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Increasing Improvement in Manila

The Southeast Asian Miracle may have fallen on hard times, but in the Philippines there will always be wonders aplenty. It was here, in one of the world's most fervently Catholic countries, that mysterious marks discovered in a concrete sidewalk were joyously proclaimed to be the footprints of Jesus Christ. It was here that, in response to the suffering of Mount Pinatubo victims, a Virgin Mary statue was found to have miraculously opened its eyes. It was here that a woman reported she had given birth to a baby fish (which managed to offer, before shuffling off this mortal coil, a brief but puzzling quote: "Ik, ik").

Unfortunately for the Philippines, the cornucopia of miracles never quite spilled over into the economic realm. When I visited the country in 1986, the world was still applauding the People Power Revolution, which had peacefully toppled the kleptocratic Marcos regime in favor of democratically elected Corazon Aquino. With the dictator gone, everyone assumed the country would finally blossom. It didn't. Aquino, lovable but ineffectual, frittered away the next six years in well-meaning confusion. While neighboring economies in Southeast Asia defied gravity, the Philippines stumbled along leadenly. Manila, travelers complained, was a city of horrendous traffic jams, ugly architecture, and continual power blackouts, a place worth visiting only to catch a plane to an outlying beach resort.

All that, slowly, has begun to change—and without the help of divine intervention. Following his election, in 1992, President Fidel Ramos jump-started the country's sclerotic bureaucracy. The electricity crisis was solved, foreign investors were welcomed, and much-needed infrastructure programs were begun. As construction cranes began popping up over the cityscape, a once-unthinkable notion took root among Filipinos: We, too, are a tiger. When I returned to Manila a few months ago, this newfound optimism was palpable. Today, despite the currency crisis that has rocked Asia, the Philippine economy continues to expand, though at a more modest rate.

Success, to be sure, hasn't come overnight, and there's still plenty of room for improvement. Manila can be exasperating. The placid gentleness that endears Filipinos to vacationers can send a deadline-harried business traveler into a white-knuckled rage. Morning, noon, and evening traffic standstills are a fact of life, and construction along two of Manila's main arteries only makes things worse. Amid the swirling chaos of metropolitan life, it's rarely clear who, if anyone, is in charge. "There's no government here—only politics," my friend Elisa declared one night over drinks, in a not-uncommon reversion to gloom.

Some bright spots do exist. Though it may seem a small consolation, the traffic is not yet as insane as Bangkok's. And its worst effects can be avoided by a simple expedient: Stay in a hotel near where you want to be. Though the city itself is a jumbled sprawl, almost everything of interest takes place in just two districts—Makati, the financial and upscale residential neighborhood, and Malate, a funkier quarter of old Manila.

Makati is a sort of urban suburb where arbored compounds of the country's elite jostle against the rising glass-paned skyscrapers. It's the Tomorrowland of the Philippines, a glimpse of what the country will be like after everyone has traded rice farming for investment banking. Mobile phone­clutching, Prada bag­toting Beautiful People congregate for afternoon merienda (tea) in the soaring, column-flanked lobby of the Peninsula Manila. "We eat six times a day," says another friend, as a waiter wafts over to take our order. The point is not the food—which is rarely better than palatable anywhere in the Philippines—but rather, the opportunity to gather and swap stories. Tsismis (gossip) is the national pastime, and, who knows, you just might be privy to a tryst at the next table that will be reported as a blind item in one of Manila's numerous (and wildly imaginative) newspapers: a playboy senator carousing with his new mistress, perhaps, or a bad-boy movie star on the verge of impregnating his soon-to-be-jilted "lady love."

You can't spend all day simply nibbling on snacks, of course. Makati's movers and shakers have important things to do. Like shop. Across the street from the Peninsula, alongside the Shangri-La Manila (whose rococo lobby is the other prime meeting spot) lies the Ayala Center, mecca for all serious shoppers. This mega-mall wouldn't look out of place in suburban New Jersey; in the Philippines, though, it is regarded as an awe-inspiring feat. "Here," an acquaintance remarked, "antiseptic is not a put-down."

After 10 years of struggling to get on the development escalator, the country has begun to achieve the desired Americanized conformity. During my last visit, the hottest restaurant in the complex was the Fashion Café, and posters proclaimed the imminent arrival of a Planet Hollywood.

Then I looked closer, and found some reason to cheer. At the Fashion Café, the after-dinner crowd of twentysomethings had taken this sleek American concept as the staging ground for their own uniquely Philippine rituals, twirling across the dance floor in their patented, subtly smoldering mode of seduction. Downstairs at Venezia, a playfully elegant (and monstrously stylish) Italian restaurant, an older crowd went through similar paces with even greater élan. Americanism wasn't so much a goal as a contemporary veneer for ancient habits.

A Filipino touch is also evident in the area's shops. Traditional materials get a modern treatment at the furniture store Area, where, thanks to currency devaluation, sleek wicker chaises go for just $130 and austere wrought-iron beds for only $390. Just behind the Ayala shopping complex are two of Manila's most famous stores: Tesoro's and Balikbayan Handicrafts. Balikbayan is a three-storied, festive jumble of wood carvings, paintings, and metalware. More refined, Tesoro's specializes in highly prized local fabrics—piña and jusi, made of pineapple and banana fibers, respectively.

While the Makati crowd could be from an episode of Dallas, a lower-key set is quietly thriving a few miles away in Malate, the waterfront district of old Manila. Despite spectacular views—especially at sunset, when the flotilla of anchored freighters is silhouetted in fire—and the proximity of the historic Spanish walled city, Malate has until recently escaped the ambitions of developers. Amid narrow, old-fashioned streets jammed with bars and restaurants, the local version of bohemia prowls. "In Makati, people talk. You have to watch what you say, what you wear," said shaven-headed deejay Manolet Dario. "Malate is less snooty. You can wear jeans."

Malate's reputation has come a long way in a decade. When I was first there, it was dominated by a strip of girlie bars along M. H. del Pilar Street, a red-light zone that invariably took up a good minute or two of any foreign TV correspondent's report on the country. But in the early 1990's a new, crusading mayor, Alfredo Lim, abruptly shut down the strip. Pessimists predicted that the loss of tourists—even unsavory ones—would doom the area to economic oblivion. But quietly a new breed of respectable, even hip, nightspots began to prosper around nearby Remedios Circle.

My favorite is Café Caribana, a jaunty Caribbean-themed two-floor restaurant with delicious jerk chicken. It aims neither for high polish nor lightning-fast service; the charm is in the unpretentious clubhouse feel, with work by local artists adding an air of earnest creativity and verve.

And ever the wheel of destiny turns. This month the Japanese-owned Pan Pacific Hotel chain is due to open its 240-room, all-butler-service glass tower off Remedios Circle. The bottom half of the building will be given over to a massive dining complex with two dozen restaurants, including—yes, really—the country's first Hooters, where T-shirt-busting waitresses will tote beer mugs just a stone's throw from the old M. H. del Pilar strip.

All the improvements in the world will not change Manila's essential character: crowded, chaotic, slightly anarchic. Visitors who find they need a temporary break from it all retire to the Philippine Plaza hotel, now managed by Westin, which spreads out over a quiet swath of landfill in Manila Bay. The property has just undergone an extensive renovation, including a double water slide at its famous lagoonlike swimming pool. Best, however, is the harborside driving range, where you can whack special floating golf balls from the seawall into the setting sun.

"Golf is hot," my friend Liana assured me; courses are popping up all over the Islands. After a sunset warm-up at the Westin, duffers can hop a cab to Club Intramuros, whose 18 holes wind along the moat outside the walls of Fort Santiago. The course opened in the 1950's but only last year began offering night play, under bright floodlights.

Sadly, the government hasn't otherwise turned the crumbling walls and habitations of Intramuros to much advantage. Manila was almost completely leveled during World War II, and a touch of historical charm would give the city a sense of continuity and purpose. But these days, eyes are on more current concerns.

In spring, voters headed to the polls to choose Fidel Ramos's successor. Experience shows that the Philippines' prospects for the next six years depend overwhelmingly on the character of the man or woman at the helm, so naturally the country waited with bated breath. The choice turned out to be suitably dramatic: Erap Estrada—a malapropism-prone former movie star, avowed womanizer, and Marcos crony—won in a landslide. So begins another installment of the national soap opera: Will Estrada turn the presidential mansion into a three-ring circus?Or will he keep the country on course for six more years of growth?

Miracles have happened before. This time, one would hope, the Philippines will get the kind it really needs.

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