to key parts of the Philippine capital: Paco, Ermita, Sampaloc, Tondo, Binondo-Quiapo, Santa Mesa and Santa Cruz.

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Once all registered mails have been recorded for the day, each kartero then sorts them according to their assigned roads and streets before they set off to deliver them by 9 a.m.

Valle, who covers 18 barangays around the Paco-Ermita area, uses his own motorcycle to plow through the busy streets of Manila and make sure every precious letter is delivered within the day.

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Now close to his retirement, Valle laments that the once dominant Manila landmark is starting to lose its old glory to instant messaging and digital communication.

Rain or shine

In the heyday of his 40-year service, he used to  carry around 400 letters in his bag daily — from ordinary mail to parcels and handwritten letters from abroad and the provinces. He delivered them by foot, come rain or shine.

“These days, we’re lucky to receive around 15-20 letters each for delivery,” Valle said. “Most of our senders now are government agencies like the Social Security System, banks, insurance companies and courts. We still receive personal letters from the provinces, but they’re rare now, too.”

It is only during the Christmas season that the post office sees a spike in deliveries, which usually doubles as early as November, because of airmail packages from overseas Filipinos.

“We appreciate people who still choose to send Christmas and other greeting cards to their loved ones, instead of just sending texts or e-mails that could be deleted with a click,” said Valle.

“Through letters, your ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Merry Christmas’ could last a lifetime — it won’t easily fade,” he added.

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That’s why, he said, he remains committed to his job — never mind the time when he was bitten by a stray dog or had accidentally fallen into a murky canal while delivering mail.

‘KARTERO’ CENTER Door No. 3 leads to one of the busiest sections of Manila Central Post Office.

‘Dead letter’ section

Valle has been a postman since 1978. It was during the Marcos administration when he started working at the post office.

He first served briefly at the “dead letter” section where his main task was to rip apart letters that weren’t delivered or didn’t have an address.

Just two months later, he was transferred to the lockbox section at the building’s lower ground floor, where around 3,000 P.O. boxes could be rented monthly for personal letters and packages.

The lockboxes are still there, but the demand for these personal depositories has decreased significantly through the years. Most of them are now empty.

In 1990, Valle was promoted to kartero. It was the same year that he met his wife, who used to work also at the lockbox section.

Stories of Valle and his love affair with the post office may be as voluminous as the letters he had delivered, but the post office building has a longer history.

P.O. BOXES Most of post office boxes for rent at Manila Central Post Office are now unused (above). Fewer and fewer Filipinos communicate via handwritten letters.

‘Important cultural property’

Last month, the National Museum declared the central post office building as an “important cultural property (ICP).”

Under the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, ICPs may receive government funding for protection, conservation and restoration by having “exceptional cultural, artistic and

historical significance” to the country.

Filipino philatelist Lawrence Chan said the Philippine postal system has a history spanning over 251 years.

The first post office was established in Manila in 1767 and became known as a leading center of postal services in Asia.

Neoclassical war survivor

Under the now-defunct Bureau of Post, the neoclassical Manila Central Post Office building located at Liwasang Bonifacio was built as the center of the Philippine postal services.

It was designed by three architects — American Ralph Doane and Filipinos Tomas Mapua and Juan Marcos de Guzman Arellano.

The building was heavily damaged in 1945 during the liberation of Manila at the end of World War II and was rebuilt in accordance with its original design a year after.

The Bureau of Post was renamed as Postal Service Office (PSO) by then President Corazon Aquino on April 13, 1987.

Under former President Fidel Ramos, PSO became a government-owned and -controlled corporation, and is now called Philippine Postal Corp. or PHLPost.

Chan and other stamp collectors and history enthusiasts from the Philippine Philatelists and Collectibles, the Philippine Philatelic Federation and the PHLPost offer free monthly, half-day postal heritage tours of the post office building.

During a tour on Nov. 10, Arlyn Labao of PHLPost told  about a hundred tourists — young millennials, old patrons and letter and stamp collectors — that the biggest challenge to Filipino postal heritage was the competition from large corporations that offer courier services.

“We try to compete with these companies, and we could also give the kind of service they’re offering, like our international postal Express Mail Service or EMS,” said Labao.

Systems upgrade

But despite the competition, PHLPost said the central office continued to support 3,748 regular and contractual employees and handled more than 183,000 letters and parcels monthly.

Systems changes are also being introduced. Instead of keeping bulky record books of letter entries and deliveries, PHLPost now uses computerized databases through the Central Mail Exchange System to sort all the incoming and outgoing mail matters that it handles.

Young people in their 20s are now being hired as kartero, or assistants, in the city delivery section to continue the tradition that Valle and his old colleagues have sustained throughout their careers.

This year, two women also tried working in the section, which was notorious for its macho culture and exclusive all-male force.

Valle’s old cubicle would need a lot of dusting before he could transfer it to the next kartero when he retires on June 30 next year.

He is now beginning to tuck away the little keepsakes, photographs and memorabilias he has kept on his desk through the years before he finally delivers his last letter.

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TAGS: important cultural property, Juan Marcos de Guzman Arellano, Manila Central Post Office, National Museum, Ralph Doane, Tomas Mapua
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