Tuesday, September 06, 2005

National Tombstone

Sense and Sensibility : You gotta be kidding!

Bambi Harper
Inquirer News Service

SOME time last week, an article appeared in the press that Manila Hotel Corp. had agreed to buy the equity of Fraport AG and two other investors in the Philippine International Air Terminals Co. Inc. (Piatco), the builder of the new terminal. The German firm was reported to be willing to sell for $200 million, half of what it originally wanted (maybe anything, just to get rid of us). And it wasn't only the Germans who want out but the Singaporeans and the Japanese who are selling for a mere $30 million. The corporation allegedly still has outstanding debts with the Government Service Insurance System from the sale of the historic hotel, but it doesn't seem to bother GSIS president Winston Garcia. After all, it's GSIS money, not his.

In case you're not familiar with or have forgotten our economic misadventures and mismanaged finances, let me refresh your memory. Some 13 years ago, the government put the Manila Hotel on the block. The winning bid was submitted by the Malaysian group Renong Berhad in partnership with Sheraton. Lo and behold, the Supreme Court had a bout of galloping patriotism and overturned the winning bid and gave it to Emilio Yap, owner of the Manila Bulletin, on the grounds that patrimony should remain in Filipino hands. In one fell swoop, Chief Justice Andres Narvasa and his Court dealt a fatal blow to government credibility and foreign investment. The real losers in all these shenanigans were, of course, the Filipino people but it wasn't as though any of their leaders gave a hoot. For those of us who saw the Manila Hotel when it was the jewel in the crown of hotels in the country, to see it today transformed into a sleazy "panciteria" [noodle shop] smelling of stale smoke, redolent of vinyl placemats and varnished plywood paneling is to realize the Filipino people has been had. Because the hotel actually belonged to them and it wasn't up to the Narvasa Court to give it to Fu Manchu's descendent who had zilch experience in running hotels, much less a five-star one.

This was meant as a showcase of Filipino culture with Ming martabans in the lobby and beautiful huge tropical floral arrangements. The jars have now been replaced by schlock -- gold painted containers (remember this is supposed to be good luck in the owner's culture) plus a fake, kitschy copy of an Amorsolo right beside an original. A bombastically huge plastic Kodak image of the hotel is displayed prominently for its sando-clad guests to stand in front to have their pictures taken. The once elegant lobby sofas have been re-upholstered with a seedy, dark, cheap material that a friend described as the "Taiwan special," suggesting it was bought on sale and looks it.

The Manila Hotel was once the place to be seen in much the same way as the Four Seasons anywhere or the Ritz in Madrid or the George V in Paris. It could stand the comparison. Today it stands neck to neck with that other Yap hotel, Prince, and some others on Raon Street and Quezon Avenue. We were sold down the tube, guys, and as usual you don't hear anyone protesting. Are we to believe that if a property is considered "patrimonial," (a) it can be sold and (b) the interiors are a free-for-all and the owner can do whatever his tastelessness declares? Because if that's the case, Rizal Park can likewise be sold and Lito Atienza can lease the front of the boulevard fronting Malate Church to SM Shoemart to put up a mall, forevermore blocking the view of the sunset.

I once tried to explain to a government official that the people need to have something to be proud about ("puedeng ipagmalaki"), something we could brag about for being world-class. Well, we had it and we trashed it, thanks to Narvasa. Of course, any number of politicians may have had a hand in the decision to overturn Malaysia's bid in favor of the owner of the Manila Bulletin, which explains a lot of things otherwise incomprehensible.

Part of the terms was that Yap was supposed to infuse P600 million to refurbish the hotel. Where? Most of what he has built and remodeled has been depressing, ugly, brutal and spiritually degrading. There's that dreadful joke of a dreary centennial building where, for P2,000 a plate, we were served paella, salad, fish and spaghetti lumped all together in one plate. That's elegant? That's worthy of patrimony?

The depths to which we have sunk can be measured by the shabbiness and total tastelessness of the whole complex. Would you believe using varnished plywood for paneling in a hotel once advertised in Town & Country as the place to stay in Manila and where government today has the temerity to house its VIP guests? "Talagang wala na tayong hiya" [We have lost all shame]."

The catastrophe that is the Champagne Room with its imitation Louie XIV (or is it XV or XVI?) d├ęcor more suited to Sioctong than to Perrier-Jouet breaks your heart. Its lifelessness is frightening. Is this what happens in a marriage of poverty and corruption?

The final, inescapable fact is that the Manila Hotel may be the biggest tombstone to Filipino heritage yet. It may supersede the empty lot where the Jai-Alai building once stood and the derelict Army & Navy Club, no thanks to government officials.

But, just when you think the worst has befallen us, think again. Ladies and Gentlemen of this suffering nation, we are now being told that the only international airport terminal built in this country in the past 40 years at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars is now going to be owned by the same nightmarish, destructive group running the Manila Hotel.

There is scant refuge from the disorder in our national life. Sen. Richard Gordon, with his endorsement, now seems to be saying, "Hey, you nation of morons, this is all you deserve."