For Filipino millennials who have only just discovered French couture thanks to the H&M x Balmain collab, or le bistro thanks to Bench, it may come as a delicious surprise that our cultural and political DNA have been intertwined with France for more than 125 years.
The ilustrados living in Europe—highly educated, extremely cultivated—wore their veneration of all things French as a badge of honor, a political statement worlds away from the reasons that today’s Filipino covets a Dior or a Chanel. A vignette of those times is celebrated in what is perhaps the most famous painting in the Philippines, the million-dollar Parisian Life by Juan Luna. It features the painter’s brother Antonio, Jose Rizal (priggish, with back turned), and their comrade-in-arms Dr. Ariston Bautista Lin, stealing sidelong glances at a coquettish mademoiselle on a spring day in 1892. The light-hearted mood is almost identical to what one imagines it might have been the evening of last November 13 in the café La Belle Équipe at 92 Rue de Charon in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, just before 19 patrons were decimated at just one of seven locations that bathed Paris in blood and tears.
It was an evening that would send a collective twinge through the Filipino soul. After all, France—and its universal values of liberté, egalité, fraternité—inspired not just the American Revolution, but allowed two generations of Filipinos to re-imagine their country and to conjure up, against all odds, our own Philippine Revolution in 1896.
The Paris terror attacks therefore struck at the core of the same philosophy that challenged us not just to dream but also to fight beyond all exhaustion and reason to inaugurate Asia’s first republic.
The Filipinos in Paris arrived exactly at the city’s most exciting time—the exuberant Belle Epoque—when Eiffel was building the iconic Tower for the Universal Exposition. Make no mistake, while the ilustrados became boulevardiers with zest—wearing expensive silk suits, top hats, and capes, France was not the melting-pot of races that it is now, and the Filipinos were very much an oddity on the Champs-Élysées. Still, they preferred this scintillating capital to the suffocating biases leveled against them in Barcelona and Madrid (Ariston Bautista Lin wrote his friends in Manila that he had been obliged to learn English boxing plus the finer points of both French and Italian swordsmanship to defend their honor almost daily on the streets of Spain). Thus, the ilustrado expats gravitated to Paris, which was both literally and figuratively the “City of Lights,” referring to its pioneering streetlights as well as its enlightened philosophy. The brothers Pardo de Tavera and their brother-in-law Juan Luna maintained apartments at 65 Boulevard Arago, in the 13th arrondissement, near the studio of Luna’s archrival Félix Resurrección Hidalgo. (Thanks to YouTube, you can actually view the gardens where the Lunas and Jose Rizal would fence.) Rizal himself took up digs at the Hotel de Paris in the 9th arrondissement, a short walk from the Gare du Nord train station. All the addresses sound perilously close to the scenes of last November’s massacres in the 11th district.
The Spanish secret police who raided Andres Bonifacio’s rented apartment in Manila catalogued his reading material, which included the novels of Victor Hugo (A Tale of Two Cities), Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo), works by Robespierre, as well as the authoritative work by Thomas Carlyle on the history of the French Revolution. One presumes that since the captured works were in French, Bonifacio had schooled himself enough in that language to read them avidly. France, after all, was the center of the 19th-century universe in the arts and sciences, literature and philosophy.
The ilustrados who lived and studied in Paris no doubt learned to speak fluently with all the zeal necessary to prove the point that they were the equivalent of any European. The scene in the wildly popular film Heneral Luna, which features Antonio spitting venom in French at a British railroad master, is actually entirely accurate.
The ilustrados returned to Manila with all of the accoutrements of the bourgeois gentilhomme (the French of course having invented the term we’ve co-opted as “burgis”): Limoges china, Baccarat crystal, French and English silver, tableware and wonderful bibelots, books, paintings and sculptures, tapestries and candlesticks. They arrived with all the interests of the proper Victorian gentleman in languages, archaeology, and exotic travel, making Manila far more Parisienne than it was Madrileña.
The fabulously wealthy Paterno family was said to have imported the latest French fashions for its matriarchs and, finding that still somewhat wanting, sent for Parisian seamstresses to make up their ensembles.
A cinema, featuring the new-fangled technology of the Lumière Brothers, was on one end of the Escolta; La Estrella del Norte and other emporiums offered up cameras. The art of photography, one must remember, was also a French invention.
The ilustrado palate was also decidedly Parisian, with a taste for truffles, croquembouche (cream puff pastries), and wine. The menu of the landmark Malolos Congress dinner, faithfully revived by Sulipan descendant chef Gene Gonzales, featured an entirely French repertoire under the now-familiar motto “Libertad, Igualdad, Fraternidad” emblazoned on the menu card: “[Hors d’Oeuvres]: Huitres, Crevettes roses; beurre radis; olives; Saucisson de Lyon; Sardines aux tomates; Saumon Hollandaise. [Entrees] Coquille de crabes; Vol au Vent a la financiere; Abats de poulet a la Tagale; Cotelettes de moutons en papillote, pommes de terre paille; Dinde truffée a la Manilloise; Filet a la Chateaubriand, haricots verts; jambon froid-asperges en branche. [Dessert]. Fromages; Fruits; Confitures; gelée de Fraises; Glacées. [Vins]: Bordeaux, Sauterne, Xeres; Champagne. Liqueurs: Chartreuse; Cognac. Café, The.”
Ambeth Ocampo supplied this lavish translation: “Oysters, prawns, buttered radish, olives, Lyon sausages, sardines in tomato sauce, and salmon with Hollandaise sauce. The main courses consisted of: crabmeat in its shell, filled pastry shells, chicken giblets, mutton chops with potato straws, stuffed truffled turkey a la Manilloise (perhaps a pavo embuchado), beef filet a la Chateaubriand with green beans, and cold ham with asparagus. For dessert, there was an assortment of cheeses, fruit, jam, frosted strawberries, and ice cream. To wash down the seven appetizers, seven courses, and four desserts, one progressed from Bordeaux to Sauterne, Sherry and Champagne, then to the liqueur Chartreuse and Cognac, and finally to coffee or tea.” The menu still reads like the stuff offered up in Manila’s genteel homes on festive occasions.
The Spanish empire evidently was playing a catch-up game with France in the hearts-and-minds category. Having gotten wind of Eiffel’s lavish plans for an all-steel tower, they likewise embarked on their own plans to construct an equally ambitious structure—the marvelous Cathedral of San Sebastian in Quiapo, intended to give praise to God rather than as an “empty adoration of materialism.”
There were even rumors that Eiffel eventually partnered with the House of Ayala to build various bridges (It was with a Spanish steel-mill, in fact, but the historical errors can probably be accounted for by the mania for all things French). An enigmatic Frenchman named Pers Magin y Magin did, in fact, design the various lighthouses around Luzon, including the one on the Calatagan peninsula and another long gone, the San Nicolas, on the Manila Bay promontory.
Ironically, it was to be the Treaty of Paris between Spain and the United States, signed in 1898 in the ilustrados’ beloved city, that would end the reverie of Philippine independence and seal our fate as an American colony. Parisian Life would become a prize-winning entry, not in the ancien régime salons of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, but at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, a showcase of American colonial pride held at—of all places—Missouri, USA (The painting was entered not by Luna, who had perished five years earlier, but by its owner Ariston Bautista Lin). Manila as Parisienne thereafter quickly morphed into a blowzy American broad, an unrecognizable creature straight out of L.A. Confidential and Scorsese’s Las Vegas. It would take a horrific tragedy more than a century later to remind us that France will always remain pivotal in our political psyche.
Read the full story and see more pictures in Rogue’s 2015 Nightlife Issue (December 2015 – January 2016), now available in bookstores, newsstands, and digitally on Zinio.com/Rogue. Get immediate access to Rogue content every month for only $1.99 per issue by subscribing to Rogue Magazine for iPad, now available on Apple’s App Store.