“The saying goes in the Far East that if an Englishman, a Spaniard and an American were to be left upon a desert island, the first would organize a club, the second build a church, and the third start a newspaper.” Life in Manila: Description of the Philippine Island City,” written by Charles B. Howard shortly after the Americans defeated the Spanish, as it appeared in the American publication “Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly,” Vol. 46: July-October 1898 (Thanks to Paquito dela Cruz)
Recently I’ve been fortunate to get a copy of “The Manila Club” by Angus Campbell ©1994. It’s the history of one of the oldest private membership social club in the Philippines but it also incorporates a lot of history of Manila and also its affiliations with other clubs.
Although it’s not quite certain when the club was established, it’s certain to have existed as early as 1877. It has been referred to as the British Club, the English Club, the European Club, and the Club de los Ingleses but the correct name has always been, the Manila Club. I was glad to find this out because through my research I’ve come across so many names, it was hard to determine if it was the same or an entirely different one. Reading this great book, I’ve also come to discover that quite a few other clubs that I’ve heard of were actually affiliated with the Manila Club which will be identified here.
The lure of the riches of the Orient drew quite a few trading companies to Manila in the 1800s, the oldest seeming to be Kierulf & Co. possibly dating back to 1809, and Russell & Sturgis, an American partnership established in 1828. It was inevitable that these foreign trader “ex-pats” would start their own clubs as apparently there was no selection of European or American-styled restaurants or places to socialize other than one’s homes. Although not documented, one of those was what might have been the predecessor of an English club. It is thought this fledgling club must have been situated along the north bank of the Pasig in either the Binondo or Santa Cruz districts.
By 1875, Russell & Sturgis declared bankruptcy due to a disastrous speculation in the sugar industry. The banks of Barings in London and the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corp. took over George Sturgis’ large staff house at Nagtahan, which seemed an ideal opportunity to establish a social center for the British-led foreign community.
The Manila Club in the 1880s included many nationalities within its membership but the British and Scots comprised the majority of members, all male. It was financed by its members through shares or debentures and an entrance fee and monthly dues.
The clubhouse (shown on the left) was a comfortable, cool resort with a large verandah overlooking the Pasig. It was a 3-storied building including an attic and opened from 6am to midnight. It held guest bedrooms, a bar, dining room and lounge, a bowling alley on the ground floor and billiard room. The reading and music rooms were towards the rear facing the Pasig. “The club house is long, low and rambling. The reading, writing and music rooms from on the river, and the glossy hard wood floors, hand hewn out of solid trees , seem to suggest music and coolness. It is possible to reach the city by jumping into a native boat at the portico on the river bank, or to go by one of the two wheeled gigs, called carromatas, waiting at the front gate, or to walk a block and take the tram car which jogs down through the busy high road. ” Yesterdays in the Philippines by Joseph Earle Stevens
At the gateway was a sign announcing “No Women or Dogs Allowed” , typical of the London-styled chauvinistic attitude of the day. The property was not large, measuring some 200 yards deep from the river bank to Calle Aciete and about 250 yards across Calle Nagtahan to the Estero de Valencia but still contained a garden, stables, a few annexes, a boat house, and at least one tennis court. Arthur D. Hall, author recalls, “The English (Manila) Club is not only a sort of social centre and bureau of information but it is also a trade centre at which sales are made, contracts closed and deals consumated.”
One of its first affiliations was the Manila Jockey Club, which was the first of its kind in Southeast Asia. It was founded by some of the elite of Manila at the time: Ayalas, Zobels, Elizaldes and Prietos. A new oval racetrack and grandstand was built in 1880 accommodating 800 people at Calle Hippodromo in Santa Mesa, about a mile upstream from the Manila Club. The grandstand was a simple affair, tiered of wood and nipa construction with nothing resembling a dance floor or clubhouse. In 1900, MJC was moved to the San Lazaro Hippodrome in Santa Cruz, Manila, at the corner of Felix Huertas and Tayuman streets. In 2003, it was moved to the San Lazaro Leisure and Business Park in Dasmarinas, Cavite. The Santa Cruz property now has an SM Mall, Ayala townhouses and condominiums and office building, and a soon-to-open luxury hotel. [thanks for the update from Menie Odulio]
“It was a gala country style affair, where friends met to spend the day with the horses; the racing fans came in carriages drawn by spirited steeds. The ladies wore long skirts and pleated dresses with matching parasols. The men, young and old, sported light pants, four-buttoned coats and black Ascot ties, lending an atmosphere of color to the hippodrome. After the races the ladies and their escorts repaired to the clubhouse [the Manila Club] where they danced to the tune of the Spanish Quadrille and waltzes. “
Another annex of the Club was the Tiffin Club located in Binondo at the corner of Calle Rosario and Callejon de San Gabriel just upstairs from the Chartered Bank (Tiffin meant breakfast or lunch parlor). It was quite a handy retreat as most business was conducted “downtown” and as staff from the Manila Club served members and offered a quick respite for food and mid-day break, even offering a library with billiard table. The Tiffin Club lasted until 1957.
In 1896, the Club moved from Nagtahan to a large, beautiful house right on the beach at 131 Calle Marina in Ermita once occupied by Enrique Zobel and believed to be one of several properties on the Ermita and Malate shore owned by the de Ynchausti family. The property was 150 by 80 yards included a stable that housed the boats for the Manila Boat Club. (see below)
Although separately constituted, the Boat Club continued to operate as an adjunct of the Manila Club for the next thirteen years, its members now rowing on Manila Bay as opposed to the Pasig where its former clubhouse was located. It was here where members of the Manila Boat Club could watch the Battle of Manila Bay right from the roof of the building. In the photo below, you can almost make out several members standing on the center section of the roof.
Maj. Geo. Younghusband, Manila Club member and author wrote, “There is present only one club, known as the English Club, with a fine clubhouse out in the Malate quarter on the seashore, and an annexe (sic) in the shape of a Tiffin Club in the Binondo quarter in the centre of the business houses.
The members most hospitably throw their doors open to British and American officers, making them temporary or honorary members. It was from the roof of the clubhouse that several Englishmen gained a fine view of the naval battle of Cavite, whilst in the final capture of the city they were right on the scene of action, and at one time between the belligerents, probably a unique experience.” Click to link to my article about the Manila Boat Club.
In the ensuing years of American occupation, the U.S. Philippine Commission commissioned architect Daniel Burnham to develop his plan to beautify Manila. When his plan was published, it was clear that the Manila Club’s location would lose it claim to the seashore at the end of its back lawn. Cavite Boulevard would be widened, extended, and renamed Dewey Boulevard, pushing quite a few waterfront homes back inland.
Foreseeing that Calle Marina would then become an ordinary suburban street, the Club board bought about 4 hectares in the area bounded by Calles San Marcelino, Isaac Peral, and Marques de Comillas, opposite the Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas, a cigar company.
The Club moved to a rather austere looking building designed by William Parsons on San Marcelino street in 1908. It was well-equipped with guest rooms, bowling alleys and billiard rooms, library and lounge, tennis courts, and of course the bar named “The Snake Pit”. The large property at San Marcelino attracted a number of sports events. Aside from lawn tennis, team sports such as soccer, rugger, and cricket were popular, especially with the younger members.
Up to the early part of 1940, life in the Manila’s clubs was the highlight of social activity with the foreign population and elite however, the Manila Club seemed to avoid all forms of press publicity, keeping notices of high society out of the social pages probably evolving from the British sense of propriety, until the coming of war with Great Britain and Germany.
The British War Relief effort by Manila’s social elite organized communities to action, sponsoring activities for support with fashion shows, teas, bridge and mahjong and fairs. The prospect of war on Manila’s doorstep was inevitable as Japan stormed through Manchuria and down through China. Blackout rehearsals were observed and Manila’s citizens prepared for the worst.
As the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, many British were evacuated to Manila unfortunately, only to find themselves trapped when the Japanese entered the city on January 2nd, 1941.
Club member Gordon Eady described that day, “On the morning of Friday, January 2nd, it appeared from our house that we were completely ringed in by fires. In whichever direction we looked the sky was covered with thick clouds of drifting black smoke that entirely blotted out the sun, giving us an eerie half light akin to that of a total eclipse and one of the coldest days on record. The ‘raging inferno’ caused by the bombing according to the press was as nothing compared with the blazing city which greeted the advance guard of Japanese when they drove through Manila direct to the Malacañan Palace that afternoon to open negotiations with Mayor Vargas regarding arrangement for the occupation. Next morning, Saturday, the city was in full control of the Japanese; armed sentries were posted in the markets and at every street corner… Buses and trucks were already going round collecting enemy aliens for internment.p On being fetched, most people were told that they were being taken away for questioning… and advised to take with them a suitcase containing a clean change of clothes. All were removed to Santo Tomas University which had been selected as the civilian internment camp.”
Little is known of how the Japanese used the Manila Club property other than it was taken over by Formosan troops as their barracks. The troops were described as ‘behaving like vandals’. They moved the four old billiard tables out onto the lawn and piled the library books – the biggest non-reference library in the country – on one of the tennis courts and left to rot.
After 3 1/2 years of hard internment at Santo Tomas, liberation was at hand and as Manila’s citizens tried to reconstruct their city and their lives, many of the former social clubs came back to life, like flora and fauna after a devastating volcanic eruption.
Four months after liberation, a bomb-battered room in the Heacock building on the corner of David and Escolta streets was rented. Some of the former staff were employed and simple meals and snacks were offered at the bar. With infusion from the American government, the government and economy started its rebuilding process. The photo on the left shows the Escolta at corner Calle David around 1947 during the period of reconstruction.
Throughout the latter part of 1947 and early 1948, plans to rebuild the San Marcelino club were often discussed. In 1948, architect Pablo Antonio, Sr. presented plans for the club’s reconstruction. The original staid exterior was changed into a more charming construction landscaped with trees but retaining its original lines. The wooden annex, squash and badminton courts were discarded. The number of guest bedrooms were increased, reconditioned billiard tables were ordered, and a Brunswick bowling alley installed. On November 20, 1948, the members gathered for the official opening and buffet dinner.
Before the war, the club maintained a restricted membership to British and Empire subjects of European origin, meaning Asians were not included. This was not an attitude that was exclusive to the Manila Club as discrimination was found in other clubs and cabarets and even establishments such as the Manila Hotel. However , in 1948, the by-laws were amended which approved eligibility of Filipinos for “Associate membership”, cautiously inviting only up to “six prominent Filipinos” to join. This pre-war discrimination continued, albeit fading, for the next ten years at which time many more Filipinos joined, were welcomed and enjoyed their memberships.
Among the Filipino staff was “Shorty” Tang Koo, manager. Shorty joined the staff in 1936 and quickly became known as the go-to guy; the man with the fix. Undoubtedly, his management assured the highest quality service and discretion. After liberation, alcohol and beer were quite hard to find however, Shorty seemed to get his hands on the limited production of cold San Miguel that was reserved for U.S. Forces. Young members could rely on Shorty. There were many times late at night when he hailed a cab and drove to some unsavory night spot to retrieve a member who had become incapable of extracting himself. He’s shown below serving Tiffin Club members at their last lunch prior to shutting down. Shorty retired in 1976 after forty years of serving the Club, to join his son and family in California. He carried with him the respect and affection of all who knew him. In 1987, he was elected to Honorary Membership.
In the early 1950s, serious issues arose which affected the future of the club. Its cash position was growing weak and payments for the 1948 reconstruction loan were in arrears, the Club’s corporate life of fifty years was due to end in 1957, and under Philippine law, corporations whose ownership were more than forty percent foreign could not own land. In addition, upkeep of the Tiffin Club annex was a drain on resources. At the start of 1957, newly-elected President, Gordon Mackay was able to close the Tiffin and the board turned their attention to the issues of the Club.
Club members now found themselves in an ironic situation. In order to continue ownership of land after the original corporation terminated, the Club would need to transfer 60% ownership into Filipino hands. To admit non-British Commonwealth management to its affairs would be to forfeit eventually that intangible thing which was its principal attraction, being an oasis of the British lifestyle. It was felt that in conserving its British character, the Club was not being anti-Filipino but was preserving its single and most important asset. However, the issue was finally resolved by selecting Filipino partners of Smith Bell & Co., Ltd. and offering them 60% of the shares and formed a new corporation called Manila Club, Inc.
The decision was made to sell the San Marcelino property but the dilemma was trying to find a buyer as soon as possible while locating new premises. In 1961, Manila was still the business center of the country, although many of the Club’s members were moving towards the Makati area. In 1962, the Club accepted an offer by the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office for P1.8 million so now the search for a new location was immediate.
A temporary, albeit smaller premises was leased at 2008 Dewey Boulevard and on October 31st, a farewell cocktail party was held at San Marcelino. The new club opened in November 1962. But by 1965, the Directors needed to find something more suitable. The Hotel Mar on the corner of Colorado and California streets (renamed Escoda and Agoncillo) in Ermita was signed for a twenty year lease. It was indeed a charming house with a somewhat sordid past of renting rooms by the hour. It had been built in the 1920s as a private home, gracious but not large and had a character that lent itself to its new occupants. The surrounding trees and walls made it impossible to photograph from the outside and very few photos survive of its interior but within, the clamor and din of traffic and population faded and the charm of the private home took over.
By 1975, only half way through the lease at Agoncillo, the landscaped changed. Many members and businesses moved to Makati. Retail shopping, hotels and night life found their way to the “new” Manila. The Ermita district generated a squalid atmosphere. The mood amongst most members was that a transfer was inevitable.
After several potential move locations were stymied, the Directors learned that the long-closed La Mancha Inn in Magallanes Commercial Center was for sale. It was an attractive location in Makati. By September 1983, the building and contents were purchased for P2,250,000. Rebuilding of the interior was completed, closing the entrance patio to form a large Men’s Bar and opened for business in February 1984.
1984 saw a year of financial problems due to ebbing membership and high overhead management expenses. Bankruptcy and closure were close at hand. The Manager and the Board acted to raise revenues with a book sale, monthly sweepstakes, take-home food and catering plus gourmet dinners. Within five years, membership applications improved and profitability rose. By 1993, the Manila Club was on reasonably satisfactory footing thanks to efforts by the Boards, managers, members and staff.
Today, the Manila Club shares the same floor with the Elks Club and can be found at:
7th Floor Corinthian Plaza
Paseo de Roxas corner Legazpi Street
Legaspi Village, Makati
Also please find Manila Nostalgia on Facebook where over 2800 members post their photos and memories of the Manila we love.