A tour of Manila's cultural quarter

We're linking up with locals in cities around the world to uncover what it's like to live and work there. Here, Sai Versailles takes the pulse of Poblacion.
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Sai Versailles is a multimedia journalist and DJ based in the Philippines.

‘There are two ways of thinking about Poblacion. 

‘First, as a barangay – a Filipino word held over from the Spanish barrio, which is the smallest administrative subdivision – in Metropolitan Manila's city of Makati.

‘During the Spanish colonial period, Makati was a rice field with a different name – Hacienda San Pedro de Macati – and Poblacion was its earliest colonial settlement. The hacienda [estate] fell into the hands of wealthy tycoons, until a real-estate family, who run the oldest and largest Filipino conglomerate, bought the land. Since then, the family has overseen Makati's development, with the Poblacion barangay at the intersection of government, business and cultural heritage. This version of Poblacion is neatly demarcated – a 103-hectare land mass inside the Philippines' commercial hub.

‘And then there's Poblacion as it's colloquially known – a small neighborhood, roughly 35 hectares, sandwiched between two upscale developments. This Poblacion has old-town charm and the grit of being home to Manila's red‑light district. That's the Poblacion you'll hear about from locals when you ask about a night out in the city.

‘The past five years saw Manila's tourism boom help overhaul Poblacion into a nightlife destination. Creative concepts – galleries, speakeasies, even hostels – transformed the area in ways Makati hadn't seen in a long time. Establishments felt personal. Owners worked the floor with their staff, encouraging patrons to visit neighboring storefronts. Back before the pandemic, streets were packed until the morning, as businesses earned 80% to 90% of their revenue from drinks. Poblacion's energy contrasted with the polished areas that it was surrounded by. It appealed to those looking for new experiences in Manila.

‘Covid shut down many of Poblacion's small businesses and, recently, its streets have been a bit quieter. All in, the barangay population decreased by 34% between 2015 and 2020, which can be attributed to property prices quadrupling since the tourism boom. But this condition isn't unique to Poblacion – it simply captures the crux of Manila's precariousness. When at odds with leveraged real-estate developers, small businesses either compromise their vision for financial security or fold completely.

‘And, yet, despite all of this, the remaining small businesses of Poblacion are headstrong, holding on to the promise that brought Manila's creative community together for long nights of fun. What remains in store for them all depends on their unyielding vision.’

Five restaurants to know

1. OTO. ‘This bar turned listening room is home to one of Manila's few bespoke sound systems, with a vast vinyl collection to match. It was named one of Asia's best bars in 2021.’ 

2. TETSUO. ‘This place is known for its cult-status Japanese-style fried chicken, which comes in four different heat levels: sanshō, ichimi, Kaneda and Carolina Reaper – one of the world's hottest chillies.’

3. Krapow. ‘Initially established as a home kitchen, Krapow set up shop in Poblacion in 2020. It takes cues from Thai street-food culture and serves up a rotation of classic dishes and daily specials.’

4. Papa Diddi's. ‘This family-owned dessert parlor makes ice cream with carabao milk – a water buffalo native to the Philippines.’ 

5. Lampara. ‘This restaurant combines local ingredients with bistro-style presentation – a different take on Filipino cuisine in Manila, which is usually served as comfort food.’

Indie shops to check out

1. Ritual. ‘This general store offers locally sourced, eco-friendly products, from food and spices to liquid soap. Although its physical store has closed, direct orders can be made online or from its small warehouse in Poblacion – a perfect pit stop, if you're in the area.’  

2. Built Cycles. ‘An established brand in the Philippines since 2012, this neighborhood bike store opened in Poblacion in 2019. It's seen huge growth in its community since the pandemic.’ 

3. Play Record Stop. ‘This store sells both new and vintage vinyl records and specializes in analog audio equipment. It's also the home of Groove Manila, a music collective that organizes roving parties around the city.’

4. Qubo. ‘This barber shop and stick-and-poke tattoo parlor is located inside a modernized bahay kubo [Filipino stilt house].’

5. Sariwa. ‘A social enterprise and grocer, Sariwa offers local, organic produce, such as seafood, fruit, eggs and more. It cuts out the middle man and works directly with suppliers, reinvesting profits into shared facilities with farmers.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 45, February/March 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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