We all know that the grand dame of hotels in Manila is the venerable Manila Hotel that overlooks the bay and the Luneta. So much of our city’s history has involved this once staid and resplendent landmark that we may forget that at one time, there was another first class hotel that was the only one considered quite elegant enough to attract foreign tourists arriving in Manila as well as being linked with its own history.
The Hotel de Oriente was built in 1889 by Don Manuel Perez Marqueti, the father of Luis Perez Samanillo, owner of the Perez Samanillo building in Escolta. It was a first class hotel and indeed, at one time was the only one in the entire archipelago. Don Perez Marqueti selected the site in Binondo at the Plaza Calderon de la Barca (now Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz) next to the La Insular Cigarette and Cigar Factory. Its location was quite convenient, just a few blocks off the docks of the Pasig, next to the Chinese retail businesses and close to the busy Escolta shopping district, as well as the old walled city of Intramuros.
The Spanish architect Juan Jose Huervas y Arizmendi, who also designed the La Insular building, was commissioned to design the hotel at a cost of $100,000. It had three floors with 83 rooms, stables for 25 horses, an attic, and a broad entrance floored and roofed in red clay tiles. It was an elegant building with seven bays along its front.
On the ground floor was a narrow arcade with Moorish arches, with the arch on the central bay rising to the top of the second floor. The windows and ventanillas on the lower floor were protected by iron grilles. There were windows also on the entresuelo (mezzanine). The windows on the upper floor had sliding glass shutters and ventanillas with iron grilles.
The Hotel de Oriente was considered plush for its day and thought to be the Philippines’ best lodging in 1899 by American first-timers to the Philippines. Its strategic location near the church of Binondo and the pretty view of the Plaza Calderon de la Barca’s manicured lawns and fountains, the Estero de Reina and the San Fernando Bridge contributed to its fame as the best hotel in Manila.
This was the most prestigious hotel in Manila where most of the newly arrived American officer’s wives lived. Carriages await in the street in front of the hotel, and at the entrance may be seen a group of army officers in khaki uniform, in white and gold, or very much modern, olive drab. The dining room is entered through the rustling beadwork curtain. Here the Chinese waiters, in long gowns glide noiselessly around.
In 1899, the options for fine cuisine were few but the Hotel Oriente was known for its first class service and admirable cooking. Beside the leading dishes of the French cuisine, it served the national dishes of Spain so as to captivate the most fastidious eater. A food critic of the time describes their menu.
“Its chicken, chile peppers and rice are a revelation to those who have never eaten that ancient Barcelona dish. On occasions it serves tamales larger than the Mexican article with a filling made of game instead of chicken. Most notable of all, it dispenses a curry equal to the finest productions of Bombay or Calcutta. Its most popular curry is one made of camerones or large prawns, and the side dishes served with it include the Bombay duck, the Macassar red fish, fried breadfruit, fried onions, granulated roast peanuts, Spanish anchovies, grate young cocoanut, green and red chile ribbons, mango chutney, green chutney, English pickled walnuts, mustard pickles, and palm farina. It is the most elaborate curry east of India, and is superior to anything in either the United States or even in Europe itself.”
A first hand account states that after arriving in Manila, he was led by guides to his accommodations at the Hotel de Oriente, “Our way led directly towards the north, through the Calle Rosario, headquarters of Chinese merchants. We could not stop at any of the dirty, cramped yet attractive bazaars; we kept steadily on trying to see, and at the same time trying to avoid collision with the Filipinos, Spaniards, Chinamen, American soldiers, and who knows whom else obstructing the sidewalk. We managed however to avoid serious collision; to follow closely to our luggage-bearers, and to emerge with them at length into the freer space of the Plaza Calderon, right under the walls of a great church (Binondo Church), that except for its shabby looks, Aladdin might have transported as a whole from some old town of southern Europe. To eyes fresh from the north and the sea, it was as though they had been opened in medieval Spain. Just beyond the church arose the huge, almost palatial-looking, tobacco factory, “La Insular”, opposite which, across the street, stood the house of our search, the “Hotel de Oriente”.
“The house is spacious if not elegant: halls wide as streets, long stairways at a gentle incline, ceiling distant as skies, and rooms as big as dormitories. The floor and walls and ceiling are of wood, – no plaster could resist the dampness of the rainy season. Everywhere there is the smell of kerosene, with which the floors are rubbed to make them unpopular as parade-grounds for the armies or ants that otherwise would overrun them.”
Hooked rugs covered much of the wooden floor, and the large bedrooms had several rattan wicker chairs. Two ceiling fans revolved slowly, circulating the air. The Hotel Oriente was one of the few dwellings in Manila with electricity. The long, black blades of the ceiling fans turned silently, the heavy electric motors performing a never-ending service.
“There is no lack of ventilation, for the side of the room facing the street can be thrown entirely open. The Filipino bed has been unjustly ridiculed and maligned; it has been called an instrument of torture, a rack, an inspirer of insomnia. It is none of these. It is a “sleeping machine”, perfectly adapted to local conditions, a bed evolved by centuries of experience in a moist, hot, insect-ridden tropic land, and from the artistic point of view is not unattractive. Its peculiarity consists of the absence of slats, springs, mattress and blankets. In place of these there is a taut expanse of rattan, as if the bed were a gigantic cane-seat chair; on this a bamboo mat is laid, on this a single sheet. There is of course, a pillow, very hard, but cool, and an unfamiliar object like an abbreviated bolster, called a “Dutch Wife”, which originated in the Dutch East Indies. The bed is fortified with an elaborate mosquito netting dense enough to keep out the tiniest gnats and at the same time strong enough to resist the onslaught of the flying cockroaches.”
“We are unfortunate in arriving just after the hotel has been taken over from the Spaniards by an English company. Prices have gone up, and the service has gone all to pieces. Chinese boys replace the Filipino waiters. The Spanish cuisine, good of its garlicky kind, has given place to a sort of emergency galley in charge of ignorant Celestials, and the only attempts at re-organization are confined to swearings, long and loud, on the part of the distracted manager. But as he swore in a new, unfamiliar language, his words were lost upon the servants, while the guest received the full force of his utterances. I paid ten dollars (Mexican) per day for the privilege of eating my own canned goods in the dining-room, and occupying a huge apartment overlooking the square. “
The hotel is also known for its most famous guest. In June 26, 1892, Jose Rizal arrived in the Philippines from Hong Kong on board the boat Don Juan. After having been inspected by the custom men, he went to the Oriente Hotel where he occupied room No. 22, facing the Binondo church.
His sister, Lucia, accompanied him in his return to the Philippines. Rizal began to establish daily conferences with the Spanish Governor General Despujol to lift the order of exile against his sisters. Based on supposed evidence of anti-friar bills found in sister Lucia’s baggage, Despujol later issued a decree on July 7, 1892, banishing Jose Rizal to Dapitan, Zamboanga.
Don Manuel Perez Marqueti passed away and his widow sold the hotel in 1899 for $160,000. Walter Fitton, an Australian speculator bought it in 1900 for $350,000. Fitton sold it to Sellner’s Manila Investment Co., which leased it to Ah Gong, a Chinese food and wine distributor. Ah Gong was well-travelled and well known in Manila as a restauranteur, food purveyor, having a large store on Calle Echague. He was an ex-Navy man, spoke English fluently and was said to even own a large ranch in Nebraska.
When the Americans arrived in Manila in 1898, they found a Spanish city with a strong European influence. The walled city of Intramuros was patterned originally after a medieval fortress complete with walls and surrounding moat and gates with draw bridges. The Spanish lived within the walls in magnificent residences with their protruding balconies. The native Filipinos and Chinese lived outside the walls in surrounding villages. The succeeding American colonial administration found it necessary to leave their imprint on the city scene to redevelop Manila for it to acquire an American character and make it more suitable and attractive to Americans wanting to invest and live in the city to pursue career or business plans.
One of the early acts of the Philippine Commission was to assign architect Edgar Bourne in 1903 to purchase the Oriente Hotel for $675,000. The hotel was the favorite lodging house of foreign guests albeit not very well conducted by Ah Gong but it was the only important hotel in the city of sufficient size and dignity to induce the coming of tourists.
The Commission then started planning for a bigger hotel along the scenic Manila Bay. The long awaited opening of the Manila Hotel, hailed as “the finest hotel in the Far East”, occurred July 4, 1912.