Black Market Days

Paolo Enrico Melendez on the Lost Thrill of Quiapo DVD Hunting

by Paolo Enrico Melendez


There was a time when I frequented Quiapo to buy DVDs. I was employed by a nearby university, and while the work wasn’t toxic, I found that diving for discs was a great way to decompress.


In Quiapo were classics and new releases. Rarities and no-brainers. Boxed sets you couldn’t get in the fanciest bookstores or record bars. I went there for the rock documentaries, though: an extension of a long-held habit of hitting nearby Recto for bootlegs. In Recto, the vendors knew more about their merch than the average guy at Tower Records. Or you, for that matter. “Di mo magugustuhan yan, ser,” they would tell me as my free hand strayed to the emo pile after going through the Meshuggah and Minor Threat discs.


I found that diving for discs was a great way to decompress.  


Like my trips to Recto, going to Quiapo was a feat of logistics. Planning ahead, I hit stalls on the days I reported for work, and only when Quezon Boulevard wasn’t choked with churchgoers. I had to strategize where on my body to stash my cash. Other risks abounded. You could have the vendor check your disc, but there was always the chance that your player at home couldn’t read it. The disc may skip, or hang altogether. And if you were really out of luck, your copy of The Clash: Westway to the World would turn out be burned onto a rewritable disc of Michael Learns to Rock: Live in Seoul.


What made up for all the trouble was that the sorties always meant stories, because they would almost always involve friends. This writer, that painter, those directors. A National Artist even, at one point, whom we had to physically support, because while he obviously still had the spirit of adventure, he couldn’t risk a hip-breaking fall on Quiapo’s perpetually slick sidewalks.


Consider these two quick examples. In the first, the host of a popular children’s show is spotted browsing adult DVDs. He is heckled by kids. “Tao lang ako,” he screams at the middle distance. In the second, one writer asks the vendor if his Battle Royale DVD came with subtitles. A voice behind the writer snaps that the movie doesn’t need any. It turns out to be another writer, who wasn’t wrong about the movie, but was also exhibiting the snarkiness for which her peers avoided her.


The actual DVD became tangential, a bonus. What mattered were the accidental discoveries, imbued with import, and worth remembering.


Going to Quiapo thus felt like an event. The actual DVD became tangential, a bonus. What mattered were the accidental discoveries, imbued with import, and worth remembering. Every sortie meant craving noodles at a nearby Chinese resto. Chancing upon a tubao from the deep South, the colors as striking as sunlight on seawater. Or spotting handsome leather goods on the cheap. Every purchase was a prospect of encountering the Quiapo version of that Recto bootleg vendor, who will likewise discuss with you point-by-point why one documentary is legit, and why another is swill.


Case in point: I remember going to Quiapo once with two people I will not name because they are respected media and academic figures. We browse, having no particular title in mind. One of them jokes that we are looking for smut, using the word “scandal.” The people around us suddenly tense up and move in. We are invited, implored, herded bodily by a ring of vendors that appear from nowhere. Past the stalls of aluminum cookware and hand tools and brooms. Past noodle joints and fishball carts, to an alley running beside a nearby estero. We are wordless as we are led down one set of stairs, then another, yet another: morsels swallowed by downtown Manila’s hungry mouth. The sunlight disappears and we stumble into an area that even cops will not enter, one I had only seen on sorties of the more narcotic nature. All around us are men who look acclimatized to subterranea.


If you were really out of luck, your copy of The Clash: Westway to the World would turn out be burned onto a rewritable disc of Michael Learns to Rock: Live in Seoul.


We go into what is by description, if not by geography nor geology, a cave, its walls lined with cover after badly printed cover of porn. Four monitors, one on each corner, plays highlights from a skin flick, the lips always thick and imploring under bad lighting. The three of us still do not speak, mill about awkwardly, always with one burly man by one side, our writerly joke now blowing up in our faces like hackneyed money shot with hackneyed background bassline. We are street-smart enough to know that we have to buy a disc each before we are allowed to leave. So we do. Each disc is thrice the going rate outside. We pay and are led out. We have no more money for warm noodles, handsome tubao, boastful leather goods. We only start talking when the sites become familiar. Cookware, tools, pansit. And we talk about everything but the bowels from which we have just been excreted.


Eventually, scoring bootlegs in other places got too easy. Streaming got better with broadband. And because the market eventually adjusted its pricing, archival impetus replaced boho stinginess; more than any other anti-piracy campaign, a distributor easing off on its mark-up proved most effective. Against all this convenience, my trips to Quiapo didn’t stand a chance. I haven’t gone there to look for documentaries since leaving my academic work almost a decade ago.


Paradoxically, with this cynicism has come a stubbornly romantic view, that those were “The Days,” never to be recovered, turn down that racket and get off my lawn while you’re at it. My two friends feel the same way. The three of us still talk about our porno den misadventure whenever we run into each other. It’s at once running joke, tireless sentimentality, and ongoing therapy. I’ve just never gotten the same with a download.