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Manila at a Crossroads: Transitions and Aspirations of Asian Cities

Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong
University of Leicester

Dr Mark Johnson
University of Hull


Panel Abstract

This panel brings together scholars from diverse fields of sociology, anthropology, and media studies to interrogate different dimensions of metropolitan Manila. The panel highlights that Manila as the capital city of the Philippines and ‘densest city in the world’ provides scholars with a complex canvas to theorize social struggle and transformations both in the developing world and in Southeast Asia. In popular discourse, Manila is currently caught in between optimistic narratives of development, such as being a “2013 top 10 city to invest in Asia” (The Telegraph), and pessimistic accounts of its squalor and moral decay, such as when the city was controversially dubbed as “the gates of hell” (Dan Brown’s Inferno). The four papers in the panel explore contemporary Manila in its uneven and contradictory movements between development and decay, multiculturalism and ethnocentrism, and tradition and change. They situate the city at the crucial point of transition, or a crossroads, through exploring it as a crucial locale for processes of religious diversification (Cornelio), mediation (Ong), migration (Cruz), and multiculturalism (Cabanes).

In the first paper “The Governance of Religions and Urban Aspirations in Metro Manila”, Cornelio examines Manila as an urban space that renders visible relationships between religious organizations, the government, and the public. He discusses how government regulation of sexualized billboards and rock concerts in the city are stirred by moral panic discourses from religious organizations, just as the government’s permissiveness for religious use of public space in the metropolis ties in to specific ‘worlding’ aspirations of Manila. The second paper “Zones of Media Experience in Metropolitan Manila” locates Manila at the center of Philippine society not only from its geographic claim as the center of political and economic power, but also of extensive media power, where media have come to fill the gap for a weak state. Ong’s paper discusses how media institutions in the city act as poignant sites of ‘pilgrimage’ for poor and working-class people not only for purposes of fandom or entertainment but for social recognition and even the promise of economic reward and basic social services. The third paper “Leaving Manila: Filipino Emigrants, Agents of the State, and the Times of Migration” presents an ethnographic account of the interactions between Filipino emigrants and representatives of the Philippine state in Manila, particularly officials and employees of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas. Cruz views these encounters as nexuses of temporalities: as parts of what could be prolonged struggles to emigrate, as generating ruptures and continuities in familial ties, and as moments when Philippine statehood and citizenship are seemingly devalued but also reasserted. The final paper “On the Mediation of Multiculturalism in Manila” explores the links between how the Manila-centric Philippine entertainment media and how Manila’s local Filipinos talk about the city’s Indian and Korean diasporas. Cabanes argues that the particular kind of mediation produced in this instance is entangled in the broader dynamics that undergird the Philippine postcolonial nationalist project, in particular that of the local Filipinos’ preoccupation with establishing a unique and unifying cultural identity and with their often unspoken but deeply entrenched hierarchy of their cultural others. The panel ends with an expert response from Dr Mark Johnson, who has written extensively on Filipino migration, gender studies, and religion.


Paper 1: The Governance of Religion and Urban Aspirations in Metro Manila

Dr Jayeel Cornelio
Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity

One of Metro Manila’s contemporary facets is religious diversification brought about by emerging evangelical organizations and immigration.  However, there are no specific policies or government agencies dealing with the management of religious organizations.  This paper will show that in spite of this absence, several recent developments in NCR render visible some patterns concerning the relationship between religion and the government of the metropolis.  These developments, it will be seen, also surface the various aspirations people have in Metro Manila.  Two broad patterns will be explored here. First, in the wake of several controversies involving public morality, it will be seen that religious organizations appeal to the State to become the moral arbiter.  These controversies include sexualized billboards, Lady Gaga’s concert, and an art exhibit, among others.  Mainly coming from conservative Catholic and Evangelical groups, the moral militancy reflects the aspiration to sustain the capital’s supposed religiosity, which is threatened by changing religious attitudes among the public. Second, the State generally follows a permissive rule in the religious use of public space in the metropolis.  This can be seen in terms of the seeming unproblematic use of historic open spaces in NCR.  But the State can also be seen as offering a more supportive assistance to such events as the Black Nazarene procession around the old City of Manila.  In this case, the State draws from taxpayers’ money to provide sanitation and security, for example, to devotees.  This is in a way expected since the procession is inseparable from the historical and cultural identity of Manila.  In recent years, the State, it will be seen, is extending the symbolic power of its recognition to the ambitious constructions of El Shaddai and Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), two highly influential religious organizations based in NCR.  El Shaddai’s International House of Prayer and INC’s Philippine Arena are constructions that surpass expectations of size and grandeur, which collectively contribute to the worlding aspiration of Metro Manila.


Paper 2: Zones of Media Experience in Metropolitan Manila

Dr Jonathan Corpus Ong
University of Leicester

This paper draws from the recent literature on media anthropology and production studies to explore the locatedness of media in ordinary people’s experiences, arguing that media production and consumption are always-already socially shaped and imbricated in national and local histories of regulation and development. This paper teases out the unique feature of Filipino privately owned television networks as interventionist, whereby economic aid and assistance is offered to “the masses” not only in wealth-sharing game shows, but also in charitable projects run by media oligarchs and celebrities. While elite-owned, television confers symbolic recognition to the poor through their “overrepresentation” (Wood & Skeggs, 2009) across multiple genres, and offers material redistribution in the transactional interactions between generous TV personalities and loyal audiences in various zones of media experience. In particular, this paper discusses how television institutions in Manila act as sites of ‘pilgrimage’ for poor and working-class people both within and without the city to avail of the social services advertised by TV institutions. Through an ethnographic portrait of a family’s physical and emotional labor of visiting a TV network, auditioning, and then being subjects of their own charity appeal, the paper illustrates the exercise of unregulated media power in the Philippines, the Filipino cultural idioms that animate practices of pilgrimage, and the significance of Manila not only as a center for political and economic power but of intense concentration of symbolic power.


Paper 3: Leaving Manila: Filipino Emigrants, Agents of the State, and the Times of Migration

Resto S. Cruz
University of Edinburgh

In this paper, I present an ethnographic account of the brief encounters between Filipino would-be emigrants and agents of the state based in Manila, specifically officials and employees of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, and primarily in the context of pre-departure orientation seminars that the Philippine state requires would-be emigrants to attend. I highlight how, in spite of their briefness, these encounters might be usefully seen as nexuses of temporalities that include: personal, familial, and broader histories of migration and mobility; the continuities and ruptures of kinship time; the cycles, rhythms, and timeframes of bureaucracy, statehood, and citizenship; and the various futures that emigrants, their kin, and agents of the state imagine and seek to create. By attending to these temporalities and how they may converge or diverge, I foreground in this paper the irreducibility of emigrant-state encounters to either logics of regulation and governmental rationality or the severance of bonds of citizenship. Indeed, part of what emerges from these encounters is the seemingly contradictory devaluation and reassertion of Philippine statehood and citizenship. Emergent too in these encounters and interactions are different construals of Manila. Whilst Manila’s centrality in migration and broader social processes in the Philippines is a precondition of and is in turn reinforced by these encounters, Manila is also produced as the site of a present that is on its way to becoming the past, at the same time that it is relocated to a future of anticipated returns, familial reconnections, and social and economic mobilities.


Paper 4: Photography as an Interruption to the Mediation of Multiculturalism in Manila

Dr Jason Vincent A. Cabanes
University of Leeds

In this article, I examine the mediation of multiculturalism in the developing world city of Manila. Drawing on both a thematic analysis of the Manila-centric Philippine entertainment media and six focus group discussions with the city’s local Filipinos, I reveal that this instance of mediation is entangled with the broader discourses of the Philippine postcolonial nationalist project. For one, the mediation of multiculturalism in Manila tends to symbolically marginalize the city’s Indians and Koreans and, in so doing, reinforces existing negative discourses about them. I contend that this is linked to the locals’ preoccupation with establishing a unifying cultural identity that tends to make them elide the issue of their own internal cultural diversity, as well as of the increasing diasporic population of the city. Second, the said mediation also tends to valorize the lighter-skinned Koreans over the darker-skinned Indians. I posit that this is related to how the locals’ discourse of cultural homogeneity has resulted in their continued reluctance to publicly discuss the persistence of their unspoken skin-tone based racial hierarchy not only of themselves, but also of their cultural others.